The Pouring Trip: A micro look at the state of wine sales

March 17th, 2009

Just before the storm. Cerro Prieto Vineyard, Paso robles. Early spring. Courtesy Larry Stanton.

Just before the storm.

Guest post by Larry Stanton

We are just back from our first pouring trip, and it was an eye opener. Following our first bottling several months ago, we were anxious to get our new, 1-2 Ton/acre wines “out there”, convinced that once someone tries them, the wines will sell themselves. Starting a new venture in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930’s, we pressed ahead, anxious, but nonetheless, optimistic.

“There’s always room at the top”, as the saying goes. We had an excellent product, and priced it fairly, factoring 25% off just because of financially chaotic times. People want…people demand and deserve true quality at an affordable price. That is our niche and we truly believe we have filled it.

We concentrated on the upper end wine market in the North County area of San Diego, meshing a post-op checkup at UCSD med center with some wine pouring. What we saw was a bit surprising: In the area we visited, there is still a bunch of money being spent at large, up-scale shopping centers, but we were wine-centric and found a few interesting tidbits of info.

First of all the wine industry is not dead, nor is it on life support. It has, however, shut down at the upper price end, even in extremely wealthy areas. The most common comment in some very nice wine shops, wine bars and restaurants was that there is a cap on what consumers will pay. Wine bars for the 20-30 yr old crowd are selling lots of wine, but it just doesn’t go past 20 to 30 bucks. Yes, many have the higher-end stuff in stock, but as several sellers mentioned: “Over a hundred bucks, and nobody is buying”.

It seems retailers have seen a $100 cap on bottles, and their really high-end Napa stuff had just been sitting on the shelf for some 9-12 months. While waiting to chat with the owner, I watched a customer fill 3 cases with Spanish and Argentine wines, all in the $7-$10 range. He was putting on a party and obviously was shopping for value, with Tempranillos, Malbecs, and the like. His comment was: “This Spanish and Argentine stuff is a great deal”.

We were waiting in line to show our wares (a $39 Merlot and our signature blend, $49 Cerro Prieto Paso Bordo, which is 85% Cab and 15% Syrah), when we overheard part of a conversation between two Napa reps and the store owner. The gist of the conversation was that the fellow from Napa was putting the hard sell on the owner for some pretty pricey stuff (Cabs, Syrah, blends) and the owner wasn’t too happy about it. My wife commented that we would be facing a tough sell. The owner had a mask-like countenance…and said not a word to the reps.

When our turn came, the owners came over to us, we had a nice conversation, and they truly seemed to enjoy our wines. We don’t know if we made a sale, but did make good contacts, and witnessed first hand that even in tony high end neighborhoods $100 is the max that wine drinkers will pay. However the average consumer is counting his nickels, and is buying quality, much of it from the Argentine and Espana. At true wine bars, clientele seemed to be younger, and again, drank with passion…at $5 to $7/ glass, and happy hour was full… but later was nowhere near as busy.

Fine restaurants in the area were also hurting, with traffic down by 20-30% or more (their own words), and wines at dinner were mainly based on value, not brand. If folks were drinking it, it was not only yummy, but it was good value. $30 to $50 bottles were sold, but more often a glass at $7 to $12 was sold rather than a bottle over $40. Mind you, this area had a jam packed parking lot of BMWs, Mercedes’, and Lexus’, but even the well-to-do were watching their wine spending.

Less exclusive wine bars did land office happy hour business, but with wine at 4 to 5 bucks/glass. So people out of the Napa area are buying…just not their stuff. Also, no question some eateries have closed down. One wine shop was now serving high end wine/food dinners to try and attract back their clientele.

There were lots of long faces on this trip, and a lot of folks really struggling to sell wine. High-end places were selling low cost value wines to try and capture the market.

Here at home, in the Paso Robles area, the situation mimics the pricey areas in SD: good but lower cost Spanish and Argentine wines mixed with inexpensive local wines, but the high end just isn’t happening. There are a few exceptions but those folks are serving San Francisco quality fine meals, plus fine wines (max again seems around $100, but most are in the $30-$50 range).

At the end of the day, our trip was a start, not a success. We are waiting on some, but are hopeful only. This is a tough market, no matter how you slice it. Right now, the demand is for great quality at affordable price. Sound familiar?

Larry Stanton owns and operates Cerro Prieto Vineyard & Cellars in west side Paso Robles.

He also blogs at pasodocwine.blogspot.com

Click here to contact Larry.

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One Response to “The Pouring Trip: A micro look at the state of wine sales”

  1. Larry Stanton Says:

    In rereading this, there is an overall somber tone, which was correctly states the business situation as we saw it thru a microcosm. What isn’t mentioned is that we were received at all places, whether well known or not, with a firm handshake, a warm smile, and a friendly reception. Upper end business in the tank or not, the folks in the wine business are still the friendly, well informed and interesting people we have always enjoyed. In tough times my hat is off to them, and we thank them for their hospitality and graciousness.


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