Looking for good in 2020

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When writing regularly for more than 20 newspapers and additional websites, I always did the traditional Top 10 wines of the year. It wasn’t always much fun but felt necessary or something like an obligation.

Yes, I’m trying to re-start my occasional musings on wine and thoughts of life, Covid, and whatever else occupies the mind of a retired journalist, marketer, and wanna be bon vivant. I just use bon vivant because who wouldln’t like that label?

2020 sucked on many levels – there it’s been said and now we can reflect. So far I’ve managed to avoid the bug. I’m all in on mask wearing, social distancing (for the most part), and becoming a germophobe. I get an A on mask wearing. I worked through the summer and continue to work now. I am thinking hard about January if predictions come through about a huge outbreak.

I’m retired and if I don’t work I sit at home alone. That’s not a plea for empathy it’s just reality for many seniors. Cold weather means I can’t ride my bike and it’s tougher to even walk the dog, though he doesn’t seem to care about temperatures much.

So I push ahead.

A few real bright spots from 2020:

  • In December, I had my 3.5-year visit with my oncologist and remain cancer free from a two-round bout with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma which started in 2015. I’m humble and thankful for the treatment I recieved, particularly an autogolous stem-cell transplant.
  • I continue to meet, at least on a superficial basis, really great people through my work at The Wine Shop. Our customers are interesting people who are living life to the fullest. New faces, old friendly faces, and daily adventures like a week in December with no furnace.
  • My job obviously affords me the opportunity to taste a lot of great wine. No Top 10 List – I swear – but how about two standouts? I’m not going to say these two are best I had but they are darn near close.
  • A 2017 Joseph Drouhin Vosne Romanee was a great glass somewhat by accident, or nagging. It’s about $80 a bottle at full retail. Most of our Wine Shop staff was working Christmas Eve. The boss was opening a few bottles and we suggested, maybe more than once, that the Vosne Romanee might be a delightful choice. Well before leaving the shop to the old guy and young guy, he popped one open. It was one of the best examples of Burgundy I’ve ever enjoyed. I have a couple bottles of that wine, different producers, at home and look forward to the day I open them.
  • Chateau Landereau Entre Deux Mers 2019. I’ve always enjoyed the Entre Deux Mers region since a brief visit about seven years ago. A wonderful and flavorful blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – tropical fruits, wonderful mouthfeel and lingering finish. Great taste and great value (about $15) can be found if you just look hard enough.
  • Yard work. I know, how boring. But I rediscovered the pleasure of mowing my yard as needed – something I hadn’t done for years. Always joked I had a Lawn Boy ……….. a nice kid. With a little young muscle, I also did some planting with more to come. I’ve jumped on the lawn care madness and fertilized and worked on having a beautiful lawn in a few years. Thank goodness, it’s small.
  • Finally, I’ll be at The Wine Shop New Year’s Eve and probably get to see a lot of those customers. I really look forward to it. Stop by if you’re in Indy. We have a wide selection of bubbles at all price points. And, you won’t feel like you’re at Wal-Mart. (Obvious dig at new competitor! :-O)
  • One of the biggest downers was no travel this past year. I’m hoping that changes in the new year. I need to visit a friend in Napa, a tough chore obviously. I’ve thought of putting together a group trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley for the fall (something I’ve done before). Who’s interested? And, I’d always go back to Burgundy with a few hours notice.
  • Happy New Year. No, REALLY – Happy New Year

We all should drink more bubbles

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It’s time to celebrate the new year – perhaps it’s ring in the new year and chase out the old one.

Bubbles, of course, is the traditional beverage of choice for most revelers. Having now worked in retail wine sales, I’ve developed more of a love for sparkling wines. There really is something for everyone and at all price points.

As opposed to recommending specific bottles, perhaps dropping a few names, let’s cover the choices that will work for you and what you might expect to pay.

Bubbles start with champagne. The area of Champagne in France isn’t particularly large but nearly 360 Champagne houses produce more than 300 million bottles annually. True champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. A blanc de blanc is 100% Chardonnay while a Blanc de Noir is Pinot Noir.

Lots of inexpensive bubbles’ options!

True champagne starts around $30-$50 a bottle. The U.S. is the second largest importer of French Champagne, Britain takes the top spot. The best-selling champagnes in the world are widely available in the US. If you want to go where the crowd goes look for Moet-Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, Laurent-Perrier, Taittinger, Pommery. And Piper-Heidsieck – and of course, Dom Perignon.

Ask your wine shop clerk to make recommendations from small houses and you might just find better wines. One specific: Nomine Renard for around $40. Or try US made Schramsberg producers of Blanc and Noir at $30-$40.

There are also regional standout producers like Mawby from Northern Michigan.

A lesser known option is grower champagnes. If you like the farm-to-fork concept in restaurants, a grower champagne is for you. Many of the big houses buy their grapes from growers – nothing wrong with that. The grower champagnes are grown and produced by a single producer. These champagnes sell generally from $70 to $125. This is my best bet for outstanding quality and drinkability over the big houses.

If you want something more affordable look for an Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, US champagnes and French Cremant. The Cremants are a particularly good value made like champagne. Great Cremant is produced in Burgundy, Alsace, Loire Valley and Southern France. Average cost for great Cremant bubbles runs around $20. They are also a bit more drinkable if you’re not used to true champagne.

Another entry to not overlook is Italy, yes the land of tannic dark red wines and pasta. La Spinetta and Ferrari are a couple of names to look for.

Bubbles should be enjoyed year round. It’s not just for New Year’s. Try bubbles with a salad of mild flavored food. Drink bubbles on the porch or patio on a hot summer day.

Grab a bottle of sparkle, and let’s toast 2021 – and kick 2020 to the back of our collective memory.

Happy New Year!

Holiday Wine Shopping Tips

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At times I forget the comfort and carthisis of writing. I halted my every-other-week wine column in 2017 after 10 years of writing.

So I thought I’d do a quick bit on Christmas shopping for wine. It’s the kind of column I frankly got tired of every year but after three years working in retail wine sales I’ve gained a considerable amount of perspective.

This is my fourth Christmas at the shop and this busy week of sales reminds me of many suggestions I’ve made in the past and perhaps a few new ones.

First, if you’re going to gift wine go to a shop specializing in wine. Yes, you can get a bottle in lots of places but at most shops you’re going to get sales people who have a serious interest in vino and a willingness to help you.

The night before writing this column I put in six hours at the shop. I helped several customers, with limited knowledge, pick out gifts. That is probably the most rewarding part of the job – helping others gift and enjoy a good bottle.

First, do you have any idea what the person you’re buying for enjoys? Does the person like red, white? Do they like bold wines? Perhaps they like all sorts of wines and enjoy exploring.

You might be surprised that more than 5,000 grape varietals around the world can be made into wine. Now, no shop carries that many but good shopping spots will have lots of choices.

The wine sales person is there to help you navigate, let them. It does not matter at all what you know about wine just trust the sales person and insist on choices.

If you take nothing from these few words take this – know what you want to spend. It really surprises me the people who come in our shop and haven’t given it much thought. We have Cab that starts in the low to mid teens and goes up. We have Napa Cab, some including me, which many consider the best in the world. We carry Napa Cab ranging from $24.99 to more than $300 a bottle. Know what you want to spend!

There are shops and sales people, unfortunately, who will try to sell you above what you might want to spend. How do you deal with them? Easy. Tell them what you are comfortable spending and ask them to show you one at that price along with their best at a little higher and a little lower price.

I’d also encourage you to try something new for your friend or relative. If they like Cabernet, try a bold Zinfandel, Tannat, Merlot, or many others. And yes, Merlot! The wine has improved ten-fold since the 90s and early part of this decade. If your friend like Chardonnay try a French Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc. Explore the world of Italian whites – Vermentino is a great lemony wine.

But let the pros help you. And, there is always gift cards.

Merry Christmas!

Don’t pair just for the turkey

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WRITER’S NOTE: This was my last Thanksgiving wine column before discontinuing its regular distribution. It’s the same recommendations I’d make today. Maybe it will help someone with their pics.

During many years as a newspaper editor, young reporters constantly had to be reminded that not all readers had read every story they’d ever written. It’s not a stretch to feel the same way about the obligatory holiday dinner wine column about pairing wine and turkey.

Actually, you are not pairing wine and turkey. Rule number-two is match your wine to all the dishes best you can and not just the protein.

What, no rule number one? Guilty again of assuming readers have read all previous columns about wine and food pairing. Drink what you like. If you want big California cabernet with your holiday turkey or ham, then have Cabernet and enjoy. Drink what you like!

But readers do come here for suggestions. Start your holiday with some bubbly. Get to your closest wine shop and look for some Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava. Both are pretty inexpensive and add to festive holiday atmosphere. You want something a bit fancier and from the USA, try a bottle of Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut for under $20.

On to the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie and wine for dinner. Safe white choices start with the traditional big, oaky, California chardonnay. If you like the idea of a Chard but not the heavy traditional choice look for an unoaked Chardonnay and everyone will be happy.

An Oregon Pinot Gris would also be a good white wine choice. The Gris will give you nice citrus fruit and acidity. Another good pick would be a rich Rhone white blend of Rousanne and Marsanne white grapes – rich, good mouthfeel and will definitely hold up to food.

Many people prefer a light-weight red wine. Around Thanksgiving time many recommend Beaujolais. Do not but the tacky Nouveau wines you’ll hear about. Go to your wine shop and fine a Beaujolais Cru wine from Morgon or Fleurie. Good Beaujolais will remind you of Pinot Noir with a bit more earthiness. They can be fascinating wines and often cost less than $20.

Pinot Noir is always a great holiday meal choice. If you like your red holiday wine on the lighter side, go with an Oregon Pinot. If you want more body and full mouth feel in your holiday beverage pick of a Pinot from California.

Now let’s get a little crazy. You like big reds and you cannot lie? Try a California Zinfandel but look at the alcohol content carefully. Look for a Zin at 14.5 or less and you should have a lighter version that will give you big fruit with less kick. Too much kick and those family arguments might turn into pie fights.

A Washington state red blend would be another full-flavor choice. Look for a blend from Walla Walla or a red with grapes from Horse Heaven Hills and you’ll have a great red blend with your dinner.

These are solid choices for your holiday meal. Pick your wines early and grab a couple of extra bottles for those unexpected guests during the holidays.

Ind. Early Voting Botched!

INDIANAPOLIS, CITY-COUNTY BUILDING – Limited early voting sites in Indianapolis’ Marion County have created well-behaved and disgusted chaos.

Early voting started earlier this month downtown at the City-County Building with lines. The five remote centers opened Saturday with incredibly long lines with some voters waiting up to 7 hours to vote.

I did video from the site this morning and got a couple of things wrong so let’s fix that right here. The Marion County Election Board voted unanimously – not a lone GOP dissent – to have six sites. Sorry Ms. Ping.

But what they did do, as a group, is equally frustrating. The decision was made in August and the reason given for only six sites was they couldn’t get enough poll workers for the period of time the sites would need to be open. Well, it was August!!!!!! Find some! It’s easy to judge based on hindsight but all clues pointed to a huge fall turnout.

I waited in line 1:50 this morning to vote. It was chilly and the air was damp. I must say it was orderly, people were nice but most all incredulous at how this played out. Still, it stinks a little of politics. Democrats largely control Marion County but GOPers across the country have done all sort of nonsense to limit sites and voting expansion.

For example, Gov. Holcomb poo-pooed expanded mail-in voting saying Hoosiers should vote on election day. That’s the exception accross the country with most states expanding those opportunites because of the pandemic. Must have been an order from Mike. (had to be snarky remark here somewhere.)

Hamilton County, think Carmel, has about a quarter-million registered voters and has 8 voting sites. Marion County has nearly a million registered voters and only six early voting centers.

That’s a problem for both parties. Voters can’t let this happen ever again and must hold both parties responsible. It’s inexcusable any Hoosier must wait seven hours to vote. One or two might say 1:50 is too long to cast your ballot.

WRITER’S NOTE: While most folks visiting this blog expect wine news and the occasional restaurant review. I stated when I retired I would occasionally get my nose into community issues and even less often politics.

Huber sons could change Indiana wine, perception

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STARLIGHT, IN. – Becoming a part of and eventually taking over a family business is a big challenge. Christian and Blake Huber are thriving and planning as they join the family’s day to day operations.

The Hubers have been on the same hilltop property near the little town of Starlight and just up that hill from New Albany since the early 1800s.

Huber Winery and Starlight Distillery have become industry leaders with the guidance of Ted and Dana Huber along with Ted’s cousin Greg and his wife. Dana and Ted’s sons have completed impressive wine education degrees and gained practical experience at a few of the world’s top wineries. The sons are ready to help the already-growing business and make their mark with a few bold new ideas.

Christian, the oldest of the two, is a graduate of Niagra University in its Viticulture/Oenology program at Ontario, Canada. He spent time at IU’s Kelley School of Business and has worked harvests for California wineries like Joseph Phelps. Younger brother Blake graduated early this year from Cornell University’s wine study program. Among his internships was time spent this summer at Petrus in Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. He’s currently working at Napa Cab powerhouse Dominus.

Christian Huber pours for our tasting

Christian is working at the winery now and Blake will soon join his brother in full-time status.

So the young men are more than ready to help the family move forward in exciting directions. And, it’s not like Dad has been standing still. Huber Winery’s production has grown over the past couple years from 50,000 to 90,000 cases. The relatively new spirits business has become very successful and nationally recognized for excellence. Last year the spirits business sold approximately 10,000 six-pack cases. Christian said that growth could reach 15,000-20,000 this year.

Two years back, patriarch Ted said the goal was to match spirits production to the wine number.

Walking the grounds Wednesday (Oct. 14) with Christian and tasting wines and spirits, his enthusiasm alone forecasts interesting things.

He has planted Chardonnay, not Indiana-grown hybrid Cshardonel, and Pinot Noir on a recently acquired piece of property. The vines must age before you can taste and buy the wines but it’s a challenge. Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to grow.

I’ve long told others Hubers has the best vineyard site in Indiana. They are successfully growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Right now the Cab Franc is the best of that lot. The vinifera blend Heritage is arguably  the best red wine you can buy grown and made in Indiana.

But the Huber boys, let’s call them that, have their eyes on becoming known for the vinifera grapes instead of the hybrids grown in most of the state. Christian wants to soon plan Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Riesling, and perhaps Syrah.

His dream is to develop the Knobstone area with the family’s Indiana Uplands property as it’s own Agriculture Viticulture Area (AVA) or as a sub region. Knobstone is a rugged geological region in southern Indiana which has potential of growing difficult grapes with a traditional vinifera taste profile. The Pinot Noir is planted within the area now on top a limestone base. Those grapes aren’t ready to make wine yet but could be in the next year or two.

Christian also sees a Chardonnay made as an unoaked Chablis-style wine which would please wine fanatics.

The big picture is to create a Knobstone winery with its own label and even tasting room. The wines would be a premium product, at a higher price, unlike anything in the state.

But with all of the ambition and big plans, reality sometimes bites. The late frost in early 2020 devastated the vineyards. A normal harvest of 250-300 tons of grapes was just 100 tons this year.

I’ve long thought Huber diversity, with a new generation coming on board, and Oliver’s explosive growth are the two best wine stories in Indiana and maybe well beyond Hoosier borders. Wednesday’s visit proved that’s still the biggest news in Indiana wine.

Utopia a fine spot to seek out

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Dan Warnshuis made the move from California to find his ideal vineyard spot.

One of the real adventures of my repeated trips to Oregon’s Willamette Valley has been the discovery of new wineries. In many cases, it’s wineries I simply haven’t visited yet – while new ones continue to pop up.

One of the sub-regions I’ve not yet visited is Ribbon Ridge. Ribbon Ridge sets near the middle or eastern-middle of the valley. It’s small in comparison to most of the other areas with only 20 vineyards comprised of about 500-600 acres of vine.

Just like most of the valley’s other regions the Ridge is producing mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with scattered plantings of other grapes.

One of my most recent delightful discoveries has been Utopia Vineyards. Dan Warnshuis founded the winery in 2002 after working many years in California in the tech industry. His wife Kathy and daughter Erin are also involved at the winery.

Dan tends to his dry-farmed vineyards and was certified for sustainable viticulture in 2008.

I was recently sent samples of the Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir and the winery’s White Pinot. The Pinot Noir was one of the best I’ve tasted in 2020. I enjoyed the delicate rose and berry fruit flavors with a real elegant mouth feel and finish. $48 SRP, 91 points Wine Enthusiast.

The unicorn – or white Pinot Noir also scored well with several publications. The winery’s website described it as bursts of fruit with a great mouth feel.

Much of the wine from this small production winery is sold direct to consumer.Utopia is a stop you might want to include during any visit to the Willamette Valley. The family also has a beautiful vacation cabin rental amidst the vines with many perks.

An ode to the Tator Tot

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Need some life advice?

Bite off more than you can chew then chew it.” It makes a lot of positive thinking and common sense. Who said those wise words? Mark Twain? Maybe Winston Churchill? FDR? A founding father?

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F. Nephi Grigg

No, it was F. Nephi Grigg. I can imagine the silence and blank stares. Grigg and his brother Golden fled Oregon in 1954 to Miami, Florida. They quickly found the new and opulent Fountainebleu Hotel on Millionaire’s Row. The hotel was hosting the 1954 National Potato Convention. Nephi found the hotel kitchen and reportedly bribed the chef to cook up his new potato concoction and serve them at  dinner  to the potato growers.

 

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Steer Inn’s tots

The new potato product was cooked up and laid out as appetizers on the tables. “These were gobbled up faster than a dead cat could wag it’s tail,” Grigg wrote 35 years later. The golden potatoes had been cut into small pieces and deep fried. They were a huge hit.

Those golden potatos are now known as Tator Tots.

Nephi presided over his Tot empire until he sold the brand to Heinz in 1965 for $30 million. Heinz merged with Kraft Foods in 2015 and Ore-Ida presides over the Tot empire today. Many thanks to Eater magazine for much of the background on Tots. Grigg passed away in 1995 in Nevada.

image0 (5)During the pandemic I’ve made a weekly effort to eat out a time or two a week. Today it was back to the historic Steer Inn. I had one of the best breaded tenderloins I’ve had in years. Real pork, 1/2 in. thick, juicy and a crispy breading. The tots were crispy and not greasy. An American classic lives.

And a couple pandemic observations:

  • Kroger announced over the weekend that all employees in all stores must where masks. A visit to Kroger on 10th and Linwood yesterday revealed most employees had a mask. I saw a couple with no mask. And maybe even more disturbing several young men working in produce with their masks pulled down around their chin or neck. Some people just don’t get it.
  • Residents stuck at home must be doing lots of planting, lawn care and home improvements projects. I’ve had reason over last few days to run in and out of the three major stores – Home Depot, Lowes, and Menards. All three were packed at different times of day – packed. Home Depot seemed to be the only one enforcing how many customers can be in store. Two nights ago there was quite a line outside. I know, I was there two …. not a hypocrite just exercising my older journalism skills.

 

Life and times of social isolation

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We’re all adjusting to the quarantine at home and adjustments that go along with it. For years I was the editor of a small Indiana daily and wrote a week opinion column. Sometimes it would just be a collection of thoughts or observations.

Here we go:

I live alone but continue to work about 12 hours a week at a little retail wine shop in Broad Ripple. Getting out is a real relief. We’re not allowing customers in the shop just curbside pickup and  delivery. Because of my age, I ‘m not doing delivery and just staying in locked up in the shop filling orders and answering the phone. And if you’ve read about alcohol sales, yes business is booming.

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Speaking of alcohol and isolation, nine friends and I did a virtual wine tasting last night and had a ball. It was great time seeing old friends and talking wine. It’s really not hard; we used Zoom. But Facebook messenger and other platforms are out there to get a group together.

My last post was about the general dishevelment and filth at two 10th street Indy E. 10th street general merchandise stores. I posted the column to one of those neighborhood posting boards. I got a sympathetic response and a smackdown. One area resident called me a wine snob (egads!) and took me to task because the poor people working their certainly must be overwhelmed. Well, my point was aimed at ownership and management not the local workers. I suggested in these times of unemployment and with 8,000 stores nationwide perhaps they could hire at least one person to keep the place clean and organized. Very snobish, indeed.

image1 (4)I suffered a heart-breaking loss in early March when my pet Corgi of 13 years left me for RIP – running in paradise. I weighed getting  another dog and eventually came around to the decision that it would be a good idea. I adopted a dog from an animal rescue group, Arpo, and he arrived yesterday. He’s a bit of a mystery 2-3 years old, housebroken, reserved and shy. Sake (yes, named after the Japanese wine) also loves sitting right beside me or in my lap. I’ve heard lots of ideas of what his breed might be. He’s a small guy at about 25lbs with very long legs. A neighbor thinks he has some golden retriever in him. Our adventure begins.

drawing bloodFriday was a big day and I make note always in case anyone in a similar predicament ever wishes to talk. It was the third anniversary of my autologous stem cell transplant. I had two rounds of lymphoma first in 2015 and again in 2016. The doctors and I selected a transplant of my own white cells to try to keep me cancer free for the rest of my life. Though an exhausting and difficult 30 days, 3 years is a significant mark of remission.

image0 (4)Holy gas prices caped crusader! (sorry for the ancient culture reference) All around Indy anyone out can see gas prices are way down. Imagine my delight when I found the cheapest of all just down the street! It’s been a long time since we’re seen $1.15 a gallon!

 

 

 

 

Why we can’t have nice things

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While writing about wine over the past 13 years I seldom went really negative. I wrote a few harsh restaurant reviews. I tasted some bad wine and said so. But more often than  not I wouldn’t go out of my way to trash anyone.

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A typical aisle’s floor in Store #2 Not an example but nearly every aisle.

But, I got mad yesterday. Here we are in middle of a pandemic when face masks, gloves and disinfectant are a big part of our lives. Cleanliness and respecting others’ space is an expectation.

With very few businesses open it seems to me, and  I’d like to think others, that these places would be bending over backwards to earn their customers trust and continued support.

 

So okay, here we go. I live on Indy’s eastside near Little Flower and Irvington. It’s not the best side of town by most standards. The area certainly struggles with crime and violent crime. But there has been a big change the past few years. New retail businesses are popping up and doing well. The problem is the old standbys are letting us down.

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Honestly, one of the less-cluttered aisles.

I needed a small electrical connection that I thought would be easy to find. I visited two general merchandise stores which feature a wide variety of goods at low prices. You know these places. And in economically depressed areas they flourish. Need a better hint? I went to two and they both have the word “Dollar” in their name.

The newest store,  less than a year old, was filthy with merchandise scattered around the floor. That building was completely redone to accommodate the current business. I was was seriously shocked at the mess. A little internet search showed Indiana has 428 of these stores. The second wasn’t quite as messy, though not orderly, but was even dirtier than the first. Using the net, I learned there are 48 of these stores in Indiana and 8,000 nationwide.

Photos don’t lie, these were taken about 10:30 a.m.  yesterday.

These places are probably slammed with business. I suspect they have a hard time hiring and keeping employees. But it’s hard to understand running a commercial business without daily upkeep. Both of these general merchandise stores are large corporations. How about hiring a part-time worker or two in every store to keep things clean and organized? You can provide a job or two for people who are out of work and maybe show a little respect for the community you serve.

Customers are shopping the shelves clean, there has to be profit. It’s time for these places to provide the dignity of a clean, safe shopping environment.