Grace's Plaza Wine & Spirits

Tennessean – January 7, 2009
Front page of the Life/Business Section

Grace's employee Daryl Gibbs helps customer Kimberly Manning pick out a Champagne at Grace's Plaza Wine & Spirits in Green Hills. Grace's follows a trend among more consumer-oriented wine stores: appealing to, and educating, customers who are not wine experts.
Table Wine Sales Rise As Retailers Court Unschooled Drinkers
By Wendy Lee

Stephanie Mack is hardly a wine expert, but she does know that she enjoys the occasional pinot grigio with dinner.

So when she went shopping at the newly opened Grace's Plaza Wine & Spirits in Green Hills, she was happy to have the advice of a knowledgeable staff member to help guide her and a family member through a $50 purchase.

With a fireplace and plans to add a flat-screen TV showing educational videos on food pairings, Grace's Plaza Wine & Spirits embodies a growing trend among wine stores to make their sometimes confusing array of inventory more manageable for nonexperts like Mack.

"The difference in the model of this store — it's the ambience, the easy shop-ability, customer service and the knowledge that the staff has," said Dan Gokal, the store's director of operations.

Grace's, operated by Nashville-based Nirvana Beverage, features a room called The Wine Cellar that sells collectible wines such as a $670 Magnum of Italian wine Antinori Solaia 2005 Vintage. Another room called The Wine Niche sells bargain wines, with bottles priced at $10 or less.

Sales for table wines in the U.S. are bucking the trends of the rest of the troubled economy, coming in at nearly $8.1 billion for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 13, up 4.7 percent from 2007, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based The Nielsen Co.

"More people these days are more willing to walk into wine stores even though they don't have a real in-depth knowledge of wine," said Tom Wark, executive director of Sacramento, Calif.-based Specialty Wine Retailers Association. "People who bought wine have increased tremendously."

Wark said the gradual growth in retailers' becoming more consumer friendly has been a trend the past 10 years, as wines have become more popular in the U.S. Wine stores are providing more help with literature and improving their online presence, he said.

Demystification is goal

Jason Ross, store manager of Grand Cru Fine Wine & Spirits on Murphy Road, said his store began hosting wine tastings at a coffee shop to reach out to consumers and provide them with more knowledge about wine. The tastings, begun about three years ago, have attracting more customers, he said.

"If you have wines that aren't mainstream, you have to educate people to learn about them so they will want to buy them rather than just picking up things that they will always buy," Ross said.

Some stores in Nashville, such as Woodland Wine Merchant, offer personalized descriptions of the flavors to each of their wines.

"People can get a better idea of what the wine is really like because sometimes the description on the back of the bottle sounds like marketing jumble," said staff member Courtney Wilder. "I think it's a way to personalize it."

At West End Discount Liquors & Wines, the store strives to demystify wine by keeping a stack of Wine Spectator magazines and Robert Parker reviews that shoppers can browse through, as well as by hosting wine tastings and dinners at local restaurants where the store pairs food with a few wines, said manager David Seeley.

"I think it can be overwhelming for someone who is not familiar with the different choices," Seeley said.

Seeley said the store's wine dinners, held at places like Amerigo and tayst, have allowed the store to get to know its customers better and helped increase its visibility.

"It's really an opportunity to schmooze with the customer and get to know them better," he said.

Seeley said he believes more stores are following suit in becoming consumer friendly because more Americans are becoming more comfortable with wine and have become "more appreciative of stores like ours that try to demystify and simplify it."

'An affordable luxury'

Even if more people are buying wine these days, merchants are battling some of the same consumer spending cutbacks as other stores.

Ross said he sees more customers these days buying $10 to $20 wines instead of $20 to $35 wines.

Still, Gladys Horiuchi, of the Wine Institute of California, said wine is something people are reluctant to cut back on entirely, despite turbulence in the economy.

"People still consider wine an affordable luxury," Horiuchi said.

And Lettie Teague, executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, said it makes sense for wine stores in affluent neighborhoods to position themselves as "aspirational" merchants.

"Even if people are spending less," Teague said, "they don't want to feel depressed about where they shop."