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LUXURIOUS WINE BOUTIQUES
MUSHROOM IN BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

By Simone Zarmati Diament

There's never been more wines, and better quality wines in the global market than in the past couple of years. In what constitutes an oenophile's heaven, supply exceeds demand, and the price of wine has come down everywhere in the world.

Moreover, whereas fine wines were mostly purchased in boutique wine stores, it is not unusual, in the US in general and particularly in South Florida, to find high-end wine stores in gas stations, or to walk through entire supermarket sections seriously dedicated to wines of all prices, varieties and provenance.

But on a recent trip to Argentina, one of the major contenders in the wine world today, I found it not to be the case in Buenos Aires.

In the past year, in the midst of one of the most brutal economic crisis, a crisis that shook the country into bankruptcy, a new breed of beautiful and luxurious retail wine stores -- gleaming wood floors, shelves laden with high end wines and related products -- has swept the city by storm. The major chains, Ligier and Winery have increased by 50% the number of their stores around the city.

Less money, more sales?

A rather puzzling equation was brought to my attention by Nicolás Catena, at his offices Bodegas Esmeralda, S.A., in downtown Buenos Aires. "There is an amazing growth in the high end wines at the cost of the lower priced wines," said the renowned winemaker of Catena Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon, a label that sells in the three figure bracket in the US and in Argentina.

Dr. Catena, a Ph.D. in economics and mathematics at Columbia University, who owns a large number of wineries in Mendoza, Argentina, including Bodegas Catena Zapata (www.catenawines.com), the Mayan pyramid-shaped state-of-the-art winery, continued:

"Curiously, in 2002/3 in the midst of the most brutal crisis Argentina has ever seen, the sales of expensive wines (US $12 and up) has increased by 100% to 120% whereas the sales of lower priced wines has declined a 10% to 12%."

It all comes from the wine revolution that has taken place in Mendoza in the last fifteen years, headed by Dr. Catena. Until the mid-90's, Argentine wines were produced in the old-style Spanish and Italian methods of vinification - long periods in old oak barrels, with characteristics of oxidation and wood. That is, until Catena hired consultants Paul Hobbs from Napa Valley, Jacques Lourton of Bordeaux and Attilio Paglia of Tuscany , and started producing today's wines

Argentine consumers took to the better quality wines from his first harvest in 1990. "And when the consumer wants a fine wine he goes to a wine store rather than to the supermarket," concluded Catena.

Thanks to the crisis

"And the higher the wine prices the higher the need to know more about what you're buying," adds Victor Dayan, the owner of Ligier (www.ligier.com.ar), a chain of retail stores that grew by 100% in the past year, and counts close to 10 locations in Buenos Aires. "Wine is a difficult product to know. The wine shop advises the clients."

Ligier's clientele is composed of 25% tourists and the small but powerful layer in the high-earning brackets. "In every crisis there is an opportunity," construes Mr. Dayan. "This last crisis has brought tourism to Argentina. It was an injection of oxygen. These people buy higher quality wines. To buy a high end wine in a supermarket is like buying fine art in a soccer field. We can keep the wine longer and in finer conditions."

But because of the influx of tourism, Ligier had to re-position themselves. They keep high end vintage wines such as Zapata Malbec '95: AR$ 2,000, Catena Zapata '90 Cabernet Sauvignon: AR$4,000; Felipe Rutini '81: AR$4200; Luigi Bosca Cab '84: AR$1000, Luigi Bosca Malbec '78: AR$2,000. At the store, during this interview someone popped out AR$1530. At the change of $AR3 for US$ 1, that or US$ 510 for just three bottles of wine.

Retail wine shops, which run under a 50% to 60% profit margin, make a lot more money from high-end wines. "There's always room for more," he said. Dayan's nephews, who opened the first store in 2000 and now have 7 locations in choice street corners, created the chain named Winery.

"I don't know if there's so much of a crisis as they say…" mused Mr. Dayan.

Cheap Wines are Cheaper in Miami

Looking for the lower priced great wines that I find in markets in Miami, I checked on the Trumpeter Cab, Malbec, and Merlot that are listed $7.99 in Miami. In Buenos Aires I paid $AR 35, or US$12.

The award winning Los Cardos Malbec which sells at $4.99 in Miami, was priced at $AR 28 or US 9.33 at Winery, the gorgeous wine boutique across the street from my hotel.

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