Going outlet

Grocery Outlet’s Brenda Thompson pours a sample at the store’s monthly wine tasting.

Grocery Outlet’s Brenda Thompson pours a sample at the store’s monthly wine tasting.

Photo/Mark Tiar

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Let me tell you something. My wife loves Grocery Outlet, so, by extension, I do too. The bargain prices, an impressive selection of what they call NOSH (natural, organic, specialty, healthy) and a little thrill of the hunt—it can’t be beat. You can’t count on the same products always being there, and you never know what might show up on the shelves. Items approaching their “best by” dates, discontinued products, packaging changes—these are all reasons things end up at what we affectionately call “the GrocOut.”

My wife jokingly suggested I shouldn’t write this column. Now, everybody will shop there and snap up all the best stuff.

Sadly, Grocery Outlet’s appeal has never extended to its beer department. The store offers a surprisingly broad range of brews, from macrobrewery rotgut to specialty regional craft, but the lack of quality control doesn’t fly for a beer geek like me. Things like fall seasonal pumpkin beers sitting on the shelf in spring, and warm shelf turds with “keep refrigerated” labels, months past their “enjoy by” dates, are disappointing.

But that’s the beer. I don’t have a connoisseur’s eye for wine, so I’ve hesitated to buy any of the abundant sub-$10, screw cap, unknown vineyard bottles stocked at the three local Grocery Outlets. Not that I’m spending top dollar elsewhere, but my consumer’s caution has kept me from rolling the dice in the wine department. As it turns out, I was missing the easiest opportunity to find something decent—free wine tastings!

If you’re like me, you’ve done wine tastings at charity events where tasting means “all you can drink for the price of a ticket” or fancy affairs with people commenting about the jammy highlights and tannic notes. GrocOut tastings are nothing like either of those. They’re really just tastings—the goal of which is solely to give you a chance to try wines, sans pretense or binge drinking. Once a month, Brenda Thompson picks out a few wines and pours small samples to interested shoppers. (I spoke to Thompson at the Kietzke store where tastings are held the second Friday of each month. The Lemmon Valley store hosts them on the third Friday. Stores are independently operated so availability varies by location.)

On my visit, Thompson was pouring an Australian rosé, a lovely Pinot Grigio, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. All were perfectly drinkable to my layman’s palate, no complaints. Bottles ranged in price from $4-6. Samples were served in tiny plastic cups, just enough to get a taste, but even after all four, not enough to catch a buzz. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of a crowd gathered, mingling socially and discussing what they liked. Instead, I was tasting alone. (It was pretty early. Thompson said that more people usually come later.)

Thompson described how she chooses tasting wines. Sometimes she considers upcoming holidays or seasons. Other times it’s what’s well stocked or what’s on sale. While she isn’t the store’s wine buyer, she watches what’s popular.

Shoppers can get a case discount during wine tastings—and a guarantee: wine that you don’t like can be returned for a refund or for credit toward another wine.

Bottom line—a Grocery Outlet wine tasting isn’t a great opportunity for drinking or socializing, but for discovering decent, cheap wine without risk, it’s a win.