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.

Bottoms Up: Extreme Value Wine Demand

“Life is too short to drink cheap wine,” but either life is getting longer or the definition of cheap is changing, because cheap wine (or extreme value wine, as I called it in my last blog post) is a booming market category.

The US off-premises wine market grew by 3.7 percent dollar value in the last year, according to Nielsen Scantrak results reported in Wine Business Monthly, but sales of wine under $3 per bottle equivalent rose by more than 5 percent and sales of $3-$5 increased by 9.4 percent. This gives the old toast “bottoms up” a new meaning. The bottom of the wine wall is currently leading the way.

Bottoms Up!

Since I’m an economist I tend to approach market problems from the perspective of supply and demand. It is easy to understand where the supply of extreme value wine is coming from. The global wine surplus combined with structural falling demand in the Old World and recession-induced slow growth in the New World means that there is a lot of wine out there searching for a home. Some of it ends up being deeply discounted or dumped in stores like the Grocery Outlet chain.

A lot of it goes into own-brand wines at mainstream stores. Safeway has introduced its Quail Oak brand and 7-Eleven just announced a line of $3.99 wines called Yosemite Road.  Both wines (and many other own-brands) are made by The Wine Group, the giant privately held California winemaker that, like Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wines, seems to specialize in making wines to hit particular price points.

Demand Side Puzzle

Although it just seems wrong, let me assure you that supplying wine to sell at $5, $4, $3 or even two bucks per bottle is not that difficult once you set out to do it. Cheap surplus grapes, cheap surplus wines, low-cost winemaking processes and economies of scale all contribute to extreme value supply. Nope, supply is easy. The challenge, until recently at least, has been selling the stuff.

Studies have repeatedly shown that wine drinkers are influenced by price – but not in the way you learned in Econ 101.  A lower price does not always produce more sales because insecure buyers infer quality from price. They assume that higher price means better wine. In a blind tasting of two identical wines, buyers will often rate one above the other if they are told it costs more.

So why are many wine drinkers now stooping down and buying cheaper (sometimes very cheap) wines – and shopping at stores like Grocery Outlet — when in the past they have been programmed to consider these products inferior? I think there are three forces at work.

Two Buck Chuck Effect

The first factor is what you might call the Two Buck Chuck effect. Trader Joe’s stores have led the way in introducing American wine drinkers to inexpensive own-brand wines. Because shopping at Trader Joe’s is cool, trying Trader Joe’s discount wines is cool, too (or at least not as un-cool as buying Carlo Rossi at Kroger would be).

You might ask “How good can a $3 wine  be?” elsewhere, but at Trade Joe’s it’s “How bad can it be?” TJ’s lends its reputation to the wine, which is the key to all own-brands. It is clear that Safeway, 7-Eleven, Target, Wal-Mart and many other chains that have introduced own-brand wines believe that they can do the same.

Costco Effect

Costco, the big box store chain, is the largest retailer of wine in the United States. Although their selection of wines is surprisingly limited (fewer than 150 different wines in each store compared with 1000-2000 or more at a typical upscale supermarket), it draws people in with low prices, made possible in part by the fact that buyers pay annual membership fees for the right to shop. The maximum markup on Costco wines is 15 percent above wholesale, which is hard to beat if you want to buy what they want to sell.

Costco has trained its upscale clientele to look for low price, but that’s not the Costco Effect I’m talking about here. Costco doesn’t sell extreme value wines – it leaves the bottom-feeding market to others.

The Costco Effect refers to the fact that shopping for wine at Costco is a lot like a treasure hunt. The wine selection changes all the time and so you need to come back often. Costco makes a point of stocking limited production wines, which run out. So if you see something you like, you better buy it now. I have friends who have scored one or two spectacularly good buys on impossible to find iconic wines at Costco and who are now completely addicted – they stop by as often as they can just to see what might be in the bin today.

Costco’s success with its treasure hunt strategy has generated a group of upscale customers (including perhaps my friend Jerry who was featured in the last blog post) who find the hunt almost as pleasant as the wine they buy. It’s a big a step but not an impossible one to go from Costco to Grocery Outlet since both position themselves as happy hunting grounds.

Trading Down Effect

The final piece of the demand puzzle is the recession, which made most of us stop and think about what we are paying and what we are getting. The data indicate that trading down (lower price), trading over (adopting a more casual and lower cost wine lifestyle) and drinking up (drinking from the cellar rather than buying expensive wines) are significant effects. Paying less for wine doesn’t carry the social stigma it might have in the boom-boom days and it doesn’t dent your personal wine identity as deeply either.

When you combine these three effects you get a market where extreme value wines can enter the mainstream. The demand for these wines is increasing, with different wine buyers responding to different motivations. It will be interesting to see if the market shift is permanent or if wine buyers will go back to their old habits.

Good, Bad or Ugly?

It is easy to conclude that the extreme value trend is a bad thing for the wine industry. People are paying less for wine, buying more generic wine and less of the quality product. I don’t see this as a completely negative trend, however. At least they are buying wine and not switching to other beverages. That would be ugly. This is part of the story of the collapse of wine demand in Europe. Wine became just another beverage and faded away as a quotidian pleasure. That hasn’t happened here, at least not yet.

I am actually hopeful that the extreme value trend will ultimately benefit the wine world, although I admit that my viewpoint is backed up by anecdotes more than hard data. I spoke with a young couple at the local Grocery Outlet who seem to me to be an optimistic future of wine in America. They had parked their shopping cart (with two small kids) in the wine corner and were busy picking out three or four bottles of wine from the huge selection of inexpensive bottles.

Do you buy wine here often? Yes, every week. We try different wines, which is fun. Some of them are disappointing, but it doesn’t cost very much to try them and we can also buy something different the next time. It’s been a long time since we found something that made us want to come back and buy a case, but that’s OK – it’s still fun.

Serious Business

What I like about this couple is that they use the extreme value store as an opportunity to experiment and they have the confidence to trust their own taste rather than some wine critics ratings. If they keep this up I think they will work their way out of the bargain bin. But I hope they never lose their sense of fun and willingness to take a chance on something different.

Wine is a serious business, but it is a mistake to take it too seriously. Wine can be intimidating, that’s for sure, especially the high-stakes wine game. It might be a healthier business in the long run if more people learn to love its treasure hunt side. If mainstreaming extreme value wine helps accomplish that, I think it is a positive development.

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