The Mother of All Wine Competitions

Decanter, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” organizes the mother of all wine competitions each year. The results of the 2011 judging are out — you can read them here.

I think that the Decanter World Wine Awards is the largest and most comprehensive wine competition in the world. The press release proclaims that “This year a staggering 12,252 wines from 44 countries were tasted in the DWWA, with 8,327 medals awarded.” Staggering is right! That’s a lot of wine from a lot of places and a lot of awards, too.

Can you imagine a wine competition with more than 8000 winners (two thirds of all wines entered)? What an incredible undertaking.

Suspicious Minds

Wine economists are suspicious of wine competitions. This is partly because economists are suspicious people in the first place, always looking for the dark dismal cloud whenever they spy a silver lining. But there are other reasons, too. De gustibus non est disputadum is the economists’ motto;  everyone is entitled to her own opinion on matters of taste. The idea that anyone, even experienced judges,  could objectively rank something as inherently subjective as wine runs against an economist’s nature, so you can imagine how suspicious we are about big competitions where thousands of wines are tasted and rated.

Richard Hodgson, a winemaker and retired statistics professor, was for many years a judge at the Mother of All American Wine Competitions, the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. California State Fair judges evaluated more than 3000 wines from 600 wineries in 2009. It’s a huge competition, although nothing compared to the Decanter contest. Hodgson’s analysis of raw data from wine judges suggests that they are only human after all and likely to suffer the sort of tasting inconsistencies that you would expect (if you are a suspicious-minded economist).

Hodgson and his colleague G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski, California State Fair Wine Competition manager and chief wine judge discussed their findings at the 2010 meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Davis, California. Here’s a summary taken from the Wine Business Monthly report on the session.

Hodgson served as a judge in the California State Fair competition, and is now on the competition’s Wine Advisory Task Force working with Pucilowski to try to improve judging quality and consistency.

With Pucilowski’s assistance, Hodgson has been evaluating the competition judges since 2005 with trials that place three samples from the same wine bottle in one flight of judged wines to see if the judges ranked each sample consistently. Hodgson, who taught statistics at Humboldt State University, said, “Fewer than 10% of judges could judge the three wines and maintain consistency in their scores.” He added, “Some of the same wines received ratings that ranged from no award to gold.” When the study, “An Examination of Judge Reliabiity at a Major U.S. Wine Competition,” was published in the JWE, it received significant media attention and created a stir among wine judges and within the wine industry.

Pucilowski, who has managed the State Fair competition 25 years and often serves as a judge in other competitions, openly admits that his competition and all wine judging events are highly subjective. To his credit, he is constantly looking at ways to improve the competition and to help judges improve their abilities.

The Value of Wine Competitions

So it seems like there is good reason to be skeptical about wine competition results. Why, then,  do winemakers enter these competitions, given that they are the people who are most likely to know when their wines are scored too high or low compared with others? Ego may have something to do with it, but the obvious answer is that there is commercial value in a gold medal and the attention it receives, although I don’t know how much a medal is really worth — probably depends upon the circumstances. I noticed, for example, that the Achaval Ferrer Malbec that was the top wine last year in Decanter’s  big comparative tasting of Argentinean Malbec did not receive a medal at DWWA. I’ll bet that’s because it wasn’t entered.  Nothing to gain for this famous (and probably sold-out) wine.

Some wine producers probably enter competitions on the theory that they might win a medal in at least one of them, which gives them bragging rights. There has been a medal on the label of every bottle of Gallo’s value-priced Barefoot wines that I’ve ever seen, for example. A medal gives the cautious bargain-buyer some assurance of quality. Three non-vintage Barefoot wines — Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Moscato — earned “commended” medals in this year’s Decanter competition.

Even Two Buck Chuck wins gold medals, according to an article in the Napa Valley Register.

The Charles Shaw 2005 California chardonnay (yes, the $1.99 “Two Buck Chuck” made by Bronco Wine Company sold at Trader Joe’s)  was judged Best Chardonnay from California at California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

The chardonnay received 98 points, a double gold, with accolades of Best of California and Best of Class.


Decanter’s Value

As the video above shows, Decanter (like the California State Fair competition) goes to great lengths to overcome the inherently problematic elements of wine judging. This makes sense since there is so much at stake, both for the winemakers and for Decanter itself, which puts its reputation on the line. The Decanter awards probably have more commercial value than most because the Decanter name has credibility, especially in the U.K.  Decanter sells colorful foil medals to decorate winning bottles and the decorations sell the wine, the magazine and, well, the whole enterprise.

Winning a medal is good, but perhaps the biggest prize for many wineries is winning distribution. Making good wines is often easier than getting them into consumer hands, both here in the U.S. where our fragmented three-tier system creates many obstacles, and also in Great Britain, where the big supermarket chains dominate. Scrolling through the online winner lists I notice that a lot of the wines that are received medals in the competition  aren’t currently sold in the UK. Perhaps that’s the point of entering — to get distributor attention and break into the market.

Thick and Thin

Wine competitions are fun, but I admit that I don’t take the results too seriously since they depend on so many uncontrollable factors, including which particular wines are entered and which (like the Achaval Ferrer Malbec) are held out. I do, however, find the Decanter results worth careful study because  they have some important stories to tell.

The wine world is very broad but the world wine market surprisingly thin and uneven. Looking at the award list, it is interesting to see the large number of countries (44, including India, China and Thailand) that sent wine to London for the judging. As someone who writes about the globalization of wine, it is great to see evidence of the world wine web’s continuing expansion.

But the list of entries is also relatively thin and uneven in some respects, even with more than 12,000 entries, reflecting the fact that the British market is difficult to break into and so not everyone sees value in entering Decanter’s competition.

If you search for U.S. award winners, for example, I think you will be a bit puzzled by the long list of wineries that result, both in terms of the wines that appear and those that are missing, probably because they were not entered in the competition.  There are affordable wines from large scale producers (like Gallo’s Barefoot noted above) and some expensive boutique ones, too, but much of America’s vast middle kingdom of wine, which is in many ways the country’s great strength,  is under-represented. Not interested in the award because not represented in the British market, I suspect.

The U.S. Medal Count

This perhaps accounts for the odd showing of American wines on the Award league table. Only four U.S. wines earned top awards in 2011 (many more earned Silver, Bronze and Commended medals, however). The top four are:

Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Huerhuero Estate 2008 (Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo County) earned a regional trophy (second only to an international trophy in Decanter’s galaxy of awards). It was the top U.S. wine. No U.S. wine earned an international trophy.

Three wines earned gold medals: Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage 2007 (Columbia Valley, Washington State), Justin Justification 2008 (Paso Robles. SLO) and the Silverado Vineyards Estate Cab 2008 (Napa Valley).

Are you surprised? I’ll bet this isn’t the list you were expecting. And it is interesting that none of the American wines made the highest level of awards.

Is four a good medal count? Not compared to Argentina, which received almost 20  gold medals and nine regional trophies. Why the big difference? Perhaps the judging panels applied different standards or maybe there just aren’t as many really good wines from the U.S. these days, but I think it has something to do with the intensity of Argentina’s export drive and the importance they attach to Decanter’s international reputation compared with producers from the United States.

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I’ve been asked to chair the session on wine competitions at the annual meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists later in the month. It will be interesting to see shat new insights the panelists will provide. Watch this space for a report.

Chateau Cash Flow: The Rise of House Brand Wine

Decanter.com reports that house brand wine sales are rising in Great Britain even as the overall market slumps.

Retailers are reporting impressive growth of own-label wines as cash-strapped customers look to rein in their spending.

A Datamonitor survey reports 41% of all grocery sales in the UK are now own-label, up from 38.2% in 2008, and wine sales are following the upward trend.

Supermarket retailer Sainsbury’s told decanter.com its own-label wines had grown at double the rate of its wine range this year. A spokeswoman said: ‘Last year we revamped our own-label packaging and we have put a lot of effort behind the range in store and in the media.’

House brands aren’t so important in the U.S. wine market [yet] but they may well be in the future. The best known U.S. house brand wines are Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) at Trader Joe’s and Kirkland Signature at Costco. Big Box retailers Target and Wal-Mart have launched their own house brands in recent months and other retailer’s have commissioned discount brands (not yet closely associated with their names) in an attempt to get a grip on the trading-down market. Look for this trend to continue, especially if the economic downturn persists.

Chateau Cash Flow

House brands are a solution to several problems, which is why they are likely to increase in importance. On the consumer side, they provide buyers with reputational assurances. You might wonder if a $3 wine can be any good, but you are more likely to try it if Trader Joe’s or Wal-Mart stands behind it. As I have written before, a $3 unknown wine at Safeway makes you think “how can it be any good?” while a $3 wine with the Trader Joe’s imprimatur makes you think “how bad can it be?” You might buy the latter but not the former.

The British have years of experience with house brands — it is why they are [for now] the world’s most important wine market and why Britain’s supermarkets are arguably the most sophisticated wine distribution machines on earth. The U.S. is catching up, but Britain still leads.

Reputation is especially important when consumers are trading down, moving into unfamiliar territory on the lower shelves. Decanter reports that while some British consumers are trading down to house brands, building that market, existing customers are trading up within the house brand portfolio! If this trend continues it will be hard to resist the house brand strategy.

Supply Side Wine

House brands have big advantages on the supply-side, too. Producers with surplus wine are often happy to sell it off through house brand bopttlings because it generates cash flow without directly undercutting their own brands and market. In my international economics class we call this “dumping.” You sell off unintended surpluses (of which there are plenty just now) through retailers in a different market segment, allowing you to maintain reputation and price points in the home market. If you start discounting wine to sell it, we have learned, it is sometimes difficult to regain the ground you have lost.

Some British retailers have moved aggressively into the supply chain, buying up grapes and surplus wines and acting as full-fledged negociants, but it isn’t really necessary to make such a large commitment to get into the house brand wine business. There are plenty of regional and national firms who can quickly respond to demand. No large investment is required, cost is low.

House brands can also have a somewhat fluid identity (not tied tightly to a particular region or style), which allows them to benefit from global opportunities, sourcing Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, for example, and Pinot Noir from Northern Italy or the South of France.

The main problem is to be sure that quality is good enough. Otherwise you have put your own brand in jeopardy.

Three Way Battle

The world’s wine markets are a battleground for three models of wine sales. The German model is based upon low cost (one euro per liter) and hard discount sellers like Aldi. The American model is all about corporate brands like Gallo and Constellation Brands. The British model is built upon upscale supermarkets and the house brands they sell.

Recent news suggests that the British model is gaining ground, both in the UK and here in America, where it is the model that drives Costco sales (Trader Joe, on the other hand, uses a version of the German system). It will be interesting to see if this trend persists once the recession eases up.

Wine Distribution Bottleneck

I have often argued that to really understand an industry you first need to understand where the bottlenecks are in the value chain.  Bottlenecks disrupt the efficient flow of resources and so industries tend to evolve around them.  I believe that this observation holds especially true for wine. Herewith a brief update on the current situation.

Do the Math

Silicon Valley Bank released their annual State of the Wine Industry Report yesterday.  SVB is a major lender to US wine producers and thus has a strong interest in producing clear, relevant wine economics research. (I also admire the wine economics research produced by the Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank.)

The report provides some good news along with many worrisome  observations (click on the link above to download the study) and fresh data on the biggest single bottleneck in the U.S. wine industry — distribution.

Here’s the basic math.  SVB estimate that there are 6000 wineries actuve in the US market producing about 7000 wine brands.  All these brands need to squeeze through the U.S. three tier distribution system bottleneck.  This means they need to go from maker (first tier) to state-licensed distributor (second tier) to local retailer (third tier). That’s the law here in the United States,  where we still think of wine as a controlled substance.

There are only limited opportunities for producers  to skip a step.  I understand that Bronco Wines, for example, can sell its Charles Shaw brand directly to Trader Joe’s in California because of a legal loophole there, but has to use an independent  distributor in other states. That’s why Two Buck Chuck costs $1.99 in L.A. but $2.99 here in Washington State.  That extra buck is the cost of the extra distribution layer.

The Big Squeeze

Now we get to the big squeeze. These 7000 brands get funneled through about 550 major distributors according to SVB (obviously this does not count many smaller Mom-and-Pop and specialized distributors that I am familiar with), which is about half as many as a few years back.  Hopefully you can appreciate the bottleneck — 7000 brands worth $30 billion in retail sales have to squeeze  through 550 distributors in 50 states on their way to 76 million wine consumers.  Any blockage in the distributor tier backs up the whole industry.

And the problem gets worse because the distributors are obviously getting squeezed themselves by the economy — falling sales, trading down, shrinking margins, credit limits and counter-party risk.  Expect distributors to consolidate in some cases and pull back to reduce cost and risk in others.

The net effect is clear — distributors are reducing their SKUs (stock keeping units to non-economists) and focusing a smaller number of  reliably profitable products lines.  This means that it is harder and harder for new and niche wineries to get on the warehouse pallet.

The Missing Middle

I’m not sure exactly how this all will shake out, but I suspect the problem will be worse in the middle market. Very small wineries can often successful self-distribute.  Very large ones will probably get distribution because of the volumes they can generate.  The middle falls awkwardly in between — too big to sell it all yourself, too small to be worth a major distributor’s time. The fact that the distribution system is fragmented into 50 (plus DC) pieces just makes the situation worse.

In the same way, SVB data suggest that lower priced fine wines ($35 and less on their scale — remember that a lot of SVB’s customers are in Napa Valley) are still selling pretty well and very expensive icon wines apparently are doing OK, too.  The mid-range is in trouble.  SVB calls $35-$50 a “gray area” and $50-$125 a “dead zone.” Ouch.

I would hate to be a new 3000-5000 case winery trying to sell wine made to be priced in the dead zone.  Unfortunately, I think there may be a lot of new wineries coming on line now who planned to do just that back when economic conditions were sunnier. It will take exceptional effort (or truly exceptional wine) to make this business model work in the current economic environment. I recently talked with one middle-sized premium winemaker who has already figured this out and pulled back — lower output, lower prices — to get clear of the dead zone.

This is the “missing middle” effect that economists are familiar with in other contexts (small family operations and huge corporate businesses survive, the middle simply disappears).  The distribution bottleneck isn’t necessarily the cause of the coming missing middle effect in the wine industry, but it will certainly make it worse.

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!

300 Million Bottles of Two Buck Chuck

Two Buck Chuck (a.k.a. Charles Shaw wine) celebrated its fifth birthday recently, so this is a good excuse to for a new initial thoughts about what the success of this bargain wine says about the wine market today.

Charles Shaw is the brand of very inexpensive wines that Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine company makes for exclusive distribution through the Trader Joe’s chain. The wines sell for $1.99 in California ($2.99 here in Washington state), which accounts for the “two buck” nickname. Total sales over five years: 300 million bottles.

Two Buck Chuck (TBC) is made possible by the current worldwide glut of wine — something that I will write more about later. There is a lot more wine made today than people will buy and so bulk prices have fallen, creating a profitable opportunity for someone, like Fred Franzia and the Trader Joe’s people, who know how to distribute and market it efficiently. Franzia is part of this glut of course, with perhaps 40,000 acres of vines. TBC aimed to find a big demand for a big supply, and it did it.

Some of my friends buy TBC and they are always amazed by the relative value: it may not be great wine, but it’s lot better than a $2 or $3 wine, they say. I think that’s true, but I wonder how they know — have they drunk a lot of $3 wine? I doubt it! Most supermarket wine buyers judge a wine by its price, or at least that is what the research says. They don’t know for sure what is in the bottle and so they are guided by price more than any other factor. I know some $8 wine buyers, for example, who probably wouldn’t buy a $5 wine under normal circumstances, because they assume that it is lower quality. And they probably wouldn’t buy a $12 wine, either, assuming that it wouldn’t be worth the extra cost. So they stick to that $6-$8 wine shelf (you know where it’s at in the grocery store), not looking higher up and not looking much lower on the rack either. They know what they like, and it costs about eight bucks.

So the trick isn’t making an inexpensive wine — that’s doable in this market environment — it’s getting people to buy it. Once you have made a decent wine that you can sell for less, the hard part is to get buyers to look down from their accustomed price points and try it — and to serve it to their friends without humiliation. If you put a TBC clone in Safeway, for example, it’s entirely possible that no one would buy it because they would assume low quality based upon the low price. That’s where Trade Joe’s comes in. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for selling upscale products for a bit less — for providing relative value. Only Nixon could go to China and only Trader Joe’s could sell Two Buck Chuck — for two bucks.

In fact, if you look around, you will actually see a lot of TBC clones in your grocery store, but they sell for more than two bucks. I am talking about the generic “critter wines” (more about this in future posts). They are also a product of the global wine glut and they provide good relative value. But no one would buy them for $2 — how could they be any good? So they sell for a bit more.

By the way, the Charles Shaw brand is actually a good deal older than the five year birthday suggests. The Charles Shaw winery was founded in the Napa Valley in 1974 by Charles F. Shaw for the purpose of making Beaujolais-style wines. Fred Franzia bought the brand from Shaw in 1991 in order to take advantage of its solid reputation. But that’s history — no one pulling a TBC cork today remembers that original Napa winery, they are only thinking about the bargain price.

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