The Washington wine consumer is acting spoiled and grumpy these days. On one hand, he's unwilling to realize the full impact of inflation and the dollar's slump and accept higher prices. On the other, he's bypassing some wine bargains because they are "too cheap."
That is a composite picture that emerges from conversations with retailers and importers. They insist the local market remains one of the most highly competitive in the nation and warn that shelf prices here are so low that even if the bottom drops out of the inflated Bordeaux market, the drop won't be felt here.
"The wine collectors are living off what's in their cellars," said one wine man. "They come into the shop, look at the prices of classified growth, complain because they've gone up and don't buy anything. They shouldn't complain. They should thank us. We can't replace those wines for what they cost the customer. We're insulating them against inflation by not marking them up every month."
Addie Bassin of MacArthur Beverages pointed out specific wines in an auction catalogue and a sale advertisement by a New York retailer. His were lower. "I predict that within six months the Bordeaux market will collapse," he said. "Good second growths (of the 1975 vintage) are now priced at $180 f.o.h. to the retailer. If they dropped to $120, it would let other U.S. cities back in the market, but our price now is $108.
"It's not like 1972 (a time when wine costs soared until the market collapsed) at all. I didn't buy for 2 1/2 years, I lived off petits chateaux until prices came back to reason. This time wines are creeping out of the woodwork to twos and threes. There's no tonnoage in reserve, like there was then, and at this point no one in the U.S. will pay the prices the Europeans themselves are willing to pay."
"They say a bad year is impossible now," said Alfio Moriconi, who buys in Europe for Silver Spring-based Wines, Ltd. That doesn't jibe with my taste buds. Technology has helped, but 1977 isn't as good a vintage as '76 or '75 in Bordeaux. Yet it's more expensive. Why? Business is up. I guess it translates into 'greed.'
"I don't think the international market can absorb this vintage (1977) at these prices."
The best hope held out for a decline, or even stabilization, of prices is several bumper crops in a row. However, the harvest scheduled to begin in Bordeaux next week is expected to be no more than average in quantity and as growers have sold off a fair share of the wine in their cellars during the past year, there appears to be little immediate pressure to sell cheaply.
According to Moriconi, there is plenty of wine being made in France. But strict Common Market regulations governing over-production have led to the loss of some of it. While the law was written with the best of intentions, in practice, he claims, it insures a shortage of fine blended wines and thereby acts to keep prices high. In the past, quality wine in excess of the production limit could be declassified and sold for blending. Now it must be distilled or destroyed.
"There's been a shrinkage," he said. "But it is artificial."
Meanwhile the French are drinking less wine in general but more wine of quality. The quality wine boom extends through Europe, making growers and shippers less dependent on the American market than once they were. "Frankly, they think we (Washington retailers) are a pain right now," said Woodley's Ed Sands. "We argue way too much about price. They don't think we're being realistic."
At this end of the supply chain, the average consumer - as opposed to the collector - hasn't boycotted wine.Sales are brisk, particularly sales of jug wines and generic brands. "Everything's moving," said one retailer, "but nobody's buying cases except during sales." Merchants report an increased willingness on the part of consumers to try unknown wines and react freely to them. "But they need reassurance," Bassin said. "Try to sell them a rose at $1.99 and they won't buy. They don't trust it."
Bassin would like to see less emphasis on vintage and more blending of classified wines from years in which quality suffers. Moriconi is touting wines from little known areas, such as those his firm is bringing in from Gaillac, an appellation controlee area on the Tarn River in southern France. They will sell for $2.50 or less.
"The consumer," Bassin said, "has got to find a daily wine that pleases him and do like the French always have: Be satisfied drinking two good bottles a month. He's got to work harder to find good wine at bargain prices. He should sample bottles of low priced merchandise and when something he likes turn up, he should buy a case or two - that week."
Moriconi's advice is to "develop a taste for wines you haven't known" and to do so by testing the merchant: "Tell him you want a wine you can drink regularly from Bordeaux, the Rhone or the Loire. At $3 a bottle case price he should give you a really good wine. For $5 he should give you a superb wine. Buy a mixed case and taste. Appeal to his professionalism. Let the salesman know you care and that your coming back depends on the results of the tasting.
"They say Americans are becoming more open to wine," he concluded."We are being forced into a situation where this is being tested. If you drink wine for the value of the name, you are in trouble. If you drink wine just for quality and value, there is problem. For his part the merchant has to search and find good wines to fill the bins marked $2.99 to $3.99. It's a joint venture.
"If we're going to have everyone in this country drinking wine, we need to sell good wine at every price across the board."