With more than 700 licensed wineries in the state, plus a number of second -- usually value-minded -- labels produced by many of the established wineries, it's a challenge to choose from the wines lining grocery store shelves.
But thanks to the success of a pilot program that tested the feasibility of wine and beer tastings in grocery stores a couple of years back, any grocer now can offer samples of those products.
The Legislature passed a bill approving the practice in 2010. So far, the program is off to a slow but promising start.
Winemakers and consumers will get the most out of the new law, but the Northwest's great microbreweries will find some new customers too.
Of course, there are rules the stores must follow. Food must be offered with the tastings, samples are limited to 2 ounces or less, and the stores must rope off an area to conduct the tastings in order to keep those under 21 from the samples.
Stores have to inform the state's Liquor Control Board about scheduled tastings and pay that agency a $200 annual fee to participate in the program.
That all seems reasonable. There needs to be a little more control on alcohol sampling than on free food samples. Though we could argue that folks should be limited to a certain number of free food samples. It's not always the healthy stuff that's being promoted.
But the same principle behind food samples -- if you taste and like it, you probably will buy it -- applies to adult beverages.
There is no better way to determine whether you like a particular wine or beer than to sample it. And retailers hope that when consumers are shopping and find a beverage they like, they will make a purchase on the spot.
Wine buyers are valued grocery store customers. A recent study estimated that wine buyers spend twice as much per grocery trip as those who don't buy wine. A local grocery store owner estimates his wine-buying customers spend 30 percent more than other shoppers.
One enterprising chain of stores on the west side paired wine samples with tastes of prime rib, increasing sales of the pricey cut of meat during the holiday season. That's some savvy marketing and a great use of the new liquor license endorsement that allows for in-store tastings.
And while some folks will buy a wine they never have tasted in the $10 to $15 range, many will not spring for a $40 bottle without trying it first.
With more than 200 grocery stores in the state participating in the program, we expect to see in-store tastings become more commonplace.
It's a big benefit for consumers to be able to try a variety of wines outside of the traditional winery tasting room.
And if the data holds true, it should be a boon to wineries and breweries as well, creating new customers they may not have otherwise reached.