Although local restaurant wine markups vary widely, you might figure that wine prices in the cutthroat-competitive supermarket world would be more consistent, one to the next.
You’d figure wrong.
One fine example: Italy’s ubiquitous Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. Fuhgedabout its modest crowd-sourced ratings; the wine’s a staple on most grocery store shelves, including seven of the eight Ann Arbor supermarkets I visited in late October.
If you’re a west-sider who shops at Plum Market, you’ll pay $17 to take home the current 2009 vintage.
Wanna spend more? No problem. On the south side, Meijer sells the same bottle for $19. Joe’s will Trade one in exchange for $21. And if buying the wine at Whole Foods makes you no healthier, its $24 price tag is likely to perk up the chain’s bottom line.
But if you really have money to burn, head east toward Hiller’s for the daily double: you’ll settle for the prior year’s vintage and they’ll soak you for $26 – a whopping $9 (53%) more than Plum’s price.
This may be an outlying example, but it’s far from atypical. The survey found prices on individual bottles can vary as much as 80% among the eight local markets, and your total tab for the identical assortment of wines will be 30% higher or lower, depending on where you shop.
Who buys wine at the supermarket? Most of us, according to the sales data. Supermarkets and their close kin – large specialty grocers like Plum and Trader Joe’s – sell one of every two bottles of the $9 billion worth of wine that America drinks annually. Many of us automatically reach for a bottle or three while we’re out foraging for vittles.
Supermarket wine sales (and “off-sales” in general) rose during the economic downturn, while restaurant sales plummeted.
Some highfalutin’ wine lovers eschew the grocery store as a refuge for overpriced generic and jug wines. To be sure, some stores still evoke the dismal supermarket wine departments of decades past. The single truncated aisle at the Carpenter Road Kroger springs to mind as the area’s worst example, with its repetitious, limited facings of labels like Barefoot and Gato Negro.
But at most places, that perception is as out-of-date as the Blue Nun Liebfraumilch that once graced the shelves. Some latter-day markets, like Whole Foods, give many wine specialists a run for the money – especially its best-in-class selection of Michigan wines.
Others consider themselves to be “a wine shop inside of a supermarket,” as Plum Market’s beverage manager Rod Johnson says; proving the point with his glassed-in temperature-controlled wine cellar featuring numerous price tags with three digits to the left of the decimal point.
The best consumer advice on avoiding supermarket schlock came – as was often the case – from recently departed Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. Specifically, their Vintage 2002, but still applicable piece, 10 Ways to Find a Supermarket’s Best Wines.
Among their gems to locate the best wines at the best prices: “You will be punished” at the cash register for buying big-name, familiar labels; instead, look for less-familiar bottles. (Their example of an overhyped, overpriced bottle: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. See why I liked those guys?)
And steer away from the best-known California brands. Better values can be found elsewhere.
With their advice in mind, during the last days of October I compiled an unscientific list of 34 wines often found in supermarkets, avoiding the temptation to let usual-suspect California top-sellers totally dominate.
Instead, I reached further afield to include two well-distributed Michigan wines (Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling and M. Lawrence “Sex” bubbly, from Larry Mawby) along with several from Europe and the southern hemisphere.
Obscure, geek-type wines didn’t make the cut, even though places like Arbor Farms and Plum stock some of them – after all, the only way to effectively compare prices is with widely available brands. Fortunately, supermarkets consistently stock many of the same labels, making direct price comparisons easier than last year’s survey of restaurant wines.
List in hand, I checked eight local supermarkets to find out what was on the shelf and how much it cost, then culled the list to 21 wines available at a majority of the eight stores. Where wines were on sale – and there were many, especially at the larger chains – I used the sale price that any customer would pay. Don’t forget your Kroger card, or pay full price.
(Regular readers of The Chronicle’s meeting reportage, and other obsessives, may want to view or download the full spreadsheet, which includes all 21 wines along with their availability, pricing at each store, and average prices.)
So who’s Treetown’s Bull Moose el-cheapo?
The stores fell into three categories, based on their average prices compared to other stores that stock the same wines:
Wallet-Friendly: Prices below 90% of the all-store average
- Plum Market (83%)
- Meijer (87%)
In-Between: Prices within 10% of the all-store average
- Trader Joe’s (93%)
- Busch’s (98%)
- Arbor Farms (104%)
- Whole Foods (108%)
High Markup: Prices above 110% of the all-store average
- Kroger (112%)
- Hiller’s (114%)
What does that mean in practical terms? To find out, let’s go shopping! Fill your cart with one bottle of each wine in the survey – 21 in total – and head for the cash register. Based on their current availability, you can do that at three stores, one in each price range.
At Plum Market’s checkout, your instant mini-cellar will cost $199, plus tax. Get it at Busch’s – Ann Arbor’s closest-to-average priced store – and the same collection will set you back $40 more, or $239. But if you buy the same assortment at Hiller’s, you’ll shell out $269 for the privilege – $30 more than Busch’s and $70 more than Plum.
Or flip things around: let’s budget $100 to buy wine for a holiday party. At each store’s average price, you’ll return from Meijer with ten bottles, or from Busch’s with nine. At Kroger you’ll have to go a couple of bucks over-budget to come home with eight.
Other assorted observations, in no particular order:
- Selection varies widely from store to store – and is completely independent of prices. As noted, just three stores stocked all 21 wines in the survey: the least expensive store, the most expensive store, and one smack in the middle.
- You’ll find just two of the 21 wines at every store in town: 2009 Jadot Beaujolais-Villages (at prices from $11 to $14.50) and 2008 Yellowtail Shiraz ($5.44 to $10). Seven other wines showed up at seven of the eight stores.
- In general, locally-owned stores and small chains offer a better selection of small, offbeat wines, especially from Europe. That’s probably because local folks run their wine departments, instead of central-office buyers. Of particular note in this vein: Arbor Farms and Plum.
- One exception: Whole Foods gives their local staff authority to select a lot of the wines that go on the shelf. It shows: they offer the city’s largest, most prominently-displayed selection of Michigan wines.
- Hiller’s may be the most expensive store in town, but its selection excels in the $6-to-$20 mass-market price range. They stocked a surprising 31 of 34 bottles from the original survey, and all 21 in the culled version.
- If you want to go upscale, Plum Market becomes the go-to-supermarket, with its glassed-in cellar and many main-floor selections in the $25-$50 range. Second place: Whole Foods, with a surprisingly good selection of top-shelf wines at similar prices.
- Meijer tries to fool ya, thanks to its visually imposing wooden display bins that hold some interesting bottles, mostly Californians in the $10 to $25 range. But once past those, the selection heads downhill rapidly, even if the prices are good.
- Most disappointing selections: Kroger and Trader Joe’s, each with just 10 of the 21 wines, but for different reasons. Kroger – at least the Carpenter location – offers a small department with a limited selection. Trader Joe’s sells many more wines, but most are house brands (think Three Buck Chuck) and other exclusive-to-them labels.
- The single greatest pricing disparity: Kroger was selling that 2008 Yellowtail Shiraz for $10 a bottle, while at Plum Market you could buy the same wine at two bottles for $10.88. That makes Kroger 84% more expensive than Plum.
- While cruising the aisles, I also checked vintages, expecting to find many past-their prime bottles. But except for Hiller’s – whose stock included a half-dozen one or two year-older vintages – nearly every bottle in every store was a current vintage.
The inescapable conclusion: supermarkets are clearly moving their wines quickly. Better go out and enjoy one before they run out.
About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.