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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Think of wine critic Robert Parker as the E.F. Hutton of fermented grapes. When he talks, oenophiles listen.
So when Parker, publisher of the Wine Advocate, said recently that the world is entering the 'Age of the Buyer' - a prolonged period of stable or declining wine prices - it was enough to get sommeliers buzzing over their Chateau D'Yquem.
"There's now a tremendous amount of high-quality wines available at reasonable prices," agrees Andrew Bell, president and CEO of American Sommelier, a membership association for wine aficionados. "With supply increasing and consumption decreasing, it stands to reason that prices will fall or stabilize. The pendulum is swinging in favor of the consumer."
To which wine lovers might say: It's about time. In recent years, they have grappled with seemingly ever-increasing prices. With production at top French chateaux like Margaux or Petrus limited, and wealthy Chinese buyers starting to acquire a taste for high-end Bordeaux, bidders have set auction records and the futures market has been priced at sky-high levels.
But things may finally be tipping in favor of the consumer, at least in the broader market. The punishing recession has a lot to do with it: Disposable income is plummeting, so most households just don't have much cash to be splurging on an outstanding syrah or sauvignon blanc.
"The recession drove everyone to trade down," says Barbara Insel, CEO of Napa-based wine-market advisory firm Stonebridge Research Group. "The market disappeared for most wines costing more than $15 or $20. Pretty much anything costing more than $30 was 30 percent off - and often not refilled on the shelves or wine lists."
Currency trends are helping foster the Age of the Buyer, as well - at least for Americans.
"There's some bullish sentiment under the U.S. dollar now because the American economy is starting to perform better," says David Song, a currency analyst with foreign-exchange site DailyFX.com. "Meanwhile the outlook for the Euro is pretty bearish, and it will likely trend lower for 2012."
That combination of a steadying greenback and a worsening Eurozone mess will likely drive down prices for European wine imports. From the Euro's current exchange rate of roughly $1.30, already well down from previous levels of around $1.60, Song expects a further slide to $1.20 or even $1.10. That, in turn, could encourage American producers to trim their own prices in order to compete.
Here are a few ways savvy oenophiles can benefit:
- Leverage your online advantage. Historically, wine access has been a restricted and clubby affair, which often depended on personal relationships with dealers.
But the proliferation of online retailers has essentially democratized access to high-quality vintages. An array of websites are now offering so-called "flash" deals of deep discounts on high-end, limited-availability cases. A couple of Andrew Bell's favorites: Lot18.com and WinesTilSoldOut.com.
- Look beyond Bordeaux. Want a steal on bottles from famed French chateaux like Haut-Brion or Romanee-Conti? You're probably out of luck. That's the stuff that billionaire Chinese buyers really care about, as do investment vehicles like the London-based Fine Wine Fund, which tend to focus almost exclusively on first-growth Bordeaux. One reason is that Bordeaux is - pardon the pun - the most liquid option for wine investors, easily sold to other collectors. Other regions and varietals can be harder to move.
But look to the rest of the world, and the bargains appear plentiful. The quality-to-price ratio is particularly attractive in places like Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Chile. Stonebridge's Insel says buyers can find an alluring mix of quality and value in Southern Italian reds, whites from Italy's Veneto region and homegrown vintages from Washington State.
- Be active at auctions. As Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of life is just showing up. In that spirit, show up at the wine auctions of prominent purveyors like Zachys, Hart Davis Hart, Sotheby's and Christie's, and you might be surprised at what you come away with. After all, since wine futures have been priced at record levels - and you still have to wait a couple of years for delivery - you'll probably have better luck with more mature vintages.
Tips from American Sommelier's Bell: Do your due diligence beforehand to identify your best quality-to-price opportunities; set budget limits for yourself, so you don't get caught up in auction momentum and overpay; and consider so-called 'mixed' or 'odd' lots, groupings of assorted wines that higher-end collectors might overlook.
"There are incredible discounts to be found right now," says Bell. "I guarantee it."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
Editing by Beth Gladstone