The growth of U.S. wine sales stuttered only briefly in the recent years of economic downtown. Though dollars declined, bottle sales did not drop significantly.

Going into retail wine stores the last two years has meant a wider selection of value wines and more bargains on premium wines as the nation’s economy continues to struggle with recovery.

When the economy soured, wine drinkers didn’t stop drinking. The $20-and-up customer just moved to $20-and-under wines. Retailers are beginning to see modest overall recovery.

“There has been some recovery but I would say not as much as we all hoped,” said Ashley Lockwood, owner of Cork and Cracker, Indianapolis. “I felt like we were picking up earlier this year and then in early summer the media was talking about double-dip recession and our sales took another dip.”

But speaking in early October, Lockwood was regaining guarded optimism. “Now I feel like we’re inching up over last year’s numbers. But if I look at them side by side I’ll be very surprised if we see much more than low, single-digit growth over last year.”

Lockwood’s shop is dominated by wines $15 and under. A little farther to the north, Vine and Table in Carmel has a wider selection of high-end wine but also a large value selection.

“I see the market getting a little better every year,” Wine Manager Bethann Kendall said. “We are still a long way away from where we were. I think in coming months we will see a nice increase from last year from consumers who are comfortable spending money without the constant fear of losing their jobs.”

Both wine retailers see customers moving back slowly to premium wines. “Everyone wants a good value but they all have that wine they adore at whatever price point and they consume for special dinners or to celebrate,” Kendall said.

Lockwood agreed consumers who had moved to her less-expensive wines are back buying more premium bottles. “I have a lot more people shopping the ($15-and-over) walls than I did a year ago,” she said. “One year ago I couldn’t sell a bottle of wine for over $20 to save my life. They’re starting to buy off the walls again and even in bad months those wines are moving again.”

Indianapolis is obviously the state’s most competitive market. Lockwood has heard from distributors that many retail outlets are worse off than her sales. “We have seen several places go out of business in the five years we’ve been here, places similar to us,” she said “And, we’ve seen a lot of restaurants close.”

The slow wine business has resulted in a lot of wine in warehouses and retail shelves. Customers benefit from the wine glut with more deals for the savvy wine shopper. “There has been some adjustment in prices and for us there were a lot of closeouts,” Lockwood said. “You do see that but I still think there is room for readjustment. It’s mostly domestic and largely California.”

Kendall echoed the sentiment and offering a heads up to consumers to look for great deals from most retailers during the holiday season.

Howard’s Pick:
Instead of a specific wine, its back to the advice offered in my first column two years ago. Find a wine shop you like and establish a relationship with the proprietor. Good retailers will help you find wines you like at the best price.

In photo: Ashley Lockwood at a Palate Press wine tasting.

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