|By Jose Pagliery, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
December 29, 2009 - Thanks to decades of advertisements and two centuries of popularity, no sound is more associated with New Year's celebrations than the pop of uncorking a chilled bottle of champagne.
But because of the lingering economic slowdown, champagne prices have gone flat in recent years, breaking spirits distributors' long-standing trend of slowly increasing prices.
"Suddenly, they can't sell it," said Ed Chisolm, an account executive for nationwide distributor Southern Wine & Spirits.
Even superstars aren't able to pump prices. Despite the buzz surrounding hip hop's favorite tipple, Louis Roederer Cristal, a bottle of that high-profile champagne costs about the same as four years ago: around $200.
The factors that usually shift wine prices -- early freezes, rain that affects crop production or an overbearing sun that ripens grapes too early -- have had a minimal effect, say experts. More important is the economy.
Demand for champagne -- the sparkling wine produced in France's Champagne region, and the only wine permitted to use the name -- dropped so significantly that in 2008, the industry exported 4.5 million fewer bottles to the United States, according to the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Champagne Bureau. That brought the total number of bottles to around 17 million -- equal to 1998 levels.
For South Floridians looking to toast the New Year with a glass of bubbly, that's not a bad thing.
Instead of spending $100-plus for Dom Perignon or Taittinger, or $40 and up for Perrier-Jouet and Veuve-Clicquot from France, consumers can snag a Spanish cava, Italian spumante or California sparkling wine for less than $20.
After the September 2008 stock market drop, U.S. consumers shifted to bargain-priced wines from around the globe, according to a spring 2009 report by wine industry consultant Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.
"In some instances, that may mean switching from champagne to sparkling wine," said Michael Bittel, co-owner of Sunset Corners Fine Wines and Spirits in Miami-Dade. "But what we've also seen is price drops in champagne."
Last year, Bittel offered a single moderately priced champagne. This year, he's selling four bottles sometimes priced as low as $25: Mumm, Deutz, Gosset and Nicolas Fueillate.
Local distributors and sellers hope this week's celebrations will make up for last year's dip in sales. It's their best chance of doing so; more than 40 percent of a year's champagne sales come in the fourth quarter, said Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau.
Unlike other parts of the world, most U.S. stores lower champagne prices as the holidays approach to encourage customers to buy more than one bottle at a time, Heitner said.
Despite Florida's high wine tax -- about $8.32 per 12-bottle case of champagne -- the state still ranks among the top four champagne consuming-states in the nation, following California, New York and Texas.
The reason it ranks so high is tourists, who drive year-round demand, said Southern's Chisolm.
That's not to say locals have given up bubbly; they're just not ordering at restaurants, said Katie Parker, Total Wine & More's local district manager.
"The average person that used to go out once a week to dinner might be going out once a month," she said. "And the other three weeks, they're coming to us to have a bottle at home."
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