The Truth in Wine Might Hurt

(Originally published in Nashville Scene, July 7, 2016)

Cheers, y’all. We finally got what we asked for: wine in grocery stores.

Never again must we find two parking spaces or swipe a Visa twice in the dual pursuit of bread and red. No more trudging the sidewalks of strip malls to source both Pampers and pinot. This summer, we join the ranks of Americans who can plop sunscreen and syrah onto the same conveyor belt, and buy a tub of sorbet and a box of rosé, without having to leave one of them in the car with a window cracked and the guilty promise that we’ll be right back.

July 1, 2016, was a new Independence Day, when we dissolved the bands of outdated package laws. What better way to celebrate the end of anachronistic protectionism than with a one-stop shopping spree for all the Two-Buck Chuck we can pour into a wire buggy? It will taste like freedom harvested from the fruited plain, with the bold texture of free-market competition, and subtle notes of it’s-about-damn-time.

And yet, like so many cheerful binges, might the wine-in-grocery-stores bender come with a hangover? Is it possible that the morning after, as we skulk from the aisles of Kroger and Costco to make our walk of shame, disheveled and cotton-mouthed, past Grand Cru and The Wine Chap, we might feel a twinge of regret for going home with somebody other than the one who brought us?

I’m thinking of the steady Eddies who, since the end of Prohibition, have anchored the corners of Main Street, providing exactly the kind of mom-and-pop character we clamor for in all our bluster and bumper stickers about buying local. Time and time again, independent wine merchants have answered our pleas for just the right bottle — you know, something between $7 and $20, that goes well with chicken and has a label that matches the sofa. Time and again, they’ve provided the cardboard cartons for our family moves and given us wooden crates to improvise nesting boxes in our urban chicken coops. They’ve gone the extra mile to donate cases to our school parties and pour tastings at our nonprofit fundraisers.

But will we continue to support them now that we can buy protein and prosecco under one roof?

“We just don’t know,” says Richard Payne, aka The Wine Chap. His shop in the Belle Meade Hill Center carries a deep roster of esoteric wines that lure many collectors, but he knows wine at the Publix down the sidewalk will siphon sales of his mainstream bestsellers such as Meiomi pinot noir and Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, even though those products are currently a couple of bucks cheaper at his place. Payne is taking a wait-and-see approach before making changes to staff or inventory.

Woodland Wine Merchant Will Motley knew this day would come ever since he opened his store in East Nashville’s Five Points nine years ago. He always planned to compete with WIGS by specializing in products that grocers would overlook, such as natural and small-estate-grown wines. Still, Motley says he expects the deregulation, which paves the way for behemoth beverage chain Total Wine to open in Middle Tennessee, to put some local stores out of business.

If it feels like we’ve heard this story before, it’s because we have. Remember when big-box retailers and the internet choked out indie booksellers? It took an act of God — or at least a patron saint in the form of Ann Patchett — to rescue us from a cultural deficit born of our own thrift. (Maybe if we had more bookstores, we’d remember the destiny of people who don’t learn from history.)

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting we return to our corked liquor laws. Competition is good for consumers. And if a new audience of oenophiles encounters wine in groceries, then graduates to specialized boutiques, wine shops will benefit, too. But if it turns out that consumers don’t demand knowledge of vineyards and varietals as much as we want a convenient supply of chardonnay next to the chard, there’s potential for some stores to wither on the vine. That’s the risk we take with Adam Smith as our sommelier.

On my 21st birthday, my dad drove me to his favorite wine shop and introduced me to the guys behind the counter. He told them that, as of that moment, they were allowed to sell wine to his daughter. “But not too damn much wine,” he said. Dad was being funny, but he left us all with a silent shared accountability in the alcohol transaction. I’ve always planned to do the same with my kids. I can’t picture doing it at a Walmart.

If we’re not intentional about how and where we shop, that’s where we’ll end up, celebrating family milestones with rollback riesling in a superstore.

It’s easy to say we want to shop local and support small businesses, that expertise and relationships trump price and expedience. But the WIGS law challenges us to put our money where our mouth is. If we value local stores as much as we profess to, we have to support them — by walking the extra block, finding the second parking space, or sometimes even paying the extra dollar. Otherwise, we’re destined to discover that, when the Invisible Hand does the pouring, the truth in wine is an inconvenient one.

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