PUBLIX POPS OPEN NEW WINE INITIATIVE

LAKELAND, Fla. - Wine buyers are hearing it through the grapevine at Publix.That's because the retailer is acting as a sommelier of sorts with the launch of a wine program that includes Publix Grape, a wine magazine; an online wine guide; and enhanced in-store signage."This takes the guesswork out of wine buying," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets here.Publix Grape is a quarterly

LAKELAND, Fla. - Wine buyers are hearing it through the grapevine at Publix.

That's because the retailer is acting as a sommelier of sorts with the launch of a wine program that includes Publix Grape, a wine magazine; an online wine guide; and enhanced in-store signage.

"This takes the guesswork out of wine buying," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets here.

Publix Grape is a quarterly publication that features wine articles for novices and seasoned oenophiles alike. Stories focus on such topics as how to host a wine-tasting party and which wines go best with certain foods.

"Learning more about wine can be quite overwhelming," promotional materials read. "But with a little help, it can be as easy to enjoy as opening a vintage bottle of cabernet."

Free subscriptions of Publix Grape are mailed to homes of those who register to receive it via Publix's website.

The site is also home to the Publix Wine Guide, an online tool for information about wine tasting, storing and serving wine. Visitors also will find a wine dictionary and instructions about how to read a wine label.

Also on the site, Wine Guide users can find out which wine is on sale at Publix. Recent selections included Ernest & Julio Gallo Twin Valley, $6.99, and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, $10.99.

Publix targeted wine because it's a growing category, increasing 9.5% to $4.2 billion in food stores for the year that ended March 19, according to Information Resources Inc.

"Many people may not think of going to a grocery store for wine," Brous said. "We want to change that."

New in-store signs highlight different wine varieties, prices and food complements.

"The signage makes our stores more user-friendly and easier to navigate," she said.

Publix joins a growing number of retailers that are using wine education and membership programs to grow the category.

Among other efforts, there's the Harris Teeter Fine Wines Club, a free program that includes an email newsletter, recipes and news of wine tastings; Kroger's online wine steward, which recommends food and wine pairings; and Wegmans' Everyday Wine, an area on the retailer's website that suggests seasonal picks and food pairings.

With wine now a part of mainstream culture, food retailers ought to cater to wine buyers, said Marc Engel, head of the wines practice at B/R/S Group, a San Rafael, Calif.-based research company.

"People are thinking of wine less as a special occasion beverage and more of an everyday beverage," Engel said.

Retailers that help consumers sift through the large number of varietals, countries, vintages, brands sizes and packaging will build loyalty and trust among consumers.

"Many newcomers to wine seek guidance from clerks on the floor for suggestions or confirmations that a particular wine will be right for them, or that the wine pairs well with what they're making for dinner," Engel said.

Some retailers have been catering to wine buyers through fee-based clubs that provide exclusive discounts, tastings and services to members.

Larry's Markets, Bellevue, Wash., for instance, charges $40 for a one-year membership in the Larry's Markets' Epicurean Association. Members get 15% off individual wines, 10% off sealed cases, priority notice on new wine releases and invitations to exclusive wine events.

Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., operates the Lunds and Byerly's Wine Club. For an annual fee of $75-$125, depending on whether one or two people join, members get 15% off wine purchases, 10% off liquor, a free Riedel crystal goblet, and coupons to use in Lunds and Byerly's supermarkets. Membership fees drop to $50 and $75 in subsequent years.

The Connoisseur's Wine Club at Big Y's Table & Vine division, operator of two wine, liquor and fine food stores in Northampton and West Springfield, Mass., provides home or office delivery of six international wines every other month for one year. The cost is $95 per shipment, and each delivery includes three bottles of white and three bottles of red, chosen by Table & Vine's buyers.

Members also receive special discounts, invitations to exclusive in-store events, and entertaining and food-pairing suggestions.

Beverage Watch

Store brands continue to make inroads in bottled water and wine, as retailers see opportunity in these growing categories.

Private-Label Category: Dollar Sales*; % Change vs. Year-ago; % of Category

Whole Milk: $143.6 million; -10.2; 17.3

Domestic Beer**: $199,046; -25.4; 0

Table Wine: $4.7 million; +53.3; 1.4

PET Bottled Water: $32.1 million; +21.6; 10.3

Source: Information Resources Inc.

*Sales in food, drug and mass (for wine, food and drug only) outlets for the four weeks that ended March 19 ** Sub premium