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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
05/02/2012
Wednesday Warblings
Costco: Not Wine For Dummies

By Stephen Eliot

Some pundits would have you believe that Costco is no more than a cynical, know-nothing merchandiser that treats wine like it was toilet paper.

Remember the game “telephone”? The one we played around camp fires as kids where you would whisper a message or short story into the ear of the person next to you who would then relay it on to the next and so on. By the time it made a complete round, it emerged so warped from its initial version that it had become unrecognizable. I sometimes think of the populist world of social media and Everyman journalism as being little more than a 21st century version of the same.

This week, the latest tea-pot tempest in the wine blogosphere has been triggered by a CNBC story on the retailing giant Costco and its head wine buyer, Annette Alvarez-Peters *. Painted by Talia Baiocchi at the Eater ** as a soulless, corporate soldier who doesn’t think wine is different that toilet paper, Ms. Alvarez-Peters is accordingly dismissed as someone who is ignorant, insensitive and knows nothing about wine. Not surprisingly, a torrent of ruffled-feather commentary has followed on a host of various websites and blogs.

I am struck by vehemence and vitriol of the brouhaha, and would urge all those who are quick to form opinions about the story to actually watch the video in question rather reacting to what someone has written about what someone said who, it turns out, may or may not know what they are talking about. Judging from the intemperate rants and ravings and reactions out there, I wonder how many have.

The brief, six-minute video clip is an interesting one, and it is well worth watching by anyone interested in wine.

Now, I do not know and have not met Ms. Alvarez-Peters, but I simply cannot see how such damning conclusions can be drawn. What I see and hear is a fairly straightforward, unassuming, very professional individual who is concerned about quality and consumer need, and who very much wants to avoid the cult of personality and celebrity status. Rather than accepting the mantle of the “world’s most powerful wine buyer”, she regards herself simply as a Costco employee. Her offense, apparently, is that she ultimately views wine as a product like everything else in the Costco corporate culture.

Ignorant? I do not see it, and, in fact, she has studied in both the WSET and Master of Wine programs and, by the testimony of a good many well-qualified people that I do know who are actually in the business of fine wine, she is a conscientious, hard-working woman who very much knows her stuff.

Does she equate wine with toilet paper in specific terms? No. But, she does understand that the two are somewhat analogous in the Costco marketing model of finding out what the customer wants, buying it at a good price, and selling it. And, since Costco apparently annually sells enough of the latter to circle the planet 1200 times, that business model is hard to argue with.

Tom Wark, a man who has both a real respect and love for fine wine and very keen sense of what effective marketing is all about, sets forward the requirements for a good professional wine buyer as being, 1) knowledge of your customers' desires, 2) knowledge of the product, and 3) knowledge of buying and market trends. Of Ms. Alavarez-Peters, he says “she knows a good deal about what her customer base wants from the wine selection in her hundreds of Costco stores around the country and that this knowledge is far more important than possessing a reverence for wine.” ***

Now, Alvarez-Peters does not need my defense. She is a twenty-year veteran of Costco and has, since 2003, done what looks to me to be a pretty good job at getting good wines into the hands of interested consumers at a good price. In the CNBC piece, respected industry analyst, Jon Fredrikson, comments that Costco has had a significant influence on educating wine consumers and raising their consciousness and appreciation of higher-end wines.

In a world increasingly populated by precocious retailers, writers and sommeliers preoccupied about lecturing me about what NOT to drink, I frankly find some comfort in knowing that there are those who are still willing to listen to their clientele.

* http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000084796&play=1
** http://eater.com/archives/2012/04/27/costcos-wine-buyer-doesnt-think-wine-is-different-than-toilet-paper.php#reader_comments
*** http://fermentation.typepad.com/fermentation/2012/04/costco-wine-shall-i-be-offended.html


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Comments

Costco Wine
by James
Posted on:5/1/2012 10:12:49 AM

I don't know Ms . Alvarez-Peters, but having been a Connoisseur of wine for just about 50 years and having shopped major retailers  as well as Costco, I think they provide remarkedly fine wine at all price points. I, at one time ,had a thousand bottle cellar, and visited their stores on a regular basis. The only negative about Costco is you are on your own so you better know your wine!

Costco
by Bill Stephenson
Posted on:5/1/2012 2:47:02 PM

I saw the CNBC story you referred to and found nothing with which to damn Ms. Alvarez-Peters. My wife and I buy quite a bit of wine from our local Costco (Rocklin) and I will also buy at their Novato and Dublin stores because those three stores ahve a much better than average selection and on occasion the actual winemaker is in the store hawking his wares.

We don't buy cases of Menage-a-Trois, but we have bought several vintages of BV George LaTour, the 2006 Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino, and even a half case of 2007 Dominus, all at Costco. Many specific wine merchants don't carry these wines and certainly not at the prices we pay.

Costco also cut a deal with the troubled Renwood Winery to sell their "Grandmere" Zinfandel under the Kirkland label at roughly 40% of Renwood's price at BevMo!

As a side note though, the Kirkland attempt at craft ales is awful. A lot like Anheuser-Busch's attempt at the same segment. 

Costco
by Charles Curtis MW
Posted on:5/1/2012 6:29:40 PM

Bravo for a reasoned defense of the wine program at CostCo where good selection and good pricing are often offered at the same time - all too seldom true in U.S. retail

CostCo
by Fred Schroeder
Posted on:5/2/2012 12:10:18 PM

Just got back from Kauai where CostCo has been a nice addition to a limited wine selection. I usually find at least one real bargain there---this time was the Carol Shelton Wild Thing 2009 at about $18.00 a bottle (Kauai's wine prices are much higher than California), a great bargain and Koloa rum at well below the going rate for one of Kauai's local products in the beverage market.

No Subject
by Ted R. Nicholas MD
Posted on:5/2/2012 1:34:34 PM

I've been a subscriber to CGCW for over 20 years, primarily because I found CG's taste corresponded most closely with mine and I don't drink enough wine to adequately sample the market. I've also found that it's easy to spend a lot for a good bottle of wine; the trick is to spend less and get just as good a deal! CG nicely addresses all these matters. Unfortunately, we live in the Palm Springs, Ca, area and have a limited selection of "good buys" and more highly rated wines. Costco usually has few, if any, of CG recommendations. And I've only found one of Costco's Kirkland brand wines in CG, a 2002 cabernet. Given the volume of Kirkland brand wines consumed, it would seem appropriate to see more reviews of them on a regular basis. After all, wine lovers, often on budgets, do exist beyond the San Francisco Bay area! :)

No Subject
by Rick
Posted on:5/3/2012 2:25:59 PM

I don't fault her for her business practices but I am forced to wonder how much more they'd sell if they had someone running the business who truly cared about the "beverage."  

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