Uncork the Lowest Prices
A global glut of wine grapes has connoisseurs and bargain hunters stocking their cellars
It's all Shawn Lightfoot can do these days not to get lost as he walks through the maze of wine boxes stacked 18 feet high at Denver's Applejack Wine & Spirits.
As chief buyer for the nation's largest wine store, the 35-year-old oenophile has been hard pressed to turn back a flood of suppliers desperate to unload thousands of excess cases, often at pennies on the dollar. "I try to say no, but there's been so much good stuff coming in," he says of an inventory that has increased by nearly a third to about 80,000 cases.
The wine industry's pain is your gain this holiday season. Markdowns nationwide have made this about the best time to stock up in more than a decade. Prices for top-rated brands have been reduced by as much as 40 percent, while even prized vintages once available only to restaurants and collectors are suddenly in plentiful supply (albeit still at relatively high prices).
"It's found money," Lightfoot says as he points to a stack of Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon culled from the sought-after Vine Hill vineyard. "We've never gotten our hands on that before."
With so much to choose from, Lightfoot suggests corralling your favorite wine snob for suggestions, a task made easier thanks to connoisseur sites like erobertparker.com, westcoastwine.net, and vinography.com.
Credit an unprecedented glut of wine grapes for the consumer's bounty, the result of years of aggressive planting and a subsequent run of good weather in many of the world's grape-growing regions. "It's hard to think of an area that's had a really rotten harvest in a long time," says James Laube, an editor at Wine Spectator magazine, whose recently published list of Top 100 Wines of 2006 includes vintages produced not only in bacchanalian capitals like Italy and France but also in Washington State (No. 2), Chile (No. 4), and Australia (No. 10). "Fact is, there's more great wine being produced in more places than ever before."
Aussie overflow. Indeed, proliferating advances in viticulture and wine-making technology have dramatically reduced the chances of uncorking a bad bottle. Meanwhile, a recent wave of consolidation and increased Internet sales have helped streamline the industry's once byzantine distribution system, which has pumped a surplus of as much as 120 million cases into the U.S. market recently.
A healthy portion comes from places like Australia, where local wine producers estimate there's enough excess supply to pour 7.5 billion glassesat least one for every person on the planet. A recent drought and subsequent frosts are expected to trim both this and next year's down-under harvests. But even then, the glut is expected to last at least through 2009.
The result is a bevy of what some wine experts have dubbed "Two Dullah Koala" wines, a play on California's super-low-priced "Two Buck Chuck" sold at discounters like Trader Joe's for little more than the price of bottled water. Many sport artsy labels that mimic the category's killer, Yellow Tail.
Some of the best deals are on better, higher-priced varieties like a 2005 Torbreck Woodcutter's Shiraz. It recently earned a 93 rating from the Wine Advocate's Robert Parker, who calls it "an outrageous value ... radically changing one's opinion on what can be purchased for a mere $20 a bottle." (Applejack now sells it for $14.)
The deals aren't limited to Australia. During a search for a dozen best bottles from his store's 15,000-item inventory, Lightfoot picks a California cabernet from Beringer's 2002 Knights Valley vintage ($15, marked down from $25), a 2004 Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio from Washington State ($5, down from $10), and a 2000 French Clos du Marquis Bordeaux ($46, down from $70). A complete list is at www.usnews.com/wines.
Not that those who take their chances have much to lose. After all, at $5 a bottle, those who don't find the 2005 Spanish Borsao on Lightfoot's list to their liking can always mix it into their favorite spaghetti sauce recipe, which will "flavor it up nicely," Lightfoot says.
This story appears in the December 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.