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Why Do Wines Go On Sale?

I get a lot of e-mails from readers, most of which are cheers (and a few jeers) but surprisingly (and perhaps thankfully) I don't get a lot of general questions about wine. I, like every wine writer, definitely get the occasional "I found this bottle in my attic of 1979 Gallo Chablis, is it worth anything?" but not that many people write in with interesting questions like this one I got yesterday:

I've been a regular reader of your blog, and thought maybe I could suggest to you this question that has sort of nagged me for awhile. So here goes......

Whenever I see regular everyday wine on sale (wine shop, supermarket, bevmo, etc), I wonder why it is on sale and therefore, whether it is a chance to find a bargain or a signal to avoid and pick something else. Various theories come to mind:

1. the retailer is trying to clear this year's vintage off the shelves to make room for the next year's that is already in the warehouse (a chance for a bargain)

2. this wine is terrible and no one is buying it (avoid)

3. this wine is not getting noticed on the shelf for some reason, but the buyer must have tasted it and liked it. one man's loss is another man's gain (a chance for a bargain)

4. there's a reason that's an obscure varietal (avoid)

Am I overthinking?


This really is an excellent, and perhaps difficult to answer question. Before I take the plunge, GHR, you should know that I've never worked in or owned a wine store in my life, so I'm talking out of school here. I do know that there are plenty of people who read Vinography who DO work in wine stores, so I'm counting on them to tell me I'm wrong and/or fill in some of the gaps.

You may be overthinking things, but you're certainly thinking clearly. I think wine often goes on sale for ALL the reasons that you suggest above, including some more that I'll add here:

5. The distributor wouldn't sell the retailer the wine they wanted unless they agreed to buy some of this other stuff they didn't want, and so now they're trying to get rid of the wine that they didn't want.

6. The shop owner's margins on the wine are pretty good, and maybe sales are looking a little slow for the month so why not put some stuff on sale to stimulate buying?

7. Everyone else sells this wine for $3 more, so putting it on sale makes this store look like a great place to come for deals on wine

8. Everyone else has this wine on sale so the retailer just wants to compete better

9. The wine is fantastic, and the retailer thought they could sell it to people, but no one is buying despite their best efforts

I'm sure there are many more. At the end of the day, it's generally the case that the merchant has more of the wine than they want either for reasons of shelf space or poor sales of that wine.

The one time when it's easier to assume that the merchant is trying to make room for new vintages of wine is when an entire category of wines go on sale regardless of their price point. Most wine shops should never need to put expensive (i.e. $50+ per bottle) wines on sale unless they are trying to reduce inventory for space reasons or portfolio balancing reasons (e.g., we have too much Burgundy in comparison to all our other wines).

So most of the time it's the $25 and under wines that go on sale, as you point out, and usually just one or two here or there. Which, indeed, makes it hard to figure out exactly why.

Of course, with a smaller shop, you could always ask, but I understand that you might have doubts about whether you could trust the answer.

My best advice on how to approach this situation, regardless of why the wine went on sale is as follows:

1. Ask the shop owner about the wine and why they bought it in the first place, and why they would recommend it.

2. Figure out whether you might actually like the wine by asking the shop owner questions about what other kinds of wine it is similar to, especially if you can compare it to other wines you've bought, and enjoyed, from them in the past.

3. If you think you might like it, buy 1 bottle, take it home and try it that evening. If it's fantastic, go back and buy as much as you want.

Thanks for the question. Commenters, please weigh in.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.