The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we interact, shop and, well, practically everything about the way we live, at least temporarily. But will these changes last? As we get accustomed to buying daily essentials online, will we buy our wine that way, too? If so, what wines will we buy?
We may buy from local purveyors, directly or through delivery services such as Drizly. Wine retailers in many states are able to offer delivery and curbside pickup under special pandemic regulations designed to help small businesses. Please support your local independent wine stores. Doing so, you will also support importers, who in turn represent family wineries in Europe and elsewhere. If we lose these resources because of this economic downturn, we will all be worse off.
When this is over, state governments may realize the world did not end when they relaxed alcohol distribution regulations in place since Prohibition. Maybe stores and wineries will continue to be allowed to deliver to our homes. That would be a good thing.
The shift in our buying habits may also be through the greater Internet. Online retailers such as Wine.com and Naked Wines stand to benefit from a wider trend of online shopping. Wine.com saw a marked surge in sales in mid-March, “about triple what we are used to seeing,” says Rich Bergsund, the company’s CEO.
Wine.com ships out of six warehouses around the country, which are so far staying in operation because delivery is considered an essential business. While implementing pandemic measures such as disinfecting and encouraging social distance between employees, the company has hired about 100 additional people to help fulfill demand, Bergsund said.
In 2019, the company sold just under 13,000 bottles of wine each day, at an average price of $32. By mid-March of this year, it was approaching 40,000 bottles a day in orders, at an average price of about $25.
Within those sales figures, Bergsund said sales of champagne were down, while Italian wines were more popular. He attributed that to the seasonal aspect of Wine.com’s business, which typically surges during the winter holidays, but now people are buying for themselves. “And people want to support our Italian friends,” he said, as Italy has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
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Direct to consumer, or DtC sales as the industry abbreviates it, have been increasing steadily over the past several years. The category was up 7.4 percent by value, and 4.7 percent by volume, in 2019 over the year before, according to Sovos ShipCompliant, a company that helps wineries navigate the ridiculous labyrinth of state laws about direct shipping.
“The idea of wine as luxury refers to a normal market rather than the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in,” says Alexander Koral, senior regulatory counsel for Sovos ShipCompliant. “Right now, alcohol is a chance for normalcy, and people are able to continue to enjoy it. In a scary situation, cooped up at home, a nice glass of wine can help calm people down.”
It’s also easier, because you no longer have to be home to sign for your package. Delivery personnel are supposed to stand back and visually verify an adult is receiving the shipment. At my house, they’ve been leaving the box at the door and running back to the truck.
I’m still skeptical about the long-term impact. DtC has been touted as a way for small wineries to get their wines to consumers without going through the traditional distribution system, which favors big producers. That means DtC as a distribution channel has a limited audience — dedicated wine lovers who want to purchase from wineries they have a personal connection with. If the DtC channel is being broadened, are people simply ordering mass-produced wines like Barefoot Chardonnay to ship to their homes because they are afraid to go to the store?
The direct sales model is still primarily in person. Wineries sell to visitors in their tasting rooms who buy wine to take home. Ideally they join the winery club and become regular customers.
West Coast wineries have been hard hit the past few years by the decline in wine country tourism after wildfires ravaged the region. Now wineries around the country, through the East Coast, Michigan, Texas and elsewhere, are losing DtC sales because their tasting rooms are closed under pandemic restrictions.
So yes, order wine online, but be mindful of what you buy. Think of your favorite winery, from a bottle or winery visit you enjoyed long ago. If fine weather this weekend might have prompted you to visit a local winery under normal circumstances, consider ordering a few bottles online that you might have purchased in person.
You might just help keep that winery in business, so it will still be there the next time you are able to visit in person.
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