New Hampshire State Liquor Stores – a sample of one

Coming back from a terrific weekend in Maine, where blueberries are fresh and the lobsters still pair as well with white burgundy as ever, I steered the Dr Vino mobile into the last exit for the New Hampshire State Liquor Store off of I-95. (Incidentally, the state store is also paired at the rest area with a “Made in New Hampshire store,” as opposed to the “Christmas Tree Shops” along the way that might as well be called the “made in China store.”)

My curiosity was piqued: was this state store a wine lover’s nirvana, delivering on the promise of great prices thanks to their bulk buying? Or was it a dreary place, with low inventory, poor selection, surly or ignorant staff?

A bit of both. Some of the pricing appeared to be pretty sharp as the buyers were clearly able to wring concessions from big wine producers and pass those savings on to consumers, as they should since they are acting as both wholesaler and retailer. (There may have been good savings for spirits too but those aren’t my bailiwick.) But while there were a few wines from good importers and producers on the metal shelves under the fluorescent lights, there wasn’t a lot of intrigue for the wine geek. Consider the rosé selection, which had only a handful of selections with everything except for Domaine Tempier 2010 ($34.99) lackluster. Or the Champagne section where the buyer didn’t get the memo about the exciting grower Champagnes that have made it to our shores in the last decade. Some snapshots: “French wine” had one aisle and “Italian wine” had just a half; Loire wines were patchy; Beaujolais was entirely from one negociant and Burgundy was more negociant-driven than domaine; California was by and large a snoozefest.

In the end, the state liquor store seems to focus on volume and price. There’s certainly a place for that in today’s economy. But the store is not in the vanguard of progressive wine retailers in America. Even Costco, from what I understand, throws a few more bones to wine geeks in states where they sell wine.

What’s your experience of the NH State Liquor Store–do you think it holds sufficient intrigue for a wine enthusiast to make a stop? Even though I left with a bottle Chateau Musar 2001 ($35.99) that I didn’t know I needed, I wouldn’t be inclined to make a pit stop there again. Unless the kids needed the rest room or I suddenly needed at five-liter jug of Absolut.

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14 Responses to “New Hampshire State Liquor Stores – a sample of one”

  1. You got lucky, friend, in scoring a Musar. Most of the NHSLC stores that like out here in the hinterlands (i.e. not along a major highway) are much weaker, in my (regrettably vast) experience. Never mind grower champagne; it seems as if management has never heard of the likes of Riesling, Cabernet Franc, vin jaune, the entire Loire Valley, Rhône blends, Jerez, Greece, or that wine is actually made by near neighbor, New York State. Staff are poorly trained and service is unreliable. It recently took four and a half weeks to get one case of wine transferred from an outlet 70 miles away to one closer to our home; we were told at one point that “it would be easier if you just drove there.” The stores seem to exist mostly to move the hard stuff — one bottle at a time. Alas.

  2. “do you think it holds sufficient intrigue for a wine enthusiast to make a stop?”

    Definitely not. We have one in town and I rarely go there (except for Tanqueray), instead driving to one of the Hanover Co-Ops for anything interesting in the wine dept. (And even they don’t have the selection what wine stores in Maine have.)

  3. Yes, Meg, the Cabernet Franc! How can they not have it? And their South African wine selection is minimal. I agree, they mostly exist for hard liquor sales.

  4. Having lived in the Buffalo NY area and moving back to NH, it was a shock to the system to see exactly how limited this state is in the selections available. I was used to stores like Premier Liquors in Orchard Park, NY ( a Buffalo suburb- home of the Buffalo Bills football team)where the store was the size of the Target store next door and more than 1/2 the shelf space was devoted wines from all over. NH limits themselves to about 5000 labels, and not all are stocked at all locations, only the fast movers. Those tend to be from Constellation Brands, and the other large conglomerates. They do keep certain labels reserved for outside retail markets like supermarkets, wine specialty stores and the such, but with the state being the distributor, the selections can still be limiting. Thankfully, we are able to order on-line directly from wineries and other locations, but have to pay an additional 9% or more tax for the state, in addition to the shipping charges.

  5. It’s hit or miss but I always stop at the same store when returning from vacation. I’ve been able to pick up stuff like the D’Angerville wines for much less than in NY (and no tax). My best score, the ’99 Clos des Ducs for around $35 (on release so a while ago). Sometimes there are some well priced 1/2 bottles of good stuff too.

  6. I hope you at least stopped at some Maine wine shops while you were here. They can be much more interesting. And you did hit the nail on the head with respect to the NH stores. I’ve only stopped at the stores on the opposite side of the highway on the way home to Maine, but I assume the selection is the same. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, but overall pretty lackluster. Very mainstream, and little for a true wine fan. Although last year they had a very good current-vintage rose selection. Which probably didn’t sell well enough, because this year the vintages were mostly a year out of date.

  7. The State of NH does not act as the wholesaler, only the retailer.

  8. Meg, Molly, Marc- ugh. At least there are some private stores, unlike PA.

    Richard- I guess that would follow since d’Angerville is imported by Diageo, which has many spirits brands of course. But for the 99 vintage it was Chateau & Estates before Diageo so I guess that didn’t appy at that point…

    Bob- I didn’t get a chance to visit any wine stores in Maine, sadly. Does that law prohibiting children from viewing wine tastings still stand?

    James- From their 2010 report: “The primary source of revenue for the Liquor Commission is derived from the retail and wholesale sales of
    wine and spirits from the seventy-six wine and spirit stores located throughout the State of New Hampshire as well as the two warehouse locations in Nashua and Concord.”

  9. Molly, I shop at the same Coops; we must be neighbors. Nota bene that the Lebanon Coop has a solid wine department run by a knowledgeable manager, Dan King, but his hands are tied because he can only stock what the state sells, and when he orders, he cannot specify vintage (this is especially unfathomable). Moreover, the Coop is a $60 million business — don’t think dusty bulk bins; this is more like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods — and their wine department brings in a substantial part of the revenue. As such, they’re one of the largest, most successful private wine shops in NH. In the last few years, the State began levying a stiff tax (it was originally 20%, but I think retailers talked them down to 15% for the first year) on any private stores that sold above a certain dollar volume per year. Dan told me last week that the Coop is about to hit that dollar threshold for 2011, just as they head into OND. These private stores already pay more than the State stores do for the same wine, but as soon as the tax kicks in, every bottle that comes in will be marked up another 20%. It’s amazing they can compete at all.

  10. Meg,

    I think you might slightly mis-informed. New Hampshire is a Control state, they form a quasi 4th tier to the 3 tier system. Producers (wineries and distillers) sell to distributors (MS Walker, Horizon, Pine State, Southern, etc). Those distributors then sell the goods to the NHSLC, who them sell them to grocery stores, independent wine shops (the wine steward, Angelas, etc), as well as to the retail outlets of the liquor stores. There are several discounting levels that are provided to permit holders. Off Premise with purchases under recieve a 20 % discount off of the retail price (9.99 shelf price less 20% =$7.99 purchase price) Off premise over only get a 15% discount.
    Retailers other than the NHSLC can price wine at what ever price they want. They may choose to sell the 9.99 wine for 11.99 keep the markup high (11.99 less 7.99=$4.00 a bottle)

  11. So near, yet so far. Next time drive a little further south and visit Marty’s in Newton (just west of Boston). They’ve got the good stuff.

  12. New Hampshire State Liquor Stores may not have the selection that earns your lofty endorsement but it is a well run business that earned the state a hundred million dollars last year. I am not a big fan of socialism but at least this state industry take-over makes a reasonable attempt at reducing the need for higher taxes. As a NH resident I love it when my Massachusetts friends shop in the Live Free or Die state. Mixed in with all the “Average Joe” stuff (80% of whom buy wine for $10.00 or less) are some great bargains. You have to shop regularly to notice them and be ready to scoop them up. Recently I purchased Duckhorn 2006 Napa Valley Merlot 1.5L for $50.00. You are correct, the NHSLS do not offer the oenophile a haven of selection and awe, but it does allow me to fill my cellar with a good enough selection of wine that always impress my friends.

  13. […] […]

  14. In NH you can purchase Beer and Wine at Grocery stores which give NH residents alternative venues to the liquor stores. The state runs all liquor outlets, some have a wider selection of wine then other outlets. The beauty is since NH runs the store they don’t need to tax. The profit they make is the tax, this allows them to sell alcohol cheaper than most states. 40% of the states revenue comes from Alcohol and Tobacco sales.

    NH is the only state in the country without a Sales or Income tax. An income tax is the most costly to implement because you tax every worker and leads to more paper work. At the national level it’s estimated that our thousands of pages of tax code cost the government 20 to 30 cents of every dollar collected for tax administration.

    NH is creative at avoiding that cost, not that it would be as high as the federal level but you get the point. It’s not in their favor to implement a sales tax because they get large swarms of shoppers from the surrendering states who often stop at the NH liquor store to be Liquor or wine.

    Instead they tax prepared meals and hotels, largely paid by out of state resident’s. someone buys a $2,000 TV at best buy tax free and then goes to the food court to get a burger that they get taxed on.

    They also tax Capital Gains and interest at 5%. Their is also a business tax and a statewide property tax. Even with the Statewide property my taxes are less then I would pay in Massachusetts and a local Property tax. The state wide property tax is cheap to implement since the town already collects the property tax. The town collects the tax on behave of the state. So instead of the collecting a tax return for each worker the state simply collects taxes from the roughly 200 towns. Basically they collect 200 checks and they’re done. It’s a bit genius in that if you rent you are indirectly paying the property taxes without the need for an income tax return.

    I read someone that 15% of alcohol purchased by Massachusetts residents are purchased in NH. Mass has 4 times the population of NH so assuming consumption is equal for every 10 purchases from NH residents 6 are purchased from Mass Residents, this is before factoring in the other surrounding states VT and ME. This is a big Revenue generator for the state.


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