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Buyer for Trader Joe’s stores helped popularize wine

Times Staff Writer

Robert Berning, who as the principal wine buyer for Trader Joe’s beginning in the 1970s helped introduce consumers to bargain-priced wines from around the globe, has died. He was 73.

Berning died of bone cancer Saturday at his home in Fallbrook, said his daughter, Christina Coulourides.

Berning was a veteran grocer in 1965 when he was hired as a store manager for Pronto Markets, a chain of convenience stores in the Los Angeles area that had begun its transformation into the specialty grocery store chain Trader Joe’s in 1967.

“After we converted Pronto Market into Trader Joe’s, wine merchandising became paramount, and so about 1970 we brought Bob into the office as wine buyer because he had expressed a great interest in the subject,” Joe Coulombe, founder and former owner of Trader Joe’s, told The Times on Monday.

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Coulombe said 1970 marked the beginning of Trader Joe’s “aggressive wine merchandising” -- offering wines at lower prices than had been common in the trade.

“Basically,” he said, “this state had fair trade on alcoholic beverages, so it was against the law to break price on Gallo or any other branded wine, and under Bob’s leadership, we learned to get around fair trade.”

As head wine buyer, Berning built Trader Joe’s private label wine program, in which various wines from around the world were sold under Trader Joe’s own labels, for which it could set lower prices.

“It was a huge success,” said Coulombe, adding with a chuckle that “it caused our competitors a lot of distress. They tried to stop us, but we fought our way through the battles until 1978 when fair trade was thrown out. . . . After that, we and anybody else could price wine any way they wanted to.”

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But after eight years of offering wine under their Trader Joe’s Winery label, he said, “we had a head start.”

Coulombe said Berning “innovated not just the buying of the wines, but the logistics: our ability to distribute the wines to our stores because conventional wholesalers were not going to do that for us.”

Trader Joe’s, he said, was “one of the reasons that wine took off” in popularity.

“We were among the first to give shelf space to boutique California wines,” he said. “These are wineries that later became famous, like Schramsberg, Heitz, Mirassou, etc.

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“These are branded names I’m mentioning now. Nobody was interested in wine, let alone California wine. So one of the ways we built this business was to bring in obscure wineries, the antithesis of Gallo, and offer them to the public, and this was very successful, on top of the price-oriented programs.”

Berning, who traveled extensively in search of wines around the world, highlighted his wine finds in a series of Trader Joe’s commercials on L.A. radio in the late 1980s and ‘90s.

He was born Jan. 25, 1935, in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, where his father was the golf course greenskeeper. Berning launched his career in 1951 at age 16 when he began working in Whittier for King Cole Markets. After becoming a store supervisor a few years later, he began developing an interest in selling imported wines from Europe.

In the mid-'90s Berning retired from Trader Joe’s, but the company continued to pump its bargain wine prices, leading to the popularity of Charles Shaw wines, dubbed “Two Buck Chuck” for its $1.99 price.

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Berning moved to Fallbrook, where he had purchased a ranch that produced avocados and limes. But he soon returned to the wine industry as a consultant to Plume Ridge, a San Dimas wine import company owned by his daughter Christina.

He continued to work for Plume Ridge until he became ill earlier this year.

In addition to Christina, he is survived by his son, Craig; daughters Nanette Berning-Pate and Julia Berning-Escamilla; his sisters, Evie Vesper and Laurie Berning; and 13 grandchildren.

A private family service will be held on Catalina Island.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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