Friday, February 25, 2011

Virginia Wine Retailers

We’re stuck in the middle of a frigid, depressing winter with above-average precipitation, short days, and little sunshine. Diehard winery visitors like the blogmasters refuse to stay away from the Commonwealth wineries even during this time of year (that is, the wineries which are open year-round). But for many, these are not the ideal months for winery hopping (especially for the more remote wineries, where paved roads leading to the properties are typically rare). So that begs the question—“where can Virginia wine fans get their fix?”

Retailers of Virginia wine are not in short supply in the state. Because the blogmasters reside in Northern Virginia, we will focus on several locations in this area which have a decent selection of the Commonwealth’s finest offerings. Don’t expect low prices for these wines—as many who “buy local” already know, you will be spending a bit more for regional offerings. Virginia is not quite up to snuff compared to the distribution of wines from Italy, Australia, Spain, California, Washington State, et al. Therefore you will be spending more, unless you happen across a Virginia winery with mass production (and that doesn’t always guarantee that the wines are made in the Commonwealth; if it’s a wine from a Virginia winery and it’s stamped “American” instead of “Virginia,” it’s not grown or made in Virginia).

Intimate wine stores and major chains (supermarkets and specialty chains) will be spotlighted. If you’re lucky, you may happen upon a store during a tasting. In short, you won’t have to drive far during these bleak months to find Virginia wine. But as soon as that warmer weather breaks, readers are ordered to seek out actual wineries for the bona fide Virginia vineyard experience.

Fern Street Gourmet is tucked away in a small roadside shopping center off Quaker Lane in the Fairlington section of Alexandria/east Arlington. Fairlington and Shirlington residents familiar with the neighborhood pub “Rampart’s” have probably walked by Fern Street Gourmet many times. This European-influenced small wine shop has a few Virginia offerings and also has frequent tastings, spotlighting Virginia varietals such as Norton. The small deli in the back of the store adds to the European flavor.

HARRIS TEETER (various locations)
As the case with other supermarkets, the number of local offerings varies from store to store. But as Harris Teeter is gaining a reputation for following up on customer requests, they will attempt to get a favorite Virginia wine on their shelves. Currently most stores offer the more mass produced wines found in the state: Williamsburg, Chateau Morrisette, Prince Michel, Horton, Barboursville. But they also offer Breaux, which makes some of the best wine in the Commonwealth (albeit a little on the pricey side).

In our opinion, the best wine store in the state. Virginia wine, and only Virginia wine (plus a few beers). The industry is strong enough to support a store that only sells Virginia (and if you want to pick up a bottle or two from another world region, there is another equally delightful wine store two doors’ down from Old Dominion Wine Shoppe). The husband and wife who own the store are extremely chatty and know the industry well. Every Saturday, a different winery from the state comes in to pour and sell. It’s a win-win for the store (which sends out weekly e-mails to interested customers to alert them of the visiting winery) and the winery, which may be a distant location that many Northern Virginians haven’t been able to visit. The blogmasters have visited this store many times, and feel like the kids roaming around Willy Wonka’s candy garden every time. And the wineries keep coming – word has gotten out.

PLANET WINE (Alexandria)
The hip Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria (history lesson—this section of Alexandria was an independent town named Potomac in the late 19th Century) boasts many independent retailers. Del Ray residents are proud of their independent spirit. In fact they have been successful at keeping out national chains….a 7-11 store is the only major chain found in Del Ray. Next door to the popular bistro Evening Star is Planet Wine, owned by the same folks who run Evening Star and several other restaurants in Alexandria/Arlington (including Tallula, Vermillion, and Rustico). Planet Wine has a handful of Virginia wines, but perhaps the coolest thing about this store is you can buy a bottle of wine (any bottle of wine), and if you visit Evening Star after the wine store, they will open your bottle for you and serve it at the restaurant. You pick the perfect wine for your dinner.

STATE RUN (ABC) STORES (various locations)
Not every state-run ABC store sells Virginia wine, but it was such a surprise when the blogmasters came across one that did that we have to mention it (the location in North Reston, for those taking notes). The selection consisted of the “usual suspects” (Prince Michel, Williamsburg, Barboursville), but offering Casanel, a small, family-owned spot in Loudoun County, earned the store a spot on this list.

TOTAL WINE (various locations)
This mass retailer has probably the best selection of Virginia wines in the area, if not the state. Total Wine has many fans and a few detractors (the most common complaint is the “largeness” of the store). But an entire aisle dedicated to Virginia wines? You can’t miss. The blogmasters always leave this store with a bottle or two of wine from the Commonwealth, even if our wine racks are already full. Our biggest complaint is that these stores are usually in hellish strip malls with overstuffed parking lots. After spending twenty minutes trying to get out of some of these lots (the Total Wine in Alexandria, in the Lincolnia Shopping Center, is probably the worst), we have come very close to breaking out the corkscrew in the glove compartment, and then breaking the law, to reduce the stress.

UNWINED (Alexandria)
One of the blogmasters spent six years in the Fairlington/Shirlington area of Alexandria and east Arlington, so he got to know the wine stores in this neighborhood very well. Unwined, in the Bradlee Shopping Center off King Street, has arguably the best customer service of the bunch, and if you don’t see a favorite Virginia wine on their shelves, they will make valiant attempts to get it on their shelves.

WEGMAN’S (various locations)
Wegman’s is more of an event than a supermarket—just ask anyone who’s been there. Cartoon character signs (as found in DisneyWorld’s parking lot) are needed to help you find your car when the store and parking lot get packed. Food courts, small gourmet shops within the main supermarket, even a seafood bar (in the case of the Leesburg location). Wegman’s boasts a wine shop that surpasses many of the stand-alone wine stores in the state. And yes, they have a great selection of Virginia wine. The chain is known for embracing local offerings, be it cheese, produce, or wine. And since Wegman’s is an upstate New York-based grocery chain, you can snap up bottles of great Finger Lakes wine on the same trip.

WHOLE FOODS (various locations)
Whole Foods has proven to be “hit or miss” (depending on location) when it comes to Virginia wine. The location in the Clarendon area of Arlington—HIT. Their location in Reston—MISS. But when Whole Foods has a hit, they rival Total Wine.

Found in the same shopping center as the aforementioned ABC store, The Wine Cabinet has the best of the best tucked away in a corner of their store—not only Virginia wine, but the best in Virginia Wine: Barboursville’s Octagon, which many have deemed the best wine made in the state; Linden (Jim Law, the winemaker at Linden, is a Virginia wine pioneer); Lovingston (not only fantastic wine, but between $15 and $19 a bottle, fantastic prices).

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