The recent announcement that Sam’s Club will be selling wine from their in-house Member’s Mark brand has set off a bomb of speculation about what this means for their competition with Costco, whose own Kirkland brand of wine has not just gained a fair amount of respectability but also accounts for substantial profits for the mega-store. What’s more interesting to me, however, is the selection of wine that they’ll be working with, and what it all means: A Chardonnay from the Central Coast of California, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Prosecco, and Champagne.
It’s an interesting range of wines, and one that warrants a bit of consideration.
On the one hand, these four offerings seem to suggest that Sam’s Club is playing it safe: What’s more familiar than Chardonnay and Cabernet? Of course, having not yet tasted any of the wines, I can’t pass gustatory judgement on them, but the style in which they are made will be telling. Will the Chardonnay hew to the (mercifully dying) stereotypical style of years past, and taste of little more than mediocre fruit, without enough acid, and with an overlay of sweet oak? Or will it find its footing at the more measured end of the spectrum, with balance and some semblance of detail carrying the day? Same goes for the Cabernet: With a veritable ocean on the market right now of cleverly packaged and inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon the color of black fountain-pen ink and all the subtlety of a WWE wrestler, will the experts working with the brand try to differentiate it in some way from other mass-produced bottlings?
It’s certainly possible. Whether or not the wine skews in that direction, however, is another question, the answer to which will reveal a lot about what Sam’s Club’s intentions are with their foray into in-house wine.
There are two general arguments that I often hear from wine professionals about the impact of mass-marketed wines. One side believes that introducing wine to as wide a swath of consumers as possible is inherently good, no matter what the nature of that wine is—assuming that the wine isn’t some sort of wine cooler or saccharine-sweet white zinfandel, though there are plenty of commodity wines on the market today that blur that line, marketed as dry yet nonetheless notably sweet in character. The other side, call them the purists, has no time for wines like these, and believes they are anathema to what so-called real wine is and should be about. (These are, of course, vast generalizations, but illustrative nonetheless.)
My personal view is that any wine that introduces more consumers to the pleasure of relatively dry-fermented grape juice is a good thing, especially if those mass-produced wines spur on a desire to drink and learn more about wine in general. Call it the gateway-drug effect, but in a positive sense.
Cheron Cowan, Sommelier and Wine Director at New York’s Harold’s Meat + Three, is relatively hopeful. “This is a striking move forward by Sam’s Club, and if it introduces untapped households to the product, I, as a sommelier, applaud it,” she wrote in an email, “but also wait, cautiously optimistic, in anticipation for what is to come down the line with Sam’s Club and its wine brand.” She also noted that “branding wines that are popular to the mass market, [and] at a consumer friendly price, lends openness to a more curated wine portfolio down the line.”
I, too, am cautiously optimistic, especially considering the two sparkling wines they’ll be introducing. It’s a bold move, selling both a Prosecco and a Champagne side-by-side, since a great many consumers still incorrectly refer to all sparkling wine as “Champagne” and don’t necessarily differentiate between, say, Prosecco, Champagne, Cava, Cremant, and the rest of the universe of bubbly. So by selling both, my hunch is that Sam’s Club isn’t just trying to capture the sparkling-wine market at both ends of the price spectrum with what I assume will be a less-expensive Prosecco and a somewhat pricier Champagne, but that they also have some faith—and, I’d imagine, research—that the American wine-drinking public is growing wine-savvy enough to know and understand the difference.
Which gives me hope. If Sam’s Club is indeed going into this with a healthy respect for the growing desire for knowledge and experience of the American wine drinker, then I’d love to see the company eventually move into a wider array of wine styles, grape varieties, and geographical locations. Because with its substantial membership and attendant visibility across the country, Sam’s Club has the opportunity to make occasional consumer forays into what might be called a vinous terra incognita easier, less threatening, and more affordable.
So: Member’s Mark Trebbiano from Italy? Member’s Mark Zweigelt from Austria? Members Mark Garnacha from Spain?
One can only hope.