Education is key in establishing a destination wine section, retailers say, and as more supermarkets develop their wine sections, wine stewards, sommeliers and in-store tastings are becoming increasingly common.
"The most important thing is the commitment to having the wine department staffed with an individual who is there and accessible to the customer and can talk that customer through their purchase to help them discover wines they are going to like and enjoy," said Mike Zupan, owner of five Zupan's Markets in Oregon.
Zupan's has employed a full-time wine steward in all of its stores, seven days a week since the mid-1980s. The store offers between 1,200 and 1,500 stockkeeping units in its wine department that fall primarily in the $10 to $15 range, although, Zupan added, some selections sell for as much as $100.
Stewards help guide choices in all price points, as the consumer is always looking for education and reassurance that the wine they purchase will pair well with the food they are serving, he said.
Stew Leonard's, headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., utilizes the same approach to consumer education in the four stand-alone wine and spirits stores it operates in New York and Connecticut. The stores range in size from 4,000 to 12,000 square feet and carry wines that range in price from $6 to $600.
"One of the reasons we got into the business originally was that I was just personally frustrated with going into wine stores. I was intimidated and didn't know much about wine, and I wanted to go into a store that made it easy for me to buy," Stew Leonard Jr., president and chief executive officer, told SN.
Leonard created a store model where top-notch wine experts are available to help customers navigate the potentially confusing task of selecting and purchasing wine.
"There isn't one customer who leaves that wine store without being asked if they need help with everything. Every single customer is approached and asked what they like to drink and if there's a recommendation that can be made."
Leonard takes playing matchmaker for customers and their wine so seriously that he takes his wine staffs on educational trips to vineyards throughout the year, including a recent trip to visit some key vineyards in Italy this past summer.
That level of knowledge and familiarity with wine doesn't come easily and requires study, reading and dedication to mastering the finer points of varietals, vintages, countries of origin and innumerable other factors.
"You really have to be passionate to get hired in a wine department," said Meghan Eng, wine director at Fox and Obel, a Chicago-based gourmet food store. She has been in the wine industry for a decade working with collectors, and both her assistants are studying for their culinary certificates.
That passion can be key in finding the right person with the proper qualifications to helm a supermarket's wine department, according to Scott Silverman, specialty foods buyer for Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston.
Silverman plans to try out a wine steward in a newly remodeled store that has a high volume and clientele he feels will be receptive to the addition.
In the same location, Silverman has a widescale redesign scheduled for after the first of the year that will involve bringing in fixtures that depart from the traditional gondolas into the store.
"We're going to be buying some fixtures that you would more commonly find in someone's home if they had a private wine cellar than in a grocery store or fine wine shop. That will really make it a unique department in and of itself."
Repositioning a wine department as a high-end destination through departures from the traditional store formats can prove to be highly lucrative. Stew Leonard's stores feature a wood room of hard-to-get, highly allocated wines, Leonard said, the kind that are shipped in wood cases and have been highly publicized within the wine trade. That room has been responsible for sales the likes of which he hasn't seen in his food stores.
"It's shocking to see how much people spend on wine. Every week between one of our [wine] stores we will have a $20,000 order. One guy comes in with a little rolled up piece of paper and goes into the wood room where all the allocated nice wines are. He goes, 'Wow, you have that and you have that.' The next thing you know he walks out having spent $20,000."
Leonard is quick to point out sales on that level require a huge investment on the retailer's part in terms of tastings, trained staff, education and a serious dedication to the wine trade. But wine can mean big business for a retailer who puts in the time to do it right.
Wine purchases made in grocery stores have increased every year for the last few years in the United States, sometimes by more than 10% a year. For the 52 weeks ended Sept. 8, 2002, consumers spent close to $3.8 billion on wine in the food channel, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. That's up a little over 6% from the previous year's $3.6 billion.
Retailers look at European consumption patterns as a model for the growth potential in wine. Silverman noted that in Australia and Europe, wine consumption may be as high as 20 times what is consumed here.
Alerting consumers to availability and value is one of the important functions of a wine steward or knowledgeable salesman, but many stores are turning to a more interactive approach to consumer education.
Fox and Obel, Zupan's, and Stew Leonard's conduct regular wine tastings for customers. Rice Epicurean used to do samplings, but due to liquor laws it can no longer hold them in-store. Instead, the store sponsors tasting dinners with local restaurants geared at a targeted group of consumers culled from loyalty card data, and highlights wine selections available in its 900-SKU department.
Zupan's conducts tastings every Friday and Saturday using real Riedel Crystal glasses, which are also available for purchase. Fox and Obel also conducts tastings using crystal and tablecloths to enhance the experience.
Eng said the tasting seminars are held in an atrium attached to the store and focus on theme nights that showcase wine and spirits as well as other food items through pairings. In the past, on different evenings, she has paired artisanal cheeses from the cheese department with a Madeira, dessert wines with pastries prepared in the store bakery, and custom cocktails with employees' favorite hors d'oeuvres prepared by the cooking staff.
"It seemed, frankly, like a great way to cross market and cross merchandise, and a good way to share with people what we know and what we love and keep people interested in the store," Eng said, adding that after the last cocktail party, the store sold out almost every wine sampled at the event. Fox and Obel charges between $18 and $29 for the classes, which are held about once a month.
Stew Leonard's conducts approximately six sold-out wine tastings a year, Leonard said, which offer between 70 and 100 different wines at each. Stew's also concentrates on theme nights, but focuses on wines from particular regions or varietals like, for example, a recent French night that featured foie gras with a Sauterne from France.
Rice Epicurean stores had a tasting license years ago, but gave it up in favor of a license that allows the stores to sell lottery tickets and other items which preclude serving wine on the premises.
"What we found with the tasting license is that people who were going to buy wine maybe bought what you were tasting but they didn't necessarily buy any more. It wasn't a motivator in getting them to buy more, it just switched them from one brand to the next," Silverman said.
For Silverman, it still all comes down to education. He's even looked into running wine classes in the chain's cooking school, but is hampered by the inability to run on-site tastings. Tasting the wine as you discuss it is something Silverman said he thinks is key to understanding the product.
Looking forward, all four retailers interviewed by SN predict wine will only grow. Silverman points to an increase in the numbers of grapes that were planted a few years back which are now reaching maturity.
"It takes a couple of years for vines to mature and it's starting to come in now. And let me tell you it's coming in like a big purple or white tidal wave," he said of the future availability of quality wines.