The economic collapse of 2008 drove many consumers to seek greater value and variety in wine rather than chase after prestigious labels no matter the price. Changes in wine marketing and importing followed, and they continue today.
Retailers saw a 20 percent or more drop in customers’ average purchases. Wineries that had built reputations for luxury-priced wines began selling their juice to brokers at more reasonable prices, creating a thriving sector of little-known brands with very high value.
Today, we don’t have to pay a small fortune to drink well.
Case in point: Potomac Selections, one of the Washington area’s many boutique wine importers. Founded in 2003 by veteran distributors Thomas Kiszka and Scott Sherk, the company experienced steady growth of 30 to 40 percent each year, based primarily on a diverse portfolio that was strong on Burgundies.
Then, in September 2008, the economy tanked just as a container ship full of Burgundies — the spring orders, due to arrive in October — was en route from France. Kiszka and Sherk responded by realigning their portfolio to focus on diversity and value, in tune with how retailers and consumers were adapting to the economy.
“We were caught flat-footed, like everyone else,” Sherk said at a recent tasting in his Alexandria home. Also on hand were Eric Hauptmann, the company’s sales manager and a partner; portfolio manager Ryne Hazzard; and Kiszka.
“Sales were virtually zero in the last quarter of 2008 and the first few months of 2009,” Kiszka said. “So we knew we had to reconfigure. . . . That meant more direct imports, especially from Italy, and more value wines. In that way, we positioned ourselves better for this economy, with a broader mix in our portfolio that appealed to more customers, including by-the-glass lists at restaurants.”
Sherk and Hauptmann began combing Italy for value-oriented, family-owned and
-operated wineries. (Sherk’s master’s degree thesis on the geography of the Chianti Classico district came in handy.) Kiszka and Hazzard concentrated on France.
In addition to its own imports, Potomac Selections is a regional distributor for other importers around the country, including Rosenthal Wine Merchant in New York, which gives Potomac Selections continuing representation in Burgundy, and Rudi Wiest Selections in California, which specializes in German wines. The company also imports wines from a few Europe-based brokers, most notably Thomas Calder, a veteran of the Washington wine scene now living in Paris. For domestic wines, Potomac Selections represents a few small wineries in California, Oregon and New York.
“Retailers and their customers reacted to the crash by experimenting more and insisting on value,” Hauptmann said.
The wine has to be interesting, Hazzard said, and customers demand quality.
That quality shows up throughout the Potomac Selections portfolio, and nowhere more than in champagne, with the Pierre Paillard Brut Grand Cru, a grower champagne — meaning the wine is made by the person who farmed the grapes — that is simply one of the best champagnes I’ve tasted in a long time. At $45 a bottle, it’s a steal.
The rejiggered portfolio has several wines that are exciting because they are good and cheap, such as the Camprianese Rosso 2008 from Tuscany ($11), which I included in my July 5 Recession Busters picks. At the tasting, I was bowled over by the Domaine La Blaque 2009 from Pierrevert, an obscure appellation in eastern Provence. This Thomas Calder selection is mostly syrah, with a dollop of grenache, and it is rich with the garrigue flavors of southern France: lavender, thyme, plums and stone.
At a modest $15, it might make you wonder why more wines don’t taste like this.