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Superstore story uncorks a flood of responses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sometimes a topic uncorks a strong response from readers.

My recent column about the possible entry of Total Beverage, the Virginia-based chain of wine "superstores," into Maryland was one of those.

Here's what some readers think of the idea:

From Peter Griffith, Baltimore: Enjoyed reading your column this Sunday as usual, but wanted to comment on retail markup as actually experienced by the "regular customer."

My wife and I routinely get 20 percent to 30 percent off retail price at the shops where we go regularly (Pinehurst and the Roland Park Eddie's). So consequently we are paying about what someone would get in D.C. or Virginia.

I would hate to see the cavernous "superstore" replace the relative intimacy of the small shop. I enjoy personal service! And when it comes to wine, quality and informed advice do matter.

Comment: Your concerns are shared by many wine consumers, and they are valid ones.

To buy wine in a vast store where the staff knows nothing about the product is a depressing experience. Go to virtually any grocery store in Northern Virginia and you'll see the result: vast wine departments with high prices, bland selection and no help.

That's why there will always be a place for small specialty wine shops that emphasize strong product knowledge and individualized customer service. As you note, it is a common practice for the top retailers in the state to give their best regular customers a substantial discount on their wine purchases. But these discounts aren't for every customer. Total's prices are.

My point is not that Total is a better place to shop than a Pinehurst or an Eddie's but that it deserves a chance to join in the competition along with everybody else. As for the level of service at Total, I defer to my next correspondents:

From Sam and Laura, Columbia: We just read your Vintage Point article about Total Beverage in Virginia and couldn't agree with you more. My girlfriend and I made a trip down to Chantilly a couple of weeks ago after getting a suggestion from a friend. Total Beverage is amazing. The selection is wonderful but we feel the most impressive thing about the store is the friendly people working there. These folks clearly know their wine and are very helpful.

We are new to wine and are experimenting with many different ones to find what we like most. The Total people made many suggestions which we took and are pleased with.

In fact, even if Total charged premium prices we would still go there just for the people. We will be assembling some friends together and going on a Total field trip. Total Beverage has our total wine business. It's definitely worth the trip.

Comment: I've left out your last names in order to protect the guilty.

Many readers don't know this, but going down to D.C. or Virginia to stock up on wines at attractive prices and then bring them back to Maryland is illegal. Maryland's venerable comptroller, Louis L. Goldstein, doesn't like this type of activity and periodically sends press releases warning about the evils of wine-legging.

Meanwhile, thousands of Marylanders blithely ignore him as they continue to break one of the state's most unenforceable laws. Why do you think that every year the District of Columbia leads the nation in per-capita alcohol purchases by such a wide margin? A lot of those capitas drive cars with Maryland tags.

Now if Mr. Goldstein really wanted to divert those dollars into Maryland's coffers, he'd try to persuade the General Assembly (a wholly owned subsidiary of the state's liquor lobby) to make Maryland such an attractive place to buy wine that there would be no reason to go anyplace else.

Some modest suggestions:

* Eliminate restrictions on chain ownership, so tough price competitors can go head-to-head. Don't worry about one competitor sewing up the market and raising prices. Success breeds new challengers.

* Let retailers bring in their own wines directly, while letting wholesalers sell to the public. Middlemen in other businesses aren't protected from being cut out. Why should wine be different?

* Allow volume discounts to take place openly and legally. Under Maryland law it is illegal for a wholesaler to give a big buyer of a wine a discount for buying, say, 10 cases of a product. This so-called "pallet pricing" is common under-the-table practice in the business anyway, in the form of extra cases. Why not do it on the up-and-up? Volume discounts are legal for beer. Go figure.

* Eliminate the requirement that wholesalers "post" all prices of wine in the Beverage Journal. Let the wholesaler decide when and where to advertise. If he makes bad decisions and alienates retailers, he'll soon be out of business.

* Cut the paperwork for wineries that want to sell in Maryland. The state is notorious for its 15-page forms.

* Withdraw Montgomery County's authority to operate liquor stores. It chases potential Maryland tax revenues into the District. Montgomery County could support some of the best private stores in the country if it were a free market.

Yes, alcohol is a controlled product, and controls on selling to minors and public inebriates should be enforced vigorously. But most of the controls in place have little to do with protecting the public and everything to do with protecting the status quo.

So it's hard to work up a great moral indignation when Maryland wine lovers cross the Potomac in order to avoid what is in effect a tax paid to the industry in the form of high prices.

In fact, Mr. Goldstein, if you could get the General Assembly to open the Maryland wine market to free competition, you could slap another 1 percentage point on the wine tax, and we'd still come out ahead.

Then maybe we could afford some more cops to investigate rapes and muggings in Baltimore. When they're through with that they can go after wine-leggers.

From Louis L. Goldstein, Comptroller of the Treasury, Annapolis: I am very familiar with the operation of Mr. Haft's stores, Total Beverage, and read his ads in the Washington Post advertising his merchandise in these Virginia stores.

I feel confident that Maryland retailers will rise to the occasion and have wines available in their stores in Maryland so they can compete with Mr. Haft when and if he comes to Maryland.

Thank you for writing this article and it certainly will get the attention of a lot of retail establishments in this state.

Comment: I suspect you're right, Mr. Comptroller. God bless you real good, too.*

This column has always operated under a rule that says a producer has the right to appeal a bad review. Two producers whose products were roughly treated here in recent months have asked for a retaste.

One of them, the Champagne House of Mumm, objected to my poor reviews of its Cordon Rouge nonvintage brut and its 1985 Cordon Rouge. Appeal sustained. The bottles I tasted before the holidays were apparently "off" in some way -- perhaps through rough treatment in transit.

Neither wine will make my Top 10 favorite Champagne list, but the replacement bottles both tasted clean, crisp and elegant, with a pleasantly complex mineral overtone. I slightly preferred the less expensive nonvintage wine.

The other petitioner is Oregon's Dundee Wine Co., which wasn't pleased that I described its 1988 and 1989 Argyle chardonnays as "some of the worst you could imagine." To bolster its case, the winery sent along an extensive collection of positive reviews those wine have received from prestigious publications.

Having retasted the wines, I can only conclude that everybody else is wrong. These are still some of the leanest, meanest, most ungenerous chardonnays I've tasted in recent years.

Most likely, it's just a difference over style. Nevertheless, appeal denied.

Critic's choice

1990 Vendange Merlot, California. This solid, fruity, medium-bodied wine with pure black cherry flavors was bought for $4 in Virginia, but more likely runs $5 here. It's not complex, but at this price, who cares? It's not a great merlot, but it's distinctively a fine, Bordeaux-style blend.

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