Have you ever found yourself wandering in the vast, international wine department at Alameda’s Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, overwhelmed by the selection and variety, while knowing that there are jewels in the midst of it all, and at an amazing price?
But how to choose? There are 11,000 wineries in America alone! If only you had a wine expert at your side to help you make the right choice.
Well, I did last week, and I’d like to share the experience with you.
All of this started in my brain a few weeks ago when Grocery Outlet announced on its Alameda Facebook page that they were selling bottles of Bodegas Arvun Rioja for $9.99, with no limit. “Selling elsewhere for $115,” they said.
Grocery Outlet’s unique arrangement allows for this sort of dramatic markdown. Wineries approach them with their close-out lots and excess inventory at deep discounts, and the store then offers it to their shoppers at maybe just a little above production costs. It seems clear that the store relies on volume, not price, for its profit margin.
I decided to ask my Oakland friend Randy Arnold to serve as my wine guide for the day, and so our game of “What Would Randy Buy?” began.
Randy literally started in the business at ground level, planting grapes at his family’s vineyard in Sonoma—his mother’s family goes back to 1881 in Alexander Valley. He served as a wine brand ambassador for 37 years, and agreed to walk me through the Grocery Outlet aisles, offering tips on how to be curious and adventurous, while avoiding potential pitfalls.
“I like wine education, because the homework is drinking!” he said.
About the Bodegas Arvun Rioja, Randy wonders how they got that price. A quick Google search says the wine is selling locally for around $50—not $115, but still an amazing bargain at $9.99. It sold out quickly. Randy says that Rioja is the most famous wine region in Spain, and he’s planning a visit to the area this fall.
Here are the things Randy says to consider as you peruse the aisles, after you carefully read the labels:
- Alcohol content.
One of his big takeaways has to do with the difference between whites and reds.
“A lot of red wines improve with age,” he said. “Whites rarely.” He passed by the white wines that were older than a 2022 vintage. He said that chardonnays age a little better than other whites. Reds can be older, so his selections on the day we shopped skewed toward the reds.
He considered a Pedroncelli—”a pioneer family” in dry Creek Valley—2020 merlot. Although the label didn’t say it, Randy knows that the company’s vineyards are certified sustainable, and that they have made efforts to reduce water use, improve soil health, and protect the environment. The wine has an alcohol content of 13.7%. Randy advises to not go above an alcohol content of 14%. He believes that it can bring some heat to the palate, and possibly make the wine appear sweeter and more intense. Grocery Outlet was selling the 2020 merlot for $9.99. A quick Google search shows it rated 87% by Wine Enthusiast, and selling at around $20 elsewhere.
Randy cautions to be aware of different vintages, noting that wines can be much changed from one year to the next. Wines in the southern hemisphere—think Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—ripen in March, April, and May, while we’re talking August, September, and October in the northern hemisphere. So the timing of the vintages will be a little altered.
An Italian Barbera d’Asti 2021 caught Randy’s eye for two reasons. One, the label indicates that it is certified by the Italian government as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a controlled designation of Italian origin, and as DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita) an additional—and guaranteed—indication of quality, with the wine having submitted samples to a government testing facility. DOCG, the top tier of the hierarchy, indicates that the wine has been put through the same rigorous tests and criteria as DOC, plus stricter production rules prior to being put on the market.
And two, Randy noted that the Barolo winery is very close geographically to where the Barbera d’Asti wine is grown, and the Barolo wines sell for $200 a bottle. The Barbera d’Asti was selling for $6.99; a Google search showed that $15 is the going rate elsewhere. While we looked at the wines, we pulled up reviews and prices on our phones that made us more informed buyers.
One point Randy wanted to be sure to make is that if you have purchased and appreciated a particular wine, go back and buy more bottles quickly—it may never be offered again.
So what did Randy buy? A 2020 Petite Sirah from Cline Winery in Contra Costa. It’s a varietal, “probably a field blend,” resulting in a “big, bold red” that he’d pair with brisket or other beef. “Cline is a great winery,” he said. He purchased a bottle for $6.99; it’s selling elsewhere for around $18. I later asked him how he liked the bottle he bought. He served it with a meat and eggplant lasagna in red sauce that his husband Greg had made. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “The age has softened it up.”
The bottom line is that there are some wonderful wine deals to be had at our local Grocery Outlet. And if you’re ready to carefully read labels, think about Randy’s points of consideration, and use your phone as a tool to collect information, you could just find that bottled poetry you’ve been looking for.
C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she was an executive in the cable television industry. She now contributes regularly to KQED’s Perspectives series, The Oaklandside, and eatdrinkfilms.com. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/C_J_Hirschfield/.