Wine Recession Reports

Economists joke that data usually come in one of three forms: the incomplete, the inaccurate and the forthcoming. No wonder we are such unreliable oracles!

Wine economics data generally takes one of three forms, too: highly processed  statistics, persuasive but unscientific anecdotes (bloggers are a big source of these) and public reports, such as newspaper and magazine stories.  Each type of data has its uses and each has its weaknesses.

The wine economist’s job is to try to piece them together to get a reasonably accurate picture of what’s going on.  This post tries to do  just that — I use a recent statistical release, a personal anecdote and a magazine report to reveal an outline of some of the ways the economic crisis is affecting the wine market.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

There are three kinds of lies, Mark Twain said, and statistics are the worst of them. They can be pretty useful, however, if you know how to handle them. The Global Drinks Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast has just released data about worldwide wine consumption and the news is a bit grim.  Global per capita consumption of wine was down in 2008. At 3.5 liters per capita, the global average is a full liter per person per year than in 1990.

A close look at the data indicates that the falling average is the net effect of two opposing trends.  Wine consumption in the New World continues to grow in volume terms (the increase in terms of value is somewhat less due to the on-going trading down effect).  At the same time wine consumption in the Old World, where both production and consumption are still the highest, has fallen off the table (also continuing a trend).

New World consumption is rising, but not enough to compensate for falling Old World demand. The falling per capita average is real, but it masks somewhat an even more important trend — a fundamental global restructuring of the wine world.

A Wine Spectator’s article reports that

Until recently, overall wine consumption was growing, thanks to emerging markets. But the recession has depressed total consumption as well. The United States still represents tremendous potential for the world wine market—Americans consumed an average of only 9 liters per-capita last year, compared to 51 liters and 44 liters, respectively, for the French and Italians. Canada, Chile, South Africa and Australia have all enjoyed steady consumption growth also, as have the emerging markets of India, Taiwan, South Korea and Norway. But China will probably account for much of the future growth in global wine consumption, as the Chinese drink less than a bottle of wine per person annually. The financial crisis has slowed down this growth momentum somewhat, but huge opportunities still abound, especially for large multinational wine companies doing business in China.

I remain suspicious of the potential of the Chinese market, especially in the short run, but I agree with the gist of this. When examined closely, the data tell an interesting story.

Listening to the Wine Wall

Anecdotes are a second source of wine market information. Anecdotes are dangerous because, while they are usually more casual observations rather than rigorous studies, people find them incredibly persuasive.  It is their personal nature that is so appealing, I guess, and the fact that you can dine out for weeks on a really good story. A good statistic or table of econometric results (sigh) just can’t compare.

My anecdote is about a particular wine, Leonetti Cellars Merlot.  Leonetti is an iconic Washington State wine producer.  The conventional wisdom is that you cannot buy it — they sell out every year to insiders, people say. The Leonetti Cellars website hints at this without saying it.  The “mailing list,” it says, is full.  There is a waiting list to get on the waiting list, but it will probably take 5-8 years to get to top of the wait list.

My friends who are on the mailing list (or the wait list for the mailing list) vouch for Leonetti’s scarcity.  They snatch up their allocated 3 (or however many) bottles quickly, knowing that people like me, lacking insider status, will never get a taste. (Note: Leonetti doesn’t say that their wine is impossible to buy, only that their waiting list is limited. And I think that limiting the wait list is a good business decision.)

Many people tell me that iconic wines like Leonetti are recession -proof because they are so hard to get that there will always be a market for them. So (here is the anecdote) I was a bit surprised to see Leonetti Merlot advertised a few weeks ago in a Wednesday supermarket ad for a local upscale farm store.  Yup, we’ve got it, the wine buyer told me — want some?  We’re even doing a tasting later in the week, she said.  Further conversations with my wine business friends suggest that Leonetti (and some other “impossible to buy” wines) have often been available, although they are a bit easier to come by now. You just have to ask.

I suspect that some wine distributors find themselves with more high priced wine that they would like to carry in stock right now, especially with restaurant sales slumping in many areas, and the surplus is filtering down the distribution chain, even showing up on farm store shelves.  It’s only a story, but it suggests that the economic crisis is hitting wine producers even at the top of the ladder.

And the grocery store ads that arrived today (anecdotally) back this up — they feature more hard-to-get wines and, unlike the Leonetti case, they are being sold below their release price!

RH Phillips, RIP

The Sacramento Bee reports today that Constellation Brands is closing the RH Phillips winery. Here is an excerpt from the report

R.H. Phillips Winery is being shut down by its parent company, Constellation Brands Inc. The Victor, N.Y.-based company, which also owns the Robert Mondavi Corp., is the world’s largest wine company with annual sales of 95 million cases of wine.

R.H. Phillips Winery’s 1,700 acres of vineyards, in the Dunnigan Hills area of Yolo County, will remain under the ownership of Constellation Brands.

“(The closure) is part of an ongoing strategic initiative for efficiency,” said Nora Feeley, a Constellation spokeswoman. “We could produce the wines and keep the grapes, but produce them with no damage (to quality) to the wine at Woodbridge.

RH Phillips and Toasted head wine will still be made, but production is being shifted to the big Mondavi plant in Woodbridge, which apparently has some excess capacity.  A big loss for the local community, apparently, and an opportunity to save cost through consolidation for Constellation.

What does this article tell us? Well, it is more like an anecdote that a statistic in that it reports just one story that may or may not be representative of the broader population. It tells us, I think, that the weak wine economy is putting pressure on even the largest players to cut costs and increase efficiency.  The wine recession is affecting the entire market, not excluding Toasted Head and RH Phillips, wines that sell in the intensely competitive $8-$12 range.

Surrounded by Data

It is pretty hard to prove anything with wine economics data but sometimes you can use a combination of statistics, anecdotes and news reports to sort of surround a question.  The three stories I’ve reported here don’t prove anything, but taken together they suggest that the wine recession is being felt globally, nationally and at the local level and at every shelf on the wine wall.

The wine recession is real. Restructuring is already under way.  Or is that just a rumor, too?

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