IN THE springtime, a wine lover's fancy turns not only to flowering views and picnics in the parks, but to the seasonal sales offered by many Washington wine shops.
From the flashy, new Wide World of Wines in Spring Valley Center to the venerable, no-frills Central Liquors downtown, dozens of Washington's retail wine merchants are lowering their prices, hoping to raise their cash register receipts.
If the annual spring sales have begun somewhat earlier this year, the reason may be because the wine business in 1982 has gotten off to an unusually slow start. "The customer count in the whole city is down," remarked Elliott Staren of MacArthur Liquors. John W. Colston, senior vice president of the wholesale firm of Beitzell & Company, called January and February "the worst 60 days" in many years. "It's been a psychological blow," he added. Higher inventories coupled with steep interest rates have produced a "buyer's market," maintained Tom Hanna of A & A Liquors.
Another factor in this year's sales, suggested Chris Smith of Morris Miller Liquors, is that wine merchants here are becoming more aggressive in their marketing activities each year. An international capital, Washington has traditionally been a sophisticated wine market.
As Doug Burdette of Eagle Wine & Spirits observed, "the consumers here are more demanding than in other cities, and they force you to be more astute." Jerry Winters, proprietor of Chevy Chase Wines and Liquors, agreed and noted that customers have resisted certain overpriced French wines and even some of the "boutique" California wines. The result is a city that can claim several of the nation's leading retailers, at least a dozen other outstanding wine merchants and a number of excellent neighborhood wine shops.
While good shops exist in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, restrictive laws aimed at the control of wine rather than its sale, place those merchants at a serious competitive disadvantage.
Indeed, the diversity of its wine shops and the brisk competition among dozens of astute wine managers is what makes this a great wine town. During the spring sales, or at any other time, there is not a particular Washington wine store for all seasons. Among the dozen or so "best" shops, each has its own philosophy, its own personality and its own areas of specialization and expertise.
Merchants such as Bill Banford at Harry's Waterside Mall and Chris Smith at Morris Miller Liquors have long offered special collections of hard-to-find California "boutique" wines. Today, even smaller shops like Bell's Liquors, Continental Liquors and Georgetown Wine and Cheese have a wide selection of California wines.
Tom Hanna at A & A Liquors has a particularly extensive inventory of older Italian wines, and Sidney Moore of Mayflower Wines & Liquors, has developed a specialized Italian selection with the aid of her father, Aaron Millman (who has retired near Florence). Other shops consistently offer older vintages of bordeaux, burgundy and California wines (Calvert Shop, Chevy Chase, MacArthur Liquors, Woodley Liquors) and some even have "back rooms" where rare wines quietly lie in state (Eagle Wine & Spirits, MacArthur Liquors, Morris Miller Liquors). Knowledgeable salespeople at these and other stores can answer questions and recommend wines commensurate with one's palate and pocketbook.
A consumer with certain wines in mind can often profit by comparison shopping. For example, the price for one popular French wine -- 1979 Chateau Palmer -- was available last week from one area shop at $40 a case less than at most others. Often, such "bargains" are offered as "loss leaders," but different merchants acquire the same wines at different times and from a variety of different distributors (some retailers import directly) so that substantial variations in price are common. Jerry Winters at Chevy Chase even gave credit slips to some customers who bought 1978 clarets from him last year after he was able to buy those same wines at cheaper prices this year.
Wine bargains -- particularly those in short supply and which are widely advertised -- are often snatched up quickly. Last week, a single customer bought the entire supply of a particular rare bordeaux within a few hours after the wine had been advertised in the newspaper.
While many retailers avoid such occurrences by limiting sales of scarce items to each customer, other candid merchants expressly disclose in their ads that a particular wine is in short supply. It often helps to place an order by phone as soon as an advertised wine comes to your attention.
At some stores, it also helps to get on the mailing list. Although advertising any alcoholic beverage through the mail is technically a violation of D.C. regulations, most major wine shops advise loyal patrons of upcoming sales or special wine offerings by periodically mailed brochures or newsletters. One proprietor, whose popular, monthly newsletter also contains exotic recipes and entertaining commentaries, has over 5,000 customers on the list.
Another trend among local stores appears to be on-premises tasting. Until the law was changed several years ago, merchants could not even open a bottle of wine in their stores, much less offer a taste to a customer. Now stores such as Eagle have recently provided free sampling opportunities to as many as 400 people on a single Saturday.
That particular regulation change has even influenced the design of Washington wine stores. In refashioning their facilities, shops such as Mayflower and the soon-to-open new Woodley's Liquors have included special tasting rooms. Such amenities also provide convenient gathering places for the wine clubs sponsored by those merchants and others such as Bill Banford (Harry's).
The most ambitious wine program in Washington at present is offered by Michael Lavenson at Wide World of Wines, the city's first self-proclaimed wine boutique. In glittering uptown surroundings, which include a spacious downstairs tasting room, Lavenson -- a former sommelier at the Sheraton Carlton Wine Bar -- offers customers a Wine of the Month Club, a scheduled series of tastings for both wine novices and oenophiles, smartly packaged gift baskets and even a $1,400 summer wine tour of Northern California.
Such wine promotions and ancillary programs are, of course, designed to stimulate sales. So, too, are the growing number of cheese shops and deli counters found adjacent to or actually within wine stores. When the profit margins on wine shrink because of fierce competition among retailers, these satellite businesses assist in maintaining a store's healthy bottom line.
Retailers complain that the declining number of Washington wholesalers take increasingly excessive markups -- sometimes 40 and even up to 65 percent -- so that the wine merchants are forced to trim their own markups to less than the standard 30 to 50 percent. In such circumstances, a strong cheese business is a welcome companion.
Regardless of the shop or particular sales professional with whom you choose to do business, the consumer should follow a few simple rules in buying wines. Ask for the merchant's recommendations -- his best values change frequently -- but inform him or her of your personal tastes and the depth of your pocketbook. Insist on bottles that have the best "fills" -- that is, where the amount of airspace between the cork and the top of the liquid itself (the "ullage") is the smallest. Significant ullage is an indication of oxidation.
Generally avoid bottles with damaged labels or torn metal capsules -- they may reflect damage in transit or storage. Where the wine merchant will oblige, and certainly if you are buying substantial quantities, ask for bottles from newly-arrived cases rather than taking those that may have been subject to several months of shelf abuse.
Buying older wines (1971 and earlier) can be a chancy adventure. Consumers should obtain as much information as possible about the wine's "travels" and "resting places" since leaving the winery. A wine's color and ullage often can reveal its state of health. But storage conditions differ widely in Washington at both the wholesale and retail level. Some merchants and one prestigious California winery flatly limit their dealings with one major distributor here because of its unairconditioned warehouse.
In the final analysis, the consumer is dependent upon the integrity of the merchant. If you encounter a bad bottle, return it.
This spring, Washington merchants are not only hoping that the business climate will warm up significantly, but that area consumers will shower them with plenty of green.