A great supermarket wine department is a beautiful thing, and a terrible thing to lose. So let us first take a moment to say a fond farewell to ThreeSixty, the latest supermarket to have tried to eke out a living in the unforgiving rent desert that is Central. Goodbye old friend, we will miss your oversized wraps, your organic almond butter and, above all, your untouchable wine selection.
Wine lovers in Britain, the United States and Australia have long seen supermarkets as repositories of excellent value for anyone up for a bit of digging. Hong Kong drinkers, used to buying primarily luxury bottles directly from importers, have yet to get in on the action. This is not for lack of trying: most supermarkets in the city have designated wine buyers, or at least a Watson's concession.
However, until more discerning shoppers start to vote with their wallets, the selections at both mass-market Wellcome and ParknShop or the more sophisticated City'super and Great, will remain less inspiring than their overseas counterparts. Even now, one of the biggest hits at City'super is the unconvincing Yellow Tail, according to its buyer. With this in mind, we spoke with British supermarket wine buyers, as well as Hong Kong supermarket buyers and cognoscenti, to get their insights on how to make the best of your local wine aisle.
Remember first that the rate of a product's turnover is a key measure of drinking satisfaction. Put simply, the bottle of pinot grigio that gets restocked every other day is going to be a much tastier tipple than the Jurancon that's been languishing for 10 weeks.
Counter-intuitively, hunting high turnover doesn't always involve prestige brands, especially in mass-market outlets. In Britain, as wine retail consultant Phil Reedman, formerly of Tesco, can attest, the products stocked to "create prestige and attract journalists' attention" sell no more than a bottle a week (and probably less in Hong Kong). Compare that to a dozen bottles a day for top sellers, with up to 20 times that when on deep discount, and that's mathematics you can use.
And on that note - how to approach steeply discounted bottles? Surely there's a reason they're being sold for a song? Not necessarily: Reedman recalls once pricing bottles of Krug at £50 (HK$580) to clear a shelf he needed for other merchandise.
Supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's are renowned for the high quality of their own brand ranges. Often, so we hear, in unsuccessful vintages these bottles can contain declassified wine sold by quality-conscious producers unwilling to tarnish their own names with sub-par product. Own brand sparkling wines are an acknowledged value sweet spot. In Hong Kong, these wines can usually be found in the M&S food department, and even Wellcome has its own line.
Finally, while we've addressed strategies for today, how can you help build the supermarket wine aisle you'd actually want to shop in tomorrow? "Hong Kong supermarkets are missing a feedback mechanism," says Christian Pillsbury, managing director of Applied Wine "Changing that is as simple as placing a special order with a sales manager," he adds, something we'd recommend you try in Great food hall, less so in a Tai Po ParknShop.
With consumer pressure, supermarkets may eventually play a much greater role in our market. With our sky-high rents, Hong Kong wine retail will always be a challenge; and because we can buy direct, we've stayed out of the supermarkets until now. However, as we move away from Lafite and Latour and start to look for value, supermarkets' superior buying power (do you buy wine a pallet-load at a time?), higher turnover, much lower margins and generally lower-rent real estate means the road ahead is almost certainly lined with grocery carts.
Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine