Costco wines pass the taste test, and then some
By DEE HITCH
Mercer Island Reporter Columnist
April 21, 2009 · Updated 1:47 PM
We are unabashed Costco fans. If we have a boring day, we spice it up with a trip to Costco. Before we go on vacation, we do two things: check the station number for National Public Radio for our destination and the locations of all the nearby Costcos.
Costco has a brand of wine called Kirkland Signature which is sourced world-wide: Australia, France, Chile, Napa, Washington state, New Zealand. Varietals run the gamut: merlot, champagne, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc.
Except for Costco’s first French Champagne, we have enjoyed all the Kirkland Signature wines, including the current French Champagne. They are delicious, well-made and of a good value. When we were in Italy visiting Italian wineries, we overlapped with another group. One man from Oregon commented that the current Kirkland Signature pinot noir was from the renowned A to Z Oregon Winery.
Many grocery chains have tried to have their own house brand. Safeway had a Horse Heaven Hills riesling back in the 1980s. Trader Joe’s has Charles Shaw, which devotees like because it is cheap. Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger currently have several house brands each. Nothing has been as successful as Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, which has been embraced by both wine connoisseurs and wine media alike.
Annette Alvarez-Peters is the Assistant General Merchandise Manager for Costco Wine, Spirits and Beer. “We have nine corporate/regional buyers involved with alcoholic beverages in the United States,” explained Alvarez-Peters.
I mentioned to Alvarez-Peters that I had read the wine article in Costco’s magazine, Costco Connection. In a photo, several people were sitting around a table in Catena, Argentina. “Those people were our U.S. and international buyers.” Costco’s wine buyers take an international fact-finding trip every other year to increase their wine knowledge and understand the wine region. In 2006, Australia was the destination. In 2008, they visited Chile and Argentina.
When you visit your neighborhood Costco’s wine department, you will see a smattering of Kirkland Signature. Mostly available is a well-chosen offering of good wines from all over the world, plus an admirable selection of our own Washington state wines.
“We are disciplined on the number of items we carry in the Kirkland Signature program,” said Alvarez-Peters. “We try to have one red and white on the floor under $12. In addition, we carry two or three items over the $12 point range.”
While Washington state allows only Washington State Liquor Board Stores to sell hard spirits, a consumer can buy hard liquor in almost all other states in other places, including grocery stores. Costco Signature hard liquor is sold in Costcos in other states. Indeed, when my daughter and her family were in Cancun, Mexico, they bought a huge bottle (what other size could there be?) of Costco-brand vodka.
Costco buyers work with established wineries, Masters of Wine, consulting winemakers and custom crush facilities. Often, they work with wineries to come up with a custom blend; sometimes, it is a wine which is already bottled.
Bob Betz has helped Costco with a Washington state syrah under the Kirkland Signature label. “It wasn’t a Betz Family Winery wine,” said Betz, “but I was listed as the ‘consulting winemaker.’ We have neither the space nor time to undertake a project of that dimension here at our small winery. So we contracted with a Washington winery to make the wine to my specifications, vineyard selections, etc. I developed the final blend from these base lots. It was sold throughout the country, and a little went to foreign markets.” Betz is widely respected for his wines from Betz Family Winery. One of the Chateau Ste. Michelle alumni winemakers, Betz holds a Master of Wine degree, a rare designation awarded by the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. Because of the low production and high regard, Betz wines are hard to find. Buy it if you see it.
Besides Bob Betz, Costco has also utilized Dan Phillips and Grant Burge of Australia, Nick Goldschmidt of California and Australia and Sacred Hills family of New Zealand.
Everyone is talking about the depressed economy, but wine and spirits are doing well everywhere. However, there is a trend toward bottles at lower prices. This is what the trade likes to refer to as “value” wines. Even Costco notices members buying more at the $8-$13 range. Alvarez-Peters said, “For wine, value seems to be most important on our members’ minds. Great juice at a great price.”
Dee Hitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Contact Mercer Island Reporter Columnist Dee Hitch at email@example.com.