When people ask Christy Frank of Copake Wine Works in Copake, New York, what her top-selling bottle is, they expect an answer like, “‘Oh, Poulsard from the Jura’—something geeky,” she says. But the wines that sell the best are far from geeky.
“My top sellers are always a Pinot Grigio from Italy, a Prosecco, a California Cabernet, and a California Chardonnay, all $15 or under,” says Frank. “They’re not hugely adventurous wines, but they’re the top 10 of ROI data; they’re what people are drinking.” Workhorse wines like these drive the bottom line for a business, but how do they coexist among the carefully selected wines a retailer is particularly passionate about?
Workhorse Wines: Big Brands and Beyond
For many retailers, their inventory of big-brand wines, like Santa Margherita and Veuve Clicquot, serves a number of purposes in establishing customer relations. From the outset, a familiar label instills a sense of comfort in a customer; it’s something the customer knows and trusts. Gary Fisch, the owner of Gary’s Wine and Marketplace, with locations in northern New Jersey, offers fair pricing on the big national brands to show customers he’s not price gouging—and to help cement trust with his clientele.
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Big-brand wines also represent an easy inventory choice for many retailers. “They’re very powerful items as far as the number of cases we sell a year, and we don’t have to do anything,” says Fisch. “We buy it, put it on the shelves, it sells through, we restock the shelves, and it sells again.” Not everyone, however, is able to carry the big national brands, given the large drops they might be required to buy—and store owners may not even want them. But shops do need go-to wines for their customers. This presents a big challenge: How do retailers find those workhorse wines?
The short answer: tasting. “I always say it’s easy to buy some cool and unique thing that sits on the shelf for $20 or $25,” says Frank, “but I spend a disproportionate amount of time figuring out, What is my $11 Pinot Grigio? I want something that’s typical, that’s going to be what people are looking for, that’s maybe a notch or two up in quality because there’s a lot of bad wine out there that can be put into those slots. So it’s tasting and tasting and finding one that checks all the boxes and overdelivers on my target gross margin.”
Location also affects buying decisions. The Urban Grape sits in the trendy, restaurant-saturated South End neighborhood of Boston, where “if [customers] are drinking Pinot Grigio, it’s in a ramato style,” says owner TJ Douglas. Surrounded as they are by so many carefully curated wine programs, TJ and his wife, Hadley, can be more creative with their workhorse selections. “The Secateurs [Chenin Blanc] from A.A. Badenhorst in South Africa satisfies both ends of the Sauvignon Blanc–Chardonnay spectrum,” says TJ. “We’ve always carried it—we absolutely crush it.”
The Urban Grape’s other workhorse wines include Atteca Garnacha from Calatayud, Spain; G.D. Vajra Langhe Rosso from Piedmont, Italy; Powell & Son Grenache Shiraz Mataro from Barossa Valley, Australia; Pucciarelli Negroamaro from Puglia, Italy; Viña Cobos Felino Chardonnay from Mendoza, Argentina; and Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria. Frank’s typical workhorses at Copake Wine Works are under $15 and include Pinot Grigios such as Scopa and Bella Vita from Italy and Tablelands from New Zealand; a Beelgara Sauvignon Blanc–Semillon blend from Australia; California Cabs from Backstory and Bacchus; Chardonnays from Grapesmith & Crusher in Columbia Valley, Washington, and DeMorgenzon DMZ from South Africa.
While Douglas and Frank keep their workhorse wines consistent, Fisch often brings in additional, seasonal workhorses, such as Champagne during the holidays. While he always carries Veuve Clicquot, he also offers 10 options for customers who aren’t necessarily seeking a nationally recognized label. “I’m not so egotistical or geeky to think that my job is to change people’s opinions,” says Fisch. “My job is to offer alternatives.” He wants to introduce customers to smaller producers, but “if you’re looking for gift giving and it has to be a name brand, we have it for you.”
Putting Workhorse Wines to Work
Ironically, on paper, workhorse wines may not look like sales drivers. While some retailers, like Frank and Fisch, say workhorse wines make up at least 20 percent of overall sales, others, like Alex Basich, the owner of The Noble Grape in Chicago, estimates that these wines account for only about 5 percent of his sales. “Look, the workhorse wines are there, and we sell a ton of them,” Basich says, but he finds that his rotating selection of staff picks and other items the team is passionate about make up closer to 15 to 20 percent of sales.
That’s where the “work” in “workhorse” comes into play. Like Basich, Colin Groom of Twin Liquors, which has around 80 locations in Texas, says, “We use classic and introductory wines to build trust that turns into a lasting relationship with our customers.” With that trust, the sales team can turn customers on to a broader spectrum of options, wines that “represent incredible heritage, technique, and freshness that can expand what people think wine can be.”
The Douglases stock The Urban Grape in a way that allows them to use the workhorse wines as an introduction to the shop’s other selections. Wines are organized by body, from lightest to heaviest, rather than by variety or region. “We then do lower price on the bottom shelf and higher price on the top shelf,” says TJ. “So for the person who loves the Secateurs, and that’s their palate, and they want to do something a little ‘nicer,’ then we literally go where that Secateurs is on the shelf, and we go up a couple shelves.” An unexpected bonus, the Douglases find, is that the buyer will also grab the Secateurs along with the new wine, thus increasing the overall sale.
Frank looks at the relationship between the workhorse wines and the passion wines as a numbers game. “If you’re making excess margin on your [workhorse] wine,” she says, “you can take a little bit off your more interesting wines and get them to a price point where people will take a chance. If $20 is the sweet spot, people will try it at $19.99. Though it should be priced at $21 or $22, if my workhorse wines are doing what they’re supposed to do, I can get that wine down to $20 and not worry about it.”
Although it’s tempting to think of the workhorse wines solely as an opportunity to sell the niche items, Groom wisely points out that “sometimes the folks who want to explore the most also want the comfort of a classic bottle.”
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Shana Clarke is a wine, sake, and travel writer, and the author of 150 Vineyards You Need To Visit Before You Die. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Fortune, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. She will always say yes to a glass of Champagne. Learn more at www.shanaspeakswine.com and follow her @shanaspeakswine.