The patchwork quilt of wine retailers across America and traditional (print) wine media enjoy a rather peculiar relationship. It began to take shape, like the wine boom itself, in the 1990s, when several magazines decided that their primary role was to respond to the burgeoning supply of wines by pouring on the ratings. Many (but not all) retailers grew content to pluck scores (usually without tasting notes) and use as a sales tool.

The 20th-century crescendo of the phenomenon has continued into this century. Ratings-dependence remains common in retail venues as huge as Costco {see post here} and as small as the corner store; as established as Morrell & Co. (whose catalog has a boxed guide to the initials representing multiple rating sources) and as mod as Wine Library (sure, Gary V. is all about passion, but 9 out of 10 email blasts from Wine Library re-trumpet wines already blessed with a 90+ by WS and RP).  

While this media-retail relationship works to a degree—in the sense that many very good wines are “highly rated” and sell well—in the process, a few things have happened:

  • It has encouraged the widespread and wholly unrealistic impression that wine quality can be boiled down to numbers
  • As a result of both grade inflation and a profusion of sources, the 100-point scale in general has lost its edge; these days, it’s 90 or not {no matter whose 90 it is}
  • Certain wines (e.g., rosé, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio), whose inherent characters rarely earn widespread 90+ scores, have become de facto second-class citizens
  • Less expensive wines, which are usually less intense and/or complex than pricier ones, have become numerically inferior as well.

Perhaps most important of all, however, reliance on ratings has led retailers to surrender their own sense of authority. Rather than make their own standards evident in their merchandising, many (not all, but yes, too many) wine merchants let the broad and steady stream of EZ ##s do their (shelf-)talking. In short, they seem to have assumed the role of {pardon my French} bitch to the various points-wielding media.

As this dominant-submissive relationship has worn on, magazines have consciously promoted the status quo. They stand tall and self-important upon the pedestal of blind tasting, basing their authority partly on sheer volume of reviews. They also aggressively promote the use of ratings at the point-of-sale, then point to the proliferation of such usage as validation of their efforts.

The attitude the traditional media heavies have developed toward retailers is, not surprisingly, dismissive. Think about it: when was the last time you read in a major wine publication anything about the experience of wine shopping? Maybe a tidbit here or there in Wine & Spirits. But don’t expect to see a magazine like Wine Spectator covering wine shops, because to do so would undermine their position of superiority. You see, magazines with buying guides are actually “selling” the same things as retailers: inside information, hot stuff, which wines to buy now. To cover the people who actually sell the stuff would be the equivalent of saying to their readers: you don’t really need us.  

The net result of the bitchy relationship between wine mags and wine merchants is that precious few drops of ink are being devoted to great wine shops. Shops that have an ear to the street and an eye toward the table. Shops that offer a point of view. Shops that encourage wine-buying as an interactive process.

I see blogs as being able to fill a much needed role in casting some light, some love and some real-world attention on independent stores. Today, I’m showcasing three true indies, one on each coast and one in the middle. I have set foot in each store exactly once, but each has proven particularly memorable. I bought wine at each and would not hesitate to do so again.

Li’l Shop of Wonders
Frankly Wines. 66 West Broadway, NY NY 10007; 212/346-9544; @franklywines on Twitter
            Not yet two years old, Frankly Wines is the domain of Christy Frank, whom I first met when she helped run the Columbia Business School wine club, and who worked for LVMH before opening up this matchbox-sized shop in Tribeca (320 sq. feet). The store leans a bit toward southern hemisphere wines, but Christy’s greatest strength is good, old-fashioned editing with an eye on value. She has jammed the store with value, even at higher price points. Lack of size is no problem here; still plenty to suit diverse tastes, tightened budgets and even the most jaded collector. She turned me on to a great Artazuri Navarra rosato for $7 and a Roger Perrin 2007 Côtes du Rhône 3L BOX for $39 that I milked for about four weeks. She has a knack for shaking some real deals out of the NYC woodwork (a Chateau Musar vertical comes to mind; and 1985 Lafon Roche for $50). And she is always ready to suggest something just a leetle bit different, à la the Altos Las Hormigas 2007 Bonarda ($10) from Argentina. Nice blog and judicious email blasts, too.

Mondo Italia Gone Gonzo.  
Wine Expo. 2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404; 310/828-4428; @WineExpo on Twitter
            I was smitten with the Old World SoCal of WineExpo years ago based on its old school newsletters, filled with raucous descriptions, eclectic music references and food popping up just about every other wine. When I finally got there in 2001, it was a genuine thrill. I can’t recall being in one shop whose dual foci—Italian wines and bubbly—were so broad yet so deep. Humble wines, fancy wines, freak wines… wines with names as long as your arm. The inventory at Wine Expo is not so much assembled as curated. How else to explain the presence of 13 {yes, 13} fizzy reds. The man behind the wines, Roberto Rogness, snags many of these bottlings to be Wine Expo exclusives on pilgrimages to VinItaly. Roberto has been Expo’s wine director since it opened 15 years ago; he only loves one thing more than vino: his customers. If you are into bubbly and/or Italian wine, go to the website right now; cruise the write-ups; check out Roberto’s rants. All it takes is a few clicks to realize that Wine Expo is about as close as you’ll find to a vinous version of Alice’s Wonderland.

Ommmmm Wine in Chi-Town
Just Grapes. 560 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, IL 60661; 312/627-WINE; @JustGrapes on Twitter
            Situated in a neither here-nor-there part of downtown Chicago, Just Grapes exudes a sort of calm confidence. When I went there in 2005, its second year, to give a Bordeaux seminar, I was immediately struck by the browsability: not a ton of wines (about 300), handsome racks, clean signage, contemporary design, spot-on lighting, and a flow that just plain worked. It worked because the managing partner, Don Sritong (previous stints for K-J, Constellation, Kobrand), had a plan that took the vast, potentially confusing universe of wine and sorted it out as if each wine was like a brick in a complete house. He explained that when a wine sold out of its designated slot or rack, if he could not get the exact same wine he would replace it with something as similar as possible in style and price, maintaining an almost Zenlike simplicity of the overall plan. Judging from their website, Just Grapes has evolved nicely since I visited, adding an automated self-serve tasting bar and ramping up the classes and events. I see from the site that they also have a section devote to 90+ point wines, but I suspect that is mostly to keep up with the other, much larger retailers (Sam’s, Binny’s). The staff picks, rotating weekly are the real deal: well-chosen, well-written and well-priced.

I’m happy to devote some cyber-ink to these folks. They are, for me, agents of true independent thinking in wine today. They talk the wine talk, walk the wine walk, and they are adept at steering people the right way, based on style, taste and context.