The Scrooge Report: Holiday Wine Gifts

No wonder economics is called the “dismal science” — sometimes our rigorous analysis threatens to spoil everyone’s fun.

Take holiday gift-giving, for example. The conventional wisdom is that “it is better to give than to receive” and while there is some merit in this if everyone gives (so that everyone receives), I think you can probably see the collective action problem here. Only an economist (or maybe an excitable child) would point out that, strictly from a material accumulation point of view, there are real advantages in being on the receiving end!

A Badly Flawed Process

But it gets worse because some economists suggest that it may be better not to bother with gifts at all. Don’t give gifts, give cash. Or, better yet, keep the cash and spend it on yourself. Gift-giving itself is a badly flawed process. This Scroogish sentiment is in part the result of Joel Waldfogel’s famous article on “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” Waldfogel concluded that Christmas, for all its merriment, was actually welfare-reducing because recipients do not generally place a value on gifts that is as high as their cost. They end up receiving stuff they would never have purchased with their own money.

The cost of giving gifts exceeds the benefits, so gift giving is an economic drain. Dismal, huh?  Here’s how it works.

Your aunt paid $50 for the sweater that she gave you. How much would you have paid for it? $50? $45? $40? Well, the fact is that you had the option of buying it for $50 and didn’t, therefore you must not have valued it at the full amount. So its value to you is probably  less than what your aunt paid. But how much less?

Economists seem to agree that the best case scenario is that there is about a 10 percent average loss in gift-giving, which I call the “Santa Tax,” although the “yield” as reported by survey respondents varies a good deal. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend more than $550 billion on holiday gifts in 2012. If the deadweight loss rate is just 10 percent, that would be a $50+ billion Santa Tax this year. Yikes!

There are many problems with this way of calculating holiday giving gains and losses. It is pleasing to give gifts, of course, and this should be taken into account. But how much would you be willing to pay for the pleasure?  And would your pleasure have been less if you had just given cash? The efficiency loss might be less with a cash gift, but perhaps the pleasure of giving (and thus the incentive to give) would be diminished, too.

Santa Tax Wine Edition

Then we can argue about the size of the Santa Tax. Is 10 percent about right … or do you suspect (as I do) that it might be much higher, especially when you are buying gifts for people who are much older or younger or who have very different tastes or needs from your own? Have you ever received a gift that was 100 percent deadweight loss? If you are honest you probably have. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? How big a Santa tax is too much?

Which brings us to the wine part of the problem. Doesn’t it seem like the Santa tax is probably even larger for wine gifts than for many other things? Most of us have experienced the deadweight loss when a bottle of wine that we’ve paid good money for doesn’t turn out to be worth what we’ve spent. So it is no surprise that the loss rate might be even worse when other people are doing the buying (and giving) for us.

Giving wine as a gift is risky (unless it is someone you know very well) because there are so many different choices and individual tastes differ so much. There are lots and lots of good wine  gift choices, of course, but it is easy to get caught in the Santa tax trap. I’m sure that a lot of holiday wine gifts miss the mark badly.

Maybe that’s why wine enthusiasts receive so many “wine gizmo” gifts instead of wine — but those gadgets are subject to the Santa Tax, too.  The New York Times‘s William Grimes recently complained about this problem.

Across the land, Christmas trees spread their fragrant branches over packages containing monogrammed Slankets, electric golf-ball polishers and toasters that emblazon bread slices with the logo of your favorite N.F.L. team.

But for some reason, the culture of wine and spirits provides especially fertile ground for misbegotten concepts like these. Year after year, it yields a bumper crop of inane but highly giftable innovations like wineglass holders that clip onto party plates, leather beer holsters and octobongs, the most efficient method yet devised for eight college students to consume a keg’s worth of beer simultaneously.

Tyler Colman, writing on his Dr Vino blog, singled out gifts of fancy automated corkscrews for particular criticism. You can probably think of some high Santa tax wine paraphernalia that you’ve either given or received yourself.

Beyond the Octobong: Wine Economist Gift Guide

OK, I suppose the octobong is out, but some of the wine gizmos that Grimes reviews in the article are sort of weirdly fascinating. I guess I can see why they are given as gifts (even though you might never spend your own money on them). So where does that leave us when it comes to wine gifts?

My first bit of advice is simple: don’t give a bottle of wine to friends or relations, share it with them. There is something about a shared experience that transcends a simple commodity transfer. (From a technical economics standpoint, I think sharing adds  some “public goods” elements to the deadweight loss equation that can cushion the Santa Tax loss). Trust me, from an economic theory standpoint, sharing is the way to go.

In fact the more I think about it the more I believe that sharing rather than giving is the key. Sharing a bottle of wine rather than just giving it may seem a bit selfish and is certainly more expensive (since time as well as money are involved), but sharing changes the game from transaction to relationship and this seems to me to be the essence of both the holidays themselves and wine, too.

More Gift Advice (and Shameless Self-Promotion)

Back to giving and receiving. Best gift to give a wine enthusiast? A copy of the new paperback edition of Wine Wars, of course. (Shameless self-promotion never takes a holiday).

Best wine gift to receive? It’s gotta be Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz — the brilliant 1242 page survey of 1368 wine grape varieties. So many grapes, so much information, such beautiful illustrations. This jeroboam-sized book will provide years of detailed research use (including very cool DNA analysis of wine grape origins!) and hours and hours of simple browsing pleasure for any curious wine geek.

Weight? Yes, quite a lot of it; 6.8 pounds shipping weight according to Amazon.com (although my copy feels light for its size). Deadweight loss? Forget about it!

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Click here to view a pdf of Waldfogel’s original article, which appeared in the December (of course) 1993 issue of the American Economic Review. The illustration is of a certain Mr. Grinch, who may or may not have been an economist.  Happy holidays everyone!

Wine Uncorked: The Rise of Big [Really Big] Box Wine

This is the fourth in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry. This week’s topic is how wine is becoming increasing “uncorked” and what this implies.

If you take the “uncorked” metaphor and add it to the “box wine” reference in the title, you might reasonably assume that I’m going to talk about alternative wine packaging — boxes, bags, 1-liter tetrapak containers and so on. That would sure make sense.

But you’re wrong. The box I’m talking about is big [really big] as in 20 foot ocean shipping containers holding maybe 25,000 liters of bulk wine in a “flexitank” bag.

Welcome to the New World of international wine trade — the ultimate ‘uncorked’ experience!

The Incredible Bulk

I’ve known about Big Box wine for a while — my 2009 post on “Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag [in the Box]” is one of the most-read articles in Wine Economist history. But I didn’t realize how big the big box wine trade had become until I received a Rabobank  report titled “The Incredible Bulk: The Rise in Global Bulk Wine Trade” earlier this year.

Rabobank’s report focuses on New World wine trade since 2001 and the change in the composition of wine shipments (in terms of bottled versus bulk) is dramatic. Bulk wine (the big box stuff) accounted for about 22% of New World wine exports in 2001 (the remaining 78% was shipped in bottle). By 2010 the bulk share increased to over 40% while the bottle share fell to less than 60%. That’s a near doubling of the bulk wine share of New World wine trade in less than a decade, an amazing shift that is all but invisible to consumers.

Big Green Wine

What drives the shift from bottle to bulk in New World wine trade? The short answer is Big Green, but green in two ways. Green, first, in the environmental sense. Bottled wine is both heavier and bulkier than bulk wine (glass accounts for more than 40% of a standard bottle’s total filled  weight). All else being equal (a big assumption in wine economics) shipping wine in bulk and bottling closer to the final consumer should lower the wine’s carbon footprint.

Tesco, the world’s largest wine retailer,  is reported to be particularly aggressive on this front with bulk wine imports being bottled in screw cap-topped lightweight glass for its high volume private label brands. (Click here to read about their very green “furnace glass” wine bottles!)

Cost is another green (as in greenback) factor and there are savings here as well. Rabobank estimates that bulk shipping yields an average cost savings of $2.25 per standard 9-liter case (they estimate total annual savings of $142,300,000 in 2010 compared with the 2001 level of bulk shipments).  This is a very substantial saving for commodity wines of the type that often appear in private label brand portfolios.

The movement towards increased bulk wine exports started in the Age of Abundance, when surplus wine flooded the markets and it was important to move it as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Those days are now in the past; rising costs and tight margins are likely to make that $2.25 per case saving even more attractive to producers now, especially as they scour the world for supplies of wine (did someone say “Moscato?”) to supplement scarce domestic juice.

Subtracting Value Added

For vertically integrated international wine producers, the decision to ship in bulk and bottle in the domestic market is mainly about these cost savings.  They pay less to ship the wine and pay lower import excise, too, since the wine enters the country at the lower bulk value rather than a higher bottled value.

But more is at stake, as the Rabobank report notes, for wine makers who sell to third party importers. In this case bulk shipping results in a new division of value added in the supply chain, with less in the producing country and more further down the line. The impact is thus complicated: bulk wine shipment subtracts some value added in the producing country, although the lower overall cost encourages exports.

There are also relative price effects to consider. Bulk shipping increases the relative price of traditional bottled wine imports relative to bulk products, a difference that may be magnified as wholesale costs differentials are passed along through the supply chain.

Economic Impact: The Box

The standard 20-foot shipping container (a.k.a. “The Box”) revolutionized international trade when it became widely adopted. It changed everything (OK, maybe not everything) because it was so much more secure and efficient than the previuosly standard “break bulk” shipping system. One of the things it changed was the scale of international transactions because the greatest economies were realized by those who could reliably fill ocean containers.

I don’t think the rise of “uncorked” big box bulk wine shipments is going to change everything in the same way the ocean container did, but I do think the effects will be significant. I’ll talk about this more in my next post where I consider how the world of tight, fat and uncoked wine is likely to unfold.

Economic Impact: Wine [Not Just] By the Numbers

Apple, maker of iPods, iPads and other iGadgets, recently released data that tried to establish the corporation’s economic impact on the American economy (this in response, I think, to charges that its high-outsource policies mean that its products benefit China and other countries more than its U.S. home market).

The company published the results of a study it commissioned saying that it had “created or supported” 514,000 jobs in the United States. The study is an effort to show that Apple’s benefit to the American job market goes far beyond the 47,000 people it directly employs here.

The number of indirect jobs claimed drew attention from economists.

David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said via e-mail that the “entire business of claiming ‘direct and indirect’ job creation is disreputable” because most of the workers Apple is taking credit for would have been employed elsewhere in the company’s absence.

I tend to agree with Prof. Autor’s comment mainly because I can do the math. If Apple is right, then its small labor force is responsible for an incredible fraction of all U.S. jobs. If we made similar estimates for all other U.S. industries I am confident that the total number of jobs claimed would quickly exceed the total number of jobs … period.

Suspicious Minds

But then I tend to be suspicious of economic impact studies … period … whether they are about the gadget industry or any other industry. And this is due mainly to the incentives that are present. No one ever commissions an impact study unless they have a reason to want to show a large impact (usually it is politics — to prevent a political backlash against Apple’s outsourcing policy, for example, or to encourage provision of “key industry” government benefits).

And I know from personal experience that no one ever takes on an economic impact study without realizing that higher numbers are better for the client. I’m not saying that anything shady takes place. I’m just pointing out the incentives and you know what economists think about the power of incentives!

So (and I’m sure you can see this coming) I’m also suspicious of economic impact studies of the wine industry that are occasionally published. Economic theory says that economic impact (the total value added throughout the supply chain) should be equal to the final sales price of the product. This is such a strong idea in economics that it is stated as an identity rather than an equation or theory.

And the reported economic impact always seem to exceed the final sales by a large margin just like Apple’s jobs study. Yikes. No wonder I have my doubts!

Visible Hands

It is good to be critical in assessing numbers, but I’m afraid my skepticism sometimes goes a bit too far, to the point where I don’t really appreciate how important the wine industry is and how broad its impacts really are. That’s why my travels this year to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposiium and the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers meetings have been so useful.

It’s not [just] that the presentations have been useful, although they have. It’s really the trade shows that have taken my breath away and provided a needed perspective. I’ve been able to see and meet the people behind the numbers and it has been very helpful.

This was especially true at the Unified in Sacramento, which had two huge floors brimming with about 650 exhibitors. The trade show was so large that Wine Business Monthly created an online planning guide to help visitors navigate the room (http://www.winebusiness.com/planningguide/2012/). Wow! I heard that there was a smartphone app available to optimize your walk through the trade show based upon your business interests. A great idea.

The Ordinary Business of Wine

I’ve pasted in a directory of exhibitors from the 2011 Unified event so that you can see the wine range of businesses that come to the meetings (and the wide range of economic impacts involved, too). I really wanted to use a photo for this, but I couldn’t find an image that captured the sense of the place, so the table (more numbers) will have to do.

Many of these firms are specific to the wine industry, but a number are what I would call “ordinary businesses” (see my last post) that provide the wine industry with the sorts of goods and services that all businesses need, albeit often with a special wine slant. If wine has a large economic impact, and I think it does, these ordinary businesses — banking, accounting, marketing, legal services, flooring, hoses, tanks and even iPad-enabled electronic sommelier apps — are part of the process.

iPad apps for wine? Wow, I guess this means that we are part of the Apple empire, too. (Or is it the other way ’round?)

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Thanks to Ken (who put it better than I did here) for suggesting the “wine as an ordinary business” theme.

A Tale of Two Initiatives

Last year Washington voters went to the polls and defeated a Costco-sponsored initiative to liberalize the state’s wine, beer and spirits markets. The vote was 46.5% Yes and 53.4% No. Initiative 1100 mustered a majority in only four counties — Mason, Kitsap, Island and Douglas — and lost in the Pierce-King-Snohomish urban corridor.

What a difference a year makes! Initiative 1183, also sponsored by Costco, passed handily with nearly 60% of the state-wide vote. Significantly, only four counties voted against the ballot issue this time and all the major population centers were in the Yes column. What happened? Herewith some observations.

1. Times Have Changed

Times have changed? Yes, obviously, although this doesn’t really explain such a large apparent one-year shift in voter behavior. Still it is worth considering how much times have changed if only to gauge how anachronistic Washington’s liquor control regulations seem today.

Obviously the most important factor is our continuing recovery from Prohibition’s hangover — attitudes and beliefs about alcohol consumption have changed much more and faster than the relevant legal institutions. A second factor may be the changing demographic profile of  the state, which once featured a stronger Scandinavian-American influence that was sympathetic to what I have called “the Swedish Solution” to liquor sales. More current Washington residents come from or have lived in non-control states and see no harm in private liquor sales.

Finally, market power has shifted, with large retailers embracing alcohol as a high margin product segment. Even Wal-Mart sells wine — who would have guessed? Increasingly these firms want to be freed of regulations (apart from obvious legal age restrictions) that reduce business efficiency.

2. Political Gridlock

Most people believe that public policy should be the realm of elected officials and that private businesses should not have too much influence on the laws that regulate them. We know that special interests have more clout in practice than the civics textbooks say they should have in theory, but there are limits and they should be respected. For Costco to write its own laws was seen by some voters as crossing the line. Better to vote No and let the legislature handle privatization.

But political gridlock is the name of the game today and it seems to have gotten worse in the last year as indicated by the continuing federal budget impasse fiasco. Politicians are frustrated with their inability to take decisive action and the voters are fed up. Washington voters are usually suspicious of initiatives, but in this political environment some ballot issues are seen as a lesser evil to grid-locked legislation.

(The exchange between Sean Sullivan and Rand Sealey in the Comments section of this Washington Wine Report post is particularly instructive in this regard.)

3. Voter’s Remorse

A lot of voters wanted to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales last year (changing times), but they were unhappy with their choices and confused by the process. There were three different campaigns in 2010 — Costco’s pro 1100 push, a campaign for an alternative law (Initiative 1105, sponsored in part by distributors threatened by 1100’s attack on the three-tier system) and an anti-everything effort (ironically also financed by distributors but also including other groups).

Picky voters cast a No vote — they wanted liquor market reform, but not this way.  This time around, their standards were a bit lower. They no longer expected to have really good choices (see item 2 above), so many people held their noses and voted Yes. This isn’t the way to make state laws, but it is the best choice we have, they said.

4. Divide and Conquer

Finally, the architects of I-1183 crafted their proposal to weaken opposition to it. Last year’s I-1100 was designed to create a nearly perfect market environment for large retailers like Costco. Lots of vested interests were threatened and they reacted with vigor.

There was less opposition to this year’s proposal. In particular, while spirits sales will be privatized and the wine market liberalized, I don’t think there is much direct impact on beer. So beer distributors sensibly stayed out of the fight this time. And I-1183 made a point to increase government revenues from alcohol sales, too, eliminating another potential concern.

So whereas in 2010 it was Costco and other big retailers versus distributors battling for voter attention, this time Costco was opposed by a less effective coalition of anti-alcohol groups, state liquor store operators and employees and some Washington wine producers who fear that they will suffer in the new market environment. The opposition was divided … and conquered.

What’s Next?

It is too soon to know what is going to happen when all of I-1183’s new rules go into effect. Certainly the biggest effects will be on spirit sales. The wine impacts will be smaller (but still significant) and quite diverse. Some wine producers are better prepared than others to compete on price through volume discounts, for example.

Some retailers will no doubt reduce wine shelf space (at least in the short term) in order to make room for spirits. Others may expand the space allocated to wine and spirits at the expense lower-margin items. And big box liquor retailers like Total Wine and BevMo are likely to enter the market, too.

It will be interesting to see how the wine market evolves in Washington as it adjusts to this new environment — more to come on this question. It will also be interesting to see if politicians get the message that some voters put into the election bottle.

In the meantime, I plan to encourage my students to study these election results at a micro level to pick out and try to explain more clearly the key electoral shifts that have ushered in this new alcoholic beverage regime.

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Click here to view an interactive 2011 election map provided by the Washington State Secretary of State’s office. Click here to see the county-by-county results for Initiative 1100 in the 2010 general election. Click on the map above to see the Wine & Vines article where it appears.

Kudos to Sean Sullivan and his Washington Wine Report blog for his thorough analysis of the initiatives in both 2010 and 2011. Sean opposed I-1183 because of its potential negative impact on the Washington wine industry, but correctly predicted that the measure would pass.

Fluid Dynamics: Charting the Global Wine Market

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

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

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

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

Up the Down Staircase in Europe

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

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

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

Bulking Up (and Down)

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

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

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

This Changes Everything

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

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

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

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

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

Money, Power and Wine


Wine is about flavor and aroma, of course, but it’s also about money and power. Anyone who has studied the wine business knows about the money that’s at stake and the power that a few key actors have to shape the market or exploit its peculiar structure.

Every couple of years Decanter magazine publishes a list of the 50 most powerful people in the world of wine, which gives everyone an opportunity to think about how wine has changed and how those changes have altered the distribution of power.  I wrote about the 2009 Decanter Wine Power List two years ago and now the 2011 list has appeared. You can read all about it here: Decanter Wine Power List 2011.

Lewis Perdue, editor of Wine Industry Insight responded to the new Decanter rankings almost immediately, saying the list is based on “snobbery rather than power.”  Perdue writes that

Decanter’s annual “Powerful” list is based not so much on power, clout, or the ability to move markets, but on a snobbish gaze at a small self-indulgent world that is increasingly irrelevant to the vast majority of the globe’s wine drinkers.

Indeed, the wine industry’s obsession with the navel-gazing worship of sacred grapes blessed by the gods since 1855 is one key reason wine remains  a self-marginalized beverage.

Small wonder that so many people who have a real life choose to punt on haut vin’s rituals and mumbo-jumbo and order a vodka or an IPA instead.

What’s bugging Perdue? As someone who has recently asked “Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?” I can appreciate his point of view, which becomes clearer when you compare the 2011 ratings with the 2009 power list. I’ll reproduce the top tens from both years here.

2009 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
  2. Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
  3. Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
  4. Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
  5. Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
  6. Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
  7. Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
  8. Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
  9. Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
  10. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard

The 2009 power structure reflected a certain rationalization of the wine business — by which I mean a movement towards de-mystified wine that consumers buy because they can understand it. Sands (#1) and Dick (#4) are in the business of selling and distributing wines to the masses — they are forces of democratization, if you will allow me to use this term very loosely.

Fischer Boel (#3) is the EU official who in 2009 was working on reforms to make the EU market more rational, more like the American market, so that European winemakers could compete with the Sands and Dicks of the world (and stop producing surplus wine that no one will buy).

Alvarez-Peters and  Jago (#5 and #6 respectively) are part of that system, too. Costco and Tesco are the largest wine merchants in the U.S. (Costco) and the world (Tesco); key leaders in wine’s expanding (rationalized) retail domain.

Even Robert Parker (#2) is sometimes seen as part of the wine democratization movement, at least to the extent that he has weakened the hold of Old World elites on wine criticism. His 100-point scale is often characterized by critiques as rationalization taken to an extreme. (FYI French President Sarkozy made the list at #9 because his anti-alcohol policies represented a powerful and widespread threat to the wine business.)

The 2009 ratings, in this admittedly superficial analysis, were all about how power has moved not so much to the masses as to people with an interest in selling wine to the masses by reconfiguring the structure of the wine industry to that end. You can see from the part of Perdue’s remarks that I quoted above that he is probably sympathetic with the direction the 2009 power list points (except the Sarko element, of course).

2011 Wine Power List Top Ten

  1. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard
  2. Eric de Rothschild, Chateau Lafite Rothschild
  3. Robert Parker, Wine Advocate
  4. Mel Dick, Southern Wine & Spirits
  5. Robert Sands, Constellation Brands
  6. Annette Alvarez-Peters, Costco
  7. Don St Pierre Jr, CEO of China-based distributor ASC
  8. Wu Fei , general manager of Chinese wine company Cofco wine and spirits
  9. Eduardo Guilisasti, Chief Executive Officer of Concha y Toro Winery
  10. Jancis Robinson MW OBE , wine critic and author

Decanter explains the significance of its new rankings in the video I have inserted at the top of this post and also on its website:

Pierre Pringuet, CEO of ‘arguably today’s most diverse, far-reaching major wine producer’ has knocked Constellation’s Robert Sands from the number one slot.

The 60-year-old executive, number 10 in 2009’s Power List, presides over the world’s fourth biggest wine company, owner of brands from Champagne Mumm and Perrier-Jouet to Jacob’s Creek and New Zealand’s Brancott Estate.

Pernod Ricard spans both the mass-market and premium end of the global wine market, giving it ‘an enviable perspective on the rate of change currently affecting the wine world,’ Decanter argues.

In second place is Eric de Rothschild, who has looked after the diverse portfolio of Domaines Barons de Rothschild for 37 years.

He has shot up from number 20 on the basis of Chateau Lafite’s huge influence in China: ‘as the world’s premium producers blaze a trail east, it is in Lafite’s footsteps they tread.’

The 2011 rankings present a different picture of wine power. Parker, Sands and Alvarez-Peters still appear in the top 10, reflecting the continued relevance of an American idea of wine markets, but Pernod Ricard replaces Constellation Brands at the top.  Constellation was #1 in the world in 2009 and is #2 now, behind Gallo. Pernod Ricard is #4 by sales today. (Gina Gallo appears further down the list a few positions ahead of her husband, Jean-Charles Boisset — a real wine power couple!)

But the real story is about the new faces in the top 10 list. China is the emerging market powerhouse and power is shifting, Decanter is telling us, to those who can ride that tiger most successfully. Rothschild’s #2 position is all about China. His Chateau Lafite Rothschild’s soaring prices are driven by Chinese buyers who cannot seem to get enough 0f that wine, no matter how much it costs (or how likely it is to be fake!).

Assessing the Power Shifts

It certainly is the case that wine market power is shifting. The U.S. appears to be the wine market of the present (it is now the largest national wine market) although it is hard to argue with the idea that China may be the market of the future. But the future could be a long way off. Still, I understand that everyone is looking for growing markets and The Next Big Thing, which is probably why there was so much attention given my series on wine in the BRIC nations.

Britain has always had a “special relationship” with Bordeaux (one that is hundreds of years older than its U.S. link), so it is perhaps understandable that Decanter’s editors would see the world through a different lens than some of the rest of us. Power has already shifted to Asia in certain segments of the wine auction market and for some Bordeaux wines, so if we define the universe of wine this way (which is what Perdue objects to) then Decanter’s strong focus on Asia makes perfect sense. If you take a different view of what is relevant in wine today and what isn’t, then your sense of where the power lies changes.

Power to the People?

Decanter says that one message in the power list bottle is the democratization of wine. Gary Vaynerchuck, the “people’s wine critic,” makes the list  again (he ranks higher than Hugh Johnson) and “the amateur wine bloggers” make their first appearance in the #16 slot — behind Dan Jago and Gina Gallo but a couple of positions ahead of Michel Rolland.

I like the idea of recognizing the power of the internet. My university students get most of their information about wine from web sources — they don’t pay much attention to the traditional gatekeepers. But power transmitted through the web is different in nature from the ability to control wine distribution, for example. It is much like the distinction I make in my political economy courses between “hard power” and “soft power.” Both are important, but which is more effective depends on the context.

There are some wine bloggers with great influence (I wouldn’t call their efforts amateur, however), but I think Decanter missed the target here. It is probably not the bloggers who represent soft power in wine so much as the thousands of contributors to CellarTracker.com and similiar websites.  Their influence surely trickles up, although the long term impact remains (like that of China) yet to be revealed.

Argentinean Wine: Striking a Balance

Old and New at Mendel Wines

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

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

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

Thinking Global: Anabelle Sielecki

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

Crisis and Opportunity

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

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

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

Old and New

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

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

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

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

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

Acting Local: Roberto de la Mota

Local and Global

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

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

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

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


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

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