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Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine

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Which price am I going to pay for this wine? And why are there so many prices anyway? It makes me crazy.

Negotiating the Great Wall of Wine at the grocery store (or any retailer, for that matter) is difficult enough. But why is it that so many in the wine business go out of their way to make it even more difficult? Hence, the five things that make me crazy when I buy wine:

1. Wine shelved incorrectly, where Chilean wine is in the Spanish section, French wine is in the Italian section, and so forth. Some of my irritation is because I’m the son and grandson of retailers, and they taught me the need to stock inventory correctly. But most of it is because that kind of mistake makes it more difficult for people to buy the wine they want. If you’re looking for malbec, and it’s not in the Argentine section, you’re more likely to forgo wine or buy beer.

2. Sweet red wines that don’t say they’re sweet on the label. If I have trouble figuring out whether it’s sweet or dry, and I do, how much trouble does the average consumer have? Using the adjective smooth, which seems to be the winespeak of the moment for sweet, isn’t enough. You’re making sweet red wine because people want sweet red wine, so what’s wrong with telling them it’s sweet?

3. The boxed wine ghetto, where all the boxed wine — regardless of quality — is stuck on a dusty shelf in the back of the store or wine section. One reason that Yellow + Blue, a great cheap wine, isn’t better known is that it comes in a 1-liter box. That means you’ll find it with the Almaden and Franzia 5-liter boxes, and about the only thing the Yellow + Blue has in common with those is the box. It’s like putting Italian-made shoes next to flip-flops, and who does that?

4. Three — or four or even five — prices for the same bottle of wine. There’s the regular retail price. And the club price. And the sale price. And the “buy six, get a discount” price. And the “buy 12 and get a discount” price. The consumer isn’t sure what the price is, and ends up paying more than they thought they would. Which, sadly, may be the point.

5. That every winery in New Zealand seems to have a bay in its name — Oyster Bay, Monkey Bay, Destiny Bay, Cable Bay, Brick Bay, Pegasus Bay, Clifford Bay, Picton Bay, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing when the winery, like the respected and well-known Cloudy Bay, is actually located on a bay. But when the winery doesn’t exist, and the name is made up to sell private label wine or by Big Wine to establish a New Zealand brand, enough is enough.

Slider image courtesy of Houston Press food blog, using a Creative Commons license

Winebits 312: Sales trends edition

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YellowTail growth resumes: Remember all those stories about how the strong Australian dollar and YellowTail’s financial problems were going to mean the end of an era for Aussie wine? Not true, apparently. The biggest imported brand in the U.S. expects 2 1/2 percent gorwth this year, reaching almost 9 million cases. Driving that growth are the brand’s two sweet red labels, including a sangria. That YellowTail has rebounded from its problems says much about its marketing skill, but also speaks about its clout with retailers. How many other brands could have slumped the way YellowTail did, but not lose shelf space and even added space for two more wines? In this respect, Big Wine is becoming more and more like other consumer goods, be they ketchup or detergent, with all the means — good and bad — for the consumer.

Is craft beer headed for a bust? This matters to wine not only because craft beer competes for drinkers with wine, especially in the younger demographics, but because the growth in craft beer (“But even such a healthy rise in consumer demand won’t be enough to sustain the many new breweries jumping into the marketplace“) has similarities to what happened in California with “boutique” wineries heading into the recession and with the unprecedented growth in moscato and sweet red over the past couple of years. What’s interesting is that someone in craft beer has noticed what’s going on, while almost everyone in wine was in denial before the recession and during the moscato and sweet red boom.

If you can sell wine on-line. ..: You can sell a lot of it. That was the experience of the British supermarket chain Tesco, which doesn’t face the three-tier restrictions that U.S. retailers face in this country. The story, on the drinks business trade magazine site, says sales may have gone up as much as 51 percent over the same period last year, and offers all the reasons why that is so. Contrast this with Amazon’s wine marketplace, which after nine months still can’t sell wine in all 50 states.

What’s next for sweet red wine?

Sweet red enters the new year as the next big thing for U.S. wine – up 62 percent in retail outlets in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 8. That’s twice the growth of moscato, last year’s next big thing, reports Nielsen, and sweet red has a 1.1 percent share of the domestic wine market.

That growth is nothing short of unimaginable. Just a couple of years ago, for all practical purposes, sweet red didn’t exist. What little there was was the province of regional wine, and mostly mocked at. Today, it’s such a big deal that seminars are held about the subject at major industry trade shows.

And sweet red is only to get bigger. Sweet table wines, including sweet red, moscato and white zindandel, account for 11 percent of the U.S. retail market, reports Nielsen – a bigger share than pinot grigio, pinot noir, or merlot. Given that white zinfandel sales are about half of what they used to be, and that there isn’t enough moscato for increasingly spectacular growth (and its growth was half in 2012 of 2011), wine drinkers will turn to sweet red.

Yet it doesn’t seem, as so many in the industry have hoped, that sweet red is the Holy Grail – the introductory wine that brings new drinkers to wine. Nielsen’s Danny Brager says “only a small amount of volume has been gained by folks new to the category.” Instead, according to Nielsen, most of the growth seems to be from non-sweet drinkers shifting to sweet and sweet drinkers drinking more sweet wine.

Also worth noting: Sweet red drinkers skew younger and more Hispanic, though the Nielsen numbers aren’t definitive, says Chari. The category is just too new for anyone to know anything for certain.

Having said that (which is why I reserve the right to be wrong), it looks like sweet red – as incredible as its growth has been – won’t transform the wine business. It will make a lot of companies a lot of money, but could, in the end, do nothing more than what white zinfandel did during its heyday – give wine drinkers who want something smoother and sweeter than cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot an inexpensive option. What it won’t do is convince people who prefer beer or soft drinks that wine has something to offer them.

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