Wine wars

Keep your eyes open and your palate primed; the wine world in San Antonio may be about to undergo some changes. This should come as good news to VV readers.

The first recent clue to the shifting sands was the opening of Gabriel’s-Spec’s Wine & Liquor Outlet opposite the outlet malls in San Marcos. Spec’s, a powerhouse wine retailer in Houston, had made inroads into Austin, and it was all-but-inevitable that they would soon set their sights on San Antonio. It is pure Spec-ulation on my part, but I envision the Gabriel’s Wine & Spirits folks, whose local empire also includes Don’s & Ben’s and Seazar’s, arranging an alliance of convenience to head ’em off at the pass. Smart move on their part.

But a new sign observed at a shopping center under construction on 281 North just south of Stone Oak suggests that an end run may have been made by another outsider, Austin’s Twin Liquors. That was just the tip of the iceberg, it turns out; on October 6, Twin opened its first SA outlet in Lincoln Heights at Basse and Broadway and another is to open before the end of the year at the newly refurbished McCreless Mall. Until the arrival of Spec’s, Twin, I’m told by an Austin restaurateur, had much of the retail and restaurant business to themselves, but aggressive action by the interloper is taking its toll. If Twin is fighting back by leaping over San Marcos to the Alamo City, it will be interesting to see what develops. In theory, I tend to prefer independent operators to chains (I have also resisted the internet for the same reasons, but for wines that never make it to San Antonio — and there are many of them — I have no compunctions whatsoever), and have so far successfully repulsed the siren song of wine at Costco, despite assumed pricing advantages. But a good battle is also hard to resist …

In the face of market dominance by the various Gabriel’s stores (not to mention H-E-B), independent operations such as Bootlegger’s and Saglimbeni Fine Wines have kept some semblance of market share (at least I hope they’re keeping it) by focusing on personal service, weekend wine tastings, and often-substantial weekend discounts. Saglimbeni Saturdays (and Fridays, too) now routinely feature 20-percent off of all but specially priced items, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the seeming success of this gambit led to the establishment of the wine-club discount card and weekend tastings/discounts at Gabriel’s on Callaghan at I-10. (Since no two shops carry the same inventory, I frequently go to both places — in the name of research, of course.)

So, in light of the invasion, your VV advocate decided to take a look at pricing of some commonly carried wines at a few places around town. And to avoid jumping all over the wine map, I decided to focus on value-oriented offerings from Washington State. (I attempted to find equivalent wines and vintages at each outlet, but that is harder to do than you might imagine.)

Columbia Crest is one such label, and it often gets respectable scores from the big boys despite bargain pricing. At Central Market, CC’s Two Vines ’04 Sauvignon Blanc was going for $8.99, while the Grand Estates ’06 Chardonnay weighed in at $9.99. On the red side of the aisle, the Two Vines merlot with cabernets (franc and sauvignon) was also $8.99, the ’06 Hedges CMS red blend was priced at $13.99, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells ’04 Merlot rang up at $14.29.

I didn’t get to the Callaghan Gabriel’s for this survey, and I also missed Seazar’s on New Braunfels; both are frequent sources. But I did make it to Wine’s Best Buy, also a Gabriel’s shop, on Rhapsody. Here, the Columbia Crest Grand Estates chard (’05 in this instance) was priced at $7.99, as were the Grand Estates ’05 Merlot and Cabernet. The ’03 Two Vines Merlot was tagged at $6.99, making these some of the lowest prices around. I found the Hedges CMS at $12.99, a buck less than at CM. The ’04 Indian Wells Merlot, on the other hand, was priced at $16.99, and another benchmark, the Hogue Genesis ’01 Merlot was $15.99, compared to $13.99 (for the ’05, however) at Central Market.

Adding to the confusion, the ’01 Genesis Merlot weighed in at $14.99 at Saglimbeni down the street (less the 20-percent Saturday discount, it was $11.99). The ’03 Columbia Crest Two Vines Merlot was $9.99 ($7.99 discounted), Columbia Crest Grand Estates ’05 Merlot bore a $10.99 tag ($8.79 discounted), and the Chat. Ste. Michelle ’03 Indian Wells Merlot was stickered at $18.99 ($15.19 discounted).

At Twin Liquors, the gambit is to buy in pairs (twins, if you prefer), adding further complexity to the equation. The Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2005 Cabernet, for example, is priced at $9.99 for a single bottle, but was on special at two for $14.99. Ditto their ’06 Chardonnay. (The normal twofer discount doesn’t appear to be as steep, but it still gets your attention.) Chateau Ste. Michelle’s ’04 Columbia Valey Merlot will set you back $14.99 for a single bottle; their ’06 chardonnay is $9.99.

You were expecting maybe a conclusion after all this? A simple, fill-in-the-grid chart? Not so easy. There’s likely to be much more pricing variation at the higher end of things (and buying in quantity will always get the attention of retailers), but in the couple-bottles-at-a-time VV range, it seems wise to take distance, service, tasting opportunities, and discounts all into account. Since no one place was the cheapest on all fronts, for weekday buying pick the place that’s closest; on weekends, consider that the fun of a congenial tasting potentially outweighs the possibility of finding a wine somewhere else that’s cheaper, even after discounts. At least that’s my approach, and I’m sticking to it. Until the vino volleys begin in earnest, that is.