Connect to share and comment

Keeping wine out of the red

In the face of the economic crisis, Alex Gambal is hitting the tarmac to sell his wine.

A worker picks grapes of pinot noir intended to make Cremant, in the Lucien Albrecht vineyard in Orschwihr, eastern France, Aug. 31, 2009. The harvest of grapes for Cremant d'Alsace, a sparkling wine made according to the Champagne method, traditionally opens the harvest season in Alsace. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

NANTUCKET, Mass. — Not that wine drinkers around the world want to see wineries struggle in the midst of the global economic downturn. But massive decreases in disposable income mean that some high-end wines are now either going unsold or are selling at significantly lower prices, which leaves avid wine consumers of more modest financial means hopeful of uncorking a bottle.

Certain Bordeaux futures, for example, are at their lowest price since 2004. With reviews of the 2008 vintage far surpassing early agricultural reports, savvy consumers and collectors are locking in early to maximize the value of this year’s wines.

At the other end of the transaction, the experiences of one winemaker trying to grow his business shows how the global economic crisis is affecting those who make and sell wine. Alex Gambal, an American who now makes wine in Burgundy, has tackled the crisis at full speed.

By some standards Gambal’s would be considered a small winery. He produces 10 white and eight red wines for a total of 4,500 or 5,000 cases a year, which is enough wine to send him on the road to market it, but without the expense account of a major brand.

When your typical order is two or three pallets of wines, or 50 to 100 cases, and when — in Gambal’s words — you’re “selling a little bit all the time all over the place,” then you rely heavily on personal relationships to make the sales. For Gambal, personal connections are the foundation of his business, from buying the grapes, to getting to know sommeliers, to training restaurant staff, to nurturing big retail accounts as well as personal buyers or collectors. “That’s the business,” Gambal said. “It’s all relationship based. There are a lot of wines out there, and you want to give them a reason to choose yours.”

Giving buyers a reason to choose your wines takes time, but finding the right time to travel away from Burgundy in order to market the wines is difficult.

Beginning in May and continuing for six to eight weeks, Gambal’s vines and the vines of his growers grow quickly. May is the time to start making contracts with the growers, which are made every year because growers change their minds about what they want to do with the grapes: Some years they want to press the grapes themselves and try to sell the juice later. Gambal estimates that between May and the harvest in October, he spends 80 to 90 percent of his time in maintaining contracts.