The Most Profitable Wine in the World?

Following the Money to New Zealand

2128.jpgWhat’s the most profitable wine in the world? Not the most expensive single wine (like Chateau Pétrus or Screaming Eagle), but the most profitable type of wine? Guardian wine critic Tim Atkin raised this question is a recent article called “Bottle Banks” and it is interesting to think about what the answer might be.

Profits, of course, are all about the difference between price and cost. So which country gets the highest average price for its wine exports? Most people are surprised to learn that it is New Zealand (see footnote below). New Zealand is unusual among wine producing countries in that its exports are almost entirely premium and super premium wines. The domestic Kiwi market for low cost bulk wines is filled by imports from Australia and Chile, leaving NZ producers free to focus on higher value export markets. This nearly single-minded concentration on upmarket wines results in high average export prices.

New Zealand would therefore be a prime suspect for the most profitable wine-making country – if higher production costs don’t offset the price advantage.

Easy as 1-2-3?

I was not completely surprised, therefore, to read Atkin’s conclusion that the most profitable wine is probably Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which is by far that country’s leading wine export. Atkin writes that

I was sitting talking to the owner of a top New Zealand Sauvignon in Australia recently when he proudly took out his mobile phone and showed me pictures of his bespoke Maserati. ‘Kiwi Sauvignon is cheap and easy to make and commands a premium,’ he explained. ‘And by the time I have to pay my growers for their grapes, the wine is already on the market.

That certainly sounds easy enough. Atkin continues

He’s got a point. Marlborough Sauvignon generally produces heavy crops (partly a result of fertile soils, but also of vineyard practices). Once it’s in the winery, all the average producer has to do is crush the grapes, add yeast and ferment it at a cool temperature in stainless steel. A matter of days later the wine is ready for bottling.

Nothing could be simpler really, although I didn’t know you could make wine in just a few days. I wonder why everyone doesn’t just get up and go to Marlborough to make Sauvignon Blanc? Since economists are trained to be suspicious of easy money stories like this, I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone in the New Zealand industry about profitability.

Hidden Complexity

So I wrote to Neal Ibbotson, managing director of Saint Clair Family Estate Wines in Blenheim (Marlborough). I met Neal in 2004 when I was doing research for a book on globalization. Neal was a pioneer winegrower in the Marlborough region — Neal and Judy planted their first vineyard there in 1978 —  and someone whose knowledge and opinion I value a lot. The 2003 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc that I sampled on that visit was the most memorable NZ wine I have ever tasted.

Neal didn’t comment on the Guardian article directly, but what he had to say helped me understand the hidden complexity of the situation.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can in fact be a pretty profitable wine, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is rolling in cash.

Neal writes that

It is very profitable for the best grape growers on the best soils where they can combine relatively high yields and high quality. Say 5% of Marlborough’s growers. These growers deservedly reap the benefit from having out laid the capital and taken some risk and are very fortunate that the grapes they grow are a unique product, in strong demand.

It is less profitable and is in some cases unprofitable, for those growers who are in more marginal areas on less productive soils where yields and often quality are not as good

It can also be quite profitable for the very best wine companies who produce a high quality product and have good access to the markets. Say 10%. There are however both Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape growers and wine companies that are unprofitable. {It’s worse in some other parts of NZ.}

There are also a number of cases of new labels that have been produced, by would-be winemakers, that are sitting in the bottling halls, or on retail shelves, gathering dust whilst interest accrues in their bank accounts. In addition there is the huge capital requirement to take a small producer, normally profit marginal, to a medium or large producer where profitability is more likely

This is clearly a more realistic picture of the NZ wine industry. There some firms that are very profitable due to cost advantages or because they are able to leverage unique assets, like reputation or special vineyard characteristics. But there are other firms that, lacking these advantages, scrape by or lose money. Distribution is the big bottleneck in the global wine business, and wineries with access to efficient distribution have a head start towards profit goals. Inevitably in any industry with heterogeneous inputs and outputs, the profit profile is complicated.

Not only are Marlborough profits not uniformly high, according to Neal, they are also not certain. High prices require high quality and the ability to maintain a reputation for exceptional wines (I will talk about what Saint Clair is doing in this regard in a future post). But there are other factors to be considered. Neal writes that …

Most wineries are struggling to some degree with the increasing cost of buying in Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and the high value of the NZ $ which increases the cost of NZ wine in the market place and makes any additional increase in price from the wineries extremely difficult. Because of increasing prices for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the high NZ$ at present most wineries are caught between a rock and a hard place

This reminds me of a discussion I had with Jane Hunter of Hunters Wines in 2004. (Hunters was one of the first NZ Sauvignon Blancs to break into the key British Market and establish the region’s reputation there). What is the biggest threat to your industry, I asked her. The appreciation of the NZ dollar, she replied without hesitation.

Tim Atkin might be right about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but he’s also wrong. I think it must be a very profitable wine for some (I wonder … was he talking to someone from Cloudy Bay?), but making wine and then making money making wine isn’t as easy as he suggests, even in Marlborough.

(Footnote: Here is an interesting fact: Canada actually earns higher per liter revenues from its bottled wine exports than New Zealand, according to my copy of The Global Wine Statistical Compendium, but comparing it to New Zealand is like comparing apples and oranges. Or table wine to ice wine, to be more specific. Canada’s wine exports are tiny compared to New Zealand, but the per-bottle revenues are high because it is mainly expensive ice wine - sweet dessert wines made from grapes left on the vine so that freezing weather can concentrate the juice and flavor.)

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