The End of Cheap Wine?

It is becoming increasingly clear that a golden age of sorts (for American wine drinkers) is coming to an end. Good quality wine has been amazingly affordable for the last several years and New World wine consumption has risen as a result.

This is changing (or has already changed, as Jancis Robinson writes in Saturday’s Financial Times) and a quick look at the economics of the wine market explains how and why.

The demand for wine in the United States has increased for a number of reasons. Studies that show that moderate consumption of wine (especially red wine) is healthful gave consumers license to experiment with table wines. The existence of Two Buck Chuck (the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores) and other value brands made this experimentation affordable.

The increasing emphasis on wine brands helped demand grow by making the wine purchase itself somewhat less mysterious. The wine aisle is the most complex choice space in any grocery store — there are more options at more price points than anywhere else. Brands reduce uncertainty and so encourage consumption. The enormous success of [Yellow Tail] brand wine from Australia is testament to this fact. Costco, the nation’s largest wine retailer, has used limited selection and its Kirkland Signature own-brand wine to achieve spectacular results.

The demand for wine has not just increased it has also evolved as many consumers have moved to higher quality (or higher price,anyway) and developed specialized wine expertise. Wine is more than a beverage, it is a lifestyle for many people who collect wines, take wine tourist vacations and subscribe to wine publications such as Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate and read the wine columns now found in many newspapers. There is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to wine. Knowing more about wine and having more experience with it increases the pleasure that wine provides and makes further learning more efficient. In economic terms, the specific investment in wine knowledge makes the demand for wine more inelastic — less sensitive to changes in price since buyers are less likely to switch from wine to other products or beverages where they have less expertise.

The supply of wine has also changed to create higher prices. The falling U.S. dollar has increased the cost of imported wine, which contributes to rising domestic prices both directly, as those costs are passed along to consumers, and indirectly, as higher import prices allow domestic producers to raise price, too. I don’t think that we have seen the full pass-through effect of the exchange rate changes yet, so expect dollar-driven price increases to continue.

But domestic prices would have increased even without the dollar’s decline. Wine buyers in recent years benefited from a global surplus of wine grapes that drove down price and pushed up quality. Faced with accumulated surpluses that sometimes amounted to a year or more of sales, winegrowers held back on expansion plans (except for hot varietals like Pinot Noir). Demand has slowly grown into the existing supply and may soon exceed it for some wine types. Falling prices due to surpluses are coming to an end and rising prices seem likely, even in Australia where drought and disease have further reduced production. The new EU wine regime, if it is effective, should further reduce wine surpluses and tighten supply.

When you combine these factors along with a few others, such as growing interest in wine in Asia, the result is a new market environment and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The latest round of wine magazines seem to take higher prices in stride. The Wine Advocate reports that the cellar door price of California cult wine Screaming Eagle is now $500 per bottle — if you can get some — and a long list of wines are listed with prices above $100 or $200. Wine Spectator and the wine columnists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all seem to be struggling to keep a lid on their definition of an inexpensive or good value wine — a $12 or $15 or even $20 ceiling no longer provides much choice! You can still buy cheap wine, but the good value bargains are disappearing.

It will be interesting to see how the American wine culture, which has been built in part on good quality at low prices, copes with this new world of wine. In the meantime, enjoy those bargains and good values when you find them, but don’t count on your good fortune lasting forever.

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