I did NOT get into a Twitter Fight With Total Wine

Really, I didn’t. I swear.

Where it all started today was with this post from @BeerInBaltimore, who’d spied this sign at a Total Wine location for American Craft Beer Week:

Needless to say, the fires got lit and a conversation ensued. A lot of stuff got brought up, from the nature of what ‘craft’ is to the merits of undercover macros like Shock Top and Blue Moon as ‘gateway beers’ for those unfamiliar to craft beer to the nature of large versus small retailers and their role in the movement. Here’s a quick (by my standards) recap of what I think are the important things to take away from this:

As far as the ‘gateway beer’ concept goes; the gang at Total and I have different opinions. I don’t consider Blue Moon or Shock Top a gateway to anything but more profit and shelf space for the macro producers who put them out, and many of those chiming in today seem to agree. At one point I mentioned Port City’s excellent Optimal Wit as something I’d consider a gateway; I’ve sold Victory’s Prima Pils for YEARS as THE gateway beer for those who thought craft beer too haughty or exclusive. There are too many great craft options available these days–and local ones at that no matter where you are–to say that the best gateways for new beer enthusiasts are made by the two biggest corporations in the industry, who by the day appear to be headed down the path toward being the SINGLE biggest corporation in the industry. Maybe Blue Moon sends someone down a path that leads to further exploration, but let’s not make things out to be more than they are.

The big point about today’s discussion in my opinion is this: Beer Geeks of the world–what did you expect? I know how this is going to sound for the next few sentences, but I’ll just say it for the sake of saying it; we’re talking about Total Wine here. Not exactly Indie, right? Who else is going to have the scratch to create a banner like the one above and who else is gonna hang it up? The big supermarket chains are only just dipping their toes in the craft beer ocean; like it or not, this is what Total is.

Here’s the important part: There’s nothing wrong with that. Total is a fantastic resource for beer and wine fans alike; they’re convenient and usually well-stocked and if you get lucky you can meet a specialist there and develop a relationship over time that can expand your knowledge and enjoyment of whatever booze you have a taste for. But if you think they’re keeping all the lights on only by way of the craftiest craft that ever crafted, you’re just being naive. About six years ago I left the wine/beer biz and went to work at a small guitar shop here in town. We were right down the road from a Guitar Center location. Customers liked to play it up as if there was some big rivalry; like we were fighting The Man all day everyday, and to tell the truth it’s fun to think that you are. Except the reality is that one day you’re a nice specialty shop with cool stuff and the next day you have to find a niche and step up your game because the Big Box down the road knows how cool people think you are. It’s not fighting The Man; it’s fighting for survival. That little shop I worked at is thriving now; in the time since I left it’s found its groove and become so good at what it does that most of us in the area who play find it irreplaceable. That’s how you survive in business; you make yourself irreplaceable.

But that’s just business. Guitar Center has not only gotten by selling the biggest brands; while they make the vast majority of their money off of them they’ve also gone out of their way to respond to the high-end and independent market by ordering in on small house luthiers, amp builders, and effects producers, which allows those small guys to grow and thrive. Total’s the same way. So don’t light your torches over them hanging an InBev banner for ACBW; if you must, have your little chuckle at Shock Top being craft’s representative and move on (which for the record was all I was originally doing on Twitter today). When 7-11 or CVS hangs that banner, light ‘em up.

The only real bone I had to pick today was with this tweet from the @TotalWine account:

“Hear U, but folks, let it go…advocate BEER: bring ppl 2 Craft”

That’s just some cognitive dissonance there. You got called out by Beer Geeks for touting Shock Top for ACBW–I say own it. Don’t tell us we’re the problem after you hang that thing up when it could just as easily be a print-out or chalkboard with a Dogfish Head, Stone, Victory, New Belgium, Sierra, Sam, or Lagunitas logo up there, or any one of hundreds of craft breweries spearheading an exciting new era in the beer business. Total is putting on great tastings all over the country this week to celebrate ACBW for sure, but the average consumer–the one that doesn’t know anything about anything past Blue Moon or Shock Top–doesn’t need to see those logos on banners this week. All it does is legitimize the ‘macromicros’ at the expense of everyone else.

But even in this I see little to get worked up about. Total’s ACBW tasting are going to bring new people into the fold, and their buying power will make the difference between life and death for more than a few emerging craft brewers this year alone I’m sure. They do what they do; I do what I do. We’re all raising the level of awareness for craft beer and in the end that’s a good thing.

This whole post was inspired by my texting my wife earlier today. I said: “Today’s been interesting. Check my Twitter feed.” She wrote back: “Damn Nicky, you got in a Twitter fight with Total?” Well no, actually I didn’t though I know more than a few of you would have enjoyed the entertainment value if I had. Hell, just a couple years ago I would have too, and gone scorched earth about this. But I’m at a place now where I know better what to take personally and what to get upset about. This is simply a matter of perspective. If it means that much to you, just don’t shop at Total. Easy as that. If you don’t like that I don’t have some of the beers you expect to see on my shelves, don’t shop with me. Believe me, I get as many eye rolls and sighs of disappointment every week as I do thank you’s and smiles. And I send a ton of people to Total as a reliable source of beer and wine that my employer either doesn’t stock or can’t get for someone when they absolutely need it. As Beer Geeks, we’ve helped spur a real revolution within an industry that had never really had one here in America, but our blog posts and Tweets and Facebook groups don’t add up to the impact of one person making one purchasing decision. Under all the passion and debate and history, this is a business. Never forget that. Keep it in mind at all times, then make your choice.

Until next time.

 

p.s. I’ve known a number of Total employees over the years, and they’ve been great folks who have a genuine love for beer and wine and look to help their customers every bit as much as I do. If Total Wine takes offense to anything I’ve written here it certainly is not intended and I’m available to chat in any venue if further discussion is warranted. As always, my views are my own and do not reflect those of Arrowine nor any of the breweries I mentioned in support of.

13 responses to “I did NOT get into a Twitter Fight With Total Wine

  1. No offense, but I receive better service at Total Wine than I do at smaller retailer like Arrowine or Rick’s (RIP), not to mention better selection and prices. I the latter two are beyond your control but you could always improve your service standards.

    I also dislike the way you villianize TW bc they’re a “big business” in comparison to your store, esp when you were frustrated with your distributor’s inability to meet your demand. Do small businesses such as your not strive to grow and become successful? Of course not. Instead of lashing out at the successful, invest that energy into becoming more successful yourself.

    Regards.

  2. Ok, I keep trying to respond without ranting. Here goes:

    I didn’t villainize anyone. I in fact went out of my way not to. If that’s all you saw, then that’s all you wanted to see and there’s nothing I can do to make you feel any differently.

    ‘RIP’ Rick’s? Good people lost their jobs when that store closed because, among MANY reasons, folks near Landmark bought their wine & beer at Total instead because it’s convenient and cheap. Some of us prefer independents; some of us even bust our asses every day growing our independent stores and making them more successful. We’re doing just fine, and so am I.

    Unless you really want to have a conversation, I’d keep the condescending libertarian-sounding triumph-of-the-free-market stuff off of here and consider asking a question. I’d actually like to hear about your experiences with Arrowine and Rick’s; maybe get a better understanding of what it is you prefer about Total. If you’re not interested, don’t waste your time or mine.

  3. I’ll chime in with my experience’s with Rick’s, positives and negatives.

    For two years it was my go to shop (until it closed), in there at least once a week, sometimes two or more depending on what came in. The biggest positive over Total Wine is communication and treatment during special releases/new arrivals. Chris did a good job at the end of Rick’s taking care of the regulars and having a good system for the big releases. Quickly posted to facebook or twitter, made a list for reserving beer, took phone orders, knew what was supposed to come in. Prices were normally $0.50-1.50 more per 6 pack or bomber. I could deal with that with the service and treatment I received. From my time dealing with them I believe their standard markup for beer was 30% over their cost. They also send out some chances to order some more expensive but less seen in the area, BFM and a couple I can’t think of off the top of my head.

    Negatives compared to total wine: Not able to buy single beers, this is huge and is one reason I like stopping by TW every once in a while. Almost every beer they sell could be purchased by the bottle. Nothing is worse then paying $10+ for a new 4/6pack and it being disappointing. The one beer shop I’ve been in that is in my mind perfect is Charleston Beer Exchange. They sell everything by singles, have their whole stock online and searchable (HUGE), post everything quickly to facebook/twitter/blog, and have growlers too (hope VA sees more of this).

    Regarding Arrowine: I went in two weeks ago for the first time and it seemed very wine-centric. I like your email updates and the presales which is an awesome idea in general. I will start to go more often as it is now the only shop that is not TW in the Arl area. I will try to find you next time i’m in the shop and introduce myself. Always like to learn the business side of industry.

  4. I think you make some valid points here without getting on your soapbox. I think many people don’t understand the difference between stating an opinion based on some emotions and letting emotions state an opinion. You hit the sweet middle-ground well but obviously this will always step on some toes.

    You said a conversation piece I often say to those in new to the craft beer game: this is a business. If you don’t see it as such than you don’t see the strings above the puppets. Not to say that I haven’t met some amazing friends in the industry, but at the end of the day friendship doesn’t pay bills. Moving stock does. And that means using “crafty” aka Shock Top and Blue Moon in order to have the means of carrying the Hopslams and Cantillons as well as newcomers who need local exposure.

    I equate it much to the music industry: bring in the big, popular act onto the roster to bring in the more nuanced acts that create hype and push the envelopes of what music can be.

    In the end not everyone is able to meet a passionate beer geek to bloom their love for beer and sometimes it takes a large seller like Total to give someone access to good beer beyond what total may consider the typical gateway beers. And as you said: that is okay.

    Kudos.

    • Actually, being in bands and bumming around as a guitar player in my early 20s gave me an appreciation for this I didn’t even realize until I was living it. It’s a very good analogy; Tony Magee brings this up often as well. I think it comes up wherever there is a business based on the subjective.

  5. @Rich:
    Thanks for this. The single beer sales were a thing all of us debated at Rick’s, and we went back-and-forth on it quite a bit. Actually, back when I was there we weren’t even sure exactly whether it was even legal to do. I eventually started to there, and it went over well enough but the vast majority of our sales were packs. I don’t break packs at Arrowine because I don’t have that much space to begin with, and I simply don’t want the clutter.
    Total’s dedication to offering singles is actually my favorite thing that they do. I think that alone makes them a welcome and valuable resource for beer fans. I swing by occasionally to snag a couple, as beer distributors don’t supply samples as readily as wine distributors do. So I’m with you there. I try to use my tasting lineups every Saturday to give customers the opportunity to try out beers that they otherwise might be reticent to spend the money on–this stuff can get pricey, and I don’t expect anyone to buy something simply because I say it’s good. Even if I think it is, we all taste things differently and there’s no substitute for trying something out and making the decision on your own.

    Arrowine is extremely wine-centric–it’s right there in the name. In fact, I wasn’t hired to handle beer at all but it just happened to come up after I started. For years I’ve thought that Arrowine needed to be as good a beer store as it is a wine store, and am doing what I can to make that happen. My current selection is probably in the neighborhood of 250-300 beers max., and I don’t think I want it to get larger. I’ve done the 400+ beer selection thing at Rick’s; it’s neat for folks walking in for the first time but the reality is all those beers take sales away from each other, which limits how often I need to restock and how much I need to buy when I do, which also affects pricing.
    Considering the sheer number of places you can go within a 10-minute driving radius of Arrowine (2 Harris Teeters, Whole Foods, Giant, Safeway, Westover Market, the market down the road from us–hell, even Lebanese Taverna stock good beer now) I’ve decided not to take on many of the same beers/breweries you’ll find in other places. I run with the everyday stuff that is successful–regional breweries in particular, but a LOT of Bell’s, Dogfish, Lagunitas as well–and then seek out beers that I think are interesting, or pushing creative ideas forward, or simply well-turned out versions of classic styles.

    Arrowine is a wine store first, but beer has grown exponentially over the past couple of years–even more than I thought it could. I’m excited by the prospect of what our beer department can grow into being, but it’s not going to be like every other store out there.

    If you can, try to stop by during one of our Saturday afternoon tastings. We run from 1-4 every Saturday and I’d love to take a few minutes to chat.

  6. I shopped at Rick’s for years and the service greatly improved when Chris took over. I sincerely wish Chris and the staff well.

    I’ve only been to Arrowine once so I can’t comment on service, selection yada yada but I frequent Norm’s in Vienna pretty regularly and their service is outstanding as well.

    That being said, I have no problem shopping at Total. Most of the staff knows me by name and they’ll even set aside some of the more pain-in-the-ass-to-find brews for me until I return. Can’t ask for much more.

    • Norm’s one of the good guys. I’m a big fan.
      Good to hear about the service at Total. I was never a frequent customer of theirs, even before I got into the business, but the service used to be one of the major complaints about their locations. I can’t speak to it much anymore since I only run in-and-out for quick single pick-ups.

  7. I got held up last weekend, dc brau and union market got the best of me…i’ll stop by and introduce myself this weekend

  8. Regardless of the quality of service at Total Wine or any of the smaller stores, the issue at hand is something like Shock Top or Blue Moon being on a banner for ACBW. Neither is a craft beer by definition and shouldn’t be up there. Game, Set, Match – Beermonger.

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