Coffee Geeks Meet Grape Nuts: Starbucks Goes Deeper Into Wine
Starbucks announced yesterday that it will be adding wine and beer to its menu at select locations in Chicago, Atlanta, and Southern California. This is actually an expansion of its foray into alcoholic beverages: in 2010, the coffee colossus started offering wine and beer at a handful of stores in the Pacific Northwest. The Starbucks news comes just weeks after the hamburger chain White Castle began serving wine and beer at one of its restaurants in Indiana, a test run that is being conducted with an eye to possibly adding alcohol sales at other outlets. Meanwhile, drugstore giant Walgreen recently opened an upscale pharmacy in Chicago that includes a wine department stocked with hundreds of offerings. Walgreen has been selling wine again since 2010 (it had stopped selling alcohol in the mid-1990s), but the new Chicago location is apparently its first venture into high-end wines, and some of the choices are extravagant; for instance, the store is selling the 2006 Penfolds Grange for $450. The Grange would definitely look interesting sharing a basket with a bottle of Maalox and a box of Trojans; talk about unlikely pairings.
So wine is turning up in some strange places these days, which I suppose can be taken as an encouraging sign—further evidence that wine is shedding its highbrow image and becoming a mainstream American habit. Wine is even encroaching on beer’s turf; a number of baseball stadiums are now selling cabernets and chardonnays alongside the Bud Light. Of course, wine is now on the menu at baseball games for the same reason prominent chefs, restaurateurs, and food purveyors (Danny Meyer, Lobel’s) are turning up at the old ballpark: teams are trying to cater to the most affluent fans, and offering wine is seen as one way of pulling them in and keeping them happy (and spending money). So while I do think wine is losing the elitist taint, some businesses are clearly using wine as a means of appealing to those with particularly deep pockets.
The Starbucks story is the one that most intrigues me. At the moment, Starbucks offers wine and beer at five locations in Seattle and one in Portland, Oregon. The wine choices include an Oregon Pinot Noir, a Prosecco, and an Argentine Malbec. The company hasn’t disclosed whether the alcoholic beverages have boosted traffic but says the addition of wine and beer has proven popular with customers, and the fact that they are now expanding the program suggests that this is indeed the case. I could certainly see kicking back with a wine or beer at a Starbucks; some of the stores are quite comfortable, and depending on the hour and my mood, a wine or beer might be preferable to the house specialty.
However, Starbucks is known as a coffee merchant, and given the strength of its brand identity, I wonder if it can really diversify on a broad scale. Some Starbucks patrons in Southern California, interviewed by The Los Angeles Times, were not enthusiastic about the new menu items. “If I wanted a beer, I’d go to bar,” Doug Tanaka, a 48-year-old police officer from Valencia, told the paper. “I bring my grandkids in here. I don’t want to have to deal with a drunk if I’m having coffee.” (Given that Tanaka is a cop, one can assume that the feeling would be mutual.) It will be interesting to see if Starbucks can fashion itself into a combination coffeehouse-wine bar. Let’s just hope they don’t get cutesy and put a merlot macchiato on the menu.