Store Review: Wine Nation in Millbury, MA

Monday, August 23, 2010

A significant new player entered the Massachusetts market when Wine Nation opened its doors on July 30, 2010.  Perched atop The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley in Millbury, the store is by far the largest wine shop in the state offering more then 6,000 different bottles of wine.  And their shelves aren't even fully stocked yet.  To put those numbers into scale- most small to medium sized wine shops top out at around 1,000 different wines.

You may remember Wine Nation from their as-to-yet unsuccessful attempt to open in Braintree last year.  At the time, I was under the impression that Wine Nation was the same firm as the national retailer Total Wine.  They are not.  According to this piece in the Worcester newspaper Wine Nation is headed up by Thomas Trone, his wife Jill and their son Taylor.  Total Wine is owned by Thomas' brothers David and Robert Trone.

The implications of this split are meaningful.  First because the Millbury location is the first and only location of a new brand at this point.  Although the concept is similar in nature to Total Wine it truly is a distinct and independent new retail brand.  Second because Massachusetts allows any single retailer to hold only 3 liquor licenses in the state.  In other words Total Wine could also open here if they wanted which would bring a total of six new big box wine shops to the state.

Whether you'll enjoy shopping at Wine Nation depends, I think, on a number of factors:

  • Do you enjoy developing a personal relationship with store owners?  
  • Are you adverse to big box retailers?
  • Do you like having a wide array of products to choose from?  Or do you prefer retailers who apply an editorial filter and present you only with choices they believe in?
Can you scan through this list of wines and identify which are priced favorably vs. retail price and vs. other retailers?  3 of them are well-priced.  5 of them can easily be had at other Massachusetts retailers for significantly less:
  • 2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco $35.99
  • 2007 Elk Cove Willamette Valley Pinot Noir $14.49
  • 2008 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel $22.49
  • 2009 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc $14.99
  • 2008 King Estate Signature Pinot Gris $11.49
  • 2007 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee $23.99
  • 2008 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum $17.94
  • 2007 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon $10.89
Looking at this list of wines and their prices without much additional context is similar to shopping at Wine Nation.  They've got a ton of wines and it's up to you to find wines you want that are good values.
    First Impressions

    The store is located within The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley whose website says it's the "largest open-air shopping center in all of Central Massachusetts".  The center is home to smaller specialty retailers and other big boxes along with restaurants and a movie theater.  It's the kind of place you can easily spend several hours shopping because it offers so many things to buy and do.  Several police officers were directing traffic the weekend we visited.

    The store is located on a higher portion of the development and announces itself proudly to wine enthusiasts visiting the center.  When you're "into" a hobby like some of us are with wine every related mention of your interest catches your attention.  If you like wine, it would be difficult to visit this shopping center without noticing Wine Nation is here.

    I think their branding package is attractive.  What you see on the exterior of the store extends to their website and throughout the store.  The clean logo, contemporary legible font, and signage in the store presents the brand well I think.  Look how similar aesthetically the logo design is to a smaller local wine store that recently opened in Chestnut Hill.  Wine Nation is clearly trying to position itself as something other than a massive cluttered big box retailer:


    The Place is Vast

    To give you an idea of the scale of the store, this location in particular was formerly a Linens 'n Things (the now-defunct home goods store).  Instead of a Cabernet "section" imagine an entire aisle devoted to the wines made from the grape.  And another aisle for Merlot, Pinot Noir and so on.  The place is huge and the number of different wines they have is either amazing or overwhelming depending on how you look at it.  I overheard a store clerk tell a customer they ordered 5,000 wines and I've read they plan to carry 8,000 when completely stocked.

    After diving in and exploring a few of the aisles I realized an overview of the layout would be helpful.  I stopped by the Wine Service Bar and picked up a map and chatted with an associate who was doing a wine tasting.  I passed on the Chardonnay and Merlot (had to keep a clear head for this important assignment, right?) but got a good crash course into how the store was arranged.

    The store is about 75% wine.  The remainder is beer, wine, and snacks.  A few unique points about how the wines are displayed:

    You can find a given wine in multiple locations.  Say you're looking for a bottle of Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir: It will appear in the Pinot Noir aisle of course, but it might also appear in the Staff Favorites section, and again in the New World Values section.  It could also appear in the Highly Rated section and in the "Lush" section where they arrange wines by intensity from Light to Intense. 

    Within most categories wines are arranged alphabetically by producer.  I wasn't a fan of this approach.  Say for example you're looking for all the Barbaresco they carry: You find your way to the Italian Reds section, and start looking through the options.  You have to look through two aisles of Italian reds and examine each label to see whether it's a Barbaresco.  I would prefer if they arranged the wines by sub-type within each category so I could see all of the Barbaresco in one place.  Alphabetizing wines by producer is confusing anyway.  Say I'm looking for a wine called "The Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum"- what letter would that be under? "T" for The? "S" for Seventy? "7" for 75? "S" for Sum?  Better to just arrange the wines by sub-type than by producer I think.  And then within that sub-type by price. 

    They make very little use of shelf talkers.  Especially those with numerical ratings.  I don't know if this is a conscious decision or something that hasn't been tended to yet since they were only open a couple of weeks when I visited.  They do have descriptions posted for their house brand wines, but overall I found very little in the way of signage customers could use to find more information about the choices in front of them.  Only about 5% of the wines had any kind of description at all.

    The lack of numerical ratings could be seen as a positive or a negative.  If they're adverse to numerical ratings and choose not to display them I can respect that.  But why have a Highly Rated section without further information about how the wines were chosen?

    I could see keeping numerical ratings and tasting notes up to date on a store of this scale a truly difficult task so perhaps they're just choosing to avoid the work involved and leaving it up to shoppers to determine their own criteria along with recommendations from sales associates.

    If they don't want to clutter up the shelves with too many shelf talkers a useful alternative would be a reference area where shoppers could go to browse copies of popular wine publications, look up professional/CellarTracker ratings on computers, and grab a cup of coffee.  I think a real element of community could emerge if this approach was well-implemented.  The store is uniquely positioned with its scale to offer value added services like these.

    The Shopping Experience

    When you first come in the store, pick up a flyer and a map.  The flyer includes the dozen or so wines on sale that end in the number "4" like the Parallelle 45 Cotes du Rhone for $9.94. These specials are also listed on their website and if you see any wines you like in this list you'll probably want to buy them because these wines are sold as close to cost as possible.  They're not loss leaders (it's illegal for a retailer to sell wine for less than they paid for it in Massachusetts) but they're definitely favorably priced to get you in the door and look around.

    So there you are faced with finding the needles in the haystack.  After wandering around for a while, I picked up:
    • 2007 Elk Cove Pinot Noir for $14.49 (2 bottles)
    • 2009 Honig Sauvignon Blanc $12.94
    • 2008 Ravines Dry Riesling $13.59
    I've been a huge fan Elk Cove Pinot Noir for a while now and I was shocked how low their price was on this wine.  Compared to 2006 and 2008, 2007 was a bit of an off vintage depending on who you ask.  But at this price I was willing to take a chance.  The best price I see nationwide is $19.99 and it's typically on Massachusetts retailer shelves over $30.

    When I got home I cracked open one of the bottles of Elk Cove just to see whether I might want to buy more in the future or perhaps recommend the wine.  Unfortunately, the wine was awful.  It smelled like ketchup and raisins.  I thought the wine might be flawed (ie just this particular bottle was defective) or worse yet the entire lot was off hence the low price.  But what wine flaw leads to these characteristics?

    I put the Elk Cove aside and opened the Honig Sauvignon Blanc.  Wow what a wine!  Especially compared to the off Pinot Noir.  And at $12.94 what a price.

    A couple nights later I opened the second bottle of Elk Cove and it was much better than the first.  It still wasn't a spectacular wine and although I detected faint traces of some of the off-putting characteristics from the first bottle I now believe the first bottle was oxidized.  Strangely it reminded me of a bottle of 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir I had a while back which may have suffered from the same problem.  I've had quite a few corked bottles over the years but these are my first run-ins with what I believe are oxidized bottles.  Interesting.

    So now I have a flawed bottle of wine from a shop that's 30 miles away.  A compelling reason to shop close to home, but at these prices you might be able to justify dumping it and taking the hit.

    If they hold the price on the Elk Cove at $14.49 and start carrying the more highly regarded 2008 vintage the price would be just over $13 per straight 12 bottle case.  Compare that to $30.99 from a retailer who offers 20% off a case which works out to $24.79.  On this particular wine they're $10 cheaper per bottle when buying a single bottle than buying a mixed case at a higher priced retailer even with a 20% discount at the other retailer.  This is just one admittedly cherry-picked example.  But it's one reason I think a lot of people are going to shop at Wine Nation.

    At higher price points:
    • Orin Swift The Prisoner $35.99 (compare elsewhere at $29.99)
    • 2005 Cantina del Pino Barbaresco $53.99 ($47.99 at Gordon's)
    • 2000 Leoville Barton $199 (compare at $174.99 at Blanchards)
    • 2009 Dominus $139 (compare at $119 at The Wine Cellar of Stoneham)
    The most expensive bottle I happened to spot was a 2007 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg for $1,599.  Compare at around $700 on Wine-Searcher. [Update: This bottle was a magnum so the Wine Searcher price of $700 isn't a fair comparison.  My apologies to Wine Nation for this error.]

    Overall, their prices aren't uniformly higher or lower than other options in the area.  You really have to know your prices and what you're shopping for if you want to find the deals.

    • Amazing selection.  If you're a wine enthusiast I can't imagine you wouldn't enjoy perusing the aisles at least once to see what they carry.  It's not just commodity stuff- they've got some rather obscure wines too: 2007 Heitz Grignolino anyone?
    • They carry more local wines than most wine Massachusetts wine stores I've been to combined.
    • On certain items, they offer by far the best pricing in the state.  And in some cases the best pricing in the nation.
    Areas for Improvement
    • No e-commerce site.  Other than a few limited specials listed in their flier I can't check their inventory and pricing online.  Their inventory doesn't come up on  This makes it difficult to write a shopping list at home with ready access to online research.
    • No social media presence.  One of my favorite ways to check availability is to ping a store owner on Twitter.  This makes it unlikely I'll check Wine Nation pricing when I'm looking for a wine online.
    • Limited guidance in terms of navigating their selection and finding wines based on reviews.  You can ask somebody or visit the Staff Picks section, but I'd like to see more reference material available to customers.  Imagine a station of iPads or kiosks set up with access to Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and CellarTracker ratings along with Wine Nation ratings and notes.  This kind of information sharing would go a long way towards positioning the store as an ally to wine consumers.
    • Most wines are stored vertically.  There's debate in the wine community about how long it's safe to keep a bottle stored vertically because of concerns the cork will dry out.  Because of this horizontal storage is preferred.  This could be a concern for wines that are expensive enough that they'll be on the shelf for a while, but not so expensive as to warrant them being in the wine refrigerators in the front of the store.  Take for example the 2006 Felsina Fontalloro at $54.99.  Stored vertically and who knows how long it will be there before you buy yours.
    Discussion and Outlook

    I've heard Total Wine referred to as "The Costco of Wine".  I don't necessarily agree with that comparison for either Total Wine or Wine Nation.  One reason I shop at Costco is because they narrow down the choices I have to make when shopping in categories I don't care to spend time researching.  I appreciate that they've taken the time to sort through all of the toothpastes, printers, and sponges to offer good products at "pretty good" prices.

    This isn't the case at Wine Nation- they sell too many wines to claim much editorial oversight into the selection process.  I can accept that but I'd prefer if the pricing model were a bit more uniform.  Their current pricing model offers a few well-priced items mixed in with wines offered at a healthy margin presumably hoping you'll pick up some of the latter when you come in for the former.  I'm not saying it's bait and switch- I'm just saying you need to be on top of your game when you go there because it's sort of a Vegas casino situation where on average you'll lose unless you know what you're doing.

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    Wine Nation's arrival in the Massachusetts market is a significant development.  When they open additional stores north and south of Boston they'll be within a 30 minute drive of a large percentage of the Massachusetts population and their business model will resonate with a lot of these consumers.

    Add to that the potential for Total Wine opening in the state in the future.  And imagine if the current 3-license-per-retailer limit is raised, and wine is allowed to be sold in all grocery stores. Lift the restrictions on wine retailers shipping into and out of the state and it's not too hard to see a future where the Massachusetts wine retailer landscape is more of a competitive free-market like California.

    Locally owned independent retailers can and will survive however.  And I'm not talking about the tired cliche of supporting your local retailer for no apparent reason other than good will.  I'm talking about retailers that add value by stocking a focused assortment of wines that make it easy to buy great wines at good prices.  Retailers that offer a high degree of specialization and focus in specific categories.  And retailers that connect with consumers in the way they want to be connected with making it easy to do business with them.

    Wine Nation is an interesting player.  I get the feeling that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of changes in the Massachusetts wine retail space.

    Check 'em out:
    Wine Nation
    The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley
    70 Worcester-Providence Turnpike
    Millbury, MA 01527

    Want another opinion? Here's a review of Wine Nation from my pal Richard Auffrey: The Passionate Foodie. 

    What do you think of Wine Nation?  Or big box retail in general?


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