In New York we have a lot of European visitors. Some of them complain about our prices. Not: “Oh, I can get this same wine back home for 30% less,” which would sometimes be true (though often not). Rather, it’s more of a blanket statement like: “At home wines cost just 5 or 6 euros.”
I happen to be in Europe for a few weeks so I decided to investigate. You may remember Turin, a very sophisticated city in Northern Italy, from the Winter Olympics a few years back. But it’s more important to us a center for the wine trade just a few miles from the Langhe, one of the world’s greatest wine regions and home, not only of (expensive, age-worthy) Barolo and Barbaresco, but also of more humble wines like Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino, etc.
If Europeans really have access to superior 5 or 6 euro wines, surely I’ll find them here.
I’m in a super-trendy neighborhood called San Salvario, with incredible restaurants and a great bar scene, an amazing outdoor market that opens daily, and gorgeous old cafés that serve some of the best espresso I’ve ever found. Admittedly, there are also drug dealers on the corner by my apartment—there may be better parts of town—but San Salvario is pretty good and it’s where I am, so it will have to do for this investigation.
So I set out to do some wine shopping. Naturally, I started by looking for wine stores. I checked on google and walked just about every block of the neighborhood. I quickly established that there are no wine stores in San Salvario. There are a few great butchers (a veal specialist, a pork specialist, a generalist), a fish store proudly displaying its “Slow Food” credentials, outrageously fine bakeries—really, it’s a pretty great neighborhood—but not a single wine store.
The locals buy all their wine in grocery stores. So I went to the neighborhood grocery stores and looked for the best selection. It turns out the best selection is in a French store called Carrefour, which you’ve probably heard of, as it’s the second largest non-American retailer in the world (and bigger than Amazon!). The Carrefours I’ve been to have been suburban “hypermarkets” – massive grocery stores with endless aisles – but San Salvario’s is a Carrefour “Express,” a highly edited version.
Here are photos of the wine selections:
Look at these photos and you can make your own observations. Here are mine.
First of all, there is some very cheap wine here. Like just a couple Euros cheap. These really cheap wines come in boxes and have legal designations like “Vino Bianco di Italia” or just “Vino Italiano”; they can come from (a factory) anywhere in Italy. I didn’t taste any—sorry, life is too short, even for the sake of science.
Second, as you know, the most famous wine of the Langhe is Barolo. Yet here we are, in a fine neighborhood just a 45 minute drive from the Langhe, and the neighborhood’s best wine selection includes only one Barolo! At under 20 euros, it’s a good price. Unfortunately, the producer is Fontanafredda, which despite a glorious past is basically an industrial concern these days. Very few of our Barolo customers would find this wine satisfactory. If you want Barolo made by artisans, you cannot buy it here. And by the way, if you want Barbaresco at all, you’re out of luck.
Third, there are indeed many wines in the 5 to 8 euro range. I’m guessing the Europeans who explain that this is how wine should be priced are thinking of wines like these. And you can kind of see where they’re coming from, to a point: there are some Dolcettos and Barberas, and perhaps a Freisa or a Grignolino, that will work in a pinch. But the best of them are, again, from Fontanafredda, and everything else is frankly schlocky. Artisanal local wine, this is not!
Now, I understand you don’t need to drink fine, artisanal wine every night. But there’s a stunning disconnect between the excellent bread, coffee and produce that you easily find in the neighborhood, and these wines.
Fourth, there is the obvious problem of range. There isn’t much selection at from anything beyond Piedmont at all. Part of Europe’s charm – and especially Italy’s charm — is its intense locality, and I would never fault a local shop for offering only local wines. But the tradeoff is you don’t get to explore the rest of the world’s great and varied wine regions.
Fifth, things are particularly brutal here if you want white wine. Piedmont actually has some pretty good white stuff, Roero Arneis for example. But none of it is at this shop. Ok, maybe that Cortese in the top right corner is passable, but I didn’t take a chance on it. In any case, my landlord gifted me a bottle of Cortese, and I drank it in the 85 degree heat. It had been yeasted (or otherwise manipulated) to taste something like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but I guess it did the job. Who needs more than that?
And that, of course, is the big question: Who needs more than that? None of us really needs to drink artisanal wine. If we lived in a universe consisting only of this Carrefour’s wine selection, how many of us would complain? Indeed, many of those European customers mentioned above probably do live in such a universe. Should they care?
I’m guilty of not caring in similar circumstances. In Brooklyn I live around the corner from a shop that pulls fresh mozzarella five times a day. It’s still warm when I eat it at home, melting over my height-of-season tomatoes from the Green Market. Surely this is as good as it gets.
It turns out no, not even close. At that open air market in San Salverio there’s a vendor with cheeses direct from Campania. I purchased a ball of Buffala from Salerno. Back at my apartment I sliced into it, expecting it to require a little seasoning and maybe a splash of olive oil. But no, all it needed was to be eaten. Another slice and then another. (Then my wife complaining that I forgot to leave some for her green bean recipe.)
All my life I had been satisfied with my Brooklyn mozzarella, only to discover in Turin that it was a pale imitation of the real thing. How many of these 5-6 euro Europeans are actually living in the Matrix, fooling themselves into contentedness, as I did for so many years with my Brooklyn Mozz?
We believe that in America you can drink delicious, real wines without spending a fortune. In New York and San Francisco we are big advocates of inexpensive European table wines and carry a wide range. They cost a little more than Carrefour’s 5-8 euros—more like 10-15 (dollars). But unlike those Carrefour wines, these are true artisanal expressions of their origin. They are like that ball of Buffala from Salerno.
Here are some examples:
Isle Saint-Pierre, Bouches-du-Rhone Rose, 2016
De Forville, Dolcetto d’Alba, 2015
Pollerhof, Gruner Veltliner, 2016
Grand Bateau, Bordeaux, 2015
Domaine Labbe, Abymes Savoie, 2016