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Why can’t we do something like this?

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It’s France’s annual foire aux vins (wine fair), the late summer-early fall event when the nation’s supermarkets offer heavy discounts on wine, sending consumers on “a shopping spree…through crates of Bordeaux and Bourgognes in search of the best vintage at a good price,” says the article in Agence France-Presse.

It is, simply, “time to stock up,” even — or especially — in bad economic times. Sales from the foire aux vins amount to an astounding “25 percent of the total annual turnover for wines in big supermarkets.” It’s not only a great deal for wine consumers, but also for producers, providing them with “a major boost at a time when they are struggling with falling demand.”

I did a little research. Prices seem to be cut up to 30-40% on many bottles, with, for instance, Chateau Tour Simard 2004, the second wine of Chateau Pavie, selling for 11.49 Euros instead of the usual 35 Euros.

Imagine if we did something like that here in California. Vons, Ralph’s, Cost Plus, Albertson’s, Safeway, BevMo, Andronico’s, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and everybody else slash prices by an average 25% for two weeks. I predict the result would be historic. At the end of the two weeks, shelves would be empty, forcing the supermarkets to reorder from wineries, who then would be able to deplete stocks that, in many cases, have been sitting idle in warehouses. Laid-off employees would be rehired.

Let’s not stop there. Who’s to say that this would not only stimulate an immediate rush on wine, but that thousands, even tens of thousands of consumers would then decide they wanted wine to stay in their lives?

Okay, I can hear the objections. “Sure it would be good for two weeks. But what then? When prices bounced back up, people would simply stop buying again, and we’d be back to Square One.” Well, yes…and no. Wineries would raise their prices back up, but not to the full amount they fetched before. Maybe 5-10%. Some consumers would hardly notice. Those who did would understand that the foire aux vins (which would have been announced in advance) was only for two weeks, so they wouldn’t be surprised or offended when the deals stopped. Producers and distributors then could carefully watch the market for signs of recovery, boosting prices modestly if things look good, holding them steady otherwise.

I do admit that small wine shops might be hurt. That’s a tough one, and I don’t know the answer, except that small wine shops will always have their admirers, who don’t like buying wine in supermarkets.

Of course, we couldn’t call it the foire aux vins. The Freedom Fries wingnuts would crawl out from under their Fox News rocks and accuse us of being (gasp) — socialists! We could call it California Wine Fair Days, or something like that. Do you think the media wouldn’t give it massive coverage? Of course they would. It would be on all the news shows like white on rice. Wineries would participate, opening their doors and offering the same 25% discounts. Other States would notice, too. It would be another case of California leading the nation. We might even have an American Wine Fair Days, especially with this President who, thankfully, likes a nice glass of wine.

Maybe food purveyors would hop onboard. The supermarkets could offer recipe cards for the major wines. Excited consumers would be tempted to try that short ribs dish to pair with the Petite Sirah, or those crab cakes to go with the Chardonnay. Probably the best time of the year to do this is during the warm months when tourism peaks in California wine country.

I think it’s a great idea and I hope the industry picks up on it.

Added later (i.e. earlier published additions of this post will not contain this addendum):

I asked my friend and colleague, Roger Voss, who covers France and much of Europe for Wine Enthusiast, about the foire aux vins, and he emailed: It’s held by French supermarkets every autumn. They buy in parcels of wine from merchants, from producers, from wherever and sell them at discounted prices. The wines can be classed growth Bordeaux or top Burgundy, Champagne etc. Often they are wines from less sought after vintages which the suppliers want to destock. It was created by supermarket group Leclerc several years ago (around 10 at a guess, but maybe longer). And now every supermarket does it. Because French supermarkets are mainly franchised, the quality of the range can vary from store to store and depends on the parcel size. And, of course, if you want to get Bordeaux bargains, go to a Bordeaux region store, for Burgundy go to Burgundy, etc.

  1. I had never heard of this annual wine fair before. From the way you’ve described the concept I see few negatives attributed, notwithstanding the implication upon small wine shops. Although, how much would two weeks damage the small wine shops? For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, what would happen if people didn’t rush to buy multiple bottles, but just took advantage of their regular purchase quantity under the low-priced banner? People might be so money-conscious that a temporary mark-down might not be enough. Of course, it’s already working in France, isn’t it?

    I’d love to see it work successfully, Steve. That much I do know.

  2. If only grocery stores carried anything more interesting than K-J Chard and the entry to mid-level Mondavi line. The only Burgundy I’ve seen is the basic Jadot Bourgogne Rouge. Not that inspiring compared to classified growths and Premier Crus at Le Vons Française or Epicerie Intégrée. Getting Yellow Tail for 30% off would only mean it’s priced double what it should be instead of triple.

    As an interesting aside, I did see an $80 Cabernet Sauvignon from Malibu in my my local Ralph’s. Really??? I didn’t realize Malibu was on par with Napa and Bordeaux classified growths.

  3. Benoît NODET says:

    I’m sorry to inflict my so poor english to all your readers, but leaving in France, son and brother of vintner, I would give my opinion on the “French Foires aux Vins”.
    First of all, french supermarkets sold every year 80 % of all the wine sold in France (the other 20% are sold by small retailers and by the private estate shops).
    Secondly, 80 % of all the wine buyed in France is chosen by the 6 purchase department of the 6 major Hypermarket brands : Carrefour, Leclerc, Intemarché, Auchan and Super-U if I don’t forget anyone !
    Then Imagine the “Wonderful diversity of wines from France” in the shelves of French Hypermarkets,
    In fact you will find basically the same thing every where : a sea of wines from “socialist” cooperatives (so cheap and hiding behind lot of Chateau Names) and Castel or Grands Chais de France (realy the 30 French biggest “bottlers”), and a few bordeaux and burgundy well known wines from Chateau X and Clos Y (for the cover and the first cover of the brochure !)
    And during the “Foire aux Vins” It’s the same way : 50 % of the wines sold are from Bordeaux, 30 % from Burgundy, 15% from Champagne and the sold is a sprinkling of Rhone Valley, Loire Valley, Alsace.
    The bravest buyer of “garage wines” from the big 6 will even offer one or two wines from Jura, Provence, South west, or why not from Languedoc !

    So, I remember that 20 years ago, the Foire aux vins could really give very good value for the price on original wines. But that was 20 years ago, at a time where nobody wanted to sale his wine to Hypermarkets !

    If you have a small retailer in your street, who enjoy to make you discovering original wines, visit him, buy his wines, and forget the “Foires aux vins”.

  4. Cher Benoît, merci pour votre bon mots. You have given us useful and interesting information. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog.

  5. Greg: It’s not.

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    Great concept, though if experience were a guide, the discount would be expected to come entirely from the winery’s FOB.

  7. Being a small retailer, I guess my reply is biased, but I don’t see how this is a good idea at all. The markdowns listed in this blog are at levels that mean someone is losing their shirt. Probably not the retailer, but surely the distributor or winery. Now I don’t have a whole lot of love for the distributor. but I do try and show some loyalty to the farmer growing the grapes, and making the wine, that I can sell. I understand the desire to always look for the next big deal. I do it myself because I can’t afford so many wines. That said, I’m not a huge fan of artificially low prices as a retailer. That kind of destroys the whole point of why so many are in the business in the 1st place. And for those willing to look beyond the points and big names, there are already so many great wines at levels that really are great deals at their regular price. Lastly, I’ve seen shops do this, and you wouldn’t believe how many people show up for the once a year event, and then disappear until next year. Instead of looking for close out/one time only pricing, why not focus on producers who already offer great wines at reasonable prices?

  8. Oh, and not to run on too much, but let’s not forget that vintages are far less important on the west coast of USA in France. The bad vintages are really not that bad at all anymore. (Really the same could be said for Europe and everywhere else except for rare circumstances.)

  9. Justin, great points. Thanks for offering them.

  10. Steve,
    I keep forgetting to tell you that George Justice(sp?) from your college days says hey. I think your prognosis of the flip-side response is accurate. I think it would charge the market with some positive fuel and I think it would slap us little personal, boutique, focused wine shops around a little. But let’s be honest, the more serious wine buyers know better than wait for the mega-sale if they really want one of the three hundred cases of that Tantara Solomon Hill Pinot. And most of my client base rely on our relationship more than they salivate for a deal. So, I think you are right in that the good might outweigh the bad.

  11. Gibson, that would be George Justus, who was my first friend from our freshman days at college! Tell George to contact me. We have a lot of memories to relive.

  12. Hey! we are doing something like This In The Northwest! Shop QFC and receive 15% off any 6 bottles, cheap or not so cheap, cellar or bottom shelf wines! Great buy on any of our wines runs from sept 9th through sept. 29th. we call it Celebrate the crush! we are very competitive on wine pricing and normally offer our customers 10% off any 6 Winegod

  13. The Foire aux Vins is amazing, based, as Voss says, on the supermarket. It is actually the first growths and the other growths, as well as many other wines. People buy their wine lot for the year (and add as needed, the French are very aware of when to buy anything at a good price). So what that you see may be 2001, a fab Bordeaux vintage overshadowed by 2000; 2004, 2007, 2002 (2002 is great in Burgundy, not great in Bordeaux). The prices are almost worth flying to France for it. It is a frenzy for great deals, great tastes.
    There has been an attempt to do the same in the spring and it is gaining momentum.
    I would love to see this in CA and elsewhere, particularly in states where there is no direct shipment.

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