Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wine and Spirit sales resisting recession

PRINCETON: Liquor sales resisting recession
Wednesday, December 31, 2008 4:03 PM EST
By Lauren Otis, Staff Writer

As Princeton-area residents prepared to toast the New Year with hopes for a better 2009, one group of retailers had reason to raise a thankful toast to 2008 — wine and spirits merchants.

Although many customers seemed to scale back by seeking out less expensive bottles, this holiday season and the year in general has been a good one, said area wine, beer and liquor retailers.

”We are down less than 5 percent” in 2008 sales compared to 2007, said Mark Bovenizer, proprietor of Community Liquors on Witherspoon Street. “I’m pretty happy with that. People are celebrating, just not in luxurious style, not with Dom Perignon, but with an American sparkler instead, at a quarter of the price.”

At Community Liquors, “we were doing fine up until September,” he said. After the crash of the financial markets at that point, “a lot of the larger parties, larger purchasers, became smaller purchasers,” he said.

One interesting anomaly was in sales of single malt Scotch whiskeys, Mr. Bovenizer said.

”We sold quite a lot of high-end Scotch,” he said. “I had to reorder before Christmas. It was surprising how much we sold,” particularly bottles retailing for $100 or more.

Apparently the Princeton thirst for single malt whiskey was a large one.

”We’ve never sold so many single malts for Christmas,” said Laurent Chapuis, owner of the Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop on Hulfish Street. “It is an expensive gift that people can drink over time.

”It is not a one shot deal like a bottle of wine,” Mr. Chapuis said in speculating on one possible reason for the jump in single malt sales.

”It was a very, very good year overall,” Mr. Chapuis said.

Business from regular customers was excellent, and corporate customer business was “in the middle,” neither great nor poor, Mr. Chapuis said.

He noted seasonal champagne sales were “exceptional” with customers who might balk at purchasing a bottle of wine for $40 not having any problem shelling out the same amount for a celebratory bottle of champagne.

”The only drop we’ve seen is in the high-end wines,” Mr. Chapuis said. “We specialize in bottles from $7 to $20. We sold more than ever in that category.”

”I was very pleased with the way the year turned out,” for sales in Princeton, said Mark Censits, president and CEO of CoolVines.

Mr. Censits opened his Princeton CoolVines store, located on the corner of Nassau and Harrison Streets, in August. He already operates a CoolVines store in Westfield.

CoolVines offers a $13 blanc de blancs sparkling wine from France, which is not from the Champagne region, but is a very nice wine for the price, Mr. Censits said.

”We have sold a ton,” he said. “I think people have been really elated to say, ‘wow, you can find a great product for this price.’”

Customers searching for value in their wine and spirits purchases benefit from CoolVines’ emphasis on wine characteristics and not labels, Mr. Censits said.

”That works well for us,” he said. “That is our whole point of difference. We can find great stuff searching beyond the brand names.”

Unlike other merchants, as a wine seller, he did not have to mark down his products to sell them although he spent a lot of time and effort on other types of promotions, Mr. Censits said.
At the Westfield store, “we had just as much bottle sales, but we had an 8 percent decline in revenues,” Mr. Censits said.

At both his locations, “people were trading down from a $50 wine to a $30 wine and $20 wine to $8,” he said. “What just gets clipped off is the very high end of it” for bottles costing several hundred dollars.

”People have been buying the same amount, maybe spending a little less. Overall, it’s been a pretty strong year for us,” said Chris Sletvold, store manager at the Joe Canal’s Discount Liquor Outlet on Route 1 in Lawrence. “Instead of buying one $50 bottle, they are buying two $25 bottles.”

The poor economy “hasn’t affected beer sales; high-end liquor, yes; high-end wine, yes,” Mr. Bovenizer said.

He said sales in December are likely to be down about 5 percent with sales volume affected by not just the economy, but the lack of convenient parking close to his store now that the Tulane Street surface parking lot has been closed.

Mr. Chapuis noted for the holiday season, “we got hurt by the late Thanksgiving and one less Saturday” in December this year.

One Saturday’s sales at this time of year can account for 5 to 6 percent of monthly sales, he said.

Mr. Chapuis said wine merchants shouldn’t lose sleep over outside economic forces beyond their control.

”There is nothing we can do anyhow,” he said. “We can only improve the quality and the selection. I can do only what I can control.”

Mr. Bovenizer said he already is anticipating continuing economic doldrums in 2009, having let go of one full-time employee and cut back on part-time staffing for the new year.

”If there is anything, I am holding my breath a bit as far as January is concerned,” said Mr. Censits.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Enjoying the search for the ‘right’ vintage

AROUND TOWN: Enjoying the search for the ‘right’ vintage
Thursday, December 18, 2008 5:05 PM EST
By Adam Grybowski Staff Writer

When novice wine drinkers buy wine, they’re often playing a game of chance. Hundreds of choices line the shelves, sorted by region, mottled by description, marked by scores. While an oenophile seeks a select winemaker, the novice fumbles until unable to resist an attractive label.

To parse wine terminology and buck the 100-point rating system of influential wine critic Robert Parker, Mark Censits, the owner of CoolVines, a wine shop with locations in Westfield and Princeton, devised his own custom system. The goal is to provide a way for any customer to shop for wine without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

Mr. Censits, a Princeton resident, opened the Princeton store in August. In November, CoolVines launched a new Web site where customers can track and analyze their purchases and keep a journal. The Web site and the store are constructed to teach customers the patterns of their purchases and the qualities of their preferences, guiding them to develop their taste through experience rather than study.

“No consumer has to be a student (of wine),” he says. “(Buying wine) should be rather casual.”

A custom tag accompanies each bottle of wine offered by CoolVines. The tag is meant to help decode the information on a wine bottle’s label and simplify concepts that may elude a casual wine drinker, from its style to the fullness of its body. Dollar signs represent the wine’s price range.

“Most people have a collection, whether it’s 10 bottles or 1,000,” Mr. Censits says, adding that the price range symbol can help a person quickly recognize an expensive bottle of wine, so they don’t “waste” it on a mundane occasion.

Following the intuitive nature of the tags, the store is arranged by attribute rather than region, helping customers match wine they have liked in the past to something of similar taste.

Mr. Censits envisions CoolVines as an advocate for the consumer, and his system as a way to nurture them to sophistication. It’s a journey he’s on himself. When he opened the first CoolVines store in Westfield, he describes his stage of wine appreciation as “advanced beginner.”

“I knew a lot about what I didn’t know,” he says, sending up the breadth of knowledge a wine expert must possess. He’s closed that gap through reading, travel and contact with staff and distributors.

Such education has led him to focus on wine produced on a modest scale, as well as those made in an authentic style that truly represent the wine’s region or vintage. Bigger brand-name labels tend not to show up on CoolVines’ shelves. Such diversity requires rigorous selection.

“Very rarely have we put something on the shelf we haven’t tasted,” Mr. Censits says. “There’s more good wine in the world than we can show, so we’re constantly making hard decisions.”

A certain class of wine drinkers who seek excitement and adventure probably visit many wine shops looking for offbeat or hard-to-find bottles of wine, Mr. Censits says. “Other people latch on to us and we become their personal sommelier.”

Indeed, offers theme packs in which wine is chosen for you. Wine purchased online is added to a personal journal that can be rated and annotated. Purchases made in the store can be tracked as well.

Such a model helps customers trust their own judgement while building trust for CoolVines — the most important part of the transaction, Mr. Censits says. “Our shelves are a safe place to explore.”

Coolvines is located at 344 Nassau St., Princeton, 609-924-0039. On the Web: