I just can’t help myself. Whenever I go into a store, I must stroll through the wine aisle to see what wines they carry – whether it’s Costco, Trader Joe’s, CVS, Walgreens, or Safeway. But how do you pick out a decent wine at a grocery store?
To pick good wine at a grocery store, stick to the $10-$20 range, shop store brands, look for medals, look for copy-cat labels, and pick younger wines. Labels with producer information are better. Less expensive, higher quality wines can come from Chile, Spain, and Portugal. Always pay attention to clever marketing tactics.
- Where Do Grocery Stores Get Their Wine From?
- 11 Strategies to Pick Good Grocery Store Wine
- 1. Determine Your Preferences
- 2. Research the Store’s Wine Section
- 3. Consider Price Range ($10-$20 Is Best)
- 4. Look for Copycats and Look-alikes of Well-known Grocery Store Wine Brands
- 5. Pick Younger Wines
- 6. Look for Medals
- 7. Look for Information on the Producer
- 8. Shop Store Brands
- 9. Try Different Labels of Wines You Enjoy
- 10. Explore Lesser-Known Regions and Producers
- 11. Pay attention to the emotional appeal of the label
- Final Thoughts – Strategies to Pick Good Grocery Store Wines
Where Do Grocery Stores Get Their Wine From?
Here in the US, Grocery stores typically get their wine from a combination of suppliers, distributors, and wineries. These entities work together to ensure a diverse range of wines is available to meet the demands of customers.
- Suppliers: Suppliers play a crucial role in providing grocery stores with a wide variety of wines. They often work closely with distributors to ensure a constant supply of popular wines, as well as introduce new and unique options to keep the selection fresh and exciting. Suppliers have relationships with wineries worldwide, allowing them to curate a selection that caters to different tastes, budgets, and occasions.
- Distributors: Distributors act as intermediaries between the suppliers and grocery stores. They handle logistics, transportation, and warehousing of the wines. Distributors work closely with the suppliers to understand the store’s preferences and customer base, ensuring that the wines delivered align with the store’s target market. Their expertise in logistics and distribution helps ensure a smooth flow of wine inventory to the grocery store shelves. Most grocery stores in the US (at least in the states where grocery stores are allowed to sell wine) depend on large, multi-state distributors like Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits or Republic National Distributing Co. (RNDC) to fill their shelves with wine.
Fun Wine Fact: Did you know that the wines you find in a store in California won’t be the same wines that you’ll find in Miami or Boston? That’s because the distributors work with the local shop owner to carry wines that will sell well in the local market.’
- Wineries: Wineries, of course, are the source of the wines themselves. These are the places where grapes are grown, harvested, and transformed into wine. Grocery stores often carry wines from a range of wineries, both large and small, local and international. Wineries have their unique production methods, grape varietals, and regional characteristics, adding diversity and depth to the grocery store’s wine selection.
Let’s be clear:
The average grocery store wine is not intended to be fine wine. These are bottles you’ll bring home for your Wednesday night spaghetti night, or, if you’re an unfussy occasional drinker, your once-in-a-fortnight weekend tipple.
You’ll age these bottles for as long as it takes you to get from the checkout counter to the kitchen counter.
Assuming your local grocer has a range of wine options, how do you pick the best one?
Fun Wine Fact: In the 1980s and early 1990s, tasting rooms were viewed more as support for distributor sales, and tasting room fees were free or negligible. Wineries offered samples. The early thinking was that if tourists came to a tasting room, then they would know what to buy in the grocery store when they went home.
11 Strategies to Pick Good Grocery Store Wine
For the purposes of this post, I browsed through my local CVS, a US drugstore that also sells limited groceries, while I was waiting to get a prescription filled. Let’s see what grocery store wine I found and pour into these wine buying strategies.
1. Determine Your Preferences
Before delving into the world of wine, take a moment to consider your personal preferences. Reflect on whether you prefer red, white, or rosé wines, as well as whether you’re looking for a dry, sweet, or medium-bodied wine.
Figuring out your taste preferences will serve as a valuable starting point when exploring the store’s extensive selection – the grocery store will carry all of these styles.
2. Research the Store’s Wine Section
Different grocery stores offer varying selections and wine departments. Some boast dedicated wine sections with a wide variety of choices, while others integrate a smaller selection within the general aisles.
If you’re not looking for something too specific, then it doesn’t matter where you shop.
If you’re looking for a larger selection, then head to a store with more offerings. This will allow you to manage your expectations and plan your visit accordingly.
Personal Note: My local grocery store has 3 aisles of wine, but I live in wine country in California. When I lived in Illinois, my local grocery store had may 12 different bottles to choose from on 1 shelf. Regional differences are real, people.
3. Consider Price Range ($10-$20 Is Best)
Figure out your wine budget before you go. Grocery stores will have extreme value wines (the really cheap stuff), but is this what you’re going for?
Establishing a budget or price range before entering the store can help streamline your options.
The wine industry divides wine into different quality levels based on price brackets. The under $10 threshold will largely be wines sourced from high production regions with little to distinguish them from each other.
If this is your price bracket is sub-$10, then go out and experiment.
If you like a Cabernet or a particular Merlot from a certain producer that costs $5, then feel confident in trying a different label for around the same price point. The quality level and drinking experience should be relatively the same.
The $10 to $15 range is where things start to get interesting.
Here you’ll begin to distinguish between the different flavor profiles and winemaking styles in the wine. At the $15 to $20 mark, you’ll start to see the unique flavors come through from the wine’s growing region, as well as the hand of the winemaker.
Helpful Tip: Go check out this post that will help you figure out how to read a wine label.
$15 to $20 isn’t necessarily your average weeknight bottle for everyone, so this bottle may very well be an every-other-week type of wine. Whatever your budget happens to be, the $15-$20 range is where the wines will start to engage you.
Most grocery stores will focus on the $20 and below bracket, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
Check out the brand ladder (different price and quality points) for these two Decoy and Duckhorn wines. This is marketing at its finest.
- two similar labels that clearly link the wines together
- they also sit next to each other on the shelf
- a playful twist on words that link them together
The producer invites you to pick up their $16 wine – or if it’s a special occasion, maybe trade up to the $24 wine. After all, the label branding hints that the two bottles will be close in flavor profile.
4. Look for Copycats and Look-alikes of Well-known Grocery Store Wine Brands
Wine marketers know that deep down we’re all creatures of habit. We have great loyalty to brands that we know and trust.
If you have a favorite go-to wine, you’ve probably developed a relationship with the label and don’t even know it. The lettering, the imagery, and the heft of the bottle – are all part of a branding package designed to help the producer build brand loyalty.
Lucky for us, you can leverage the competition to your advantage.
Competitors of popular brands will often mimic the best-seller’s brand image.
The competitor will offer a similar style of wine at a slightly different price point trying to gain market share. This is a crafty way to sell wine.
Here are 4 bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The market leader is Matua.
Matua was New Zealand’s first producer of Sauvignon Blanc and put its iconic fruit-forward zippy whites on the global wine map. Check out the other Sauvignon Blanc labels on the shelf next to it. You can see they are all following a similar marketing look and feel to their labels.
Helpful Tip: Go grab my winemaker’s list of 6 essential bottles as a freebie – Matua’s on the must-try list.
If you’re loyal to a favorite label of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, then look for a bottle that’s packaged similarly. This is a quirky strategy to find new wines that you might enjoy. It works for all wine styles, whether you want Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Helpful Tip: Here’s a full Sauvignon Blanc wine guide. You can never really go wrong with Sav Blanc.
5. Pick Younger Wines
If you’re shopping at your mainstream grocery store or your corner drugstore, select youthful wines. In general, grocery stores are not ideal storage conditions for wine.
Harsh lighting, temperature fluctuations – and heaven forbid the wine’s sitting next to a window or skylight.
Are there two white wines, both Pinot Grigio, sitting side-by-side on the shelf, one from this year and one from last year? Grab the one from this year.
Grocery store wines are not intended to be fine wines, nor should they be aged.
You have no idea how long the wine has been sitting on the shelf. Go for the younger bottles. No one will judge you.
Helpful Tip: Some wine regions follow strict aging requirements, so this rule of thumb won’t always apply, but in general stick to younger wines. Here’s a great post that covers what “vintage” means in wine, which is the year on the bottle label.
6. Look for Medals
It’s hard to figure out what wines are good at a grocery store, that’s why marketers help you out with shiny medals.
It’s those marketers – again!
Look for some quality indicator on the bottle in the form of medals or awards.
This is actually a marketing gimmick that producers use to help customers pick out bottles on a grocery store shelf – everyday people like you and me, we think:
“Oh! There’s a medal on this one! It must be good.”
You can’t really go wrong with a winner.
Some wine producers will go so far as to submit their entire portfolio of wines to competitions around the US to ensure that every bottle wins at least one award. This strategy assures that the bottle can claim “award-winning” on the label.
Helpful Tip: Here are my absolute, must-have wine tasting essentials to get you started with wine.
On the flip side, wine competitions or other types of tasting panels are bonafide ways to reassure the consumer of the wine’s overall quality.
Barefoot, one of the largest wine brands in the world will always put a quality indicator on their bottles. These are uncomplicated everyday drinkers, but rest assured they’re still solid wines – you can tell because of the medals!
7. Look for Information on the Producer
Wine crafted under the producer’s name will have an address, a full website, maybe a phone number, and perhaps mention something about the producer’s back story. This hints at a connection between the wine in the bottle and the label on the outside of the bottle.
Turn the bottle around and take a look at the back label. Is the bottle connected to an actual producer?
Bottles that are made by generic companies will have a company name, not a winery.
That company might be something like:
- Bottled by 12DT57 in Modesto, California.
Bulk wines will have an industrial address and perhaps nothing more – no website or phone number, no personalized story about the producer – just the address.
Fun Tip: Go visit this post on What Are Natural Wines.
These wines aren’t necessarily bad, but just beware that they may not have the quality and craftsmanship of a winery that’s trying to build a brand reputation.
Looking at addresses is a step that may be more effort than you’re willing to put forth when buying wine at a grocery store, but if you’re looking for wine recommendations, then I recommend using this wine tip if you’re looking for higher-quality wine.
8. Shop Store Brands
This suggestion may sound strange – especially if you’re trying to find good wine – but trust me.
The beautiful thing about store brands is that they are made by the same producer as the other wines sitting on the shelf next to the store brand.
Producers enter into contracts with large retailers to make wines for those retailers under what’s called a private label wine.
Many large retailers like Target, Walmart, Costco, and Trader Joe’s all have private label store brand wines.
Same grapes. Same winemaker. Same facilities. Different label.
When you’re wine shopping, you’ll never know who the producer of the store brand wine is unless you dig around on the internet, but needless to say that the grapes and the juice in the bottle are just as delicious and just as well made as the bottle sitting next to it – but usually cheaper.
Helpful Tip: Go explore the world of private label wines here if you’re curious.
9. Try Different Labels of Wines You Enjoy
Here in the US we market wines based on grape variety. If you enjoy Chardonnay, then by all means experiment by picking out Chardonnays at a similar price point made by different producers under different labels.
You may find a new favorite.
If you buy the same Chardonnay by the same producer every time, you’re limiting yourself.
The world’s awash in delicious wines. Go explore.
10. Explore Lesser-Known Regions and Producers
If you want to pick a good grocery store wine based on quality and value, head to Chile, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa.
Each of these countries struggles with perceptions of low value in the wine market and over-delivers on wine quality for the price point.
So much of wine’s bottle price corresponds to growing region and production costs.
If you’re looking for higher-quality wine made in the $15 to $20 range, or even curious to try the premium vino, then look to Chile, Spain, and Portugal for solid quality to value.
Helpful Tip: If you’re just getting started, head over to this post that covers the primary winegrowing regions around the world and their main grapes.
Check out this telling graph that calculates the average cost of a 90+ point wine from each of the big wine-producing regions.
A bottle of French wine that scores 90+ points will, on average, set you back $100+. A bottle of South African wine that scores 90+ will set you back $40.
Understanding the quality/price dynamics can help you splurge up strategically.
11. Pay attention to the emotional appeal of the label
Wine labels can evoke a sense of whimsy, danger, mystery, and even sensual appeal. Take a look at what the label is trying to sell if you want to pick a good wine.
Ah! Those savvy wine marketers (yup, again).
Clever marketing may compel you to choose a bottle of wine, but always be mindful.
Ask Yourself: Are you selecting the bottle for the wine or for the label?
Check out these two labels: Freakshow just downright silly, and Apothic – your ‘BOLD RED’.
Both appeal to a different segment of the consumer market. Their labels are brilliant.
You can absolutely choose a wine based on the label, but just be aware that’s what you’re doing. If you know you enjoy a certain style of wine, then stick with copycat labels for your favorite brand.
Funny stuff, that marketing.
Fun Wine Fact: In France, they enacted strict regulations on wine advertising under Loi Evin. Lifestyle advertising with alcohol products is strictly prohibited. Your French wine bottles will have non-descript labels like Chateaus, castles, vineyards, or nature scenes.
The government enacted this law to help decrease alcohol consumption.
In the United States, our labels run the gamut from dark and brooding to fanciful and just downright silly.
Final Thoughts – Strategies to Pick Good Grocery Store Wines
Make buying wine at the grocery an adventure. If you want to buy good wines at a grocery store, stroll through the aisle and pay attention to the way the bottles call out to you.
Remember these wine tips and pay attention to:
- Copycat labels
- Brand ladders
- Price differences for wines from different regions
- Producer information
- Vintage year
Spending time in the wine aisle is one of my favorite weekend hobbies. Be curious and always try something new.
Once you have your new vino in hand, escort it home, pop it open, and enjoy!
Thirsty for More?
Check out this post on how you can pick out amazing wines for under $50.
Just getting started? Here’s how you can tell if your wine is going to be sweet (or not).
Bordeaux is probably the world’s most famous wine region. Here’s what makes a wine a Bordeaux.
Love oaky red wines? Go discover how oak barrels affect wine.