Missing the Point with Costco

In case you haven’t noticed it spreading like wildfire on your favorite wine blogs, last week bloggers (myself included) tweeted and posted that the wine buyer for Costco, Annette Alvarez-Peters, asserted in an interview with CNBC, that wine isn’t more special than clothing, televisions or toilet paper and, “….at the end of the day, it’s a beverage.”  At first, I was annoyed by Alvarez-Peters’ comments.  However, while waiting for an appointment yesterday afternoon, I realized that the backlash against Alvarez-Peters, though deserved, is a little misguided.  And frankly, for wine professionals to be shocked that a major wine buyer feels this way is a little disconcerting because I think many of us sometimes miss the point of what’s going on in the wider consumer wine world.

Most Americans shop at Costco, Walmart, Target, Marshalls, Best Buy, so on and so forth.   And as is the case with just about anything in the marketplace, a large number of wine consumers choose their wine based on two criteria – familiarity and price.  And the Costco model provides their customers with wines that match these two requirements – they often have the best prices and there isn’t much wine from unknown appellations stacked near the frozen fish aisle.  With this perspective (which almost none of the wine writers who have protested the comments of Ms. Alvarez-Peters share) in mind, it’s quite easy to understand how someone who runs one of the most cut-throat discount big-box warehouse chains in the world can compare wine to other commodities within the store.

Though sometimes we don’t remember, we wine geeks live in a bit of an insulated bubble as most heady wine shops are located in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas.  Through the tireless efforts of boutique wine shops owners in these locales, there has never been a great influx of California Zinfandel, old vines Muscadet, semi-oxidized Rioja and countless other wines that capture their sense of place with such accurate vibrancy that one of these great bottles can give me the chills.  I care deeply about these wines, as do many of you.  But we are in the minority when it comes to filling our glasses with one of these delights.  Most people just want a glass of red or white – or as Alavarez-Peters terms it – a simple beverage.  Don’t waste your time being offended, taken aback, shocked or dismayed about her comments.  Instead, take what she says as a lesson learned that we have a lot more wood to chop in communicating our message to the masses that many of the wines at outlets like Costo aren’t worth the glass they’re bottled in, while turning them onto to something more exciting and fulfilling.  Now that would be time well spent.