Judging from steady sales increases over the past five years, wine and its cultural trappings are sinking deep roots around the Inland Northwest.
For proof, look at Vino, a small downtown Spokane wine shop. Opened in 1995, the company just closed registration in its wine-of-the-month club. Membership has mushroomed from 148 to 1,005 members, most of them local. And there’s a waiting list of wine lovers eager to get in. Club sales are among one of the big reasons the shop is on track this year to overtake its own $1 million annual sales record set last fiscal year, said Nancy Sazama, a store owner.
Just south of town, the 3,000-square-foot Rocket Marketis planning to add two-thirds more floor space to store more wine and add a café where shoppers will be able to sit and sip some of the boutique grocery’s 1,000 varieties of wine, said Carl Carlsteen, store wine steward. “We’ve seen a great increase across the board with people drinking wine. Typically, about a third of the store’s business is wine sales and during the holidays it spikes up to be almost half,” he said.
In North Idaho, Sandpoint’s Pend d’Oreille Winery grew so quickly after opening in 1995 that it moved in 2002 from a cramped industrial park facility into a former brewery in the resort town’s bustling downtown. Since then, production has blossomed from about 5,000 cases to somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 cases a year, said winery manager Cindy Marx.
Meanwhile, Huckleberry’s, a natural foods market also on Spokane’s South Hill, has two full-time wine stewards. They work a well-stocked corner of the store dubbed The Spokane Wine Co.Drew Smith is one of the wine experts and does all the ordering. He’s seen a “constant surge” in wine sales. “We’re definitely going through it a lot faster,” he said. “And we’re ordering a lot more kinds of wine because consumers have gotten more savvy about it.”Spokane and Kootenai county residents shelled out more than $19 million on wine at 80 local supermarkets last year, up from more than $14 million in 2001, show figures gathered by Information Resources, Inc., a consumer research company in Chicago. David “Bump” Williams, IRI’s beverage alcohol expert, said favorable pricing, innovative branding and the wine culture’s cache are drawing more consumers into the fold.
“In 2006, we saw record sales again in the wine industry, which means that America is clearly still experiencing a wine boom,” said Williams, adding that total wine sales in (U.S.) grocery stores last year was just under $5 billion— a $200 million increase from 2005.
Terry Nichols, general manager of Spokane-based Harvest Vine distributors, said the movement is evident here at home.
“In 2006, the (regional) market was trending up at 8.7 percent” over the year before, said Nichols, whose company handles about 11 percent of the wine — about 900,000 bottles— stocked by retailers in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Area wine sales would spike even higher if vintages sold in restaurants, bars and liquor and convenience stores were factored in.
Jeanna Roberts of Spokane Valley said she and her husband definitely drink more wine than they used to. Because it’s several miles to her favorite wine shop, she buys their preferred vintage by the case. Most nights, she said, she and her spouse share a bottle of Australian Nottage Hill Syrah while preparing and having dinner.
However, Pacific Northwest and California wines dominate sales. Williams said his company’s research shows nine out of the top 10 wine brands that customers recognize are from Washington, Oregon and California.
The movement picked up countless initiates when a worldwide wine glut forced down prices a few years ago.
“That brought a lot of consumers into the wine category,” Williams said, adding that lower prices enticed veteran wine lovers to buy wine more often and to purchase more wine per store visit.
Wine’s popularity is also being elevated by phenomenal and sometimes whimsical branding, clever packaging and innovative wine accessories.
“The critter labels that first appeared a couple of years ago have played a big role,” said Williams, reeling off examples like Three Blind Moose, Four Emus and Twin Fin, among others. Such clever names, eye-catching labels and ancillary items like vacuum wine stoppers and no-drip bottle collars help, too.
Then there’s wine’s mystique and image.
“That plays a huge role” in sales, said Williams. “People like to be seen drinking wine. It’s a rich, classy, sophisticated image. When you see wine depicted in movies and on TV, it’s always a special romantic event.”
Marc Weiand of Spokane hoped recently to snag a bottle of coveted, limited release Leonetti from his local grocer. But the store didn’t stock it. A wine aficionado since college, he keeps a basement cellar stocked with about 100 bottles.
“My wife said I can’t buy any more until I drink everything in the basement,” Weiand said.
Retailers are also reinforcing wine’s appeal. They’re devoting more advertising and display space, stocking lots more labels and hiring in-store experts to help with wine and food pairings. Wineries are offering tastings, wine classes, and many have become vacation destinations.
“It’s so much fun to go to a winery, meet the people who make your wine and then go to your local grocery store to pick up a bottle,” said Smith, the Huckleberry’s wine steward.
Julie Newman, who works the Idaho Wine Merchant’s warehouse in Coeur d’Alene, said she’s witnessed a constant climb in wine’s popularity over the last few years.
“A lot of our increase has been in higher end wines, which sell for $40 and up,” Newman aid. She believes two factors are converging. More affluent folks who are moving into the area and more of the middle class is splurging for “little luxuries” such as fine wines, she said.
Add in wine’s well-publicized health benefits — such as the reduced risk of heart disease attributed to moderate red wine drinking — and it’s easy to see why it’s attracting more devotees, Nichols said.
Wine sales over the last four years have increased proportionately more than beer sales, said Williams. However, beer still accounts for 53 percent of annual nationwide beverage alcohol sales, compared to 31 percent for wine.
Sazama’s noticed that American’s knowledge of wine has increased tremendously in the last decade.
She said like her peers, she strives to teach people about wine and all the factors that go into it. And with more disposable income than ever before, the younger crowd and the baby boomers are buying into the custom.
“We want people to love it as much as we do,” Sazama said. “But we also try to demystify it — after all, it’s only grape juice.”