Lower-priced varieties keep momentum going amid tight market
By TIM HEARDEN
Money may be tight for many folks, but there's one thing they're not doing without.
Budget-conscious consumers have been shifting more of their purchases to lower-priced wines, but they haven't stopped drinking their beloved beverage.
In 2008, both overall and per capita wine consumption in the United States set record highs and accounted for the 15th straight year of gains in total wine sales, according to the Wine Market Council's consumer tracking study.
California wine sales to the U.S. market in 2008 edged up 2 percent in volume over the previous year to about 467 million gallons, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. And through May of this year, shipments of California and bulk-imported wine to the U.S. market were up 7 percent in volume compared with the same period last year, the institute reports.
While Americans' tastes in wine have become much more sophisticated over the past two decades, lately their tastes haven't been quite as expensive, said Gladys Horiuchi, the Wine Institute's communications manager.
"I would say wines under $15 are doing OK," said Horiuchi, whose employer is the largest advocacy and public policy organization for California wine. "A lot of it is that the restaurant sales are off about 10 percent, according to industry experts. A lot of the more expensive bottles are sold in the restaurants.
"Interestingly enough, supermarket sales were up last year," she said. "People are buying wine at supermarkets and entertaining at home or enjoying them at home."
Also, the economy has prompted wholesalers and retailers to maintain smaller inventories and make purchases more frequently as the need arises, Horiuchi said.
With money still to be made, most vineyards and wineries are continuing to step up their marketing efforts, using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to reach out to younger consumers.
"The baby boomers have traditionally been the ones purchasing wines, but now the children of baby boomers have grown up with wine at the table," Horiuchi said. "That group that is over 20 has been a growth area as well. Those people tend to communicate that way."
At Delicato Family Vineyards in the Napa Valley, growth has been brisk. Most of the wines sell for about $10 per 750-milliliter bottle, spokeswoman Holly Evans said.
Delicato's marketing team is already getting a jump on the holiday season by offering coupons for low-energy Christmas lights and fireplace log starters and promoting wines in gift packaging, Evans said.
New Clairvaux Vineyard in Vina, Calif., is "keeping the word out there" about its wines, said Aimee Sunseri, a fifth-generation winemaker who has worked at the winery since 2000.
The winery hosts special events once a month and has a "wine club" that offers its members discounts of up to 20 percent, Sunseri said.
"On certain event days, we give discounts," she said. "We're trying to encourage people to come out and still enjoy what they usually enjoy, but not at a premium price."
Growers have been keeping a wary eye on grape supplies as the harvest has unfolded. For years, there was an oversupply of most varietals of grapes until the supply appeared to get back into balance earlier this year, said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.
But in the past several months, there has been lots of winegrape-buying activity, as people get rid of any higher-cost inventory that they have, Ross said.
Prices on the spot market for premium grapes -- for example, highly prized Napa Cabernet Sauvignon -- have dropped about 30 percent since December, Brian Clements, senior partner at Novato, Calif.-based Turrentine Brokerage, told the Associated Press.
"What started out as a very optimistic year has changed pretty dramatically," Ross said. "Now everybody's waiting to see what the crop sizes up to be."
Still, with the popularity of wine continuing to hold its own, growers and sellers are maintaining their optimism. Many have been buoyed by news reports about the value of wine in improving longevity and cardiovascular health.
"I think people are seeing that wine in moderation can be part of an everyday lifestyle," Horiuchi said.
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake, Calif. E-mail: email@example.com.