Where should I buy my wine in the Twin Cities?

I had a terrific time last night conducting a private tasting in South Minneapolis, meeting many new people and having some wonderful wine conversation.

A question came up during the evening that has been popping up quite a bit lately, and I’d like to address it here: “Hey Jason, where should I buy my wine?”

It’s a good question since we don’t have wine in grocery stores in Minnesota, which results in the ability for so many cool wine shops to exist (I just came back from Illinois, where wine is found in every Walgreens, 7-11, and dumpy grocery store around … and they all carry the same items!). How do you choose where to shop?

The answer is simple: you should buy your wine from your favorite local independent fine wine merchant.

Before I explain why, here’s something important I say at my wine classes and private tastings: I personally don’t give a rip where you buy your wine. Honestly I don’t. Because I have no skin in the game with any wholesaler, importer, or retailer, in the end where you buy your wine doesn’t have much impact on my world. As long as people continue to get interested in wine then I’m in business. Many of my students happily shop at big box stores and national chains (Costco, Trader Joe’s, Sam’s Club, Total Wine, Target, etc.) and that’s totally fine.

That being said, here’s the point of this little essay: The single greatest advantage small independent wine retailers have over the big guys is that the people you interact with at the store taste almost everything available in the market, and the best of them do it often, with consideration and attention, taking notes in their head or on paper. This is so important because when you walk into a store like Solo Vino, Cotroneo’s, Stinson, Zipp’s, First Grand Avenue, Brightwines, Sunfish Cellars, The Wine Shop, North Loop Wine and Spirits, Cork Dork, or France 44 and ask for a suggestion for a Pinot Noir the recommendation comes with the knowledge of what 150+ other Pinot Noirs currently available taste like.

Peter Vars at Thomas Liquors has more knowledge about Champagne than anybody else in the state. Period. And when you ask him for a Champagne suggestion you’re tapping into the knowledge of him tasting over 300 of them in the last year or so.

Darrin Minnehan at North Loop Wine and Spirits knows more about Italian wine, especially southern Italy, than anybody else. Period. There are some wines available in Minnesota only because Darrin was cruising around Italy on his motorcycle years ago and made connections. That’s cool.

Erica Rokke Kamrowski at Zipps is the best in the biz at finding odd gems the world over, and sometimes she’s the only one in the state who knows about them. She brings forth a knowledge base on things like Furmint and Godello that is hard to beat.

Dave Kenneun at Brightwines is so good at what he does he was written up in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a one man operation, he’s never has had an employee, and digs deep to constantly find value wines for his customer base.

Nobody can top Chuck Kanski and Sean LaBonty at Solo Vino for anything involving Spanish or Portuguese wines, or of course Rosé.

And the list goes on and on …

Independent small fine wine retailers meet with sales reps all day, every day, tasting hundreds of wines and deciding what to carry based on their own experience and the desires of their customers. Big box stores, on the other hand, rarely taste wine (expect on the upper crust management ‘buyer’ level), don’t meet with local sales reps, and as a result rarely have their finger on the pulse of what’s new and awesome. That’s why they all carry the same big name brands. National pricing, national programming, and a race to the bottom on price are their modus operandi (that, and pushing ‘house brands’ that are where huge profitability is built in, leading them to suggest those wines to you more often because they’ve been told to sell them first).

Here’s the thing: as I said, I don’t care where you shop. But you should care where you shop.

The only goal, always, is to get the biggest bang for your wine buck. And I sincerely think the best way to do that is to tap into the knowledge base of our local independent wine pros.