As Wine Sales Skyrocket, Retailers Shift What and How they Stock

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Atlanta wine shop owner Steffini Bethea likes the bold tannins of Cabernets while her husband, Sheldon, prefers Malbecs. Since the novel coronavirus pandemic outbreak, the couple has been sharing more bottles at home, so they compromise by drinking red blends.

Bethea wonders if her customers at the Purple Corkscrew Wine Shop & Tasting Room, which switched to curbside pickup March 23, are making similar choices.

“I think that’s why the blends are selling, because people are able to share them easier—‘I’m taking home a bottle we will both like.’ I’m leaning toward this too because we’re together more,” says Bethea.

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According to Nielsen data, Bethea and her customers aren’t the only ones. Off-premise sales of red blends shot up 35% from March to May 2020 compared to the same period last year. Orange wine sales grew 39%, while sparkling wines and Pinot Noir each saw a 25% uptick.

David Mayfield, owner of Wine Shoppe in Waco, TX, thinks lighter wines and low-alcohol sparklers probably make sense for those staying at home. “It seems like people are drinking more,” he says. “People might want to drink at lunch and maybe don’t want as heavy a wine.”

Customers at Dedalus Wine Shop, Market, & Wine Bar in Burlington, VT, are also buying more Champagne and sparkling wines, perhaps to “bring a little extra joy to the scene,” says owner Jason Zuliani. Sales of Champagne and other bubbles are up 18–20% this spring compared to 2019.

“There are empty bins all over the place,” he says of the shop’s diminishing bubbles supply.

Many wine-shop owners have noticed their customers seem increasingly interested in exploring new wine regions.

“It’s interesting to see people becoming more adventurous,” says Zuliani. “Maybe the same old, same old doesn’t hold your attention.”

Dedalus customers who previously stuck to Sancerre or Chablis are now willing to try minerally Corsican and Ligurian Vermentinos, to the extent that the store sells 15 to 20 cases of Corsican wines per week. This, compared to the three or four cases sold weekly the same time last year. Zuliani fears he might run out of Corsican wines in another month.

Of course, sales are also influenced by what the shop has been promoting during the pandemic. Zuliani believes that the bump in Corsican wine sales partially reflects the attention staff has devoted to the region on Instagram stories and Live experiences. Dedalus customers are tuning into more social media events, he says, perhaps because they can’t sit at the bar to talk wine.

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New pricing and availability have also shifted purchasing patterns. At the Wine House in West Los Angeles, email newsletters that advertise 20–30% percent discounts on certain bottles have been sent to the retailer’s 60,000 subscribers, says co-owner Glen Knight. One of California’s largest independent wine stores, the shop procured bottles from wholesalers whose shipments were previously earmarked for now-shuttered restaurants and hotels.

In April, Wine House’s newsletter promoted bottles of 2018 Bucci Verdicchio Classico dei Castelli di Jesi for $18.99, a 27% discount from pre-pandemic pricing. The store has since sold 50 cases. It typically moves five to 10 cases of the Italian white per year, says Knight.

But he and other shop owners say wine sales are also being driven the old-fashioned way, by talking more to customers.

“Everyone wants to talk because they’ve been in the house,” says Bethea. Having more discussions means that a customer may try an Italian Falanghina instead of their usual go-to bottle.

“When customers come to the shop, they have an idea about what they want,” she says. “But now, we’re having a deeper conversation with them.”

Published on June 3, 2020
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