In wine, as in many other commodities, we value exclusivity. The rare, the expensive, the hard-to-get bottle becomes a treasure squirreled away in our cellars, the joy of owning it heightened by the fear that it will turn to vinegar before we get up the nerve to open it.
The retail world values exclusivity as a competitive edge. Wine shops and restaurants take advantage of the District’s regulations to “direct import” wines unavailable through the normal distribution system. Large chain stores leverage their buying power not only for lower prices but for exclusivity on labels.
Total Wine & More, for instance, has 73 stores in 10 states. That makes it a national marketing powerhouse. The chain has its own importer (Alfio Moriconi Selections) and several exclusive labels that make up a fair portion of its stock. Market dynamics create an emphasis on large-production wines, as small producers don’t make enough to feed the beast. (That’s the main reason Total Wine doesn’t often appear in the store listings of this column, which is more likely to highlight small-production bottlings.)
The most famous example of retail store wine exclusivity is probably Charles Shaw, the legendary “Two-Buck Chuck,” so nicknamed for its original price when Trader Joe’s started selling it in California.
Trader Joe’s has made an art of private-label products, and that includes wine. The company has taken advantage of the weak economy by buying up wines from overstocked producers and selling them under the Trader Joe’s name at deep discounts.
That’s where consumers can find bargains, but unlike Charles Shaw, those wines aren’t made by the tankerful, and they won’t hang around on shelves forever.
On a recent visit to the Trader Joe’s on North Saint Asaph Street in Alexandria, I bought two such chardonnays. One came from the Chalk Hill area of Sonoma County and sold for $9 under the clever label of VINTJS (which, with a little imagination, can be pronounced “vintages”). The other, at a whopping $10, was labeled Trader Joe’s Reserve and hailed from Napa Valley. The Chalk Hill example was a nice bargain, with good fruit and just a touch of oak, while the Napa Valley wine was an undrinkable blunderbuss of harsh oak and excessive alcohol, a whopping 15.08 percent on the label. The sales clerk assured me the store was almost sold out of it.
Whole Foods Market only recently entered the exclusive-store-label field, and it has done so with an intriguing twist. Its wines, called A Collaboration and newly available in the mid-Atlantic region, are made with the active participation of Whole Foods wine buyers and Va Piano Vineyards of Walla Walla, Wash.
The three wines now sold — a sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah from Washington state’s Columbia Valley — were produced by Va Piano winemaker Justin Wylie and Christine Meredith, Whole Foods’ wine buyer for the mid-Atlantic region.
I spoke with Meredith when she was in town this month preparing for the opening of the new Foggy Bottom store. She explained that the concept was an extension of Whole Foods’ program of establishing relationships with suppliers and educating employees about how and where the products are made. Her region is selecting a wine team member to travel to Walla Walla to craft the next vintage, she said.
“It’s not only an exclusive private label, it’s us getting our team members into the winery to own that release and experience the collaborative process with the winemaker,” Meredith said. “The team members can help winemakers understand what consumers are looking for in wine as well.”
Her program is off to a good start. The syrah, which is already in short supply, is excellent, and the cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are true to their varietal character and Washington state style.
Meredith said she’s in talks with producers in Virginia and Kentucky — where Whole Foods also sells spirits — to expand the program, though she wouldn’t divulge who just yet.