TOAST OF THE TOWN

Wines from local vineyards are adding panache to wine departments, retailers report.In recent years many small, regional vineyards have come into their own, cultivating hybrid grapes and turning them into wines that rival the best that California, New York, Italy or France has to offer -- with price tags and margins to match.Small, local wineries are sprouting up across the country, said Doyle W.

Wines from local vineyards are adding panache to wine departments, retailers report.

In recent years many small, regional vineyards have come into their own, cultivating hybrid grapes and turning them into wines that rival the best that California, New York, Italy or France has to offer -- with price tags and margins to match.

Small, local wineries are sprouting up across the country, said Doyle W. Hinman, sales director, domestic/export, Henry Estate Vineyards, a regional vineyard based in Umpqua, Ore., that produces about 15,000 cases a year. Hinman is also a former vineyard owner.

"I recommend to restaurateurs that they break out a section that says 'Oregon' on it from the wine list. I am convinced that you will sell more wine if you do that because a lot of people are looking for wines from Oregon. The same holds true for supermarkets," he said.

Hinman said the bulk of the winery's sales are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. In that region he finds that Fred Meyer Inc., Safeway, Albertson's and an independent called Zupan's do a great job in promoting local wines. By far the best jobs are done by Zupan's and Fred Meyer, both of which encourage wine tastings in their stores, he said.

"Fred Meyer singles out the Pacific Northwest as a section," Hinman said. "There are about 116 wineries in Oregon and scores more in Washington. A lot of those people are distributing in a local area and want space. Fred Meyer is pretty good at doing that."

Officials at Fred Meyer could not be reached for comment.

Larry Mauritz, wine steward at the Portland, Ore., branch of the six-unit upscale Zupan's, Vancouver, Wash., said he allots 65 linear feet of his department's total 300 feet to local Pacific Northwest wines from Oregon, Washington and Idaho. At Zupan's, wines from the Pacific Northwest are second in sales only to California.

"Our local wine section does extremely well," he said. At Zupan's local wines are merchandised in a Pacific Northwest section, which is subdivided by varietal, and further subdivided alphabetically by producer.

"That is a pretty logical and more successful way for people to find the wines," Mauritz said.

Mauritz noted that while the Pacific Northwest wines have remained price competitive to California wines, in recent years the quality has improved and the wines are getting pricier as a result.

To encourage trial of different wines, Zupan's conducts an in-store wine tasting every Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Scott Silverman, vice president of specialty food for Rice Food Markets, Houston, said he promotes his Texas wines once a year during a storewide Texas promotion.

The Lone Star state's fledgling wine industry is on an upswing, and Rice stocks several different varieties.

"The quality has definitely improved in recent years," Silverman said, adding that a few of his customers look for Texas wines.

"There is a group of people who will buy a product if you put 'Texas' on the label. There is a certain pride in the state of Texas, which I don't think you see in any other state," he said.

Bucking the trend of creating a special local wine section, Silverman said he merchandises his Texas wines alongside their comparable varietals from California, Washington and Oregon.

"They need to compete side-by-side by price point and variety," he said.

Local wines sell well in other regions, too.

"Our No. 1 item is Tabor Hill Demisec," said Brian Cain, beer/wine/liquor buyer, for D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich.

"It is a really fresh and fruity wine, which appeals to the Michigan wine customer. These customers are generally not converted California or French wine customers; they are mostly new [buyers]. They typically like wines that are a little bit on the sweeter side," he said.

Cain said most Michigan wines are successful because they are proprietary in nature, using blends of grapes with names that do not roll off of the tongue. This leads wineries to develop fanciful sounding names, like Fishtown White, as a result.

"One of our best-selling wines is from St. Julian Wine Co., called Simply Red. It is a real nice, fresh, juicy red," he said.

Cain explained that wines are produced along the shores of Lake Michigan from St. Joseph/Benton Harbor to South Haven and also in the Traverse City area, all of which are popular tourist destinations.

"A lot of tourists and they definitely want to buy the local wines," he said.

D&W merchandises its Michigan wines in a 3- to 6-foot set, depending on the store. Cain said most of the Michigan wines that D&W stocks sell in the $6 to $10 a bottle range. Because of the higher price tags, D&W does not stock many local Chardonnays, Cabernets or Merlots.

Ohio also has a large local wine industry. In recent years, production has switched from primarily sweet Concord grape wines to the "high end" Merlots, Cabernets and Chardonnays. Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, features wines from Firelands Winery in Sandusky, as well as the Lonz Winery and Monomi Winery, said Tom Roesner, buyer beer/wine/liquor at Seaway.

He said the local wines have received great reviews from industry publications and the local media.

Roesner said his stores have Ohio sections that vary in size, depending on his store's proximity to the winery. Stores in Toledo might devote 8 feet to local wines, while those in the Sandusky/Portland region may have departments as large as 16 feet.

"There is no question that having a wide selection of Ohio wines will help attract people to the department. Then they might buy wines from other regions, as well," Roesner said.

Larry Goetsch, director, direct-store-delivery, buyer, beer, wine, liquor at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., said the local Biltmore Estates wine is sold in his Carolina stores.