CHOOSING THE RIGHT WINE SETS

Choosing wine for a retail outlet might seem to be a simple decision: you make sure you have all of the popular, widely available wines, you add in a few esoteric, hard-to-get California boutiques, some imports that show your good taste, and a couple of wines for which you have a personal affection.

But wait just a minute. Doing it this way has numerous drawbacks, one of which is based around who you are and how much space you have to play with. If you are a small mom ‘n’ pop shop with 800 square feet of space, the amount of space you can devote to each wine depends to a great deal how much your rent is and how each wine you choose relates to sales. It clearly makes no sense to stock an expensive wine simply because you have a personal affection for it, if it doesn’t sell very well.

However, that very same wine might be an option for you if you had 8,000 square feet, where the esoteric wine wouldn’t supplant a brand that sells more rapidly. It’s better to sell 100 cases of a wine that earns you $2 a bottle than to sell 20 cases of a wine that earns you $9 a bottle. But it’s better still to sell both.

Yet look at the situation: If a tiny shop was quality-oriented and had great rapport with a wide range of wine collectors, many with eclectic palates, the 800-square-foot location would be better for selling the esoteric wine since it requires so much less floor space. And you wouldn’t be selling much space-consuming bag-in-box stuff anyway.

Conversely, the 8,000-square-foot location could very well be so huge that the esoteric wine would get lost in it if there were no hand-selling employees.0500ch3

So the fact that a shop may be more oriented toward hand-selling helps to determine the mix of wines. A case in point is the huge discount warehouse versus the small wine shop.

In the former case, a patron who knows little about wine walks through the aisles, wondering what to buy for a patio luncheon for eight persons featuring a main dish of trout with grapes. Not knowing what to buy, the patron picks two bottles of a chardonnay priced at, say, $16 per bottle.

Had that same patron been able to ask a savvy wine clerk, the choice could very well have been three bottles of an excellent riesling (at $12 per bottle) that would have gone better with the main dish, and would have provided sufficient wine for the party. Not to mention creating a better experience.

One more dynamic to consider: if you own a wine shop located near (or even in the same town as) a major discount warehouse, knowing the merchandise it carries is crucial to your success. It’s nice to have the popular Mondavi Woodbridge line of wines, but not if your cost for the wine is 30 cents a bottle more than the warehouse has it for on the floor.

Such scenarios are not uncommon in major cities these days, and retailers must be aware of what the competition is doing, or run the risk of having stock that simply doesn’t move.

For these reasons, sticking with a formula wine-buying pattern is risky and often fraught with headaches that require fixing after the fact — at a cost that can be expensive.

To deal with these problems, we have come up with a series of names that answer some of the questions embedded above, with the understanding that two factors should be at play at all times:

* In each category below, try to offer some at the higher end of the niche as well as the lower end, and keep the selection fluid. That is, vary the key selections now and then, featuring some of the more popular imports.

* Always try to find one or two unusual selections in each niche. I have identified a few of these in the sets below, but again, variety is the spice of it all. Keep it fresh and the consumer will return to see what’s new.

CHARDONNAY

A difficult category since there are so many names to choose from. And often there’s not as wide a profit margin here as with other varieties.

$2.50 to $5:

Forest Ville, a lower-priced brand from Classic Wines of California, has done rather well in a number of categories and is worth a look. Also here is Gallo California, which has improved of late, and the reputable Vendange line from Sebastiani’s Woodbridge facility. Another California contender is from Sutter Home, a stylish, lighter weight wine. Imports under $5 are hard to come by with any degree of consistency. (Still, some of the $7-suggested-retail items discount to allow sales at $4.99.)

$2.50 to $5 Alternative:

A sleeper here is a wine from South Africa called Robert’s Rock, a $5 suggested retail white wine that is mostly chardonnay with some chenin blanc for character.

$5 to $8:

Forest Glen remains one of the stalwart brands in this niche, but there are numerous top-rate brands here. Talus, Mondavi Woodbridge, Glen Ellen, Round Hill, Fetzer Sundial, Columbia Crest and BV all offer sound, tasty chardonnays here. In larger packages, especially at 1.5 liters, Corbett Canyon is a good choice. However, one of the sleepers is Canyon Road, with a slightly fresher fruit component. This is a very competitive category, one that has historically seen huge discounts and deals. So buy carefully and only after assessing your particular regional and local market. (It is also a good idea to determine what “house” chardonnay is being poured at your nearest large hotel for banquets.)

Among imports, Chilean wines such as Carmen, Santa Rita and Concha y Toro (and its affiliated brand, Walnut Crest, a million-case brand last year), offer sound products at a fair price. From France, there are Fortant de France, regional choices from B&G, and Black Opal (from Australia) from Mildara Blass.

$5 to $8 alternative:

Lindemans has become one of the hottest import brands over the last three years, rising in sales from 330,000 cases in 1994 to well over 1.2 million cases last year. Most of that has been with its amazingly consistent Bin 65 Chardonnay. Another nice alternative is Gallo’s Turning Leaf brand, which has improved over the last two years, and now offers a good alternative to some of the other former heavies in this niche. Best value in this niche: Rosemount.

$8 to $10:

A niche not easy to define since many $10 to $13 wines are often discounted under $10, and this is where Kendall-Jackson (which sold more than 3 million cases of wine last year) really dominates. The combination of flavor, packaging and consistency make the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay hard to ignore in major markets. Another brand worth looking at here is Meridian, which has improved quality on the Chardonnay markedly and which now offers style and substance for the price.

$8 to $10 alternatives:

Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington and Rodney Strong are now strong forces in the market with excellent offerings.

$10 to $14:

Another challenging category since so many of the $15 to $17 wines at deeper discounts fall here. Among the best are Beringer Napa Valley, St. Supery, and Mirassou. Beringer’s regular bottling of Chardonnay normally sells for about $16 nationally, but is widely discounted.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

An easier category to fill with good, sound wine since fewer examples exist that are excellent, but the competitiveness angle isn’t as great.

$2.50 to $5:

Only two in this price niche, Sutter Home and Gallo California; they represent the cleanest, freshest examples here. Corbett Canyon offers stern competition here, especially in 1.5-liter sizes.

$5 to $8:

Here the category widens out, and some of the better wines are from Kendall-Jackson, Rosemount (a sensational Australian version), Chilean wines from Carmen and Santa Rita, and wines from the south of France such as Fortant de France. However, the two leaders in this class are from Geyser Peak’s Canyon Road and from Buena Vista, absolutely smashing wines that defy their prices. Both exhibit excellent varietal character and are superb with seafood. Best value in this niche: Miguel Torres of Chile.

$8-$10:

A slightly more difficult niche, but the clear winner is an import, Villa Maria from New Zealand. However, right behind in a virtual dead heat is Geyser Peak, with a startlingly high quality white wine. Best value in niche: Terrapaca of Chile, a Beringer import.

$8-$10 alternative:

Rosemount’s recent entry here was a stunning success. A wine far lower in price than it ought to be. A clear best value.

$10 to $14:

Dry Creek, Adler Fels, Kenwood, and Murphy-Goode compete for top honors here, with the former a winner of more gold medals over the last few years than the others. Best value in class: St. Supery, winner of multiple gold medals at wine competitions.

MERLOT

A tough grape to deliver much quality, notably because competition has eroded profit margins, and wine makers are using all sorts of shortcuts to making the wine.

$2.50 to $5:

Forest Ville, with special promotions, is the leader of the pack here, with Sutter Home and a couple of Chilean brands (Walnut Crest to name just one) offering a challenge.

$5 to $8:

A more competitive niche, with the leaders being M.G. Vallejo, Glen Ellen, BV, Mondavi Woodbridge, and Talus offering serious competition.

$8 to $10:

Kendall-Jackson continues to offer quality and value in this niche, though Canyon Road, Forest Glen, Fetzer, and Columbia Crest challenge the leaders. Few imports enter the race here. But a recent push by Talus and Geyser Peak for better quality has given both a boost.

$10 to $14:

Buena Vista, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Rodney Strong, and Louis Martini hit at the lower end of this niche and offer ultimate quality for the price. Also competing here is Turning Leaf, along with Fetzer’s Bonterra. Although Rutherford Hill is a bit higher in price, discounts can bring it into this range.

0500ch2CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This is a challenging category since varying stocks determine the general quality of the wines, and at the lower price points, there’s little excitement.

$2.50 to $5:

Nothing really jumps out here except Chilean offerings such as Concha y Toro’s Walnut Crest along with La Playa. Forest Ville has done well in recent blind tastings here, but even it is spotty. Glen Ellen has occasionally been seen here at discounters.

$5 to $8:

A truly competitive niche, with Mondavi Woodbridge, Vendange, Glen Ellen, Napa Ridge, M.G. Vallejo, Canyon Road and Fetzer’s Valley Oaks are leaders here, but with Forest Glen, Bogle, and Turning Leaf now adding strong competition. The Australian efforts of Black Opal, Rosemount, Jacob’s Creek, and Lindemans, and even greater competition from Trapiche of Argentina have been impressive of late. Moreover, Chile still represents a force here with Conch y Toro, Cousino Macul, and Errazuriz. Talus, BV Coastal, a recent entry, Santa Rita Reserve, Round Hill, and Turning Leaf also offer good quality. Best values in niche: Nathanson Creek, a Sebastiani offering, Haywood, and Columbia Crest of Washington. Sleeper: Adelberg Cabernet-Merlot blend from South Africa.

$10 to $14:

More serious competition here from Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, Gallo Sonoma, Fetzer Bonterra, Buena Vista, imports such as Penfolds and Wolf Blass, and Canyon Road. Mondavi Coastal, Rosemount, and Jekel have recently showed great quality improvements, with BV Rutherford discounting into this niche. Best values in niche: Chateau Larose-Trintaudon of Bordeaux, still value-priced and soundly made, and Hawk Crest of Stag’s Leap.

SYRAH-SHIRAZ

The main red grape of Australia and the Australians really do this best. At its best, in the $10 to $14 range, there are dozens of strong competitors, with California’s top producers trying to get $20 and more for their wines.

$2.50 to $5:

Forest Ville’s recent entry to this niche places it ahead of others. Clear winner in terms of price: Robert’s Rock of South Africa, a stunning bargain.

$5 to $8:

A challenge, though Geyser Peak’s Canyon Road, Columbia Crest, and Hogue have done brilliantly here. However, recent dramatic improvements by Mildara Blass’s Black Opal and Rosemount make them the top items, with Penfolds’ Lindemans brand offering a stern challenge.

$8 to $10:

Clear winner in this niche has to be Guigal Cotes du Rhòne, a perennial favorite, though a number of Australian wines recently have entered the fray, with Yalumba’s offerings, Rosemount, Penfolds and Barwang now near the top. Among California brands, Talus leads the pack, with strong showings from Forest Glen, Fetzer Bonterra, and Turning Leaf. Stunning sleepers: St. Hallet’s Gamekeepers Reserve and Yalumba Grenache, both startlingly superb wines, make a real run at the top spot.

$10 to $14:

Australians Rosemount, Taltarni, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, and Evans all get a stern test from Kendall-Jackson, Geyser Peak, Chapoutier’s Cotes du Rhone, and Rabbit Ridge. Best value in the niche: Phelps Le Mistral when discounted.

PINOT NOIR

A strong category of late, with many sound and tasty wines. There is little in the $2.50 to $5 niche worth stocking.

$5 to $8:

Napa Ridge and Talus lead the pack, though Gallo’s recent entry with a Sonoma County-Russian River wine at this low price point is impressive.

$8 to $10:

Buena Vista leads here with a new entrant, a California-designated wine.

$10 to $14:

Clear winner is Saintsbury’s Garnet.

Other special wines that round out selections:

RIESLING

Not a big seller, but a wine that adds zest to any selection. Most sell for between $7 and $12, and among the drier versions try Trefethen, Washington Hills, Villa Maria of New Zealand, and Penfolds’ Eden Valley of Australia. Slightly sweeter is Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, Hogue, and Freemark Abbey. Best value in the category: Smith-Madrone.

German Rieslings are usually hard to understand, and thus most merchants shy away from them. But the green-glass-bottled Mosels, more delicate than the Rheingaus, are popular these days, and among the names to look for are Egon Muller, Fritz Haag, Dr. Loosen, and J.J. Prum.

Kabinetts from these producers usually run under $20, and Spaetleses not much more.

SPARKLING

Sure, the millennium parties are over, but for all occasions, especially special ones, we need bubbly. Champagne remains the world standard, and among the best and most consistent are Veuve Clicquot nonvintage, Mumm Cordon Rouge, Perrier-Jouet, and old standby Moet.

However, Spain and California have made great strides toward excellence in the last few years, and Domaine Chandon’s Napa property now has a new label worth displaying, which covers a new, drier sparkler. At more modest pricing, there are some new package designs and new cuvees from Korbel, and at the upper levels, every wine shop worth its neon should have J, Schramsberg and Iron Horse (especially the Wedding Cuvee of the Late Disgorged). From Spain, look at the latest offerings from Freixenet and Codorniu. And from Italy, Tosti, with its striking bottle design, has had much success.

Warning: Private label sparkling wines from California are usually not profit centers, but small-house Champagnes from France can be spectacular values.

LOIRE VALLEY WHITES

A particularly difficult category since some markets may have no consumer interest, and other may have eager buyers.

Best bets here are Savennieres from Baumard, Muscadet from Marquis de Goulaine, and Pouilly-Fume from LaDoucette or Pascal Jolivet. And then be prepared to educate consumers to their seafood friendliness.

SPAIN

Again, a smaller potential sale in some markets, greater in others, but those who love Tempranillo-based red wines will appreciate having access to Marques de Caceras, Bodegas Montecillo, Bodegas Breton “Lorinon” or any other top-rate Riojas.

From the Ribera del Duero, Alejandro Fernandez’ superb Pesquera is always in demand, as is Bodegas Vega Sicilia, a most expensive but usually in-demand red.

Best bet to excite Spanish loyalists: Alion, a new, powerful red wine from Vega Sicilia that sells for about $40, but wine collectors are already clamoring for it.

ITALY

Barolo and Barbaresco

Huge profit centers if you can develop a market presence for such wines as Gaja, Aldo Conterno, and Vietti. These wines are usually expensive, and still in demand, but take a consumer base willing to spend for the best. However, more reasonable items are from Paolo Scavino, Ceretto (notably the Zonchera) and Pio Cesare.

Best bet: Look for the red wines of Roero. Not yet well known in the United States, these Nebbiolo-based wines can sell for a fraction of the top Barbarescos, and offer good value for the neophyte willing to try a deep, concentrated red.

Chianti

A must-have wine in most communities, and fortunately there are numerous choices.

One must, however, is wine from Antinori, and my choice would be the elegantly packaged Peppoli or Badia a Passignano (both in the $15 to $20 range and well worth the price). Other great choices include Badia a Coltibuono, Rocca delle Macie, Villa Cafaggio, and Cecchi.

One lower-priced alternative is the sensational value called Santa Cristina from Antinori. Priced at about $11 in most markets, and with discounts available, the wine, all Sangiovese, is a spectacular bargain from either the 1997 or 1998 vintages, both of which were superb in Tuscany.

Even lower in price, and a great value, are the wines from Citra, which typically sell in the $7 range at full price. One wine called simply Sangiovese is excellent.

Pinot Grigio

The famed Santa Margherita is worth stocking for its call-name image, but another good wine and lower in price is the Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder, based in Alto Adige.

OTHER SLEEPERS

Many other wines are worth trying and stocking, even though they may not have the greatest panache in the world. The reason is obvious: they are attractive and usually reasonably priced, and often offer great taste.

Penfolds Semillon: A dramatic example of an Australian white wine from a grape that is far less understood than it ought to be.

Glenora Blanc de Blancs: Sparkling wine of an extraordinary quality from a New York state producer that has almost never made less than top-rate sparklers.

Stone Hill Vignoles: From Missouri, a white wine designed to work with spiced Thai dishes, using a grape variety that seems destined to make its greatest statement in America’s heartland.

Manzanilla La Gitana: Light fino sherry as good as this is a perfect wine to serve with roasted almonds and home-cured olives before dinner. A great aperitif wine, and a superb alternative to Chardonnay.

Luna di Luna: These under-$10 Italian blends are finding widespread acceptance for their drinkability and easy food match-ups. The packaging (cobalt blue for the Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay and Ferrari Red for the Merlot/Cabernet) certainly helps the wines stand out on the shelf.

Yalumba Galway Pipe Tawny Port: A sweet, concentrated, mature-flavored tawny using some old stock from an Australian winery that has a long history of making these grand-tasting “stickies.”

Domaine Baumard Coteaux du Layon: A dessert wine based on Chenin Blanc that has the ability to age for decades without losing its grand honey, wax and melon aroma. A classic that few wine lovers have ever tasted.

Dan Berger, wine columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, also publishes a weekly commentary and newsletter on wine, called Vintage Experiences. E-mail him at info@vintageexperiences.com, or call (888) 662-WINE.

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