I had an unfortunate experience a couple of months back and I’ve finally gotten up the courage to write my thoughts down about this horrific event. Therefore, be warned, you may cry as I relate this to you.
It was a normal winter day in Minneapolis which means I was going about my innocent business of getting work done, deciding if it was too cold or not to go for a run around the lake, and determining what delicious dish I wanted to grace my kitchen with for the evening. Naturally, my mind will wander to wine when food is involved and it is a wonderful coincidence that my go-to wine shop is directly across the street from one of the grocery stores I go to. As an aside, yes it’s the plural “grocery stores”, because a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do. Anyway, in a rare occurrence, I had my heart set on a particular Shiraz/Viognier blend and as I approached the door, I had already mentally mapped my path through the wine store as to where this particular bottle would be procured. I would head to the back left corner where Australian wines could be found and find it located on the middle shelf which roughly denotes its price point. As I opened the door, I was greeted by the familiarity of Italian wines directly in front of me, but something was amiss. Between steps two and three into the store, which also include a slight pivot so I wouldn’t blast through Barolo, it hit me deep in the gut: The shop was in mid-transition from a layout organization that made sense to some degree to one that now, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I can get over. Disaster. You can cry now.
For those of the unimpassioned variety, let me explain: There are two general philosophies when it comes to how wines, primarily focused on still wines here, are organized and displayed in a wine shop. The first is by varietal which means you’d see signs for “Chardonnay”, “Cabernet Sauvignon”, etc. smattered across the store. One big flaw in this philosophy is when you get to wines that are blended from multiple varietals. The other major flaw is that there are thousands of grape varietals that are used to make wine. Hopefully, they are listed alphabetically…
The opposing philosophy then is to organize by wine regions. Italian wines, French wines, Chilean (or “Chilian” as I saw in a wine shop once) wines all get their section of the store and then their respective wine regions and appellations are gathered together within. The flaw in this philosophy generally comes from American wine.
Unlike, what we term “Old World” wine regions, aka European countries, American wines can go ahead and put the wine region on a bottle (e.g. Napa) regardless of what kind of grapes go into that wine as long as those grapes were grown in the region*. However, in a wine region such as Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, they legally cannot put the name of the region on the bottle unless it is only made from certain grape varietals which all had to be grown within that region. Therefore, if your wine store is laid out by region, the pristine organization kind of falls apart when you hit America.
Obviously, the correct answer, or at least the answer to appease the most number of people is somewhere in between those extreme philosophies. Even then though, sides are chosen. Some wine shops opt for a primarily regional-based layout and then elect for varietal labeling for domestic wines and generally also include a miscellaneous reds and whites section for the odd-balls. Others go for varietal labeling as the primary, then sprinkle some regions haphazardly in between and top everything off with a poorly named red blends and white blends section. I say poorly, because if they have specific regional sections, those are going to be blends too. Additionally, the flavor profile of wines in the blends sections are all over the place so it’s kind of like a random grab bag. Personally, I am biased towards the former instead of the latter, but that is most likely because I have a general sense of what kinds of grapes are in a bottle that is only labelled with the region it is from. But imagine my dismay upon walking into a wine shop that is switching from a primarily region-based layout, to one that is primarily varietal-based. It’s horrible.
Interestingly, smaller wine shops are generally regionally focused while the big, discount wine shops are going to be varietal focused. This generally has to do with the kinds of people that the wine shop attracts. Ironically though, the typical shopper going to the smaller wine shop is probably going to be purchasing a wider variety of wines over time than the typical shopper going to the big store. The larger stores just attract a barrel-load (wine term) more people who are generally more concerned about the price of the bottle and less interested in going on a virtual world tour.
Back to why my preferences are better. When I walk into a wine shop in search of something interesting, which can be defined as:
- a varietal of grape not usually found in a particular region
- a unique blend
- a wine from a lesser-known wine region
…I’m generally not going to find it in a store that has a primarily varietal layout. Let’s say I’m looking for, or even want the possibility of coming across, a dry wine from Hungary. Which section would you search for it in each type of wine shop? In the wine shop that is primarily region-focused, they might have a Hungarian, or perhaps eastern European section if they want to throw in places like Croatia too. Probably not, but I can dream, can’t I?! More likely, they would throw it in to the Miscellaneous White section, because dry, regional wines from Hungary are made from single varietals of grapes like Tokaji Furmint and Tokaji Hárslevelű. How about in the varietal heavy layout? First, we can guarantee that they don’t have a Furmint or Hárslevelű section, because it would only be stocked with 1 or 2 wines. Second, it probably wouldn’t be under its own region header because those are reserved for the most popular wine regions. Third, it’s not a blend of different grapes, so it doesn’t really fall under that White Blends category either. Therefore, you could probably wander around the shop for hours and not find it before you finally give up and choose whatever is on-sale near the door (which is what they really want you to do anyway).
This isn’t entirely a random example, by the way. After my wine shop reorganized, I later was looking for some Tokaji Furmint, which I knew they had previously, but couldn’t find anymore. The employees didn’t know where it was either until we finally tracked it down as being found tucked in between the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin Blanc, because when you switch to a varietal-focused organization and still have interesting wines, you’re forced to throw them in random places.
So is there an ideal layout? For me there is. I want the region-focused layout where domestic wine is somewhat broken down by varietal and if they really want to get me, they’ll have a section in the middle with a handmade sign that says, “Cool and interesting shit here.” and then there would be an arrow pointing to a curated collection of obscure wines.
If you use a wine pun in the sign I will cut you.
I get that most wine is purchased by people who don’t know or don’t care what grapes are grown where and I’m not saying everyone needs to only enjoy regional-specific wine. I do think a region-based approach creates the most certainty for wine consumers though. If you know which grapes you like, you can buy a wine from a region that uses those grapes with some degree of confidence that you’ll like it in addition to only buying wines with those grapes on the label. How tough would it be for a wine shop to throw up a small map of a country and its major wine regions listing the major grapes found in those wines? Sure you could, you know, talk to people, but I’m an introvert and generally avoid talking to strangers, so maps would be better. Whatever the map situation, just tell my wine shop to switch things back please.
*“New World” wine countries like America, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and all the other non-European countries don’t have laws that dictate what grape varietals can or cannot be included in a region-specific wine. The only relevant law in place is that if the wine is claiming to be a varietal, like Cabernet Sauvignon, it needs to mostly be Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Percentages defining “mostly” vary by country, but most are >= 80%. Why you generally don’t see a plethora of varieties from “New World” countries in your wine shop is primarily due to the filtering process of condensing a whole country of wine down to a 5ft expanse in the wine shop. Yes, more than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir is grown and made into wine in Marlborough, New Zealand, but chances are, you’ll only see those two. If you walked into a supermarket or wine shop in a different country, you might think that only Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Napa and only Pinot Noir is grown in Willamette Valley. Of course, if you find yourself in a Chilean supermarket, you won’t find any foreign wines at all…
P.S. There is a 3rd “Philosophy” that some wine shops are trying and that is to organize the wines by flavor profile. You’ll see signs that say stupid things like “Big and Saucy” or “Light and Airy”. The idea is to attract people who know nothing about wine, but know what sounds tasty to them. It’s not inherently a bad idea, but in practice it doesn’t work in a shop that has more than say, 50 wines to sell.