Hard times can require difficult choices. Although wine consumers are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the general economy, most have cut back on their wine spending compared with a year ago, according to the results of a recent survey conducted on WineSpectator.com.
Strategies vary as people seek to maximize their pleasure in light of newly constrained budgets. Many of those who are still drinking their favorite wines are buying less of them. Even more are seeking out value wines they haven't tried before. Others are drinking wines from their cellar instead of purchasing new ones.
"I'm spending a little less on wine today than I did a year ago," wrote one survey respondent, a man in his 20s who lives in the southwestern United States. "A lot less $30 bottles, a lot more $15 bottles. I now buy more value wines I haven't tried before. I have made it a game to find good wine for cheap." A year ago, he generally spent $21 to $50 per bottle at retail. Today, he spends $10 to $20.
In all, 61 percent of respondents said they were spending less on wine now compared with a year ago (35 percent are spending a little less; 26 percent are spending a lot less). Only 10 percent are spending more. Last year, 54 percent of respondents spent $21 to $50 per bottle at retail, and 16 percent spent more than $50. Now the largest category of respondents, 43 percent, reports spending $10 to $20 per bottle. The percentage of those spending in the $21 to $50 range has decreased to 39 percent, while the more than $50 group represents only 10 percent of respondents.
Those who are most pessimistic about the future have reduced their wine budgets most significantly. Among people who believe that the economy will be worse a year from now—11 percent of respondents—34 percent are spending much less on wine than they did last year. "Being in mortgage banking, I lost my job last year," wrote a consumer in his 40s who lives in the South and believes that the economy will be worse next year. He reports spending more than $50 per bottle at retail a year ago, but currently spends $10 to $20. "Although I found another position, I can't justify spending $50 to $150 on a bottle of wine," he said. "I now look for good quality-to-price ratios instead of trophy wines."
The same belt-tightening is affecting wine purchases in restaurants. A year ago, 66 percent of respondents usually spent more than $50 for a bottle of wine when dining out. Now, 55 percent typically spend $50 or less. "Whereas a year ago I would spend more than $100 on wine at a restaurant about once a week, now that $100-plus expenditure is only about once a month," reported a woman in her 40s from the South who believes that the economy will worsen during the next year. She has decreased her average restaurant wine purchase from $100 or more to $75 to $100.
One cost-cutting strategy mentioned by many survey takers is to abandon the chase for scarce, trendy bottlings. "This economy has made the decision of whether to buy some high-priced, mailing-list-only wines a whole lot easier," a man in his 30s from the Northwest commented. "More often than not, they're a pass."
These days, wine lovers who have stocked cellars are drinking more of their assets as a way to reduce expenditures. "I have decided to drink wines from my cellar, which, with very limited exceptions, I will not replace this year or next," reported a man over 50 who lives in the Southwest. A year ago he was spending more than $50 per bottle at retail; he has decreased that to $10 to $20.
Most common, however, is an increased focus on value wines as a way to cut costs without sacrificing quality. "Now is the time to be adventurous," stated a man from the Northwest in his 40s who has reduced his average expenditure at retail from $21 to $50 per bottle to $10 to $20. "There are a lot of good wines at great prices out there, and experimenting is crucial to the palate."
In this effort, wine lovers are turning to trusted sources for information. When asked to name one or two factors that influenced their purchase of value wines new to them, 63 percent said they looked for those rated highly by critics, and 31 percent bought ones recommended by salespeople.
"I find myself researching wines more before going into the wineshop," wrote a woman from the Northeast in her 40s who used to spend $21 to $50 per bottle but has reduced that to $10 to $20. "I spend more time looking for the 'really good but really cheap' bottle than I used to," she said. "I also use my Wine Spectator Mobile while in the store to see how well a wine rates and if the retail price listed is over or under the suggested price given by Wine Spectator."
A man in his 20s who lives outside the continental U.S. summed up this approach: "For me, it's a combination of the critic's tasting notes, recommendation by a trusted salesperson and the desire to explore other wine regions."
Of course, not everyone is suffering equally from the recession, and some people are finding opportunities amid the turmoil. "I'm spending more on wine today than I did a year ago," said a woman under 30, who lives outside the U.S. and has increased her average retail purchase from less than $20 last year to $21 to $50 today. "With prices going down, now is a great time to look for deals."
But no matter how their wine-buying habits have changed over the past year, respondents frequently expressed the importance of wine drinking in their lives. "I'm spending about the same on wine today as I did a year ago," reported a woman over 50 who lives in the Northeast. "Drinking good wine is both inflation- and deflation-proof. A good bottle is worth its value and is at least one thing that can be counted on not to disappoint."
What wines are people drinking now, compared with a year ago? Among other questions, we asked them to gauge their consumption from 13 different winegrowing regions around the world.
The big winner was Argentina. It was the only region whose wines a plurality of respondents—38 percent—say they are drinking more of now than they were a year ago.
In addition, we asked which varietal wines people had recently tried as a value alternative (up to two responses were allowed). In reds, the answer was overwhelmingly Malbec, Argentina's signature grape, with 41 percent of respondents citing it as among their value explorations. The next closest grapes were Sauvignon Blanc, at 27 percent, and Spain's Tempranillo, at 24 percent.
Other regions that showed gains over the past year include Spain (34 percent of respondents have increased their purchases from this country) and Chile (33 percent). These two regions also came in first and second as the most reliable source for value wines, at 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
In a positive sign for the future, younger wine drinkers seem more adventurous in their purchases. Among respondents 29 years of age or younger, a higher percentage said they were buying more value wines they hadn't tried before. And a plurality reported increasing their purchases from Argentina, Chile, France and Spain.
Regions that have held their own among all respondents include California (45 percent are drinking the same amount), Italy (42 percent) and "other U.S." (40 percent).
The biggest losers were France and Australia; 37 percent and 35 percent of respondents, respectively, indicated they are drinking less from these two countries compared with a year ago. Yet Australia came in fourth among reliable sources for values (13 percent), suggesting its decline is related less to its price-to-quality ratio than to flavor profile or image. Still, that's a more favorable position than Austria's—a solid majority of respondents (59 percent) told us they never drink the country's wines.
We posted the "What You're Drinking Now" survey on WineSpectator.com in April and May. It drew a total of 1,846 respondents, of which 93 percent answered all 22 questions posed.
The overall group was relatively evenly divided geographically, with 27 percent living in the southwestern United States (ranging from Texas to California), 20 percent residing in the Northeast (New England and the mid-Atlantic states) and a combined 21 percent responding from the Mid- and Northwest; 14 percent live outside the United States.
Respondents represented several generations, with 37 percent of respondents over 50 years of age and 36 percent being 39 or younger. Most of the respondents were male, and most were consumers; 18 percent work in some aspect of the wine trade.
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