Wine of the Week

Big Bargains at the Big Box

One of the great joys of shopping at Costco is checking out the bargains in the wine department. Prices run about 10-20% cheaper than other stores, plus, they have some ace tasters in the regional offices that somehow suss out the best obscure wines. Then they negotiate hard for the full production, and we, the consumers, end up with a great wine at an even bigger bargain.

How do they accomplish this? Well, it helps being the largest wine retailer in the United States. During their last fiscal year, Costco sold $805 million in wine. That kind of clout gets you all sorts of concessions. And lest you think Costco just caters to the budget wine crowd, consider this: Costco is the No. 1 retailer of Dom Pérignon in the world.

Someone at Costco is doing a masterful job of buying. Their selection is small: about 125 wines. Places like Grape Vine Market carry more than 4,000 wines. But even with their much smaller selection, Costco ends up delivering some real surprises.

If you find a megacorp with one good department, thank the department manager. But when the department is consistent, no matter where or when you try it, someone on the corporate level is providing outstanding leadership. So, I decided to find out who runs the Costco wine program.

Annette Alvarez-Peters runs the program from the Costco home office in Issaquah, Wash. Like any good manager, she gives all the credit to the people on the local level. "We have eight regional buyers in the U.S., who purchase autonomously," she tells me. Does that explain why our two local Costcos always have some Texas wine? "Yes. All of our region buyers try to support their local markets, whether that is in Texas or the Central Coast area for the Santa Barbara warehouses, Temecula for the San Diego region, or Oregon for the Oregon warehouses." That's a nice touch.

What really sets the Costco program apart from everyone else is the fact that, with the exception of a few low-budget wines, they really don't sell any bad wine. Costco is a great place for novices because you can just pick your grape and your price range, and you'll end up with a good bottle of wine.

Real wine aficionados are regularly hunting the shelves at Costco for both the remarkable, obscure, and insanely low-priced pickings. Our Texas buyer really knows his or her obscure Bordeaux, usually costing less than $15. Get 'em while they're available. When they're gone, they're gone. As Alvarez-Peters explains, "Our strategy is to move in and out of items, to create a 'treasure hunt' atmosphere. If you see it, buy it – it might not be there the next time you shop."

They find these bargains by tasting almost nonstop, year-round, by attending as many local trade tastings as they can, and they even send all eight of the regional buyers to the big tastings, like the Wine Spectator Wine Experience and the Aspen Food & Wine events. "It is very important for us to try every wine we bring into the clubs," Alvarez-Peters says. "With eight regional buyers, we have the opportunity to help each other out with our communications, in what they have tasted and what works well in other markets of the U.S."

It's so refreshing to find a big-box store using creativity and invention to attract customers, rather than just plowing through all the tired labels you can but at any local 7-Eleven. Costco will never replace the personal service or breadth of selection you can get in a place like Twin Liquors, the Austin Wine Merchant, Grape Vine Market, or Central Market. But, for bargain hunters with adventurous taste, it's a small miracle.

A few good current Costco picks

Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay – $9.59

D'Arenberg Shiraz/Grenache – $12.79

Penfolds Koonunga Hills Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon – $7.99

Piper Heidsieck Champagne – $26.99

1986 Chateau D'Yquem in 5-liter bottle (that would be between a Rehoboam and an Imperial)– $2,799.99 (Internet only)

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