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Supersized 

Big chain stores put the squeeze on independent wine retailers

CORKSCREW

As a precocious little tot, I subscribed to the American ritual of rooting for the underdogs. I felt they needed my support more than the team getting all the kudos. Perhaps that's why I shop almost exclusively at independent businesses: It feels better to support the local person trying to make a living, rather than the shareholders of a large profit machine. But, since the smell of savings attracts hordes, the arrival of wine-shop chains was sadly inevitable. Seeking lower prices and more selection, bargain-hunters are flocking into these new wine "superstores," striking fear in the ranks of locally owned wine shops. But is the consumer winning or losing in this contentious battle? Essentially, you win and lose.

THE GOOD STUFF

There's no doubt the selection is larger at the chain wine stores, from an esoteric port to a $6 chardonnay. I took a random column into Tampa's new Total Wine and More -- a 38-location Maryland superstore expanding rapidly into the Southeast -- and found seven out of 12 of my recent chardonnay recommendations. The prices were even lower than I had printed, by about $1-$2 on average.

Another chain called Wine Warehouse negotiates bulk deals with wineries and distributors for their 16-store chain, so their prices are considerably lower as well, but selection can be a bit limiting. Their reliable service, however, makes up for that.

THE BAD STUFF

I was underwhelmed by the service at Total Wine and More. Navigating the 8,000-plus selection is a bit like blindly visiting a Disney park without a map. You don't really know where to start or where everything is located. Not a single employee approached me during the 30 minutes I wandered the aisles. In an independent shop -- hell, even at mall clothing stores -- someone always approaches you, if only timidly to see if you need help. One could, of course, ask for help at the counter, but that can be intimidating. A balance needs to be struck.

THE UGLY STUFF

Wine concepts are a dime a dozen and some just don't work. Cork and Olive, a new business in Tampa that is franchising and probably coming to a corner near you, has a good idea, but leaves much to be desired. Their mantra is "Trust Your Taste" and on any given day, they have eight to 10 bottles open to taste before you buy. Their customer service is outstanding, and they will also open any bottle in the store -- they have about 150 selections. But that's where the good part ends. Their wine, contracted with "smaller," "unrepresented" vineyards throughout the world, is pretty much unavailable elsewhere. But there's a reason why: The wines suck. I tasted 15 wines recently at Cork & Olive and only one was drinkable. Prices are about the same at other shops: from $5 for the bottle-your-own to upwards of $50 for dessert icewines from Canada, but averaging in the $12 range.

My advice to the non-chains: Connect with your clientele. Court them through human contact, advise them and open a few bottles. In this day of service wastelands, that's all you need to combat the big boys.

Recommended Wines

Santa Carolina 2003 Carmenere Barrica Selection Colchagua Valley (Chile) Carmenere is the darling distinguishable red grape of Chile, and producers make it better each year. In its worst state, it tastes like rotten green peppers, and its best state can be complex and elegant like this one: soft and fruity with cherry, black pepper and licorice. A hint of green pepper, but so subtle it blends in. Sweetness = 1. $13. HHHH

Goldwater 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (New Zealand) A typical New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but this one's on steroids: very tart, fragrant green grass with pungent green asparagus. Light, crisp and steely. Sw = 1. $11. HHH

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