Washington Brands vs Brand Washington

Lettie Teague’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal provokes a post on Washington wine’s identity crisis.

Teague writes in “Stalking the Wines of Washington” that the Washington wine industry has expanded rapidly in the last few years and that there are many great wines and great wine values. Yet Washington wines are hard to buy (she had trouble finding them in New York wine shops) and hard to sell (she quotes several winemakers in this regard, including Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, who is holding back wine and reducing capacity by 40%). What’s the problem?

I Can Get it for you Wholesale

Well, as in most cases, it is not a single thing but a confluence of forces at work. Although she says that fine wines from Washington have a reputation for good value, Teague suggests that many are currently over-priced relative to Napa Valley products. Judging from my email inbox, the reason for this is that a lot of Napa producers are selling off their wines at deeply-discounted prices.

The typical deal I am offered is “limited time only” 50% off the retail price plus discounted shipping. A great deal, except I can sometimes find even lower prices on these wines at local stores. The wholesale prices must be rock-bottom if wineries can do better with these low revenue direct sales. Teague writes that

One Washington winemaker lamented to me, “We can’t compete when Pahlmeyer Cabernet that used to be $90 a bottle is now $45 a bottle.” And so, while the quality has never been higher—Washington has had three excellent vintages (2006, 2007 and 2008)—the wines are getting harder and harder to find in stores outside of Washington state.

[Interestingly, some of the offers have six bottle limits -- a psychological ploy in most cases, I think, to make customers believe that surplus wines are really quite scarce. Wine people tell me that it works every time.]

I think that Washington wines are still a great value, given their high quality, but deep discounting by the competition is never a good thing for producers.

Napa Valley vs Columbia Valley

The lack of a strong regional wine identity is a second issue that Teague identifies (she also cites the small scale of most Washington producers as a disadvantage). Everyone thinks they know what Napa Valley wine is (although it is a large and very varied AVA that produces lots of different types and styles of wine). Napa was a strong brand.

What is Washington wine?  Washington apples have a strong identity and Washington cherries, too. But Washington wine — not so much. A stronger, more prestigious identity could be a real advantage, especially in this economic climate, Teague notes.

… Napa Valley has just done a much better job of marketing itself, according to Marty Clubb, whose L’Ecole 41 Winery in Walla Walla is probably one of the best known and oldest (circa 1983) wineries in the state. “Nobody really knows where our wines are from. People recognize our brand but not as a Washington-state winery.”

Washington has well-known wine brands at nearly every price point from Columbia Crest to Quilceda Creek, but there is no well-established Brand Washington. This is an issue that Paul Gregutt identified in his terrific book,  Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (watch for a second edition on bookstore shelves this fall). He interviewed leaders in the Washington wine industry about their vision for Brand Washington and, while most considered this an important issue, no consensus emerged.

I’ve heard that Allen Shoup (the godfather of Washington wine: former head of Chateau Ste Michelle, now the driving force at Long Shadows) wanted to promote the idea of the Columbia Valley as Washington’s equivalent of Napa Valley — building the Columbia Valley brand to compete with California.

But this plan ran into a collective action problem as individual producers invested in their own private brands and sub-AVA brands instead. I’m sure some buyers today see Columbia Valley as a generic designation, not the prestige brand originally envisioned. And I’m sure a lot of people don’t associate it with any particular place (some people still confuse Washington  State with Washington DC; maybe they think the Columbia Valley is in … Columbia!).

Although the lack of regional identity may be a serious issue in the long run, I think other problems are more pressing right now. After all, most of those deep discount emails I’m getting aren’t coming from Washington, they’re being sent out by famous wineries in famous Napa Valley.  A strong identity surely helps, but can’t completely compensate for competitive market forces.

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One area where Washignton’s wine identity is strong is in Riesling. Riesling Rendezvous — sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Mosel’s Dr. Loosen, begins tomorrow. Riesling makers from around the world will gather near Seattle to discuss the problems and opportunities they face. Look for a Riesling Rendezvous post in the near future.

Good News & Bad News from Oz

Sometimes the good news is that the bad news could be much worse. At least that’s how it seemed to me when the wine economists met at UC Davis last week to discuss the continuing Australian wine crisis.

Kym Anderson, a leading expert, spoke about the problems in Oz at the symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” and I thought his assessment of the “challenges” Australia faces was pretty grim.  Big oversupply. Falling grape prices. More and more quality grapes sold off at fire-sale prices in the bulk market (40% this year compared to 15% in the past).

The best selling white wine type in Australia isn’t from Australia any more — it’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even the Australians are tired of “Brand Australia” Chardonnay!

Maybe, Baby

Professor Anderson looked for a light at the end of the tunnel and was able to point to some potential sources of relief. Maybe water reforms could be implemented. Maybe R&D to help the industry deal with climate change would produce results. Maybe the new export strategy to promote Australia’s regional diversity and wine families would catch on. Maybe the China market will open wider and drink up the surplus.

Since the bad news was so compellingly concrete and the hopeful notes so speculative, I took the overall forecast to be very dark indeed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I attended a talk by another Australian expert the next day who described  Anderson’s presentation as optimistic! When the good news is this bad, the bad news must be really bad.

Bad News, Bad News

Sure enough more bad news arrived shortly thereafter in the form of a Wine Spectator article, “Aussie Wine Company Faces Angry Creditor,” concerning the financial problems of The Grateful Palate group, which exports many hot brands to the U.S. market including the unlikely-named Luchador Shiraz shown here.

Trouble is brewing in Australia. The Grateful Palate’s Australian affiliates, which produce wine under labels such as Bitch Grenache, Evil Cabernet Sauvignon and Marquis Philips for American importer Dan Philips, are in receivership and face the danger of possible bankruptcy. Growers and other creditors for the South Australia-based affiliates of the company received notice on June 18. Many growers, already facing tough times, worry that they’ll never get paid for fruit they sold Philips.

Philips, the company’s founder and owner, confirmed that he is in negotiations with his top creditor, Dutch lender Rabobank, but declined further comment. The bank initiated the action to put Grateful Palate International Pty Ltd and several related Australian companies into receivership. The most prominent is R Wines, a partnership with winemaker Chris Ringland, but 3 Rings, a joint venture involving Philips, Ringland and grower David Hickinbotham, is also part of it.

This is bad news, of course, but bad news is no longer a surprise to those of us who are following the Australian wine scene. Perhaps it is really good news of a sort — an indication that the necessary industry shake out is gaining speed. Hard to tell good news from bad.

Darker or Brighter?

The same situation applies to the Foster’s de-merger situation. Foster’s, the Australian beer giant, bought into the wine business at the top of the market, paying an estimated $7 billion for an international portfolio of about 50 top brands including Penfolds, Wolf Blass and  Beringer. The investment may be worth as little as $1.5 billion in today’s market.

Foster’s beer business is an attractive target for global giants like SABMiller, but not with the wine portfolio attached. So Foster’s announced a de-merger to allow the beer group to move ahead independently of the wine group. What will happen to the wine business?  Who will buy these assets in today’s depressed environment?

When I posed this question to an Australian winemaker several weeks ago the answer came back quickly: China! Everyone in Australia is paranoid about the Chinese buying up our natural resources, and so we are convinced that they will buy up Foster’s wine business, too.

Interesting idea, I thought at the time. No multinational wine firm (Constellation Brands? Gallo?) would want to go bigger right now. But maybe a Chinese firm that wants to break into the global markets would take the bait. Might make sense. Maybe.

Bright Idea

Sure enough, the Bright Food Group. (Mission: “To build the company into a leading enterprises group in the national food industry, with famous brands, advanced technology, strong competitive power and deep influence in the world by the end of 2015.”)  recently signed a three-way memorandum of understanding with the New South Wales government and the China Development Bank to explore opportunities for the Bright Group to invest in the sugar, dairy and wine industries.

A Financial Times article reports that  the company is interested in “global top ten players in wine, sugar, food packaging, commodities and healthcare sectors.” Bright Food is currently studying both wine and beer assets in Australia, but has not decided to buy either yet according to the FT.

Many Australians no doubt consider the potential sale of yet another natural resource business to Chinese buyers bad news in terms of their economic sovereignty, but that bad news might actually be the best news they can expect given the sorry condition of the global wine market today.

Secrets of Argentina’s Export Success

#1 Wine

Argentina’s wines are hot here in the United States. Recent Nielsen Scantrak off-premises  data show a 38.7 percent dollar value rise in sales of Argentinian wines for the 52 weeks ending April 3, 2010. That’s an enormous percentage increase, much greater than the total market (up 3.5 percent) and a good deal above the next biggest gainer (New Zealand with a 17.2 percent rise).

What’s Argentina’s secret?

The secret? As usual, there is no one simple answer. There are important factors on both the supply side and the demand side: good products, the right products at the right time and favorable economic policies.

Argentina produces excellent wines. Decanter magazine recently (June 2010 issue)  published a report on Argentinian Malbec that featured the largest tasting in their history — a record 255 wines. Four of them received  five stars, the highest designation. The Achaval Ferrer Mendoza 2008, which often sells for less than $20 here in the U.S., led the pack with 19/20 points.

Argentina is fortunate to be producing wines for the times. Many Argentinian wines are good values at a time when consumers are careful with their money and they represent good choices for ABC (anything but Chardonnay) and ABS (anything but Shiraz) buyers.

International Influences

#1 Export Brand

Argentina’s economic policies are another consideration. The favorable dollar/peso exchange rate contributes to Argentina’s competitiveness on the export market. And although I don’t know very much about them, I think that barriers to foreign investment in the wine industry must not be very high because so many important producers have international connections.

Bodega Colome is owned by Donald Hess of Switzerland, for example, who also owns The Hess Collection in the United States. Achaval Ferrer is a joint venture with a Montalcino winemaking family. Bordeaux wine investors are players in Diamandes and Clos de los Siete. O Fournier’s owner is Spanish. Cheval des Andes is a joint venture of Moët Hennessy’s Terrazas de los Andes and St-Emilion’s Cheval Blanc. Bodega Norton is owned by the Swarovski family of Austria (famous for their crystal.) Dig deeper and you’ll find even more international money and talent at work.

Top Export Brands

These are good reasons for Argentina’s recent success, but a recent article on WineSur.com titled “The Top 5 Export Brands” got me thinking that there might be other factors at work. I was particularly intrigued by the table showing the top bottled wine export brands to different markets. I’ve pasted the table below so that you can analyze it along with me. Click on the table to read the full article and view a larger image of the data.The first thing I noticed is how heavily weighted Argentina’s recent exports are toward the North American market. Britain, still the most important wine market in the world, has much lower export volumes as shown here. I suspect that one reason for this, however, is that these data are for exports of bottled wines (including bag-in-box and Tetra-Paks) and I’ll bet that Tesco and some of the big supermarket chains import their Argentinian value wines in bulk and bottle them in the U.K as house brands. Those export sales don’t show up here.

The second thing that caught my eye was the wide range of export prices. Alamos, the U.S. leader, sells for $30.57 per case export price, about the same as #2 Don Miguel Gascon. Marcus James, the top export wine in volume but only #3 in value, sells for just $12.54 per case.  Catena, the #4 brand, exported just 39,000 cases in the time period under consideration, but received an average of $64.97 for each one. Argentina’s exports to the U.S. (and the other markets shown here) span the price spectrum — another advantage.

Location, Location, Location?

Finally, I became interested in the particular brands that topped the export market tables and I think I discovered another secret weapon: distribution. It’s a cliche that in business the three most important things are location, location, location. Location is important in wine, too (ask any terroirist), but efficient distribution sure makes a difference and Argentinian producers have been wise in making good use of the most efficient distribution networks in each country.

Alamos has the highest export earnings by a good margin — why? Well Alamos is made by big gun Bodega Catena Zapata. It is a value line and is imported and distributed by the Gallo company. I suspect that Gallo’s large and efficient distribution network and its marketing prowess are reasons for Alamos’s great success. Significantly, Gallo also handles Don Miguel Gascon, the #2 export brand.

Marcus James, the #3 export brand, is a Constellation Brands product and is also backed by substantial marketing and distribution power. I was actually surprised to see Marcus James on this list because I didn’t realize they sold Argentinian wine. Guess I need to pay closer attention.  They used to source their wine from … Brazil!

Fuzion (a Shiraz-Malbec blend, I understand) is the best seller in Canada. It is made by Familia Zuccardi and distribution is one of its advantages, too. In Canada government wine and liquor shops are key sales vectors. The support of Ontario’s Liquor Control Board (in addition to successful viral marketing) seems to have made Fuzion a hit in a market that is otherwise very difficult to penetrate.  (At one time the Ontario Liquor Control Board was the world’s largest retailer of wine. I think Tesco is #1 today.) Distribution is key and both Alamos and Fuzion seem to have it.

Trickle Down [Wine] Economics Jitters

The stock market has the jitters these days and one of the causes is the fear that, even with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus, we may be experiencing a jobless recovery. Things looks OK from the outside (some of the numbers are pretty good), but bad things are still happening deep down where it counts.

A Wine-Free Recovery?

There is some concern that the wine economy is suffering a similar fate. Not a wine-free recover, but just not the big turnaround everyone was hoping for. Although retail sales numbers are cheerfully positive, with overall sales rising at close to double-digit rates and increases even in the $25+ “death zone” range, there’s still enough disturbing news around to give anyone the jitters.

Are jitters justified? I decided to do some fieldwork to see what I could learn about conditions on the ground in my local wine market. An upscale supermarket down the street has recently undergone a major remodel and is have a grand re-opening. One of the areas that seems to have received a lot of attention is the wine wall. Since the supermarket chain is known to do very thorough market research I wanted to see what the redesign would tell me about state of the wine economy today.

First Impressions

My initial impression was very positive. The wine wall is substantially increased in terms of the number of square feet of display space. The quality of the space is much improved, too, with the old industrial shelving replaced in part by the sort of dark wood cases and racks that you see at fine wine shops. Good news! A big investment like this suggests optimism about the future of the wine market.

A second glance provided more information. The wine wall is large enough to need directional signs to help customers find their “comfort zone” area.  Some of the signs were what you would expect: “France/Italy,” Australia” and so on. Just what you’d expect. But other signs pointed to continued “trading down.”

I found areas marked “premium 1.5 liter,” “value wines” and “box wines” and one that said simply “White Zinfandel.” It’s obvious that the marketing and design people knew that many of their customers would be looking for low cost or basic wines and they wanted to help them find them.

Box wine sales surged in the “trading down” wine economy that wine people like to think is over, but apparently isn’t.  There were a number of quality bag-in-box wines for sale in this section, which was conveniently located adjacent to the expanded take-out  delicatessen and bakery areas.

The White Zin section held both the expected Sutter Home and Beringer products plus a limited range of inexpensive domestic rosé wines and a small selection of fruit wine and fruit-flavored wines. My wine snob friends are probably shocked to learn that White Zin, the wine they love to hate  is so popular that it has its own part of the wine wall.  That would be trading down in both price and quality, they say.

Unexpected Discoveries

Now it was time to study the main section of the wine wall carefully. I was impressed by the large selection, of course. Lots of wines. Lots of brands. But some of the wines had unfamiliar labels that I think may be part of a “dumping” strategy where big producers sell off surplus wine under an ersatz value brand to avoid weakening the price position of established brands.

This is a very common practice in Australia, where the wines are sold with very generic labels. They call them “cleanskins” and I guess they are selling like hotcakes. The surplus wine, some of which could be very good, may be trickling down into a sort of  branded cleanskins market here in the U.S. But there’s another trickle down effect that got my attention.

As I surveyed the wine wall I was struck by a small number of hard-to-find or impossible-to-buy wines that were sitting quietly waiting to be found — fine wine that I suspect didn’t find a home in the usual wine club / fine wine shop / restaurant supply chain.

Since we’ve recently returned from a Napa Valley research trip, I was especially struck by the presence of two wines from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – their  Fay Vineyard Cabernet and the famous Cask 23. The Fay sold for $87 or $79 for buyers with the store loyalty card. Buy a case and get a further 10 percent discount. The Cask 23′s price was $164.

You can buy Opus One for $209 ($179 with your loyalty card) or Sassicaia for $245 ($213). The Chimney Rock SLV Cab that I liked a lot when I tasted it in California was a bargain at $60 ($48 with your card).

Pétrus at the 7-Eleven?

It’s hard to believe that these great wines can be found on neighborhood supermarket shelves. I could be wrong, but I suspect that they would not be found there during good economic times. But bad times drives good wines down the supply chain. That’s trickle down [wine] economics.

What’s next? Pétrus at the 7-Eleven? No, although 7-Eleven does have an own wine brand called Yosemite Road.

I’m glad there is finally good news about wine sales in the U.S., but while trading down may have stabilized I don’t think the sour economy’s effects will soon disappear. And so the trickle down effect continues. No wonder everyone’s got the jitters.

The Bottleneck Bottleneck

Bottlenecks are always problematic.  It seems like they are always too narrow or not narrow enough.

We ran into an unusual bottleneck last week when were went to Wenatchee to help our friends Mike and Karen Wade bottle the 2008 vintage at the Fielding Hills Winery.  FHW is award winning 800-case operation and the bottling is done by a volunteer crew of friends, family and wine club members. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts, comparing the wine bottle assembly line to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory.

Bottleneck Bottleneck

The division of labor does improve efficiency,  just as Smith said, but anyone who’s worked an assembly line knows about bottlenecks – the whole process only moves as fast as the slowest work station.  If the corker is slow, for example, nothing else will go very fast. (The corker was no slacker on our shift – John Sosnowy of the Wine Peeps blog.)

Our crew worked very well, but there was still a bottleneck, albeit an invisible one. The capsules that fit over the bottle’s neck hadn’t arrive (a bottleneck bottleneck!) – they were held up somewhere in customs in a container that must contain hundreds  of thousands of capsules for many wineries. We bottled the wine, but when the capsules finally arrive it will be necessary to open each of the 800 cases, pull out every bottle, affix the capsule, return and reseal. That’s about 10,000 bottles. What a headache! I hate bottlenecks.

The biggest bottleneck in the American wine business, of course, is distribution. With 51 different sets of state rules and regulations and the three-tier winery/distributor/retailer/consumer system, it sometimes seems like making wine is the easy part – getting it to customers is the bigger problem. Widening the distribution bottleneck seems to me to be a key to expanding the wine market and building a more robust American wine culture.

Tightening the Distribution Bottleneck

The Obama administration seems to want to build up the U.S. wine industry – that’s why he sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign an agreement to ease the wine export process and open that bottleneck a bit.

But Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Wine Spectator reports that more than 100 members of Congress have announced support for H.R. 5034, a bill that would further restrict direct wine sales in American. It would make it (even) harder to ship wine across state lines. Wine Spectator reports that wine distributors (who benefit from their key position in the three tier bottleneck) actively support the bill.

The supporters of H.R. 5034 argue that direct shipping undercuts the power of states to regulate alcohol distribution and sales, and I understand this logic. But the winery owners I know actually go to extremes to satisfy state regulations because the penalties for making a mistake are often extremely onerous. (I know one winery that has stopped all interstate sales for now because of compliance concerns.)

Focus on Direct Sales

The slack economy has put direct sales in the spotlight. With wine sales down in many categories and price points still eroding, wineries are trying to boost the yield per bottle and increasing direct sales and reducing the flow that goes through distributors is one way to do that. Isenhower Cellars in  Walla Walla  has actually reorganized itself (and opened an off-site tasting room) so that it can rely entirely on direct sales. Their website announced that

Isenhower Cellars is no longer selling wine to restaurants, wine shops, or grocery outlets in Washington State. Our wines are now exclusively available from the winery in Walla Walla, Washington, our tasting room in Woodinville, Washington, or here on our web site. We treasure the past relationships with our Washington State distributors and friends in the wine trade. However a complete focus on quality limits production to 2,000 cases of wine and the success of our wine club and second tasting room leaves no extra Isenhower wines available for sale outside of our winery’s embrace.

Even E&J Gallo, which has done quite well thank you during the recession, is trying to increase direct sales. I’m on a couple of email lists for Gallo wine brands that I follow and they frequently offer nice discounts or low cost shipping to try to encourage orders from their online wine shop, The Barrel Room.

It seems inconsistent to send Gary Locke to China to expand wine exports and then discourage the equivalent interstate trade. As an economist, I am naturally biased toward more choice and freer trade. I hope the attempt to tighten the wine shipping bottleneck gets caught in some legislative bottleneck somewhere down the line and never reaches President Obama’s desk.

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Thanks to Karen, Mike and Robin Wade for their hospitality and great wine. Thanks to the members of the 2008 FHW Cabernet Franc bottling crew both a fun and productive afternoon.

Oregon Pinot Noir: Peaks & Valleys

A quick getaway to Portland provokes a post about Oregon wine’s highs and lows.

Cheers for All the [Peak] Years

I was browsing through the wine books at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore, when I came across a used copy of  Vintage Timelines, a 1989 book by Jancis Robinson. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

It’s a great book for wine lovers (despite its 1989 date) and valuable to me because of the particular wines Jancis selected for the study.  No New Zealand or South African wines, for example. The recent history of their great wines was too brief in 1989 to permit long-term analysis.  Just five Australian wines made the cut (led by Penfolds Grange Hermitage, of course).  Seven California wines are listed and just one from the rest of the U.S. — David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve, the wine that put Oregon on the world wine map.

JR's Vintage Timeline for the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve

There is an inscription in the book. “To Nick — Cheers for all the years — past & future. Dave Lett, Christmas 1989.”  Needless to say, I bought the book as both a research tool and a personal souvenir. It’s a good reminder of Oregon Pinot Noir’s humble origins and the high peaks it has climbed. Oregon’s wine industry is just a little over 40 years old, yet is is often  mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy because of the quality of its best Pinot Noir wines, like David Lett’s Eyrie Reserve.

Whole Foods Letdown

So I was feeling pretty good about the Oregon wine industry when I stopped off at Whole Foods, about a block away, to survey their selection of Oregon wines.  As I entered the store, however, I ran smack into a display of Oregon Pinot Noir priced at … wait for it … $9.99.  That’s about ten dollars less than the usual price for an entry level Oregon Pinot. The wine was produced by Underwood Cellars, a second label of Union Wine Company, which also makes King’s Ridge. The fruit was sourced mainly from Southern Oregon — the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys — not the Willamette Valley where Eyrie and most of the other famous Oregon Pinots are made.  The bargain price was a real shocker.

Oregon is a high cost wine production area. Even higher than  Burgundy, I think, because many of the vineyards there  have been in family hands for years and land costs are often not explicitly considered in calculating cost (an economic mistake, of course, as any Econ 101 student will tell you). That’s not the case is Oregon, where it is hard to ignore the cost of capital.

A study using 1999 data put the average cost of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $12.79 per bottle (see Oregon Viticulture edited by Edward H. Hellman for the details) and more recent proprietary data I have seen puts cost in the same range or higher. $9.99 might or might not be a sustainable price for a wine made from Umpqua Valley fruit, but  it certainly isn’t a  sustainable price point for Willamette Valley wine.  If the price of entry level Willamette Valley Pinot  were to reset from $20-$30 down to $10-$15 … well I think the Willamette River would bleed red ink. Click here to read a recent article from Wines & Vines about the Oregon situation.

Boom and Bust

The quality of Oregon Pinot Noir is higher than ever, I believe, but the industry’s economic health may be falling. Oregon (and New Zealand) rode the Sideways Pinot boom for several years, expanding vineyard plantings repeatedly because it seemed like the demand for this wine would never be satisfied.

Now the recession is here, Malbec is  hot, the new Pinot vineyards in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere are all coming into production at the same time and prices are tumbling. Bargain Pinot Noir is a fact of life for now. It will be interesting to see where the market resets when supply and demand eventually find their new balance.

In the meantime, I guess there’s only one thing to do. Drink more Pinot Noir!

Australia: Back to Square One

I’ve written a lot about Australia’s wine crisis and for a long time I felt like Chicken Little. The sky is falling, I’d say, but Australia seemed somehow to muddle through.

There is a strong sense now, however that Australia’s crisis has arrived. (I was going to write something about Australia’s Chicken Littles coming home to roost, but it was too awful even for me.)

Sales of Australian wine are down here in the U.S., dragging down sales of Syrah/Shiraz from all places with it. It’s worse in Great Britain, Australia’s number one export market, I’m told.

Charles Gent’s article “The Writing on the Wall,” posted today on Inside Story, provides an excellent overview of the situation and is required reading for anyone interested in Australia’s wine future.

I find a number of parallels between the Australian wine crisis as explained in Gent’s article and the global financial crisis that I wrote about in my recent book Globaloney 2.0.

First, this isn’t the first wine crisis in Australia’s history. Gent writes that

Visiting an ageing Hunter Valley winery in the late 1950s, wine aficionado Max Lake was struck by a faded notice on the door, apparently dating from the Great Depression. Beneath the forbidding heading “Warning to Growers,” it read: “Owing to the dangerous position arising from Overproduction, Growers are warned against any further planting of Wine Grapes.” Beneath the text was the name of Herbert Kay, chairman of the Australian Wine Board.

Two months ago, the Wine Board’s modern equivalents slapped a similar notice on Australia’s wine producers. Issued jointly by the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Wine Grape Growers’ Australia, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation and the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, the statement is more wordy than the 1930s edict, but equally blunt in its message. It states that Australia is producing twenty to forty million more cases of wine than it can sell each year, and that the current surplus stockpile, calculated at more than 100 million cases, will double in two years if current levels of production and demand persist.

A second feature is that the wine bubble (because that is what it was) had all the main features of a financial bubble including the fact that anyone who looked at it objectively would have recognized it as such. But these Chicken Littles could not compete with those with an interest in keeping the bubble growing.

The massive plantings were seen by many industry figures as a desirable and necessary corollary of the soaring offshore demand, and traditional grape growers who expressed misgivings about the rate of expansion got short shrift. As president of the Winemakers’ Federation in 1999, Brian Croser described their concerns as a “Luddite viewpoint” and called the tax scheme plantings “a great resource.”

Finally, to keep this post reasonably brief, it isn’t enough to just pull out a few vines and go back to business as usual. More fundamental reform is needed.

To go forward, it seems the industry first has to take a step backward. In other words, says Strahan, “We have to get rid of the oversupply as quickly as possible to start bringing some margin back into the business, and to start getting a connection with the consumer that is not defined by price.”

That’s not quite back to square one, but it’s close.

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Update 1/5/2010.

Decanter.com reports that Constellation Brands has cancelled 300 grower contracts in South Australia, another sign of the rapid consolidation of the wine industry down under. Decanter reports that …

Australia’s biggest buyer of wine grapes advised growers just before the New Year that they would see their contracts end after the 2012 vintage.

The company had previously given three years’ notice to more than 200 other contracted growers in December 2008.

The decision has come at a time when growers in the region are facing plummeting wine grape prices.

In some cases growers are being offered up to 50 per cent less for their grapes than in 2008, according to figures released by Constellation and other major wineries in December.

Beaujolais Nouveau: A Black Friday Wine

I’m putting together wine recommendations for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday feast. Bubbles (for celebration), Riesling and Pinot Gris (great food wines), Zinfandel (the most American of wines) and Pinot Noir (just because).

Missing from my list is perhaps the most appropriate wine of all: Beaujolais Nouveau. Here’s why.

A Wine for Today’s Thanksgiving?

Although the United States is not the only country to set aside a day for giving thanks, we like to think of Thanksgiving as our distinctive holiday. It was conceived as a day for deep reflection, but Thanksgiving has evolved into a long weekend of over-consumption and discount shopping. Some of my friends really prefer to celebrate Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season formally begins and retailers find out if they will be “in the black” for the year based upon early sales data.

If you plan an Old Time giving-thanks Thanksgiving, then Nouveau is not for you. It is not an especially thoughtful wine. It is a sorta soda pop wine; if wine were literature, my friend Patrick points out, Nouveau would be the  trashy paperback novel you read at the beach. Nothing wrong in that — everyone needs an escape once in a while.

The grapes for Nouveau are picked in late September or thereabouts and the only thing that prevents instant sale is the necessity of fermentation and the mechanics of distribution.  It’s still a bit sweet when it’s bottled and sometimes a bit fizzy, too, when it arrives with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November (a week before Turkey Day). Best served cold (like revenge!) it is the ultimate cash flow wine.

Black Friday Wine?

Nouveau is not very sophisticated, so why do the French, who otherwise are known to guard their terroirist image, bother with it? The Beaujolias producers make very nice ordinary (non-nouveau) wines; character complexity, you can have it all and for a surprisingly low price.

Ah, but that’s the problem. Sitting close to prestigious Burgundy, the Beaujolais cannot command high prices for their wines, good as they are, so they must try to make money through turnover more than markup. They churn out millions of bottles of Nouveau to pay the bills.

At the peak of the bubble in 1992 about half of all wines made in Beaujolais were Nouveau. The proportion remains high even today. Ironically, Nouveau often sells at prices as high as Beaujolais’ more serious wines because it is marketed so well. So it is hard to see why you’d want to buy it instead of the region’s other wines. It’s easy, on the other hand, to see why you’d want to sell it.

Beaujolais Nouveau, it seems, is France’s Black Friday wine! If the makers can sell their Nouveau, then maybe the bottom line for the year will be in the black. If the Nouveau market fails, well that red stain on the floor won’t be just spilled wine.

More than the Usual Urgency

Nouveau is therefore generally marketed around the world with more than the usual urgency (just as those Black Friday sales seem a little desperate at times) — and not just because young wines hit their “best by” date pretty quickly. This year things are even more stressful than usual, as you might imagine, with the economic crisis still on everyone’s minds and 10+ percent unemployment here in the United States.

I saw Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau selling for $8.99 a bottle on Saturday, about $4 less than last year. Given typical retail margins and the high cost of shipping this product by air, it is hard to see much profit. It will be a Red Thursday this year, I think, not a Black Friday, for Beaujolais.

Nouveau is usually distributed around the world via expensive air freight rather than more economic sea transport in part because the short time between harvest and final sale makes speed a factor. This year Nouveau was bottled in plastic for the Japanese market in part to lower shipping cost — a controversial move that may not be repeated because of its negative product image potential.

Intentionally choosing to adopt a more casual image (see photo), Boisset put all its US-bound Nouveau in screw-cap PET bottles, with a resulting 40% reduction in shipping cost.

An American Wine?

Sweet, fizzy and packed in PET bottles — Beaujolais Nouveau sounds like the perfect wine for the American consumers brought up on 2-liter jugs of fizzy-sweet Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. If you were kinda cynical, you would think Nouveau was an American wine … made in USA.

And it is, in a way. Although the wine obviously comes from France (and there is actually a long tradition of simply and fun early-release new wines in France and elsewhere), I think it is fair to say that the Nouveau phenomenon is an American invention.

W.J. Deutsch & Sons, the American distributors, really put Beaujolias in general and Nouveau in particular on the U.S. wine market map when they became exclusive distributors for Georges Duboeuf some years ago. They took this simple wine and made it a marketing event. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China and only the brilliant Deutsch family could sell Nouveau!

In fact they were so successful that they partnered with another family firm — the Casella family from Australia — and created a second wine phenomenon tailored to American tastes: Yellow Tail!

So although Nouveau is an American wine of sorts and might be perfectly crafted for this American holiday as we actually celebrate it on Friday, I’m going to pass this year (on Thursday, at least) and see if I can nurse some thoughtful reflection from my holiday glass instead. Cheers, everyone! And thanks.

Anatomy of Australia’s Wine Crisis

Australia’s wine bubble seems about to burst (as I reported in my last post) and a number of observers have jokingly compared it to the global economic crisis.  You have too much wine? Ha! We have too much bad debt! Shall we swap problems?

Since I’ve just written a book about about the financial crisis (Globaloney 2.0 — it will be out in December 2009), I started to wonder if I could learn anything by seriously comparing the two crises. Here’s a first draft of my report.

This Time is Different

One of the arguments I make in Globaloney 2.0 is that financial investors and speculators convinced themselves that their risky, highly leveraged holdings were really “safe as houses” (irony intended).  Although they saw the bubble building and realized that bubbles often burst, they convinced themselves that “this time is different.” (They always do this, as a new book by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff makes clear.) It’s what I call Financial Globaloney.

Their false assessment of risk (which created  moral hazard, which encouraged even riskier behavior) combined with leverage and liquidity to produce the boom and bust we are living through just now. Booms and busts are a persistent feature of financial markets and we shouldn’t be surprised when they come ’round again. This time is not necessarily different. Is the same true for wine?

The Twenty Year Wine Boom

Everyone knows about Australia’s recent wine boom and its imminent bust, but it is important to put these events into a broader context, to understand that the present crisis is nothing new. University of Adelaide Professor Kym Anderson’s 2004 book World Wine Markets: Globalization at Work tells the story.

The current Aussie wine boom began in the mid 1980s. Wine production had closely tracked slowly growing domestic demand for the forty years after World War II (Australia was a net importer during this period), but began to rise dramatically after 1987.

Changes in retail sales laws in the UK transformed the wine market there (I wrote about this in an earlier post). Supermarket chains became mass market wine sellers that searched the world for good value product to fill their shelves and own-brand bottles. Australia stood ready to answer this call. Wine was identified as a key potential export industry. Private and public resources were organized to support and expand it. Vineyards and cellars started to grow to meet rising export demand.

A number of factors contributed to the boom, including liberal trade laws, increased international investment flows and of course the French Paradox findings that made red wine popular for reasons of health. Here in the US the partnership between the Casella family of Australian winemakers and the Deutsch marketing/distribution family firm produced the Yellow Tail phenomenon, which helped create what we now call Brand Australia. The high ratings that Robert Parker and others gave to Australian fine wine didn’t hurt demand, either.

Vineyard area doubled then doubled again over the 20 boom years (see brief data appendix below). Since domestic demand did not increase nearly this fast exports had to rise, and they did. It must have seemed that the global markets could and would absorb any amount of wine, an attitude that encouraged further investment. This belief in infinite world wine markets gave investors confidence to make what might otherwise (or with hindsight) be seen as quite risky investments. Thus a classic bubble was born. Parallels between the wine bubble and the mortgage credit bubble are easy to see here.

The level of output was unsustainably high given modest Australian consumption, rising production costs, realistic limits to global market growth and increasing international competition. Recent problems such as drought and recession-induced collapse in demand for high priced wine may have triggered current crisis talk, Australian wine was already at the tipping point,

Not So Different: Australia’s Wine Bubble History

This is not the first time that Australia has experienced wine boom and bust. In fact, according to Professor Anderson, this is the fifth time Australian wine has experienced a wine boom.

The first boom (1854-1871) was driven increased domestic demand and ended when over-production caused prices to collapse. A gold rush brought lots of thirsty prospectors and business people to Australia (as happened in California a few years before), inflating a wine bubble. Protectionism abroad and high shipping costs limited export potential so when domestic demand stopped growing the over-sold market tumbled.

The second boom (1881-1896) like the current one was more export driven. Wine exports increased by 23 percent per year due to a combination of factors including liberal trade regimes abroad and preferential access to the key British market.

The third boom (1915-1925) was, like the first, internally driven but with an emphasis on supply over demand. Government policies and incentives combined with irrigation-generated high yields contributed to over supply. Wine production rose 12.7 percent year year during this decade — hard to support that kind of compound growth.

The fourth boom (1968-75) was mild by comparison and followed 20 years of much slower postwar growth. A number of factors contributed to the rising market including income growth, changing consumer preferences and improved wine marketing programs. As in all the other cases, the market soared until the momentum ran out and then slumped as prices fall back to earth.

So wine booms are nothing new for the Australian wine industry. Each boom was different in the details, of course — so “this time is different” is not entirely a lie –  but similar in the overall pattern and final result. No wonder, writing in 2004, Professor Anderson asked “… the obvious question of whether Australia’s current wine boom is to be followed by yet another crash. at least in wine grape prices if not in wine production and export volumes.”

Past as Prologue

Re-reading Kym Anderson’s essay today, five years after its publication, I am impressed by his foresight.  Anderson found several hopeful factors in the current boom — reasons why this time might be different — but everything about the essay is really a warning not to ignore the lessons of history.

Anderson’s concludes with a rather serious analysis what Australia needed to do to make its growth sustainable. The analysis was wise in 2004 and still looks very much on the mark today, although the problem is obviously deeper now. It is recommended reading for wine people in Australia and everywhere else, I think.

Wine and finance are very different economic sectors, but there are some parallels — cycles of boom and bust, for example, and a tendency to assume “this time is different.” I hope both industries take advantage of the opportunity the current crises present to rethink, relearn and restructure. If they don’t — if they simply reload –  then I think the next crisis won’t be far away.

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Here’s a bit of data to flesh out the story, taken from The Global Wine Statistical Compendium 1969-2005. Data are for Australia in 1995 and 2005.

  • Total vineyard area increased from 73,000 hectares to 153,000 hectares. Vineyard area roughly doubled between 1985 and 1995 as well.
  • Grape yield rose from 10.5 tonnes per hectare to 13.2 t/h.
  • Wine grape production rose from 577,000 tonnes to 1.8 million tonnes due to the combination of greater vineyard area and higher yields.
  • Per capita production rose from 27 liters per capita to 71 l/c.
  • Per capita consumption rose from 18 liters per capita to 22.5 l/c. That leaves nearly 50 l/c for export markets.
  • Total value of exports increased from USD 301 million to USD 2.129 billion. All that increased production had to go somewhere.
  • Average unit value of bottled wine exports rose from USD 3.04 per liter to USD 3.65.  New Zealand was getting more than USD 6.50, however.
  • Average unit value of bulk wine exports fell from USD 1.12 per liter to USD 1.04.

Australia at the Tipping Point

I’ve been writing about Australia’s developing wine crisis for a couple of years now and I’ve often felt like Chicken Little, warning that the sky was falling. The problems kept accumulating, to be sure,  but the ultimate crisis never seemed to come. Was I being too negative, too dismal, exaggerating the woes and ignoring the underlying strength of the industry?

Unfortunately not. It’s just that the tipping point hadn’t been reached. But we’ve arrived there now, at least according to a report called “Wine Restructuring Action Agenda,” which suggests that the crisis is already here and there’s nothing to do but deal with it.

Cold Hard Facts

The report was issued yesterday in the form of a joint statement by four industry groups, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Wine Grape Growers of Australia, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation and the Wine Research and Development Corporation. It went out to all winemakers in Australia and will be followed by regional meetings in the coming weeks and months. The statement makes sobering reading.

Structural surpluses of grapes and wine are now so large that they are causing long-term damage to our industry by devaluing the Australian brand, entrenching discounting, undermining profitability, and hampering our ability to pursue the vision and activities set out in the Directions to 2025 industry strategy.

Coupled with inefficient and/or inappropriate vineyard and wine operations, oversupply is amplifying and exacerbating fundamental problems in the industry, notably our decreasing cost competitiveness. As such it is compromising our ability to adopt new pricing structures and market solutions and adapt to changing market conditions.

Comprehensive analysis and consultation suggests at least 20% of bearing vines in Australia are surplus to requirements, with few long-term prospects. On cost of production alone, at least 17% of vineyard capacity is uneconomic. The problems are national – although some regions are more adversely affected – and are not restricted to specific varieties or price points. The industry must restructure both to reduce capacity and to change its product mix to focus on sales that earn viable margins.

Bailouts are not an option and neither governments nor industry bodies should be expected to provide the answers; tough, informed decisions must be made by individual growers and wineries, from as early as the 2010 vintage.

Mountains of Wine

Australia has an accumulated surplus of 100 million cases of wine that will double in the next two years if current trends continue, according to the report. The annual surplus is huge – equal to all UK export sales and there is no clear prospect of finding additional demand, either domestic or foreign, to fill this gap.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I understand, is now the best-selling white wine in Oz. Not the best selling import, but outselling any category of Australian white wine!

In fact, wine exports have fallen by 8 million cases or more than 20 percent in the last two years, according to the statement, with the largest declines in the high value wines that Aussie winemakers hoped would be their future.

Inexpensive and bulk wine sales have grown, but at prices that are unsustainably low. One of the messages here is that a great deal of the Australian industry is the red, unable to meet operating costs. Even the domestic market is under attack, with falling consumption and rising imports.

The problem is structural, not cyclical or temporary. The surplus won’t be cured by a return to global economic prosperity, for example. The demand is not responsive enough to rising income.

Better weather will make the surplus worse, of course, by increasing supply and not even bad weather will make much of a dent in it. Drought, water shortages, global warming – these factors that continue to plague Australia — would reduce the surplus by 10 percent at best.

Continued over-production will put further pressure on price, the report says, making all the problems worse. There is only one solution: restructuring.

Grubbing Up

So Australian wine producers will be meeting in the coming weeks and months, getting the bad news and hopefully acting on it so that restructuring, including grubbing up uneconomic vines, can begin. Here is the timetable:

• From 23 November 2009, detailed and confidential supply data summaries will be provided to regional associations. These will examine each region in isolation and in relation to the national picture, with a focus on levels and patterns of viability.

• From 30 January 2010, a package of tools will be available to help individual vineyard operators assess their performance and viability. This will include: a checklist; an upgraded Deloitte Ready Reckoner to assess winery profitability by market, channel and price point; and an upgraded Vinebiz program to assess vineyard profitability.

• From early next year, briefings will be held in 14 regional centres (covering all states) to discuss regional data and issues and offer business stress testing to assist with decision making.

The Federal Government has been approached to help facilitate this initiative, and state input is being sought.

• WFA and WGGA will hold discussions with the Federal Government about improved exit packages for growers and small wineries seeking to leave the industry along the lines of drought and small block irrigator exit packages.

Chicken Little Talk

So now we have two of the most important actors in the world wine game committed to restructuring — Australia and the European Union. The EU reached its tipping point a couple of years ago and adopted a restructuring program in the slow, torturous EU policy way.

Many people were disappointed with the final EU reform package – too little, too late. But maybe that’s Chicken Little talk. It will be interesting to see if the Australian producers are more decisive and if they can find a way to pull themselves back from the tipping point.

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