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Wine buying feature image
A wine retail store should be inviting, display the bottles attractively, and store them properly.
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It may look daunting, but it's well-organized.
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Comfortable wine shopping
A comfortable way to shop for wine.
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PapaJoe's Wine bar
A wine bar is a shopping option at Papa Joe's.
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760ml Display room
Comfortable tasting area at 760ml.
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West Point French
French Wines at West Point Market
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Atmosphere is everything at Corkscrew Johnny's.
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It may look daunting, but it's well-organized.
By Jim MacQueen, Food & Dining Editor
You open the door and a little bell jingles overhead. You stop, you look around. Everywhere you look, there are bottles, standing up, lying on their sides, in wooden cases, and various combinations. Or, you wander down the grocery store aisles and suddenly find yourself in the wine department, with only the barest attempts at sorting and signage to guide your selections. More daunting yet, a waiter hands you a book that is ten times thicker than the menu, and expects you to pick out a bottle from fifteen pages, maybe 250 entries. I've been buying wine since 1968, and I don't think it has to be tricky. On the other hand, over the years, I have learned a lot about it I can pass on, and maybe save you some time and trouble.
The first thing you have to ask yourself is why you are buying the wine, what type do you want? Is it just for you, or for guests? Are you trying to learn a lot about wine, or do you just want pick something out that might go well with dinner? Are you a patio sipper, or are you someone who aspires to be a collector, a gourmet, or a wine expert? I think you need to ask and answer these questions, because the answers guide you in your buying strategies.
I think you also need to know how much work you are willing to put into buying your wines. If you really want to buy the best you can find in the Akron area, you are going to have to read about wine. You may need a subscription or three to various wine publications, or at the very least, try to pick up some of the free ones lying around in the better wine stores. You are probably going to have ask for advice from some of the people who sell wine. And you may have to visit several stores in the area in search of the better bottles because most of the best are not widely available.
In fact, you might have to buy some wines online. You need to know that there are several different choices of retail outlets, and they differ in their approach to stocking and storing wines. If all you want are the most generally available “good” wines, it won't be much of a problem, but for the highly rated bottles and vintages, most grocery stores won't be the answer.
Wines are sold several ways. Of course, one way is with meals at restaurants, off wine lists. This is a specialized way of buying wine, and there is a separate story on that posted in our blog. But the other retail options are liquor stores, wine specialist stores, grocery stores, the internet, wine tasting rooms at wineries, and sometimes off the wine list at a restaurant for carryout. Some of these choices are governed by various state laws (and not just Ohio laws in the case of winery sales) and licenses. There are laws against mailing wine, and many shippers have their own regulations.
Let's start with some general rules about retail stores. This includes all the forms I mentioned above. Just because a store specializes in wine doesn't necessarily mean it is particularly good at stocking a lot of choices, nor at good storage practices. One of the things you should look for in any store is how the bottles are displayed. Most good wines use cork stoppers. Cork can dry out and let air into the bottle if the it spends too much time standing up. So, in the best stores, you will see most of the wine stock lying on its side to keep the cork moist. One bottle may be standing for display purposes, and in the better stores, they will rotate that bottle with others in the lot to protect the cork.
Having said this, many grocery stores have a very fast turnover in their wine stock. The fact that they have two or three bottles standing should not necessarily be held against them. In those stores, the distribution companies are very active, and the stock gets rotated frequently. Around here, I would not be afraid of buying wine at Giant Eagle, Heinens, Kirby's Meats in Stow, and of course, the West Point Market. I'm a little less convinced about Acme and Bueller's, but that really has more to do with the variety of choice...I am sure both rotate their stock, and you're not likely to get a bad bottle.
The one type of store I would warn about, however, is the general liquor store. In this area, most of the State Stores I've been in just don't seem very serious about the wine portion of their inventory. If all you want is a bottle of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc to sip on the patio, I'm sure you can find it in one of these stores while you're buying your Grey Goose or single-malt Scotch. But hardly any of them carry what I consider the top California labels; if they do, they are likely to have only one bottle, standing up, with a dry cork; and none of them know much about French, German or Italian wines.
Do a little research, know why you want to buy and the type of wine that best suits your reasons, and then be prepared to shop around a little. There are a lot of very fine wines available in the Akron-Canton area, far more than when I moved here in 1982. If you want the best, you'll be able to find it, and you'll find prices to fit every budget.
The first place I always go is Riverside Wine and Imports in Kent. That's probably more because I live in Tallmadge, and it's closer than any other. However, it is also one of the best selections in the area, and I have found more special bottles here than any other place except the retail store at Papa Joe's Restaurant. This is the one place where I sometimes buy a case of wine to take advantage of the 10% mix or match discount. Owner Robert Morson is very knowledgeable, and tastes a great many of the wines he stocks. I have noticed a significant presence from the distributors, but he deals with many of them to offer the wide selection on his shelves...I think they have worked out a form of “just in time” inventory management that assures selection and bottle quality.
Among the special features at Riverside is the fact they have full-service licensing, and can offer wine and beer by the glass as well as small appetizers. Generally, there will be a number of “wine flights” (tastings of three wines to compare) offered every day. Individually, at least 60 wines are offered by the glass. This means you have the opportunity to taste some of the lesser known wines you might be interested in before investing in a bottle. Another option is to buy any bottle in the store, and drink it there for a $7.00 corkage charge.
Riverside offers a full range of services such as gift shopping, gift baskets, bar ware and glasses, and some selected liquors. There is a wide range of craft beer available, too, including many on tap. The store is located at 911 N. Mantua Street (Rt. 43 north) in Kent.
My newest favorite is 750ml Wines, located in Pilgrim Square (2287 West Market), basically on the Akron/Fairlawn border. One reason is because I really like these newer wine merchants who give a lot of care in the creation of their shopping environment. 750 is designed and operated a lot like I would like to operate my home wine library room...if I had one! There is comfortable furniture, excellent storage and display, and a relaxing atmosphere that encourages you to sit down and perhaps sample a bottle in the shop before taking advantage of the 10% case discount.
Like many newer wine merchants, regular wine tasting events are a major part of the marketing program. July programs included the “World Cup of Wines”, “Wine For Grillin' and Chillin'”, and “Alluring Australia”. Another plus is that the staff regularly visits wine making areas, tastes and hand-selects all the wine offered in the shop. This means you can certainly trust a recommendation.
Another shop similar to 750 is located south, in Green. It's called The Unexpected, and it's located in the Town Park shopping center, which is located along Massillon Road...1840 Town Park to be exact.
This is another place where the atmosphere is important in the buying experience, and where I find that personal staff attention to the inventory often means there will be something special on the shelves. In other words, it lives up to the “unexpected” part of the name. This store does try to offer a wider range of services than just wine, selling a lot of specialty foods, high end candy, corporate gifts, and making up custom gift baskets. I like the fact that the staff seems well-trained in the interview part of the sale, where they attempt to find out exactly what you need and want. I think this allows them to customize selections included in any gifts you might order, and to give you good advice on the wines offered.
The main thing I like about Unexpected is that I have found several very special bottles here...wines I could not find at other stores in the area. This tells me the buyers are reading and studying the published tasting notes, perhaps making some of their own buying trips to California, and not just relying on the distributors. Keep in mind that some wine distributors are just trying to push distribution, while others have the knowledge to actually put good bottles on retail shelves. How a wine merchant acquires inventory is a major component in how much you should shop there.
My final stop on this tour is Corkscrew Johnny's in Richfield, at 2542 Brecksville Road (Old Route 21). When you first walk in the door, you may think this is just another liquor store of the type I suggested you avoid in the opening paragraphs. Not so. That's just the downstairs. Upstairs is a dedicated wine emporium that more than lives up to the name “Corkscrew” and the criteria of selection, proper storage, and atmosphere. You'll find elegant displays, some seating, a lot of wine literature, and fairly good organization. My one criticism here is that you will sometimes find a bottle topping a display where there are several different labels racked underneath. If you are really looking to see all the offerings, you have to pull bottles out and read the labels.
On the other hand, the stock is very complete, and this is one of the first places I go when I'm looking for French wines. Their stock is very heavy on Bordeaux, Burgundies, and the other French wine production areas. This is one of maybe only three places where you might be able to find a choice of bottles of true French Chablis, for instance.
There are basically three types of grocery stores that carry wine: Those that are serious about it, and have staff trained on grape types and vintages; those that are not serious about it at all, and carry mostly jug and box wines, wine coolers, and quaffers; and those that fall somewhere in the middle with stock largely maintained by the big distributing companies.
In the Akron area, I've found three grocery stores that are so serious about wines that I visit them frequently. Although Heinens only has a couple of nearby locations, you won't find many “general” grocers more serious about their wine department. Every store has a wine manager, and I've found most of them actually taste some of the wines offered, and are relatively knowledgeable. Of course, it's a medium size chain, so ability and commitment varies with the location. The Hudson store is well-stocked, bottles are stored and displayed correctly, there is a wide range of choices and a fair number of half-bottle offerings, and the cheese department is right next door.
Heinens also has a couple of other things going for it that I like. First, they send their own buyers out in the field looking for special deals, and they sometimes come up with private labelings worth a try. They also have a special display of lower cost bottles that have been pre-tasted by staff, and sorted by type. What that means is if you are looking for a reliable full-bodied red to match with your steak, or a nice light crisp Chenin Blanc for your lemon sole, you can be sure you'll find it here.
Probably the most serious wine department in a Northeast Ohio grocery store is in the well-known West Point Market, located where Exchange Street runs into West Market Street. With all due respect to retail wine merchants, this specialty grocery store is certainly one of the first places to shop for a really special bottle. For one thing, they carry more French and German wines than many wine shops. They also are well-educated on the top rated labels and vintages, and stock as many of the smaller production bottles as they can get. Finally, they have a large staff, led by Mario Vitale, dedicated to the wine department, and have regular staff tastings that result in some special “staff picks” displays.
West Point also makes shopping relatively easy. The department is divided into import and California sections, and then these sections are sub-divided by varietals (California) or region (imports) making it much simpler to find the Zinfandels, or see all the Bordeaux or Burgundys at the same time. One of the negatives at Heinens and Giant Eagle is that some stores assume all Bordeaux are Cabernets or Merlots, and mix the French wines with the Californias. Thankfully, Giant Eagle is gradually changing this.
The third grocery store I shop is in Stow. It is actually an upscale butcher shop called Kirby's Meats, located in the south shopping plaza at Graham and Fishcreek Roads. The wine shop in this store used to operate as a separate business, but I think it has been fully incorporated into the Kirby's operation now. Since Kirby's carries fresh meat and produce as well as specialty food products and some high demand groceries, I include it in this section.
I find Kirby's to be extremely selective in what they carry. You are not going to find many low-cost sipping wines here. Most of the stock is chosen on the assumption that the first reason someone came to the store is to buy their dinner entrees, and the wines carried tend to be those highly recommended in the various publications, or wholesaled by smaller wine distributors. For that reason, you might find a bottle or two here you would not find at other stores, especially the bigger grocers. While the area given over to wine is small, it is very attractive, the wines are stored and displayed properly, and the prices are reasonable.
Once you move past these three grocery stores, I think the next best bet in the area are the wine departments at Giant Eagles. For one thing, at least two of these stores (maybe more...I haven't been in every Giant Eagle in Akron!) have special temperature controlled wine rooms where they keep and display a few of the more highly recommended bottles. Although these tend to come from more widely available sources (because a big grocery chain has to buy a lot of cases to make a profit), these will be very good wines worth consideration for any special occasion.
I also find their selection in the general section to be more extensive than in the other area grocery stores. I know both Acme and Buehler's try to offer a lot of wines, but I just don't ever seem to find as many attractive bottlings, nor do they seem as well organized. Perhaps this has more to do with the distributing companies they deal with than with any corporate philosophy about selling wine.
If you are not a wine collector, if you are not serving a special gourmet meal to 10 business associates, if you are just looking for everyday drinking reds and whites, and especially if you are just looking for wine boxes, jug wines, or better than average cooking wines, I think the grocery stores are usually a better bet on price and selection. In particular, while the wine stores will have their sections of South American, South African and Australian wines, in my experience the grocery stores usually stock more. If you live in Canton, give Fisher's a try. I don't get there often, but seem to remember they make a serious effort.
A related article on ordering fine wine in restaurants is located in the "Flavor" Blog section; please follow the link to access that story.