Breaking In

I’ve written before about the British wine market, the most important marketplace in the world of wine.  Everyone wants a place on Britain’s Wine Wall, but breaking in isn’t easy to do, as a recent Decanter article and a conversation with one of my former students makes clear.

Decanter Discovers Washington Wine.

Many Washington winemakers are keen to try to get their feet in the door of European markets.  They figure that the time is right: the dollar is cheap and their wines are excellent. They cannot help but be pleased, therefore, with the July 2008 issue of Decanter magazine, which features an article about Washington wine by regional wine critic Paul Gregutt.  Three pages of text, maps, photos and wine reviews – it’s a nice package.  Several of the wineries mentioned even backed up the effort with two pages of advertising.  A really good display for Washington wines in the world’s most influential wine magazine.

But there’s a problem. British buyers know about these great wines now (more than ten wineries are mentioned including Columbia Crest, Seven Hills, L’Ecole 41 and Reininger), but only one (Columbia Crest) has current British distribution.  Want one of the other nine?  Call the winery in Washington State, the Decanter listing says. You’ve got to wonder how many buyers will do this and how many will just turn the page to the next New World wine – one that is actually available in Britain. You need publicity to get distribution, I know, but publicity without distribution doesn’t make the cash register ring.

On a different note, I have to wonder about the quoted price for the Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay.  Wine Spectator gives it 91 points and lists the price at $15.  The British price is apparently £19.53 or about two and a half times as much in dollar terms.!  It’s not going to be easy to break into European markets under these circumstances,

When Gallo Went to Europe

Gallo today is a classic American integrated wine multinational.  Although it is based in Modesto, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, and the bulk of its business is U.S. market, Gallo has complex international linkages.  Gallo sources wine from Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and sells wine in Europe, Japan, and Latin America.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Gallo’s was drawn into the global marketplace in the 1980s, attracted by the markets in Britain and Germany.

I asked my former student Steve Emery to tell me what happened when these American wines (and American wine ideas) invaded Europe.  Steve is CEO of Earth2O, an Oregon company that bottles and distributes water from pristine Opal Springs near scenic Bend, but in the late 1980s he was Director of Sales for Gallo’s program to establish its varietal wines in England, Ireland and Germany.  His experiences say a lot about the nature of global wine then and now and the problems of breaking into new markets.

Getting Gallo into Europe was difficult, Steve told me, although ultimately successful.  Even though Gallo is a huge presence at home, it was an unknown quantity abroad.  I remember seeing Gallo wines on the shelf of my local wine shop when I taught in England in 1989 and I was surprised at the price point.  Gallo wines seemed expensive to me, about the same price as the most popular French and Italian wines on the shelves.  I expected Gallo to be a cheaper brand like it was at home.  But the advantage of lower price wasn’t really possible in the British market, given such obvious barriers as transportation costs and not-so-obvious hurdles such as the British wine tariff.

Many countries tax wine imports, whether to collect revenue, protect domestic winemakers, or try to shift consumption to other commodities such as local beers and spirits.  Britain is not unusual in this regard.  What makes Britain different is that the tax is relatively high and levied on a per-bottle basis (and only on non-EU wines, of course).  Britain collects more than $2 on each bottle of imported. (£1.29 according to a recent Rabobank report).  The flat per-bottle tax has a way of shifting the demand for wine towards more expensive products.  A $2 tax on a $2 wine represents a 100 percent tax. For a $4 wine, a $2 tax increases the price to $6, a 50 percent rise.  For a $10 wine, the tax raises the price to $12, only a 20% increase.  So the tariff falls heaviest on lower price goods and shifts the market upscale towards better or at least more expensive bottles and wines produced in the EU, not the New World. The cost advantage that Gallo enjoyed  in the United States was partially offset by the British tariff regime.

But that wasn’t the main problem, Steve told me.  The British supermarkets were savvy retailers – some of the wine buyers were highly trained Masters of Wine – the highest designation in wine education.  But they were organized to purchase and market wines based on geographic region rather than brand or type of wine.  As Steve says, they didn’t think in terms of brands (apart from the obvious fact of their own store brands).  This is true even today.  If you go into a Marks and Spencer store in Britain, you will find a world of wine available, but the wine is mainly organized and labeled according its place of origin rather than a US-style brand.  The wine’s “pedigree” (Friuli D.O.C. Grave Merlot, for example, or Macon Rouge, appellation Macon Rouge contrôlée) is listed in big letters, but the maker’s name and the brand – custom bottled for Marks and Spencer – are tiny by comparison.  The wines that Gallo sent to Europe were California wines, a useful geographic designation, but Gallo was the brand that defined the wine, not California.

British wine marketing was also different in other ways.  Steve told me that the British weren’t applying the basic Wine 101 lessons he learned with Gallo in the U.S. – lessons about where to put the most profitable wine (right at eye level on the shelf), where to position your target products in a wine cooler (on the right, where most people will look and reach first) and the many strategies of point-of-sale merchandising. They also introduced print advertising to the wine market successfully.

Gallo had to adapt, Steve said, to be successful in the foreign environment, even replacing the practical screw caps on its least expensive wines with more traditional cork closures (creating a shortage of corks in the process).

The German Problem

Germany was even more difficult, Steve said.  That’s easy to understand given the focus on bargain basement wines.  It doesn’t seem like most German buyers are interested in paying for a brand.  Low price seems to be the main factor and cheaper wines were readily available, Steve said, from Germany, Italy and France.  The supermarket wine buyers didn’t want to talk to him, Steve said, so Gallo resorted to guerrilla  marketing.  They got into the stores through the meat department, using a technique called cross-merchandising.  They sold the wine as the perfect accompaniment to beef, chicken and fish rather than wine alone.  Every meat purchase was therefore a potential wine sale as well.  You are probably familiar with cross-merchandising yourself, even if you’ve never heard the work before.  It is the process that has placed small displays of wine all over your supermarket, so that you never miss an opportunity to pair up wine with whatever you actually came to buy.  The Germans seem to understand cross-marketing very well now.  I visited my local Trader Joe’s this morning and found wine everywhere. I think there was probably more wine spread throughout the store than in the wine section itself.

The wine business is very competitive and Gallo found that the “rules of the game” were much different in Europe.  Wine is regulated as an alcoholic beverage in the U.S., so every aspect of its sales is subject to federal or state regulation.  In Europe, however, Steve said, wine is just another product and the competition is much freer.  That’s why he was able to bargain with the meat department managers in Germany rather than go through the wine buyer department.

Gallo was very successful in Britain and in Europe and many other American wine companies have followed them, but that hasn’t eliminated the challenge of breaking into new markets.  I wish our Washington winemakers good luck in their well-timed assault on the Old World markets. It’s not going to be easy.

Sideways meets Bridget Jones

It is easy for wine enthusiasts to get carried away sometimes and to over-think the whole idea of wine. Sure cure for thinking too much: go to a movie.

The Sideways Effect

Most readers will already be familiar with the Sideways effect, named for the 2004 motion picture of the same name. In this film one of the protagonists, Miles, expresses a deep love for Pinot Noir and a complete disdain for Merlot. He loves Pinot because it is so fragile …

“It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. Right? It’s, uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Merlot, by contrast, must be simple, sturdy, unsophisticated, easy. Anyone can make Merlot. Who wants to drink that — loser wine. (Wine geeks will remember that Miles’s most treasured wine — the one that he desperately drinks out of a styrofoam cup in a moment of self-pity — is ironically a mainly Merlot Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux.)

You may love the film or hate it, but its effect on the wine market is well known: it took an emerging Pinot Noir trend and magnified it, making Pinot the hottest grape in the vineyard. And it contributed to the decline in Merlot sales, too. It’s interesting that a movie could so shape the image of these wines as to produce significant market effects.

But that’s here in America. This could never happen in Britain, where wine consumers are more sophisticated.

The Bridget Jones Effect

But wait. It has, according to an article in The Telegraph. Chardonnay sales are slumping in Great Britain and British wine critic Oz Clarke blames it on Bridget Jones, the movie character who drowns her troubles in glass after golden glass of cheap Australian Chard. “Until Bridget Jones, Chardonnay was really sexy. After, people said, ‘God, not in my bar.” according to Clarke. Now, I guess, it’s loser wine like Merlot.

“Bridget Jones goes out on the pull [WineEconomist translation: singles bar scene], fails, goes back to her miserable bedsit, sits down, pours herself an enormous glass of Chardonnay, sits there with mascara running down her cheeks saying, ‘Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.’” Clarke writes, “Great marketing aid.”

A retail market analyst estimates that 7.5 million fewer shoppers picked Chardonnary this year in Great Britain. Sales of other white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio have risen.

The biggest direct effect is in Australia, the source of much of Britain’s popularly priced Chardonnary. Foster’s has reportedly announced that it will not pay more than about $300 per ton for bulk-wine Chardonnay grapes next year, a low price and bad news for growers there. That will put the squeeze on them and they must wonder at the strange logic of the wine world where they suffer because Bridget Jones can’t seem to meet the right guy.

Wine and Identity

I haven’t seen the Bridget Jones films but I’ve watched Sideways and it is pretty clear to me that wine is a powerful image in the film because it is so obviously a metaphor for the main characters. Miles is just like the Pinot Noir that he describes — fragile, tragic and perhaps (and only perhaps) worth the effort that it takes to reach him. Jack, his gregarious, promiscuous buddy, really is Merlot. Easy, simple, stupid at times, and very very popular.

The larger lesson to be learned from all this is the power of identity in consumer behavior. Affluent consumers don’t purchase products so much as they construct personal identities. Goods and services are not ends but means. This is true in many product areas (homes, fashion, autos), so why shouldn’t it be true for wine, too.

Although we may like to think that it is the wine that is the focus of our passion, the Sideways and Brenda Jones effects suggest that identity — how wine makes us think and feel about ourselves — may sometimes be more important than the wine itself in shaping the decisions that wine drinkers make.

The Sub-Prime Wine Crisis

What does the sub-prime mortgage crisis have to in common with the market for wine today? More than you might think! Read on …

Liquidity Problems

Here’s a simplified version of the sub-prime mortgage crisis narrative. A housing bubble masked the inherent risk of the mortgaged-backed securities that financed the bubble itself. Investors were unable to fully assess risk because the complicated financial vehicles were not very “transparent” and the rating agencies did not prove to be trustworthy guides.

When the crisis came, liquidity dried up and the market deflated (crashing in some cases). The solution to the problem, many think, is to increase transparency — to make it easier to figure what is in a mortgage-backed security and how to assess its risk and return.

Some wine buyers will find it easy to relate to elements of this story, according to the Project Genome study recently released by Constellation Brands (I have written about Project Genome in my post “What are wine enthusiasts looking for?”).

According to this study, the largest single group of wine consumers are”overwhelmed” by the choices confronting them and cannot adequately assess the risk they face when staring down a crowded supermarket wine aisle or endless restaurant wine list. Their “liquidity crisis” is a real one — they are afraid to invest in complicated wine products due to a lack of confidence in their knowledge and lack of transparency regarding what’s really in the bottle. Intimidated, they buy a lot less wine than other groups. They lose and winemakers lose, too.

Project Genome estimates that overwhelmed consumers represent 23% of wine buyers, but make just 13% of all wine purchases. They are the “bottom of the pyramid” of wine and many industry people figure that a fortune awaits anyone who taps this market.

Making Wine More Transparent

So what’s the best way to make the wine buying process more transparent and end the overwhelmed consumer’s liquidity crisis? Better information is one approach. Wine critics are the bond rating agencies of the wine market. Their scores give many wine buyers the confidence they need to make what really is a risky purchase. At their best, wine critics serve a useful function of reducing uncertainty about what’s in that bottle and whether it is worth the price.

But there are dozens of wine critics and their ratings, using different scales and ranking protocols, do not always agree and are not always a clear guide. How many disappointing wines have you bought because of the “89-point” rating on the shelf tag? It only takes a few highly-rated losers to discourage an overwhelmed buyer from taking a chance.

Wine critics are part of the answer, but they are also part of the problem. What other options are available? The May 15, 2008 Wall Street Journal included an interesting article by Charles Passy (the “Cranky Consumer” columnist) that examined how some wine retailers are trying to demystify wine. “For Novice Shoppers, a Little Wine 101” describes four retailers, WineStyles, Total Wine & More, The Grape and Costco, and their different marketing strategies (I wrote about Costco’s system in an earlier post, “Costco and Global Wine“).

I’ve been to a WineStyles store so I can give a personal report. The store is arranged according to wine style profiles (crisp, silky, rich, etc.) rather than varietal type, production region or retail price. So if you know you like a crisp wine, you go to that wine rack and you find wines such as Washington Riesling, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and South African Chenin Blanc. You are directed to the style you like and hopefully encouraged to try unfamiliar types of wine. If consumers can actually figure out what they like about wine and if they develop confidence in the style categories, this system helps them make better and more self-assured choices.

Food and wine writer Cynthia Nims reports on another strategy on her blog, Mon Appétit. Cynthia discovered a line of branded wines called “Wine that Loves” that are intended to simplify the wine-food pairing choice. Are you looking for something to serve with roast chicken? Pick up “Wine that Loves Roast Chicken.” Fish tonight? Look for “Wine that Loves Grilled Salmon.”

The chicken wine is “Predominantly Garnacha” according to the label — not a wine that an overwhelmed consumer would probably risk as a varietal choice, but might try and like in this format. The salmon wine is a Pinot Grigio/Garganega/Chardonnay blend. I like this concept because it links wine to food, which is very important, and encourages experimentation. It will be interesting to see if buyers embrace it or if it is just a novelty that soon fades.

The British System of House Brands

Great Britian is the most important wine market in the world in part because British retailers have developed a number of successful strategies to increase wine buyer confidence. Supermarkets are the big players in the U.K, and house brands are key to their wine strategies. Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer all have their own brands of wine (sourced from around the world). Buyers are willing to try an unfamiliar wine because their confidence in the supermarket chain transfers over the the wine.

(It doesn’t hurt that at least some of the house brand wines are very good, of course. A M&S house brand wine is one of the highest-rated New World Sauvignon Blancs in the current Decanter ratings, for example.)

Trader Joe’s uses this strategy here in the U.S. (I have written about this in 300 Million Bottles of Two Buck Chuck). Trader Joe’s sells vast quantities of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) wine each year and the key is reputation. Not the wine’s reputation — the store’s. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for value and quality, which lends credibility to their house brand wine. As I have said before, the miracle of Two Buck Chuck isn’t that you can sell a wine for $1.99, it is that you can get anyone to buy it. The $1.99 price point just screams “rotgut.” But people happily buy wine at Trader Joe’s  at price points they would never think of considering at Safeway or Kroger because they have confidence in the TJ brand.

My local upscale grocer, Metropolitan Market, is trying the house brand route, apparently with success. For the last year or so they have occasionally stocked limited-release house brand wine specials such as the 2007 Columbia Valley “White Selection #1″ shown here. The wines go for $8 per bottle or $88 per case and they are stacked in big displays that remind me of, well, Trader Joe’s.

These house brand wines are kind of interesting. The first release of the year was a Rosé — hardly an easy sale given upmarket consumer resistance to pink wines (too close to White Zin!) and the chilly spring we have had — and now a white that turns out on close inspection to be an oak-free Semillon blend. I like Semillon quite a bit, but I don’t think you could sell it by the case at a neighborhood grocery store with a traditional brand name and varietal label. But “Met Market White #1″ and the Rosé are products that buyers seem to embrace as safe bets and good values because of the store’s reputation for quality.

They fly out the door, according to the satisfied customers in line with me last week. You might have trouble selling them as ordinary branded varietals, but they go down easy as trusted house brand wines. The British know the wine game really well. We are smart to learn from them.

Confidence Game

Everyone is trying to solve the overwhelmed consumers’ liquidity problem. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have consumer friendly labels like House Wine (produced by the Magnificent Wine Company) and Wine By Joe, an Oregon brand. Like the Met Market generics, these are good quality upmarket answers to the question, what should I buy to drink tonight? The reputations these brands have developed for value and quality makes buying their wines a comfortable experience for many consumers. (My Costco sells the House Wines brands by the case.)

Take a close look at your supermarket wine aisle and I think you will see a lot of products designed to make wine easier to understand and buy. With so much creative energy at work here, I am confident that the needs of overwhelmed wine buyer market are being well served. Maybe they’ll stop being overwhelmed and their liquidity crisis will end. I wish I had the same confidence about the financial markets!

The Father of [Wine] Economics?

smith.jpg

Adam Smith is generally regarded as the Father of Economics, even though many wrote on economic topics before him. Was he also the Father of Wine Economics?

The case for Smith’s paternity is made in the most obvious (and least likely) of places, The Wealth of Nation (1776), his most famous work. It is the obvious source because Smith wrote about everything in Wealth of Nations: history, theory, policy, even provided practical advice. It is the least likely place to look, however, because it is so little read (really read, if you know what I mean) and because people only remember the book for two thing: the Invisible Hand and the Pin Factory example of the division of labor. But there is a lot more to be found, including an early treatise on wine economics.

Adam Smith wrote a good deal about wine. This was partly because he traveled in France and learned about wine markets first hand. But it was also a fact that Britain was for centuries a wine-drinking country, as John Nye’s fine book explains, just as it is so today, with a practical interest in wine market concerns.

The foundation of Smith’s wine economics is laid out early in Wealth of Nations, Book One, Chapter 11: Of the Rent of Land. Here Smith tries to explain why some kinds of land earn more than other lands. Land suitable for viticulture earns higher rent, Smith said, and has long done so.

That the vineyard, when properly planted and brought to perfection, was the most valuable part of the farm, seems to have been an undoubted maxim in the ancient agriculture as it is in the modern through all the wine countries

But viticultural profits were constantly threatened, Smith argued. Not by nature, although this could cause bad crops, and not by high taxes, although he argued against them. The chief threat (or perceived threat) to viticultural earnings was expansion to new lands. Old vineyards, as he called them, were threatened by New Vineyards — and would seek protection from them or to prevent their development. This section reads very well today if you change Old Vineyards to Old World wine and New Vineyards to New World Wine. Certainly New World Wines (and their vineyard, cellar and marketing practices) are seen by many Old World producers as a threat to their livelihood. Adam Smith understood why Old would seek by any means to prevent development of the New. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to already know that he did not approve.

Smith wrote about terroir, too. I can’t really say that Adam Smith invented terroir, the idea of a special taste of place that winemakers strive for, but I can say that he understood its economic value. Smith wrote that

The vine is more affected by the difference in soils than any other fruit tree. From some it derives a flavour which no culture or management can equal, it is supposed, upon any other. This flavour, real or imaginary, is sometimes peculiar to the produce of a few vineyards; sometimes it extends through the greater part of a small district and sometimes through a considerable part of a large province.

I note with interest that Smith recognized terroir and doubted the reality of its existence in the same sentence (“real or imagined”). It isn’t terroir that really matters to a wine economist, I suppose, it is only that people think there is terroir. Smith wrote at length about the economics of these special wines and, because of their limited quantities, the premium prices they could command. Any modern winemaker, upon reading this section, would immediately try to create an A.V.A. to cash in on the possibility of terroir by limiting supply.

The whole quantity of such wines that is brought to market falls short of the effectual demand, or the demand of those who would be willing to pay … The whole quantity, therefore, can be disposed of to those who are willing to pay more, which necessarily raises the price above that of common wine.

A small part of this higher price … is sufficient to pay the wages of the extraordinary wages bestowed upon their cultivation, and the profits of the extraordinary stock which puts this labor in motion.

Smith’s treatment of wine is not complete – there is no discussion of cork versus screw-cap, for example, and no treatment of en primeur wine futures, but what he does say shows pretty clearly how well he understood the political economy of wine.

So, to answer the question that started this entry, is Adam Smith the Father of Wine Economics? Probably not, is my answer. His analysis in Wealth of Nations is certainly very good, but I am pretty sure that earlier economists did not ignore the wine market. The reason: because wine was so very important to economy and society from the earliest days.

The Wizards of Oz

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australian’s are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

The World’s Best Wine Magazine?

decanter-china.jpgDecanter bills itself as “The World’s Best Wine Magazine” and is sometimes referred to as the bible of wine. It is probably the most influential wine magazine in the world, too, although that could be a contested claim. It is the most-read wine magazine in the world’s most important wine market: Great Britain. Founded in 1975, it is based in London and published monthly in more than 90 countries including, since 2005, China. The Chinese Decanter (click on the image to see the Chinese cover) includes about 30% special content for the growing East Asian market.

The Most Important Wine Market

How can Great Britain (and not the United States) be the world’s most important wine market? The simple answer is that the British produce little of their own wine and import quite a lot, so just about every winemaker in the world wants to compete for British sales. The German market is large, too, but it’s a cut-throat pricing environment with emphasis on discounted price. The American market is big, but it is tough for international winemakers to compete with American wines at most segments of the market (especially for popularly priced branded varietal wines).

A slightly more complex answer is that entry into the British market is relatively straightforward, because it is for all intents and purposes an integrated national market with one set of rules and distribution channels. The American market is a maze, with 50 (plus the District of Columbia) different sets of rules and regulations to understand and comply with plus the nightmarish “three-tier” distribution system (retail/wholesale/producer) that adds cost and increases the mark-up at each stage.

You want national distribution in the U.S.? Better hook up with one of the big brand managers such as Constellation Brands or Cobrands. And you’d better have a lot of product to sell. Otherwise you should settle for regional distribution and hope for the best. No wonder many international sellers focus on the British market or go there first.

Decanter is published by a company called IPC Inspire, which produces a number of lifestyle monthlies including Country Life, Horse & Hound, Rugby World, SuperBike, Shoot Monthly and Yachting World. It is Britain’s largest specialist magazine publisher.

Although Decanter really is arguably the most important wine magazine in the world, it is not as ubiquitous as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast here in the United States. You won’t find it on many supermarket racks. Like Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, it attracts a specialist audience in America.

Mrs. Thatcher and the Rise of the British Wine Market

Decanter was founded in 1975, just at the moment when the British wine market was becoming the world’s most important. Most American’s think of the British as a beer and spirits drinking nation, but this has not always been the case. The British preference for ales and whiskey was partly the result of a tax and regulatory regime that biased the system against consumption of imported wine. High tariffs made wine expensive and retail sales regulation made it inconvenient to purchase.

Britain’s entry into what is now the European Union resulted in tariff rates more favorable to wine imports. Mrs. Thatcher’s programs of retail industry deregulation opened up the opportunity for cheaper wine and more convenient distribution, especially though the supermarket chains. These supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose among them – became world’s most important wine distribution channels. The produce of the world’s vineyards are now sourced to these British stores and, having made an impact there, have passed into the global market. Costco, I have argued elsewhere, is beginning to play a similar role in the United States.

Ironically, U.S. wines are underrepresented on the British market.  The U.S. and British distribution and marketing systems are so different as to represent a barrier to entry, at least for now.

Decanter was created to serve the consumer market created by the explosion of wine in Britain. As the global market has grown, Decanter’s distribution has followed (and sometimes, I suspect, leads the way).

If Decanter is so important, why doesn’t it have a stronger presence in the United States? The answer, I would argue, is that the British wine market is global and dominated in terms of volume by the large national supermarket chains selling wines from all over the world. The U.S. market is far more local (favoring American wines) with a far more fragmented distribution system and large firms like Gallo and Constellation Brands leading the way, selling branded wines from their large portfolios. Simply put, you won’t find a lot of the wines reviewed in Decanter in American stores. As vast as our selection is here in the U.S.A., it’s just a slice of what the global market offers. Really.

Uncorking Decanter

Decanter is a full service wine publication with something to offer almost any British wine enthusiast. There are interviews, topical essays and regional travel surveys (drink this, stay here, try this place for dinner). Columnists include such notables as Michael Broadbent, Steven Spurrier and Andrew Jefford. Decanter obviously includes wine investors among its readers because it contains very detailed monthly reports on wine auction sales prices. Bordeaux reds and the main focus (vintages dating back to 1961), but white Bordeaux, Burgundy and Port prices are also listed. It even publishes a wine auction index. This probably reflects Broadbent’s influence – he was for years head of the wine auction practice at Christie’s.

The monthly wine ratings are very interesting. Rather than try to sample a selection of all the new wines on offer each month as some American publications do (an impossible task in Britain, I reckon, with so many wines), one or two types of wines are chosen and about 100-150 wines from each of those segments of British market are tasted and rated.

The February 2008 issue, for example, has comparative ratings of just two types of wines, South Australian Shiraz and Loire (France) Reds (Cabernet Franc to Americans). Wines are first rating using a 20-point scale (with average scores from several tasters reported) and then grouped together into quality classes ranging from one to five stars. The five star (18.5 points or more) and four star wines (16.5-18.49 points) are listed along with photos of their bottles for easy identification in the shops. Three star wines get nice write-ups – this, after all, is where the real market is – and lesser wines are listed in appropriately grim tombstone format. It’s hard to imagine a Decanter reader buying a “fair” or “poor” wine except by accident.

How Decanter Rates Wine

I am impressed with the information provided for each wine. Besides the average 20-point rating, we learn the retail price, the degree of age-worthiness, receive brief tasting notes and find out where to buy it. Good value wines receive a gold £-sign designation. Thus, for example, the 2006 Shingleback Cellar Door McLaren Vale is rated at 14.75 points and sells for £7.99, which is a good value. Is has short term aging potential and can be purchased at Tesco. “Dark cassis jam notes. Medium body. Nice spicy notes. Fine velvet texture. Ripe and well-balanced fruit. 3-8 years.” Sounds good to me. Lots of useful consumer information here about these particular wines, although each monthly issue rates only a small slice of the British market.

The “stockist” listings are noteworthy. Wine Spectator will tell you what to buy, but not where to buy it. That would be nearly impossible in the U.S. The reason Decanter can tell you where to buy this wine is that the British wine system favors a relatively small number of national distributors and retailers, many of whom feature their own brands, much as Costco does here in the U.S. with the Kirkland label. The best value in the Shiraz tasting, for example. Was Berry’s Own Selection Elderton Australian Shiraz Barossa Valley 2006 (£8.50 and 16.5 points). “Big yet somehow seductive.” Berry isn’t a person, it is Berry Brothers & Rudd, a major British retailer.

Decanter wine critics are tough, by the way, stingy with the highest grades (the 4-5 star As and Bs) but generous in giving Cs that seem to really mean something.

Decanter and Global Wine
Decanter reflects the unique features of its main market, Great Britain, which makes me realize that this is probably true about all wine publications. Gambero Rosso has a strong regional focus because the Italian national wine market is less important there and regional identities matter more. U.S. magazines will be different because the U.S. market is so different.

Britain’s market is national in scale and global in reach so Decanter‘s strengths and weaknesses (particularly its inability to evaluate the majority of wines that are available) reflect this. I am not surprised that it would appeal to wine-drinking elites around the world, but it makes sense that it would not have a big market in the United States. The market is just too different over here.

Washington and Oregon Wines in London

There is a special tasting of Washington and Oregon wines in London today, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at 12 Carlton House Terrace. More than 190 wines from 40 Pacific Northwest wineries are being sampled. Marty Clubb of L’Ecole 41 in Walla Walla is leading an educational seminar about the Washington wines and Howard Rossback of Firesteed is doing the same for the Oregon products. The event is funded in part by a $200,000 federal trade grant. I believe it is the largest organized effort (so far) by Northwest winemakers to break into the European markets. It will be interesting to see if this seedling can grow to bear fruit.

Washington and Oregon are important winemaking regions, of course, but their reputations and sales are concentrated in the United States. Although Oregon Pinot Noirs are always included in the discussion when people anywhere talk or write about new world Pinots, the fact is that not much of it is sold abroad. Oregon wine sales in the UK and France were just over 2000 cases in 2006, for example, out of total production of 1.6 million cases. The word may be out around the world about Oregon wines, but wine distribution and sales haven’t followed — yet.

I don’t have figures for Washington wines, but I suspect that the situation is more or less the same. Washington makes excellent wines (better than Oregon wines, if you judge by the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate ratings, where several Washington wines receive 95+ points), but so far Washington doesn’t seem to have that one distinctive wine that could establish an international reputation. The state is too varied, I think, in terms of climate and geography for that to happen. Washington is Riesling country, judging by volume of production, but it hasn’t yet established an international reputation with this wine (although it is trying to do so with the Riesling Rendezvous conference). A variety of reds do well here, including both the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, but no signature style of wine has emerged as the champion. Marty Clubb is telling the people in London that Washington has the ideal climate for wine (that’s the official Washington wine theme), which may be true but doesn’t really define the product for confused international buyers.

Washington does have one advantage over Oregon in the export market: distribution muscle. The Washington wine industry features a few very large players that have the financial clout to potentially open up foreign distribution channels. Money is necessary; it isn’t easy to establish a brand abroad in this crowded market and margins on exports are necessarily lower than for domestic sales, at least at the beginning. I have read that export sales by small scale winemakers are “vanity” projects and there may be some truth to this. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, however.

The Chateau Ste Michelle family of wines have penetrated some European markets. I was surprised to discover a large display of CSM wines in an upscale supermarket next to the train station in Riga, Latvia, for example. I haven’t been able to find out how the wines got there yet — my guess is that CSM’s deal to distribute Antinori wines in the U.S. may be reciprocated by Antinori in Europe but I don’t really know. Other Washington wines including Columbia, Covey Run and Hogue are part of the Constellation Brands portfolio, which may aid in their international distribution, too.

The London tasting isn’t the first effort to get Northwest wines attention in the UK. I remember being in London in about 1990 and walking into Fortnum and Mason only to be shanghaied by an excited clerk who was directing anyone she could to a lonely wine tasting display where they were sampling wines from Hogue Cellars of Yakima. Needless to say, no one had any idea where Yakima was located, but they were amazed that such a unlikely place could produce good wine. Today’s London event is a much larger project than that Fortnum display, but the goal is much the same, to make friends, establish relationships, and get our foot in the door.

I hope the London tasting goes well. Many of the wineries are apparently looking for UK distribution, which makes sense. The UK is the most important wine market in the world. It is a good market to sell wine and to establish a worldwide reputation. A disproportionate number of the world’s leading wine writers and experts are based in London, including Jancis Robinson, Oz Clark, Michael Broadbent and Steven Spurrier. A good word by any of these celebrity wine critics would encourage wine enthusiasts in the UK and around the world to give Northwest wines a try. But the real prize would be a distribution deal with Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which dominate supermarket sales, or one of the big high street wine store chains, since you can’t try wines you can’t buy.

One reason this is a good time to try to break into the UK and European markets is that the exchange rates favor U.S. exports. The dollar fell dramatically in 2007 against both the Pound and the Euro, making U.S. wines relatively less expensive. This will help, but it will still be difficult to get British wine drinkers to think beyond Gallo and one end of the market and Napa Valley at the other.

It’s tough to break into foreign wine markets. Ernie Hunter famously did it the DIY way — he brought his wines to London and entered them in the Sunday Times wine festival, where they won the people’s choice award. Ernie was from New Zealand and his surprise victory paved the road for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s dramatic rise in the world of wine. Washington and Oregon are taking a direct and organized approach, with tastings and seminars. Every case is different. My next post will tell an unlikely story of how Washington wines first came to Sweden.

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