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Grapes of Math: Moderately priced local wines are leaping off the shelves, merchants say.

Vino Dolorosa

Premium wine sales are down, inexpensive wines sales are up. Those of us living in prime wine country can do that math.

By Christina Waters

ADMIT IT. Your refrigerator probably contains at least one bottle of $7.99 Chilean chardonnay and a few bargain-priced malbecs from Argentina. But do tough times require tough choices?

Wine marketing consultant Laura Ness is happy that "the fake air has gone out of those overpriced wines in the $65-plus category." The dotcom era of status symbol consumption arrived much too abruptly, she contends. Even though there will always be people who can afford to "drink the prestige on the label," Ness notes, "wine is a passion and an important quality of life factor that people won't give up easily. And why should they?" The good news, as Ness sees it, is that consumers have more choices than ever. She likes the eco-rewards of buying locally made wines, of, as she says, "putting your dollars into your neighbors' pockets, rather than the economy of Argentina or Australia."

"None of us has the answer to success in this economy," admits Soif owner Patrice Boyle. "But the fundamentals still seem to hold. Most people want value for their money." For Boyle that means consumers refocused on the basics. She sees patrons turning to experts for help in making choices "in order to mitigate the risk of buying something they don't know." Anyone who has snapped up a cheap bottle that proved vapid in the glass knows what she means.

"The price point that is getting dinged is the $28 to $35 range," admits J-P Correa of Vinocruz. "We've definitely seen an increase in some of our more attractively priced offers, such as Foxglove Chardonnay at $13 and the Zayante wines at $18. "But the surprising news is that Vinocruz has experienced a jump in sales of wines over $40, says Correa, rattling off a half-dozen local labels." I'm not talking a bottle or two. Quantities."

Why? "People know some of those wines are limited and that they won't be around for very long. ... So they buy."

Veteran wine rep Robert Marsh sees the situation this way: "Your reason for buying hand-crafted wines or beers is not necessarily to get drunk--although you can, of course," he chuckles. "You're buying into the art of the beverage. In a sense, it's a lifestyle decision."

That can mean buying local fine wines in order to support local economies and avoiding choices that involve long-distance shipping. In Marsh's view, cheap rules in Santa Cruz. "But when money is going to be spent," he adds, "it's the local wines that are selling."

Marsh admits that while his overall sales are down, many local premiums continue to move briskly. He mentions Storrs chardonnays, high-end Ridge zins and the widely popular Cinnabar Mercury Rising as wines that continue to sell well. These wines are not cheap. "Reliability is the key here," Marsh contends. "A consumer who is thinking about paying more than $10 must feel that what he or she buys will deliver pleasure as well as art. There is no chance-taking these days."

2007 Foxglove Chardonnay is a minor miracle of minerality, playful elegance and peach perfume, a Varner second label well worth your $13.

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