On the surface, the outlook for wine lovers in 1991 appears gloomy.
French wine prices are high and going higher, in part because of the weakness of the U.S. dollar. And prices for the best California wines are already in the stratosphere--$20 to $50 a bottle for most of the better-known Chardonnays and Cabernets.
Moreover, with implementation of a floor tax and a federal excise tax increase, wine prices will keep rising.
The excise tax alone will add about 35 cents to the price of a 750-milliliter bottle of wine, which equates to $1.40 on a three-liter bottle--even jug wine consumers will be asked to pay a lot more for their Chablis and Burgundy.
Yet I see little reason for wine lovers to be concerned. I don't think prices for good wine will rise through the roof in the coming months. Here's why.
As a starter, a huge amount of unsold wine remains in warehouses around the nation, a result of declining demand. Industry analysts say this lack of demand will keep prices for all but the most expensive wines level for the time being; prices may actually drop. And they feel many producers and importers will not kick prices up to reflect the new excise tax because to do so would reduce demand even further.
Moreover, discounts for older vintages of wines that haven't yet sold will increase, analysts say. This means that some producers whose Chardonnays sold originally for a "suggested retail price" of $14 may well have to see that wine sold at $9.99--or less--to sell it in this recession.
It is true that prices for many top-name French wines are at an all-time high, due in part to high demand during the last three years as well as the fact that the last few vintages in France have been of exceptional quality.
No one is pleased, of course, that the best red Burgundies and Bordeaux cost $30 to $100 a bottle. However, the decline in consumption in the United States during the last few years has created an interesting situation. Warehouses are filled with good-quality, second-line imports that were supposed to sell at $10 to $20 and never did.
Include in that list a number of Bordeaux from the 1987 vintage, not considered the equal of 1988 or 1989 in terms of quality. As it turns out, that vintage wasn't really that bad. Indeed, some 1987 Bordeaux are stunning values these days.
The longer these "forgotten wines" sit in warehouses, the more the sellers of these wines will be motivated to move them. Which means prices will come down, and savvy wine shops will get them.
The big beneficiaries of this glut of good wine is the consumer who (a) does homework to know which wines are worth trying, (b) keeps on the lookout for the wines that pop up periodically that represent great value and (c) are willing to buy a bottle of a wine, take it home and see how it tastes.
Better yet, truly savvy wine lovers find a couple of good wine merchants, stay in touch with them, and heed their advice about good values. And there are a lot of good values out there, judging from informal conversations I've had with merchants at the better wine shops in the Los Angeles area.
The following list of wines was assembled in about two hours last Thursday and was obtained by calling the shops listed here and asking the question: "What's the best wine value you have in the shop today between $5 and $15." Every person interviewed said he could name at least a dozen great wine values in that price range.
Most of the wines they chose are less than $9 a bottle; most of them should be available at most of the stores listed. The name of the person making the selection is listed in parentheses; the price is what the store was charging for the wine.
--Duke of Bourbon, Canoga Park: 1987 Tin Pony Cabernet, a second label of Iron Horse of Sonoma County. "A stunning wine, loaded with character. They tell me the wine is from young vines." $8.99. (Dave Breitstein).
--Wally's, West Los Angeles: 1987 San Lorenzo from Rosso Conero, a wine made by Umani Ronchi. "The wine is 85% Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and 15% Sangiovese and it has a load of flavor for the price." $7.99. (Gary Fishman).
--Northridge Hills Liquor: 1988 Domaine de Fresquet, a Vin de Pays from the south of France. "This wine is 100% Syrah, and it's really gutsy, with a lot of richness and bright fruit." $5.99. (Keith Perez).
--Los Angeles Wine Co.: 1985 Anfora from Portuguese producer Joao Pires. "This is an excellent red wine, rich and velvety and it tastes more mature than an '85. We really love it." $4.99. (Jeff Walker).
--Red Carpet Wine and Spirits: 1989 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay. "It's very rich and complex, buttery, oaky, and in some ways you could compare it with French Burgundy." $12.99 (David Dobbs).
--Wine House: 1988 Favelly Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. "This wine is a Burgundy that's primarily made of Gamay. It has rich flavors, luscious fruit. We were surprised when we tasted it." $6.99. (Christian Navarro).