Australian Winequake

Market tremors seem to be felt everywhere — food, fuel, money, natural resources. And now in the wine world.

Wine Tremors

It has been hard to ignore the feeling of instability in the wine world for the last few months. There has been a lot of shifting around of brands and alliances, as if the big wine producers are feeling off balance and need to get recentered. In January, for example, Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company, sold off their high volume Almeden and Inglenook brands along with the Paul Masson winery to The Wine Group. The reported logic was that Constellation wanted to focus more on premium and superpremium wines. The Wine Group is a privately held San Francisco-based company that has its roots in Coca Cola’s old wine division. (See Note below.)  It makes and markets a variety of high volume brands, including Franzia, Concannon, Corbett Canyon, Glen Ellen, Mogen David and several international brands.. It is the third largest wine company in the United States, behind on Gallo and Constellation, with 44 million case sales in 2007.

I felt another tremor on Tuesday, when a Decanter.com story reported that Constellation had sold more of its wine brands, this time to a new Healdsburg, California-based group called Ascentia Wine Estates. The wineries are Geyser Peak Winery in Alexander Valley, Atlas Peak in Napa, Sonoma Valley’s Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell Winery, Washington’s Columbia Winery and Covey Run, and Idaho’s Ste Chapelle. They produce about a million cases of wine a year between them. Vineyards in Napa and Sonoma county were included in the $209 million deal. The logic, the article said, was to allow Constellation to continue to sharpen its focus on key upmarket brands.

There are several interesting things about this sale. From the Constellation standpoint brands like Geyser Peak, Buena Vista Carneros and Columbia are a good deal more upscale than high-volume Almaden and Inglenook brands that were sold in January. Constellation sold 59 million cases of wine in the U.S. alone in 2007, so the loss of a million case capacity is less important, I think, than the sign that the company is very serious about reshaping itself to adapt to changing market conditions. Constellation says that they are going to focus on fewer brands at the top of the pyramid and I guess they really mean it.

Ascentia is clearly making a different bet. Ascentia is a private group that includes major investors GESD Capital Partners, a San Francisco-based private equity fund, wine distributor WJ Deutsch & Sons and Jim DeBonis, former chief operating officer of Beam Wine Estates (several of the brands included in this deal were part of the Beam Wine Estates portfolio when Constellation acquired that operation last year).

The involvement of the Deutsch family is significant. Deutsch is the masters of marketing and distribution of value-priced wines. They partnered with Australia’s Casella family to create [Yellow Tail], the best selling import wine in the U.S. (I have written about this in my [Yellow Tail] Tales article. They also import and distribute George DeBoeuf, J. Vidal Fluery and other important wine brands. They clearly see opportunity where Constellation does not. It will be interesting to see how this group adapts to the shifting wine landscape. I cannot believe that they are through assembling their new portfolio because I think there may be more wine brands on the market soon (see below).

Winequake

The news from California on Tuesday regarding the Constellation-Ascentia deal was interesting. But the news from Australia in yesterday’s Financial Times as stunning and represents the first of what might prove to be a series of significant winequakes.

Foster’s, the big Australian drinks group, announced major write-downs of its wine assets and the resignation of its CEO, Trevor O’Hoy. The FT’s Lex column summarized the situation like this:

We all know the feeling: a night of bacchanalian excess followed by regrets and a light wallet the next morning. Foster’s, after a 12-year bender in which it spent A$8bn in the wineries of Australia and the US, has a severe hangover. Australia’s biggest beer and winemaker on Tuesday announced A$1.2bn of write-offs, lowered profit forecasts and parted company with its chief executive.

Foster’s last big splurge, the A$3.7bn purchase of Southcorp, is partly responsible. Foster’s bought the Australian winemaker in 2005 for a generous 14 times enterprise value to forward earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, among the highest multiples for deals in the wine sector at the time. It even mocked Southcorp, as it attempted to defend itself against the hostile takeover, for being unduly conservative with respect to its own earnings forecasts.

Fast-forward three years and the hubris has been punished. Integration was botched, partly due to the ill-judged decision to blend sales forces into a single unit in Australia. In the US, distribution was poorly managed. External factors packed the final punch. Australia’s vineyards produced a glut of wine and prices plummeted. The Aussie dollar surged, from about 76 US cents at the time of the acquisition to 95 cents today. Foster’s reckons that every cent move lops A$3.2m off the wine business’ earnings before interest and tax – forecast to total A$1.2bn this year.

Fosters owns 22 wineries in five countries and 60 wine brands, including Beringer, Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Rosemont and Matua Valley. Among other things it is writing off A$ 70 million of bulk wine inventory. It will try to trim its US inventory by 1.4 million cases. (Fosters was the fifth largest wine seller in the U.S. in 2007 with 20 million cases, about the same as Bronco wines and its Two Buck Chuck brand). This is more than a tremor. What does it mean? It is a Foster’s problem, or does it have larger significance?

The assumption for the last few years has been that bigger is better in the global wine market and that big global firms like Constellation and Foster’s had an unbeatable advantage. Is this just a shakeout, or are these recent events a signal that the world of wine is experiencing a fundamental change? Watch this space for updates.

Note: Coke purchased Franzia some years ago and built its wine division from that foundation. The Franzia family now owns Bronco Wines, the Two Buck Chuck company.

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!

What are wine enthusiasts looking for?

The Search for Wine Drinker DNA

According to the data that WordPress collects about visitors to this website, the three most frequently viewed posts on The Wine Economist are

  • The World’s Best Wine Magazine?, an analysis of Decanter magazine, part of the ongoing series on wine critics and publications;
  • Costco and Global Wine, which examines Costco’s wine strategy in the context of the three most important global wine markets, the U.S., Great Britain and Germany, and
  • Masters of Wine (and Economics), which is about the prestigious Masters of Wine (MW) qualification and the importance of wine economics in its curriculum.

(Other popular posts include my discussions of global climate change, problems in Australia, rising wine prices, and the Hong Kong and Chinese markets.)

What can we learn from the fact that these three posts get the most hits? A closer examination of the WordPress data show that many visitors to this site are looking for information about the “Best” – the best wine, the best wine price, the best wine magazine and so forth. The search for the best and not just the good seems to be very important.

Wine enthusiasts also seem to be searching for credible authorities – people and publications that can guide them and tell them what to buy and drink.

Not unrelated to this is in the interest in Costco (and Trader Joe’s) and other retailers that seem to make the choice concerning good wine or good value wine a little simpler. Costco is now the largest wine retailer in the U.S., as the blog post explains, and it does this in an unexpected way – by giving consumers fewer choices than a typical upscale supermarket (about 120 different wines at typical Costco versus more than 1200 different wines at your supermarket), but also giving them more confidence in the choices that they make.

Project Genome

Visitors to The Wine Economist reflect many qualities that research by Constellations Brands (the largest wine company in the world) has uncovered. The study is called Project Genome, which suggests that it is an attempt to sequence wine drinker DNA. Wines and Vines reports that

The original 2005 study of 3,500 wine drinkers was one of the largest consumer research projects ever conducted by the wine industry. The new study examined the purchases of 10,000 premium-wine consumers–defined as those who purchased wine priced at $5 and higher–over an 18-month period. While the first Project Genome study asked online survey participants to recall their wine purchases during the last 30 days, the Home & Habits study tracked the actual purchases of Nielsen Co.’s Homescan® consumer purchase panel, which employs in-home bar code scanners and surveys to map consumer buying behavior across a demographically balance

Nielsen measured consumer attitudes and purchase behavior within multiple purchase channels, including warehouse clubs, supermarkets, mass merchandisers, drug stores, liquor stores and wine shops. The scan data were supplemented with online interviews to classify consumers by Project Genome consumer segments identified in Constellation’s original study: Enthusiasts, Image Seekers, Savvy Shoppers, Traditionalists, Satisfied Sippers and Overwhelmed.

The largest group of wine consumers are the Overwhelmed (23% of consumers). They are described as

  • Overwhelmed by sheer volume of choices on store shelves
  • Like to drink wine, but don’t know what kind to buy and may select by label
  • Looking for wine information in retail settings that’s easy to understand
  • Very open to advice, but frustrated when there is no one in the wine section to help
  • If information is confusing, they won’t buy anything at all.

The second largest group are Image Seekers (20% of consumers). They

  • View wine as a status symbol
  • Are just discovering wine and have a basic knowledge of it
  • Like to be the first to try a new wine, and are open to innovative packaging
  • Prefer Merlot as their No. 1 most-purchased variety; despite “Sideways,” Pinot Noir is not high on their list
  • Use the Internet as key information source, including checking restaurant wine lists before they dine out so they can research scores
  • Millennials and males often fall into this category.

Traditionalists (16% of consumers)

  • Enjoy wines from established wineries
  • Think wine makes an occasion more formal, and prefer entertaining friends and family at home to going out
  • Like to be offered a wide variety of well known national brands
  • Won’t often try new wine brands
  • Shop at retail locations that make it easy to find favorite brands.

The Savy Shoppers (16% of consumers)

  • Enjoy shopping for wine and discovering new varietal s on their own
  • Have a few favorite wines to supplement new discoveries
  • Shop in a variety of stores each week to find best deals, and like specials and discounts
  • Are heavy coupon users, and know what’s on sale before they walk into a store
  • Typically buy a glass of the house wine when dining out, due to the value.

Satisfied Sippers make up 14% of consumers. They

  • Don’t know much about wine, just know what they like to drink
  • Typically buy the same brand–usually domestic–and consider wine an everyday beverage
  • Don’t enjoy the wine-buying experience, so buy 1.5L bottles to have more wine on hand
  • Second-largest category of warehouse shoppers, buying 16% of their wine in club stores
  • Don’t worry about wine and food pairing
  • Don’t dine out often, but likely to order the house wine when they do.

And, finally, Wine Enthusiasts are the smallest group, accounting for just 12% of all wine buyers. They

  • Entertain at home with friends, and consider themselves knowledgeable about wine
  • Live in cosmopolitan centers, affluent suburban spreads or comfortable country settings
  • Like to browse the wine section, publications, and are influenced by wine ratings and reviews
  • 47% buy wine in 1.5L size as “everyday wine” to supplement their “weekend wine”
  • 98% buy wine over $6 per bottle, which accounts for 56% of what they buy on a volume basis.

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Not surprisingly, Wine Enthusiasts and Image Seekers account for nearly half of all wine sales while Overwhelmed consumers purchase disproportionately little wine. While wine magazines find a ready market at the top of the pyramid, retailers and wine companies probably view the Overwhlemed as the potential “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” There is a lot of money that can be made if wine can be simplified (or these consumers educated) so that they move up the wine buying ladder.

Visitors to The Wine Economists seem to fall into three of Constellation’s categories: Enthusiasts, Image Seekers and the Overwhelmed based upon the limited and superficial “most popular post” data reported here. It will be interesting to track further Project Genome results as they are released and to see how Constellation Brands uses this information in its wine market strategies.

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.

A Tale of Three Brands

I was asked to give a talk at a university wine event recently and my colleague Amy Ryken selected the wines: three New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, all from Marlborough: Monkey Bay (2006), Nobilo (2006) and Kim Crawford. The Kim Crawford was the first 2007 vintage I have tasted and it made me realize why people like this wine. I like it for its distinctively pungent tropical fruit flavors, which displayed themselves very well in the young, fresh wine. But winemakers must like it because of its distinctively favorable economics. Some wines spend years in the barrel before they can be sold, but not this one. You harvest the grapes in March or April in New Zealand and the wine’s already on sale in the U.S. in September. That’s Chateau Cash Flow!

The three wines were different and each had its champions, but all three were unmistakably Marlborough products. They had something else in common: all three were sold by Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company. This fact made me appreciate how very important branded wine products and distribution clout are in the wine business today. How did theses wines come to belong to Constellation Brands and to arrive at our local stores. Here are three stories.

Nobio wines was founded more than 60 years ago by Nikola Nobilo, a Croatian migrant to New Zealand (most of the famous names in New Zealand wine are of Central or Eastern European origin and came to that island country attatched to migrants fleeing poverty and war). Nobilo prospered and was acquired a few years ago by BRL Hardy, the big Australian drinks conglomerate. When BRL Hardy merged with Constellation Brands, Nobilo came along in the deal. So Nobilo benefits today from its access to Constellation’s powerful distribution system and its expertise in marketing branded goods.

Kim Crawford’s story is a little different. Kim Crawford is a famous New Zealand winemaker who made his reputation at Cooper’s Creek and Saint Clair Estate and opened the first Marlborough “virtual winery.” He purchased grapes from contract growers, leased production space from other wineries, and made great wine. Kim Crawford was so well known for making great wine that he became an iconic brand, sort of like Martha Stewart (and that’s a good thing). “Kim Crawford” on the label as winemaker or winery owner is a sign of quality.

But even brands need distribution, especially for the export market, so Kim Crawford cut a deal with Hogue Cellars of Washington state that brought their wines into the U.S. and Canada. The distribution relationship continued when Hogue was purchased by Vincor, the Canadian wine giant, which was itself eventually bought by Constellation Brands in 2006. Kim Crawford still makes the wines, as near as I can tell, but Constellation owns the “intellectual property,” which must mean the brand rights.

The third wine was Monkey Bay. Monkey Bay is the best selling brand of New Zealand wine in the United States. As near as I can tell there is no “Mr. Monkey Bay” in the same way there is a Mr. Nobilo and a Mr. Kim Crawford. And I am not completely convinced that there really is a Monkey Bay, although one is indicated on the company website.

You see, Monkey Bay is a created brand, like most of the “critter wines” are. The name is created and the wine designed to appeal to a particular market niche or lifestyle segment. “Monkey” suggests that the wine is fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Bay” suggests an island locale, which is appropriate, and perhaps will remind some of Cloudy Bay, the famous (and much more expensive) high end Marlborough wine, which is owned by the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Constellation Brands invented Monkey Bay because they thought they could market the brand and the wine — and they seem to have been immensely successful. The grapes apparently come from Nobilo vineyards.

Why not call it Nobilo wine? Apparently the Money Bay moniker appeals to a different market segment. And by segmenting the market, Constellation Brands can attract buyers with different buying preferences at different price points.

Should we be concerned about so many Constellation Brands wines on the shelf? Well, these wines showed that market consolidation does not necessarily produce homogeneous wines. But that’s only the beginning of an answer. More to follow in future posts.

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