Wine sales up at retail locations

How about an intimate candlelight dinner at a fancy restaurant, complete with fine food and a jug of water?

Sales indicate that people have been less inclined to sip wine when dining out in New Hampshire. Instead, they have preferred to buy a bottle of red or white with cereal, diapers and other grocery store items, apparently to save money.

The state Liquor Commission reported this week that its wine sales to restaurants were down 2.3 percent since July. But wine sales at stores have surged.

No one can say with exact certainty that a poor economy has prompted the downward trend in restaurant sales of wine, but it seems quite likely to several local restaurateurs.

“Sales are a little bit down, but not a lot,” said Bastian DiCaprio, general manager of San Francisco Kitchen in Nashua. “People will still have a glass of wine at dinner, but they might not have a bottle.”

Or diners might not have any wine at all.

“There’s not that much liquor sales,” said an employee of Rice & Roll in Nashua. “The economy is bad. They want to eat and drink free, either water or tea . . . That’s the economy.”

Other local restaurants report mostly steady wine sales, but believe that if numbers are down, it’s because there are just fewer patrons than when the economy was stronger.

“The only reason you could say wine down is customers are down. It’s not because people are drinking less wine. We’re still selling about the same percentage to gross volume” of customers, said Michael Buckley, owner of Michael Timothy’s, Buckley’s Great Steaks and Surf restaurants.

The Liquor Commission’s recent revenue and profit report doesn’t survey consumers, but numbers don’t always lie.

Since July, sales at grocery and convenience stores increased 9 percent and were up almost 18 percent in January as compared with the previous January, the commission said.

The commission said an increase in “off-premise sales” is “consistent with a national trend as consumers opt to dine and drink more at home as a result of the current economic downturn.”

That assessment would fit what Black Orchid restaurant general manager Joey Zontini sees.

His Nashua eatery still sells the same average amount of wine to customers, but the number of overall diners has decreased.

“People are being more frugal,” Zontini said.

The evening of Valentine’s Day was the “best night” Black Orchid has “ever had” in its more than three years of existence, Zontini said.

But the nights around the holiday weren’t as busy, suggesting that consumers are “planning a little more carefully and saying they’re not going out every night,” he said.

To combat weakened wine sales, the commission said it has expanded its offerings to restaurants. The wider selection will “accommodate their customers’ desire to seek more value in their dining-out wine purchases,” the commission said.

The commission report wasn’t all doom and gloom for restaurants. Wine sales to restaurants did increase by almost two percent over the past month.

And the report had great news for the commission itself: gross unaudited income from all liquor sales sources for the month of January totaled $42.9 million. That was a 13.6 percent increase over the same period one year ago, the commission said.

Gross profit from all sources was $90.5 million, a 9.5 percent increase over the same period one year ago.