Ordinarily this is more of a travel blog, but during the Christmas season few of us are doing any wine travel. Instead, our wine focus has shifted, for the moment, to supplying wine for a month of nonstop holiday parties, Christmas dinners and other wine-centric events. Naturally we’re hoping to save a buck, so now seems like a good time to tackle the topic of wine sales.
Most wine retailers are running big sales this time of year. However, some of them can be kind of scammy. That’s why wine sophisticates, hoping to save people the pain of a bad “hey, it was on sale!” wine purchase, often steer people away from sales (and especially closeouts). Unfortunately if you listen to their advice you’re gonna miss out on some really good deals!
Don’t get me wrong – there’s some truly terrible wine out there. And there’s a reason it’s cheap. But some really excellent stuff lurks in the sale aisle as well. Armed with a bit of knowledge and a few simple tools, it’s easy to weed out the bad stuff and score a bargain.
Wines go on sale for hundreds of reasons – usually involving someone in a cubicle with a spreadsheet if its a large retailer. Grocery stores in particular run generous seasonal discounts on wine they know they’ll sell a ton of. But closeouts are a more interesting story.
Wine hits the closeout shelf because the retailer is desperate to get rid of it. Sometimes the wine is terrible, but often it’s fine. Sometimes with large stores a change in management or direction will trigger a big sale. Small retailers may be clearing out odds-and-ends to free up valuable shelf space. Often a closeout sale springs from a tactical error by the retailer. Sometimes they’ll mis-judge a trend and order too much of something. Or perhaps the wine was a pet favorite of the retailer but they couldn’t talk their customers into it.
Grocery stores and big-box stores often purchase really great wines but market them poorly. Their staff often don’t even know that those wines are ever there! And even if they did, they often don’t know how to sell them. As a result, small artisanal wines languish on the shelf unloved in favor of the big-brand wines that are easier for quasi-knowledgable staff to sell. Eventually corporate says “get rid of it.” All the better for you when they go on sale!
So how do you separate the plonk from the gold? Start with price.
Any wine that’s discounted more than 30% is suspect. At that price, the retailer is selling below wholesale, so they’re either losing money or using an artificially inflated price to “manufacture” a discount. Tools such as wine-searcher.com or the Vivino app can quickly tell you what the “actual” retail price of that wine really is.
Customer reviews are also worth their weight in gold, especially in the
absence of a knowledgeable wine merchant. Apps like Vivino, or web sites like Cellar Tracker can quickly tell you what other folks who bought that wine thought of it. Some programs will go even further and rank the wine compared to similar wines from the region. Under the “all vintages” tab, wine-searcher.com will even give you a 30,000-foot view of the wine’s quality over the years.
As a last resort, check to see if any professional wine reviewers have given a particular wine their blessing. I’ve seen some very highly rated wines in the closeout bins (which likely wouldn’t be there if the merchant actually knew what they were selling.) Again, wine-searcher is a favorite of mine for finding reviews, although a Google search can also come in handy.
There you have it. So the next time a wine sophisticate frowns at you for rooting around in the closeout bin, you can tell them that you’re smart enough to spot a real bargain. Happy hunting!