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Figuring out the wine thing in Boston and MA

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I'm a newly arrived resident (Waltham) struggling to figure out how the wine/liquor laws work here, after years of living in the laissez-faire state of CA.

Have appreciated help on this topic that came up on earlier postings. Search engine doesn't seem to be popping up that info, so just want to confirm what I think is the case, and have some new questions.

1) You can BYOB if the restaurant does NOT have a wine/beer/liquor license? Otherwise, can't pay corkage and bring in a nice bottle?

2) No alcohol sales except bars/restaurants Sundays. No wine in any grocery stores, ever? Some Trader Joe's sell wine, but others don't? Are the prices discounted compared to regular wine shops at Trader Joe's?

3) Unlike other Costco stores in other states, wine isn't sold inside the "membership" area in the Costco in Waltham. It is substantially more expensive than discounted wine inside the "membership" area in other states. Strong guess this has to do with antiquated liquor laws here? Is this the case in Costco stores in bordering states?

4) Believe the Wine Seller was mentioned as a good place to buy wine at a reasonable price. Also Trader Joe's. Any other ideas? Am fairly knowledgeable, not looking for an owner or clerk to help me choose, just suffering from sticker shock.

5) Will be traveling around NY and New England for work. Should I be shopping for wine out of state to avoid some of these and for better prices?

6) Cheapest place to buy quality beer and liquor?

Once again, you hounds have helped me enormously on making this transition. Will have reports on restaurants, Waltham and elsewhere, shortly.

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  1. Visit a New Hampshire liquor store for best liquor prices, and while you're there, pick up a price list, which has everything on the store in it, including wine. Browse at your leisure.

    1. You've got most of the Boston Wine stuff down correctly.

      That said, you have what I think is the best, and best priced wine store in MA right there in Waltham:

      Try Gordon's on Main Street. They have a great selection and excellent prices. They were voted Best of Surburban Wine Store by Boston Magazine, but I think they are just the best for wine.

      Often I just ask David the wine guy for a recommendation and buy what he tells me. He's sold me $8-12 bottles that were as good as better known $30 bottles elsewhere. Totally knowledgable and not at all pretentious.

      New Hampshire at the big State owned liquor stores is MUCH cheaper for liquor, beer, and basic wine. Careful about buying at the big stores right on the border on the highway, because supposedly MA cops stake out the stores and bust people who are buying just to take back to MA, which is illegal. They have cars on the MA side of the border and radio the license plates ahead.

      Not really worth schlepping from CT or NYC where booze is no cheaper.

      If you really want selection at a price, Brookline liquor Mart on Comm. Ave. about 4 blocks West of Harvard is also a big importer, and have a HUGE inventory and lots of rare (expensive old wine).

      Both Marty's Newton and Brighton are also good selection.

      Martignetti's on Soldiers Field Road is also good, but the staff is not very helpful and downright pretentious at times.

      2 Replies
      1. re: FeedMe

        Brookline Liquor Mart USED to be owned by Classic Wine Imports so it is not an importer as it once was. Now it is not owned by Classic. Classic Wine Imports is now owned by The Martignetti companies whic also owns the Martignetti Liquor stores,and also owns the Silenus import company which USED to own Wine Cellar of Silene, and Martignetti also owns Gilmore as well as some other importers and beer distributors.

        You are correct however about the staff at Martignetti on soldiers Field Rd in Brighton.

        1. re: Ed

          Oh, the Martignetti companies wholesale operations go under the name of Carolina.

      2. Hi Coyote, and welcome.

        1. You are correct on the BYOB laws.
        2. Bars and restaurants can sell liquor, beer and wine after 12:00 noon on Sundays. Liquor stores can open on Sundays between Thanksgiving and New Year's. There is a limit on how many establishments a license holder can sell beer, wine, liquor at-- hence some locations of a supermarket carry beer and wine, while some do not.
        3. Don't know.
        4. Not a big wine drinker, but there is a HUGE difference between prices at various stores. I have found that the best selection is often found at a higher price.
        5. NH CAN be cheaper, but isn't always. Quite often liqur can actually be found on sale for less here. I have seen a 1.75 liter Dewar's from $29.99 to $42.99 in my area, typically $34.99 where I shop. It was also $34.99 last week in NH. I tend to pick up what I might use if it is on sale in NH, but the price difference is really not as great as the public's perception, probably based on the pricing policies of 10 yrs ago.
        6. Cheapest for beer and liquor? I just look for sales. The price of a case of Sam Adams can vary by as much as $10 depending on the store and on a sale price.

        10 Replies
        1. re: Alan H

          [2. Bars and restaurants can sell liquor, beer and wine after 12:00 noon on Sundays. Liquor stores can open on Sundays between Thanksgiving and New Year's. ]

          A caveat to this statement - liquor stores within 15 miles of the NH state border (and I believe the CT state border?) are also open to sell alcohol on Sundays year-round. For example, North Reading liquor stores on Route 28 are open, while the liquor stores in Reading are not.

          I believe this law was enacted to enable those MA stores with bordering states that allow Sunday sales from losing those alcohol sales on Sundays. Of course, the towns bordering those MA towns allowed to sell on Sunday raised a stink, but the antiquated blue laws still stand for most of the Commonwealth.

          1. re: Linda W.

            True, but at that point, you're on the highway, might as well go to New Hampshire, you're almost there.

            1. re: Alan H

              If I'm bulk-buying the alcohol, beer and wine - yes, I'd drive to NH after price comparisons. But if all I want is a 6-pack or several bottles of wine for a Sunday dinner, I'm not going to drive another 20 minutes to "maybe" save a few bucks. You can spend that much in gas for the round trip.

              (And I get to North Reading from Route 28 from where I live, so I don't need to get on the highway to get to the stores in North Reading.)

              All I was saying was that if you need a small amount of liquor/beer/wine, the MA 15-mile-from-the-border rule is easier and quicker than driving up to NH.

              1. re: Linda W.

                No argument, except that the question was based on coming from Waltham, so logically you'd probably go 95N to rt 3 N towards Nashua. Note that you are already on the highway, and another 20 miles round trip is not exactly time consuming (less than 15 min. at 80 MPH) or expensive ($1-&1.50 for gas), especially in comparison to getting off in some small town and driving around looking for the one potentially opened package store, instead of going to one in NH right on the highway.

                1. re: Alan H

                  Re: another 20 miles round trip is not exactly time
                  consuming (less than 15 min. at 80 MPH) or expensive
                  ($1-&1.50 for gas)

                  Wow, where are you getting gas for $1?

                  1. re: Joanie

                    I don't think I said I pay $1/gallon for gas.
                    If I drive 20 miles, and get 30 MPG on the highway, I can pay $1.50/gal, and only use $1 in gas.

                  2. re: Alan H

                    "...especially in comparison to getting off in some small town and driving around looking for the one potentially opened package store, instead of going to one in NH right on the highway."

                    Last time I drove up Route 3, I didn't see any outlet stores "right on the highway" the way they are on Route 93 after you cross the NH/MA border. I believe you have to drive to the Southgate Mall or to Main St. in Nashua to find the stores that sell on Sunday.

                    So to drive to Chelmsford from Waltham (or whichever MA town is 15 miles from the NH border) is just as easy as driving to Nashua and driving around looking for those NH state stores that aren't "right on the highway."

                    1. re: Linda W.

                      So drive to Portsmouth or Salem. What is your problem, anyway? I'm trying to give someone some reasonable advice based on experience, and you're crusading to keep business in Mass or something. If I lived near one of the "might be opened on Sunday" Massachusetts stores, I'd go there too, but If I had to drive 30 min. to get there, why wouldn't I take another 5 or 10 minutes to go to a store that I KNOW will be opened, is easier to find, will cost me less, and will undoubtedly have better selection?

                      1. re: Alan H

                        No problem; and I'm not crusading. I'm just giving reasonable adviced based on *my* experience on pricing and location. You drive where you want to drive; I'll do the same.

                      2. re: Linda W.

                        Besides, you keep saying 15 miles from NH--it is 10 miles.

            2. I'll try to answer what I can:

              1) I think BYOB policy is very much up to the restaurant owner. When it's allowed, it's usually a bit hush hush, not making a big deal of it. You certainly never see big signs outside or even notes on menus. I haven't been to many restaurants without a liquor license and know nothing about corkage fees, although I have heard that it is done.

              2) A tricky one, this. Liquor stores (package stores/packies) sell beer, wine and hard liquor. I've also seen wine shops that are primarily wine and beer oriented, but thinking about it, they all also sell liquor so I guess they are the same as packies. As for grocery stores, here's my understanding: each grocery store gets something like 5 liquor licenses per chain to use as they want. Since Trader Joes is a relative newcomer, the stores that opened first have the licenses. This includes Brookline and Cambridge, maybe also Needham? And 2 others, by that logic. Omni Foods in Chestnut Hill sells wine, as does Stop & Shop in Malden and Bread & Circus in Cambridge. Again, if my info is correct, there are other ones out there, but it's a big state, so they could be anywhere.

              I think the prices on wine at Trader Joes are better than in the packies.

              3) Not sure about Costco, as I haven't shopped there in other states. I always wondered why people were so gung-ho on buying wine there, because the prices never seemed that good to me. What you're saying makes it all make sense.

              4) I mentioned Best Cellars (Brookline and maybe also Cambridge) as a place to buy wine at a reasonable price (no bottle over, I think, $15, used to be $10). Wine Seller at Silene out there in Waltham has great selection, but I'm not sure the prices ever seemed that low to me.

              5&6) Personally, I don't think the prices in NH are what they are cracked up to be. I've price compared Johhny Walker, Bombay Sapphire and a few other premium brands and have seen prices actually higher in some cases. Maybe that rule applies if you are buying cheaper liquor. I'm not sure about beer prices. One place that has great selection and good prices on beer is Sav-Mor in Somerville, on Msgr. O'Brien Hwy across from Twin Cities Shopping Plaza. The place looks like a dive from outside but has great stuff inside.

              One other note about the Blue Laws (no liquor sales on Sunday.) Of course, you can get around that if you have a BBQ, or something that you forgot to get beer for, by driving 30-45 minutes up to NH or down to RI. However, you can actually buy in MA on Sunday if you know where to go. Some MA communities that border NH allow liquor sales to let their liquor merchants remain competitive. And then, of course, communities that border those border communities complain to their local govt's and get permission as well, and so on and so on. I couldn't swear to it, but I think there is a liquor store in North Reading (which is nowhere near the NH border) that's open on Sunday. So look around as you drive in the northern parts of the state, you never know what you'll see. And (go figure) that Blue Law is suspended between Thanksgiving and New Year's, which makes SOOOOO much sense. If you're going to allow it for those 6 or 8 weeks, it seems pretty hypocritical not to allow it year around but what can I say... welcome to the crazy Commonwealth.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chris VR

                North Reading is the cutoff point for liquor stores in Mass. The law is 10 miles from the border but obviously that has to be up to interpretation. ie: North Reading. If you live up Rte. 38 you can't buy in Wilmington but just up the road is Tewksbury with 4 or 5 stores you can buy in.Also the stores are open from 12:00 to 6:00 p.m.

              2. Massachuseets cities and towns exist under a crazy quilt of blue laws; some towns, (Arlington, Rockport) are even dry...

                1) Theoretically, these are right. However, I've been disallowed from bringing wine into some non-licensed places, and ALLOWED to bring my own into some licensed places, for a corking fee.

                2) Yup, some TJ's, and _some_ large grocers, actually(Omni Foods in Newton, for one) sell beer and wine, but never on Sunday(except Thanksgiving to New Years)...I think someone said because the owner is limited to the licenses they can hold?

                3)Almost all my wine comes from Trader Joes. I like the selections at the Brookline and Cambridge stores. I personally think Brookline Liquor Mart is way overpriced, and pushes a lot of bottles with pretty labels, but that's just me...I also buy at Marty's and Martignetti's.....

                Don't know about Costco...

                5) NH has great prices on liquor(heed the warning about the staies, buy on the way IN!), but is abysmal when it comes to wine. Don't bother.

                1. While some places will let you BYOB it is illegal. If the restaurant has no liquor license it is not allowed to have alcohol on the premises.
                  We find that the Wine and Cheese Cask in Somerville has excellent prices. For everyday drinking wines their monthly specials at between $5.99 and $7.99 are great. They have a mailing list and send out their monthly specials. Many places do that and it is a great way to keep up with what is on sale. The best defense in the liquor and beer market is to know your base prices. I have been places that advertise a sale on Dewars which is $2-3 higher than our local base prices. Another thing for keeping the price reasonable on liquor is that Marty's will match an advertised price so rather than schelpp all over the state and beyond (since our gas prices aren't the cheapest around either) you can do that.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: AGM/Cape Cod

                    Actually, there is NO State law barring BYOB in an unlicensed establishment, although some local laws may apply:

                    "Can everyone bring their own beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages into an establishment?

                    Not if the establishment has a liquor license. If the establishment has a liquor license, then no one can carry onto the premises their own beer, wine or other alcoholic beverages for their own private consumption.

                    If the establishment does not have a liquor license, then one must check with the city/town in which the establishment is located to learn if there is any local law dealing with bringing one's own beer onto an establishment for personal consumption. "

                    Here's a couple of other interesting liquor laws. The infamous bowling alley law, and the equally infamous Happy Hour law:

                    MGL CH 138. SEC. 16D
                    No license for the sale of alcoholic beverages shall be granted for that portion of a building to be used as a bowling alley.

                    Happy Hour Restrictions
                    204 CMR 4.00
                    No licensee or employee shall:

                    - offer or deliver any free drinks to any person or group.
                    - deliver more than two drinks to any one person at a time.
                    - sell to any person or group any drinks at a price less than the price regularly charged for such drinks during a calendar week, Sunday - Saturday, except at private functions.
                    - sell to any person or group an unlimited number of drinks during a set period of time for a fixed price, except at private functions.
                    - sell drinks to a person or group on any one day at prices less than those charged to the general public.
                    - sell beer or mixed drinks in a pitcher except to at least two or more persons at any one time.
                    - increase the amount of alcohol in a drink without proportionately increasing the price.
                    - encourage or permit any game or contest which involves drinking or the awarding of drinks as prizes.

                    Note: Licensees may offer free food or entertainment at any time.

                  2. Unlike some other posters, I have found Costco's prices to be about 20% lower on wine than most specialty wine shops (although that could just be the particular bottles I'm buying). So you might want to give it another try.

                    I also compared prices at Costco here vs CT and found them lower here, but that isn't saying much.

                    1. What helpful and interesting info on a truly baffling set of peculiar laws! Can't believe even happy hours are out of the question!

                      By coincidence, the Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer arrived today, and I was able to note the only local Trader Joe's selling wine and beer are in Brookline, Cambridge and Framingham. Can't agree with them more when they say in the Flyer: "Don't even get us started on how user-unfriendly this archaic law is!"

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Coyote

                        I believe the origin of the multi-license law is actually in protecting the individual small business owner, so say, Stop and Shop couldn't just blow out all the competition by using beer as a loss-leader in all their stores.
                        Massachusetts used to have retail pricing laws too, called fair-trade pricing, which similarly protected small merchants from the big department stores and their greater buying power.

                        1. re: Alan H

                          The way the law works is if a store wants to sell liquor they can only have 3 licences in the state. This is why there are only 3 Trader Joe's that sell wine, same for Bread and Circus and Stop and Shop.This law has been in effect for a few years so places like Kappy's are grandfatherd

                          1. re: Just kev

                            The Shaw's in Franklin near me has quite a good selection of beer and wine. It's hard for me to imagine that if Shaw's had only three licenses, this is a location they would use one for. This store used to be a Star Market and carried the beer and wine then also. Did Shaw's aquire Star's licenses with the stores? If so, Star must have had more than three to justify using one in Franklin.

                      2. You say that you go to NY. Shop there. Or shop in NJ.

                        I buy a case or two a month and buy none of it in MA. (Except inexpensive stuff at Trader Joes) Buying in NY or NJ will easily save you 15-20%.

                        Go to www.supercellars.com which is a great shop in NJ. It will give you a benchmark of prices in NJ. Or check out Gotham or Garnet in NY and your jaw will hit the floor.

                        One example=Caymus Conumdrum. The going rate in MA is about $30 a bottle. NJ is $21 or $22. Thats alot of money once you buy a case or so.

                        1. d
                          David "Zeb" Cook

                          Boy, I'm glad you asked Coyote. Having just arrived from Texas, I discovered the town I moved into (Arlington) is quasi-dry. (You can have a drink at a restaurant, but only if you order a meal.) Trying ti figure out why some stores sell beer and wine and others don't was impossible for me. Just to get a simple six pack I have to head out on a major expedition. Now Texas has some weird liquor laws too, but these seem overly restrictive.

                          Oh well, not grousing. It's my new home.

                          David "Zeb" Cook

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: David "Zeb" Cook


                            On the way driving here from Los Angeles, we stopped at a steakhouse in Amarillo and had to purchase a social club membership in order to obtain a beer with our chicken fried steak and porterhouse! Having lived in Austin, years ago, can attest the laws were considerably more lenient there! Have spotted separate bar areas adjacent to restaurant space in local spots here in Waltham, so believe we dodged that bullet here. By the way, there appear to be some barbecue restaurants on Moody in Waltham. Welcome to MA.

                            1. re: Coyote

                              For Moody St. BBQ, I like Jake and Earls's quite a bit. They have bands there some nights too.
                              Bison County isn't enarly as good, but I like their bar.

                              1. re: Alan H

                                Your responses have been on the money for me in so many areas--will definitely check your BBQ choices out.

                          2. If you think Massachusetts' liquor laws are confusing, you should have been traveling around the Baptist deep South 30 years ago, where on-premises liquor licenses were non-existant. In one state you could BYOB to a restaurant, but the bottle had to stay in a paper bag under your table during the meal. In another state, you had to bring your own bottle and then give it to the waiter to take to the kitchen, where he would pour out your liquor into a glass and bring the glass back to you, leaving the bottle in the kitchen. (I knew of one place near an army base where you could give them your half pint of whiskey, and that half pint would never run out no matter how long you stayed, as long as you kept paying for the "setups"). One famous club in Columbia, SC, thrived for years by constantly coming up with new ways to get around the liquor laws, and then tying up the authorities in court over interpretations of the laws. For instance, for a while they were charging $3.00 for a glass of ice cubes, and then asking you if you would like some free liquor for your ice. Of course, to make their case, they also had to charge $3.00 for a Coke with ice, or even for a glass of ice water!

                            A friend of mine who liked to visit a southern city known for its antebellum charm once went there for a weekend with his girlfriend. While having dinner at a highly regarded restaurant on Sunday, he asked to see the wine list. The waiter responded, "I'm sorry, sir, but we can't serve wine on Sunday. Would you like a cocktail?". My friend was perplexed, until he received the following explanation: The restaurant had a beer and wine license. By serving beer or wine on Sunday they could lose this license. The restaurant did not have a liquor license, and so had nothing to lose by serving mixed drinks. The local authorities, knowing how much the local economy depended on tourism, looked the other way as long as no licenses were being violated.

                            Most of this changed with the growth of corporate businesses in the South and the influx of population from other areas, and also due to pressure from local clubs and restaurants complaining about unfair competition from bars at airports which could serve liquor freely because they fell under federal regulations.

                            I lived in Texas for several years and well remember the $5.00 to join the "private club" travesty. Of all the schemes to circumvent local liquor laws this one has to be the most insulting to the intelligence.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: groaker


                              Your post is too funny. Can see MA today is a whole lot better than the south 30 years ago, or for that matter, pretty recently. NC also has no liquor sales on Sunday before noon. In Charleston, SC, any liquor sales in bars must be done from little tiny shot size bottles. Very pretty and some people collect them. Go figure.

                              1. re: groaker

                                An interesting thing at a NH restaurant... We hadn't finished the bottle of wine we had with dinner and the waitress asked if we wanted to take it home. Seems they just cork it and put it in a bag and it's ok to do that!

                              2. I like Wine Bottega on Hanover Street in the North End. Knowledgeable staff, and some unusual and hard-to-find selections now and then. While their prices are neither high nor low, a good time to buy there is on Fridays, when they have their tastings, and everything is 10% off.

                                1. If you ever travel out toward the central or western part of the state there are two very good options for wine buying: Yankee Spirits, in Sturbridge, which has a pretty extensive selection and decent prices and Table and Vine in Northampton which has the best selection of any liquor store I've ever visited and excellent prices. You can check out their website to see their inventory, and you can buy online or over the phone and they'll hold your stuff for a reasonable length of time

                                  Link: http://www.tableandvine.com