Two examples of Walmart’s new Winemakers Selection line. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Columnist, Food

Earlier this year, on a business trip out west, my colleagues and I checked into the motel that would be our home for four nights and then dashed to the local Walmart to stock up on provisions. We bought chips, dip, granola bars, bottled water (someone even bought salads to stick in the mini-fridge) and, of course, beer and wine.

Unfortunately, we were too early to discover Walmart’s Winemakers Selection line of wines, which the chain introduced to 1,100 stores nationwide in June. These were 10 private label wines, exclusive to Walmart, from Italy, France and California, priced at either $11 to $16 per bottle. Perfect for those late-night motel debriefs, or for everyday drinking.

Normally, I’m skeptical about any large chain’s private label, having cut my wine teeth on jugs of Kroger’s Cost-Cutter brand back in the 1980s, before a visit to California wine country ignited my palate. And I’m not the only one. There once was a popular Internet meme about “Walmart wine” that played on the company’s Arkansas roots, blue-collar demographic and its selection of firearms to ridicule the idea that the stores would carry anything so classy as vino. For several years, I could count on someone forwarding me this joke every few months. But then last year I wrote about La Moneda, a delicious $7 malbec from Chile that was a Walmart exclusive and won high marks from Decanter magazine. No one has sent me that meme since.

In fact, Walmart is one of a few national retail chains that don’t specialize in alcoholic beverages — think Costco Wholesale and Lidl and Trader Joe’s groceries — that have done an impressive job finding good-quality wine at affordable prices. This isn’t easy: Remember when Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wines, known as “Two-Buck Chuck,” were so inconsistent that customers would buy a bottle, open it and taste it in the parking lot, and if it was any good, run back into the store to buy more?

So how does a company develop a private label line of wine that can supply more than 1,000 stores with a consistently available product at good quality? I reached out to Nichole Simpson, who carries the rather unromantic title of senior adult beverage buyer for Walmart at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to ask her secrets.

“I looked at the data to see what gaps we were missing, and I saw that our customers are looking for more premium or super-premium wines,” Simpson told me. That’s wine-biz speak for consumers who are willing to pay a little more for quality product. Rather like the way I felt at that Walmart, scratching my head at all the uninspiring national brands on the shelves. But I’m much older than the demographic that caught Simpson’s attention.

“You have the major popular brands driving the business, but millennials are less loyal to brands and eager to explore cool labels or different varietals, and they’re willing to buy up,” Simpson told me. Millennials are inspiring their baby boomer parents to experiment too, she said. The Winemakers Selection labels are colorful and inventive, none identified as a Walmart product but each carrying a banner with a distinctive W that hints of its corporate identity. Contrast that to Costco, which labels its wines with its Kirkland brand, and Walmart wins points for marketing.

To develop the Winemakers Selection line, Simpson put out a request for proposals and eventually teamed with five importers and distributors around the country to work the 10 wines through the labyrinthine three-tier distribution system. She plans to add 11 more wines next year, including some from Argentina, Chile, Bulgaria and Champagne, and expand the price range to $36 per bottle.

One of those importers is G&B Wines, based in Maryland, which brings in an $11 cabernet franc and a $16 sparkling rosé, both from France, for the W series. I tried both and found the cab franc particularly impressive, especially for the price, and the rosé nice and fun. (See this week’s recommendations for more details .) G&B helped introduce the Washington area to wines from Bulgaria and will contribute a Bulgarian red blend to the Walmart line next year.

Such a line is possible because winemaking around the world has improved so much over the past two or three decades that good-quality wine can be found at good prices. But Simpson and her team don’t just rely on their importers. They blind taste hundreds of samples before deciding which wines to include in the program. And they travel regularly to meet with the growers and winemakers at the wineries and cooperatives that produce the wines.

Simpson knows the risks. She worked at E&J Gallo when that company was stung with the Red Bicyclette scandal several years ago, when French brokers passed off inexpensive red wine as more pricey pinot noir to their unsuspecting American customers. This year, French authorities clamped down on companies passing off inexpensive Spanish rosé as more prestigious French.

“That’s why relationships are so important,” Simpson said. “In the end, you have to trust the people you are dealing with.”

She’s willing to take that risk to develop a quality line of affordable wines, knowing there are more gems out there waiting to be discovered. “It’s a treasure hunt,” she says.

I’m looking forward to joining the hunt.