Sunday, June 04, 2023
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The Austin Wine Market

Wine Industry

The Austin wine market has been traveling through an identity crisis for the past few years. 

The city's RISK retail game is played by Twin Liquors, Spec's, Costco, Central Market / HEB, World Market, and Whole Foods Market. The game of "big producers", "big scores", and/or "control brands" has pushed our previously wine-willing city to not think for itself, appearing much more like Dallas or Houston than Austin's remote past willingness to try  wines that didn't all taste the same (ie: bland, uniform, over-priced bulk/plonk) wines. I hear Kraftwerk in the background, "We are Zee Robots"...Even Wall-E wanted something different.

Don’t get me wrong. I love being able to find wine-jewels at Costco at a fraction of what I would pay somewhere else. My issue is that the fine-wine market has become a market of nothing. More and more, the treats that you can find in other metropolitan cities are not found here. And, as a wine community, we don’t even see this happening! I realize this is a trend everywhere, but it is hitting hard in Austin. I enjoy shopping online, but I miss being able to shop my local shop and discover epiphanies with my specialty wineguy…The wine knowledge and passion levels seem to be less and less at your average retailer. All you need is a buyer at the top who strictly finds high margin /over-priced bulk wine for unsuspecting customers or reads scores textbooks. Then, you only hire staff that will work for little to no money and won't "pollute" the work environment with opinions or passion.Why don't we fire those people and install vending machines? Red, white, or pink? Reading Craig Camp's (Wine Camp Blog) reference to "sedated bystander" hits home. Let's just eat at McDonald's and eat the same thing every day. We can all wear gorilla suits with melted man masks.

Home team Twin Liquors (42 of its 59 stores are in Austin vicinity) has placed itself with a clean and convenient factor, located throughout the city. Twin has 2 new superstores (15,000sq.ft. or so) called "Marketplace". Houston-based Spec's now has 7 stores in the Austin vicinity, ranging from 15,000sq.ft. to 50,000sq.ft. Fort-Worth based Majestic Liquors came to town 4 years ago, buying the 18,000sq.ft.Grapevine Market on Anderson Lane and opened a new 12,000sq.ft. Grapevine Market in Round Rock in late 2006. The Grapevine Market on Anderson Lane closed November 7, 2009 and rumors of Majestic pulling out of the Round Rock location right after the New Year wouldn't surprise anyone. The success of Costco and Target selling wines is bleeding into competition. The lack of experienced winestaff (no staff), combined with low margins (Costco, anyway), allows them to continue pulling sales from other stores. Wal-Mart’s continued desire to get into the wine game adds a competition twist that remains to be seen. 3 1/2 years ago, Walmart opened an upscale supercenter in Plano, Texas, with over 1,000 different wines, a sushi shop, and an organic section. It appears they have dreams of taking the crown away from Costco as the country's biggest wine player? They do have to overcome the lower quality perception to move forward. Oak Leaf Vineyards doesn't necessarily help their cause, outside of the $2-$5 price point! Does it have to be branding vs. the real deal? Do you have to get a facelift to be real? Can you ever have enough facelifts? In the end, isn't it only about you? The juice inside and sharing the epiphany?

On the downside, Taste Select Wines (had a cool & clever selection) disappeared last Spring. Vinosity shut its doors. The Winestyles concept didn't catch on, as all of those stores seemed to have closed. The 3 Vino 100 stores appear to be open, somehow, but breathe in desperation. Is there only room for Walmart and prison guards? As with the wine distributors... is the only way to "temporarily" stay afloat to deal with only the big monster distributors, with no competition?  As in almost any industry, having only a couple big dogs at the end sounds like a recipe for no mansland. Does not sound good for the retailer or end user, the customer. Just a couple of years ago, Austin was where distributors of cool & clever wine had to go to sell their wines because it was fairly receptive...

For the most part, Austin is not a collector’s market. It’s about youth and turnover.
But for what’s out there, the jewels for retail selection and staff that are truly trying to pay attention
are the Austin Wine Merchant, Vino Vino, Lake Travis Wine Trader, Fion at Steiner Ranch, Wiggy’s, 6 of the 42 Austin-area Twin Liquors, and 2 of the Spec's stores. Given the amount of wine-savvy folks in Austin, we could use some passion-tweaking.

Branding of the wines. Branding of the branders. Branding of the retailers. I realize success without a strong brand is going to be tough, if not impossible in this day and age, but can't we at least hear a heartbeat?




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