Yes, It’s Okay to Buy Wine at Costco, Part I

Oh, Costco. The giant warehouse, big box store with the fluorescent lights, perpetually crowded with people pushing around small buses oversized grocery carts in their quest to take home 200 of the same granola bar, jars of peanut butter large enough to bathe in, and bags of chips that are approximately the same size as a small child. But lurking among the giant tables of socks and sweatpants that sit just feet away from the aisle which sells barbell-sized blocks of cheese and 30 rolls of toilet paper, there is good wine. I promise.

The Costco wine story is an interesting one. For starters, it’s the largest wine merchant in the United States, and arguably among the top fine wine merchants in the world. It has more than 68 million members - the population of Costco customers is comparable to the population of a small country. And they sell A LOT of wine to those 68 million people. In 2006, Costco sold more than a hundred thousand cases of Dom Pérignon Champagne. In the last year, Costco’s wine sales hovered around $1.5 billion.

Because Costco is a huge retailer, it benefits from its economy of scale - and this means deals for the consumer. The maximum markup on Costco wine is just 14 percent above the wholesale price. This is HUGELY less than the usual 30-50 percent markup in other retail stores, and the 150 percent or more in restaurants.

The wine Costco sells is up and down the quality and price spectrum. The company does a brisk trade in domestic bulk wine that you’d find at other grocery chains - La Crema Chardonnay, Folie à Deux, Apothic Red Blend, Manage à Trois Red and the like. They sell premium bottles that go for over a thousand dollars.

They also sell wine that is...not so good.

he trick is to know the difference. The good news is that when you’re paying between $8-$10 a bottle, you can try a lot of bottles!

Costco also sells both foreign and domestic wine under its own brand, Kirkland Signature. The wines are relatively small lots (around two thousand cases each - large for many wineries but small for Costco) and specially created by selected winemakers who are sometimes identified on the label and sometimes, for various reasons, kept secret. You can get some crazy bargains under the Kirkland Signature label. For instance, Costco has had a Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine blended for Kirkland Signature. CDP,

is an 800 year old French appellation that has been sipped by popes and praised by kings. And you can get a bottle of 2008 Chateauneuf du Pape for $20.

That is, if you get there before it sells out.

There’s a ton of turnover at Costco, so top labels sell out quickly and bottles change from month to month. But there definitely are some good, consistent finds to be had. Let’s go through some of our favorites!

Weeknight Wine

Costco has an awesome selection of what we call Weeknight Wine - wine that's good for sipping on a Tuesday after work. Not too pricey (between $8-15) but decent quality and easily quaffable.

The under $15 bottles at Costco are usually set up in a dedicated wine aisle, while the pricier wines have their own shelves that stand independently. Let's start in the aisle.

Oyster Bay Pinot Noir 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand, $12

"Cheap Pinot Noir" is kind of a misnomer, in that Pinot is hard to grow, hard to ferment, and makes some of the most complex wine in the world - and it's generally priced accordingly. But New Zealand is a newish wine region that has been previously known for its Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, and is now pushing out some stellar Pinot Noir. Get it while it's still affordable! The wine drinks young but is eminently sippable for $12.

BV Coastal Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, California, $7

BV - or Beaulieu (Bow-loo) Vineyards - is a Napa Valley vineyard with a ton of history. It was one of Napa's first wineries, owned by a French family and made famous for their Cabs by a Russian winemaker, André Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff rose to become one of America's most influential post-Prohibition winemakers, creating what would become the classic style for California Cabernet Sauvignon - and he did this all at BV. The winery is no longer family-owned (it's owned by the conglomerate Diageo, PLC) and the wines they produce at the $7 price point are mainly bulk wine - wines made with grapes from all over the state with an eye toward consistent production over complexity and aging. A BV $7 Cab might not blow your mind with its depth and nuance, but it's going to give you the classic Cali can flavors - juicy black fruit with hints of vanilla and spice - without breaking your bank.

Kirkland Signature Malbec 2012, Mendoza, Argentina, $7

As I mentioned earlier in the post, Kirkland Signature is Costco's own label. The wines are created by winemakers that Costco selects - sometimes named, sometimes not - and sold under the Costco brand. I've found some incredible bargains under this label. Their $7 wines are varietally correct (meaning a Malbec from Kirkland tastes like a Malbec should) and consistent in quality. For $7, these wines meet your expectations and occasionally might knock your socks off.

Kirkland Signature Meritage 2011, Napa Valley, California, $11

Another Kirkland steal. What's great about bottles at this price point is that it encourages you to try wines you may have never tried before - like Meritage! Meritage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Petit Verdot, blended at different percentages depending on the winemaker's taste. It can be complex and subtle, or sometimes flat and cloying - you never know until you try it. I haven't tried this particular vintage (an oversight, obviously; I'll be buying some next time I'm in Costco!), but at $11, it's worth a shot.

Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Black Label Claret 2012, $12-14 (depends on the vintage)

"Claret" is a term coined by the British (Emma's people) to describe Cabernet-based wines. This Coppola Claret is a blend of Cab Sauv, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. It's a tapestry of fruit flavors on the palate: black cherry, plum and a little bit of licorice. Coppola owns another of Napa's historic vineyards. Originally cultivated by Gustave Niebaum in 1910, the vineyard was called Inglenook and owned by the Niebaum descendants through the 1960s. This wine at this price point is bulk wine, but a legitimate weeknight option, and one that Emma and I drink semi-regularly.

Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava, Spain, $16 for two bottles

Freixenet Cava is sometimes known as "black bottle bubbly," and is the most imported sparkling wine in the world. Cava is Spanish sparkling wine, made in the same style as Champagne. This bubbly is crisp and clean, with notes of apple, pear, bright citrus, and ginger. This Cava is a go-to for us when we want to serve bubbles at a party, but not break the bank. We've also used it for mimosas, kir royale, and straight up sipping. At Costco in comes in a pack of two, which is good, because as readers of this blog know, we believe bubbles are for all occasions and you should always have one chilling in the fridge.

Weeknight Wine isn't all that's sold at Costco - they have a great selection of "premium" wines ( $15 and over) as well! Stay tuned for that post on Friday!