Posted on | August 25, 2014
Written by | Jeff Siegel
Delicious value wines from around the world become a smart retailer’s secret weapons.
Arnie Millan, the European wine buyer for Wine World and Spirits in Seattle, knows exactly what his customers are looking for—and it’s not something they can find in every other store in the city.
“They’re looking for compelling values,” says Millan, known to the store’s customers for his recommendations, called Arnie Picks. “So that’s why we carry a huge number of producers who make quality wine but who are too small for the larger chains to carry.”
Hence a wine like the $10 Codice Tempranillo from Spain’s Castilla La Mancha, which Wine World of Wine sells pallets—and pallets—of.
Welcome to the world of global value wines, where fairly priced, quality international wines, whether from less well-known regions or made with less well-known grapes, can give retailers a leg up to capture the attention and secure the loyalty of customers. These wines, whether a Tempranillo from central Spain, a Nero d’Avola from Sicily, a South African Chenin Blanc, or a Chardonnay from France’s Mâcon, give savvy retailers a chance to compete on something other than price with the same big brands that everyone else carries.
Call it a secret weapon. These wines—something their customers may not be able to buy elsewhere—can reinforce the retailer’s sense of taste and authority.
“We have to give people a reason to visit our store,” says John Roenigk, the owner of the 3,600-square-foot Austin Wine Merchant, a fixture in the Texas capital for more than 15 years because Roenigk is always looking for those kinds of wines. “That means the wine has to be correct, the price has to be correct, and the value has to be correct.”
The World in a Shopping Basket
One of the biggest changes in the wine business over the past decade has been the introduction of brands sold more or less nationally. If wine still doesn’t have a true national brand like Jack Daniel’s or Coke, there are, nonetheless, more big-volume brands than ever before. Which leaves independents in a quandary: What do they carry to differentiate themselves from the biggest retailers, where price is all?
“So we’re going to have a bigger Spanish set than the local grocery store,” says Scott Niecko, the co-owner with wife Trina of Mega-Bev, with four stores in eastern Michigan. “For Argentina and Chile, the grocery stores are going to have two each, and we’re going to have the whole selection.”
The key, then: Wines like these, which aren’t necessarily in every store on every corner, but are what Roenigk calls correct in style, price, and value:
There is much more to Spain than Rioja and Ribera del Duero. The Codice—varietally correct, with fresh cherry fruit and a touch of earthiness—is just one example. Spain has overtaken France and Italy to become the world’s biggest wine producer; combine that with a six-year-old economic recession that has pushed unemployment past 20% and there is lots of wine being made with reduced local demand.
Cava, the country’s sparkling wine, offers quality and value at $15 and less, and it’s difficult to find a Spanish bubbly that doesn’t deliver. Dibon, both brut and rosé, is one choice, and Juve y Camps’s vintage brut nature sparklers are an exceptional value.
Patrick Mata’s Olé Imports does for Spain what Kermit Lynch does for France, finding small producers who make top-notch and affordable wines from unexpected places. Top producers include Barahonda from Yecla in eastern Spain, working with Monastrell; Ipsum from Rueda, with its bicycle spoke label; and Ludovics from Terra Alta in Catalonia, using Garnacha and Garnacha Blanca.
Other regions worth a close look in Spain include Toro, Cariñena and Bierzo.
How big an impression has Sicily made on the wine business after years of oblivion? Terlato Wines, whose brands include Gaja, Sanford and Chapoutier, signed to import and market the island’s Cusumano in 2013. That would have been unthinkable just five years ago.
But Sicily, including but not only Cusumano, has gotten that much better, shedding its reputation for bulk juice and fortified wine. There are varietal wines from international grapes, but look for reds made with Nero d’Avola, either mono-varietal or blended with international grapes, many of which cost less than $15.
The white wines, again $15 or less, may be even more impressive, using the native Cataratto, Grillo and Insolia, either blended with local or international grapes, or as single varietals. Top producers include Planeta, with a “La Segreta” white blend that includes Grecanico, Chardonnay and Vigonier; Cantine Colosi, with native grape blends; Castelmonte’s Notorius, made with Grillo; and Tenuta Rapitala’s reds and whites, closer to $20.
The Other Blanc: Chenin
Don’t worry about the term “Steen,” which is merely what the South Africans traditionally call Chenin Blanc. The important point here is that modern South African Chenin rivals anything in the world (and the country makes more of it than anyone else). Francophiles may sniff that it isn’t quite up to the quality of Loire Valley examples, but it’s not as pricey either, usually hitting all of the grape’s fruity/floral high notes but rarely hit $15.
Ken Forrester, one of the country’s best Chenin Blanc producers, makes five distinct ones, including a late-harvest. The “Petit,” around $10, shows what can be done by a producer who cares about the grape; it’s fresh and clean, with green apple fruit, some citrusy zest and even minerality on the finish. Also worth looking for: Simonsig, softer than the Forester with apricot fruit; and Graham Beck “The Game Reserve,” also less crisp with tropical fruit.
Now Trending (Ironically): Mâcon
The French, as if often the case, are so far ahead of trends that they’re oblivious to them. Mâcon is a perfect example: As many California producers are cutting back on oak in Chardonnay in response to consumer and critical demand, Mâcon wineries are still making chardonnay with little, if any, oak. Because that’s the way they always have. And considering Mâcon is in Burgundy, where prices often bear little relation to demand, the wines offer surprising value.
Many of the best price-quality ratio buys will be Mâcon-Village wines around $20 (but sometimes less), and they aren’t necessarily from the biggest negociants. Domaine de Rochebin Mâcon-Villages has the traditional fresh green apple fruit but is a little richer and more sophisticated than other village wines; the Cave de Lugny cooperative turns out amazing $10 to $15 wines like the Les Charmes; and the Henri Perrusset Mâcon-Villages is a Kermit Lynch wine, with all that entails for its $20 price.
Portugal Belongs at The Table Too
Portuguese table wines, while making inroads on the East Coast, are still little known in the rest of the U.S., despite extensive efforts by the Portuguese and prices less than $15. Retailers who appreciate the wines, like Roenigk, have pleased their customers and their bottom line. These wines are made from local grapes, including Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Tranca and Tinta Cão, which may be one of the difficulties in selling them. First, many are port grapes, and even the best known, like the Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain) aren’t very well known.
Roenigk sells Dow’s Vale do Bomfim, a $12 red blend made with local grapes that he calls “a terrific, complex, claret-style wine” that he compares favorably to a quality $20 red Bordeaux. But that’s far from the only possibility. Look for blends from Esporão, like the Monte Velho red (local grapes and some Syrah) and white (local grapes), and Symington’s Douro Altano red blend (local grapes). There are also some extreme values to be found in the reds and whites of the Tejo region.
Look South in France, But Not Just In The Rhône
One of the biggest advances in French winemaking has been the Languedoc’s improvement in quality, but that’s not the only southern French region that has made advances. These wines, usually less than $15, can b e made with almost any grape grown in the world, from cabernet sauvignon to Cinsault to Clairette.
It might be an old-vine rosé from Villa des Anges in the Languedoc; the red and white Pigmentum blends from Georges Vigouroux from Cahors; the Cuvee des 3 Messes Basses Ventoux red and white; and Sacha Lichine’s Le Coq Rouge and La Poule Blanche—updated country blends in the spirit of the venerable La Vieille Ferme.
Widening the World of Value
Of course, the route to global values can be charted along many roads. There is simply more good, hygienic wine being made everywhere grapes get crushed, and more companies eager to bring gems here from abroad. Yes, they do not all make it to every corner of America, but the selection is as broad as it has ever been. Here are a few more ways that nimble retailers are putting global value power on their side.
A time-tested value play that still holds up well, especially for customers with a higher threshold for defining value: trading down from pricey collectible territory. Rosso di Montalcino is not Brunello, but it delivers a similar style. And a ripasso such as Allegrini’s Palazzo della Torre (sometimes referred to as a “baby Amarone”) packs the flavor concentration of Amarone, at half the price (and you can pop it open any time). In the Rhône, Gigondas and Vacqueyras are packed with dark Grenache-y goodness, without Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s intense pepper and tough-in-youth profile.
The Silent Hand Sell
Retailers cringe at the thought of taking on too many “hand sells,” so it’s helpful to remember that shelf talkers—commonly dubbed “silent salesmen” anyway—can be hand-sellers when they are handmade, attractive and neat. Staff picks/descriptions personalize the shopping experience and add a sense of authority to the store, and can be just the right nudge for modestly priced but not-so-familiar wines, especially when given a context of usage, whether that be “For dinner tonight!” or “Stump your wine geek friends” or “If you like Malbec, try this.”
Sure, a 92-pt. necker may still be great for a $14.99 Merlot, but authentic, personal recommendations are more in synch with offbeat wines; the hand-writ touch can make the unfamiliar less forbidding. It’s the sensible approach for underdog under-$15 wines, whether it’s a nifty Greek blend, an Italian grape no one has probably heard of, or a Languedoc that is poured by the glass at a local wine-destination restaurant.
Be That Source
Maybe it’s not quite the same as a savvy investor snapping up a load of penny stocks, but smart retailers are more interested than ever in stocking up on a wine they believe in, and then raving about it in signage, email blasts or the simple face-to-face “Have you tried this? We’ve gone through cases.
Where does an independent merchant find such deals? By keeping an eye on distributor close-outs (which often have nothing to do with quality) and sending the message to distributor reps that offbeat wines are welcome, if the quality/price ratio is strong. Great deals often start with good communication.
—W. R. Tish