Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wine Nation: Future of Discount Wine?

After some difficulty and opposition, the first "big box" wine store has entered Massachusetts, the Wine Nation in Millbury. Smaller wine stores have often opposed such stores coming to their cities and towns, worried about losing business to such huge establishments. The Wine Nation previously attempted to open stores in Braintree and Reading, but was denied in both attempts, though it appears they are trying to appeal the Braintree decision. And a small discount store, not connected to the Wine Store, is now poised to open in Reading.

I was extremely curious to visit Wine Nation, to ascertain for myself what it was like, and whether it would become a place I would frequent. So yesterday I made the drive to Millbury to check it out. Friend and fellow blogger Bob Dwyer had already been there and posted a very thorough and accurate review of this new wine store. You might even want to read that first before proceeding onto my own review.

Wine Nation might be the largest wine store in the state (or at least in the top three), and will eventually carry 7000+ wines and 1000-1500 beers. It is also seeking to be a discount wine store, desirous of having some of the best prices in Massachusetts. In comparison, most other local wine stores carry 300-800 wines, so the Wine Nation will carry about 10 times the amount of wine as many other stores. That certainly would sound very threatening to a small proprietor.

The store is easy to locate, just a short distance off the Mass. Pike, though I live approximately one hour away from the store. So, I would need to make a special trip to stop by the store, meaning I need to have a compelling reason for visit. It is situated within a large shopping complex, the Shoppes at Blackstone Valley, and thus there is plenty of parking available. Plus, with all the other shops and restaurants in this complex, you can accomplish much more during your visit than just buying some wine.

I should preface my review by noting that the store is still very new, and needs some time to work out the initial kinks. There was apparently some rush to open the store so everything was not as carefully put in place as could have been if more preparatory time had been invested. The owners seem to be cognizant of some problems with the store, and have promised to address them in the near future. So, the store will likely be different, and hopefully better, in a couple months.

There is a strong warehouse feel to the store, which could turn off some wine lovers, but which really should not be seen as a negative. It is more cost effective to operate in this style, and those savings hopefully will be reflected in their pricing. The casual wine buyer probably won't have any objections to the look of the store, and wine snobs need to look beyond the surface. Because of its great size, it is wise to pick up one of the maps near the front of the store to acclimate yourself to how everything is set up.

Wines are arranged numerous ways, including by country, varietal, style, highly rated, staff picks, local, organic, and new items. Plus, wines can occupy more than one category, so might be spread out over multiple sections. That can be confusing. Plus, not all countries and wine regions get their own specific section. For example, South African wines do not have a specific shelf and are spread out over a few shelves, including in "Red Blends," "Other Reds" and "Other Whites," making it more difficult to see what is available just from that country. Plus, Washington and Oregon do not have their own sections.

The Wines by Style section is broken down into about nine categories, such as Intense, Complex, Lush and Crisp. But, only a small portion of wines are categorized here, so it is of limited use. Usually if a wine store is going to categorize by style, then most of their inventory is categorized as such, which is far more effective than only doing so for a mere fraction of the stock. It generally is an either/or proposition, to categorize wines by region/varietal or by style. It is very hard to have it both ways.

As Bob pointed out in his review, there are few shelf talkers on the shelves to describe the wines, and they are needed to help consumers with their selections. But this appears to be an issue the store is aware of, and plans to change in the near future.

Also as Bob pointed out, the pricing is a bit uneven, with some wines at very good prices, and others higher than other wine stores. Sometimes the price difference is only a dollar or so, and sometimes it might be as much as $50. Again though, this is something the store is supposed to be working on, with a goal of generally having the lowest prices in the state.

Near the front of the store are their high-end wines, fine Bordeaux, Burgundy, California Cabernet and more, kept in a temperature controlled case and displayed nicely. Offhand, I noticed they carry the 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection, listed at $149.99. But I have seen that wine at another discount wine store in MA for only $99. Thus, I would suggest that before buying anything from this section that you do a bit of price research first, to ensure you are getting a good deal.

In this case is also probably the most expensive wine in the store, and understandably so, a magnum of the 2007 DRC Richebourg, priced at $1599.99. I have not seen that wine anyplace else in MA, but on Wine Searcher the price ranges from $1600-$2175. So, their price it is at the low end.

What about their selection? The vast number of wines they carry creates certain expectations in my mind. With over 7000 wines, they should be carrying quite a diverse selection. They should have wines from less common regions, which you often cannot find at smaller stores. There should be a decent selection of more artisan wines, especially those harder to find elsewhere. They should take advantage of their numbers to the fullest extent. But did Wine Nation live up to my expectations?

You will find most of the big name wines here, many of the usual suspects. But, I think they are lacking an adequate representation of the smaller wineries, the more artisan wines, as well some of the lesser known wine regions. I was familiar with most of what I saw on the shelves, and had been hoping to find far more wines that were new to me. Diversity is lacking and the promise of such a huge number of wines is not being fulfilled.

The store could easily carry several thousand well known brands, but also a couple thousand far less known wines. How many different Chardonnay labels do they really need? 500, 300, 100, 50? Five shelves are set up for Chardonnay, so there are easily hundreds of different labels and I can't imagine why they need so many. Would it really hurt the store if they cut their amount of Chardonnay in half? I don't think so, and it would free up spots for so many different wines.

Now obviously there are plenty of good wines on their shelves, and wines I drink myself, but I expected far more diversity. Small wine stores struggle, and succeed, to maintain diversity with only 300-500 wines. With 7000+ wines, Wine Nation should have absolutely no difficulty providing an extremely diverse mix of selections, rather than trying to carry every brand of Chardonnay that exists.

I was pleased to see a decent sized section of Portuguese wines, around 30 different labels (pictured above). Portuguese wines are often excellent values and I have long recommended them. Their Sherry and Port section is pretty good too, including Madeira and Marsala wines. I was impressed with their Local Wine section, which includes wines not only from New England but also New York and even Virginia. Some of the New England wineries represented include Turtle Creek, Westport Rivers, Still River Winery, Truro Vineyards, and Sakonnet. From New York, you will find Ravine Cellars, Red Newt, Hermann Wiemer and Dr. Konstantin Frank. There is also a nice Organic Wine section.

I was much less pleased with their Saké selection, maybe 25 or so labels, but plenty of ordinary Saké and little to excite a Saké lover. That section really needs work. They also carry about six plum wines which is overkill as it is certainly not that popular. That space would have been better served by some premium Saké. They stock about 20 Greek wines, and again that section has a few very good choices, but plenty of rather ordinary wines as well. It needs more attention too. They have three Lebanese wines, but the only Israeli wines they carry are kosher.

Though they do not carry a large selection of half-bottles of wine, they have a very ample supply of 1.5ml bottles as well as plenty of boxed wines (including Blue Nun). They also sell numerous wine supplies, from racks to decanters, and from books to spit buckets. If you love beer, there is a huge selection here, beers, ales and more from all over the world. There is also a decent selection of hard ciders. Plus, they carry a variety of other beverages, including soda, juices, water, and vermouth. In addition, you can buy cigars from their humidor, as well as various foods, including chips, cheese, frozen pasta, chocolate and much more. So it is much more than just a wine store, and you will find most of your party needs here.

While I was there, I was asked several times if I needed any assistance. There appears to be plenty of staff walking the floors, and they are checking with all of the customers to see if they have any questions or need help. There is also a central desk where customers can go if they need assistance. With such a large facility, it is very good that there are so many employees around offering assistance to the patrons.

Overall, and as a preliminary opinion, I think the Wine Nation has potential, but it has not yet lived up to that potential and it remains to be seen whether it will or not. As the store is still very new though, it has time to change and there have been indications that the owner understands some of the problems and is going to take action to correct them.

First, pricing needs to be adjusted if the store seeks to be one of the lowest in the state, and to remain competitive with the other discount wine stores. Massachusetts already has some excellent, and competitive discount wine stores and any newcomers must rise to the occasion. Second, the store needs more signage and shelf talkers to provide descriptions of the wines. Customers need to know about the wines they might be interested in purchasing. Third, I think store organization needs to be adjusted. Get rid of the Wine Styles shelves, and give specific space to the neglected regions, like South Africa, Washington and more.

Most importantly, get much more diversity in your stock. Cut down your stock of some of the overly stuffed sections, like Chardonnay, and bring in some lesser known regions and smaller, artisan wineries. Revise the selection in some of your existing sections, like Saké and Greek wines, and carry more than the usual suspects. One of your biggest strengths is the vast number of wines you carry, so you need to capitalize on that strength. If you fail to do so, then I doubt you will become a recommended destination for wine lovers.

Currently, there is no compelling reason why I would drive an hour to shop here. There are plenty of other discount wine stores much closer to me, with better overall pricing and a better selection. Plus, if I don't see a wine on their shelves that I want, I can order it and often receive it within a few days. I will certainly visit the store again though in a couple months, to see if there have been any changes. And you can be assured that I will write about its progress, or lack thereof.

Wine Nation
70 Worcester-Providence Turnpike
Millbury, MA 01527
Phone: 508-917-0400


meghan said...

This is an excellent, thorough review. I will have to check the store out for myself when I am in the area.

Robert said...

Great write-up Richard, and thanks for the link. I've added a link to your piece to my review as well.

I think our assessments of Wine Nation are pretty similar at this point even if our opinion of whether sake is a delicious beverage is not as well aligned. :)

See you around!

Jon Troutman said...

Very thorough breakdown. As a former resident and wine buyer in MA, I'm always curious about new wine shops. For me, the thing that stood out in your review was the lack of diversity and presence of more artisanal producers. There seem to be very few stores in MA that have an adequate selection of more esoteric regions and names for one simple reason - there isn't proper distribution. Names like Martignetti and MS Walker, which dominate the state's distribution, have little incentive to expand their portfolios due to the restrictive shipping laws. In the end, it's the consumers that lose.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Meghan, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts once you check it out.

Thanks Bob, and I agree our thoughts are very similar. And you just need to try the right sakes and then you will convert. I am positive I can find a sake you will like.

Thanks Jonathan. There are some good smaller importers though, with excellent portfolios in MA. Though they seem to tend to work more with the smaller stores. For example, Adonna Imports has a great Italian portfolio of small,artisan producers.

JacquelineC said...

Good review. I doubt I'll make it to the store, but I'd be looking for diversity and consistently lower prices - as you suggest. That's a lot of square feet to not have larger breadth. It may be they're stocking for the folks who will be shopping in that mall.

Anonymous said...

you all seem to forget the reason they are in business, to make money. Sell 2 bottles of esoteric sake or 300 cases of chardonnay? The dist system is not the problem. Put your money into the brands that sell!

Sandy said...

Great post, I like sherry wine, because I find the taste wonderful with its riches of the fruits and spices.It also has low acidity and swallow as its go down.

Anonymous said... really should go back and repeat your review of this place.

There have been...changes.