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Wine sales sour along with economy

Tony McClung admits he has never appreciated returning to his hometown more than on a recent visit. The erstwhile boy-wonder sommelier is an HSPVA grad and former aspiring actor, who instead found himself in charge of the wine programs at the Rainbow Lodge and Charlie Watkins’ Sierra Grill (see What I’m Drinking box) while in his mid-20s.

Now 37 and living in Brooklyn, McClung covers the country on behalf of Neal Rosenthal’s portfolio of boutique European wines. His travels of late have been an eye-opening experience.

While Houstonians are frustrated by America’s economic travails, he found the mood here very different from most other places. We’re day; Chicago and Detroit are night. He was in the Windy City in early February, a couple weeks after he made the Motor City rounds.

“They’re virtually dead at this point,” McClung said. “It was actually painful to visit. I simply can’t sell any high-end wine there right now. I’ve got a great reputation in the Chicago market and great relationships, but if I walk in with anything that costs more than $25 a bottle they just flat out tell me ‘no.’ It doesn’t matter what the quality of the wine is or the history of the producer. Everywhere I went it was, ‘Tony, if it costs more than $25 a bottle, I can’t sell it.’

“Detroit is much, much worse. Detroit is the most depressing city I’ve visited in the last six months. People are in a very bad mood. There’s no other way to say it. For example, I called on a high-end Wolfgang Puck restaurant in an Indian casino complex. The Puck organization has always been a very strong supporter of ours. But the wine director told me, ‘I can’t buy a single thing. I’ve got no budget for it. I’m still living on what I bought in November.’ ”

Houston, by comparison, welcomed him with open arms, if not fully open wallets.

“I’m definitely not finding the same mentality in Texas,” McClung said. “Maybe people aren’t buying the high-end wines they bought a year ago, but at least there’s still movement. There’s a desire to know the story behind my wines and, once they know the story, there’s interest in buying.

“But the economy has definitely skewed people’s purchases toward the low end. So (the concept of) value is something we’re having to re-train customers on. There is value in a burgundy that costs $50 a bottle. My strategy for the first six months of the year will be to tell people that, over and over.”

A different spiel than he would have given a year ago?

“No doubt about it,” McClung said.

The California market is going through some intriguing changes, he notes. Southern California — particularly Los Angeles — has a vibrant restaurant scene, whereas sales are down around San Francisco. The reason, however, may be good for the rest of the U.S. McClung is beginning to see reduced prices on many Napa and Sonoma wines, so the locals are revisiting them in lieu of Rosenthal wines from France and Italy.

Regarding New York, McClung said the banking and brokerage-firm woes have had a surprisingly minimal impact on sales there.

“You sort of have to take New York out of the equation,” he said. “People who go to New York still want the best. They’re still going to Daniel (chef Daniel Bouloud’s high-profile restaurant) and ordering expensive wines. The retail side is a little slower.”

So, how does he like his new “hometown”?

“Some of best dining experiences in America can be found in Brooklyn,” McClung said. “I really do love living there.”
Category: industry news