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Discounts say time's right to become a wine vulture

THE e-mail inbox is flooded daily with announcements of wine shop clearance sales, all promising deep discounts for coveted bottles that used to be hard to find. In this slumping economy, I'm in vulture mode, along with every other wine lover.

Circle in on New York's Acker Merrall & Condit among whose many tempting offerings, I spotted 2005 Opus One at US$148 a bottle, US$42 off the usual price. Then there's the Bordeaux sale across town at Sherry-Lehmann ?? 2005 Cheval Blanc for US$995, down from US$1,600.

These follow pre-emptive panic pricings in December at retailers like California's K&L Wine Merchants, which blew out 2005 Lafite and Latour for US$799 per bottle, 45 percent off the previous US$1,450.

All these opportunities aren't the box-wine crowd's idea of bargains, yet they demonstrate how much it's a buyer's market today.We're all trading down, even though research studies released this month from Nielsen, Wine Market Council and VinExpo show that in the United States, we're all still drinking and the wine market is still growing.

For one thing, more people keep entering the buying pool.

"We are convinced the world will continue to drink because of the financial crisis," VinExpo Chief Executive Officer Robert Beynat joked. The organization has commissioned studies tracking the global wine industry since 1971 by the International Wine & Spirits Record.

"The good news is we're selling more cases than ever before and adding new customers," said Chris Adams, executive vice president at Sherry-Lehmann on New York City's Upper East Side. "The bad news is silence at the very top, with grand cru Burgundy and Bordeaux. You can't make up the dollars lost with inexpensive wine."

Sherry-Lehmann sold twice as many cases of sparkling wines in 2008 as it did in 2007, yet sales of French champagne fell about 20 percent.

Richard Cacciato, chief executive of New York importer Frederick Wildman & Sons, says US$40 is the new resistance point, and demand is focused on US$10 to US$20 wines. Australia is down, while Spain and Argentina are up.

For some shops, discount sales are essential to get rid of stock that didn't move last fall. "Can't have a stagnant inventory," said Steve Bachmann of Vinfolio, a fine wine and collector services company in San Francisco. "Our average price per bottle is US$170." He points out that the higher the wine price in 2008, the steeper the fall.

This year should be a great time to buy wine, though check prices elsewhere before you buy to make sure the label is really being discounted.


An auction by Zachys last week at New York's Restaurant Daniel was standing room only at one point. There was plenty of enthusiasm - 95 percent sold - though bidders were bargain hunting. Some prices were at the lower level of two or three years ago, welcome news, though top Burgundies remained pretty strong. Obviously, now isn't the time to sell your cellar. Restaurant sales have been hit hardest.

"No one's buying the what-the-hell wines," moans John Ragan, beverage manager of New York City's Eleven Madison Park. "Guys from Credit Suisse, whose offices are in the building, used to order a couple of bottles of wine at lunch. Then they'd say, 'Oh what the hell,' and order a US$500 or US$1,000 bottle."

Instead, we're drinking more at home.

Among the fire sales, the most imaginative offer I've received in recent weeks is Bailout, a yet-to-be-bottled 2007 Napa Valley cabernet whose price tag is pegged to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Made from top Napa grapes by experienced wine makers (Opus One) at San Francisco custom winery Crushpad, it's billed as "a hedge against further drops in the market."


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