What I’ve Learned About Costco Wine in Five Years of Running This Site
I’ve been running this site for several years now and it amazes me how it’s grown over the years. The idea for this site originated from a simple blog post I made about buying wine at Costco for a now defunct website that I used to maintain with some friends. That article generated 50X the traffic of the other stories I was writing (back then all the numbers were pretty small but it got me thinking). So I bought the domain name: www.CostcoWineBlog.com and starting reviewing the wines I was buying at my local Costco on a monthly basis. It took a year or so (like most websites do) but soon the site began to develop a following.
The site now sees approx 6,000 visitors a day (more around holidays), up from 700 visitors a day just a few years ago. We’ve been featured in the Wall Street Journal, CBS Moneywatch, ABC News, Money Magazine, and other national news outlets. Since we do this for fun, the site has remained 100% independent and is not affiliated with Costco in any way. I figured since I was buying olive oil, diapers and coffee at Costco on a regular basis, it was easy to toss a few bottles in the cart, and then I would just review them when I had a chance. Note: I’ve purchased every single bottle that has been reviewed on this site (no freebies).
I’m not a classically trained wine expert but I’ve learned a lot over the years (it’s even compelled me to write a couple of short pocketbooks about wine; and I have plans for a couple more in the next year or so). I made it a point to buy wines I didn’t know much about in order to expand my knowledge and I’ve always encouraged readers of the site to do the same. I really do think wine appreciation is a lifelong journey. I hope this site helps move you along in your journey.
But I figured at this (somewhat sentimental) point, that I’d share some things I’ve learned from all my years of buying wine at Costco. There are many reasons why it’s a great place to buy wine, and there are a few reasons why I also make it a point to buy wine from the smaller wine shops around my neighborhood. So let’s get to it:
Prices. Costco wine prices are usually 10-20% below other stores. This is a tough one and I don’t have any hard facts to prove it, but from my experiences (most of the time), a $20 bottle at Costco on average will be $25 in other stores. I’ve bought hundreds and hundreds of bottles at Costco, and have an uncanny ability to remember them (I think writing this stuff down helps), but I also frequent Total Wine and smaller wine shops and the price difference is certainly noticeable. I bought a Beaucastel Chateauneuf a few months ago at Costco for $80. I went to Total Wine right after that and it was $100 there. It will vary from location to location and from city to city, but on a whole I don’t think you can beat Costco’s prices.
Issues. But what do you give up for this price savings? I think there are a few things: Costco stores can be difficult to park at, with long check out lanes and big crowds. You also can’t get in and out of a Costco store for under $100, especially since the wine is always in the back of the store. You will likely find something else to buy along the way. They also typically do not have a wine expert on hand (some do), that will greet you, get to know your tastes and be able to make really good recommendations. And lastly, you will give up on selection. The Costco selection is set and moves fast. That bottle you loved last week could be gone forever. Which leads to the next point…
- Fluid Inventory. Also remember that if you see a wine you want to buy, you better buy it right then and there (where did those Etim bottles go?). If you’re fairly certain you will like it, buy more than one. I usually follow the advice someone told me once. If you like a wine buy three of them. One to drink now and enjoy. One to share later with friends. And one to hold on to for when a good time comes up down the line.
- Vintages. If you know that a particular vintage is better than another, look around the wines in the bins because sometimes there will be multiple vintages stashed all together. I would also look under the wooden storage bins too, on the ground where they keep the inventory. You’d be surprised what might be lurking by your feet. I always look for ’07 Napa Cabs and ’05 Bordeaux. By digging around in the bins, I’ve uncovered some of these vintages packed among others (not lately since these wines are harder to come by). But it’s a tip to remember. Right now, I think you should buy 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux and be picky with 2011 Napas.
- Super special deals. This does seem to happen once in a while and I’m not sure why and how. But pay attention to all the prices in the store. I’ve seen sudden mark downs occur on good bottles, where the price suddenly drops by up to half. Obviously you’ll want to scoop these up if you ever see it.
- Kirkland Signature Wines. The Kirkland Signature brand is consistently a very good value in wine in my opinion. I like some more than others, but on a whole you can’t go wrong. If you’re buying a Kirkland Signature Amador Zin, it’s going to be a good price on a nice Amador Zin. The degree to which it knocks your socks off is going to vary. And I think a lot of it comes down to personal tastes. I can’t think of one Kirkland Signature wine that I at the very least didn’t think was a fair price for the wine inside. Some of my favorites recently have been the Kirkland Champagne ($20 for a real Champagne), the Kirkland Mendoza Malbec (ridiculous for $7), and the Kirkland Rutherford Meritage.
- Wine returns. This is a touchy one that’s caused quite a lot of debate online. I bought a $15 Super Tuscan a year or so ago and the wine was clearly not right. I would guess it was stored too hot and it got cooked. I could tell the minute I pulled the cork out, so I gave it a quick taste, realized it tasted like wet cardboard (which I don’t eat that much, but I’m guessing), and I put the cork right back in. The next day I took the bottle to my local Georgia Costco figuring that a store with the greatest return policy of all time would happily take this wine back.
Quick side story: I’d once returned a half eaten box of granola bars which my wife decided she didn’t like after she ate six of them. I returned them with a friend who was eating another one of the granola bars with me at the return counter, and they didn’t hesitate…
But they didn’t take my bottle of wine back. I asked to speak to a manager (no one there knows I write this site and I like it that way). The manager informed me that GA state law wouldn’t allow them to accept a return. I didn’t buy it since I had returned a bottle to the Total Wine across the street a few months before no questions asked. So I posted a story about the experience. Within hours I received a note from a Costco corporate employee (my only real interaction with corporate Costco so far). She informed me that it was in fact GA state law, and said they could never ask the store to break the rules. Makes sense I thought. I always wondered if Total Wine just gave me a replacement bottle, not a refund. Either way, it was a little of an eye opener for me. Which leads to the next point…
- Neighborhood wine stores. Costco is great, but there’s something to be said for your local wine merchants. I make it a point to support them as well. They will have a wider, more consistent selection, they will be able to special order wines you want, and they will add a personal touch, maybe even tastings, events or at the least some good recommendations.
- Try New Things. This is just a general piece of advice. Try new wines. Buy something you aren’t familiar with. Take a chance. Discover something new. You’ll quickly learn that White Burgundy is awesome Chardonnay (especially Chablis), that Brunellos go great with steak, that Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc at its best, and that Ribera del Duero is one of the best value priced regions in the world. Don’t read labels. Don’t read ratings. Go with your gut, and experiment. With Costco’s great prices and what seems like a pre-screened inventory, most wines you buy will at least be worth their price. Some you will like better than others. But you don’t know if you don’t try them.
With that, thanks for supporting this site. I hope it’s helped you and I hope we can keep this thing going for years to come.
(Photos are from recent trip to Napa. Top photo is Larkmead Vineyards. Panoramic shot is from Heitz)