“That one is too dry.”
“This would go well with barbecue.”
It's not the conversation you would expect to hear taking place between the deli and the seafood counter at your local grocery store. Then again, not too many Snohomish County residents are used to wine tastings being held there, either.
Last year, the Legislature gave the OK for grocery stores to host beer and wine tastings after a pilot program was deemed a success. Since the legislation took effect in June, the state liquor board has approved beer and wine tastings at 203 grocery stores across Washington. Here in Snohomish County, 29 stores can host tastings, which both shoppers and grocers seem to like.
“Customers, they like to taste before they buy,” said Susan Crockett, wine steward for QFC's Broadway location in Everett.
The Everett QFC has been holding tastings most Fridays and Saturdays since getting a state endorsement in November, she said. On average, Crockett serves about 50 people at each tasting, which typically lasts from 3 to 6:30 p.m.
Emphasis on affordable bottles
Crockett usually picks a wine-tasting theme: wines from a certain country or region, wines to pair with a Thanksgiving turkey, or champagnes to toast the New Year. On a recent Saturday, Crockett offered a variety of Bogle Vineyard wines. All were on sale for less than $10 a bottle.
At QFC, Crockett doesn't offer tastings of wines that cost more than $30 per bottle. That's because most customers tell Crockett they're looking for wine in the $10 to $15 price range. However, Crockett has been surprised by customers' willingness to buy more expensive wines after a tasting.
“I think they're willing to spend more if they know the wine is going to be good,” she said.
Ruth Ann Flansburg, who was visiting her sister in Everett, was Crockett's first taster Saturday. Although Flansburg had gone to tastings at wineries, she had never been to one at a grocery store. After tasting the Bogle wines, Flansburg bought a bottle of the merlot.
Getting to taste wines first “helps you branch out and try something new that maybe you haven't tried before,” Flansburg said.
As customers tried each wine, Crockett recommended foods that would pair well with the wine. Shoppers Lisa Reyes and David Barnes of Everett stumped Crockett for a wine recommendation with their dinner choice: Brie cheese and chicken wings. Like Flansburg, the couple had never been to a wine tasting at a grocery store. However, they walked away with bottles of the Bogle merlot and zinfandel.
“All in all, it has been a real positive experience for the store,” Crockett said.
Kroger, the owner of QFC and Fred Meyer stores, has taken the lead in the state in tastings. The two grocery chains have more than a third of the tasting endorsements across Washington. The state has given QFC and Fred Meyer the OK to host tastings at 46 and 26 locations respectively. In Snohomish County, QFC has eight locations offering wine and beer tastings and Fred Meyer has four.
Bellingham-based Haggen Inc., which operates the Haggen and Top Food & Drug stores, has gained approval to hold tastings at 26 of its locations in Washington, including seven Snohomish County stores. Tasting dates and times vary by store locations, said Becky Skaggs, spokeswoman for Haggen. But Skaggs was pleased with the program's results.
“We love it,” she said. “It has been great.”
Darrell Clement, who owns the Everett Grocery Outlet, also has seen a boost in wine and beer business due to the tastings. His store was part of the state's testing program and was able to increase its wine and beer offerings as a result. The Everett store hosts tastings about once every month.
“It has been going pretty good,” Clement said.
The state liquor board views the grocery store program as a success, Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state liquor board, wrote in an e-mail.
“Unfortunately, there have been instances where minors were served,” he wrote. “We did not have problems during the 30-store pilot.”
Through the end of 2010, the state had conducted 39 checks and found 72 percent of the stores in compliance. That means 28 percent served minors, although the limits on the amount of alcohol served in the tastings are intended to prevent anyone from getting intoxicated. The liquor board sent letters to participating grocery stores late last year to reiterate the importance of checking IDs.
“The program is still fairly new and we expect that the grocers will be even more vigilant in the future,” Smith wrote.
If state lawmaker Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells has her way, beer and wine tastings also will be held at farmers markets. Kohl-Wells has introduced a bill that would direct the Liquor Control Board to choose 10 farmers markets for a test program the next two years. Only one winery or microbrewery could offer samples at a market each day. Kohl-Wells had proposed similar legislation previously.
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