Imported wines are leading growth trends as more retailers turn to direct-to-consumer shipment options. Wine.com, the largest online wine retailer in the U.S., saw its imported wine sales grow 22% by value on a 16% volume gain in 2018, compared to domestic wine sales rising 14% by value and volume. “For years, our customers have been purchasing more imported wine than domestic,” says Michael Osborn, founder and vice president of merchandising at Wine.com. “It’s always been neck-and-neck, and 2018 was no exception.”
In terms of sales value, Wine.com customers preferred imports to domestic wines, but barely, at a split of 51%-49%. The company recorded $130 million in online sales last year, including $60 million in imports, $58 million in domestic wines, and $12 million in gift sets of wine, accessories, and chocolate. Amid a plethora of sales data—including customers purchasing more than 38,400 unique vintage-specific wine labels and nearly 4.2 million bottles of wine—lays a golden egg of promising demographics. “Millennial customers are the most substantial segment we serve,” Osborn says, adding that Wine.com data shows millennials are buying plenty of wine. He notes that the generation favors mobile purchases, and that some $41 million of the site’s orders are placed through mobile browsers and the Wine.com app.
By revenue, Wine.com’s most popular imported wines and Champagnes in 2018 were 2015 Antinori Tignanello ($110 a 750-ml.), 2014 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia ($210), Château Pontet-Canet ($185), Dom Pérignon ($160), and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut ($55),. Wine.com’s average selling price per 750-ml. bottle of imported wine last year was $30.51, compared to $31.59 for domestics. Either way, online wine buyers tend to have deep pockets, as well as good taste. “In the heat of the holiday season, when there’s a lot of volume, there is just as much Napa elite going out as Dom Pérignon or other high-end imports,” Osborn says.
Wines from France, Italy, and Spain led the company’s import sales by both value and volume last year. Revenue drivers included red Bordeaux blends (up 41%), Champagne (up 27%), Sangiovese (up 8%), rosé table wine (up 35%), and Sauvignon Blanc (up 10%). “Our customers are consistent, but they also appreciate variety,” Osborn says. “Grocers stack the deck against consumers who might like to try Alberiño, but can’t because all they see are 140 labels of California Chardonnay.”
Given that the U.S. operates under the three-tier system, wines shipped to consumers from retailers like Wine.com must pass through the supplier and wholesale tiers. “Three-tier e-commerce is the great equalizer,” Osborn says. “Whether a brand is family-owned, a global business, or representing a boutique region or the largest appellations, wine consumers are given equal access.”
Other wine retailers are investing in e-commerce shipping platforms and thus experiencing growth, particularly among imports. “While California drives the bus in terms of in-store sales, online sales of French, Italian, and German wines easily surpass that,” notes Matt Yeager, co-owner and general manager of Pinnacle Wine and Liquor in Rochester, New York.
The most significant trend Yeager observed in 2018 was an increased demand for Italian wine—specifically Sangiovese-based offerings. “Sangiovese covers every price point extremely well,” Yeager says. “On the value side you have IGT Toscana wines, at the mid-tier you have Chianti Classico and Rosso di Montalcino, and on the premium end you have Brunello and Vino Nobile.”
Online, Pinnacle’s top-selling imported wine brands in 2018 were the 2017 Domaine de Bila-Haut Côtes Du Roussillon Villages ($14 a 750-ml.), 2016 San Felice Chianti Classico ($14), and 2016 Bodegas Ordóñez Triton Tinta de Toro ($16). “More consumers will turn to online wine retailers in the future for their imported wine needs,” Yeager says. “Large chain discounters and supermarkets continue to back away from limited-production fine wines that don’t meet their volume requirements.”