Our friend Jerry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would go digging around in the closeout bin or shopping for wine at Aldi — too classy for that — but there he was at Joyce and Barry’s house on Friday showing off his latest finds: cheap wine from a Grocery Outlet store.
The wine wasn’t so much good or bad as simply intriguing — is it really possible for a sophisticated wine enthusiast like Jerry to be satisfied shopping for wine at an “extreme value” store? Only one way to find out, so we got in the car the next day and headed for the strip mall.
Searching for Extreme Values
Headquartered in low-rent Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet bargain market is America’s largest extreme value grocery chain with more than 130 independently owned stores in six western states. It has been in business since 1946. Prices are low, low, low. The website tells the story:
The premise is simple: We offer brand name products at 40% to 60% below traditional retailers. Our offering is wide: groceries, frozen, deli & refrigerated, produce, fresh meat (selected stores), general merchandise — seasonal products, housewares, toys, and gifts — health & beauty, and a most impressive inventory of beer & wine.
How can they charge such low prices?
We source product opportunistically. Simply put, we buy brand name products directly from their manufacturers for pennies on the dollar. When a manufacturer has surplus inventory like excess packaging or manufacturing overruns they call Grocery Outlet first.
About 75% of our product is sourced this way. Some of our greatest buys are in Health and Beauty Care, Wine, Frozen Foods, Organics and Produce. To ensure that the basics are always available at Grocery Outlet, some product is sourced conventionally, like other grocery stores. Because we cannot source these products opportunistically, the savings may not be as phenomenal; however, we think it’s important to provide them for your convenience—to save you that extra trip.
Grocery Outlet stores here in the Pacific Northwest are supermarket sized spaces filled with off brand and closeout products along with a wide enough selection of fresh goods to allow families to do all their grocery shopping in one place. They are nice if not especially fancy stores. I can see why budget-minded families shop there.
The wine corner at the nearest store was large and well-stocked. Most of the brands were mysteries (one was even named “Mystery” as in “Mystery Creek” or something like that), although a few third and fourth tier products from recognized mass-market makers were available. Mainly, I think, these were leftover wines closed out by distributors to raise cash or make room for incoming shipments along with no-name brands “dumped” under a bogus label.
The wines came from all over — California, naturally, Australia, France, Italy, Chile. There was even a $3.99 “Champagne” from Argentina. Honest — it said “Champagne.”
Prices were suitably low — most of the wines sold for $2.99 to $5.99. It isn’t hard to make money selling extreme value wine when you can buy up surplus bulk wine for just pennies a liter and package it up for quick sale. Extreme value retailers are the perfect distribution channel for wines like these.
As you can see from my receipt, I walked out with three bottles of wine for a total of $13.97 plus tax. “By shopping with us you saved $28.00.” That would mean an average of 67% off the retail price.
Unexplained Tales from Down Under
I wasn’t really surprised at what I saw as I surveyed the wine wall. Then, slowly, a different kind of wine mystery began to unfold.
Sue must have sharp eyes because she picked out the first surprise. Sam’s Creek Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 for $3.99. That’s awfully cheap for a New Zealand wine here in the U.S. I’ve read about heavily discounted NZ wines in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. — until now.
New Zealand is a high cost wine producer that has succeeded in charging a premium price for its wine. Indeed, NZ earns the highest average export price of any country in the world despite surging production that threatens to create unmarketable surpluses. Everyone worries that one day the export limit will be hit and prices will start to tumble from $12-$20 down to, well, $3.99. Is that what this Sam’s Creek wine really means? The end of NZ wine’s premium price?
Frighteningly, Sam’s Creek isn’t a no-name closeout wine. The label says that it is made and bottled by Babich, one of the famous names in New Zealand wine, and the internet tells me that Waitrose sells it for about $10 in Britain. I wonder if the unsold British inventory has somehow made its way here?
Prestige Wine at Extreme Value Prices
Two more bottles raised more questions about New Zealand wines. I paid a whopping $5.99 for a 2008 Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I almost overlooked it, but the label caught my eye. Isabel Estate is one of the most famous Marlborough quality producers, exceedingly well-known in Great Britain where this wine sells for about £10, but not so widely distributed here in the U.S., I think.
How did it get here and who among the Grocery Outlet clientele would recognize its quality sitting there surrounded by cheap and cheerful closeouts?
The third wine makes the puzzle more complicated. It is a 2004 Te Awa Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay. Te Awa Farm is another famous NZ producer and, while this wine — a estate product from a distinguished producer in a famous region — may be slightly past its prime and therefore a typical closeout risk, it is still very surprising to see it sold at a place like Grocery Outlet for $3.99 rather than the $16-$20 retail price.
These three New Zealand wines may be random surplus wines found in the sort of place where random wines go to be sold. Or they may be indicators of important changes in the world of wine. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Wine markets are all about supply and demand. It is pretty clear that a supply of interesting wines has appeared along with the rock-bottom remainders at extreme value stores like Grocery Outlet, pushed along, no doubt, by the slump in fine wine sales.
What about demand? And what does Grocery Outlet tell us about the wine market more generally? Some thoughts in my next blog post.