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Are wine sales suffering from the credit crunch?

08 May 2008 by

If the consumption of fine wines is a barometer of the economic mood, then the echoes of doom have yet to reach the top end of the market, reports Fiona Sims

US tourists are being offered a 20% discount at Harry's Bar in Venice to offset the effects of the plunging dollar. A sign by the door explains that the bar has cut prices "to make the American victims of sub-prime loans happier".

The odd British customer will benefit, too, hopefully. Since April 2007 the pound has fallen 16% against the euro, so our needs are just as great.

But how is the credit crunch affecting the hospitality industry in the UK? The wine list is always a good barometer of spending. The menu is what it is, but anything can go on the wine front. The bill can run into the thousands when times are good or be more modest when belts are being tightened.

Food-led pubs are certainly beginning to feel it. Marcelo Soares, operations director at the Meredith Group, a three-strong London pub group, has already noticed that customers are being more careful on their wine spending. Instead of two bottles they'll drink one, he revealed, and if it's a party, they are replacing Champagne with sparkling wine.

Big hitters

But what about the top end? The Square, the two-Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant, is a regular haunt for City big hitters, and head sommelier Chris Delalonde has not noticed any holding back on the wine budget front.

"But then I think that may be because most people come here as a treat, for the experience, and they aren't worrying about the cost," he suggested. "And we get a lot of people here who, even when times are tough, won't want to economise on wine because they love it so much."

Jim Jones, hospitality manager at Harvey Nichols Group, revealed that customers at the group's restaurants and bars are bucking the trend and actually spending more than before on wine. Even in the cafés, the average amount spent per glass and bottle has gone up in the past few weeks.

This is reflected anecdotally across City wine bars, where managers are reporting that bankers and traders are entertaining their clients more often, rather than less, in an effort to retain their custom.

Even in traditionally price-sensitive Edinburgh, diners have not started to curb their spending, according to Greg Winter, the manager of Oloroso restaurant on Princes Street. "To be honest, wine sales are up on this time last year," he said. "We're seeing the same things selling as last year - just more of them."

The trend is echoed at Plateau. The D&D London-owned restaurant in Canary Wharf counts big earners from Citigroup, Barclays and Morgan Stanley as regulars and sells the majority of its wine at more than £50 a bottle.

"People do seem to be drinking a lot more than this time last year," said head sommelier James Doughty. "Though possibly customers are being a bit less flash. I can think of certain individuals who have reined things in a bit."

Champagne sales are healthy, too, he revealed. And while Plateau's bar might not be shifting quite as much Cristal - the 2002 is on the list at £230 - the house bubbly from Beaumont de Crayères, at £46, is doing a roaring trade.

But Doughty is still preparing himself for a downturn, regardless, by searching out wines that offer better value for money. "I'm looking at South America - Argentina, particularly - and I'm also looking at South Africa," he said.

Plateau has also put on more wines by the glass at the top end of the scale and is about to increase its half-bottle selection, figuring that customers will want to drink less, but better.

Eric Narioo knows all about offering value for money. His Guildford-based wine company, Les Caves de Pyrene, supplies hundreds of restaurants with wine painstakingly sourced from obscure regions, offering the customer something a bit different.

His company is growing at a rate of 15% a year, so has the credit crunch affected him? "Apart from losing shitloads in the exchange rate, no, we haven't noticed any difference in buying habits," he said.

Bankruptcy

But it's definitely a case of watching this space: Narioo has had to deal with the fallout of more restaurant bankruptcy in the past six months than he has in the previous two-and-a-half years put together.

And with the recent duty increases combined with the weak exchange rate, Narioo's prices, like those of every other wine merchant, are going up soon. "So ask me again in six months' time."

The doom and gloom in the national press has yet to really bite into wine sales, it seems, but canny operators will be doing all they can to prepare for the inevitable downturn.

Read more at www.caterersearch.com/wine

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