Will Argentina Wine Export Growth Return in 2016?


Last week’s column analyzed the reasons Argentina’s wine boom fizzled out. Wine exports to the U.S market have more or less plateaued since 2010 after a decade of rapid growth. Part of the problem, I wrote, is increased competition in the wine market, particularly from the so-called Red Blends that seem to have taken some of the momentum from Argentinian Malbec.

But the biggest factor has been Argentina’s domestic economic policies, which made it very difficult to do business and squeezed the margins of export industries, including wine. The squeeze has been particularly severe in the value wine categories, where the margins are so tight (or even negative) that Argentinian producers have been squeezed out.

Yes / No / Maybe?

Will Argentina wine growth in the U.S market return in 2016? Maybe is the answer, although 2017 looks like a better bet than 2016. The main reason for optimism is the change in government that took place in December 2015 when Mauricio Macri became President of Argentina, promising an end to the policies that crippled the economy, especially export industries like wine, and pushed inflation skyward.

The Economist magazine reports that Macri is “off to a fast start,” removing export taxes and allowing the peso to fall from its artificially high level. These actions will benefit exporters, but also send a shock to the domestic economy through higher interest rates and a short-term boost in the inflation rate due to rising import costs.

Argentina’s wine industry it likely to be twisted in 2016, with falling domestic economic activity offset by the exchange rate’s boost for exports. Growth in both domestic and export markets will have to wait until 2017 and beyond.  Good news under the circumstances even if it is far short of an instant cure for the ailing industry.

Like a Normal Country

But some of my friends in Argentina tell me that they are not expecting a miracle. They just want Argentina to be “like a normal country,” as they put it, in terms of its politics and economics and perhaps that’s what they will get.

If “normalization” works, will Argentina’s wine boom return to the U.S market? Perhaps, but things have changed and adjusting the macroeconomic levers won’t turn back the clock entirely. Argentina will come back, that’s for sure, although it will take a while for the foreign exchange and other factors to be fully felt  But don’t expect a return of the boom.

The best that Argentina should hope for — and it is actually a good thing — is to be like a “normal country” when it comes to the U.S. wine market. By this I mean that its exports are driven by the normal factors and not subject to booms or crises. Being a normal country in this context suggests a focus on the $10 and above price points, because that is where market grown and margin opportunities are.

A recent Rabobank report on Argentina’s wine sector notes that the reforms will allow more competitive pricing for Argentine wine exporters, but cautions against a rush into the value wine segment where Argentina used to be strong. “There are now opportunities to be more flexible with pricing,” Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv notes, “but these need to be managed carefully in order to avoid undermining the long-term premium positioning of the brand and the overall category. … Excessive pricing moves may allow for windfall profits today, but could create headaches in the long run.”

And being a normaql country also means resisting the temptation to define Argentina as Malbec-ville. I know the temptation to adopt a particular grape as a region’s “signature variety” is strong, but I don’t see it as the best path for the industry.

Three-Dimensional Argentina

Argentina has Malbec, and that’s a good thing. But before the growth slowed smart Argentinean producers were already trying to add dimensions to their market space. Terroir is an obvious dimension that is even more important in signalling quality and  authenticity than it was a few years ago. I think many consumers now look for region — Uco Valley? Salta? — and especially elevation (Malbec develops differently in Argentina depending on the vineyards’ altitude) as quality indicators.

Another way to add dimensions is to exploit grape varieties beyond Malbec. There are so many wines that do well in Argentina besides Malbec and Torrontes, the two “designated” signature grapes. I love Mendel’s old vine Semillion, for example, And we recently surprised a Syrah-loving friend at a local Argentinean restaurant by ordering a higher elevation Syrah from the Uco Valley. He loved it, but would never have thought of  ordering an Argentine Syrah. Time to get that thinking started.

The options are nearly endless, as we learned a few years ago when we visited Buenos Aires and had lunch with sommelier Andrés Rosberg (you can read about the lunch here).  Andrés knew that we would taste many Malbecs during our visit and he wanted to be sure that we understand that Malbec was only the most visible part of the story — not the whole story and maybe not even the best story.

No Sure Things

So he served us a line-up of wines that featured everything except Malbec and it was great. Lesson learned and it was reinforced as we met with winemakers and tasted distinctive Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Bonarda. Malbec? Yes and that’s a good thing. But a lot more, too.

This is an age of discovery for wine and Argentina has much to discover, both within the Malbec terroirs and beyond Malbec. That’s the sort of strategy that “normal countries” are embracing in the U.S. wine market today.

Argentina has little experience as a normal country, making its way without crisis or drama. The success of Macri’s economic policies is not a sure thing since they depend on short-term sacrifice for long-term gains in an uncertain and even unstable global economic environment. It won’t be easy to become normal, but it is an important step.

Sometimes, as Argentina’s national soccer team has demonstrated, great players and great ideas can come to a disappointing end. I am optimistic, however, and hopeful that the wine sector gain will regain momentum while avoiding the boom-bust cycles of the past.

Whatever Happened to Argentina’s Wine Boom?

Whatever happened to Argentina’s wine boom (and can that country’s wine industry recover the momentum it has lost)?

Argentina is an important player in world wine. Recent OIV statistics (click here to download the pdf) tell us that Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world (behind the USA and ahead of Australia) and the eighth largest consumer country. Just a few years ago it seemed like Argentina was poised to become the next New Zealand in terms of its export growth, especially here in the U.S.

Anatomy of the Malbec Boom

New Zealand somehow manages  to sell more Sauvignon Blanc each year and it seemed like Argentina might find a way to do the same with its signature Malbec wines. In fact, the boom was so strong that it made some people nervous, as the award-winning 2011 documentary Boom Varietal revealed. Maybe it was too good to be true? Maybe the world would suddenly get tired of Malbec and move on to something else? What then? Bust?

The boom had many causes. Perhaps the most important was the Argentine Peso Crisis of the early 2000s. The collapse of the peso and the opening of the economy to foreign investment was a painful transition for the people of Argentina, but it restored international competitiveness and encouraged foreign investment, both critical to the industry’s rise.

Shift to US Exports

Like many European countries, wine consumption in Argentina is in long-term decline and the economic crisis made things worse for the domestic market, where inexpensive jug wines dominate. As explained in Laura Catena’s book Vino Argentino and Ian Mount’s The Vineyard at the End of the World, Argentine producers found themselves with no choice but to focus on export markets for growth and that meant major investments to improve quality. The U.S. market was the prime target, a different strategy than Chile, which developed more diversified export opportunities.

The US-led export push was effective for several reasons. First the wines presented good value and rapidly improving quality. The U.S. wine market was growing and consumers were turning away from Merlot and later Syrah/Shiraz, opening the door for easy to drink and understand Malbec.

Some of the most important brands established effective distribution partnerships, which enabled them to lead Argentina into the market and firmly establish the category. Catena partnered with Gallo, for example, to make Alamos the market leader No wonder Argentina’s wine exports boomed year after year.

The only questions, it seemed at the time, were would demand continue to rise and, if it did, could Argentina produce enough Malbec to satisfy thirsty buyers?

Argentina

The End of the Boom

And then? Well, the boom didn’t turn to bust as many feared, but Argentina’s export growth has skidded to a stop. As Kim Marcus reports in his recent Wine Spectator article, exports to the U.S. have plateaued at about 13.2 million cases overall. Recent Nielsen data for off-premises sale as reported in Wine Business Monthly paint only a slightly more optimistic picture, with a meager 0.3% growth rate over the previous 52 week and a 2.5% fall in sales revenues over the most recent four weeks.

The Wine By Numbers figures for January through September 2015 shown above (click on the table to enlarge it) tell the story in detail. Export volume is up overall, but revenues are down because of falling unit price. Good success in bottled wine sales in some markets (UK, Germany and China, for example), is offset by declines elsewhere, including Sweden and Denmark. Note the huge rise in UK bulk sales. But the US market is still #1 for Argentina and it remains flat.

An article by Angel Antin in the current issue of Market Watch adds more detail about the U.S. market situation. Impact Databank statistics show that Argentina wine shipments to the US market peaked in 2010-11 in terms of volume after a decade of rapid growth. 2014 volume was modestly down from that peak, but lower than any year since 2009. The boom seems to have faded.

The situation for individual brands depends very much on price point and margin. Constellation’s Marcus James was the market leader in 2009 with 425 thousand  cases in the U.S. market compared with Alamos with 75 thousand cases. But the situation has changed. Alamos, which sells at a premium price point, has plateaued at 900 thousand cases in 2014. Marcus James, selling at a much lower price point, has slumped to just 180 thousand cases.

The Red {Blend} Menace

What accounts for this situation? The U.S. market has indeed shifted. “Red Blends” are now the fastest growing red wine category, rising to #2  after Cabernet Sauvignon and ahead of Merlot and Pinot Noir. I suspect that some of the Red Blend growth is coming at the expense of Malbec sales.

The Red Blend category is very diverse, encompassing all sorts of blends (even some that include Malbec). I like to joke that the key to Red Blend success is that many of the products are blends of two wines that consumers say they hate but secretly love: Merlot and Shiraz. Whether this is really true or not, Red Blend is a convenient category for producers with stocks of red wines and an inconvenient truth for Argentina producers.

But Red Blends are far from the most important problem. It seems to me that the most severe constraint on Argentina exports in recent years has been supply not demand. Not so much difficulty growing grapes and making wine as navigating the harsh economics of the situation.

Economic Policy Squeeze

The economic policies of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner pushed up inflation rates, which pushed up wage rates, which increased the cost of producing wine. At the same time, the exchange rate was frozen at an artificially high rate, which squeezed margins. Capital controls added to the problem by making it difficult for Argentina to import technology and winemaking supplies from abroad.

The inflation/exchange rate squeeze was particularly hard on the value wine exports that were the initial key to Argentina’s success. It is nearly impossible to profit from exports of Argentinian Malbec with a retail price below about $10, so many of these wines have simply disappeared from the market (a few brave firms are absorbing short-term losses to maintain their market positions for the future).

The good news is that the $10+ part of the U.S. market is growing, and so the Argentinian wines that remain are in a good place. The bad news is that this market segment has become intensely competitive, so it will not be easy to survive and thrive. And of course the Red Blend trend continues.

I’ll end on a positive note. Economic policies are changing in Argentina, which gives hope for the wine industry there for 2016 or perhaps 2017. I’ll analyze the changing market environment in next week’s column.

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Here’s a good soundtrack for any discussion of a boom. Enjoy.

Butterfly Effect: How China’s Crisis Threatens the U.S. Wine Industry

china1“The Butterfly Effect” is a term coined by Edward Lorenz that describes the nature of a highly interconnected system such as the global environment or the global economy. A butterfly beats its wings in Brazil, the story goes, setting off a chain reaction that indirectly results in a tornado thousands of miles away in Texas.

The Butterfly Effect was on my mind last month when I spoke at the annual meeting of the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Napa, California. Part of my presentation outlined several indirect global threats to the California and U.S. wine industries. Two of these are in the news this week.

China Market Meltdown and Contagion

The financial crisis in China was one of the threats that I highlighted. “I know what you are thinking,” I told the group, “Mike, we don’t have a lot of money in the Chinese stock market and we don’t really sell too much wine in China, so I don’t see how falling Chinese stock prices are a threat to our business.” Well, they aren’t much of a direct threat, it’s that Butterfly Effect that you need to worry about.

Economists have a name for the Butterfly Effect of a financial crisis — we call it contagion and it takes several forms. Exchange rates are one way that economic effects are transmitted from country to country.  The Chinese crisis drives down raw material prices on global markets and this has pushed down the foreign currency values of many natural resource producing countries including Australia, New Zealand and Chile.

These three countries are important wine exporters to the U.S. and lower exchange rates for their currencies means increased competition for U.S. producers. When you find that a Chilean producer has undercut your price for bulk Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, there might be a Butterfly Effect at the root of the problem.

Oil is another potential contagion vector. As China slumps, oil prices do, too. This has a disproportionate impact on certain countries such as Russia, which relies on oil exports to China more than in the past due to the current international  sanction regime. When Russia also slumps due to falling oil sales wine producers in Spain, for example, find themselves stuck with excess stocks earmarked for the Russian market. If they try to sell them off here in the U.S. at a bargain price that’s another Butterfly Effect to consider.committee

The Contagion-Busters

Contagion occurs in other ways and I highlighted the group that I think of as  “The Committee to Save the World” (shown above) in my Napa talk (you might prefer to call them the Contagion-Busters). The “Committee’s” job is to stop contagion or at least minimize its effects and it is a difficult task. They have been focused on Greece in recent months, but now it is impossible for them to ignore China.

Hopefully they can prevent the Chinese crisis from having real impacts on other large economies. It is already clear that there have been substantial financial effects (the U.S. stock market “correction,” for example) but the real economy of jobs and output is slower to react and sometimes is less affected. Fingers crossed.

Certainly the Chinese crisis adds risk to the whole world economic system and puts constraints on policy. If the Federal Reserve now goes forward with its widely anticipated plan to raise interest rates in September, for example, the result is likely to be a big spike in the value of the U.S. dollar on foreign exchange markets, putting U.S. wine producers at a further competitive disadvantage. Another beat of the butterfly’s wings?

Keep an eye on China. The impacts could be both bigger and different than you otherwise expect.

Premiumization: Is This the Wine Market’s New “New Normal?”

Is the current U.S. wine market the new “new normal” — can the recent upmarket shift in wine sales be sustained into the future? Two recent Wine Economist columns have detailed the surprising bifurcation of the U.S. wine market and tried to understand what forces are behind it. Wine sales below about $9 are stagnant or falling while upmarket sales revenues are increasing, with the largest percentage rise in the $20+ segment.

This is a surprising state of things, I argued two weeks ago, because the conventional wisdom once held that the Great Recession had created a “new normal” that centered on trading down behavior and discounting strategies. Not many people argued that we’d be “trading up” in the post-recession world.

And, as I noted in last week’s column, it is not clear that it is a simple return to previous behavior. I analyzed several theories for the change and concluded that none of them told the entire story, but together they explain the situation fairly well. So now we have to ask if those trends will continue — if the new market structure is the new “new normal” — or if the upmarket movement is unsustainable.

My answer — typical of an economist — is that it depends. It is really too soon to tell what will happen in the long run because there are so many unpredictable factors to consider. But since I asked this question I feel I ought to give more of an answer, so here’s my attempt at crystal ball gazing.

It’s too soon to tell about the U.S. market in the long run, but the current pattern is likely to be sustained for the medium term, although not necessarily due to the same factors that created it in the first place. Here’s my reasoning.

Decline and Fall of Down-market Wine

Inexpensive wines are not going away, but it seems unlikely that they will soon return to solid growth. This might be because of the alleged “bad wine” effect that I talked about last week, but it is more likely due to supply-side effects.

With water issues rising to the surface almost everywhere and higher irrigation costs in many places, the economic sustainability of low-cost wine grapes is in serious doubt at current prices. Jeff Bitter’s presentation at this year’s Unified Symposium in Sacramento included photos of acres of healthy Central Valley grapes left to rot on the vine because they were not worth the cost of harvest this year and probably not worth irrigation costs next year.

What is the future of these vines? Thousands of acres of vines have been grubbed up in California in recent years to make way for other crops with higher potential value — almonds and pistachios are the most frequently cited crop alternatives, but I’m sure there are others.  Imported bulk wines can easily fill in the gap left by falling California production in the short run, but sustainability issues (both economic and environmental) are a global phenomenon.

Low-cost wine grapes (and the wines they produce) are not going away, but there is limited incentive to invest here and so the focus is upmarket, where margins are better and business sustainability is more feasible.

Up the Down Staircase?

The upmarket movement in wine sales is likely to be sustained at least for some time because it is driven by factors affecting both demand and supply that are not specific to the U.S. but part of strong global trends. The supply-side element is easy to understand. Intense competition has cut margins on basic wines to the bone (and even deeper than that in some markets). Follow the money, Deep Throat said, and wine producers are listening to that advice now more than ever.

Once again, that doesn’t mean that basic wines and the bulk wine trade that has evolved around them are going away. It is simply that this is not the market segment that will get investment in future. Producers are likely to focus even more on the premium, super-premium and ultra-premium segments in the future. Every wine producer I have talked with around the world is focusing on moving up the up staircase and plotting effective distribution and marketing strategies.

On the demand  side I would point to the increasing importance of retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and their many upscale local market competitors that attract customers by providing them with a sense of authenticity and affordable luxury in the quotidian consumption experience.

Products of origin and artisan creations with sustainability credentials — these are the hallmarks of the new retail environment and upscale supermarkets and a growing number of their customers seek out wines that fit that profile. Even hard-discount Aldi is playing along on the wine aisle, providing unexpectedly premium wines in their U.K. stores.

Bronco Busting

Don’t believe that the shift is important? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been wrong, but I think you will find evidence all around you if you look for it. Let me give you just one data point to get you thinking.

Consider the Bronco Wine Company, the famous maker of Two Buck Chuck and many other inexpensive wines. Bronco chief Fred Franzia once said that no wine should cost more than $10 and he built the 4th largest wine company in the U.S. by making those wines both for his own labels and, under contract, for other firms.

Where is Bronco headed today? Well, Two Buck Chuck is still in the picture and I think it is probably still selling about 5 million cases a year as it was the last time I wrote about it. But Bronco is busting out of that market segment via a variety of new products that, while they don’t aim for Screaming Eagle or DRC cult status still fit the profiles I’ve outline here. Several of Bronco’s wines illustrate the upmarket trends that I see for the future, including Garnet and Green Truck.

Garnet Vineyards are maybe not what you’d expect from the maker of Two Buck Chuck. They are all about cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Monterey and more cool climate Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. The highly-regarded Alison Crowe (author of the popular blog The Girl and the Grape)  makes the wines . The Garnet Rogers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ticks the boxes key to buyers seeking authenticity and sells for $29.99 on Amazon.com, about ten times the price of a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

(Editor’s note: Bronco is the sales agent for Garnet but does not make this wine — see Alison Crowe’s comment below, which clarifies the relationship. Thanks to Alison for her correction.)

The long list of wines that Bronco produces and/or distributes includes six different organic wine brands plus a number that are vegan-friendly. Green Truck wine from Mendocino County is a good example. The wines are made from organic grapes and when I searched to see the nearest retailer to me there was Whole Foods near the top of the list.

Buckle Up!

Wine is looking up! The new normal will focus on wines that tell as good a story as other contemporary market products, such as craft beers and spirits and locally-sourced food products. It’s a great opportunity for wine producers, but the market is very competitive and will only get more so.

Buckle up!  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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I thought you might enjoy this 2007  video of  wine critic Oz Clarke and “Top Gear” presenter James May meeting Bronco’s Fred Franzia. Their reaction to Two Buck Chuck may surprise you. Cheers!

Trading Up? The New Conventional Wisdom About the U.S. Wine Market

Last week I wrote about the unexpected state of the U.S. wine market today, where sales of wines above about $9 are strong and growing while the below $9 segments are stagnant or in decline. Thinking back to the dismal state of the wine market a few years ago, with trading down and heavy discounting, the current situation comes as a big surprise.

What accounts for the transformation of the U.S. wine market? And is this the “new normal” that we should expect for future years? Let’s look at the emerging conventional wisdom on these questions.

Trading Up?

I don’t know many people who think that the shift toward more expensive wines is a simple reversal of the recession years’ trading down, although that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Consumers seem as price sensitive as ever, which is why store shelves are still papered with “shelf talkers” like the one shown here that beckon buyers with discounted prices.

Yes, discounting is still going on, although perhaps not quite at the same level as during the Great Recession. The best argument for trading up is that consumers who had an opportunity to sample better wines during the deep discount days and  liked them now are feeling more economically secure and are continuing to buy them at higher prices. I’m sure that this is happening to a certain extent, but I don’t think it is the whole story.  Consumers are simply too focused on price to have suddenly changed.

Price resistance means that most consumers aren’t willing to pay more for the same or similar wine, but they are willing to spend more for something different. Who is doing this?

The Millennial Theory

One theory holds that the changing shape of the wine market is driven by younger wine drinkers — we often call them the millennials here in the U.S. but I have also seen the term “echo boomers” used and Constellation’s latest Project Genome study calls them “engaged newcomers.” As a group they tend to buy wine less frequently than some other groups (they also drink spirits, craft beers and so on) but spend more per bottle. This is the opposite of my behavior as a young wine drinker and probably a good thing.

If what we think we know about millennials is true, then they can account for some of the trend towards higher price wine sales, but they are certainly  not the whole story.  They don’t explain the shift away from lower-priced wines because they were never the driving force there. And they cannot account for all of the upmarket shift because at this point they don’t buy enough wine to move the whole market this way. Millennials are part of the story, but not the whole answer. What else?

The Bad Wine Theory

One very interesting theory is that the relative quality of wine below about $9 has fallen, driving customers away in search of something better to drink. They have found it, too, in craft beers, ciders and spirits.

W. Blake Gray recently made this point in a column titled “Wine under $10 sucks. Should we care?”  Tim Atkin made a similar point about wine in the UK market.  It’s very difficult to find decent wine below £5, he says, which is a change from the past.

A recent article on Bibendum’s website tells the sad UK story, which this graphic illustrates. If you want to get value in wine in the UK, it seems you have to move upmarket. The actual cost of the wine is more than a third of the total cost of a £20 bottle, but less than 10% of the cost of a £5 wine. Shocking!

This deteriorating value of inexpensive wines, if true, is a surprising situation. Only a few years ago we experienced something of a revolution when the character of commercial quality wine improved  quite dramatically (I called it the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck in my book Wine Wars). A structural surplus of decent wine and grapes on the U.S. and world markets made it possible for winemakers to assemble products at low price points that rivaled some brands in higher price segments. The unexpected value they provided drew millions of consumers into the wine markets Is poor quality and value pushing them away?

Well, poor value is certainly part of the answer in the U.K., where high wine duties have distorted the market and undone much of the miracle of the past. And I have some friends in California who complain that cheaper and lower quality bulk wine imports are now filling bottles of California-brand wine. The brand is associated with California (like Barefoot, for example) but the wines themselves come from many places (and are so-designated on the packaging).

Have quality and value suffered? I’m an economist not a wine critic, so I will leave it up to you to decide, but some of my California friends think that’s what’s happened. If this is true, then where is the better California wine going? Some of it is sitting in tanks, which are pretty full after a couple of generous vintages in a row. The rest? Some of it, I think, fills the bottles of wine brands specially created for the new market environment.

The Branded Age

This supply-side theory holds that smart wine executives have noticed that many consumers are willing to pay more for something different (and are put off by the commodity wines) and they have responded by creating new brands to fill specific upscale market niches. This helps explain the great proliferation of wine brands and even virtual wineries on the scene.

Each year I enjoy Jon Fredriksen’s talk about the state of the U.S. wine market at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, but recently I have noticed that his list of the hottest wine brands is full of unfamiliar (to me) names. These aren’t new wineries, simply new brands created by innovative existing large- and medium-sized wine firms.

Jon’s data suggest to me that these are some of the wines that are attracting buyer interest and pulling the market along. An example? Take The Wine Group, which is the second largest wine producer in the U.S. with 57.5 million case sales according to Wine Business Monthly. A few years ago I thought of them in terms of brands like Almaden and Franzia wines, which are  in that lower market tier that is stagnating today.

Now when I think of The Wine Group I think of Cupcake Vineyards, which at 3 million cases is small compared to Franzia’s 26 million, but perfectly fits that upmarket profile and is often priced right at or just above key $9-$10 threshold along with Apothic, 14 Hands and other hot brands.

Which Theory? The New New Normal?

No single theory explains what has happened and the market is full of special cases. Take Argentinian wines, for example. Customers are buying more expensive products from Argentina now in part because the cheaper labels have disappeared. With inflation still soaring and the exchange rate stuck, many Argentinean firms cannot afford to export cheaper Malbecs to the U.S., which shifts the center of gravity upmarket.

All these ideas (and others, too) are part of the explanation of today’s transformed market. It’s a perfect story of effects (or a train wreck, depending which end of the market you are in). Is this the new “new normal” and, if so, how long will it last? That’s a question for next week.

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Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s columns — great ideas! Keep them coming.

The Surprising Rebound & Unexpected Bifurcation of the U.S. Wine Market

Let’s climb in my time machine and go back a few years to 2008-2009, when the impact of the global financial crisis was beginning to be felt in the wine markets. It was a pretty gloomy time and there was a lot of talk about the need to reset our expectations to the “new normal.”

Gone were the days of great expectations as everyone scrambled to cope with the changing economic and consumer environment. What did we imagine the future would hold? Well, opinions varied, of course, but the “conventional wisdom” generally revolved around a few dire trends.

Trading Down and Trading Over

One of the most-cited trends was trading down. It sure looked like wine consumers were pulling away from wines at higher price points and shifting to less expensive products — or even moving away from wine altogether. Here’s a video that captures the moment fairly well (it was the first time I was ever interviewed by an animated character)

Trading down seemed like an unstoppable force at the time, although I suggested that it was more complicated. I noticed the strength of the Barefoot wine brand and proposed that it wasn’t just the price of the wine that made it so appealing to recession-battered wine drinkers, it was also the casual image that it offered with its surfer dude footprint in the sand style.

No one wants to admit to themselves that they are trading down, I wrote. Not good for self-esteem. But we can all embrace the idea of trading over — over to a more relaxed, less serious (and incidentally also maybe less expensive) idea of wine. Relax (there is even a brand of Riesling called “Relax”) and just enjoy wine. That’s what I thought I saw in the marketplace.

The $20+ Dead Zone

Whether it was trading down or trading over, the result was the same: the $20 and up segment of the wine market was declared a “dead zone” where nothing moved.  People still drank more expensive wines, then just didn’t buy them. They “drank up” from their cellars rather than “trading down” at the wine shop.

Wineries found that many wine club members were pulling back from scheduled shipments. Restaurant wine sales took a very big hit, too, as consumers dined out less frequently and economized on wine purchases when they did. Restaurants coped by trading down themselves, putting more pressure on wineries.

Dumping, Discounting and Flash Sales

Some wineries held their prices and absorbed inventory accumulations rather than discount or dumped excess wine on the bulk market (where Cameron Hughes and others found some outstanding bargains for their customers). They saw price cuts as a one-way street. You can lower prices, but can you raise them back up again when good times return?  Some wineries split the difference by bringing out second labels to sell for less — chateau cash flow wines — while holding the price line on prestige brands.  Lots of mistakes were made along the way and some wineries fell out of the market.

Many discounting strategies were rolled out. Safeway stores began running promotions where $20+ wines could be purchased for 30% off the regular price (or 40% off with a 6-bottle purchase) — a clear attempt to reduce inventories in the “dead zone” category. A number of “flash sale” wine websites appeared that allowed wineries to sell off surplus stock quickly and outside of the usual sales vectors.

Sometimes wineries found themselves caught in competition with their own wines as buyers (wine club members, restaurants, a few distributors) dumped their stock back on the market, under-cutting carefully calculated producer pricing strategies.

There were some great bargains for buyers who recognized them (and had the credit card headroom to take advantage), but there were not very many true winners among wine producers, especially those in the higher price ranges. The frankly defensive strategy of generating cash flow while protecting key price points was the best that many wineries could hope for.divide

Up the Down Staircase

Would consumers shift back when the recession was over? Not many people held out hope for a reset of the reset. So the current state of the U.S. wine market, which Jon Fredrikson has called “A Tale of Two Markets” comes as something of a surprise.

The U.S. wine market has split in two as the table above shows. (The table shows recent data for off-premises wine sales as measured through the particular retail channels monitored by the Nielsen Company. These data are indicative of what’s going on in the broad market.)

While the market is expanding at a moderate +3.4% pace (at least it is growing, unlike wine markets in some Old World regions), there is a clear division between wines selling at prices below $9 and those that sell for more. Although the cheaper wines make up the majority of the market by volume, they are shrinking in dollar sales value, especially the $6.00 to $8.99 segment.

The New Conventional Wisdom?

More expensive wines, on the other hand, represent a rising market segment. All price segments over $9 are growing as per these data, with the fastest growth at the highest price point — $20 and above!

This is truly a dramatic turnaround for U.S. wine. What is behind this unexpected change?  I’ll survey the new conventional wisdom in my next column.

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BTW that’s a really old picture of me in the video — I hope that  I’ve improved with age since 2008. The Costco reference is a bit off in that interview, too. Costco sells wine at a low mark-up, but they don’t try to compete at the very bottom of the market as the video images suggest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen boxes of Franzia at a Costco, for example.

Exchange Rate Lessons from Australia’s Wine Boom and Bust

Kym Anderson (with the assistance of Nanda Aryal), Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry: A Statistical Compendium 1843-2013). University of Adelaide Press, 2015. (Available as a free pdf download — follow the link above.)

ozKym Anderson’s new book on the five major boom-bust cycles of the Australian wine industry is a landmark wine economics study. Like all of Anderson’s work, it is data-driven and provides both the casual reader and focused student with a wealth of information.  A detailed Executive Summary is followed by 73 pages of analysis (and ten more of references), 86 revealing charts and more than 450 pages of tables.

Answers and Questions

I’m not sure I have ever seen such a detailed account of what happened to a wine industry, when, where and how. The data span the decades, regions, grape varieties, international regimes and economic cycles.  Such a wealth of information is valuable both for its ability to answer questions and for the way that it provokes them.

I won’t attempt to summarize Anderson’s big volume here (Andrew Jefford did a great job of this in his Decanter column) but I thought I might illustrate the sort of focused analysis that the book makes not just possible but convenient.  We are always looking for lessons from history and I think Australia’s wine business cycles are useful in this regard, especially the fifth cycle, which began in 1986 and continues today.

Exchange Rate Effects?

Anderson describes the recent collapse of the Australian wine industry as the result of a “perfect storm of shocks” including drought and rising irrigation water prices, the global financial crisis, the rise of the Australian dollar (driven by mineral exports to China), increased competition from other wine-exporting countries, and China’s austerity policies (which have reduced demand for luxury wine products). He could have added vineyard  heat spikes, wildfires and the gradual but significant effects of global climate change to the list of challenges. Perfect storm, indeed!aud

Since we are currently experiencing a period of major exchange rate realignment, with the U.S. dollar on the rise and the Euro seemingly in free fall, I thought it would be useful to tease out the many ways that the Aussie dollar impacted its wine industry in recent years.  According to news reports currency instability was the hot topic at the ProWein wine fair this year, so analysis of the possible effects is timely. Here are some brief points taken from the Executive Summary.

  • The 1986 boom began, Anderson tells us, as a response to the historically low value of the Australian dollar (hereafter abbreviated AUD), which encouraged exports by reducing their price to foreign buyers. The AUD’s low value was due to falling prices for mineral exports.
  • Wine exports boomed, rising to 2.3% of all Australian exports by 2004.
  • Wine prices increased, stimulating vine plantings, higher production and more exports but higher prices also  limited domestic wine market growth making Australian producers more dependent on export markets.
  • Rising exports increased the incentive for investment in developing overseas markets for Australian wine, both through generic marketing and private brand promotion. Meanwhile, other countries also began to expand wine exports, too, contesting key market spaces.
  • The AUD began to rise in 2001 (driven by Chinese mineral demand). Competition in export markets made it difficult to pass through rising foreign exchange costs to export customers, so much of the burden was passed back in the form of lower AUD export receipts and, in due course, lower wine grape prices.
  • Meanwhile, the strength of the AUD made imports cheaper, including wine imports, which increased dramatically. Especially affected were Sauvignon Blanc imports from New Zealand and Champagne imports from France.
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc became the best-selling white wine in Australia. Not the best-selling imported white wine. The best selling-white wine, period!
  • Wine grape prices collapsed and the value of vineyard land fell, in some cases to the same low value as unimproved farm land. This is the bust that the Australian industry is still recovering from.

Lessons for the U.S. Today?

The exchange rate isn’t the whole story of Australia’s fifth wine cycle by any means, but you can see that it had important effects. The long term instability in the exchange rate translated into booms and busts in wine exports, imports, wine prices, grape prices, land prices and so on.

Anyone who thinks the current rise of the U.S. dollar won’t impact the U.S. wine industry or have global repercussions should take a look at Anderson’s study of Australia. The U.S.story will be different, and the impacts less just because our domestic market is so much larger, but there will be significant impacts.

This is just one of the analytical threads in Kym Anderson’s important new book. I invite you to dig and see what questions his work raises and what lessons you can learn.

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