Wine Recession: Winners & Losers

Some people think that the long hard winter of the economic crisis is coming to an end and “green shoots” are emerging. It is too soon to tell if this view is correct, but not too early to begin to assess which parts of the wine economy have been hardest hit by the recession and which have actually benefited. Herewith a brief analysis of winners and losers.

Wine Market Breakdown

There are several ways to break down the winners and losers in the wine market. The first and most obvious is by price segment. Distributors are finding wines in the $25 and up category difficult to move through normal retail or “off premises”  sales channels. This doesn’t mean that everyone is buying Two Buck Chuck, however. The “super-premium” $10-$15 segment continues to grow, for example, although the trading down effect is still significant. The woman who was willing to pay $20 two years ago now aims to spend $15 or less, with similar changes further down the line.

Some wine brands have been particularly well positioned to attract value-seeking buyers. Gallo’s Barefoot wines, for example, have gained market share among the “fighting varietals” and the CMS by Hedges red and white blends have done well in the $10-$12 category, as have many others.

Since most Wine Walls are arranged with the most expensive wines on the top shelf and the cheapest at the bottom, it is almost as if the top shelf has been eliminated and all the other wines moved up one rank. Whether this is a temporary or a permanent shift remains an open question. I explicitly do not assume that everything will reset back to “normal” once the recession’s game of musical chairs has come to an end.

On-premise sales have declined, too, as restaurants have felt the recession’s sting. It has been especially interesting to watch as restaurants adjust by switching to lower cost wines from beyond the “usual suspect” regions. Reds from Spain and whites from Oregon, for example, can be sold profitably at lower price points than the better known French and Californian alternatives. Because buyers may not be as familiar with these wines they can enjoy the adventurous experience of “switching over” rather than simply “trading down.” Restaurants can maintain their margins at lower prices.

Wine Geography

Inevitable the recession has had uneven effects on different regions and countries. The news from Northern California is not good, for example, with many reports of surplus grapes, some that will not find a buyer this year. Cost is a big factor. Napa and Sonoma are high cost growing regions. The rule of thumb is that $2000/ton grapes produce $20/bottle wine — that’s how it pencils out when all the costs and mark-ups are accounted for. It is difficult to know who will buy wine made with $3000/ton grapes in the present market if, as we are told, the $25+ segment is a “dead zone.”

There is better news here in Washington state, on the other hand. Sales of Washington wine are rising at a 9% rate according to recent data. This makes sense because so much of Washington’s wine is positioned in the $15 and under category. About three quarters of all Washington wine is produced by Ste Michelle Wine Estates’s brands such as Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest that provide good quality and good value.

Argentina is another winner. Much like Washington State, Argentina produces good value wines at every price point and has increased sales across the board, although I suspect that Malbec at $10-$12 leads the way. While the overall US wine market has grown by 4.8% over the last year according to the most recent Nielsen Scantrack numbers, sales of Argentinian wines have risen by 46.8% — a tremendous if unsustainable rate of growth. By comparison Chilean wines sales have risen by 12.7%.

New Zealand’s wine industry is heading toward a crisis, as I have written before, but this seems less about the recession than a simply matter of demand and supply. You cannot double and redouble vineyard acreage forever and expect the export market to absorb every drop.

Australia is suffering, too, but like New Zealand I think the recession is a secondary “tipping point” factor. Wine imports from Australia are down 2.5 % for the last 52 weeks and Syrah/Shiraz sales are off 5.2% for the same period. Australia is facing all sorts of problems — drought, fire, recession and so forth — but the biggest problem maybe that “brand Australia” has gone out of sytle, taking the whole Syrah/Shiraz category with it. Even unfashionable Merlot has done better, with 0.8% growth.

The French Connection

I think France is the big loser from the recession, especially the segments that previously earned a “prestige premium,” particularly Bordeaux and Champagne. There is enough Champagne squirreled away in producer cellars to supply the market for several years. I think the big houses would pass on making any new wine this year if they could.

Even the famous chateaux are cutting price in Bordeaux this year, so I can only imagine what things are like for the producers of ordinary bottlings and bulk wine. French wine is a drag on the market even in Britain, where South African wines are surging ahead. Brand France, like Brand Australia, is in steep decline, although for different reasons.

There is a lot to be learned from a close study of the wine recession. The most important, at this point, is that it is more than a decline in demand. There are hints of more profound structural changes taking place. The more things change, the French say, the more they stay the same. I wonder if that will be true this time as the recession’s grip slowly weakens?

8/31/2009 update: An article in today’s Times of London suggests how severe the crisis is in Champagne. (Click on the link to read the rest of the story.)

Hopes of a glut of cheap champagne are set to be dashed when vineyards meet next week to agree on a big cut in production to prop up prices.

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market.

Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said. “The only disagreement is on the scale of the cut.”

The backdrop to the debate is a slump in sales for champagne makers, from 338 million bottles in 2007 to 322 million last year and a predicted 270 million this year. The fall stems in part from a slide in demand, estimated at about 10 per cent, and in part from destocking by distributors, notably in Britain and the United States.

9/3/2009 update:  A great article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the crisis in Champagne. Check it out!

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?

Wine, Recession and Argentina

The global economic crisis has been bad news for Argentina, but good news so far for Argentinian wine. Will the wine part of the story have a happy ending or, like so many Argentinian economic booms, turn eventually to bust?

Bad News and Good

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that Argentina’s economy has been hard hit by the economic crisis. The economic forecast is gloomy (see below) with the only good news being that inflation, while still high, is falling.

Given rapidly declining business and consumer confidence, the government’s fiscal stimulus measures will have a limited effect, and we expect the economy to contract by 3% in 2009, before only a mild recovery in 2010.

Unofficially measured inflation will ease to 10-15% in 2009, as private demand falls. The official rate will end 2009 at 6.8%, with a similar rate in 2010.

The peso will continue to depreciate in 2009 owing to weaker foreign-exchange inflows, before the pace of depreciation slows in 2010. The current-account position will weaken in 2009-10.

The Argentinian wine economy situation is sunnier.  The May 2009 issue of Wine Business Monthly includes two reports that paint a bright picture of Argentinian wine trends.

The first story is a competitive analysis of Argentina wine in the United States market.  It reports that U.S. imports of Argentinian wine have risen dramatically in recent years, from 2.6 million cases in 2006 to 4.3 million in 2008.  The total value of Argentinian wine in the U.S. rose from $75 million to $146 million in this period.

It is important to put this increase in perspective, however. Total Argentinian imports are roughly equal to the annual output of a single US winemaker, Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. So the Argentinian presence is rising, but from a modest base.

Molto Malbec

Unsurprisingly, Malbec is Argentina’s calling card in the U.S. market. Malbec’s share of Argentinian wine imports increased from 35% to 48% over 2006-2008 measured by volume and from 44% to 55% measured by dollar value. I was interested to learn that Argentina wine sales are rising at all price points, not just in the value brand segment as you might imagine.  But value is still important.  Argentinian wine prices are rising, but still relatively low.  The article reports that the average FOB price has increased from $29 to $33 per standard 9-liter case.

In the same issue the results of the Nielsen company wine market survey for the period ending 2/7/2009 are reported.  Argentinian table wine imports were up 40% by dollar value for most recent year.  This compares to a 10 percent increase for Chile, one percent for Italy and a one percent decline for Australia.  Overall growth in imported wines was 2.4 percent by dollar value for the most recent year.

The 40 % annual rise is spectacular, but  Argentinian wines account for just 1.4 percent of U.S. domestic wine volume compared with two percent for Chile, nine percent for Australia, almost 10 percent for Italy. This shows that Argentina either has a lot of room to grow in the U.S. market, as optimists will perceive, or a lot of work to do to escape niche player status.

American Exceptionalism

I think the Argentina producers were wise to focus on the U.S. wine market for their export surge.  Although the European Union is more important to Argentina in other major export sectors, the U.S. is the target wine market, and that’s a good thing in this economic environment.  EU wine consumption has long been in decline because of demographic and market shifts, for example, while wine sales have been rising in the U.S.

The recession is likely to depress wine sales growth in both the U.S. and the EU, but the impact will be less in the U.S., I believe, if only because I think the recession will be shorter here. My current thinking is that the U.S. economy will benefit from greater short term fiscal and monetary stimulus, compared with the EU, and more effective medium term structural adjustment.  That said, the recession is and will be very severe.

Early U.S. evidence suggests that wine sales have actually continued to rise during in the first year of the recession, when measured by case volume, although the dollar value of those sales has declined as consumers trade down.

Opportunities and Threats

Reading the latest articles on WineSur, a noteworthy Argentinian industry website,  it pretty clear that Argentina producers appreciate both the opportunities and threats inherent in the current situation.  The opportunities — to establish a market presence built around good value and the rising popularity of Malbec — are significant. But I think it must be hard for Argentinians to see silver linings without looking around for associated dark clouds — their country has suffered repeatedly from the global market booms and busts.

Some of the threats are strictly economic. Argentinian producers are currently benefiting from a falling peso value relative to the US dollar, for example, which helps their wine hit market-friendly price points in the US.  But the falling currency is in part a reflection of high domestic inflation rates, which ultimately lead to higher production costs. A lot will depend upon how the inflation (cost) and exchange rate (export price) factors balance out in the future.

Some of the threats relate more to the fickle nature of the wine market itself.  Malbec and Argentina are nearly synonymous today, but this could change as other wine regions adopt their signature varietal. A recent visit to the Walla Walla AVA, for example, found many producers experimenting (successfully, I think) with Malbec.  Argentina has the first mover advantage in Malbec and must capitalize on this because it will face more competition in the future.  This happened to New Zealand (Sauvignon Blanc) and Australia (Shiraz) and I do not think Argentina will be different.

In exploiting its Malbec lead Argentina will need to strike another difficult balance, between establishing a useful “house style” that will build market identity and letting this deteriorate into a stylistic “monoculture” that soon bores consumers.  It seems to me that Australian Shiraz is currently suffering from the “monoculture” curse, perhaps unfairly, while New Zealand still benefits from a popular “house style,” although I’m not sure how much longer it can ride the gooseberry wave, especially given the vast quantities of Sauvignon Blanc that need to be sold.

Argentina is at a crossroads at a critical moment and moving in the right direction.  Count me cautiously optimistic regarding the future of Argentinian wine.

Update: Just hours after I posted this piece about Argentina the following item appeared on the Decanter.com website.

Argentine wine harvest down 25%

May 1, 2009  / Jimmy Langman

Due to climatic conditions, this year’s wine harvest in Argentina will be down 25% as compared to last year.

According to Argentina’s National Wine Institute, hail in some provinces, and overall higher temperatures in February and March, are factors in the lower production output this year.

The lower production this year has occurred despite Argentina having a 12% increase in land under cultivation for wine grapes.

Guillermo Garcia, president of the National Wine Institute, said: ‘If there had not been an international crisis, we would not have been able to provide wine to countries with developed markets.’

Garcia added that Argentine wine companies need to begin keeping more than three months of stock on hand to make up for such production shortfalls.

Exequiel Barros of the Mendoza-based Caucasia Wine Thinking consultancy told decanter.com that many Argentine wineries are worried about their ability to supply medium-priced wines but added: ‘We need to see how the international outlook develops this year before we can dare to make any projections.’

In Chile, wine growing areas that are not irrigated, such as Cauquenes in the Maule Valley, are predicting a similarly low harvest, with an estimated drop in production from 30 to 40% because of higher temperatures and low rainfall.

Most wineries in Chile, however, are reporting a good harvest. ‘The lack of rain has been good for this year’s harvest. But wineries in the far south, such as in the Bio Bio, may experience changes to quality because of the higher temperatures,’ said Edmundo Bordeu, professor of oenology at Chile’s Catholic University.

Wine, Recession and the Aldi Effect

Aldi stores are about to expand in the United States, drawn here by the recession according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal ( “Aldi Looks to US for Growth” ).  I wonder how this will affect the wine market?

A Tough Nut to Crack

Aldi is a German “hard discount” store chain.  A “hard discounter” sells a limited selection of house-brand goods at very low prices in small, bare-bones outlets.

Hard discounters are a niche, albeit a growing one, in the U.S.  Wal-Mart is a successful discounter, of course, but not a hard discounter because it still features many mainstream branded products, its prices are higher and its stores a bit more plush.  Aldi and other hard discount stores drove Wal-Mart out of Germany, according to the WSJ article, but the U.S. market has been a tough nut for the hard discounters to crack. American consumers are primed to buy brand-named products and they like lots of choice, marketing experts say, and so tend to resist the house brands that hard discounters feature, which has limited their penetration here.

Germans are more willing to sacrifice brand names for low prices, apparently.  Aldi and other hard discounters are dominant powers in German retailing. The WSJ reports that 90% of German households shop at Aldi stores and 40% of all grocery purchases are made in hard discount outlets.

Divide and Conquer

Interestingly, there are actually two Aldi store chains in Germany (with similar but different logos — see illustration above).  Aldi is short for ALbrecht DIscount. The Albrecht brothers  who founded the company after World War II fell out over the issue of tobacco sales in their stores.  They divided the German market between them (Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd) and then, eventually, split up the world market too.  Here are links to Aldi USA and Aldi International websites if you want to learn more about this retailer’s local presence and international reach.

Aldi Süd has been in the United States since the 1970s.  The corporate website tells the story this way.

The ALDI way of shopping has been continuously honed and refined since our first store opened in Southeastern Iowa in 1976. Committed to bringing food to customers at the lowest prices possible, our early stores set up shop in small spaces and introduced shoppers to the limited-assortment concept, carrying only 500 private-label items. Compared with other supermarkets, our stores seemed tiny. But ALDI found a niche with Americans hungry for real value, and the chain grew rapidly.

Over time, more products were added, including more refrigerated and frozen foods. ALDI also began experimenting with Special Purchase items, to great success. More recently, Sunday hours were instituted, and ALDI began accepting debit cards.

Today, there are nearly 1,000 ALDIstores in 29 states, from Kansas to the East Coast. And today’s ALDI store carries about 1,400 regularly-stocked items, including fresh meat, and, in certain locations, beer and wine. Though the original ALDI concept has been modified somewhat to accommodate our ever-changing tastes and preferences, the core concept remains: “Incredible Value Every Day.”

The German origins of the store are apparent in this description, from the traditional Sunday closing to the very limited selection.  Your local upscale supermarket carries at least 10 times as many products as a typical Aldi.

Wine is an important product in Aldi’s German stores, as you can see from the wine selections featured on their website.  I believe that Aldi is the largest single retailer of wine in Germany.

Since Germans are rich and Germany makes great wines, you would think that Aldi must sell mainly fine wines, but you would be wrong.  Aldi’s median  German wine sale is red not white, imported from a low cost producer, sold  under a house-brand name, packaged in a box or TetraPak and priced at around one euro per liter.

You could say that it is Two Buck Chuck (TBC) wine, but in fact TBC is more expensive.  TBC is to Aldi wine as Wal-mart is to Aldi itself. (Note: Wal-Mart now has its own brand of two dollar wine, which makes this comparison even more appropriate. It is called Oak Leaf Vineyards and is made for Wal-Mart by The Wine Group.)

The Aldi Effect

Aldi figures that the recession is its moment to press more vigorously for U.S. market share.  Data indicate that consumers are much more cautious now, so perhaps they won’t be so picky about brand names and will, like their German cousins, be willing to trade down for a lower price. The Financial Times reports that Aldi sales in Great Britain are up 25 percent! Aldi plans to speed up store openings in the U.S. and to expand into New York City. New York!  If you can make it there … well, you know.

This may be Aldi’s opportunity in wine, too. Most but not all Aldi stores in the U.S. (damn U.S. liquor laws!)  sell beer and wine. Aldi’s U.S. website boasts that

ALDI believes that life’s little pleasures should be affordable for everyone. In many of the countries where ALDI calls “home,” we’re known for exceptional values in wine and beer. And now, we’re bringing that tradition to the United States.

Thanks to our global reach, we’re able to partner with winemakers and brewers around the world, to bring you exceptional beers and wines at remarkably modest prices.

Our wines come from all of the world’s best wine producing regions: Germany, France, Spain, California, Argentina, and Australia. Our beers are sourced from Holland, Germany, and Latin America. Some carry our private labels, others carry the labels they wear in their native lands—but all are exclusively ours in the U.S. So now you can raise a glass to “Incredible Value Every Day.”

The good news here is that Aldi’s U.S. push may also help drive wine deeper into the U.S. consumer mainstream.  You can say all you like about the quality of Two Buck Chuck but it sure did help expand the wine culture in the U.S. and some (but not all) my TBC-drinking friends have moved upmarket for at least some of their purchases. The wine may not be very good (a matter of taste), but its market impact has not been all bad.

Will Aldi Succeed?

Will Aldi’s drive be successful?  There is reason to think it will be. They seem committed to tailoring their hard discount operations to local market conditions, which is important because markets have terroir as much as wine.

But there is a more important reason.  Both German Aldi chains are present in the U.S. now, although you are probably not aware of them.  Aldi Süd operates on under the Aldi name, of course, with the same logo as in Germany.  The owners of Aldi Nord invested years ago in a different chain, based in California and intentionally tailored for thrifty but upwardly mobile U.S. consumers. It’s an upscale Aldi Nord and it has been very successful here.

Perhaps you’ve heard of them.  They have limited selection, smaller stores, lots of house brands, and low prices.  They even sell a lot of wine.  The name?

Oh, yes.  Trader Joe’s!

Trading Down: Wine and Recession

The second in a series of reports on how the economic crisis is affected the wine market. (Click here to read the first post.)

A Wine Recession?

Evidence continues to pour in that the economic crisis is having a significant impact on the world of wine, but some industry people seem to be in denial.  They tend to fall into three groups.  The first say that yes, customers might trade down and away from your part of the wine market, but my wine is still selling fine, thank you! The second group believes that people drink more, not less, in bad times, so the overall wine market is recession proof.  The third likes to think of wine as an investment and argues that with traditional financial investments doing so poorly affluent people will switch over to fine wine and power a continuing boom in these “liquid assets.”

There is of course some truth in each of these views. Cult wines like Screaming Eagle will still sell out no matter what happens on Wall Street — no one wants to be dropped from the distribution list in bad times because it’ll be impossible to get back on when the economy picks up. And there are wines that are positioned to benefit from a down market (see below) while others suffer.  But this only tells us what we already knew, which is that wine isn’t one big market, it is a lot of big, small and medium sized market segments and it is no surprise that they all aren’t affected equally by any trend.

People may in fact drink more alcohol in a a down economy — call it wine relief or corkscrew therapy. But even if they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll drink more wine, does it?  Wine isn’t always the cheapest way to drown your sorrows. And it sure doesn’t mean that they’ll pay more for wine, even if they do drink more of it, because they are likely to trade down to cheaper products. Econ 101 teaches us that total expenditure falls with price when demand is inelastic, as it may be in some wine market segments.

And the evidence shows that some but obviously not all wines are good financial investments, but it is important not to over-generalize this effect.  When the influential Canadian wine writer Beppi Crosariol recently quoted the importer of wines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti on the benefits of wine investment in his column in the Global and Mail he was flooded with comments ridiculing the idea of wine as a general investment strategy.

The Permanent Lifestyle Hypothesis

There is lots of evidence that the economic crisis is affected the demand for wine.  Restaurant sales have been especially hard hit and grocery store customers are trading down in the quest for good value.  But is trading down really the right term to describe this phenomenon?  We know from Constellation Brand’s market surveys that some wine buyers are influenced mainly by price, so that trading down to a cheaper product comes naturally to them.

But other market segments (the ones responsible for much of the growth in wine sales in recently years) are what I think of as lifestyle wine consumers.  They watch the Food Network, buy lifestyle magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appétit that are heavy with wine advertising and think of themselves as people with sophisticated lifestyles that include wine, fine dining and probably even wine-related travel. (Note: even Cooking Light magazine has a wine column now — I was quoted on page 184 of the October 2008 issue.)

Lifestyle wine consumers are unlikely to give up wine during a recession because it would mean more than changing consumption patterns, it would mean sacrificing an important element of their carefully constructed identity.  But I don’t think they will necessarily simply trade down to lower priced wine — Carlo Rossi or Two Buck Chuck — either, because that would also undermine self image (to the extent that this is based upon consumption patterns).  I believe that people will try to maintain their lifestyle identity through the economic cycle to the extent they can.  This is a lifestyle variation on Milton Friedman’s economic theory of the permanent income hypothesis.

So while some people will trade down to lower price, others will trade over — to a different idea of wine that allows them to spend less without feeling like they are giving up their lifestyle.  I’m still serious about wine, their choices say, but I don’t take my self so seriously all the time.  I like to have fun with wine and so I’m buying wine that reflects this fact now.

Barefoot Cellars: Trading Down or Trading Over?

This, I argue, is what’s behind the recent success of Barefoot Cellars wine, which has experienced rising sales in the decling market.  It is pretty clear that consumers are trading down or trading over to Barefoot.  Why?

Barefoot Cellars is a wine with a casual image — kick off your shoes and relax! — but the wines have a serious side, too.  Barefoot wines are entered in various wine competitions and the labels proudly display the gold medals they’ve earned, something that gives these products credibility on the Wine Wall despite their competitive price point.  (Barefoot California Zinfandel retails for $6.99 or less in most markets.) Wine critics have given some of the wines favorable ratings and they often appear on published “Best Buy” lists.

The Barefoot brand was founded in 1965 by Davis Bynum and passed through various hands before being purchased by Gallo in 2005. (Here is a history of the brand.) Jeremy Soine, a former student of mine at the University of Puget Sound, is the brand’s manager; I asked him why it has been so successful.  Here is our Q&A.

Who is buying Barefoot and why?

Barefoot Wine is marketed to the “young at heart.”  The idea of “getting barefoot” is universally appealing, whether you are 25 years old or 75 years old.  At the end of the day, most of us look forward to that moment where we can “kick our shoes off” and disconnect for a few minutes from our hectic lives.

What can you tell me in terms of sales trends? 

Barefoot Wine is one of the top selling wines in the United States, and sales growth continues to significantly outpace the wine category. The sales growth of Barefoot has actually increased during the past six months, and I believe this is because people are seeking out better values as they have fewer extra dollars to spend. Much of Barefoot’s popularity has occurred during the past few years, but many people don’t realize that Barefoot Wine was actually started in 1965 by Davis Bynum, who is not now famous for his Pinot Noirs.

Have you changed your marketing strategies in any way to compensate or take advantage of the changing market conditions?

Barefoot is the most awarded Winery in U.S. wine competitions for under $15 per bottle, and we actively communicate these awards to people by placing medallion stickers right on the bottle.  We believe that the medallions give people the confidence that they are buying a wine that has been recognized by wine critics.

Do you think that Barefoot’s succcess is due mainly to the trade-down effect — that is, is it driven by the poor economic times, with consumers trading down to cheaper products?  Or is there more to it than that?

Barefoot does not spend money on traditional advertising like other large wine brands.  Rather, we donate wine to local non-profit organizations.  This allows people to try Barefoot wines, and also frees up funds for non-profit organizations.  In 2008 Barefoot Wine will be poured at more than 3000 non-profit events in most communities in the United States.  We believe that this grass roots approach will win in the end because people appreciate these donations, will love the wine and will recommend the wine to their friends.  Fewer than half of all wine drinkers have even heard of Barefoot Wine, and we are fine with that because people want to “discover” wine, not be mass-marketed to through television ads or billboards.

So Barefoot seems to have benefited from the trading down effect, but I think you can also see a trading over effect.  Paying less?  Yes.  But buying a different idea of wine: relaxed but not unsophisticated and with a social agenda that fits the times. I don’t want to push the Barefoot case study too far — to over-generalize it — but I think there’s something to be learned from this brand’s success.

The Black Prince and the Fifth Element: Walla Walla Wine Renaissance

This is the last in a series of columns about Walla Walla’s wine industry. I previously proposed that Walla Walla has “come of age” as a leading wine region. How did it happen? No single factor can explain it all. Previous columns have examined two of the five “pillars” of the region’s success, the Land and the People. In this final column I’ll quickly discuss history, culture and what I call “the spark.” 

The Fifth Element

“You Florentines are the fifth element,” Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed in 1300, reflecting a popular view of the unique contributions of Florentine citizens. Earth, air, water, and fire could be combined by all men to produce the simple goods of everyday life. But when the Florentine “fifth element” was added, a new and more creative alchemy was possible.

These lines back appeared in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt, which told the story of financial crisis in Renaissance Florence, Victorian Britain and Postwar America. I repeat them here because it seems to me that a modern day papal visit to Walla Walla might produce a similar sort of comment (although the current pope might include a reference to Malbec since he’s originally from Argentina).

I don’t mean to flippantly compare today’s Walla Wallans to the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, but it is true that Walla Walla wine is having something of its own renaissance and the Fifth Element, which I earlier called “the spark,” is certainly part of the story.

It is a property of the fifth element, if we take Florence as a model, that if it exists it is not in one person but everywhere within the culture that supports it and you can see that in Walla Walla today, which is bustling and growing in terms of its wine industry after a few hard Great Recession years.

The group that I call The Pioneers clearly had that fifth element spark — creative, entrepreneurial, determined. They started wineries but they also helped build the industry in many other ways — I think of Myles Anderson’s efforts to breathe life into the Walla Walla Community College Viticulture and Enology program must be recognized, for example. That program provides an affordable way for a surprisingly diverse group of students to prepare for immediate employment in the wine sector. It has helped power the growth of the industry here and throughout the region.

Christophe Baron’s “discovery” of the rocky vineyard sites in Milton-Freewater get a lots of attention — perhaps only a crazy Frenchman (a “bionic frog” according to one of his wine labels) could have built Cayuse into the cult wine that it is. Now that I have walked the vineyards and tasted the wines, I have to admit that the fuss is justified. Christophe must have a bit of the Florentine in him.

All important wine-growing regions must at some point go through a time when many creative people combine to create a new reality and identity and it is easy to see the renaissance in Walla Walla today.

The Black Prince

Walla Walla’s current blossoming has deep roots — deeper than most probably suspect. The first vines were probably planted (and wines made) about 200 years ago by French Canadians who settled in these parts between 1812 and 1821. Walla Walla was an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company empire in those days and, although there is no proof of vines and wines, everything we know about how the French Canadians behaved elsewhere suggests that a permanent settlement would not be wine-free.

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Wild Black Prince vines.

We know for sure that there were wines and vines about 150 years ago because there is evidence that the early settlers in the valley planted vines and even organized grape nurseries using plants imported from Oregon.  Frank Orselli, a native of Luca, Italy, came to Walla Walla in 1859, according to Ronald Irvine’s history of Washington wine, The Wine Project, part of an important Italian influence that can still be seen today. The wine industry thrived along with Walla Walla until the Northern Pacific Railroad construction by-passed the town in 1883, diverting growth elsewhere.

The wine didn’t go away, of course, and we were fortunate to see evidence of those Italian winegrowers when Kevin Pogue took us on a visit to the Rocks vineyard area. There, growing wild on the side of the road, where Cinsault grapes that someone still took the time to tend and harvest. Cinsault — Black Prince grapes they were called. Gary Figgins, whose winery is named Leonetti for the Italian side of his family who farmed and made wine here, is credited with tracking down the Black Prince’s true title. Cinsault is still grown in Walla Walla and wine is made. You will get a big smile from the locals if you ask for it!

A Creative Culture

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Distinctive local culture

Culture is the last of the five “pillars” of Walla Walla’s renaissance and you can see it all around you when you visit, especially downtown where a cluster of tasting rooms have erupted with cafes, restaurants and shops to support them.

We met two people who seem to represent the cultural renaissance in this area. Dan Thiesen is executive director of the culinary arts program at the Wine County Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College. Under Dan’s leadership this program has blossomed, creating affordable opportunities for those seeking culinary training and providing skilled professionals for the region’s expanding food scene.

We had two meals prepared by Dan’s talented students and had the opportunity to hear him speak about the world class program that he is building. The sky’s the limit for this program and the food-wine pairings it supports.

We also met with Joan Monteillet of Monteillet Fromagerie  just outside of nearby Dayton, Washington.  Joan and her French husband Pierre-Louis raise sheep and goats to supply their small artisan cheese business.  A visit to the fromagerie is an opportunity to connect with the food’s roots and to sample the cheeses with wines specially created for the purpose by a local producer. It is a very personal experience of the sort that wine people seek out. A perfect part of the cultural renaissance.

The Monteillet Fromagerie has become an unintended test for the local community — does it really want to embrace the renaissance opportunity? Apparently a special use permit is required for the farm’s cheese and wine sales and agri-tourist operations, which exist within a designated farming zone, and there is organized opposition to the Monteillet’s continuing operations. Hopefully community leaders will embrace the logic that has helped the wine industry to advance elsewhere in the valley and keep this part of the local culture alive and allow it to thrive.

What’s Ahead for Idaho Wine?


Everyone we met in Idaho was keen on the potential of this sometimes overlooked wine region but at the same time aware that greater success — in terms of sales, recognition, and premium prices — is far from guaranteed.

Idaho, as I discussed in last week’s column, is unique in many respects, but it is typical of emerging American wine regions in that it is searching for the key that will unlock the latent potential of the people and the land.

Idaho Wine Surprises

One thing that surprised me was the vitality of the local wine market. Although Idaho has wine roots going back to the 1860s, the industry and the local wine culture was destroyed by Prohibition and was slow to recover afterward even by American standards.

Boise — the state capital and largest city — has changed enormously since I first visited over 30 years ago. The downtown now boasts both a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s — a sure sign that there is a critical mass of resident upscale consumers — and the wine department of the Boise Co-op supermarket grew so large that it took over a nearby building (it was crowded with interesting wines from Idaho and the world and buzzing with activity when we visited).

Pluses and Minuses

Boise impressed me as quite cosmopolitan. We had lunch on the Basque Block, for example, a cluster of Basque restaurants, social clubs and community center. Boise celebrates the cultural diversity that its Basque community brings and is working to strengthen ties (including wine connections) with the Old World. A group of local winemakers recently traveled to Spain to exchange ideas with wine people there, which seems like a great idea given the success some wineries are having with Tempranillo. A lot of pluses here.

And some minuses, too. Idaho wine is not well known outside the region and this is a disadvantage for those with national ambitions for their wines although obviously less of a factor if you define your market territory carefully to include the mountain states and parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Focused effort seems to be what is needed. Greg Koenig looks to be on the verge of success in China, for example, where buyers may not know where Idaho is but they understand what he has to offer — delicious Snake River Valley Riesling Ice Wine!

Building Brand Idaho

The economic structure of the Idaho industry is not ideal with big dog Ste Chapelle dwarfing the rest of the industry. It would be great if Ste Chapelle were to play a hegemonic role, working to grow markets and develop the supply chain for all of Idaho wine the way that Chateau Ste Michelle did for Washington wine in that industry’s early days. Or at least that’s what I was thinking  before my visit.

But these are different times and Idaho is a different place. Ste Chapelle is part of the dynamic Precept Wine group which has important wine assets in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and competes in a market environment where important new players (Gallo in Washington and Kendall Jackson in Oregon) have recently entered. Ste Chapelle must necessarily act as part of an ensemble, not as a solo performer, and while I think that great success is possible for the winery itself, it might not necessarily be able to pull the rest of Idaho wine along with it. The smaller wineries need to make their own paths and they seem to realize this fact.

I noticed that some of the new Ste Chapelle “soft” releases were designated “American Wine” even though they are for now at least made using only Idaho grapes. This will help the Ste Chapelle brand if and when they scale up production using fruit from other areas, but it doesn’t promote Brand Idaho. Not a criticism,  because I understand the business logic, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, however, it must be said that the Idaho wine industry would be much less vital without Precept’s key vineyard investments, which provide grapes for many smaller producers.

Opportunities

What will it take to bring Idaho wine to the next level? Well, I’m tempted to say that a big critical success would do it and high scores certainly help. The quality of the best wines makes strong ratings more than a dream (and in the case of a few wines, already a reality). But the market is very crowded right now and my winemaker friends tell me that even 90+ scores don’t always have the impact on prices and sales that they would like.

Wine tourism is another strategy that holds promise. The Sunnyslope area is a short drive from Boise and a wine trail is in place although it is hampered a bit by state restrictions on signage that limit the ability of individual wineries to direct buyers to their tasting rooms. Visitors from adjacent states represent an obvious marketing opportunity that effective wine tourism promotion could enhance.

New investment in vineyard assets would be welcomed hereabouts, as I wrote last week. But what will it take to get major vineyard investments that would fill the barrels and bottles that Idaho winemakers long to produce? Well, it’s complicated of course. From a strictly economic point of view the situation is that land must be worth more as a vineyard than at its next best alternative use — orchard, pasture or residential development — and this isn’t always the case.

Economic Impact

Idaho wines are often a bargain given their quality and tend to sell for much less than the Walla Walla wines that some makers compare them to. This helps sell the wines, but it also limits vineyard growth. Low wine prices dictate low grape prices, which means low vineyard land valuation.

 An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 projected that the number of Idaho wineries would continue to grow from 11 in 2002 to 38 in 2008 to 78 in 2015. The current number is around 50, much less than that estimate, and the number of vineyard acres has probably declined a bit from the 2008 level.  Is this just an understandable (given the Great Recession) pause in the upward trend or has the industry plateaued?

Too soon to tell, really, but I am cautiously optimistic. The land is there and the people, too, both thoughtful consumers and smart, hand-working producers.  I sense a new energy in America’s regional wine industries (this energy was captured in the book American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy). Idaho’s time will come.

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Here’s a list of some wineries from our visit. Sorry that we didn’t have time to visit others!

Bitner Vineyards

Huston Vineyards

Koenig Vineyards

Fujishin Family Wine Cellars

Hat Ranch Winery

Ste Chapelle Winery

Cinder Winery

Coiled Wines

Mouvance Winery

Telaya Wine Co.

Tight, Fat, and Uncorked: Three Wine Scenarios

This is the final post in my series on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry. This week I want to think about how the future of wine might unfold depending upon which of these three forces is most powerful.

Wine markets are getting “tight” as demand for many grape and wine types outstrips supply, “fat” because of the growing demand for middle class, middle market, middlebrow wines and “uncorked” as more and more international wine trade shifts from bottle to bulk. Each of these forces is important, but it will untimately be the ways they interact that will determine the path of wine’s future development.

For your consideration, here are three possible histories of the future of wine. As always, I invite readers to share their own scenarios in the Comments section below.

Scenario 1: Wine as a Global Commodity

The first scenario sees the three forces fitting together neatly in a way that leads to the increasing commodification of wine.  Tight markets force wine producers to scour the world for juice to maintain their “fat” market wine brands. Bulk wine shipments help solve this problem in a cost-effective way but sacrifice regional identity and local “terroir” to a certain degree.

This scenario is so neat and clean that it is tempting to stop right here. But that’s a mistake because this “future” is really more about the present  and or recent past misses some of the more interesting dynamic elements. Things change when we tweak this scenario a little.
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Scenario 2: The Center Does Not Hold

The second scenario looks more closely at the implications of tight markets. Grape and bulk wine prices are already rising (alarmingly so, in a few specific cases) and this trend is likely to persist for several years.

Many have observed that the demand for wine has become more “elastic” or price sensitive. The recession is one cause: consumers have learned to trade down. Many new “fat” wine buyers think of wine as just one of many possible beverage choices and are more willing to substitute beer, spirits, juice, soda,  and even water as relative prices change. Not all wine drinkers are equally sensitive to price, of course.

So what will happen as wine drinkers are faced with higher prices? One possibility is that the “fat” wine segment will be particularly affected as competition focuses on this price-sensitive market. It isn’t hard to imagine that margins could shrink or disappear as price-sensitive demand meets rising costs. Maybe today’s “fat” market will go on a diet, as grapes and wine are pushed upmarket in search of higher margins and consumers go down market in search of cheaper (or different) ways to fill their glass.

Scenario 3: The Center Shifts [on the margin]

The final scenario focuses on income and demand. The middle class, middle market, middle-brow “fat” wine demand is thought to have a high income elasticity — it is relatively sensitive to changing income. A 10% increase/decrease in income produces more than a 10% rise/fall in wine demand. This property is important as the wine market demand expands (the rising global middle class) in a multi-speed world.

If Europe’s recession continues and even deepens (as seems likely) and the U.S. recover slows or even stalls (as seems possible), then the center of gravity in the wine world will necessarily a bit shift towards those areas where middle class incomes are growing, including parts of Asia, South America and even Africa.

Is this a serious concern? Well, don’t forget that the United States is now the world’s largest wine market and this didn’t happen over night but it did occur because of just the sort of persistent marginal movements I’m talking about here. Certainly all eyes are on Brazil right now because it seems like a country where a substantial “fat” wine market might develop if solid economic growth can be sustained.

Not Nairobi [yet]

I’m not saying that suddenly Nairobi (or Säo Paulo or Shanghai) is going to be the center of the wine world, but supply tends to follow demand and, with markets tight and bulk wine shipments increasingly efficient, new directions are very possible, particularly if margins in these new middle markets are attractive.

Some of these scenarios are more likely than others, but all three embody valid points. So the future of wine (as shaped by these trends) is likely to encompass all three factors plus some unexpected “wild cards.” It is going to be interesting to see how this complex interaction plays out.

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Wine’s Future: Tighten Up

“Tighten Up” was a big hit for a Archie Bell and the Drells back in 1968. If you aren’t familiar with this R&B tune and its trademark dance you might want to take a moment to learn it because Tighten Up is where the U.S. wine market is headed.

[This is the second in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry in the near future.]

Up and Down Economics

There is nothing new about tight wine markets (where shortages pull prices higher) or slack markets either. Wine is an agricultural product subject to the sort of persistent cycles that economists have long studied. Today’s high price encourages farmers to plant more even as it discourages growth in demand. Result: future surplus and falling price when the new crops hit the market. Low prices discourage production but encourage consumption growth, resulting in shortages and future price hikes.

Up and down — that’s happens in wine markets. The Turrentine Brokerage’s “Wine Business Wheel of Fortune” illustrates the U.S. wine cycle — click here to view a detailed pdf version that will be helpful in understanding what follows.

This Time Really Is Different

If tight and slack wine markets are not uncommon, what’s the big deal? The answer is that we are coming off an unusually long period of low prices and most likely headed into a long period of tight supply. It is the length of the cycle, not the fact of it, that is striking and important.

The current Turrentine Wine Wheel shows the most recent cycles. The figure shows that prices started falling in 1982, for example, hitting bottom in 1986. By 1989 prices were at their peak again, setting up the next cycle, which ran from 1990 until 1999.  It took seven years for the first cycle to work itself out and nine years for the second cycle.

Now let’s look at the current wine cycle, which Turrentine says began in 2000 and that they project will last an incredible 18 years!  The slack side of the cycle was exceptionally long — 2000 to 2011 — because it combined several factors. First was the typical domestic surplus that results as vineyards planted at the previous cycle’s peak begin to bear fruit. The second factor was increased global wine production, which served to keep prices low even as some domestic producers cut back. This extended the period of falling price.

The Great Recession is the final factor, depressing prices and further extending the slack side of the cycle past 2010. As you can see from the figure, Turrentine originally expected the down side to last only through 2006, but a “perfect storm” kept prices low through 2010 as demand and supply slowly moved into balance.

Ebb Tide

Now we have finally entered the tight market phase where demand exceeds available supply at the current price  and this part of the cycle is likely to be extended as well.  Vineyard capacity did not expand sufficiently during the long down cycle and in fact it contracted dramatically in particular places. The EU wine market reforms removed some capacity in Europe and the collapse of part of the Australian industry has done the same there. In the U.S. some Central Valley producers, tired of low or negative margins, switched from wine grapes to more consistently profitable crops like tree nuts.

In theory it should take only a few years to rebuild vineyard capacity but in practice it will take longer for several reasons. First, the length and severity of the slack part of the cycle will naturally make some who have left the market in the U.S. and elsewhere hesitate to reenter it. The supply response in the U.S. will be delayed for this reason and also because of what I am told is a shortage of nursery stock needed to establish new vineyards and renew old ones.  It will take a few years to rebuild stocks needed to rebuild vineyard capacity.

Prices for grape contracts and bulk wine have already risen (dramatically in some specific cases) as they must do to eventually bring the market back into balance, but this will be a slow adjustment process. Domestic wines must compete with imports, which act to limit price increases in some segments of the market. And of course consumers have become accustomed to lower prices and are not generally expected to “trade up” (except in response to bargain pricing) as much as they may have previously traded down.

Hysteresis: Winding and Unwinding

Rising grape costs are good news for growers, who have borne the brunt of adjustment costs during the long slack cycle. Now the big squeeze will move up the supply chain in the form of tighter margins and the effects are expected to be substantial precisely because the length of the tight market cycle will be so long.

What will the wine industry look like when we get back to the top of the cycle? One thing we can be sure about is that it won’t look the same as it did back in 2000. Economic adjustments are not necessarily symmetrical — they don’t wind up the way they unwound. (Economists have a name for this property: hysteresis.) The history that unfolds in the intervening years matters a lot and there has been a lot of time for things to change since the last market cycle began.

In particular, the long slack tide brought new products, new consumers and new consumer behavior into the market. This doesn’t change everything, but it changes a lot — as I’ll explain in next week’s post.

State of the Wine Industry: Global Perspectives

I’m back from Sacramento where I moderated two panels at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, North America’s largest wine industry gathering.  I chaired the morning “State of the Industry” session (estimated audience = 2200 according to one news report) and a smaller afternoon break-out on “Leveraging Global Supply.”

You can find a list of the session speakers at the end of this post and you can read a comprehensive  news report here. I thought I would use this space to outline what I said   in the morning session. My job was to try to provide a global frame for the speakers who followed.

Silver Linings and Dark Clouds

Global Perspective. Wine is a global business. When David Ricardo wrote his economics textbook almost 300 years ago the example he used to illustrate international trade was the wine trade between Britain and Portugal. It has always been important to have a global view of wine, but now more than ever as the wine world gets smaller and more tightly connected.

Silver Linings. This is a year with much good news for the wine industry, especially for winegrape growers as the shortage phase of the wine cycle unfolds and prices rise after years of structural surplus.

But as an economist, it is my responsibility to channel Alan Greenspan and to caution growers to avoid irrational exuberance. Silver linings don’t always come wrapped in dark clouds, but sometimes they do. There are dark clouds a plenty for the global economy and some of them will affect the wine industry.

A Dangerous Phase

A Dangerous Phase. The global economy has entered a “dangerous phase” according to the International Monetary Fund. It is a time of great uncertainty and risk because global growth is slowing, albeit unevenly, at a very inconvenient time.

The problem, of course, is the debt crisis. And while each country has built “mountains of debt” in its own way, there is only one route down from the summit: stop adding to the debt and then try to outgrow the debt burden.

Europe, the U.S. and Japan are all struggling to contain growing debt. Stopping the bleeding is the first priority, of course, but no one seriously expects the debt to be paid off. The only solution is for debtor countries to grow faster than their  compound interest bills and to slowly make the debt and its burden a smaller and smaller proportion of GDP.

Catch 22: Slowing growth (and the probability of recession in Europe) means that even more emphasis must be put on cutting budgets, which unfortunately makes it even more difficult to generate growth.

The Growth Squeeze. So everyone will be desperate for growth, but where will they find it? Consumer spending? Not likely with unemployment high and the housing crisis still unresolved. Business investment? Not with credit so tight and business confidence so low. Goverment spending? Please! The pressure is on to cut government outlays, not expand them.

This leaves only international trade and it seems likely that many countries will try to stimulate exports through currency depreciation to get the growth they so desperately need. This has worked for the U.S., which has had a secret “weak dollar” policy. Look for currency wars as many countries try to follow suit by depressing their exchange rates.

Wild Cards. There are many “wild cards” in the global economic scenario — factors that could change everything. The Euro is probably the biggest wild card, since a collapse of the single currency would be a financial earthquake with global repercussions. The U.S. economy is another wild card, especially in an election year.

A Tight Squeeze for Wine

A Tight Squeeze. The wine industry is connected to the global economy but not perfectly synchronized with it. The wine industry is in for a tight squeeze in the coming year. There will be increased competition on both ends of the market — for wine grapes (and bulk wine) and for wine drinking customers and retail accounts.

[The intensity of the squeeze, as detailed by the other speakers in this session, was probably the biggest news to come out of the State of the Industry panel. Vineyard plantings have been stagnant for several years, so there is not enough supply to meet rising demand in many market categories.]

The shortage of grapes and bulk wine will force wineries to search high and low for product to sell. The higher costs that result will put even more pressure on margins and this may be the biggest squeeze of all since buyers are now accustomed to discounts and, having reset once down to lower prices, will be not quickly reset back up again across the board.  The pressure on margins will increase because of rising competition for market share.

Currency Wars. Exchange rate shifts will make this situation more complex. The U.S. has enjoyed a weak dollar for several years — this stimulated wine exports and kept the price of import competition high. The dollar strengthened in 2011 and  is likely to continue to strengthen in 2012 and this will reverse some of those effects, making the U.S. wine market more attractive to foreign wine firms. These effects will loosen the big squeeze in some places and tighten it in others, creating both dark clouds and silver linings.

Wild Cards. There are lots of  wild cards, but the most interesting one for me is China. We expect China’s growth to slow in 2012  — perhaps to 8% or less — if Europe’s recession is more serious than projected and if U.S. growth stalls.

The “bicycle theory” of Chinese economic growth holds that China must grow by at least 8% in order to overcome structural weaknesses and social instability. If growth falls below 8%, the theory holds, a “tipping point” effect might cause rapid deceleration.

No one knows if the bicycle theory really holds for China, no one knows if 8% is the tipping point number. And no one wants to find out.

A Chinese slump would have some direct effect on wine sales there, but the biggest impact on global wine would be indirect, spread through trade flows and financial flows. The Chilean Peso, Australian dollar and South African rand would all likely fall in value dramatically altering the competitive structure of global wine trade.

All this could happen, but of course it might not. That’s the biggest squeeze this year — uncertainty.

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Thanks to the Unified Symposium’s organizers for inviting me to take part. Special thanks to my fellow panelists, who helped me so much, and to Jenny and Lisa for their guidance and support. Here are the details of the two sessions.

State of the Industry

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what is selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and will offer incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Nat DiBuduo, Allied Grape Growers, California
Steve Fredricks, Turrentine Brokerage, California
Jon Fredrikson, Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, California

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Leveraging the Supply Side of the Global Wine Market

This session will focus on supply to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) as well as to Chile and Argentina.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Steve Dorfman, The Ciatti Company, California
Liz Thach, Sonoma State University, California

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