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Wine

Wine: In This Economy, We Economize

BLT Steak's Nicole Saladyga has added more-affordable wines to her list.
BLT Steak's Nicole Saladyga has added more-affordable wines to her list. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The drumbeat of bad news on the front page is bound to echo inside the paper, and the country's economic woes naturally will influence our wine choices as we agonize over our incredible shrinking 201(k)s. But just how have our spending habits changed?

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Wine & Spirits magazine's latest annual restaurant wine survey reveals that we are not forgoing wine as we dine, just choosing cheaper glasses and bottles. The implication of this not-so-eye-popping revelation is that wine now is a necessary part of dinner, no longer a luxury item to be enjoyed only on special occasions and given up in tough times.

At least, for those of us who can still afford to eat out.

To get a sense of how the economy is influencing our wine buying habits, I consulted two sommeliers and two retailers. I asked them how customers are reacting to the economic downturn, how the restaurants and stores are changing their offerings in response, and where the best values are in wine today. Finally, I asked each of them to recommend two wines they are drinking now.

Expense-account Washington has remained fairly insulated from the recession, at least as far as its appetite is concerned, said Nicole Saladyga, sommelier at BLT Steak near Farragut Square. Yet although she says business remains strong, Saladyga has noted her customers skimming about 25 percent off their wine budget, from an average of $120 a bottle to $90. That has led her to add more wines that sell for under $100.

"People have stricter budgets when it comes to the alcohol they consume, but they are definitely still drinking," she said.

Which less-expensive wines go well with all that beef? Saladyga said her customers are gravitating toward malbecs from Argentina, especially those by Catena, Luca and Cadus. They're $55, $65 and $80, respectively, on the restaurant's list, and less at retail.

Superstar French chef Alain Ducasse's haute restaurant Adour, in the St. Regis Hotel downtown, opened in September just as the economy peered into the abyss. Sommelier Ramon Narvaez already had compiled a list featuring several value-oriented wines, many from lesser-known regions of France. He said diners sometimes will buy two bottles of less-expensive wine "when they feel the price is fair, instead of one expensive bottle they may feel guilty about splurging on."

"People today are making last-minute reservations, and when they sit down, they complain about the economy, and then they drink to the economy, or its recovery," said Narvaez, ever the discreet eavesdropper. "Then they relax."

The bad economy may offer unique opportunities for wine consumers willing to shell out the bucks. High-end "cult" wines -- produced in small quantities and routinely allocated to select restaurants -- sometimes make cameo appearances on store shelves. As restaurants feel the pinch and pass up their allocations, distributors will offer attractive deals to alert retailers.

"We recently got a case of Cakebread pinot noir," said Rande Jenus, co-owner of the Wine Cabinet in Reston, referring to a seldom-seen wine from a noted Napa Valley producer of cabernet sauvignon. "You never see that at retail."

Jenus said that business has been steady but that, like the diners at BLT Steak, his customers are trimming about a third off the price of their purchases. "People who normally would pay $20 are now paying about $12," he said. "And they're entertaining at home more. Our staff is giving more recipe advice than we ever have."

Like Saladyga, Jenus has noted consumer interest in wines from Argentina. "We're selling the hell out of Mendoza," he said, referring to that country's prime wine region.

Business also is brisk at Finewine.com in Gaithersburg, according to proprietor Cecile Giannangeli. And though consumers definitely are economy-minded, that doesn't necessarily mean they gravitate toward cheap wine, she said.

"People who used to spend $60 on a bottle of wine in a restaurant are now eating at home, but they may still spend $60 on a bottle at the store," Giannangeli said. "Then they'll realize the same bottle might have cost them $150 in a restaurant."

Giannangeli has operated the Gaithersburg store for 10 years with her husband, Al. She recently sold her original store, Cecile's Wine Cellar in McLean. But even with just one store to mind, she said, she is working harder than ever, negotiating deals with distributors and searching for wines that provide the best value. She is also taking advantage of a new Maryland law that allows retailers to buy directly from wineries that produce fewer than 11,000 cases a year, bypassing the distributor and letting her shave about 15 percent off the retail price of those wines.

Over the past decade, Giannangeli has conducted regular tastings and other events at her store, which also has a small wine bar. That work is now paying off. "People come by sometimes just because they know something is always going on," she said.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.


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