The best part of our daily ritual was, of course, shopping for food and wine. We were lucky enough to have small but excellent neighborhood grocery stores near our apartments in Rome’s Trastevere and Florence’s Palazzo Pitti neighborhoods.
Wine shopping was fun but a little scary. All those unfamiliar labels and names of grapes was a bit intimidating.
But the price was so right – 5 or 6 euros got us a surprisingly good table wine. The inventory wasn’t huge, but there was variety (Italy has more wine regions than John Travolta has career comebacks).
And the locals … well, in Italy nobody’s a stranger. They were full of suggestions. (In Italian, of course, but through the universal language of bad mime and big hand gestures we could usually understand.)
Our part of the world has finally come to resemble Italy in that respect: there are more and more neighborhood stores with surprisingly good wine selections, and likely as not the person who does the ordering is behind the cash register. (Even the dolts who dream up master-planned communities are starting to get it: we want to be able to walk to places like wine stores and bars from our front doors.)
In my party-loving coastal California town we’re blessed with several places like this. They all have certain things in common: I can walk there; it’s small, but the wine selection is good for the size of the place; the buyer knows her/his stuff; everyone’s chill, and we remember each other's names; and they can make perfect wine suggestions based on my mood and the meal I’ll be eating at home. Oh, and they all have a playlist that doesn't end when Fleetwood Mac broke up.
I know what you’re thinking: why shop at a corner store when you can go to Costco? The big-box behemoth is the largest importer of French wine in the world. Costco buys wine in bulk in order to pass along savings to its customers. And Costco uses juice, sometimes from reputable vineyards, to make very inexpensive wine under its house label, Kirkland.
Other chains such as Total Wine & More offer a huge wine selection and hard-to-beat prices. Then, of course, there’s Trader Joe’s, with its scattershot collection of affordable wines, some of them good, some not.
But there’s a place in the world for the corner wine store, especially if the owner takes pride and care in choosing the vino.
That extra $2 you’ll save by going to Costco? You’re going to burn that much in gas just getting there. And then you have to spend the next 30 minutes of your life parking in some godforsaken corner of the lot, entering that aircraft hanger full of seething humanity, finding the right bottle, standing in an interminable line and trying to find your car afterwards.
If that’s worth the $2 savings, then knock yourself out. I’d rather get a little exercise, enjoy the day, talk to someone who knows me and my tastes, and support my local wine retailer.
The next time you're in Orange County, California head over to one of our favorite shops, The Wine Exchange and ask for Patrick. He'll be the millennial in a lumberman's beard and flannel who's a wealth of knowledge with wines from all over the world.