I think I’ve seen the future of American wine — or at least one aspect of the future, since nothing in wine is simple — and I didn’t need a Time Machine, Crystal Ball or souped-up DeLorean to do it. All I had to do was walk into my neighborhood Safeway store and take a look around.
[This is the final post in a series about what I think I learned at this year's Unified Symposium regarding the future of the American wine market. Scroll down to the earlier posts if you haven't already read them.]
The buzz at the Unified Symposium this year was about America’s growing wine market and the bodacious 2012 U.S. grape harvest. Higher demand, abundant supply — happy news. But, as I have argued over the past few weeks, the future is more complicated, full of both opportunities and challenges.
The U.S. is unlikely to be able to meet all of the rising demand profitably in the long run if current trends continue, so imports will likely fill the gap. U.S. producers should adopt a “Machiavellian” strategy to seize control of import flows, especially important at the low-price end of the spectrum, and systematically shift U.S. products into up-market categories. The changes are coming, I’ve written, so the best bet is to think ahead and be well-positioned when the future finally comes around.
Bota Box Globalization
Not everyone agrees with this vision of the future and I’ll talk about alternative views in a moment. But first I want to show you where things seem to be headed. Here for your consideration is a version of globalization that I think points the way. I call it Bota Box Globalization.
Bota Box is a line of 3-liter bag-in-box and 500 ml tetrapak wines from DFV. Jon Fredrikson named DFV winery of the year for 2011 at last year’s Unified and the company has been growing by leaps and bounds — it’s easy to see why.
When I’ve thought about Bota Box in the past, I’ve associated it with good value, alternative packaging and put it squarely in the “California wine” category. Why California wine? Well, because that’s the appellation I remember seeing on the boxes and also because DFV is a major California producer, making about 6 million cases of their own wine brands last year and about another 6 million cases for other firms.
(Data from the 2013 Wine Business Monthly top 30 U.S. producer report — DFV is #8 out of 30 if we take only their own brands into account, wedged between #7 Ste Michelle Wine Estates and #9 Jackson Family Wines.)
Sell Local, Source Global
I guess Bota Box is still a “California brand” and of course an American brand, but DFV is already doing with it what I think many large volume (and some smaller ) producers will do — sell the brand locally but source the wines globally.
The wines were attractively displayed at the Safeway on Proctor Street when I visited on Saturday — appealing enough that the 3-liter Cab boxes were sold out. The wines were priced at $24.99 for the box, which is equivalent to $6.25 per 750 ml bottle, but you could bring the cost down to $19.99 by flashing your Safeway Club Card and cut another $2 off if you purchase in quantity, as you might for a party.
This is good value, but not bottom-shelf cheap. Bota Box is a leader in the “premium box wine” category that represents a big step up from brands like Franzia.
The packaging, the brand and the grape variety are the main things you notice when you survey the color-coded Bota Box shelf, but a little investigation brings the global factor into focus. The Merlot, Riesling, Shiraz were all California wines at my store, but the rest were imports from Chile (Cabernet Sauvignon), France (the RedVolution red blend), Italy (Zinfandel!), Argentina (both Malbec and Moscato) and South Africa (Chardonnay).
South African Chardonnay in a Bota Box? Wow! I didn’t see that coming.
Poking around the web, looking at Bota Box images, it is pretty clear that the sourcing is both flexible and global. Looks like the Malbec has come from exotic Lodi, for example, and that the Shiraz, Cab and Chard were once sourced from Australia, probably back before the Aussie dollar became so ridiculously over-valued.
And the Zinfandel once came from California instead of Puglia and probably still does in some of the containers — you sometimes find the same varieties from different countries on adjacent Bota Box shelves. The 3-liter RedVolution was from France and the big box Cab from Chile at my neighborhood Safeway, for example, but the 500 ml tetrapaks of the same wines wore a California designation.
Bota Bottom Line?
Brand, package and variety are the key factors in this business model — the particular source of the wine is a secondary characteristic for Bota Box, so long the as quality is consistent, as I assume it is.
The bottom line of my series of posts is that I see the U.S. wine market continuing to grow and imports making up a larger and larger part of it as domestic supply constraints kick in, competition increases at the lower price levels and wine export momentum is sustained. Bota Box globalization illustrates one way that smart producers will position themselves to compete in this evolving market while controlling their own destiny.
Going back to an earlier post in this series where I compared the wine market to the apple market, I think we’ll see Juice Box Globalization at the bottom shelf of the wine wall, where pressure for global integration will be very strong indeed, Granny Smith (and Bota Box) Globalization in the middle and the highly differentiated products that represent Honey Crisp Globalization at the top. It’s already happening. Are you ready? It looks like DFV is!
What’s wrong with my analysis? Well, prediction is difficult — especially about the future — and so there is a lot of room for error. One criticism is that my analysis is fairly simplified and a much more nuanced approach is needed. Fair enough. Fortunately Jim Lapsley has already provided that in an enlightening analysis he prepared in 2010. Click here to download the pdf — it is well worth reading if you are interested in this issue. Jim concludes that
The U.S. wine market will look different in 2030. On the demand side, per capita consumption will increase as acculturated Hispanics adopt wine and as wine becomes a more integral part of the American culture. Increased per capita consumption combined with population growth could quite possibly increase total table wine sales to 3.60 billion liters.
California will remain the dominant producer within the United States, but it is likely to lose market to inexpensive bulk-wine imports. These wines are likely to be marketed as global brands, with the location of grape supply of little importance to consumers. This article has also discussed the supply and demand picture for higher priced wine for which location of production is a dominant marketing attribute. These wines, which are largely produced from coastal grapes, face quite different economic drivers on both the supply and demand sides of the market
Jim’s analysis is more sophisticated than what I have posted on The Wine Economist, but we see many of the same factors at work. I see the global integration as being a more powerful factor, but maybe that’s because I’m a globalization expert and pre-disposed to see globalization wherever I look.
Another set of reader comments essentially argues that I am too influenced by recent events and conditions — the relatively weak dollar, for example, the recent surge in bulk wine trade and current supply-demand balance trends and conditions. All these factors could and probably will change. Will they change enough to alter my conclusions?
Good point. They might! But I’m not convinced they will. I guess we will have to wait and see, but in the meantime I don’t think if would be a mistake to get ready for the increasingly global future of U.S. wine if and when it comes around.