September 24, 2009
Fall Wine Sales: A Look at how the market is fairing in its second tough year
by Liza B. Zimmerman
Seventeen percent of annual table wine dollar sales happen in the crucial fourth quarter sales period, according to a Nielsen Company report ending January 3, 2009. Twenty percent of table wine sales of $20 and over also occur in that period. As we move into another autumn in a weak economy the outlook of a couple key professionals is slightly more upbeat than expected in some surprising ways.
Eugenia Keegan, president of the Portland, Oregon-based wholesaler Henry Wine Group of Oregon, said her sales are up three points over last fall. She potentially attributed the increase to the positive aftereffects of consolidation. "The transition has happened and the restaurants that are going out of business are out of business."
She called the current wine sales climate "an appropriate adjustment to the market," and added that the businesses that are active now are very active. She noted "we are buying product and ….wine is moving through."
"People are spending on value [wine] and expensive stuff," seconded Sean Diggins, wine director at Mediterranean restaurant Gitane and bistro Café Claude, both in San Francisco.
"Fall wine sales are definitely picking up," added Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray, vice president of food and beverage, The Americas, for the Atlanta-based InterContinental Hotel Group, which has approximately 100 hotel properties in the United States. "Last year, at this time, we were experiencing an economic downtown and people definitely panicked. This year things have calmed down and wine sales are increasing."
The view from some the retail front of was not as rosy. The market "is softer this fall than last," noted David Jabour, president of the Austin, Texas-based 58-location Twin Liquors retail chain.
Key Pricing Remains Steady
For more than a year the hottest price point has continued to hover around $9.99 retail, according to Keegan and others. "We are seeing a gradual shift to $14.99 and [buyers who are] more interested in wines wholesaling in the teens," she added.
"The sweet spot has never changed," in terms of pricing, according to Diggins. He pinpointed that hot price point at a less than moderate $60 to $80 a bottle in the on-premise. "More and more people are realizing that 'value' is not always found in the more inexpensive wines on the list, true value comes from how great a wine can be in many different price points, often a mid range of higher-end wine can offer a greater price to value ratio," concurred Gabriel Varela, sommelier and manager at one-location Miami steakhouse Meat Market.
Regardless of how the economy is doing, the category where restaurants do the most volume is by the glass, Gitane's Diggins explained, and that "price range has never gone up or down from $8 to $12 wholesale." InterContinental's Etcheberrigaray agreed that this price point is one of the most lucrative; noting that the hotel chain's highest volume price points are at $6 to $10 a glass.
Perennial favorites continue to be Argentine and Spanish wines for value, flavor and now even familiarity. Jabour added that domestic wine sales are also still strong and he's seeing value out of the Southern Rhône Valley.
Good Values on the Horizon
While it may be a tough market for operators, retailers and wholesalers it remains a great one for consumers. "Not only are wholesalers clearing out their warehouses, every time we have a recession like this people with higher-priced wines lower their pricing so there's a downward push on pricing. The clear winner is the consumer," said Keegan. "There are good deals and we pass them onto consumers," concurred Jabour.
The new pricing is also a boon for those in the industry. "There are some great deals to be had…. Many wineries, across the world, are dropping prices in order to sell more wine. We reap the benefits of this, as well as being able to buy things that were recently allocated and virtually impossible for typical consumers to procure," said Etcheberrigaray.
He added that the market "is definitely going to definitely lean towards value for money. People are excited about flavor and taste but they want value." He added that "it's going to be a couple of years before we see any major spending, again. And, frankly this is good for the wine business as wine prices… sky rocketed a bit too much. Humility through steady business and value offered will stand the test."
It may be too early in the sales season to really take a temperature on how this fall will compare to last. The spending climate is certainly drastically altered but so is many suppliers' approach to the market in a positive way.
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