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Whole Foods Market wine buyer looks to set trends
BELLEVUE, Wash. – Today marks National Drink Wine Day, and one of the nation’s top grocers – Whole Foods Market – has rolled out what it has in store for its customers this year.
Erez Klein, a decade into what he calls “libations procurement” for Whole Foods Market in the Pacific Northwest, looks for trends sparked by customers of his 15 stores in Washington and Oregon – today and beyond.
“Our job is to lead the market, not to follow it,” Klein told Great Northwest Wine. “We will be putting some wine-based products in the beer cooler. It will be small, but it will be there. We’re going to see what happens in terms of success.”
Make no mistake, though, as Whole Foods Market reacts to its customers.
“We’re looking for wines that differentiate us from other retailers,” Klein said. “Now, if there’s a front-page story about a wine and people are coming to us and asking if you have it, that wine will be in there fast.”
It’s also important for merchants to get acquainted with customers seeking their advice for a wine to pair with dinner.
“If someone is looking for a bottle of white and they’ve been used to an $8 bottle of Chardonnay from California and you sell them a Montrachet, they are probably going to hate it because it’s not what they asked for,” he said.
Clarity, correction on horizon for rosé market
The rise of rosé generated some of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest success stories in 2015, and Klein said his customers embraced that.
“Whole Foods Market in the Pacific Northwest peaked on rosé last year, and our stores should be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends,” he said. “I think the rest of the marketplace has another year or two before they reach the peak of rosé sales. For us, we’re buying a hair less of rosé than we did last year and replacing that with additional white selections to round out our summer offerings.”
While the recent interest has opened the eyes of many customers to the versatility of rosé beyond that of white Zinfandel, Klein said he’s been disturbed by some rosés that have hit the market merely to capitalize on the trend of pink wines.
“There are people out there who are doing things such as manipulating color just to meet the demand instead of making honest wines,” Klein said. “The more savvy consumer is after quality rosé and will continue to buy those, but there will be a glut of rosé in two to three years, and people will be dropping out of that space. The people who have always been making quality rosé will remain the leaders of rosé.”
Wineries offer alternative packaging
Customers at Whole Foods can expect to see a variety of wines – Moscato and Prosecco-style bubbles as well as sangria – presented in a can.
“You will also see hard root beer and hard orange cream soda in a can,” Klein said. “What it really is about is who can gain access to the ice cooler and get their package next to the bottles of sodas and cans of beer in that ice chest at the barbecue, on the patio and at the beach. It’s important that those beverages be convenient and satisfy the purpose of the drinker.”
There’s a growing curiosity in canned wines, but Klein has doubts that other producers in Oregon or Washington will join Union Wine Co.’s cans of Underwood Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in that space. (Idaho winemaker Jed Glavin began producing his Strange Folk brand in 375-ml cans in 2015).
“I don’t know of anything being canned other than Underwood, as canning seems to be moving into the national and international arenas,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to succeed and how long it will remain part of the wine drinking culture.
“The under-25 crowd doesn’t care – no offense – about what you write, how Wine Spectator rates it or what their dad drinks,” he added.
Whole Foods looks to grow Criterion
A year ago, Whole Foods Market launched its Criterion wines, a $20 a bottle brand developed by Master Sommelier Devon Broglie with buyer Doug Bell. An unstated goal of the Criterion program would be to achieve a measure of success similar to Costco’s Kirkland Signature wine program, and Criterion opened with an Italian Pinot Grigio and Argentine Malbec.
While a couple of Bell’s noted favorites are Firesteed’s Citation Pinot Noir from Oregon and Charles & Charles Merlot out of the Columbia Valley, Klein said there no Northwest-built wines are in the Criterion lineup at this point.
However, this brand will allow Northwest shoppers to experience varieties and styles from around the world and compare them to those grown in our region – for example, Tempranillo from Spain.
“These are wines that are down the center, giving the consumer a base of knowledge of what you should expect from a Rioja, a high-quality example, and get you to thinking, ‘That was good. Maybe I should be trying more Rioja.’ ”
Klein himself looks to continue to work with companies such as Seattle-based Precept. Last year, he collaborated on the brand called Songbird Cellar, producing the 2013 Lyrical Red, a 3,000-case blend of Syrah and Merlot for Whole Foods Market that sold for $9, a bargain for the quality of fruit off The Benches in the Horse Heaven Hills and Willard Farms in the Yakima Valley.
“Everyone in the world is packaging unique items and working with wineries and wine companies,” Klein said. “Anybody that has a half-dozen or more stores is more than willing at this point to have something that differentiates itself among others on the store shelf. And you have these at all different prices.”
And expect to see more of Songbird in 2016, but expect to pay just a bit more.
“At $8.99, that is a very, very hard price to hold for a Northwest wine,” Klein said. “We developed it for the Northwest stores, and it does amazing well. Then again, it’s a high quality wine at that price point.”
An environmental case for cork
Another trend Whole Foods Market is willing to buck is the move toward screwcap wines.
“We certainly have Northwest-made screwcap wines in all of our stores, but anything I contract for I put in cork, and I will continue to do that,” Klein said. “Cork taint is not what it was in the early 1990s when it was a significant problem.
“The quality of cork is high again, and I also do it for ecological reasons,” Klein continued. “There are many places throughout the world and in this country that cannot recycle bottles with screw caps because there is too much aluminum left on the neck of the bottle for them to process. And burning it off and capturing that aluminum is expensive. That is what I am hearing.”
There also are historic cork tree ecosystems in Europe to consider, Klein said.
“I believe we need the demand for those forests to stay high,” he said. “They are in highly populated countries with highly valuable land, and if the wine industry doesn’t continue to harvest those forests, then they become resorts or shopping malls or parking lots. The Mediterranean is very pressured. The planet needs for those cork forests to continue to be harvested.”
Whole Foods Market makes it easy for wine lovers to recycle cork by offering collection stations at each store.
“That’s national program,” Klein said.
And while it’s something he’ll never see in his lifetime, Klein laments the lack of a cork tree industry created along the California coast. He spent years working at San Francisco’s Square One Restaurant and in Napa Valley as wine director for luxury resort Auberge du Soleil.
“San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara is perfect territory for cork forest,” Klein said. “It would take 40 years to establish that, which is something that seems impossible in this short-sighted economy. It would be fantastic, though. A forest of cork trees would be valuable and beautiful.”
Don’t overlook sweet wines, Chenin Blanc
This week, famed British wine critic Jancis Robinson published a column of 10 things everyone should know about wine. Among those items was a tip for consumers to pay more attention to sweet wines because of the value associated with them.
“Sweet wines are a double-edged sword,” Klein said. “It’s been unfashionable for people to put them on the table for their guests, unless they are presented properly in small groups.”
Until recently, much of the Chenin Blanc readily available to folks in the Pacific Northwest was boring and too sweet. Klein said quality Chenin Blanc is making a revival, in part because of the price and producers such as L’Ecole No. 41, Kyra Wines and Waitsburg Cellars.
“There have been some ridiculously low prices on Vouvrays and on Chenin from 40-year-old vines in Washington,” Klein said. “People are learning that they are getting high-value wines and very versatile wines that can go with big and bold foods we eat in the Northwest, not unlike the Grenaches out of Spain that you can find for $9-15.”
Price is right at $12 to $20
Since Whole Foods looks to offer wines that most retailers don’t, the $12-20 price range that seems to be where many wine buyers are shopping in makes it difficult to fit in wines from the Pacific Northwest, Klein said. And yet, that is the fastest-growing wine category for Whole Foods nationally.
“Sadly, you’ll have to spend a bit more money in Washington, and if it’s an Oregon Pinot Noir, you need to be in the $20-30 range because it’s just an expensive grape to work with,” Klein said. “There are some really wonderful wines at great prices, but it’s difficult to bring them in under $20.”
Scale of production also is critical for a national retailer such as Whole Foods Market.
“It will be there on the shelf for three months and then when it’s gone. Customers will come in and ask, ‘What happened to it?’ ” Klein said. “It might be $20, but they won’t be able to buy it year-round. That’s a problem when you have stores in California, New York or Texas.”
And as well all know, customers hate to be disappointed.
“A bottle of wine is only successful if you meet the expectations of the consumer,” Klein said.