New Year's revelers trade up to French champagne as economy improves

Sales of sparkling wine from Champagne region on the rebound as economy improves

  • Sales of French champagne may be up this year, according to Lucien Walsh, wine director at The Wine Market in Locust Point.
Sales of French champagne may be up this year, according to Lucien… (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun )
December 30, 2013|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

More people are likely to toast this New Year with a glass of French champagne, industry observers say, an optimistic economic sign as consumers look beyond cheaper sparkling wines.

Sales of the bubbly beverage from the Champagne region of France have been on the upswing this year. That means brisk business for wine sellers at year's end, when the final three months can account for 40 percent of annual champagne sales.

Rising sales of champagne and other luxury items can signal improving consumer attitudes, experts say, and some in the wine business are taking the increase as another indicator of economic recovery.

"I'm amazed at how much champagne we sell," especially in the $45-to-$65 price range, said Dave Carney, owner of the Wine Bin in Ellicott City. "The economy is getting better. The consumer is getting more savvy and demanding better quality."

French champagne shipments to the U.S., which took a hit during the recession, have rebounded, with more than 17.6 million bottles shipped in 2012, according to the Champagne Bureau USA, a trade group for grape growers and houses.

The bureau expects an increase this year and in 2014 in the number of bottles headed to the U.S., which is the world's second-biggest champagne export market. Generally, only wines from the specific region of France are allowed to be called champagne.

"Shipments are definitely up overall from 2009," said Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau. "More Americans are drinking wine; more Americans are drinking quality wine, and more Americans want to know where their wine comes from."

A 2012 study by Karl Storchmann, an economics professor at New York University and managing editor of the Journal of Wine Economics, showed sales of French champagne are a fairly accurate indicator of Americans' future income.

"Sales of luxury goods, including that of champagne, make good leading indicators," said Lee Sanning, an economics professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and a member of the American Association of Wine Economists.

Customers had no problem splurging on the French champagne that was part of a tasting over the weekend at Mills Fine Wine & Spirits in Annapolis. The tasting also featured sparkling wines from around the world, including Spanish cava and Italian prosecco.

"I was surprised at how well it did," said Jen Donahoe, who owns the downtown Annapolis shop with her husband, Jerry. "French champagne is a lot pricer … but sold equally as well."

Besides an improving economy helping sales, Donahoe surmised that "people are spending more time at home rather than going out."

"A lot of my friends and customers seem to be buying a nice bottle of champagne and staying home rather than going out to a pricey restaurant or bar," for New Year's Eve, she added.

Sales of French champagne at the Wine Market in Locust Point could be up by as much as 20 percent for the year, estimated Lucien Walsh, wine director for the shop, though he said he won't have final numbers until after Tuesday's New Year's Eve rush.

That would be a huge jump after a couple of years in which champagne sales had been flat, he said.

"The recession was definitely impacting that price point, not just champagne but fine wine at that price," he said.

Since early fall, he said, he's noticed a "tangible pickup in sales of champagne."

"Champagne has been one of the last categories to experience the uptick. It's perceived as a luxury good and an indulgence, more so than a bottle of fine wine might be," Walsh said. "People always bought a bottle of sparkling wine … [but] this is the first season where it's been relatively facile for that person to trade up to a bottle of champagne."

Win Bin owner Carney says many of his customers no longer wait for New Year's or weddings to drink champagne.

"They're realizing champagne is not just for New Year's," he said. "It sells all the time. They're drinking it year round."

One customer, Haywood Jones, a lawyer from Ellicott City, says he buys champagne by the case every few weeks, typically labels from the smaller growers and producers that are the shop's specialty.

"We cook a lot and find champagne to be a nice accompaniment to all parts of the meal," Jones said. "We entertain a lot and like to share. It's a great way to start an evening or a brunch."

Carney, too, counts himself among the champagne enthusiasts, drinking the beverage several times a week. Champagne does not have to be pricey, he said, and can be comparable to American sparkling wines at $30 to $40 a bottle.

"It's a universal drink. It goes with all food," he said. "You can't go wrong with French champagne."

Reuters contributed to this article.

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