Small Sellers, Big Deals: Step out of the mainstream to find wine steals

Friends know that I love wine. And that I like to give them wine recommendations, like the Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon that my friend Jan Rouff now loves to drink. Recently, Rouff was running late to a party and stopped at West County Liquors in Manchester to pick up a bottle of wine for the hostess. She called me the next day. “I did not expect much, because this was the old Dunkin’ Donuts spot. Not only did I happen upon a decent wine, but I found the wonderful Hungarian Cabernet and bottles and bottles of great wines from all over the world,” she said.

Two weeks later, I was in the salon chair with my hairdresser, Phil Shipman of Philip Johnson Salon in the Central West End. As always, we were talking new restaurants and discussing what wine we are in love with at the moment. Shipman, who lives in Soulard, said he noticed that he was a bit short on white wine before a recent dinner party. “I ran up the street to Vincent’s 12th Street Market and found just what I wanted, an Alamos Chardonnay. And it was at least $2 cheaper than anyplace else. That old-fashioned market takes me back to my youth,” he said.

There is good wine out there at decent prices – prices that can vary by $2 to $4 for the same bottle, depending on where you shop. So, how is it that small stores can offer wines sometimes more cheaply than their larger competitors? Mmm, well, the answers are many and varied.

Globe Drug: The urban myth about customers finding $100 bottles of wine for five bucks is fact, according to Bernard Cohen, co-owner and “wine guy” of Globe Drug, with three locations in St. Louis city. “Sure, it happens. Sometimes, I can offer a $300 case of wine for $150. The secret is to shop at Globe often to find such prices,” Cohen said.

Globe has been in business since 1939 and for 30 of those years, Cohen has been involved in the wine buying. He said he’s in constant contact with the distributors because getting deals in this business is a week-to-week, month-to-month endeavor. Sometimes nothing is available, other times he may be overstocked.

One way Cohen keeps prices low is by buying a previous vintage of the wine that a distributor is pushing. So, if the 2004s are out, he may be interested in very good, very drinkable ’03s. And what type of wine does the wine guy prefer? “I don’t drink liquor, never have. But I do have several connoisseurs who do the tastings for me. Every wine is tasted,” Cohen said.

His advice for finding those $100 bottles for five bucks? “Do your homework and know what you are looking for. That’s how to find the bargains.” His stock changes almost daily, so if you see what you like, don’t wait to buy. Recently, a 1.5-liter magnum of white wine could be had for as little as $2.89 and a 3-liter bottle of Chardonnay was going for $14.95.

How Globe does it: “Because we’ve been in business so long, our reputation for seeking out bargains in wine precedes us,” Cohen said. “It is to the point now that the distributors come to me for a first look at wholesale deals.”

La Tropicana Market & Café: “If I see a wine at one of the local supermarkets that I carry at my market, I drop it. I am interested only in unique, economically priced wines. A. Bommarito Wines is my main supplier, and they are the gold standard,” said Luis Trabanco, owner of La Tropicana in the Northampton neighborhood.

Trabanco only has room for 20 to 25 different labels, so every one of them has to be “off the beaten path.” His prices range from $7.49 for a La Vida Garnacha from Spain to $21.45 for a Terra Romana Romanian red. In between are styles like Crianza, unusual grapes such as Malbec and Tempranillo, and less-familiar regional wines from Navarra and Rioja. Trabanco’s favorite at the moment is 2 Brothers Big Tattoo Red from Chile (50 cents from each bottle sold goes to breast cancer research).

Trabanco’s take on drinking wine is that it should be opened, shared and enjoyed, not remain on the shelf because it’s too expensive. “I learned this from a restaurant named Paul’s in Clayton years ago,” he said. This philosophy of maintaining reasonable prices also extends to the rest of La Tropicana. “I’m doing some updating now in the café. But I still want it to be a mom and pop place, not New York. If I want New York, I go to New York,” Trabanco said.

How La Tropicana does it: Is there any magic between Trabanco and the wholesaler to arrive at decent prices? “No, no magic,” Trabanco said. “I do not take what some might call a full markup on my wines, I take what I consider an ethical markup. I don’t want wines to be intimidating to my customers. I want them to be price-friendly.”

Plaza Wine & Liquors: My sister buys her wines and spirits at Plaza Wine & Liquors in O’Fallon, Ill., because “Jason has the best deals of anyone.” Jason Tzang’s family has owned the business for 19 years, and in the last few years, Tzang has expanded the physical space to accommodate an increasing wine business.

Tzang offers everyday wines in the $7 to $15 range, but his selection extends to the high end, as well. He personally tastes everything he shows in the store. Right now, Spanish whites are “white hot” and economical. He has good buys on Toasted Head Chardonnay and other R.H. Phillips products. The new Bloom Pinot Gris from Germany is a great buy for $6.99.

How Plaza does it: Tzang price checks frequently and believes he has the best prices in St. Clair County. To keep prices down, he looks for case bargains and wines that have a larger margin for “playing with price. Particularly in Illinois, the bigger the case buy on certain wines, the better the deal. So, I am always on the lookout for those wines that I know I can sell at a great price to my clientele,” Tzang said.

West County Liquors: Just a couple of years ago, this store on Manchester Road was a Dunkin’ Donuts. Then, Velizar Tchatalbachev, a native of Bulgaria, opened up a wine and liquor store. And not just any wine and liquor store, but one that specializes in Eastern European wines. West County offers many recognizable brands, but the real finds are wines from Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Croatia and Hungary, with most prices below $10. As I was admiring the displays of crystal bottles of liqueurs shaped like instruments, several construction workers came in for beer and made the comment, “Coldest beer in town.”

Another niche that Tchatalbachev has created is that if any wine, beer or spirit is available in Missouri, he can get it in just one to two days. West County features 30 different flavors of juices and nectars, as well as a cooler full of microbrews from all over the world.

How West County does it: Tchatalbachev’s brother owns a vineyard and distillery in Bulgaria and those wines are excellent values. Said Tchatalbachev, “I believe I am able to pass my savings along to the customer because of my contacts in Eastern Europe. The dollar abroad is paying off favorably for U.S. consumers.”

Don’t forget to check out your neighborhood ethnic markets, like Global Foods Market in Kirkwood and J. Viviano & Sons on The Hill, for unusual and economically priced wines.

David Hromadka, son of the Vincent of Vincent’s 12th Street Market, is the wine guru at his dad’s place. “Basically, anything that is intoxicating I take care of at the market,” Hromadka said. Customers drive 40 percent of his selection, and his personal taste makes up the other 60 percent. The wine selection is right across the aisle from the Little Debbies and includes the mass-produced wine in the big bottles –
Inglenook, Woodbridge – along with specialty wines from Argentina, Missouri, Italy, New Zealand and Germany.

The secret to finding good buys on wine is to break out of the typical purchase, the usual under-$10 California White Zin, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Be experimental and adventurous, check out those shelves that hold treasures from Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Romania, as well as France, Italy and, yes, even California. They are just sitting there, ready to be taken home and enjoyed.