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Value Vino

Value Vino: Central Market vs. Costco

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Used to be that the local wine market was controlled largely by one player, Gabriel's. Yes, there were specialty outlets, and they continue to come and go. And H-E-B has certainly changed the playing field. But it wasn't until the arrival of Texas chains such as Twin Liquors and Spec's that things really started to get interesting — or so I thought. Little did I realize that the 500-pound gorilla in the room was Costco.

According to the website eater.com, "The most powerful wine buyer in the world, Costco's lead wine buyer Annette Alvarez-Peters doesn't understand why wine is any different than toilet paper." Based on its evaluation of a CNBC interview, eater goes on to say that Alvarez-Peters is in charge "of over one billion dollars in wine sales per year, selling 'more wine than almost any retailer in the world.' She is also in charge of setting prices on wines that affect most of the country's small wine retailers. ... But what's the big deal? Wine is, like, the same as selling a bunch of TVs."

"At the end of the day, it's a beverage," she is quoted as saying.

So it was interesting to come across another piece in Shanken News Daily detailing a conversation with Chris Potestio, credited as being Central Market's wine and beer business development manager. The gist of this article was that CM had embarked on a "more aggressive pricing policy." "On our wines, we've become very aggressive," Potestio is quoted as saying. "Whether it's against Whole Foods, Costco, or Total Wine [a national chain that has just entered Texas by way of Dallas], we match penny for penny. That's a big, recent change." Since I hadn't noticed any downward trend in CM wine pricing, I decided to embark on a fool's errand: compare the international Costco gorilla to the local CM chimp. (Sorry, Whole Foods.)

I first went to CM and copied down the prices of several wines I thought to be of wide distribution; then I went to Costco (both outside, where membership is not needed, and inside where it is) and tried to compare. I should say at the outset that I am much more impressed by CM's wine selection. But that's not the problem; the real issue was that there's just not that much obvious overlap. And where wines do coincide, vintages may not. (Costco had the Silver Oak '07 for $53.49, while CM's was an '06 and went for $57.49.)

But there were a few overlaps. The Belleruche Blanc was $8.99 at Costco and $12.99 at CM. The Moët Imperial Champagne prices were identical, but CM was charging almost $3 more for its Louis Roederer Brut. This game could have consumed way more time, so I called it quits, exiting with the impression, however, that Costco still trumps CM in the price department, selection notwithstanding.

I now look forward to seeing what happens when Trader Joe's comes to town brandishing its Two-Buck Chuck. Or is it up to three bucks now?

Veteran food, wine, and spirits writer Ron Bechtol has been a Current contributor since 1993 and is the local editor of the Fearless Critic restaurant guide to San Antonio.

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