How to find good wine values despite rising prices

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But while the seasons turn in regular fashion, other factors will shape our choices in wine this year, especially two that we’ve discussed often in this space — the pandemic and climate. Brace yourself, this year is going to be expensive, and you may not be able to find some of your favorite wines. Of course, this means we can find some new favorites.

Inflation is driving up prices for food, gas and other essentials. Many readers of this column may agree with Thomas Jefferson that wine is a “necessity of life,” but how will we react to these price hikes? Will we buy less wine and drink up our cellars, if we have them? Turn to less expensive beverages? Or will the day’s headlines prompt us to go all out and splurge on an end-of-the-world bender? When the pandemic closed restaurants two years ago, once highly allocated wines were suddenly available at retail prices. Now that restaurants are reopening, that opportunity is drying up.

Pandemic-related supply chain woes may have receded from the headlines, but ships are still backed up at ports. One importer I spoke to ordered kosher wines from a supplier in Chile in August and is hoping the container will arrive in time for Passover next month. Shipping has increased in cost, as has glass. These will all be reflected in the price of the bottle you pluck off your store shelf.

Eric Tuverson, owner of Adventure Wine Beer Spirits in Middletown, Del., predicts we will react to today’s inflation the way we handled the Great Recession — by “buying down” and discovering that great values can be found at lower prices than we’re accustomed to paying. Tuverson’s store features wines from small, family-owned wineries, along with local craft beers and spirits.

“I’ve limited my buying in anything that will hit the shelves above $35,” Tuverson says. He advises consumers to look for wines from regions with “little upward pricing pressure,” where most wine is still sold locally and high point scores from critics haven’t driven up demand here in the United States or in China. Value can be found throughout Spain, Portugal, the “Mediterranean basin” and South America, he says. These are the same regions that populate my annual greatest values list.

The other force to consider: We’ve had some wacky vintages. Take 2020, which for much of Northern California and Oregon was, let’s face it, a wildfire disaster in which many wineries made nothing at all or considerably less than usual. Those wines would begin entering the market this year, so we may notice some scarcities and higher prices. Same with New Zealand sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — 2021 was a horrible harvest because of weather. Frost devastated central Virginia in 2020 and much of Europe in 2021. So your beloved sancerre, your favorite chablis, or that grüner veltliner from Austria that intrigued you last year may be difficult to find this year and next. Producers will be allocating previous vintages to stretch them across this difficult period.

Brooks winery, one of my Willamette Valley favorites (I have many), released no wines from the 2020 vintage because of smoke taint from wildfires. Although 2021 was strong in quality, quantity was severely reduced by bad weather early in the growing season, according to general manager Janie Brooks Heuck. So the winery will be releasing some 2021 wines exclusively to its wine club members this spring. This is a reaction to low supply, but also a reward for club members and online customers who kept the winery alive when restaurants and the tasting room were forced to close in March 2020. Traditional distribution channels will get access to whatever is still available of these wines in the summer.

“Prior to covid, we had few, if any, wines designated for the wine club only,” Brooks Heuck says. But with 75 percent of the winery’s revenue evaporating overnight, “we became very reliant on our wine club.” Other wineries had similar experiences.

Scarce supply means higher prices, of course, as climate’s unpredictability adds to the pandemic’s inflation pressure. “Wineries will have to increase prices to make up for major shortfalls in production,” says Alex Michas, president of Vintus, an importer based in New York City. Consumers will need to look for other wines to “fill the gap,” he says.

Higher prices caused by the pandemic, lower supply because of climate. In our quest to keep our glasses full, we should get creative by looking to lesser-known wine regions and letting our local wine retailers point the way to value.

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