Stein’s Law and the Coming Crisis in Argentinean Wine

Stein’s Law, named for famed economist Herbert Stein, holds that if something cannot go on forever it will stop.  Unsustainable trends ultimately yield to the inevitable in one way or another.

Stein’s Law seems to be simply stating the obvious, but you would be surprised how many people find a way to ignore the obvious when it is in their interest to do so.  As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Argentina’s Inflation Problem

And so we consider the case of the Argentinean wine industry. It’s not just the wine sector, of course, it’s the whole Argentinean economy, but wine is especially affected.  Something’s going to happen according to Stein’s Law, because it can’t go on forever as it has up to now, but it is hard to know exactly what.

The problem begins with Argentina’s high inflation rate. The official statistic puts the annual increase in consumer prices at around 10%, but this number is viewed with disbelief by the international economic community. The Economist magazine quit publishing the official figure in 2012, saying “Don’t lie to me, Argentina” to the officials there. The most commonly cited estimate of the actual inflation rate is 25% per year.

Inflation is a sensitive political issue in Argentina as it is in every country that has ever experienced a hyperinflation crisis (think Germany, for example). Some in Argentina go to great lengths to deny the obvious reality of inflation.

The story (which may be true) is told about a McDonalds restaurant in Buenos Aires that displayed all the usual products on its big backlit menu board except the signature Big Mac. Where’s the Big Mac? Oh, we have that price hidden around the corner so that no one will see it — especially the people from The Economist magazine who use it to estimate the purchasing power of the peso in their Burgernomics index!

Inflationary Squeeze

As a recent article on The Drinks Business website suggests, high inflation is putting the squeeze on Argentina’s wine producers. (The squeeze is made worse,  I understand, by government policies that restrict imports of products used in wine production as part of a general policy to control foreign exchange reserves). Production costs (grapes, labor, etc.) may have doubled over the past four years, putting a squeeze on margins.

It is difficult to pass these peso costs along to consumers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Brazil, the main export markets. Consumers are price sensitive and while the average export price of  varietal Cabernet and Merlot wines have risen by 7.2% and 24.8% respectively in the past year, this provides only limited relief from rising costs since Malbec takes the lion’s share of the export market and its dollar export price has risen by just 1% in the last year and by an average of only 2.8% per year since 2009.

Purchasing Power Inaction

The textbook remedy to this situation is for the foreign exchange value of the peso to fall to achieve what economists call Purchasing Power Parity. In a system of market determined exchange rates, according to the PPP theory, a 25% fall in the domestic purchasing power of the peso due to inflation should result in a 25% decrease in its foreign exchange value.

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And indeed the peso has depreciated, but not by nearly enough to overcome the inflation difference between Argentina and the four main export markets. The peso has fallen in value by about 20% in the last two years, if we look at the official exchange rate, so each dollar of export earnings brings in more pesos,  but inflation-driven peso costs have increased by much more.  That puts a real squeeze on margins. This can’t go on forever — something has to give.

[I'm told that the black market exchange rate is 8 pesos per U.S. dollar, far below the official rate of about 5 per dollar. Such a big differential is often an indicator of crisis to come.]

Something’s Gotta Give

What happens when a country gets itself caught in a squeeze like this? Well, the conventional wisdom is there needs to be a sharp currency devaluation followed by monetary tightening to control inflation. This is a painful process and Argentina has been through it before. What if the government ignores the conventional wisdom? Internal adjustment must eventually take place to restore competitiveness if external adjustment through the exchange rate is ruled out.

A recent Wall Street Journal article about real estate prices in Buenos Aires shows one pattern of adjustment. The dollar prices of luxury apartments have tumbled as owners seek to cash out of their real estate investments and buy into the more credible U.S. currency.  The WSJ reports that

In May last year, Argentine President Christina Kirchner strictly limited access to U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies in a bid to stem capital flight. With the Argentine peso facing about 25% annual inflation (government figures, widely discredited, set the rate much lower), and an unofficial exchange rate that has effectively devalued the peso sharply, demand is high for dollars.

These days, the main feature that foreign buyers say they look for in a Buenos Aires property has nothing to do with closet space or a wide terrace. It is a seller with a bank account outside Argentina to which they can legally wire funds. This is a way to get around having to convert any dollars wired into Argentina into pesos at the official rate, after which it is nearly impossible to convert back into dollars at the official rate.

Something will have to give in the wine industry, too, if the exchange rate doesn’t adjust and the currency controls continue. In the meantime, I think every effort is being made to control costs and to keep margins out of the red. But, as Herb Stein might say, this can’t go on forever so somehow it will stop.

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Herbert Stein may be best known today as father of Ben Stein, the actor, law professor, and columnist, but he was ever so much more famous in his day as a chairman of the president’s council of economic advisers

Little known fact: the Pabst beer company held an economics competition in 1944 (the year of the Bretton Woods conference)  for the best plan to sustain high employment in the post-war era. Herb Stein’s plan was named the winner from among the more than 36,000 entries. He was 28 years old and the prize was $25,000 — the equivalent of $330,000 today.

Fluid Dynamics: Charting the Global Wine Market

I’m in Innsbruck today, on my way home from the annual meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists. About 160 of us gathered last week in Bolzano, Italy, which is surely one of the most beautiful wine cities in the world, to ponder the state of the world of wine.

I’ll be writing about the meetings in future posts (and about fieldwork we did while in Italy, too),  but for now I want to focus on the conference’s final session, which was on the global wine market.

The gist of the session was that the global wine market is going through a period of seemingly chaotic change (hence the “fluid dynamics” title to this post). Several new trends are emerging and each of them can be tracked, but it is hard to know how they will interact in the global markets.

I’m not sure any one of the speakers (see list below) stressed the uncertainty of the dynamic interaction, but this was the message that came through to me.

Up the Down Staircase in Europe

In Europe, for example, there is some good news in the form of increased wine consumption among young people — a possible reversal in the secular decline in wine consumption in “old world” countries (a group that includes Argentina) which has been responsible in part for the global wine market surplus. A good sign that demographic trends may be changing in a positive way.

On the other hand, there is bad news about the EU wine market reforms that were designed to dry up Europe’s wine lake by rationalizing the wine system there and forcing/permitting wine producers to compete head to head with new world wine companies. The recession’s effects are being used as a tool by anti-reform interests and it now appears possible or likely (depending upon who is talking) that the whole reform program may be ditched in order to stabilize grower incomes.

Although European consumers may be drinking more wine, it is not the wine that the reforms were designed to eliminate, so structural imbalances (and high budget costs) may soon return.

Bulking Up (and Down)

Australia is another dynamic wine region. While wine officials have high hopes for China in the future, the present is problematic. Bottled wine exports (with their higher value added) have dropped quite suddenly and more of the export demand is now being met with lower value bulk wine. This is not a step in the right direction for the long term, of course, although I’ imagine that some Australian producers are happy to export in any form.

Javier Merino from Argentina noted the recent growth in both Chile and Argentina (Argentina is the mirror of Australia, reducing its bulk wine exports and increasing bottle wine sales) as well as the economic problems that both nations face (exchange rate issues in Chile, inflation in Argentina).

China is on (almost) everyone’s mind, of course, as it appears to be one of the major growth areas for the near future, but Brazil and Russia are growing, too, and on the radar for countries with extra wine to sell (which is more or less everyone).

This Changes Everything

But South Africa may be a different story. Nick Vink said that he believes that South Africa’s markets of the future are Africa and India (not Britain and the US) as wine consumption rises in these regions and favorable wine market reforms are implemented (a particular problem in India, I believe, but probably in many parts of Africa, too).

Wine markets shifting to Shanghai? That’s interesting. To Nairobi? That’s very interesting! Nonlinear dynamic systems are very sensitive to initial conditions and the Africa shift (or any of the other changes mentioned here) could very easily “change everything” in faraway corners of the world of wine.

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Here’s a list of the wine economists who spoke at the session on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Global Wine Market

  • Kym Anderson (University of Adelaide, Australia)
  • Johan Swinnen (University of Leuven, Belgium)
  • Nick Vink (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa)
  • Julian Alston (University of California, Davis, USA)
  • Javier Merino (Área del Vino, Mendoza, Argentina)

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The Wine Economist is going to take a short “Fourth of July” break to give me time to get my notes in order. We’ll be back in a few days with more from our fieldwork in Italy. In the meantime, run out and buy a copy of Wine Wars — it makes great holiday reading.

Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?

The brand is Bad Boy Bordeaux

Is Bordeaux still relevant? Relevant to those of us in the United States, I mean. It used to define fine wine, but now we don’t seem to buy much of it – the momentum’s shifted to Asia. It’s just another “brand” to many Americans, and not one that is especially successful.

Shanken News Daily recently published Bordeaux export data that suggest that interest in Bordeaux has dropped off sharply in the U.S., now the world’s biggest overall wine market but no longer a powerful player in the Bordeaux game.

Bordeaux By the Numbers

Germany leads the Bordeaux export league table measured by volume with 2.9 million 9-liter cases in 2010. China, Belgium, the UK and Japan follow, with the U.S. and Hong Kong lagging behind.

Things change markedly when the ranking is by value not volume. Hong Kong received €251 million worth of Bordeaux wine followed by the UK, China, Belgium, Germany and then the United States and Japan. U.S. Bordeaux purchases amounted to €99 in 2010, down from €247 in 2008 (when the U.S. was second only to the British in Bordeaux imports).  Outrageous pricing is the problem, the Shanken report suggests, and not just the dismal economic climate.

U.S. importers paid €99 million for 1.3 million cases of Bordeaux in 2010, or about a bit more than €76 per case. Germany, on the other hand, paid €111 million for 2.9 million cases, which works out to less than €40 per case — a very different kind of Bordeaux. By comparison, Hong Kong paid €251 million for 0.8 million cases of Bordeaux for an average of over €300 per case. Obviously there are many Bordeaux wines and markets, not just one. And obviously the United States is not a leading player in any of them.

Vintage Arias

I was thinking about all the fuss that there is about Bordeaux, the annual en primeur circus and the critic ratings of these wines and suddenly I found myself humming an opera tune. What can opera teach us about Bordeaux wine? Maybe nothing! But please read on anyway.

Bordeaux’s problem is that it is so expensive. Opera has that problem, too. Opera is arguably the most expensive form of art. Large capital expenditures are required (have you priced an opera house recently?). The sets and costumes used in high end opera are so expensive that they are stored for future use and rented out to earn a few extra bucks. Opera is enormously labor intensive, too.  You need soloist singers, a chorus and an orchestra and conductor. Dancers are often also required. Most of these artists have trained for years and years, so we might add in human capital costs, too.

There may be some type of regularly produced art that is more expensive to make, but I don’t know what it is. It isn’t a surprise, therefore, that opera evolved as an art for rich elites and the opera houses became gilt palaces of conspicuous consumption. The tunes made it out onto the street, of course, and into the parlor, too, when sheet music publishing caught on, but the focus was on Grand Opera, the elite patrons who watched it and the elite artists who performed it.

Opera video: Champagne not Bordeaux and J. Strauss not R. Wagner, but you get the idea.

Elites and Masses

Opera soon went global as the influence of European elites spread to the Americas and Asia. You can still see evidence of this cultural flow in the beautiful opera houses scattered across the world wherever colonial centers emerged  and in faded news articles about the famous (if fading) touring opera stars who performed in them.

Then technology in the form of broadcast radio and recordings (and then television, dvds etc.) brought opera to the masses. Opera on the radio here in the U.S. began  in 1931 with the first Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. The regular Saturday performances, sponsored for years by Texaco, became  part of the common experience of American life. Opera really meant something.

But technology, which initially democratized opera, eventually became a corrosive force, too. Technology allowed opera to move from free broadcast media to pay-to-listen satellite radio and pay-to-view HD opera showings in movie theaters.  More significantly, however, communications technology opened up an alternative universe of tunes to whistle and performances to enjoy.

Back to Bordeaux

Opera lost its privileged status and became just another artistic niche. Attention was paid, as it must, because of the quality of the works and the sacrifices of those who organized and performed them, but opera’s high cost became harder to justify. Attention became focused on the tried and true “war horses” that would be certain to sell tickets. New operas were still written and sometimes performed, but not as often as one might hope. Opera still means something, but it is not the same.

It seems to me that the attention given to Bordeaux bears more than some superficial similarity to our attitude towards opera, although I naturally do not want to push the analogy too far. Bordeaux, like opera, used to be a signifier of taste both among elites who could afford it and the masses who could not. (And probably still is in Hong Kong and China.)

Like opera, top flight Bordeaux is a victim of its successes and excesses – now so expensive that even rich Americans balk at the prices. The focus is on those wines at the top of the 1855 Classifications and a few others that have been identified by Parker and other critics.

It is What it Is

But Bordeaux is not the only game in town. The globalization that made Bordeaux prices soar has also opened up a world of excellent alternatives. There are a lot of great wines; maybe Chateau Lafite is as great as La Traviata, but only a few will have the money, taste and opportunity to sample either one at its best.

I started this essay by asking if Bordeaux is still relevant and I have decided that it is, but in the particular way that great opera is still relevant.   Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture)  generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux. At least that’s how it looks here in the U.S.

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Reading this post, I think it is a fair criticism to say that I may have overstated the prior cultural significance of both opera and Bordeaux in order to make their current status seem like a great fall from grace.  This may be true about opera, but I’m not sure about Bordeaux. I see a great disconnect between the attention given Bordeaux and sales here in the U.S.

Another criticism is that I have ignored Bordeaux’s premier status in the wine auction market. This is true, although I am not sure if the fact that Bordeaux has become a prized “alternative asset class” investment necessarily weakens my argument.

Argentinean Wine: Striking a Balance

Old and New at Mendel Wines

Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNGT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

Thinking Global: Anabelle Sielecki

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big concrete (or were they adobe?) fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

[Interestingly, I saw concrete tanks again during our visit to Achaval Ferrer.  Roberto Cipresso, the winemaker there, built the tanks because he uses them at his winery in Montalcino.]

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Acting Local: Roberto de la Mota

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.  She is married to Héctor Timmerman, Argentina’s Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the United States, so her international interest comes naturally.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.


[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Argentinean Wine: A SWOT Analysis

The first thing we did when Sue and I arrived in Mendoza was to walk to the offices of Área del Vino, the group that publishes Vinos y Viñas magazine, the WineSur website and provides economic and strategic analysis to the wine industry here. We met with Javier Merino, Área del Vino director, and Gonzalo Merino, director of WineSur. They got our visit off to a flying start.

Our discussion was wide ranging. Gonzalo is working on new media projects to expand the market for Argentinean wine and reach a new generation of consumers. Javier was just back from Hong Kong and China and keen to discuss the potential new markets there. Both were happy to talk about controversial questions, such will the Malbec boom be sustained and whether Torrontés really is The Next Big Thing.

Their analysis has been very useful to me as I have met with wine-makers, winery owners and managers. Based on all these discussions I have prepared this SWOT analysis, which represents my current thinking about Argentinean wine today. This is a work in progress (and necessarily very brief), so I welcome comments that correct my thinking or re-direct my analysis.

Strengths

Argentina has many strengths. The most important may be that it has a “hot” brand, its signature Malbec. When wine enthusiasts think of Argentina they think of Malbec and vice versa — a strong identity that many wine regions envy.

But, as I will explain in future posts, Argentina is not just Malbec (or even just Malbec and Torrontés as some writers propose).  Quality extends across a broad spectrum of wine varieties, styles and price points, which is a very good thing.

Weaknesses

That said, the industry is very dependent upon exports of Malbec to three main markets, the United States, Brazil and Canada.  There would be trouble if Malbec exports to these markets were to falter due to either a decline in demand to a shift to some other “hot” variety.

The domestic market for wine is very substantial, but it is still dominated by low-price basic wines — another weakness. The Argentinean industry would be much stronger if a larger domestic market for quality wines could be developed.

Water is also an issue here as it is in many wine regions. Not an issue today, Javier told me, but for the future. And of course the future is fast approaching.

Threats

There are a number of very serious economic threats that cloud the short term outlook. Domestic inflation is high in Argentina. The government estimate is about 10%, but I failed to find anyone who thinks that it is less than 25%.  Production costs are rising rapidly– labor, grapes and other inputs are increasingly expensive. Land prices for new vineyard projects seem to be growing exponentially.

Revenues are not increasing at the same rate, with the result that margins are being squeezed.  In fact, the pressure is on to cut prices in the competitive U.S. market. It is not clear how long the current combination of rising costs and falling revenues (or soft revenue growth) can be sustained.

I visited several wineries that were clearly focused on increasing efficiency in an attempt to claw back margin without sacrificing quality.  But I also heard rumors of wineries that were taking the perhaps desperate move to source lower cost grapes from other regions to stay in business. The concern was that quality would suffer and The Brand undermined.

Opportunities

There are many opportunities and they fall into two categories: new wines and new markets. By new wines I mean a movement to expand Brand Argentina beyond value Malbec, both into the higher reaches of the wine wall and into other varietals. I’ll be writing more about this in future posts.

I’ve already written about the new markets. As I listened to Javier discuss the great potential in countries like Brazil, with large and growing populations and fast economic growth I knew just what he was talking about: The BRICs (and the New BRICs). Javier believes that the BRIC-like markets  are the key to the next stage of Argentina’s export growth. Because geography still matters in both wine and economics, Brazil is a particularly attractive target, but both Hong Kong and China are high on the list.

Argentina’s China card is that its wines could fill an open market niche. Not cheap bulk wines like those from Chile and Australia. And not overpriced prestige labels like those from France. Quality Malbec from Argentina would be more affordable (and in most cases better) than the French and of course much better than the bulk wines. Distinctive, too, on several dimensions.

But China’s a tough market to break into, as I have said before.  China will require patience and good luck as well as good wine.

The new market with the greatest potential for Argentinean wines may be Argentina itself.  Nearly everyone I talked with said that the best thing that could happen would be for the domestic market for quality wine to expand, making the industry less dependent on exports and less vulnerable to inflation and exchange rate changes.

Bottom Line Analysis

So what’s the bottom line? Well, of course, I believe that the long run opportunities are important, but it seems to me that the short term threats are on everyone’s mind right now, in particular, the inflation-exchange rate squeeze. If inflation continues at high rates and the U.S. dollar – peso exchange rate stays stuck at about 4 pesos per dollar, some producers here will be squeezed out of the U.S. market. Perhaps they can sell to Brazil or on the domestic market, but the prospects are not good if everyone tries to shift focus at once.

What is keeping the exchange rate stuck at an over-valued level? Politics and fear, I suppose. There’s a presidential election in the fall and everything here has taken on a political significance, so it is no wonder that holding the line on the exchange rate (and denying that an inflation problem exists) would be political, too.

And then there is the fear.  Argentina has experienced inflation-devaluation vicious cycles in the past. Inflation leads to a falling currency, which adds to inflation pressures, which forces the currency down even more. Etc, etc.  There’s a worry here that lowering the exchange rate would set the cycle off once again and nobody wants that.

Fear and politics are powerful forces. Argentinean wine, for all its strengths and opportunities, is caught in the squeeze.

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Thanks to Javier Merino, Área del Vino director, and Gonzalo Merino, director of WineSur for meeting with us in Mendoza and to everyone who has talked with us about wine economics in Argentina during our stay here.  Watch for future posts that examine particular elements of the Argentina wine story in more detail.

More Bad News for Australia: Parallel Imports

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I write about the Australian wine industry: bad news, bad news, bad news.

Most recently the bad news was the Dutch Disease. Australia’s mineral export success has driven up the foreign exchange value of the Australian dollar, making imports cheaper and exports (including wine exports) more expensive abroad.

That’s just what the shell-shocked Australian wine industry needs — higher prices or slimmer margins in key export markets!  But now the bad news is even worse — the strong Aussie dollar is driving down wine prices in Australia’s domestic market and slashing producer margins there, too.  How? Through “parallel import” programs that crafty retailers have put into effect. An article from the Sydney Morning Herald explains the situation.

Caution: Economics Content

Parallel imports are a consequence of a very common practice called international price discrimination. Price discrimination is the business strategy of charging different prices to different customers for similar or even identical products. Different buyers have different ability to pay and price sensitivity and it is sometimes possible to charge some customers a high price and others a low price in an attempt to extract all possible revenue from the market demand curve.

Classic examples of price discrimination include the highly complex pricing system that airlines typically employ with some seats being sold for four or five times the cheapest fare depending on when and how the ticket is purchased. Student and senior citizen discounts are relatively benign and generally accepted price discrimination examples.

International price discrimination is the practice of selling similar goods at different prices in different countries based on local demand conditions. In the case of Australian wine, for example, it appears that local wine market conditions in Brazil or Malaysia might cause winemakers to want to sell products there at lower prices than in the more mature domestic market. If the prices are set correctly, the combination of lower prices in some markets and higher prices in others can maximize the winemaker’s profit.

The Key to Price Discrimination

The key to price discrimination, according to your Econ 101 professor, is to prevent resale. The whole strategy backfires if someone finds a way to buy your products in the low price market and resell them (undercutting your sales) in the high price market. This fact limits price discrimination to situations where resale is costly, difficult or just plain impossible.

If someone finds a way to sell your discounted product back to the home market, the logic of price discrimination explodes.

Now the “parallel import” problem in Australia is that some large retailers there have discovered stocks of lower-priced Australian wines in other countries and are importing them back into Australia to sell for less. The strength of the Australian dollar (Dutch Disease again) makes this even more profitable. The Herald reports that

Parallel importing is … hurting business as supermarket chains and some of the bigger independent bottleshop chains bypass Australian brand licensees and import from third parties in countries including Brazil, Malaysia and the US.

Parallel importing hit record levels in the past year as the dollar continued to strengthen and retailers, looking for ways to drive prices down and exert control over their suppliers, became more aggressive in importing.

Some Australian producers are thus getting a double squeeze in their home market. They are exporting wine at the slimmest of margins (because of lower foreign market prices and the strong Australian dollar’s impact) only to see the wine shipped right back and sold by local retailers, undercutting their plans for higher margin home market sales.

Why do they call these “parallel imports?” I imagine it is because the imports and exports form two parallel lines, with cargo ships full of outbound and inbound wine containers crossing mid-ocean. Australian wine producers need to cross their fingers that even more bad news is not in the cards.

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Special thanks to my Australian informant “Crocodile Chuck” for tipping me off to this situation.

Vineyard Plague: The Dutch Disease

As if things weren’t bad enough in Australia, now there’s this: the Dutch Disease. No, it isn’t a fungus spread when you plant tulip bulbs in the vineyard or something you saw on the television series House MD. It’s much more serious than that. And it’s hitting South Africa, too. Look out!

Australia’s Perfect Storm

I’ve written several times about Australia’s continuing wine crisis. It seems like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Too much heat, too little water, excess capacity, collapsing demand — even smoke-tainted grapes caused by runaway brush fires. Yikes!

Now there is more bad news and it’s the result of too much good news? Good news is bad news? Yes. Read on.

The Dutch Disease is the name economists give to the problem of too much good news in one industry and its negative impact on the rest of the economy. If one sector of the economy gets hot on global markets (think oil exports, for example) one effect can be that export sales increase the demand for the country’s currency, causing it to appreciate in real terms. The rising currency value makes all the nation’s other products more expensive on foreign markets, sending them into a tail-spin.

The Good News the Bad News

That’s how good news in one part of the economy can backfire. The Economist magazine apparently invented the term to describe the dilemma of the Netherlands after a big gas field was found there in 1959.

The good news / bad news in Australia is clearly the fact that China’s economy is growing rapidly and sucking in the natural resources that Australia has in considerable abundance. But big purchases of the Australian dollar needed to pay for these products has pushed the currency up, making Australian wines more expensive here in the U.S.

This helps explain why off-premises sales of Australian wines are still falling here even though many other segments of the wine market are recovering. Recent Nielsen retail data show the U.S. wine market growing by 4.3 percent in the period ending in August, but sales of Australian wine fell by 7.5 percent (data from the November issue of Wine Business Monthly).

As the chart above shows, the Australian dollar has continued to appreciate since these data were compiled, magnifying both the Dutch Disease problem and the sense of crisis in the Australian wine industry.

South Africa Also Hit

South Africa seems to be experiencing the Dutch Disease as well. There are many factors that have contributed to the sharp rise of the Rand against the dollar, but surely the surge in gold prices must be the most important one. As speculators and investors who have worried about inflation turn to gold, their purchases have driven up the value of South Africa’s currency as well.

This helps explain why sales of South African wine in the U.S. have been in a bad slump. Nielsen data indicate that South African wine sales fell by 8.3 percent in August and by 9.4 percent in the last year.

The U.S. dollar’s rapid recent fall will affect all countries that depend on our huge markets for exports, but inevitably some will be hit more than others.  Those like Australian and South Africa who suffer the Dutch Disease will be challenged the most.

We’ve entered an era of extremely unstable currencies, reflecting both the inherent instability of international financial flows and the increasingly cut-throat battles in the global currency wars. Inevitably many industries — including wine — will get caught in the cross-fire.

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The Wine Economist 200

This is The Wine Economist’s 200th post since it began a little more than three years ago under the name “Grape Expectations” —  a good opportunity to reflect briefly on readership trends, just as I did when we passed milepost 100.

Not that kind of list!

Milepost 200

The Wine Economist has an unusually broad readership given its focus (wine economics), content (no wine reviews, no ratings) and style (most posts are way longer than is typical for weblogs).

I never expected to get millions of visitors like Dr. Vino or Gary V. and other popular wine critic sites, so I’m surprised by how many people have found this page and come back to read and re-read.

About 200,000 visitors have clicked on these links, sometimes with surprising intensity. The Wine Economist has been ranked as high as #6 in the big “Food”  category where wine blogs are filed in Technorati‘s daily ratings and as high as the top 30 in the even broader “Living” group.

Reader Favorites

The most-read articles of the last few days are always listed in the right-hand column on this page, so it is easy to see track reader behavior. I thought you might be interested in readership trends since the blog began. Here are the top ten Wine Economist articles of all time.

  1. Costco and Global Wine — about America’s #1 wine retailer, Costco.
  2. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Bag in the Box) — why “box wine” should be taken seriously.
  3. The World’s Best Wine Magazine? Is it Decanter?
  4. [Yellow Tail] Tales or how business professors explain Yellow Tail’s success.
  5. Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine or how Olive Garden came to be #1 in American restaurant wine sales.
  6. Australia at the Tipping Point — one of many posts about the continuing crisis in Oz.
  7. No Wine Before Its Time explains the difference between fine wine and a flat-pack  antique finish Ikea Aspelund bedside table.
  8. How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine — one of many posts on wine and the recession. Can you believe that some people said that wine sales would rise?
  9. Wine Distribution Bottleneck — damned three tier system!
  10. Curse of the Blue Nun or the rise and fall and rise again of German wine.

As you can see, it is a pretty eclectic mix of topics reflecting, I think, both the quite diverse interests of wine enthusiasts and wine’s inherently complex nature.

My Back Pages

What are my favorite posts? Unsurprisingly, they are columns that connected most directly to people. Wine is a relationship business; building and honoring relationships is what it is all about.

KW’s report on the wine scene in Kabul, Afghanistan has to be near the top of my personal list, for example. I am looking forward to following this friend’s exploits in and out of wine for many years to come. (Afghan authorities found KW’s report so threatening that they blocked access to The Wine Economist in that country!)

Matt Ferchen and Steve Burkhalter (both former students of mine now based in China) reported on Portugal’s efforts to break into the wine market there. The commentaries by Matt, Steve and KW received a lot of attention inside the wine trade, but their thoughtful, fresh approaches also drew links, re-posts and readers from the far corners of the web world.

Looking back, I think my favorite post was probably the very first one, a report on my experiences working with the all-volunteer  bottling crew at Fielding Hills winery. I learned a lot that day about the real world of wine and I continue to benefit from my association with Mike and Karen Wade (and their daughter, Robin, another former student) who have taught me a lot about wine, wine making and wine markets.

Look for another report like this when The Wine Economist turns 300. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who’s helped me in various ways with these first 200 posts. I couldn’t have done it without you! (Special thanks to Sue, my #1 research assistant!)

Big Squeeze on Small Wineries in Argentina

Argentina is generally seen as the big winner in the current U.S. wine market. Sales of Argentinean wines have surged at every price point led by the signature Malbecs, (something that I wrote about in a recent post).  The big picture is great — perhaps the New World’s biggest success story since Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc hit the scene.

Both Sides Now

The devil is in the details, however, and a more detailed analysis of Argentinean exports suggests that some parts of the industry are facing significant challenges. As usual, my source for news and analysis about wine in Argentina is WineSur, which reports that small wineries are really feeling the squeeze in the critical U.S. export market. (See the report by Gabriela Mazilia. )

Small producers are what economists call “price-takers.” They cannot do very much to control the prices they receive on the export markets and they don’t have much control over input prices, either. While a great many business decisions are theirs to take, some of the most critical factors are beyond their control. This is true for all businesses, of course, but more so for some than others.

Mazilia’s report suggests that small Argentinean producers are feeling the squeeze from both sides of the market. Costs are rising rapidly, perhaps especially for the goods and services that winemakers require. Argentina’s  inflation rate is about 10% according to official statistics, but unofficial estimates put the number at about 25%, amongst the highest in the world today. Yikes!  The Economist‘s Big Mac Index reports that Argentina’s currency is much less undervalued now than a year ago even though the exchange rate has depreciated, which is consistent with rapidly increasing local prices.

Magnified Price Effects

Small producers would like to pass higher costs forward to consumers or backwards on to input suppliers, but neither of these options seems possible at this time. Mazilia’s report suggests that export price increases of 5%-10% are possible for wines that retail in the USD 10-18 range, where Argentinean wines are seen as good values. Increases for more expensive wines are apparently out of the question — the market for $20+ wines in the U.S. is just too competitive, too filled with expensive wines selling a a discount.

One problem Argentinean exporters face is that every 10% increase in the price they receive is magnified in absolute terms as the wine passes through the supply chain. One producer cited the dismal math that a USD 1 increase in FOB export price translates into a USD 4 increase in retail prices. Here is an example from the WineSur report:

A case in point is the winery Sur de los Andes. The firm’s owner and manager, Guillermo Banfi, announced: “In the course of this second semester we’ll raise prices from 5 to 10%, in particular in our line of classic wines. We won’t touch the prices of the great reserve line or of our icon wine. Margins have shrunk so much that there’s no way we can keep absorbing the high increase in costs.”

When asked how much of a margin of increase could be born by an Argentinian wine without losing market share, Banfi provided an example that illustrates the situation in the US, a reference market. “In the US, our wines in the USD 10-18 retail price segment sell very well – these are wines with an FOB price of USD 3-5. With an FOB price of USD 3, the consumer price is around USD 11. A rise of 5-10% would imply an increase of USD 1-2 in retail prices, which would have a negative impact on sales, since pricing is a very sensitive issue in this segment.”

Not Much Wiggle Room

Small producers are caught in a squeeze without much room to wiggle. If they don’t raise prices they will watch their margins disappear. If they do, well, they risk finding themselves in unfriendly market territory.

“The problem is that there will be a radical change of scenario for Argentinian wines in the USD 10-20 retail price range. Up to now, these wines have sold well because they are, on average, superior in quality to similarly priced European wines. But from now on, the gap in quality will be narrower, and we’ll be competing with wines of similar quality and price, from regions with a longer standing presence in the market.

Turbulent Tide

It sounds like Argentina’s small producers face an uncertain future, but this is nothing new. The great success of Argentina’s large international wineries in the U.S. market has masked a churning pattern among smaller winemakers. Each year several dozen small wineries enter the U.S. market, but each year others are forced to exit as the turbulent tide advances.

International connections, effective distribution, economies of scale and brand prestige are always advantages in competitive international wine markets. The are especially important to Argentina’s struggling price-taking small producers today.

Extreme Wines: Most Expensive Vintage?

[This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

2009 is by most accounts the most expensive Bordeaux vintage on record. Quite an achievement during a global economic slowdown! Jancis Robinson quotes some amazing prices for the en primeur wines:

Le Pin €1,050
Ausone €800
Cheval Blanc €700
Haut-Brion, Latour €600
Lafite, Margaux, Mouton €550
Yquem €540

Other’s People’s Wine

These prices are per bottle — except that no real bottles exist yet. The 2009 vintage is still in barrel and will stay there for several more months. Since Bordeaux wines are almost always varietal blends — and since the blending won’t take place until the wine is bottled — it is fair to say that the people who are paying these big prices can’t be completely sure what they are buying. They base their purchases on … on what? On faith (in the winemakers), on trust (in the critics’ judgments) and, of course, on speculation, since much of the action at this stage is to lock up hot wines for profitable resale later.

John Maynard Keynes once compared speculators to people who bet on the results of the “people’s choice” beauty contests that were popular in his day. The trick wasn’t to pick out the most beautiful entrant, but rather to  identify the one that other people would vote for. So making the bet was a matter of guessing what other people would think other people would do and playing the odds. That’s Bordeaux en primeur in a nutshell.

How did prices rise so high with the world economy in such a fragile state? There are many theories. Here are four.

(Another) Vintage of the Century

The first theory is quite simple. 2009 was an extraordinary year and the wines are (or will be) spectacular.  Wine enthusiasts will forever regret it if they don’t purchase this vintage, even at high en primeur prices.

This theory is supported by the rave reviews of many wine critics. Perhaps it really is the vintage of the century in Bordeaux, although it must be said that vintages of the century seem to come around pretty frequently these days — their schedule is more like the World Cup than Haley’s Comet.

The China Theory

A second theory is that the high prices of these wines reflects the full emergence of Asia as a market for fine wine.  I’m not sure what to make of all the chatter I heard during the en primeur tasting circus, but the scuttlebutt is that American buyers failed to show up in the usual numbers, but they were not missed because of the demand from China, both direct purchases and London houses buying for eventual Hong Kong resale.

One fact that supports this theory is the huge gap in prices between the top trophy wines and the rest of the Bordeaux market. It is said that Asian buyers want to purchase only the best, most famous wines (rather than looking for bargains or good value further down the list). I don’t know if this stereotype is true, but the stratification in price indicates a disproportionate demand for the top wines, which is consistent with the China theory.

Auction Theory

Another article by Jancis Robinson suggests that the Bordeaux winemakers and their agents are using strategic techniques to try to boost prices, dividing them in tranches, for example, a popular practice in financial markets. Tranche is French for a slice and it is a word that moved from financial jargon to everyday use during the economic crisis, when we all learned how Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were sold off in “slices” that allowed people to convince themselves that their sub-prime mortgage investments were safer than they turned out to be.

Bordeaux wine is sold in tranches, too, with the price of the first slice used to set the standard for the second.  This year, Robinson reports, the first tranche was ridiculously small, creating leaving excess demand and therefore forcing more buyers to weigh in for the second tranche (or risk not getting any wine), which was priced at €100 per bottle more than slice #1 in some cases.

(Wine fact: Tranche is also a winery — and a good one —  Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla.)

Cost-conscious wine drinkers can only hope that the Bordeaux merchants do not start reading the technical economics literature on auction theory, where they would likely find other ways to manipulate the market to squeeze out higher prices.

The No Theory Theory

A final theory is really no theory at all. It holds that the idea that Bordeaux 2009 (broadly defined) is the most expensive Bordeaux vintage ever is a misconception. There are about 8000 Bordeaux producers according to reports I’ve read recently and only about 400 of them take part in the en primeur market. The total production of “first wines” by these makers is surprisingly small. I think it is fair to say that 90 percent of the market’s recent attention is focused on less than 10% (by volume) of the wine produced in Bordeaux.

The prices of the top wines have gone through the roof, but what about the region as a whole? You don’t have to have a theory to appreciate the fact that the makers of ordinary Bordeaux wines do not share the status or benefits of the trophy wines and are probably feeling the pain of hard times like so many winemakers around the world.

Bordeaux 2009 might be extreme in two ways: most expensive and biggest gap between top and bottom!

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