11/27/2013 09:13 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Searching for a Bottle in the Wine Stack

BJI/Blue Jean Images via Getty Images

It seems like a simple equation: A stack of wine plus good pricing equals great value. But it doesn't always add up. Stacked wines beckon buyers but often fall short on quality, namely in grocery settings.

If you believe there's a wine-based reason for the "Old Vine" Zinfandel piled wall-to-ceiling down the street, you may be surprised. Retailers are wined and dined, and heavily courted to buy the brand with national backing, with special incentives to buy wines by the truckload. Wine quality takes a backseat to wine quantity. It's something wine consumers need to be aware of.

Here's how it works. Build a display, add a "Best Buy" sign, and customers reach for the convenient choices. Placed in high traffic zones, stacks change the buying dynamic. Displayed at everyday prices, stacks self-sell; no help needed but to stock, deplete, and restock. Works like a charm.

Nothing about a wine stack -- size, location, or content -- is done by accident. Product placement is as crucial in wine shops as it is in other retail settings. On shelves or in bins, bottles get lost and dusty. Position the very same wine on the floor; Voila, sales magic.

We'd like to imagine a hard-working panel of store tasters intently selecting the best varietals for our tables at $9.99. What often really happens is this: Beverage buyers are lobbied hard by packs of wholesalers and winery representatives. Perks including free wine, golf outings, lunch, dinner, trips to wine regions, I-Pads, and hunting trips help sway buyers to the huge deals which quickly mushroom on store floors.

But quantity displays can be a boon to customers. It's not all bad news, especially when you arrive at the best small and mid-size shops and chains.

Here stacks are crucial to success. Buyers tend to select stand-out wines for displays. Little shops won't stay in business unless clients get interesting everyday wine, at all prices. So particular attention is paid to small store features; they help define the style of the store, moving from one great value to another. When everyday stacks are just so-so at the corner shop, customers quickly change to one-stop shopping at grocery wine departments. Oddly, many small shops still fall prey to the same below-average wines featured at chains, even though the little guys can't compete on price.

At chains and grocers, convenience and profit drive displays. "Endcaps" -- those end-of-aisle stacks -- tempt us before we move down wine aisles. Shoppers are drawn to wine stacks as they are with large displays of fruit or cheese. The profit margin in the stack is likely better than it is on regular stock items down the aisle.

Ever notice how a city seems to become flooded with stacks of one brand of wine; displays popping up everywhere! Not an accident. Instead it's the result of a concerted effort by wholesalers, wineries, and importers to infuse a brand into one market. These display blitzes are usually about sales agendas and the profit of suppliers, not about trying to get the best wines into our hands. The end game of suppliers is putting the most wine in the best places in the most stores. The goal at big stores is profit and quick turn-over. Wine quality can plummet to second priority.

Recognizable brands trump obscure or upstart wineries in stacks. With sweet Moscato still the rage, a dry Muscat from Alsace would amount to a stack killer. Good as it can be from France, a dry style of this typically sweet wine is a tough sell, even in the best markets, so you won't see it in large displays. .

Featuring a heaping pile of one wine can cause big stack trouble on the store floor. What if the sure-bet, Best-Buy 90-point Zinfandel doesn't move? Customers can focus too much on the stack while remaining oblivious to other cool bottles they can barely see. Stacks get in the way: they topple, they take up the space needed for new, incoming wines, they get dusty. They acclimate clients to the special price. The once-stacked wine may not sell when it moves back to the shelf, at the regular price.

The bottom line for customers is this: the wine you buy for convenience, value, and friendly style had better taste good. Stacked wine can add up to thrilling wine and great margins, if you chose wisely.