Wine

Taking the Temperature of Magnum Sales

Retailers and sommeliers report upticks in a downward trend—and share sales strategies

Sotheby's
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Whether they’re bargain bottles or celebratory splurges, magnums are big business in the U.S., making up some 15 percent of wine sales nationwide. Overall, the magnum’s share of the U.S. wine market by bottle size has declined during the past few years, which can be attributed to the growing popularity of boxed wines (think Bota and Bandit, in sizes from 1.5 to 6 liters), as well as innovative canned wine in various sizes, ranging from 187 ml for Sofia to 375 ml for brands like Underwood, according to Danny Brager, the senior vice president of Nielsen’s U.S. Beverage Alcohol Practice.

But there is one bright spot: magnums from France.

U.S. sales of French wine in the 1.5-liter size increased 16.5 percent for the year ending March 24, 2018, as compared with the previous year. That jump saw shipments grow to 130,171 cases in 2018, reports Nielsen. While a considerable portion of the growth in French magnums is at the lower end of the price scale (think magnums of Muscadet, Rhône reds, and other Vin de France wines), wine importers, sommeliers, and merchants report that Provençal rosés and higher-end Champagnes, Bordeaux, and Burgundies are also showing growth.

Meanwhile, all other bottle sales of the 1.5-liter size fell by single- to double-digit percentages over the same period; according in Nielsen, France was the only country or region to post a gain in magnum sales.

Selling Large-Format Wines On-Premise

Paul Chevalier, a vice president for Shaw-Ross International Importers, based in Miami, has seen significant growth in sales of  rosé magnums (and larger formats) from Château d’Esclans over the past five to six years, across both on-premise and retail channels. Magnum sales, he says, now account for “25 percent of all sales in restaurants and 10 percent in stores for the Château d’Esclans rosé line, from Whispering Angel to Garrus.” The Château d’Esclans line also includes bottlings such as The Palm, Rock Angel, and Les Clans. These are among Chevalier’s biggest overall sellers by magnum, ranging in suggested retail price from $53 for Whispering Angel to $187 for Garrus.

Magnums
Photo by David Lincoln Ross.

The magnum and its 3-liter, 6-liter, and 9-liter brethren are seeing sales growth especially at hot-spot restaurants, clubs, and beach bars, Chevalier says. “As rosé is the new Champagne, large-format bottles are the ones everyone notices, especially in Miami, St. Tropez, the Hamptons, and St. Barths.”

John Ciambrano, a sommelier at New York City’s 21 Club, noticed an uptick in magnum sales last year, especially during the holiday season, that corresponded with the restaurant’s addition of several new large-format bottle selections. “The 21 Club cellar carries 94 selections of red wine in large format, in addition to 19 in white and 5 in Champagne,” Ciambrano says. The large-format selections range from $210 for a magnum of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2012, to $12,000 for a magnum of Château Latour 1961.

To encourage sales of these bottles, Ciambrano takes a subtle approach. “I present myself to the host of larger parties, as they would more likely consider the larger-format bottles, and I make the host aware of these pages in the wine list.”

Belinda Chang, a James Beard Award–winning sommelier, is drawn to magnums for the quality they afford as well as their crowd-pleasing appeal. “I think magnums are a really exciting format—the wines taste better, and there’s less oxidation,” she says.

At the Chicago steakhouse Maple & Ash, where Chang previously served as sommelier, magnums were presented at the front of the wine list to promote sales of the large-format bottles. “You’re doing the host a favor, and it’s a wow factor that adds fun to the party,” Chang says of the menu placement. The list she oversaw at Maple & Ash was 40 pages long, including 4 pages of magnums, from 1.5-liter to 12-liter formats. Large-format bottles totaled 53 selections out of the 900 wines listed.

According to Chang, “Every host wants to look smart and cool, and when a magnum comes to the table, everyone wins.”

Moving Magnums at Retail

Sales of magnums, with their high-ticket value, can quickly add up, says retailer Chris Adams of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in New York City and El Segundo, California. Magnums and other large-format bottles “are a small percentage based on our overall volume for the bottle count, but well into the low seven figures for the dollar amount.”

Wine in Magnums
Photo by David Lincoln Ross.

According to Adams, “At the less-expensive end we move a lot of big bottles of Provençal rosé, for example, but the real dollar volume is generated in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy.”

In Texas, customer interest in top-end magnums is on the rise, says Bear Dalton, the fine-wine buyer for the Houston-based retail chain Spec’s. “They age better … and they’re very collectible,” Dalton says. As a result of this growing interest, “Some of our customers are putting in bins to hold larger formats in their personal wine caves and cellars.”

Dalton says that when it comes to classified-growth Bordeaux, Premier and Grand Cru Burgundy, and non-vintage and vintage-dated Champagnes, magnums and large-format bottles account for less than 1 percent of sales. “However,” he says, “they are very important to our customers. We go to some trouble to get them. We had an opportunity in 1998 vintage Champagne magnums, and they sold right through.”

David Lincoln Ross is an independent journalist based in New York City who has contributed to Food Arts, Saveur, Somm, thedailybeast.com, and Time, among other publications. He was previously managing editor of Market Watch magazine. He has a special fondness for aged Madiran in magnum.

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