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The Wine’s Still Flowing, but from Cheaper Bottles

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By Sandra Pedicini

6-30-homespunRISMEDIA, June 30, 2009-(MCT)-The recession hasn’t stopped people from popping the cork off a bottle of shiraz or chardonnay. But many budget-conscious imbibers are shopping for wine more carefully, just as they are for groceries or clothes.

“What used to be a $15 or $20 bottle is now an $8 or $10 bottle,” said David Jacobs, 35, as he picked up some wine for vacation at Total Wine & More in east Orlando.

In general, retail sales of wine and other alcohol have gone up. Booze, it turns out, is somewhat recession-proof.

“We still kind of put it in the category of an affordable indulgence,” said Danny Brager, a vice president at research firm The Nielsen Co. Also, people opting to stay home rather than go out to restaurants or bars are buying wine for dinner or other at-home gatherings.

But like a fine bottle of Bordeaux itself, the story of wine sales in a recession can be complex for the merchants who sell it.

People are buying more from supermarkets and big chains such as Total Wine & More, retail surveys show, while spending less at bars and restaurants. Smaller, independent wine shops, which tend to focus on more-expensive varieties, have struggled as buyers cut back on splurging.

At Cavanaugh’s Fine Wines in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood, owner Jay Smith estimates his sales have dropped 30% compared with a year ago. Many people simply aren’t buying the kinds of wines he sells, including a wide selection of bottles costing about $100.

The owner of Orlando’s Tastings, A Wine Experience – a bar that also sells bottles to take home – has put plans for additional Central Florida locations on hold.

Pierre’s Wine Cellar in Lake Mary, Fla., shut its doors last month after struggling with a shrinking customer base and smaller purchases. Owner Olivier Uteschill said last week that he is reinventing the business “so that the economics can remain viable” and hopes to reopen soon.

A Cork & Olive location in Ocoee, Fla., closed this year, its owners citing the recession and increased competition.

Things have gone much better at Total Wine & More, a superstore that touts low prices. The Maryland-based chain has “been a major force in the marketplace,” Brager said.

Total Wine president David Trone said wine superstores “shake up the market,” taking business away from independent wine shops and grocery stores.
“It’s kind of like a big candy store for adults,” said Lee Cockerell, a retired Walt Disney World executive. “Everyone I know comes here.”

Nearby, Jacobs stocked up on a case of zinfandel and bottles of pinot grigio. Until recently, Jacobs said, he and his wife were starting to drink bottles of wine costing more than $20 or $25. Now they’re buying bottles that sell for half as much.

The chain aims to combine warehouse prices with the extras of smaller shops, such as classes and tastings.

Some consumers have defected not from independent shops but from supermarkets or another chain: Orlando-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.

ABC marketing director Bob Gibson acknowledged Total Wine has taken business from stores within a three-mile radius. But in Central Florida, he noted, “they’ve got one store. We’ve got 40.”

More stores are planned in Volusia and east Orange counties, he said.

Sales at ABC stores, which sell about 4,000 wines, have stayed flat, although “this spring, we’ve seen a nice bump against the trend.”

And the owner of at least one small shop says things are looking up.

Tim Varan of Tim’s Wine Market, near downtown Orlando, also said he has seen improvement in sales this spring. To lure more frugal customers, he has stocked more cases of less-expensive wines.

As the economy has shown signs of improvement, higher-priced wines are starting to sell better, Varan said.

Customers are “starting to spend up again,” he said. “I think it’s a sign people are getting a little bit more comfortable with spending money.”

©2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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