Economic Effects of Washington Liquor Initiatives

This is the third in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws  (click here to read the first and second segments). How would Washington Initiatives I-1100 and I-1105 affect wine makers and wine consumers? Let’s look at wine makers first.

Wine producers in Washington are not united either in support of or opposition to the initiatives. One industry group, The Washington Wine Institute, publicly opposes both initiatives, for example, while the Family Wineries of Washington State supports I-1100 but opposes I-1105.

Winners & Losers

Both initiatives would create more avenues of competition for wineries by removing state restrictions that prevented discounted prices, negotiated payment schedules and so forth. Based on my conversations it seems that some wineries would welcome the opportunity to compete  using a fuller range of business strategies. They would like to be able to go after the business they want and to reward retailers and restaurants that carry the full range of their products or who make long term commitments.

Other wine makers are concerned that they may be disadvantaged in this new environment because they lack the resources or expertise to compete effectively. Interestingly, it is not just small wineries who want to avoid competition and not just large ones who embrace it. Obviously it is a complicated matter.

One wine maker candidly told me that it is hard to know if the gains will outweigh the losses.  This person saw obvious areas for new business expansion but realized there would be negative effects on margins and the need for more capital to accommodate extended payments. I sensed a very pragmatic attitude:  wine is a business and business people have to cope with whatever is thrown at them whether it is Mother Nature (a late harvest) or a change in state liquor laws.

My conversations reminded me of Olivier Torres’ discussion of the difference between French and American business strategy in his book The Wine Wars. American entrepreneurs, Torres says, look for new opportunities, taking risks, while the French business strategy is more about fending off threats. This is an oversimplified stereotype, of course, but it does seem to capture a bit of the wine war raging today in Washington state, where those with “French” attitudes are not necessarily from France.

Will Small Wineries Get Squeezed?

Television ads like the one I have inserted above suggest that small wineries would be especially hard hit by the new laws. A local news analysis of this ad raises some doubts about this claim (see  this King5 report). Will small local wineries get crowded off the shelf? Here’s my brief analysis.

I do think that large wine companies will have an advantage if the law is changed, but they have obvious economic advantages now, so this is nothing new. I would not be surprised to see big companies (Constellation Brands, Gallo, etc) increase their relative share of retail shelf space since they have the resources to offer discounts and incentives.

It is also possible that spirits companies and distributors will bring associated wine brands with them as they rush to fill their newly opened retail market niche if the initiatives pass, adding to the “crowding out” effect.  Retailers are trying to streamline their operations and reduced the number of suppliers they deal with, giving “drinks” companies that can supply wine, beer and spirits an advantage.

This effect will differ by type of retail account, of course, and be different for fine dining versus casual dining restaurant sales. In the supermarket segment, for example, you can already see differences in the relative incidence of the big producer portfolios in Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway stores compared with regional chains like Metropolitan Market.

Although small wineries might get somewhat less shelf space, they certainly will not disappear from wine shelves and restaurant lists. Wine enthusiasts value diversity and smart sellers fill their shelves accordingly. That’s why a typical upscale supermarket offers 1500-2500 wine choices, at least ten times the number of options in any other product category. Retail wine margins are high and sellers profit by catering to their customers’ desire for a wide range of choices.

I think the competition among smaller winemakers will be more of a factor than between the big corporations and the small family wineries. There are hundreds of small wineries in Washington state all seeking a place at the retail table. Right now it is pretty difficult for the maker of a $40 Walla Walla Syrah to get shelf space (or distributor representation) and many producers are sensibly reconfiguring their business plans to focus more on direct sales. This will remain a good strategy if the initiatives pass, but makers who want to compete for shelf space will have more tools at their disposal.

And That’s A Good Thing?

Bottom line: small wineries will get squeezed by the big boys, but other small wineries are the real competition (hence the lack of a consensus among wine makers) and the initiatives will make this competition much more intense.

Is this a good thing? Well, it will probably be good for many consumers who will benefit from lower wine prices. They will likely have more (but different) wines to choose from too. Whether the new choices will be better is bound to be a matter of taste. If, as some have suggested, big box drinks retailers Bevmo and Total Wine open outlets in Washington it will change in significant ways the market terrain.

At the Ballot Box

How am I going to vote? The issue is complicated enough that I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am unlikely to vote for I-1105, however, since it seems like a stumbling half-step towards market liberalization.

I find the wine market aspects of I-1100 appealing and, as an economist, I am programmed to believe in the benefits of competition, but I am still concerned about the liquor law changes. I don’t know how making spirits cheaper and more readily  available will help solve the public health and safety problems associated with liquor consumption. Many will disagree with this view and I respect their opinions.

I guess I’m going to have to weigh the pros and cons before I cast my ballot just like everyone else.

Anatomy of the Costco Initiative

Second in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws (click here to read the first segment).

A recent article on the Wine Spectator website does an excellent job of detailing the specific elements of Initiative 1100 (which I call The Costco Initiative) and I-1105 (a.k.a. The Distributor Initiative) as they pertain to wine. It is required reading for anyone interested in this issue.

For my part, let me approach the question in a different way: how would the initiatives affect Costco (and other wine retailers), wine distributors, wine consumers and wine makers in Washington state?  This post looks at retailers and distributors. I’ll address consumers and winemakers next time.

Costco’s [Big] Dog in the Fight

Let’s start with Costco, which is appropriate since it is a major backer of I-1100.  How would I-1100 affect Costco? Well, the most important factor is that it would allow Costco and other retailers to sell hard liquor, which is currently a state monopoly in Washington.  Other changes are important, but that’s the big one in terms of economic impact in my view.

What about wine? Not surprisingly, Initiative 1100 would allow Costco to be a much more efficient wine retailer.

First, Costco would be able to purchase wine directly from producers and could take advantage of more efficient central warehousing of alcoholic beverages. Costco would be able to negotiate volume discounts from producers and could benefit from other promotions (wholesalers must maintain uniform prices under the current law and are forbidden from providing retailer incentives). Costco could also negotiate payment schedules — current law requires that retailers pay for wine and beer at the time of purchase.

These changes would make the process of selling wine pretty much the same as other products by removing current restrictions. Costco would also be permitted to sell space on its wine shelves to producers (much as supermarkets routinely sell shelf space for grocery items), although it is unlikely this would actually happen. Costco does not sell space now in states where this is legal. Rather, like Wal-Mart I think, it simply asks for a lower wholesale price.

Taken together these market reforms would lower the cost that Costco pays for wine, savings that would be passed on to consumers. Costco’s normal mark-up on wine is 15% (17% for own-brand Kirkland Signature bottlings), so Costco’s existing absolute price advantage for the wines it carries would likely grow.

Don’t expect Costco to use these advantages to monopolize state wine sales, however. Costco has great wine prices, but it carries a surprisingly small number of wines at any time — about 100-150 different wine SKUs compared to the 1500-2500 that you can find at an upscale supermarket.

So while Costco wine sales will rise, there will be lots of room for other retailers, too. In fact, there is speculation that the market reforms will draw big box wine/beer/liquor retailers Bevmo and Total Wine into the Washington state market.

It is easy to see why retailers are backing I-1100. Their costs will fall and they should be able to sell more wine, which is a high margin item compared to most other supermarket categories.

 

The three-tier distribution system for beer (and wine).

 

The Impact on Distributors

It is also easy to see why distributors oppose I-1100 and why they back I-1105. Initiative 1100 privatizes liquor sales, liberalizes the alcoholic beverages market and allows retailers to cut out middlemen and purchase directly from wine, beer and spirits manufacturers. I-1105 is similar to I-1100 in most respects, but requires that the distribution step in the three-tier process be retained.

Distributors recognize that the ability of large retailers to bypass them and buy directly from producers and to demand discounts and other incentives is a threat to their business and it is understandable that they would oppose this.

Don’t expect distributors to disappear if I-1100 passes, however. Distributors play a vital role in connecting producers and retailers and, although they might lose some “rents” from their previous legal status, I can see where their role will change and might even expand in some specific areas as the overall wine market grows.

Larger distributors, who already have some economic advantages, might get an added edge if they are better able to offer retailers payment terms. Competition in general will increase, so there may be a shake out in this sector if I-1100 passes.

Fundamentally, I-1100 shifts market from distributors to retailers and will redistribute profits within each group, too. What about the people who make wine and those who drink it? Check back in a couple of days for analysis.

Extreme Wine Report: Wine in Kabul

I’m starting an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.

The first report comes from one of the least likely places to find wine: Kabul, Afghanistan. It is unlikely because Afghanistan is a Muslim country and Islamic Law is not very wine-friendly.  Wine is pretty much the last thing you think of when someone mentions Kabul. But there is it, as a recent Time magazine story makes clear.

The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent (codename K.W.) sends this report on the wine scene there, including a rough and ready shopping guide, firsthand market (and black market) analysis and … tasting notes!. Here’s the report.

Note: This is a report from The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent, “K.W.”  All names have been changed. Click here to read a recent Time magazine article on nightlife in Kabul.

In Kabul, if you know the right people you can have them use their security clearance to get wine, beer and spirits from one of the military bases or the UN. Unfortunately, I have not been able to utilize such resources. My wine supply comes through slightly less direct channels and is only available at night when the streets of Kabul are sufficiently dark.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country but is also home to thousands of foreign workers who very much enjoy winding down the evening with some type of alcoholic beverage. The legal technicalities with respect to alcohol are consequently rather vague. At times, the Afghan National Police Force sweeps through the restaurants frequented by foreigners in Kabul and seizes their supply of alcohol. These “raids” only happen every once in a while and it is largely assumed that they are simply a way of maintaining a supply for their own consumption. At other times, it seems to be legal for alcohol to be consumed by foreigners but not by Afghans. For this reason, my Afghan coworkers from my day job at an NGO are hesitant to join me at the bar I manage at night.

All of this ambiguity means that when the bar runs out of red wine and our normal supplier is on leave in Dubai, Hamad (the bartender) and I are forced to find alternate sources.   Hamad and I jumped into his car and after I came to terms with the fact that the seat wasn’t going to slide back from the fully-forward position it was in we were on our way. Hamad floored it out onto the main road, with Bollywood beats on full blast and the windows down – Hamad puffing on a cigarette. Traffic can get pretty bad in Kabul but that depends on how good you are at weaving and playing chicken with on coming traffic. I had about a thousand dollars in twenties wadded up in my pocket.

On Flower Street, named after the displays of bright, plastic flowers in front of nearly all of the stores, we went in a spoke with a man behind the counter who wore a Mona Lisa grin. You would think that buying something out of the black market would mean you could get it for cheap. Not so much. After trying very unsuccessfully to haggle the price down I handed over a little over half the money in my pocket and we got back in the car and waited, with the trunk just barely open. The Afghan National Police has a bigger presence on Flower Street than anywhere else I’ve seen. When the time was apparently right three guys ran out of the store with four cases of beer and a case of Tajikistan vodka wrapped up in black plastic bags, dumped them in the trunk, slammed it shut and ran back into the store. The engine had been running and we took off only to be stopped behind another car right next to three Policemen.

If I get caught buying alcohol it gets taken away, they pretend to make a big deal out of it and then they send me on my way. If Hamad – an Afghan – gets caught buying alcohol he gets taken to prison where he could stay for years if he is unable to pay a several thousand dollar fine. A flashlight scanned our faces for an uncomfortably long period of time as the policeman holding it took a long, thoughtful drag of his cigarette. Traffic cleared, Hamad shifted into gear and I watched the policeman in the rear view mirror look passively back to his friends.

Before we had finished letting out our sighs we had made a few turns and were stopped in the middle of a dark, dirt road ready for our next purchase – the main reason for our trip. Hamad sent a text and we waited for about two minutes before two dark figures with boxes under their arms appeared down the street walking towards us. The two men shifted their eyes at us. After the greetings, a quick series of questions which neither side answers, I broke open the boxes to see what we were getting. Right then I felt I was in the scene of the movie where the mobster checks the trunk to make sure “the goods” were all in order and accounted for.  I looked down, half expecting to find some sort of vastly illegal contraband and instead found “Calvert Varietals” a French Cabernet marketed towards an international market, and then Sutter Home California Cabernet. I pointed at the Sutter Home and told one of the guys he should be the one paying me to take it off his hands. The joke didn’t really go over. Wine snobbery, even in jest, isn’t really understood here. We didn’t have enough money for all of it so some of the Sutter Home found its way back into dark alley wine supply to await its next nervous, desperate wine-starved foreigner.

I was reminded of the last wine purchase we made, an unusually large order of 72 bottles, all of a relatively drinkable and non-threatening Merlot, my favorite varietal. One customer, for some reason eager to expound his wine knowledge upon a 24 year old behind a bar in Kabul, expressed his distaste with the selection. “Merrrllot?”, he exclaimed, “Is that really all you have? I think I’ll stick to Becks”. While opening his bottle of beer I had wondered at how the reputation of one of the worlds greatest wine grapes had been tainted all the way out here. There was a chance that the customer knew what he was talking about and that his owns tastes led him to prefer other types of wines over what he reasonably assumed was a run-of-the-mill example of the often-times poor crafting of Merlot. There was also a chance that having tried a good amount of mediocre Merlot in the 1990’s the customer developed his own aversion to the grape that has continued to this day. More likely than not, this customer – an American – saw a movie and perhaps some snippets of Merlot criticism in the media and decided to use the outside influence to help guide him down the sometimes overwhelming path of wine selection, which is not unreasonable. After finishing a fervent defense of the grape (in my head), I took a sip and remembered that fewer people wanting to drink Merlot meant that there would be more for me.

Most of the bar patrons know better than to ask for a specific type of wine beyond red and white. In fact, most patrons of the bar know better than to ask for wine in the first place. That said, nearly every week we have a different red wine on the shelf and you never know, this could be the week when it’s drinkable before rather than after those rum and cokes. Recently we’ve had a decent supply of a South African white which is decent, especially now that the summer is swinging into gear and most everyone chooses to sit out in the garden at a picnic table. Red will typically be either Italian or French with the occasional American, Australian and Spanish bottles as well. As I cringe at the blown out fruit I have to remind myself that much of this wine has been sitting in giant metal shipping containers for months, seeing some of the worst transportation conditions possible.

How did this wine get here? For the most part, deals are cut with distributors or directly with producers and larger shipments are flown in on large cargo planes, destined for Embassies, the UN, the military bases and perhaps one or two influential individuals or groups. But what about my handful of cases in the alley? My guess is that occasionally, cases find their way off the pallets while waiting to be trucked off to the bases. Somebody’s cousin has a friend who’s brother knows somebody who once mentioned to Hamad the bartender that he may be able to get him something. Most of the wine I see is fairly recent, usually 2008, but every once in a while I see something like the dateless Barolo we had a few bottles of the other day with its yellowed, ripped labels and corks that indicated at least decade. What channels had those bottles gone through to eventually find their way to the bar?

When Hamad and I get back to the bar “Alain”, the rather stereotypical Frenchman is relieved to see the cases under our arms. Most of the customers are there for the Heineken or the Jim Beam but occasionally I see hopeful eyes peruse the bottles of wine behind me, looking for something that has not already disappointed them. In general, you are forced to ask the question, “why is this wine in Afghanistan in the first place?” The answer, more often than not, is revealed with the first unfortunate sip. That said, there is always the hope of finding that diamond in the rough, a glass of which will make you forget that when your last bottle of Tuscan red was fizzing in your glass, you shrugged your shoulders and decided to take a sip anyway.

Kabul Tasting Notes:

Calvert Varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Vin Pays d’OC France

When the back label, in English, tells you that this bottle is good with everything from burritos to Satay beef your hopes tend to whither just a bit. A cooked nose (perhaps literally, given the way it was likely transported here), not unpleasant in taste but lacking in body and length.

Dona Beatriz, Rueda Verdejo, 2007 Spain

Very promising and interesting nose with several layers of red to dark-red fruit laced with deep roses. Unfortunately, it seemed watered down, completely lacking in taste.

Torregaia Negromaro Salento Indicazione Geographica Typica Italy

Bright fruit in the form of moderately high acidity. Dried cranberry followed by a small hint of cluster rot – as if the grapes were caught in an early rain while still too young and the vintner left them on the vine to try to get them a little riper.

The Elephant in the Room: Alcohol


I’m writing this post on New Year’s Eve, the night when many folks go out to celebrate, have a little too much to drink and end up “seeing pink elephants,” as the saying goes. It’s a good moment to think about alcohol in wine.

Pink Elephants

Alcohol is the [red, white or pink] elephant in the room for many wine enthusiasts. We know that wine contains alcohol and that alcohol levels having been rising in recent years (more about this later). We know that alcohol has lots of negative social and health effects. We know that anti-alcohol sentiments are rising around the world, even in France, where  wine is deeply embedded in the national culture. But, like the metaphorical pachyderm, we pretend we don’t see these facts and try to ignore them.

But maybe it’s time to sober up. Wine enthusiasts have for a long time been comforted by the French Paradox finding that moderate consumption (defined by health experts as 2-3 glasses a day) of red wine is beneficial to your health. We need to remember that the finding that wine can be good for you is actually the result of a delicate balancing act. The alcohol in wine has few positive and many negative health consequences. The resveratrol in wine and its antioxidant compounds generally have positive effects, especially when wine is consumed with food.

So it’s really a balancing act of pluses and minuses in terms of your health. And balance is the key, too, regarding wine’s social effects. Excess consumption of wine as for any alcoholic beverage is a real concern. Wine’s reputation as the drink of moderation has given us comfort in this regard. Wine drinkers aren’t as likely to go overboard as those who consume beer or spirits, we tell ourselves. Thus do we convince ourselves that wine doesn’t have an alcohol problem.

Zinfandel Rising

But maybe that is changing, both in terms of social attitudes towards wine (see France) and in terms of the wine itself.

Alcohol levels in wine, especially red wine, have been creeping up for many years. Twenty years ago the Zinfandels I bought averaged about 12 – 12.5 percent alcohol. Try to find one with less than 14 percent alcohol today. There are some out there, but most are 14.5  and even 15+ percent, which is about a 20 percent increase.

If you take the health issue seriously, this reduces your “moderate” consumption rate from 2-3 glasses to maybe 1-2 per day.

It also obviously affects the taste and texture of the wine and not always in a good way. The problem used to be that grapes were harvested too soon, so some European AOC rules provided more prestigious designations for wines with higher alcohol levels. Wines have to have at least 12 percent alcohol to gain the Chianti designation, for example, and 12.5 percent for Riserva. It isn’t the alcohol itself that is being encouraged here, but the higher quality riper grapes that produce it.

The 18.3 Percent Solution

This doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem today. By the time the grapes in many regions have fully developed flavors it seems that they have over-developed sugar levels that produce a lot of alcohol.

This fact struck me while I was reading Dr. Jay Miller’s review of 2008 Australian wines in the new issue of Wine Advocate. Australia had an awful year in 2008, with wildfires (that left some wines with smoke taint) and a heat wave — day after day of 100 degree plus weather that baked the vineyards and pushed sugar levels over the top.

The amount of alcohol that resulted is stunning (both figuratively and maybe literally, too). Dr. Miller reports that some reds from well regarded Marquis Phillips came in as high as 17.6% (for a Grenache) and even 18.3% (a Shiraz). Eighteen percent is fortified wine territory (and would be regulated as such in many U.S. states), but these are dry table wines. This pushes the limit for wine in all respects, don’t you think?

Adding Jesus Units

Interestingly, rising alcohol levels have appeared despite winemaker efforts to keep them low. The dirty little secret of California wine is that a great deal of it goes through some form of de-alcoholization, where at least part of each vintage has alcohol removed to bring down the overall level.

Another approach is to “just add water” to the fermenting must to literally water down the potential alcohol. A friend calls this technique “adding Jesus units” because water is turned into wine instantly; he says that it is a common practice, if not one that anybody admits using.

I think we might be at the tipping point in terms of alcohol in wine. Winemakers are surely aware of this fact and consumers need to sober up about it, too.

Wine critics have so far resisted reporting alcohol levels in their ratings and tasting notes except in exceptional cases. Maybe it’s time to change this practice so that we can begin to appreciate just how big our alcohol elephant has become.

Note: The “Elephants on Parade” sequence is from the 1941 Disney animated film Dumbo. It’s my New Year’s gift to all Wine Economist readers.


American Wine Laws: Time for a Change?

No food for sale in this NYC Trader Joes. No wine for sale at the Trader Joes next door.

Only in America? You can't buy food at this NYC Trader Joe's wine store. And you can't buy wine at the Trader Joe's next door.

A European visitor pulled me aside recently to complain about American wine laws, which considerably restrict the what, where and how of wine sales and consumption compared to more relaxed European practices.

“I thought there was separation of Church and State in America,” he said, showing that he hadn’t forgotten what he learned in Civics class years ago as a high school exchange student in Cleveland. He put the blame for America’s wine parochialism squarely on the influence of conservative religious groups.

Church and State vs. Special Interests

Religious groups are political powerful, I told him, and they no doubt have had some influence on the development of America’s wine laws. But that’s not the reason the laws don’t change, I said. It is the interests of those who gain from the current set up. He wasn’t convinced. He seemed to think that a moral explanation was inherently more persuasive (or more American?) than an economic one. But I still think I’m right.

My explanation — that economic forces organize around any set of regulations, become entrenched and use their political and economic clout to prevent change — has a good economic pedigree. It is the theory of structural rigidities developed by Mancur Olson in his two classic books, The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Decline of Nations.

Olson’s theory is elegantly simply. Restrictive economic arrangements benefit a small number of actors a great deal, so they have a strong incentive to organize and fight change. Eliminating the restrictions benefits a larger but widely diffused set of actors who have correspondingly smaller individual incentive to take action.

Even though the collective gain from liberalizing arrangements is likely to exceed the collective loss, the concentrated established interests have more of an incentive to influence legislators and regulators than the general public. This is why regulations, once enacted, are difficult to change. Public gain cannot seem to trump concentrated private interests.

Olson developed this theory in The Logic of Collective Action and used it in The Rise and Decline to explain why rich, stable economies sometimes experience slower growth rates. Stability allows interests to become entrenched and structural rigidities to solidify. Change becomes more and more difficult and potential collective gains from innovation are systematically sacrificed on the altar of vested interest.

Every once in a while, Olson argued, advanced nations need something that will shake things up and weaken the grip of special interests. Then all sorts of change becomes possible.

A Loaf of Bread But No Jug of Wine

An article by Graham Rayman in the August 11, 2009 Village Voice provides evidence to support this theory. New York is one of 15 US states where it is illegal to purchase wine or beer in a supermarket (and you can’t buy bread or cheese in a NY wine shop, either). It isn’t so much separation of Church and State as the division of  Wine and Cheese. Supermarkets can sell wine, beer and spirits as provided by the law, and some do this, but they must have separate stores with separate entrances, checkout stands and so forth.

Two doors, two lines, two sets of store staff. Greater legal control alcohol sales is possible, I suppose, but at a considerable sacrifice in convenience.  It is probably not a surprise that wineries and wine enthusiasts would want to change this, but it isn’t an easy thing to do.

The Village Voice article explains how liquor store interests organized and lobbied the NY legislature to kill a recent bill that would have permitted supermarket sales. The main force behind the proposal was the state government’s need for revenue — the state projected that increased sales though supermarkets would have added to state tax coffers. The story focuses on the anti-reform lobby — it would be interesting to know more about than the author reports here about how supermarket chain and corporate wine producer interests reacted to the bill. But the point about the blocking power of small but concentrated interests is well made.

Shake It Up, Baby

Supermarkets are just one distribution vector for wine, of course, and New Yorkers have many competitive specialist stores to keep prices down and service up, so we don’t need to feel too sorry for them. But it does seem that the increased convenience of grocery store sales would help expand the wine market and promote wine as a lifestyle choice. It’s too bad the reform effort failed.

The inconvenience of wine buyers in the 15 supermarket-ban states is important, but the grip of special interests on wine regulations extends to other areas.The cumbersome three-tier distribution system and restrictions on inter-state wine shipments are two other areas where entrenched interests have successfully fought off liberalization efforts.The result is the restrictive system my European friend finds so difficult to understand.

If Mancur Olson is right, restrictive regulations will be difficult to change unless something happens to shake things up. Maybe the economic crisis, which has put every link in the wine value chain under stress, will ultimately provide just such an opportunity. Consumers, wine producers and even state tax departments all have something to gain from changing the system now.

We Will Sell No Wine [Reform] Before Its Time

I told my European friend not to hold his breath waiting for wine reforms to trickle up from grassroots wine enthusiasts. The real hope is that the big players will push for liberal reforms.

Personally, I pin my hopes on Costco, the largest single wine retailer. And I wonder if Wal-Mart will get involved now that it is selling wine in many stores (it even has its own version of a Two Buck wine called Oak Leaf). OK, Wal-Mart is a long shot, given its Arkansas roots, but these are unusual times — almost anything is possible.

The New York defeat is a definite setback (and the California plan to increase wine taxes is a step in the wrong direction) but maybe European-style wine market regulations are an idea whose time has finally come.

8/27/2009 Update

Interesting article in the New York Times about Whole Foods’ failed attempt to open a wine shop in New York City.

Whole Foods learned the hard way that opening a wine store in New York is not easy. The wine shop at its market in the Time Warner Center was closed by the state liquor authority because the shop was deemed part of the supermarket; state law bans selling wine in food stores. Then Whole Foods’s license request for a wine shop near its store in the Bowery was denied because of community opposition. But the company succeeded in starting a wine store in the same building as its newest store on the Upper West Side: it opened on Aug. 24, and the supermarket will open on Aug. 27.

Read the whole story at

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/dining/26whole.html?_r=1

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.

Taste the Washington Wine Market

Demand meets Supply in Seattle

Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery in East Wenatchee, Washington asked me if I’d like to pour their wines at the big Taste Washington event in Seattle on Sunday. I jumped at the chance, of course, because you hardly ever get to see supply and demand in the wine market at work in such a personal way. I will admit that I enjoyed this opportunity and I might have been a little too enthusiastic at times. I think my boss, Robin Wade, had to restrain me at times from talking up the wines and the winery more than I should. (Robin is my student at Puget Sound during the week, but she was my supervisor on Sunday at her family winery’s tasting table).

Taste Washington is a big event: more than 220 wineries, 70 restaurants and a long list of what I would call “lifestyle product” vendors ranging from Viking, the maker of high end kitchen appliances, to Maserati, the Italian sports car. Click here to download a pdf of the program. People paid $125 to attend the VIP tasting from 2-4pm. Then the doors opened to the “masses,” who paid $85 for unlimited tastings from 4-8pm. Many of the VIPs were industry people – winemakers, distributors, restaurants, wine shops, and so forth. The “masses” were a very mixed group that I’ll discuss below. I guess about 3500 people came in all.

The event is all about giving things away. Wine is sampled, but cannot be sold. Restaurants give samples of food. No cash changes hands once you are inside the room, but I suppose that exchanges can be arranged for future delivery. Apparently someone bought a Maserati ($135,000) off the show floor. There was a moment of silence (while everyone drew a breath) when that was announced.

The Supply Side of the Pour

The list of wineries was long and diverse. Columbia Crest makes at least 200,000 cases each of some of their Two Vine wines, for example, while Benke Cellars, located near us in the exhibition hall, has a total output of just 200 cases. Some of the most prestigious wines in Washington were represented (DeLille Cellars was across the aisle from us and Quilceda Creek was across the room) alongside humble family start ups. Fielding Hills was one of several wineries in a sort of intermediate position: a small family operation, but one with an impressive record of ratings and reviews and hence a built-in audience among wine enthusiasts.

What do wineries gain from giving away wine at tasting events like this? There needs to be a benefit, especially for the smaller wineries who may pour away a couple of percent of their annual production. Some of the large volume wineries seemed to use the event to show that they were about more than just fruit forward popular premium supermarket wines. Chateau Ste Michelle, for example, poured these wines

  • 2005 Boreal, Columbia Valley $30
  • 2005 Ethos Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley $38
  • 2006 Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills $22
  • 2007 Eroica, Columbia Valley $22

and Columbia Crest offered these

  • 2005 Grand Estate Merlot, Columbia Valley $11
  • 2004 Reserve Red Walter Clore, Columbia Valley $44
  • 2005 H3 Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills $15

These are very good wines – on average several steps above what you would probably taste for free at the winery. I like the Eroica quite a lot and I wish I’d found an opportunity to taste the Walter Clore. The Grand Estates Merlot is a great value in my opinion.

I spoke with a famous winemaker – he was treated a bit like a rock star – who spent most of his time in close conversation with customers, distributors, and fellow winemakers. He said he thought it was important to be at the tasting and to make personal contact, but he wasn’t sure if it had much effect on sales. He was “preaching to the choir,” he said, talking with current customers and business clients more than making new ones. I wonder if he’s right. I like to say that wine is good but wine and a story is better. A story about talking with a rock star winemaker adds a lot of value to a bottle of wine. Maybe he was just being modest.

Mike and Karen Wade are certain that this event benefits them by connecting them with the trade network and giving wine drinkers who read about their wines in magazines (but often cannot find them on local shop shelves) an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. I certainly think the wines made a good impression and even created a bit of a buz in the room as word spread. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the market.

Spit, Don’t Swallow!

Spit! We were told to encourage people to spit the wine rather than swallow it so that they would not get tipsy so soon. The trade visitors often did spit, as you have to do if you are really going to taste a lot of different wines, but most people didn’t. They did dump out extra wine into the spit buckets, however, which was a good thing. The woman who came around to empty the spit buckets every 15 minutes estimated that she had collected 20 gallons by 6pm.

Like the organizers, I was worried about the alcohol problem. Faced with 200+ wineries pouring maybe 700 different wines – and you with a bottomless glass until 8pm – it is easy to see how things could get carried away. I only talked with a few tasters who had clearly had too much to drink, however. Most people seemed to understand the problem and, even if they didn’t spit, they tried to limit consumption so that they could continue tasting.

The people on the other side of the table were an interesting collection of wine people. The $125 VIP tasters were mostly trade people, as you might imagine, many with well-defined agendas of people to meet and wines to taste. It was fun to talk with them to get an insider view of the event and the business. The $85 general admission tasters were perhaps younger than I expected (many in their 20s) and more diverse in their apparent knowledge of wine. Many were wine enthusiasts, of course, armed with detailed notes and Parker numbers, looking to taste specific wines, interested in every detail from vineyard to barrel.

Others were “image seekers” (to use Constellation Brands’ Project Genome taxonomy – see next post). They didn’t know as much about wine but they wanted to learn. It was fun to meet them because we were pouring a 2005 Cabernet Franc – a varietal many of them had never tasted before – and I enjoyed watching them make up their minds about what was in the glass. Finally I would say that I met some “traditionalists” and even some “overwhelmed” consumers (it was easy to be overwhelmed at this event, to be honest, with so many wines and wineries present). They were spending $85 to try to figure out what was new and what they liked. That seems like an expensive education until you consider how fast you can burn through $85 on failed wine experiments.

People always ask me if interest in Washington wine is a bubble that will someday pop leaving broken wineries in its wake. It is difficult to be sure about bubbles (ask Alan Greenspan about this) and I actually worry that there might be a supply side wine bubble shaping up and a shakeout coming (Paul Thomas, a pioneer Washington winery, closed shop last year). But the demand side looked strong to me as I poured my measured tastes on Sunday. Education is the key to sustainable growth in the wine industry and I met a lot of people who seemed to be committed to broadening and deepening their knowledge of wine. The Washington wine industry can only benefit from this. That makes Taste Washington a more important program than I thought it would be.

A Wine Research Gap?

If there’s one thing that I have learned about wine markets it is that they are dynamic. Although there is much about wine that is classic and timeless, there is a lot of change, too, and winemakers and growers need to take account. Global wine markets are changing, the social function of wine is changing and the natural environment of winegrowing is changing, too.

How do you cope with a rapidly changing market environment? Innovation is one answer and that requires research. Is the U.S. wine industry doing enough to keep up with foreign wine producers in basic wine research? That’s the cover story in the December issue of Wines & Vines magazine and their answer is No.

Wines &Vines is a wine industry trade journal; whereas Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate are aimed at consumers, collectors and enthusiasts, W&V‘s audience are industry insiders. It’s a very good publication — I rely on it for information about emerging trends in the industry. If you are seriously interested in wine you ought to take a look at it.

The cover story argues that there is relatively little public research on wine industry problems in the United States. “Public” research is research that is available to all winemakers and growers and is different from proprietary research that individual winemakers undertake for their own use. Australia, with a wine industry about half the size of the U.S., spends about $23 million for public research, with funds raised from levies on winemakers and growers matched by government funds. By comparison, W&V reports about $2 million for public wine research in the U.S. (although total research levels are much higher when private R&D expenditures are included). The argument is that increased funding for applied research would strengthen the U.S. industry in an increasingly competitive global market.

What would increased research funding buy? I think I got a taste of what research can do in an electronic newsletter I received recently from the Australian Wine and Brandy Commission. The AWBC (a.k.a. Wine Australia) is the Australian government agency that was created in 1981 to support the wine industry. One of their current research projects involves the problem of rising alcohol levels in wine.

Everyone knows that alcohol levels have been going up for some years. Climate change is part of the problem — warmer climate and longer growing seasons increases sugar levels and therefore alcohol levels. This is beneficial to wine quality up to a point, but beyond that point there are real problems both with wine balance and with consumer attitudes towards alcohol. How do you bring alcohol levels down without bringing quality levels down, too? Premature harvesting means less sugar and alcohol, but less character. De-alcoholization (usually through a reverse osmosis process — did I get that right David?) is common in California and elsewhere but there are quality trade-offs here as well.

The AWBC reports that their alcohol reduction research is focusing on the yeasts — trying to find yeast strains that will make wine with lower alcohol levels without sacrificing balance and character. They even mention the three little letters that I think everyone in the wine business is afraid of — GMO. No genetically modified yeast varieties have been used in Australia (and are unlikely to be used there ever, thay say), but research into yeasts and even GMO yeasts is an example of the sort of public research that could have wide-ranging benefits for the wine industry. The Australians are out in front on this sort of research, Wines & Vines suggests and it may be so. I know that I rely almost exclusively upon AWBC economic research on global wine market patterns.

The November issue of W&V has an article on dry farming of vineyards that reminds me that innovation and research can take many forms. Once upon a time most quality vineyards were dry farmed (farmed without artificial irrigation), but as irrigation technology improved the focus turned to scientific irrigation practices. I guess the idea is that because technology allows a winegrower to carefully control water availability then this must be the right thing to do. The people who make Mollydooker, the big-boned Australian wines with the huge Parker numbers, attribute their success to the trade-marked Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme, for example.

But John Williams, whose Frog’s Leap wines are also recognized for quality, has taken a different approach, going back to dry farming. He manages the vineyard soil (see photo above) so that it retains moisture effectively and encourages the sort of deep vine growth that gives character to the finished product. The W&V article explains …


Williams pointed out that a vine grown on drip irrigation is essentially a potted plant sitting in the middle of a field, with moisture and nutrients delivered through the drip system. He believes that is a problem. “What kind of flavor do you get from a hydroponic-grown tomato? Very little. Same thing with a grapevine. When the winemaker comes out to taste the berry at 22° or 23° Brix, the flavor isn’t there. So the decision is made to leave it on the vine a little longer, more hang time until it reaches physiological ripeness at 26° or 27° or even 28° Brix. You still aren’t getting a lot of flavor, so you have to start manipulating the wine–micro-oxygenation and lots of oak–to try and get it to taste mature. And you end up with high-alcohol wines.”

He added, “If we talk about when wine went from its historic place as a mealtime beverage that deeply reflects the soil and climate from whence it comes to killer, jammy monsters that advertise that they will ‘melt your panties,’ I think you will come to the same conclusion that we did 18 years ago: that the real wines are made by deeply connecting them to their soils and that dry farming is fundamental to that.”

John Williams’ statements suggests that dry farming, where it is practical, might solve the alcohol problem and yield other benefits at the same time. This suggests to me that, while research tends to focus on winemaking as a science (hence the search for high tech solutions), we need to remember that wine is made in the vineyard and the craft of winegrowing can yield answers, too.

Innovation — doing new things — is one answer to rapid change, but doing the old things more effectively sometimes works even better. Kinda makes you rethink the question of a wine research gap.

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