On Thursday, February 25, 2010, seven wine buyers for retail and restaurants gathered to discuss new trends in the industry for an audience of industry professionals and wine enthusiasts. Women for WineSense Education Director Liz Thach, Ph.D. moderated the discussion. Our guest speakers for the evening were a stellar line up: Mary Connolly, Costsco Northern California Wine Buyer, Mike Short, Sonoma and Glen Ellen Markets Wine Buyer, Kristina Fischer, Bounty Hunter Wine Scout, Norma Poole, JV Wine & Spirits Wine Buyer/Director represented the retail trade, and Gillian Ballance, formerly Wine Director of Plumpjack Hospitality Group, Jimmy Hayes, Associate Director of Wine and Beverage, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, and Chris Sawyer, Sommelier and Wine Educator for The Lodge at Sonoma.

Each speaker discussed the latest on “what consumers are looking to buy,” “what is selling well in the recession,” and “what will be ‘hot’ in the future” and were asked to comment on the trend towards organic and sustainable wines.

Mary Connolly (Costco) commented on the trend for Cabernets in the $20-$35 range, with a growing trend towards Zinfandels and value wines from Argentina and the Rhone region of France. Norma Poole (JV Wines & Sprits) and Mike Short (Sonoma & Glen Ellen Markets) both continue to see a big demand for Chardonnay- trending towards un-oaked styles, Pinot and Cabernet. Kristina Fischer (Bounty Hunter) talked about the trend to trade down. “The consumer who used to buy $50 wines now wants to spend $25. They want to drink what they were accustomed to, but at a lower price.” Short added, “high-end Cabs are a tough sell.” Poole is seeing similar results at JV, finding expensive Cabs need high ratings from the wine press or price cuts to move stock.

Our representative Sommeliers Jimmy Hayes (Thomas Keller Group), Gillian Ballance (Plumpjack), and Chris Sawyer (The Lodge) spoke of how their jobs are to pick wines that match up with both the food at the various restaurants they work with as well as to match the spending habits of the consumers. Pinot, Chardonnay and Cabernet, continue to be the ‘big three,’ but budget minded consumers were eager to try new varietals, especially when staff had the advantage of making recommendations to diners. According to Chris Sawyer, Sauvignon Blancs and Rosés are hot right now. And all the sommeliers agreed that a well chosen wine-by-the-glass menu was a great way to introduce customers to new producers and styles.

The question about organic and sustainable wines brought the most surprising answers of the evening. The consensus between the retail buyers was that customers aren’t asking for organic wines in any great numbers, and the ones that do are confused by the differences between “organic,” “biodynamic” and “sustainable.” Mike Short commented that there is still a stigma attached to the organic labels as consumers assume the wines are unstable or unable to age well. The issue of sulphites versus sulphite- free is adding to the confusion as consumers see sulphite-free as the more desirable characteristic.   A recent study by the Institute of the Environment and the Anderson School of Management at UCLA supports the anecdotal evidence from our panelists.

While the consumers aren’t asking for organic wines, the trend is high on the list for sommeliers, who have the advantage of hand selling the benefits to their diners. Marking wines on list as organic with a special icon increased customer requests at Plumpjack restaurants according to Gillian Balance. They all agreed that organic practices are producing high-quality wines. Better farming practices “makes for better fruit which makes for better wine” according to Jimmy Hayes. It’s obvious that wineries who hope to make their mark using organic practices to differentiate their wines need to invest more into marketing and education about the differences.

In response to questions from audience members regarding whether the buyers favored small or large producers, and direct-to-trade versus distribution channels, our panel of buyers universally supported smaller producers and loved the chance to have a closer connection with the winery. Jimmy Hayes put it best, “when we get excited, the customer gets excited.” All the panelists recommended that new wineries start out pricing their wines modestly to make it easier to sell, since customers were more likely to spend larger amounts on wines with reputations with which they were familiar. Another suggestion from Chris Sawyer was reaching out to customers using by-the-glass programs in restaurants.

Other audience questions included the interest in bulk wine in refillable containers- possibly for the right venue according to Chris Sawyer, but “not right for us” according to Jimmy Hayes; the interest in edgy or risqué labels, Norma Poole of JV had some interesting comments about how the right label stands out and sells wine, but when it comes to innuendo or insults on a label, buyers aren’t interested.

The evening ended with a raffle supporting the Women For WineSense Scholarship fund and a preview of the upcoming WWS Grand Event scheduled for Napa April 30-May 2, 2010. Tickets to the event are selling fast. Don’t wait to register if you are planning to attend. Cheers to our guests and board members who worked so hard to put this fantastic event together.

Author: Leah McNally, WWS Blog Intern
Editor: Thayne Cockrum, WWS Communications Director