It is the reports from the CBC that British Columbia is thinking about allowing liquor sales in supermarkets that inspired me to turn the TV off and write. Many Canadians feel left behind more ‘progressive’ nations like the US and UK, that have had alcohol available in grocery stores. In those ‘progressive’ countries years ago, supermarkets like Costco, Tesco and other large grocery chains did not stock wine, and when they did it was only a small selection of some basic mainstream stuff, a few Lindeman`s,the Le Piat d`Or range and a selection of Gallo wines. The real wine lover would make their way to the high street specialist store or a good independent wine merchant. Perusing the shelves, glancing at labels, and taking the bottles out, twisting them in your hand to feel the glass and their weight, and the best part, talking to those who plied their trade in a side of the industry that certainly did not pay well, but gave an income to those whose passion lay inside dark green glass. The chat to a good wine store clerk or manager was part of a continuing relationship, the more regularly you visited the better the recommendation would be suited to your taste. I may be accused of some misty eyed romanticism, but the local wine merchant was one of the last traditional shops that graced almost every high street; it is now only in a relative few towns and cities that still have a store with experienced wine-obsessed staff.
It`s not just the UK, but the spiritual home of wine, France, has lost many of its small independent stores, with the now ubiquitous hypermarché on the outskirts stocking a myriad of mostly French wines, where the majority of French drinkers do their shopping. The US mega grocery chains like Costco and now Walmart stock many branded wines at knock-down prices, edging out the small guy.
The figures make depressing reading. In the UK almost 90% of wine is bought at a supermarket and 80% of that is bought on a deal. Think of those 3 for 2 “bargains” that Oz Clarke recently questioned the veracity of on the BBC`s consumer affairs program `Watchdog`. So why should we mourn the declining numbers of specialists? Well the God of convenience and keen prices can be a rather disloyal deity for those worshipers, as supermarkets are starting to reduce their range as they have discovered that some of the more interesting wines are hard to sell when the average punter is staring at rows of bottles on their own, with no-one to guide them.
So with the closure of many stores, the supermarkets have a massive share of the market and are reducing choice, leaving us with rows of brand name `cheap` deals, but far less competition in the high street. It`s up to us, the consumer, to vote with our wallets, but more importantly get back to building a relationship with an expert merchant, not just with wine but meat, fish, bread and beer too and leave the supermarkets for the dull things that require no thought or expertise.
So while British Columbia,Canada, my former home, considers to allow liquor sales in supermarkets and grocery stores, remember that while you may gain convenience, you will lose personality, choice, real value and the human experience that makes shopping for wine a genuine joy.