There has never been a better time to be a wine consumer in Minnesota.
Nor a more yin-and-yang time for local wine enthusiasts, with emerging and long-standing contradictions.
The foremost contrasts involve the suburbs. While restaurants in the core cities have been embracing wide-ranging and dynamic vinous offerings for the better part of this century, most suburban eateries remain mired in more predictable, traditional mind-sets. Wines made with assyrtiko and blaufrankisch grapes, or emanating from Slovenia and Uruguay, are infinitely more likely to be poured in Minneapolis than Minnetonka.
Some of the tonier suburbs — Wayzata, Lilydale, White Bear Lake — have exceptions, with restaurants such as Bellecour, I Nonni and Acqua. But all suburbanites deserve to at least have a shot at more interesting pinot grigios and pinot noirs than the same-old-same-olds dominating so many wine lists.
This is especially true since the suburban stores have been upping their game mightily. Stellar selections can be found not only in the Top Ten chain and most of the munis, but individual outlets such as Cotroneo’s, Cheers and the Wine Shop. It would seem reasonable for some of these stores to partner up with nearby restaurants to set up imbibing options with an “if you like this, it’s available at this store” promotion.
As it turns out, established retail outlets all around town are scrambling to figure out how to deal with not only behemoth Total Wine & More, but also grocery stores opening wine emporiums large (Hy-Vee, Whole Foods) and small (Cub, Target).
That’s good news for many consumers, who can do one-stop shopping at a grocery, and for those who are more interested in getting some friendly prices on booze and beer at Total, and are fine with a wine selection dominated by house brands.
At the same time, mom-and-pop stores often are scuffling, and sometimes closing, while munis and other chains are scrambling to compete, often with more conservative inventories.
The good news is that these merchants often have upped their games in customer service (with more employee training) and pricing (Minnesota has some of the highest margins for wine in the country, or did until the new kids in town altered the game). Discount stores such as Morelli’s, G-Will and Liquor Boy also appear to be thriving.
Even better, the wine-centric stores around town seem to have done just fine. These venues — among them, France 44, Thomas, Solo Vino, Surdyk’s, South Lyndale, the Little Wine Shoppe, Stinson, Zipp’s, North Loop, the Wine Thief and the aforementioned suburban outlets — have seriously knowledgeable staffs.
They also have taken advantage of the expanding array of interesting wines from less familiar regions. We’re starting to see bottles from locales such as the Canary Islands, and at least two local importers are bringing in some fascinating wines from the Republic of Georgia. They’re actually almost out of new regions to tap; I don’t expect to live long enough for climate change to bring us riesling from Greenland.
The range of wines available in these parts likely has plateaued. But having a raft of aggressive importers means that we should be getting high-quality, good-value bottles from intriguing places ad infinitum.
So it might not get any better than this, but “this” is plenty good enough — and likely to stay that way.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.