PLAN AHEAD FOR BALSAMIC VINEGAR TASTE TESTS

NEW YORK -- It's not too soon to start planning balsamic vinegar tastings for the Christmas holidays, since sales of the highest-priced, traditional types are strongest during that time, according to consultant Betty Pustarfi."Have a quarterly festival of olive oil and balsamico, and hold mini-seminars," she urged retailers attending a session at the Fancy Food Show here last week. Making the taste

NEW YORK -- It's not too soon to start planning balsamic vinegar tastings for the Christmas holidays, since sales of the highest-priced, traditional types are strongest during that time, according to consultant Betty Pustarfi.

"Have a quarterly festival of olive oil and balsamico, and hold mini-seminars," she urged retailers attending a session at the Fancy Food Show here last week. Making the taste test a comparative one will spur sales the most, she said. "Taste three or four at a time, and invite your local food writers to get across the technical points."

"I plan to do something like this for our staff and our executive chef, and then for our customers," said Calvin Mayne, general manager of the Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, who attended the session, held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. "This was excellent, first-rate," he said, adding that he and other members of his company are traveling to Modena and Reggio Emilia, the two regions of Italy where authentic balsamic vinegar are produced, in September.

The session, which could be used as a model tasting, offered six balsamic vinegars and was given by Pustarfi, a consultant who founded Strictly Olive Oil, Pebble Beach, Calif., in 1995 after she had co-owned a specialty food store. The five vinegars set out for tasting ranged in retail price from $3.60 to $48. In addition, small amounts of a Cavalli Silver Seal traditional vinegar that was aged at least 50 years and cost $130 were distributed.

In promoting balsamic vinegar, handouts should be given to customers when tastings are held and should include a brief explanation of the vinegar-making process and the distinction between the commercial and traditional types, Pustarfi said.

Balsamic vinegar tastings lend themselves to cross-merchandising opportunities with olive oil, cheese and salad ingredients. "In the case of the olive oil, be prepared to recommend a compatible pair," Pustarfi told the group.

Meanwhile, following a separate taste test, Cook's Illustrated magazine reported in its July/August issue that "a $3.49 supermarket brand" -- Whole Foods' 365 Every Day label -- had won in a tasting of balsamic vinegars costing $15 or less.

Whole Foods' spokeswoman, Amy Hopfensperger, said that, as with almost any media attention, the Cook's Illustrated article generated an increase in sales. "We're very proud of it," she said. "Our 365 team traveled to Italy originally to research the product, and has been back since to be sure the quality continues to be high.

"The 365 brand always aims for value," she said, noting that it was the lowest-priced balsamic vinegar in the test.