There are signs the American economy is improving, at least as far as wine shops are concerned. But if you think that means a return to the glory days of $150 cult Cabernets ... well, not so fast.
Instead, most wine store owners, far from declaring business as back to normal, are describing a new normal, one in which the high-margin sales of wines in the $50 to $150 range are difficult -- indeed, some would say they're almost a thing of the past.
To an overwhelming degree, retail customers are spending less for a bottle of wine than they did two years ago. In 2009, we wrote in these pages that, in terms of a sales sweet spot, $25 was the new $40. If anything, that median is trending further downward in 2011. For many, $15 to $20 might be the new $25.
For consumers, this is all very good news. The new focus on wines in that range has resulted in a kind of renaissance in the category, with more -- and better -- bottlings available than ever before. "We've always prided ourselves at finding great affordable wines," says Jim Knight with the Wine House in West Los Angeles. "But now they're more abundant, and they're much better than they were from even a few years ago."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 19, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Well-priced wines: In the April 14 Food section, a list of good wines for less than $15 that accompanied an article about inexpensive quality wines misspelled the name of the 2008 Aguijon de Abeja Malbec wine as Aguinon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 21, 2011 Home Edition Food Part E Page 4 Food Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Well-priced wines: An April 14 list of good wines for less than $15, which accompanied an article about inexpensive quality wines, misspelled the name of the 2008 Aguijon de Abeja Malbec wine as Aguinon.
Perhaps the most important trend in wine buying habits is that people are still buying the stuff. If you're one of those who's grown accustomed to the pleasures of the grape with your evening meal, chances are you won't be reverting to iced tea -- or even cheaply made wine -- any time soon. "We've trained them well," says Randy Kemner, owner of the Wine Country in Signal Hill.
So well, in fact, that Kemner says when he brought a few better-known, less-expensive "supermarket" brands into his store as an experiment, they went largely untouched. His customers had come to prefer the more curated selections in the shop, even if they had to spend a few more bucks to enjoy them.
The price category of $15 to $20 has become so important that some retailers have changed their floor plans, and their buying habits, to draw attention to it. Early last year, Simon Cocks, general manager at Larchmont Village Wine Spirits & Cheese, put in a couple of double-wide wine racks in the center aisle of his small-ish shop on Larchmont Boulevard. Every wine on those racks is $15.99 or less. It has become a huge success, reports Cocks, an island of wines in constant motion and rotation.
"It is by far the busiest section of the store," he says. "And it really has affected my buying," he says, "since I'm always looking for wines to fit that space."
A great many of those wines will be from white varieties, owing in part to the fact that bottle for bottle, whites are cheaper to make: most white wines do not require expensive barrels to sit in for the better part of a year. And retailers report that their customers are no longer so enamored of reds that they eschew white wines altogether.
"People have gotten more daring with white wines" for the simple reason that they're priced to experiment, says Kyle Meyer of the Wine Exchange in Orange. "People will take a chance on something that's not terribly expensive."
Meyer sells a ton of Spanish whites, Cavas, Godellos, Albarinos and Ruedas, as well as Austrian Gruner Veltliners, Italian Erbaluces, Fianos and Greco di Tufos, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and Torrontes from Argentina -- all for $10 to $15. And a handful of reliable continental whites now come in liter bottlings -- that's an extra third of a bottle. He sells cases of a white blend called "Jarenincan" from Slovenian producer Crnko. Exotic, irresistibly lemony and bright, it comes in at about $13.
Interest in well-priced Spanish red wines -- from Toro, Navarra, Calatayud, Tarragona and elsewhere -- has been heating up for half a decade. But recent critical attention has affirmed what local retailers have been saying all along: that these wines wildly over-perform for their price. It is not uncommon to see point scores in the low-90s conferred upon wines that cost $10, $12 or $15.
"If you're feeling uncomfortable about your expendable income," says Wine House's Knight, "getting a 91-point wine for $9.99 feels like a wise choice."
The other hot Iberian category is Portugal, where producers of fortified wines and others are exploiting their fascinating indigenous varieties from the Douro and the Dao. At the Wine House, about $10 buys a bottle of Quinta de Cabriz from the Dao river valley; for an extra $5, you can walk home with the lush, silky Quinta do Vallado from the Douro.