Tastings: On a D.C. wine-buying holiday

WASHINGTON, D.C -- What joy! What bliss. Today I am the happiest of Pennsylvania wine shoppers because I am buying wines for dinner tonight in a wine-lover's paradise -- Washington's MacArthur Beverages.

I have been a customer of this legendary wine- and spirit purveyor for more than 50 years, dating back to my days as a student at nearby Georgetown University. Although the names and faces in the store have changed over the years, the narrow aisles and shelves stuffed with bottles from every wine-producing region in the world look much the same.

Radically different, however, are the names of those regions. I'd love to see an inventory from the old days but there were few if any bottles from South America or New Zealand and only a small sampling from Australia and a tiny assortment from Napa and Sonoma.

Today, a big chunk of the store is stocked with New World wines, but there still is an awesome selection of the old favorites from France, Italy, Spain and Germany. In my student days, I never paid more than $6 for a Chateau Lafitte or a Schloss Johannisberg Trockenbeerenauslese with at least 10 years of bottle age. Six dollars was the most we ever paid for any Grand Cru French wine from Burgundy or Bordeaux or any prized German Riesling! There were no doubt great bottles from Spain and Italy as well but our mantra was Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany, period. Thank goodness I took advantage of that opportunity then since I certainly can't afford to drink them now. (Today's prices: Chateau Lafitte 1989, $899; Schloss Johannisberg Trockenbeerenauslese, $2,638; Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet 2009, another $6 bottle in the old days, $3,695).

My Grand Cru days are over but I enjoy my trips to MacArthur Beverages as much as ever. The store still is staffed with a team of knowledgeable consultants who can pair wines to menu items, suggest a great under-$20 bottle for a leg of lamb, or enlighten a customer on the differences between a Syrah from Paso Robles and one from Australia. It is hard, if not impossible, to stump them.

Want to learn a lot about wine? Just hang out in the store and listen to the consultants advising customers and answering their questions. I spent a half-hour with Rick DeLauder, a 37-year veteran in retail wine sales. He turned me on to a luscious bottle of Chilean Pinot Noir for $12.99 (Errazuriz Max Reserva). For an aperitif, I nabbed a liter bottle of 2012 Austrian Gruner Veltliner der Pollerhof, also $12.99. We were in town for several days babysitting our teenaged grandsons so I added a Bodega Magama Navarra 2007 Dignus for $17.99; a Guigal Cote du Rhone Blanc, 2011, $12.99; and another Rhone wine, Nicolas Perrin 2010 Syrah/Viognier, $12.99.

You can check out the store online at bassins.com.

The selections available at Washington wine stores are an embarrassment of riches for a consumer who is normally saddled with Pennsylvania state store constraints. MacArthur carries 5,000 wines. They remain committed to the Old World with about 4,000 wines coming from Europe and only 20 percent from New World regions.

Another wine experience I had on this visit to Washington was Total Wine, which was around the corner from our son's home in McLean, Va. Total is a giant chain of 90 superstores nationwide. There is little doubt that they have the widest selection of wine, spirits and beer under one roof anywhere and they advertise the lowest prices. Do they have more buying power than the state of Pennsylvania? They stock 8,000 wines, 2,500 beers and 3,000 spirits. They offer customers a 440-page catalog that also is a useful textbook on wine-making, wine-tasting and grape varieties; it includes in-depth portraits of each wine-making region in the world with first-rate maps and information. It is as filled with useful information as any $35 book in my library. I suggest that you Google Total Wine and if you ever are close to one of its mega stores, stop in, get your complimentary copy of its guide to wine and stroll through the endless wide aisles of wines of the world.

All of this is a reminder of what we are missing as our legislature drags out the privatization process of our state wine and spirits shops. The polls show that the majority of the population want private liquor sales. When will Harrisburg deliver what the constituents so dearly desire?

Maybe if we took them on a field trip to Washington, they would get the idea.

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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