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Wild Horse Pinot Noir may seem like a world away from the Big Gulp, but you can find both drinks in many 7-Elevens these days. The world's largest chain of convenience stores, known more as a go-to destination for a six-pack of beer or a cup of Joe, has suddenly embraced upscale wine.
The company recently started selling four so-called ultra-premium wines (the category priced at $15 to $19.99), all of them well-known, including Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and La Crema Chardonnay, Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon and the Wild Horse Pinot Noir from California.
Actually, 7-Eleven has sold wine for decades, at least as far back as the 36 years Alan Beach has worked there. He's a vice president of merchandising who runs the entire 7-Eleven beverage business and recalled that when he began, the wine was on the truly low end with a "narrow-focused Strawberry Hill kind of assortment."
These days, wine is sold at 5,400 of the 8,000 7-Elevens in this country and has gradually moved more upscale. With more and more Americans turning to wine, 7-Eleven launched a line of private-label wines in 2009 called Yosemite Road, priced at $3.99.
Another turning point came shortly after the recent recession. "We noticed that in the 2010-2011 time frame, beer sales flattened out and wine started having higher growth rates," Beach said, adding that over the last year, the company has seen wine sales increase by double digits.
That's why it decided to go a step further with a move into ultra-premium wines. Using internal data on sales trends, it identified 1,000 stores in which it thought the wines would be successful, stores that catered to more affluent customers, the kind who might buy craft beer or Fiji Water, for example. More than 700 are now selling the new wines in 16 states.
But why would people consider buying higher-end wines at 7-Eleven instead of at a wine shop or a supermarket with broader selections? Remember, at 7-Eleven, it's all about the convenience. "I want people to see that in their time-stressed world their neighborhood store has what they need and want," Beach said.
In selecting the new upscale wines, the company looked at the top-selling brands in each market. It considered varieties that most people would look for as well as brand recognition and availability. It also wanted wines that scored highly — 89 or 90 points in publications such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
While some wine retailers have done away with scores to sell their wines, preferring to explain the wines to their customers, 7-Eleven considered them important both for consumers and the stores themselves, which aren't known for their wine expertise. "We want to make it very simple for our stores to execute products for our guests," Beach said, "and deliver high-level products that they can recognize and trust."
(Read more: Time to cash out? Brewers' next move)
He added that the four new wines "give us the credibility to play" in the ultra-premium category. And so, is 7-Eleven now a destination for the wine connoisseur to take a leisurely stroll down the aisles? Hardly. It is what it always was, a place to pop in (perhaps with the car still running), pick up your coffee, your paper and now, if you realize you need it, a more than respectable bottle of wine.
—By Edward Deitch, TODAY contributor