Recently, on the BA Expats website forum in which I occasionally participate, there’s been a debate about where to buy wines in Buenos Aires. Leaving aside considerations of price, the consensus is that specialty wine shops are best (Palermo’s Terroir, pictured below, is an outstanding example), but I would argue that supermarkets such as Carrefour and Disco have dedicated wine departments with a broad selection of vintages.
The least desirable source, also by consensus, is the city’s chinos, to use the colloquial term for its corner groceries (many of them run by ethnic Chinese, but some by Koreans). While I’ve bought perfectly good wine at the chino around the corner from our apartment, it’s probable that storage conditions may be sub-optimal in a city where summer temperatures often reach 35° C (95° F), even when the locale in question has air-conditioning.
Meanwhile, though, I’m back in California without the same access to South American wines that I would have in Argentina or Chile, I still manage to find them at variety of sources. Probably the best, in my part of the East Bay, is the Wine Mine, which carries moderately priced premium vintages from those two countries and even a sample from Uruguay, and offers very inexpensive Saturday tastings (just US$1, occasionally from South America).
More frequently, though, I choose my wines at Berkeley Bowl, where I do my weekly grocery shopping. In addition to a spectacular variety of produce, it carries a selection of wines from around the globe, including uncommon vintages, such as the Mayu Sauvignon Blanc (pictured above) that I bought yesterday, from lesser-known regions from Chile’s Elqui valley. I haven’t yet opened it, but the combination of dry warm days and cool nights is ideal for premium whites.
Of course, both Wine Mine and Berkeley Bowl are easily accessible only to East Bay residents, but there’s another option – comparable in some ways to the chinos of Buenos Aires. For many years now, my wife and I have done selective shopping at Grocery Outlet, which we jokingly call “The Used Food Store” because it carries discount items at bargain prices.
While most of Grocery Outlet’s products are basic, it has a surprisingly large wine section that, in all likelihood, come from distressed shipments. Once, several years ago, I found a remarkably good Argentine Torrontés from French winemaker Michel Rolland for about US$5 per bottle; later that same year, when I returned to Buenos Aires, it cost more than twice that. Last year, I found a Spanish Charquiño Albariño 2011, which usually goes for around US$15 per bottle, for the same price. Yesterday's choices included the 2011 Chilean Carménère pictured above.
Based in Berkeley, Grocery Outlet has stores in all the Pacific states and those that border them, as well as Pennsylvania, so it serves wine-lovers on a budget in many locations. It also has drawbacks, though - prices are modest, but much of its inventory comes from overstock elsewhere and the turnover is substantial, so there’s no guarantee that a given wine will consistently be available.
Thus, consumers need to be savvy when purchasing wine here – it can be something of a lottery. One rule of thumb is not to buy a white older than two or perhaps three years; my usual tactic is buy a single bottle, which rarely costs more than US$5-6, and sample it at home. If it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and I like it, I’ll go back for more; last year, for instance, I bought out the final dozen bottles of the Charquiño.
For further guidance, there’s an independent blog that goes by the whimsical title of Grossoutwine (non-native English speakers, please note: the colloquialism “grossout” is best translated as asqueroso, but it’s really a pun on the store’s name). In accessible language, the site reviews what’s in stock, and is searchable: see, for instance, the most recent offerings for Argentina and Chile.