Winemakers' Hangover Means You Can Buy Great Wines for a Lot Less

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Don't let those hoity-toity winemakers fool you with a triple-digit price tag on a bottle of old grapes. They may not act like it, but this economic hangover has them over a barrel, too. This, friends, is a buyer's market: Now's the best time in years to get your hands on some high-caliber wines for a lot less.

Over the past decade, wine sales grew twice as fast as the economy. The growth was more pronounced in the mid- to higher-end of the spectrum, with sales on bottles priced above $8 growing 16% compounded annually. But as with everything else that had legs during the last bull market, wineries overproduced to meet an end demand that never materialized.

"They're going to leave 75 tons of fruit on the vines in California. It's going to rot," said Rhett Gadke, marketing director for Bounty Hunter Rare Wines, a Napa Valley purveyor of rare California wines. Gadke said that while the under-$15 bottle market will suffer the most, the high-end collectible wine arena will feel the pinch as well.

Overproduction has put pressure on the entire wine universe to get rid of inventory to clear shelf space for the next truckload. And with so many dot-com millionaires now thousandaires -- many of whom were Silicon Valleyites who spent lots of dough bidding up tony wines from nearby Napa and Sonoma -- wines that once commanded $1,000 price tags like a bottle of Harlan Estates' finest, are far more affordable.

"Today, you can get Harlan for $500 a bottle. It's not a bargain, but on a relative scale it's a lot cheaper," said Gadke. When you step down the ladder from the most exclusive wines, the discounts get even better.

If you follow these steps, you'll be drinking fine reds and whites without coughing up too much green.

Make Friends With Retailers

It pays to make friends in the wine retail business, because it's the easiest way to ensure you'll get wines on the cheap, as Gary Margol found out.

"I just started cold calling retailers and contacting them via the Internet," said Margol, wine enthusiast and president of Grip Marketing, a direct marketing consultant. "I'd email them wines and they'd try to find it. It was like having a Wall Street broker for wine."

Friendly phone calls are nice, but if you really want to get a retailer's attention -- put your money where your mouth is. Try buying a few cases of a wine as Christmas gifts for the staff and for your clients. You can get a get a great discount, even on pricier wines. You can expense it or deduct it and take a few bottles home for yourself. Those retailers will be far more likely to reward you if they know an occasional big order is coming.

"The wine business is about who you know -- it doesn't matter how much money you have," said Ross Bouchard, wine consultant with Event-Sommelier.com. "If you're good friends with someone who owns a wine shop, they might be able to sell you something at cost."

Try the Auction Block

Prices for wines at auction, while they still run wild from time to time, have cooled considerably. Some bottles and cases are still fetching top dollar, simply because high-end wines have built-in demand and supply diminishes each time someone pops a cork.

But the Internet can give you an incredible advantage. For starters, www.wine-searcher.com will give you the latest side-by-side price comparisons on any bottle sold at auction or retail. And then sites like WineBid.com have weekly auctions that are perfect for window-shopping and bargain hunting.

Here's a tip: Look for odd lots that come up at auction, since most collectors are looking for complete cases to invest in. "Let's just say they're auctioning two bottles of Lafitte '98, a bottle of Henschke Hill of Grace '84 and two bottles of Opus '97 as one lot," he said. "You have to be selective, but I've seen discounts of 15% to 20% from the rest of the market."

Get on the Mailing Lists

In the same way that season ticket holders pay face value for World Series tickets, wine lovers who develop a relationship with a vineyard can get unbelievable wines without getting scalped. Pick some wineries and get on their mailing list to get first crack at the newest wines at retail prices.

Since most high-end wineries, especially those in California, only make a couple thousand cases of wine at most, it could be your only chance to snap up a cult wine for the intended price of $100. But there is a drawback -- it can take up to two years for your name to get to the top of the list.

Don't Believe the Hype

The world of wine is subject to loads of hype, thanks in part to some wine journalists, whose scores can push prices up into the stratosphere, as it did with 2000 French Bordeaux futures.

But often times, a worthy but less-acclaimed vintage will lurk in the shadow cast by a much-praised cousin. This is precisely the case with the 1996 wines from Italy's Piedmont region, says Shipley. "The press preferred the 1997 because it was a juicier vintage," he explains, "but the 1996 is still a classic and you can find it in the marketplace at a good price."

Within California's cabernets, Jerry Zech, CEO of auction site WineBid.com, recommends the 1998 and 1999 vintages. As for France, Zech recommends the 1989 vintage of the Chateaux Beaucastel du Pape, which received a 97 score from esteemed wine tastemaker Robert Parker.

"It was one of the best vintages ever and it has a reserve [price] of just $100," he said, adding, "I bought a bunch of that for myself, actually."

The Last Drop

Ultimately, the increasing supply of grapes is putting pressure on wineries and retailers to move wines at every price point to make room for the next round. As a result, even wine newbies can walk into their local wine shops and get a good bottle just by asking for help. Like everybody else in this economy, wine-store owners have felt the pinch, and are eager to please new customers. Moreover, they are an enthusiastic, well-informed lot who like to share good deals on a great wine.

"Now is the best time ever to get into wine," said Andrew Bell, president of the American Sommelier Association.

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