Wine, the recession, and the Wine Curmudgeon Sample Index

The wine business is in trouble by any number of measurements, but the one that strikes me the most is the Wine Curmudgeon Sample Index.

This summer, I have received more samples than ever before, including samples from wineries that would not have noticed my existence in the past. I have received so many samples, in fact, that I;ve actually declined offers of many more. That’s the first time in my 20-some odd years of writing about wine that I’ve had to do that.

How weird has it been?

• I got four bottles from a major Napa winery, including its $100 and $80 cabernet sauvignons. The catch, of course, is that I almost never write about those kinds of wines, and there was no real reason to send them to me.

• A couple of weeks ago, a leading California sparkling wine producer sent me samples of the same wine it had sent me in the fall.

• Double samples 00 that is, two bottles of the same wine in the same shipment — are rampant. One of the biggest producers in the world sent me a case of wine, two bottles each of six wines.

Why this is happening? What does it mean?

The recession is pummeling the wine business, whether you’re one of the biggest producers in the world, you make expensive wine, or you sell to ordinary consumers (though regional wine, interestingly, hasn’t been hit nearly as badly as California and European wine). Yet there is still a fair bit of denial going on, despite the layoffs and sales declines. Things have been so good for so long that it’s difficult for the business — mostly the producers and the wine media — to believe what is happening.

My favorite analysis comes from Derek Benham, who runs Purple Wine Co. and Sonoma Wine Co. in California, who says the market for $15 and higher wine has suffered significantly. Benham, whose companies make quality value brands Avalon and Mark West as well as private and second labels, was quoted in the San Francisco Business Times:

There’s been a wind sheer at $15 and above — a very serious downdraft. Consequently, some high-end producers are negotiating ‘massive deals’ with retailers or siphoning off production to ‘second labels’ to purge excess inventories of expensive wine they can’t sell at high-end prices.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why I’m getting so many samples of so much wine that I’ve never gotten before.

Producers, and especially those that make wine that costs more than $25, are desperate to move product. So they’re putting pressure on their marketing and public relations people to move the product, and the marketing and PR people are doing things they don’t do when times are good — like sending the Wine Curmudgeon $100 bottles of wine. I’m even getting cold calls from young women at agencies plugging high-end Champagne, asking me when I’m going to write about their $75 this and their $50 that. And then there are the news releases that show up daily in my inbox touting $40 wine, sparkling and otherwise, as affordable. And the double samples? Why not? The wine is sitting around, not doing any good otherwise.

The consensus from the PR people that I’ve talked to is that they are under more pressure than than ever before. So they send me samples of wine or make the cold calls because then they can show the client that they’re making an extra effort. And right now, that’s about the best anyone can hope for.

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