As the United States continues to lead the world in growth of the wine sector, it's not surprising that supermarkets find this a strong category, along with spirits. Studies also cite the "End of the Century" effect as aiding wine and spirits consumption, which will drive the market until 2001 or 2002. The so-called "Spirits and Health" phenomenon, however, is expected to benefit wines at the expense

As the United States continues to lead the world in growth of the wine sector, it's not surprising that supermarkets find this a strong category, along with spirits. Studies also cite the "End of the Century" effect as aiding wine and spirits consumption, which will drive the market until 2001 or 2002. The so-called "Spirits and Health" phenomenon, however, is expected to benefit wines at the expense of spirits.

The white spirits continue to progress, with the demand for rum, tequila, gin and vodka remaining strong, according to Vertumne International Associates, Bordeaux, France.

"Sales continue to click up," said New Jersey retailer John Zagara, president of Zagara's Specialty and Natural Foods, Marlton, N.J. He said he has wines that range in price from $8 to $400, but most sell at $9 to $15. He plans to advertise the 1.75-liter Absolut vodka for $26.10.

"People always want something different. They may buy a case of a wine they like, but after that, they want something different. Typically, we like them to increase in quality so we can start selling up, as they become educated, and as they create relationships with our associates," Zagara said.

"Romancing the product is a big part of the wine business. You've got to have somebody with a heartbeat to do that."

He and several other retailers SN spoke with emphasized the importance of cross merchandising. "We might incorporate wine, or spirits for baking, like Frangelico or Grand Marnier or Amaretto," said Ed Healy, the wine steward at a Food Emporium in Fort Lee, N.J. "Obviously it makes sense to feature them," said Healy. "It enhances the look of the display and it reminds people of something they might need."

Zagara's stores display wines among the cheeses, near the seafood counter, as well as in a 1,200-square-foot section in the center of the store.

Maurice Adams, co-owner of Gardner's Markets, four stores in and around Miami, Fla., said, "We put our wine department wherever we can, across from our Bistro, prepared foods service cases; cross merchandising is a big part of this." He dislikes placing bottles of wine among foods, for two reasons. It might not be the right wine for that person who is viewing it, and sometimes the glass bottles get greasy.

Scott Silverman, vice president for specialty food and wine for Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston, said wine departments ideally are located at the front and center of stores with a cheese department in the middle. Wine business is very good, he said.

"People are becoming more knowledgeable and experiment with different wines. There is never enough of the really good wines to go around," Silverman said. "We specialize in our California selection with Chardonnay still the No. 1 varietal. Demand for Merlot keeps moving. Shiraz from Australia does great in my stores and there is no end to Pinot Grigio sales from Italy."

Wine and spirits sales are strong, said Corky Mroczkowski, manager of direct store delivery for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich. "Wine is growing for us," he said, and the stores are now supporting native Michigan wines, as well as a range from around the world.

The personal touch in selling wine seems to work best.

At Zagara's, the wine specialist works at a stand, or desk, like a podium, right in the center of the wine merchandising display. At any given time, the customer can see him working, and feel encouraged to ask questions. Zagara's also trains all of its staff to go up to customers who are browsing and ask if they can help them.

"The people want you to talk to them, to tell them what's new," Zagara said. He finds that people really do subscribe to Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, so Zagara's merchandising ties in with that, featuring special prices on wines that are covered in the magazines. Besides, Zagara's publishes its own Wine Notes, and displays them.

"You ask the customer, 'What was the last really great bottle of wine you had?', and if you find them something similar, 9 out of 10 will try it."

In tequila, Zagara's carries 15 to 20 varieties, at price points of $30 to $100. There has been great interest in tequila lately, so most people know it has to be made from 100% blue agave in order to be called tequila. Right now tequila is extremely hard to get, Zagara said, because there is so much demand.

The Food Emporium in Fort Lee, N.J., a 58,000-square-foot store, has a section of about 3,500 square feet for its varied selection of wines, spirits and beers, plus a computerized kiosk where customers can browse wineries and chefs' recipes for food and drink.

Wine price points go from as little as $3.69 up to about the $500 mark, "so we can handle anyone's taste as far as price range goes," said wine steward Healy. Three employees staff the section, which includes a chilled case for wines to grab and go, and a white wine chiller, an innovative blue tub kept at 36 degrees, which can chill a bottle of wine perfectly in about 10 minutes.

Cross merchandising is done on occasion, depending upon what's being featured in the store's advertisement that week. It may be pasta with wine, or a basket featuring wine and cheese, in the gift basket department, which is adjacent. Endcaps, visual displays at the front of the aisle, are used, depending upon the merchandise being offered for sale that week.

Gift items, like a tin filled with cookies, as a free item provided by the distributor to entice the customer to buy the product, also works. "It goes from simple glassware, to glass decanters, to chocolates or cookies," Healy said. Gift sets, ordered by buyers in September or October, usually arrive in the store now, in mid-November.

The kiosk is a subscription service from a company called Choice Master, which solicits wineries and food experts. Price points are not indicated on the computer because they are used nationwide and it will differ, Healy explained. "They do give the customer essential information about the quality," he said.

In this Food Emporium, which is a division of A&P, Montvale, N.J., wine is organized by Domestic, Californian, French, Italian, Australian, Portuguese, Ports & Sherries, Champagne and Sparkling, and Domestic French, meaning the light table wines, Healy said.

Gardner's Markets' wine department is organized according to how wines drink and how they pair with foods, not according to where they're from or who the distributor is.

"There are a couple caveats. Typically, meals are complex, and rarely are they all the same, to go with one type of wine. So you have to pick out what the feature is, either the wine or one of the meal components. Something will be overwhelmed. Sacrifice the match for the best wine that you can get, which really means, if you have a great Meritage or Cabernet, go for it," is Adams' advice.

Signage in the department generally starts with styles, such as, in red wines, robust, like Cabernets and young Bordeaux. "What's interesting to me is that it's not surprising that steak and venison go with robust wines, but it is interesting to me to know that rosemary is a good match for them, too," Adams said.

"If you use a mellow wine, including a Merlot and aged Bordeaux, then you're looking at tarragon spices. Chicken is neutral, but if you have a tarragon or thyme rub on chicken, it goes well with Merlot. Basil, it's zinfandel. If it's hickory, a Pinot. You try these and it really works."

A chef in the store grilling a dish and talking about it will tip off consumers to these tricks.

Spartan's Mroczkowski stocks beer, wine and spirits. Sizes of the sections vary dramatically, he said, with some having more than 100 feet of wine; others, only 12. Only 22 of the chain's 119 stores carry hard spirits, and for this reason, the store's ad circulars do not advertise any. Beer and wine are sold in all but two or three of the stores, where local regulations prohibit it. Beer and wine are included in the ads every week, and Mroczkowski recently expanded the wine advertising to a section by itself, including a suggested wine recommendation with meats and seafood.

Spartan recently started a promotion tied in with Sutter Home winery, St. Helene, Calif., maker of Sutter Home pasta sauces, and completed another wine promotion recently, which used just four wines in the ad, with a headline of "California Winery Tour." The wines came from four different vineyards, with their addresses and their Internet site information, "to encourage our customers to tour them," he said.

Next, Spartan is doing a "Simply Chardonnay" ad and then one on "Wines of All Sizes," from 750-ml to a 3-liter box wine. "We are trying to have fun with wine and to make wine a beverage of enjoyment for its own sake, just like pop and beer and spirits are." Canandaigua and the wine group Franzia, as well as Gallo are main producers of box wines, Mroczkowski said, adding that 5-liter boxes have done well. He calls box wines "an alternative-use wine, for parties, reunions, a church event like Bingo. You can throw them on a boat; you don't worry about it breaking. The shelf life is a little shorter, but they were not designed to age. Consume it over the next month or two and you're fine."

Michigan has been a proponent of plastic containers for hard spirits, Mroczkowski said. There's not much new in alcohol, he said, except the economy, which has helped the upscale tequilas, although they are a small percentage. Cuervo, at under $20 a bottle, still dominates, but now that singer Jimmy Buffet has his own Margaritaville brand, who knows? Rock singer Sammy Hagar's tequila, called Cabo Wabo, retails for about $55 a bottle.

Gardner's Markets sell wine, but no spirits, which is a conscious choice because, as Adams said, it keeps the focus on foods. "Our stores are small specialty stores, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet. I am the president, and I love the wine department. I spend a lot of time in there."