Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wine Sales Bouncing Back Modestly

The growth of U.S. wine sales stuttered only briefly in the recent years of economic downtown. Though dollars declined, bottle sales did not drop significantly.

Going into retail wine stores the last two years has meant a wider selection of value wines and more bargains on premium wines as the nation’s economy continues to struggle with recovery.

When the economy soured, wine drinkers didn’t stop drinking. The $20-and-up customer just moved to $20-and-under wines. Retailers are beginning to see modest overall recovery.

“There has been some recovery but I would say not as much as we all hoped,” said Ashley Lockwood, owner of Cork and Cracker, Indianapolis. “I felt like we were picking up earlier this year and then in early summer the media was talking about double-dip recession and our sales took another dip.”

But speaking in early October, Lockwood was regaining guarded optimism. “Now I feel like we’re inching up over last year’s numbers. But if I look at them side by side I’ll be very surprised if we see much more than low, single-digit growth over last year.”

Lockwood’s shop is dominated by wines $15 and under. A little farther to the north, Vine and Table in Carmel has a wider selection of high-end wine but also a large value selection.

“I see the market getting a little better every year,” Wine Manager Bethann Kendall said. “We are still a long way away from where we were. I think in coming months we will see a nice increase from last year from consumers who are comfortable spending money without the constant fear of losing their jobs.”

Both wine retailers see customers moving back slowly to premium wines. “Everyone wants a good value but they all have that wine they adore at whatever price point and they consume for special dinners or to celebrate,” Kendall said.

Lockwood agreed consumers who had moved to her less-expensive wines are back buying more premium bottles. “I have a lot more people shopping the ($15-and-over) walls than I did a year ago,” she said. “One year ago I couldn’t sell a bottle of wine for over $20 to save my life. They’re starting to buy off the walls again and even in bad months those wines are moving again.”

Indianapolis is obviously the state’s most competitive market. Lockwood has heard from distributors that many retail outlets are worse off than her sales. “We have seen several places go out of business in the five years we’ve been here, places similar to us,” she said “And, we’ve seen a lot of restaurants close.”

The slow wine business has resulted in a lot of wine in warehouses and retail shelves. Customers benefit from the wine glut with more deals for the savvy wine shopper. “There has been some adjustment in prices and for us there were a lot of closeouts,” Lockwood said. “You do see that but I still think there is room for readjustment. It’s mostly domestic and largely California.”

Kendall echoed the sentiment and offering a heads up to consumers to look for great deals from most retailers during the holiday season.

Howard’s Pick:
Instead of a specific wine, its back to the advice offered in my first column two years ago. Find a wine shop you like and establish a relationship with the proprietor. Good retailers will help you find wines you like at the best price.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Time to Break Out the Big Muscle Wines

A chill is in the air and frost is on the pumpkin which means it’s time for steaming stews and hearty chili. Wine pairing for big foods really is not as difficult as for more subtle flavors.

When it comes to big-flavored foods the wine picks should match. ‘Go big or stay home’ works for wine too!

Syrah and Zinfandel are great matches with those steamy pots of hearty fare. Both wines are characterized by bold fruit, spicy and peppery flavors and enough tannin structure to match well with big food.

First, let’s clear up a common misperception Syrah, Sirah, and Shiraz is all the same grape. Petite Syrah is a different varietal. The U.S. and France use the Syrah spelling while the Australians seemed to have coined the Shiraz spelling with great marketing success.

The wine, regardless of how you spell it, tends to have dark berry, plum, and sometimes even an olive taste characteristic. They almost always have some spice on the palate. The better Syrah wines are often quite silky in the mouth despite the big and bold flavor.

Syrah is frequently blended with Grenache or Mourvedre to make the great Cotes du Rhone wines. Elegant and beautiful French Syrah wines are available in good wine shops. There are plenty of great California Syrah wines in any shop.

California Syrah tends to be bigger in flavor but still retain the smooth style. Look at the label closely because some Syrah can be high in alcohol content.

Petite Syrah is a different grape altogether. It has waned in popularity in recent years. It is often used in blending. Don’t let the name fool you. Petite Syrah is almost always a bigger and more muscular wine.

If you want a pairing with a little less fruit but equally powerful then try a California Zinfandel. Zins often exhibit dark berry or cherry flavors with a peppery finish. It’s very much a food wine and will go well with pizza, burgers, or that bowl of hearty stew. Zinfandel is a robust wine. It generally is not a sipper.

Yes, it is the same grape used to make the very sweet and cheap White Zinfandel. But that is where any similarity ends.

Zin is one of those wines that can vary greatly depending on region and style. They can be rich and silky but also powerful enough to make you blush.

These two red wines are a regular on most wine drinker’s dinner tables in cold weather months. If you are not already enjoying these wines, go to your favorite retailer and ask them to help you select an introduction to Syrah and Zinfandel.

Howard Picks:
Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel – This wine is rich in cherry flavor, big on the pepper with balanced tannins producing a glass that will hold up to any winter dish. It’s widely distributed in Indiana at $16-$18. This producer also makes a great Syrah around $15.

Columbia Crest Shiraz – This Washington state winery goes with the Australian spelling for its black cherry and silky smooth wine. It has a hint of the Viognier grape to add nuance. Columbia Crest wines are also widely available. This wine retails at a real bang-for-your-buck price of around $12.
Howard Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about wine for 12 Indiana newspapers, a national online wine magazine, and his own blog –