WHY NOT MAKE WINE AVAILABLE IN SUPERMARKETS?
One of the vestiges of Prohibition in Connecticut, New York and many other states is an inability to buy food and liquor in the same store. The central irony of Prohibition is that it actually increased overall consumption of alcohol, and brought drinking to places, and in forms, that had never seen it before.
So an obvious concern when legislators were debating the repeal of Prohibition was whether people would drink even more if alcohol were legally -- and easily -- available. Americans ought to be allowed a drink or two, went the thinking, but purchasing alcohol should never be as easy as throwing a bottle or six-pack into one's grocery cart!
This archaic thinking is lost on most Americans today, and most states allow the consumer to purchase wine or beer in supermarkets or grocery stores. In Connecticut and New York, the legislative fight to allow grocery sales has been waged for several years, and it is generally believed that at some point, we will see wine in supermarkets in both states.
Small and medium retailers are generally against supermarket sales, while large retailers and supermarkets are generally for the It is safe to assume that most small or medium retailers would be wiped out by supermarket wine sales. Some observers are not shedding any tears over the small retailers' fates, feeling that the licensing system long gave small retailers dominant positions i their communities, and that minimum pricing offered them virtually fixed profits. If they just watched profits roll in and did nothin to invest in their businesses, what problem is that for us? Supermarkets would offer cheaper wines, and more convenience.
But supermarket sales are not just about the economics. A law to allow supermarket sales, whether it contained a lead-in period or not, would exact an enormous human toll, given the number of package stores in Connecticut and New York. Often forgotten b the consumer, however, is the loss of service that would result. Wine would become commoditized, with fewer choices and more uniformity. The race to maintain margins would lead some to specialize, but such stores would be few and far between, and customers would have to travel a distance to shop in them. Meantime, consumers would lose the expertise of the wine salesman, since typical supermarket pay-scales would discourage all but the most passionate from pursuing a position, much less a career, in wine.
As it happens, the market has been transforming itself while we wait for the wheels of government to turn. The main story in Connecticut is the number of owners who have sold their stores and retired. The remaining owners who can do so have either expanded their stores, invested in a second store, or encouraged food stores to open next door or nearby. The number of package store owners who can do this is small: Connecticut limits licenses to two per owner, and while owners can get extra licenses by putting them in the name of a family member, the licensing law tends to encourage stores to expand by size, and not by location franchising. A small store owner is also less likely to qualify for the sources of capital available on a daily basis to large corporations.
The upshot is that many package stores are encouraging food stores to open next door to their businesses. Cheese shops are especially popular because wine and cheese are a natural pairing, because Americans love cheese almost as much as wine, and because of the current locivore and organivore interest in regional American cheeses.
Across the Byram River, in Port Chester, Tarry Lodge has opened a food garage facing Mill Street, with an incorporated wine store on the Post Road side. The wine store is a wink to the customer, with barely a nod to the authorities. Wine customers must take a separate entrance, and no doors or hallways join the two stores. But the common wall between the markets functions as one sid of a walk-in refrigerator containing the finest that Italy offers by way of cheese, demurely curing away, seducing the wine client vi a window the size of a rather large flat-screen TV. It is cheese in a fishbowl: the cheeses wondering what life would be like on the outside, the onlooker thinking that, really, these poor creatures should be liberated. As in any efficient prison, the state's authority is felt and seen, but not heard.
Off the Atlantic Street exit in Stamford, at the bottom of the ramp, take the State Street frontage road to Canal Street and make a right to number 699, the new Fairway Market. The only exterior charm to this warehouse-on-a-lot is the yellow Fairway sign, whose bulging letters vaguely bespeak couch-potato comfort. The supermarket has three garage-sized doors. One enters on the left, and one can leave by either of the two right doors, which debit the customer flow from the store's 25 or so cash registers. Far on the right, another door leads into the wine shop. It is a clever arrangement: buy your food, then pop in to get your wine before you go back to your car and drive home.
Tarry Lodge market sells artisanal bread, cheese and meats, arrayed at counters on the store's perimeter. In the middle is a fresh- pasta Pastificio. There is theater to Tarry Lodge: a steakhouse meat-ageing locker, a large selection of breads in wicker baskets and large bread ovens, and casings being stuffed by a butcher on a sideboard. My personal favorite is the Ferrari-red, manually- operated, Berkel 330M Heritage prosciutto slicer. Made in the Netherlands, the Berkel looks thrown together like a Frank Gerry building or Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, but it is all Alfa-Spider, cutting a bella figura and translucent lengths of Prosciutto instead of the hash produced by most slicers.
The Tarry Lodge wine store is still a work in progress. It is designed to look like an old-fashioned provisions store as you might find one in Italy: shelving made of distressed wood, bottles stacked instead of being racked, and a casual atmosphere that encourages customers to admire some of the gems in the store and to relax there for a while. The store is part of the Battali/Bastianich empire, of course, but the managers on duty all seem very professional and competent.
Competence also marks the managers at Fairway's wine store. And I was frankly surprised by some of the reasonable prices ther since my November visit to Fairway's store in Pelham had led me to fear the worst for Stamford. Variety and quality are also stronger than one would expect, both from my Pelham visit and from my experiences with supermarket wine selections in other states. Service is friendly, and employees generally know where each wine is placed in the store, and lead you there without delay On the other hand, Fairway tends to confirm the drop in knowledge one finds in most supermarkets that have taken on a wine operation. Employees are not trained to know the wines they are selling, how they taste, or the foods a wine will pair with. Wines i the most prominent locations on the sales floor are of the fighting-varietal type, and can be found in many other stores. Regional wines offer more depth, such as the Oregon Pinot Noir section, but most of the higher-end wines are the same famous names on finds in most stores of average competence. There is nothing here that necessarily delights by its rarity. Fairway's wine store is designed to compete for the customer's dollar, but not necessarily to dote on her.
Next week, I will offer champagne recommendations for New Year's. For Christmas dinner, my last-minute recommendations are to drink the Fattoria La Massa Toscana IGT (Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot) 2008, at $23.99, or the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet 2008, at $24.99, if you are having roast beef. Both provide excellent minerality and silky tannins that complement the meat well. With turkey or ham, try the Lucien Albrecht Pinot Blanc, Cuvee Balthazar 2009, a steal at $11.99. Its touch of honey will make the ham melt in your mouth. The Albrecht is also very nice with vegetarian dishes. And for desserts, especially chocolate ones, try the Smith Woodhouse Late Bottle Vintage 1995 unfiltered port, an almost unbelievable value at $31.99. It has chocolate flavors, with caramel, and goes wonderfully with flourless torte. And the greatest dessert wine of all, the Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2000, at $45.99 is an ethereal experience.