Times aren't so bad for wine — especially from a jug or a box

In hard times, people give up nonessentials like wine, right?

Au contraire.

Maybe we're just drowning our sorrows, but Americans drank more wine in 2008 than in 2007. Cheaper wine, perhaps, but our thirst endures.

"I'd quit buying clothes before I'd quit buying wine," said Beth Johnson of Coral Gables, picking up a $25 bottle of gewürztraminer to serve with cheese.

As the South Beach Wine & Food Festival opens its four-day run Thursday, those who make, distribute and sell wine are scrambling to keep us sipping in a bad economy, and we who imbibe are benefiting from their trouble.

Supermarkets are running specials, cutting $15 wines to $10 and $10 wines to $5. Wine shops are bringing in less expensive labels from new areas. Smart sommeliers are offering cheaper choices in the face of declining restaurant wine sales.

"Wine's the affordable luxury," says Mike Martin of Constellation Brands, which owns Robert Mondavi, Simi, Estancia, Franciscan and a dozen other wineries. "A bottle of wine might be $7; a new car or flat-screen TV is a lot more."

These days, the customer is king. At least half the bottles on the shelves at a Miami Winn-Dixie supermarket were marked down by several dollars as Eleanor Laring shopped for a soft, red wine to go with her family's Thursday night meatloaf. She usually gets a $14 Mont Gras pinot noir; this time she picked a $9 Gallo.

"We all still have our jobs so far," the Kendall office manager said. "But we're being careful with money just in case."


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