Even at the tender age of 58 I do find myself occasionally “waxing nostalgic;” remembering what shopping use to be like. The retail sector of our economy has changed significantly over the last 50 years with advances in technology, supply management and internet sales driving the behaviors of most consumers. Small, independent businesses have suffered as shopping trends have moved customers away from our Main Streets to malls, then big box stores and, most recently, to the internet. Gone are the days when customers would routinely patronize their corner hardware store or pharmacy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages to shopping on the internet or at big box stores. Prices are often lower; the selection can be greater and having products delivered to your front door saves time and effort. The tradeoffs are the decline of personalized service and availability of unique, craft or small production items.
The world of wine has not been immune to these retail trends. Small, locally-owned wine shops with carefully curated inventories are few and far between. My introduction to wine occurred in a boutique-sized store on the Main Street in Nashua, New Hampshire that is run by a wine educator and former sommelier. I started attending tastings and classes on wine varietals and regions and before I knew it I found a new passion. Thankfully this shop has developed a loyal clientele. The business is growing and has recently expanded, tripling its floor space. Sadly this is not the norm though. Here in the Tucson area there are but a handful of independent wine shops, none close to SaddleBrooke. But you would be making a mistake if these businesses were not on your radar.
One such shop with a long history and reputation in Tucson is Plaza Liquors. Located in a tiny strip mall on N. Campbell Ave, two blocks south of Glenn Street, it is very easy to drive by this store without a second glance. The storefronts modest appearance belies its contents. Founded by Mark Thompson in 1978, Plaza Liquors has become an institution in the area with a loyal following of customers from the University neighborhoods to the Catalina foothills. Plaza Liquors is consistently awarded the “Best wine/liquor store” in the Best of Tucson competition hosted by the Tucson Weekly publication and for good reason.
Entering the store it is hard not to have a flashback to the “package stores” of our youth. The store is stocked floor to ceiling with product, the aisles narrow and a row of coolers lines one wall. A closer look will reveal an expansive inventory of wines from around the world, along with a broad selection of craft beers and well-regarded spirits. Browsing through the aisles I’ve come across quite a few interesting bottles, as well as wines from two of my favorite producers (Beckmen and Andrew Murray) that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else in town.
I recently met with the store’s manager and wine buyer, Allen Rodriguez. He told me that the wine inventory is focused on smaller, family owned wineries at both a local and international level. Rodriguez said that 95 percent of his wine inventory wouldn’t be found in local grocery stores. Plaza Liquors prides itself in exceptional customer service and a knowledgeable staff, while at the same time developing a pricing strategy that is competitive with the big box wine stores. Wine and craft beer tastings are offered Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 7, although the tastings are generally suspended during the summer months.
I asked Allen to recommend a wine from his shelves that he felt was of high quality and an exceptional value and after considering the question for a moment selected a wine from Argentina - Intimo Malbec ($12). Produced by Humberto Canale with fruit sourced from the Rio Negro area of southern Argentina, Rodriguez describes this wine as “stunningly good.”
So when you become bored or frustrated with the brightly lit, big box stores with their masses of grocery cart pushing shoppers choking the aisles and checkout lanes, I suggest you take a step back in time, stop into Plaza Liquors, reminisce how retail used to be and allow the staff to help you pick out a reasonably priced wine gem.
This month I’m looking forward to meeting with the 20 fellow SaddleBrooke wine aficionados who have registered for my Institute for Learning in Retirement wine course. See you Thursday, March 1.
Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England and is available to answer your wine questions at firstname.lastname@example.org