Hot Take: Wine in Supermarkets

For years, PA residents have held up the concept of purchasing wine in supermarkets as a holy grail of sorts. This idea represents freedom, the opportunity to shop where one wants to shop, not where the government says to. It also represents parity with other states, as well as the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Having said all that, when it was finally announced that wines would be available in PA supermarkets, I was skeptical. Though it did seem like movement in the right direction (away from privatization), for me there were two main concerns:

1) Price
Since 3rd party merchants still have to purchase the wine from the PLCB (with just a 10% licensee discount), it may be difficult for them to stay competitive. Typically, retail markup for wine is 1.5x the wholesale price, so, if a bottle sells for $10 at the PLCB, wholesale price amounts to $9. Which means the retailer should sell it for $13.50. The question, then, is whether people will pay an extra $3.50 for the convenience of shopping in one location (two cash registers, of course, but still one location). I can’t imagine myself doing that very often.

2) Selection
Whenever I visit a supermarket that sells wine (outside of PA), I peruse the aisle, even if I’m not looking to buy. It’s the novelty factor… wine, in a supermarket! How strange and wonderful! In the vast majority of cases, however, that novelty wears off quickly, because supermarket selection typically sucks. Aisles are packed with mainstream, mass-produced, totally boring wines from Barefoot to Woodbridge.

I’ve also found that there’s often a specialty wine store in the same shopping center as a supermarket that sells wine, offering a curated, boutique collection for people interested something other than the big brands. This is not a coincidence.

How, I wondered, would it be any different in PA?

Well, from my initial perusal of the Wegmans Malvern wine shop, it isn’t. The selection is, plainly put, brutal. I was hard pressed to find more than a handful of wines that I’d actually purchase, most of which would only suffice in a wine emergency.

Even the local wine section — which initially appears to be a bright spot, in that there’s more PA wine at Wegmans than every PLCB store in the surrounding towns combined — leaves something to be desired. Aside from Galen Glen and Pinnacle Ridge, most are sweet-wine-first producers of little interest. Perhaps, however, when others realize how much prominent shelf space they could get at Wegmans, that will improve.

galen glen wine in supermarket
My first Wegmans wine purchase – a Riesling from PA producer Galen Glen

Price is, interestingly, not a problem. Every bottle I checked at Wegmans either cost the same or was cheaper than at a PLCB store (regular price, not sale).

How, one might ask, can they do this? I don’t know, to be honest, other than to guess that they are a) considering it a loss-leader, b) satisfied with the 10% markup based on volume, or c) receiving some sort of incentive from the wineries themselves, which, based on the large brands represented, seems feasible.

In conclusion, I asked myself, based on this initial experience: will I buy wine regularly at Wegmans? (A store, incidentally, where I buy 95% of my beer.)

I can only see two scenarios where I would:

1) I’m away from home and in need of a bottle for some reason, and this is my only option.

2) They’re featuring a local wine not available in PLCB stores.

Otherwise, my answer is a resounding no.

P.S. I imagine that some specialty stores will begin to crop up, similar to how beer bottle shops have done so over the past few years. Like the bottle shops, the prices will likely be outrageous but the selection tempting. Stay tuned.

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