Just got back from a run-through at Total Wine, Spirits & More in Bellevue, so I know you’re asking… how was it? Is it “Costco’s worst nightmare?” Are the prices super low and what about the selections?
Let’s go back a ways to how Total Wine got here in the first place.
First of all, it took a second chance vote by the people of Washington State to overturn the antiquated, collective State booze laws dating back to 1934. Where Initiative 1100 failed due to cheap scare tactics from opponents (buying booze would be as easy as buying a slurpee), a tightened-up Initiative 1183 successfully passed with over 58% of the popular vote, sending the State government out of the alcohol business, an industry they also regulated, by June 1, 2012.
One of the new restrictions of I-1183 is that retail establishments must have at least 10,000 sq. ft of space (with exceptions), effectively eliminating convenience stores from eligibility.
I-1183 was nearly fully funded by one company—Costco.
Costco wanted to reap the alcohol profits like they do in other states and, since Washington houses the world headquarters of this Fortune 500 company (currently ranked no. 24), overturning the alcohol laws at “home” became a top priority for the brass. Costco ended up spending an estimated $20-30 million on both campaigns but analysts predicted that would be a drop-in-the-bucket expense to open Pandora’s box. What was overlooked (and underestimated) was the watchful eyes of big box alcohol specialty retailers outside Washington.
Once I-1183 passed, these freeloaders were given the green light to enter Washington and sell alcohol in a warehouse-style environment. Wine World, located just west of the University of Washington campus, is the most notable “local” private company to take advantage of the relaxed laws. BevMo!, a California liquor specialist, opened the first of what will be up to a half-dozen stores in the State, in Tacoma on Thursday, followed by today’s public opening of Total Wine, Spirits & More (of Maryland) in Bellevue.
Total Wine’s location will be the immediate problem they have to solve. They are located just east of I-405 off NE 8th St. in the very congested corridor that is also home to Bartell Drugs, Uwajimaya, Overlake Hospital, and Whole Foods. This is not including the plethora of fu-fu malls such as Bellevue Square, Lincoln Square, and The Bravern immediately past I-405 to the west (on the same road). To make matters temporarily worse, the right lane on NE 8th that feeds into the road to Total Wine is under construction, forcing drivers to merge into the middle lane. The parking lot is woefully inadequate at peak hours so plan on getting there by 11:30 or you are S.O.L. Store hours are 9am-10pm everyday.
Within a few steps upon entering, customers are greeted by a hydroplane surrounded by Absolut vodka cases. Wine takes up most of the store space and easily noticeable throughout are the displays of a few cheap, unknown Walla Walla wines (that likely bring in a tidy profit). Just past the hydroplane to the left is the showcase “cellar” of bling wines, including a 1999 Screaming Eagle at a penny under $2700.
To Total Wine’s credit, I have never witnessed a quantitative display of Quilceda Creek Vintners and Leonetti Cellar wines so thorough at any other retail establishment. The “cellar” likely stocks about $150,000 worth of wines from all over the world, but I do admire that one section devoted to Washington wines. Spaced throughout the shelves are Washington wines and they are also given “prime” viewing space, meaning you don’t have to tie your shoes to find Washington wines. The first section has wines categorized by region, then the middle sections are spliced by varietal. There is a very weak alphabetical order in place so it is possible to quickly find a wine you are looking for, say a Five Star Cellars cabernet. Also, singular wines are stocked in multiple locales as evidenced by the placement of Adams Bench Winery 2008 ‘Reckoning’ red wine in at least three different areas of the store.
Typical of a wine store, there’s a tasting “round” smack in the middle of the wine section, and a private tasting room in the back. For the beer-ophiles, Total Wine sells growlers that can be refilled at a “service” station at the far end of the store.
Liquor can be found toward the back and far end of the store and, yes, the selection, is eye-popping. However, the sake section was sadly small and hidden next to the “cellar.”
Strangely, the best part of the store was the beer section. Every local producer that bottles or cans a beer can be found here. It’s awesome. Even the “world” section of beers is decent, but definitely, the strength of Total Wine is the local craft beers selections. No other store comes close.
The funny part of the store is at the far end. Next to all the boxed and jug wines is a section called “Mid Atlantic” and this is where you can purchase the wonderful wines of Virginia and New York State. A most appropriate place for Niagara and VA cab francs.
For now, employees in their white shirts and dark slacks outnumber customers 4:1, it seems. The ones I interacted with were friendly and informative without being overbearing or snooty, and had the time to do some research I requested. There were quite a few who worked in wine procurement for fancier-named companies elsewhere, which makes me wonder if they got a pay RAISE by coming to Total Wines but they do like working for the company and it shows.
One final strength of Total Wine & More is the quality of their free periodicals. The Buying Guide is smartly organized and detailed, on par with K&L Wines, with brief descriptions of selected wines. Another pamphlet offers wine and beer classes at $25 per class ($15 for beer) or $100 for five wine classes. If for no other reason to go to Total Wine & More, go there to get the “Total Guide To Beer” and the “Guide To Wine,” both free. Just the “Guide To Wine” is a steal. Although the section on Washington is brief at less than 2 pages (out of 200), it is still a far better and more accurate read than some of those coffee table books. I say this because I read one written by Lisa Shara-Hall and it was full of errors about Washington wine.
Pluses: (1) hundreds of Washington wineries are represented at all price levels; (2) fair pricing; (3) prices that end with “7” are stated to be the absolute lowest retail anywhere; (4) Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and 14 Hands wines are the lowest regular priced anywhere; (5) plenty of Betz Family Winery wines—no need to be on their waiting list anymore; (6) best selection of Washington barbera and malbec wines; (7) get the free guides; (8) ancillary supplies like for beer pong are sold as a kit; (9) look hard enough and you will find a winery you never thought about, such as that 2007 Les Collines Vineyard estate cabernet.
Negatives: (1) it’s a big place so plan on spending time on your first go-around; (2) getting there—traffic congestion, avoid “peak” times for lack of parking; (3) don’t bring the kids as there are a lot of glass bottles dangling at endcaps; (4) they don’t have everything so if you are looking for a specific bottle, find a “white shirt” to assist you or else they will be calling Search & Rescue to find you or grab a copy of their Buying Guide; (5) bring your ID—they WILL card you even if you look like John Randolph Sealey.
Is this Costco’s worst nightmare? Look at it this way: unless you live within a few miles of Total Wine & More and plan on taking advantage of the “buy 6 to get 10% off” deal, Total Wine is basically an alcoholic’s Costco for the Kirkland-Bellevue-Newcastle area. If you like Chateau Ste. Michelle’s basic lineup, then it’s worth coming in from Woodinville or Renton; otherwise, you’re only “saving” a dollar or two and that gets neutralized from the gas you combusted to get to and from there. Total Wine & More does not completely duplicate Costco’s lineup of wines so they will take a little business away from Costco’s Kirkland and Issaquah locations but that’s about it. The establishments that will be in a deeper hole are the supermarkets, especially the Uwajimaya and Bartell Drugs next door if they sell wine, and the boutique wine shops nearby and any specialty wine store that has a large Bellevue client list. McCarthy & Schiering and Esquin are safe, until one of the big box bullies moves to their neighborhood. Look for about a 5-mile radius of destruction from every BevMo! or Total Wine. As a takeaway, it is now ever more important for the smaller retailers to focus on strengthening their customer relationships and offering more tastings from local wineries. For instance, if World of Wines in Redmond ever dropped the ball in service, it’s a really short drive to get to Total Wine & More. Those wine stores on the fringes better up their game or they are goners. And, that’s where Total Wine will have its biggest impact.
To the wine…
We have already covered the misfortunes of Olsen Estates on earlier posts so let’s look at the wine itself.
Golden Berry Select represents an attempt at making the ultimate dessert wine. The model for this is the German version, trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). TBA is translated as “dried berries selection.” In beer man’s terms, it’s the sweetest wine around. Call it honeyed booze. Just don’t call it a TBA because there are strict German standards that require a wine to be called a TBA.
What are the characteristics about this wine? First, the grapes are individually hand-picked, not by cluster or by machine. Pickers are looking for shriveled grapes affected by a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” This is a naturally occurring yeast found in some vineyards where the microclimate (early morning humidity, moderate daytime temps and drier conditions) allows it to thrive. The fungus, in “noble rot,” removes water from the grape, resulting in concentrated sugars and acids and an antifungal substance that hinders the yeast(s) that convert the juice into wine. This is why you see high residual sugars but low alcohol levels. Grapes are generally left to hang on the vine for two months after regular harvest, and sometimes, the skins of some grapes are intentionally broken to allow the yeast to take hold. Only infected grapes and raisined grapes are chosen. A very labor-intensive wine to produce and an Eroica version costs over $200 for a 375ml bottle that can be cellared over a lifetime.
Single-berry dessert wines are probably the rarest wines made in Washington due to the skill required in its production from the vine to the bottle. This is a different beast from “late harvest” or “ice wines.” This is immediately noticeable on the first pour as it exits the split bottle like pouring 10W-40 into a crank case. The color is a rich, golden brown but the aroma is coy, likely due to the thick viscosity. On the palate, the wine is an impenetrable mass of liquid rubber that induces a swishing around the mouth to break its silence. The reward for this effort is an enduring set of sweet notes finishing like an autumn sonata.
Food pairing was froyo (frozen yogurt). Flavors: Valencia orange, taro, and coconut.
Tasted at 54 degrees on the IR temp gun. Burnt orange-gold in my mini-Archery Summit sampler stemware with aromas of orange rind, peach, lime, melon, kiwi, and apricot. On the palate, stuck like glue that required multiple passes over the taste buds leading to a 20+ seconds tail. A conversation stopper.
Alcohol: 7.1%. Yakima Valley AVA. 100% estate-grown riesling. Harvested November 15, 2008. Harvest Brix: 67. Yeasts: V1116, RHST, SIHA7. Fermentation period: 368 days. Aged in stainless steel. pH 3.31. TA 0.972%. Residual sugar: 42.3%. 120 cases. Winery recommends cellaring up to year 2045.
Power: 3/5. Balance: 3/5. Depth: 3/5. Finesse: 3/5. Rated: 92. Value: $40. Paid: $28. Original retail: $55. Music pairing: “Second Chance” by Peter Bjorn and John. This is WAwineman… uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.