Economic Effects of Washington Liquor Initiatives

This is the third in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws  (click here to read the first and second segments). How would Washington Initiatives I-1100 and I-1105 affect wine makers and wine consumers? Let’s look at wine makers first.

Wine producers in Washington are not united either in support of or opposition to the initiatives. One industry group, The Washington Wine Institute, publicly opposes both initiatives, for example, while the Family Wineries of Washington State supports I-1100 but opposes I-1105.

Winners & Losers

Both initiatives would create more avenues of competition for wineries by removing state restrictions that prevented discounted prices, negotiated payment schedules and so forth. Based on my conversations it seems that some wineries would welcome the opportunity to compete  using a fuller range of business strategies. They would like to be able to go after the business they want and to reward retailers and restaurants that carry the full range of their products or who make long term commitments.

Other wine makers are concerned that they may be disadvantaged in this new environment because they lack the resources or expertise to compete effectively. Interestingly, it is not just small wineries who want to avoid competition and not just large ones who embrace it. Obviously it is a complicated matter.

One wine maker candidly told me that it is hard to know if the gains will outweigh the losses.  This person saw obvious areas for new business expansion but realized there would be negative effects on margins and the need for more capital to accommodate extended payments. I sensed a very pragmatic attitude:  wine is a business and business people have to cope with whatever is thrown at them whether it is Mother Nature (a late harvest) or a change in state liquor laws.

My conversations reminded me of Olivier Torres’ discussion of the difference between French and American business strategy in his book The Wine Wars. American entrepreneurs, Torres says, look for new opportunities, taking risks, while the French business strategy is more about fending off threats. This is an oversimplified stereotype, of course, but it does seem to capture a bit of the wine war raging today in Washington state, where those with “French” attitudes are not necessarily from France.

Will Small Wineries Get Squeezed?

Television ads like the one I have inserted above suggest that small wineries would be especially hard hit by the new laws. A local news analysis of this ad raises some doubts about this claim (see  this King5 report). Will small local wineries get crowded off the shelf? Here’s my brief analysis.

I do think that large wine companies will have an advantage if the law is changed, but they have obvious economic advantages now, so this is nothing new. I would not be surprised to see big companies (Constellation Brands, Gallo, etc) increase their relative share of retail shelf space since they have the resources to offer discounts and incentives.

It is also possible that spirits companies and distributors will bring associated wine brands with them as they rush to fill their newly opened retail market niche if the initiatives pass, adding to the “crowding out” effect.  Retailers are trying to streamline their operations and reduced the number of suppliers they deal with, giving “drinks” companies that can supply wine, beer and spirits an advantage.

This effect will differ by type of retail account, of course, and be different for fine dining versus casual dining restaurant sales. In the supermarket segment, for example, you can already see differences in the relative incidence of the big producer portfolios in Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway stores compared with regional chains like Metropolitan Market.

Although small wineries might get somewhat less shelf space, they certainly will not disappear from wine shelves and restaurant lists. Wine enthusiasts value diversity and smart sellers fill their shelves accordingly. That’s why a typical upscale supermarket offers 1500-2500 wine choices, at least ten times the number of options in any other product category. Retail wine margins are high and sellers profit by catering to their customers’ desire for a wide range of choices.

I think the competition among smaller winemakers will be more of a factor than between the big corporations and the small family wineries. There are hundreds of small wineries in Washington state all seeking a place at the retail table. Right now it is pretty difficult for the maker of a $40 Walla Walla Syrah to get shelf space (or distributor representation) and many producers are sensibly reconfiguring their business plans to focus more on direct sales. This will remain a good strategy if the initiatives pass, but makers who want to compete for shelf space will have more tools at their disposal.

And That’s A Good Thing?

Bottom line: small wineries will get squeezed by the big boys, but other small wineries are the real competition (hence the lack of a consensus among wine makers) and the initiatives will make this competition much more intense.

Is this a good thing? Well, it will probably be good for many consumers who will benefit from lower wine prices. They will likely have more (but different) wines to choose from too. Whether the new choices will be better is bound to be a matter of taste. If, as some have suggested, big box drinks retailers Bevmo and Total Wine open outlets in Washington it will change in significant ways the market terrain.

At the Ballot Box

How am I going to vote? The issue is complicated enough that I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am unlikely to vote for I-1105, however, since it seems like a stumbling half-step towards market liberalization.

I find the wine market aspects of I-1100 appealing and, as an economist, I am programmed to believe in the benefits of competition, but I am still concerned about the liquor law changes. I don’t know how making spirits cheaper and more readily  available will help solve the public health and safety problems associated with liquor consumption. Many will disagree with this view and I respect their opinions.

I guess I’m going to have to weigh the pros and cons before I cast my ballot just like everyone else.

Big Squeeze on Small Wineries in Argentina

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

Both Sides Now

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

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

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

Magnified Price Effects

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

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

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

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

Not Much Wiggle Room

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

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

Turbulent Tide

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

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

Vinonomics: The Mouton Cadet Index

Richard Hemming, whose writing appears on the  Jancis Robinson website, has invented the Mouton Cadet index to measure international differentials in wine prices. It is an interesting project that is worth following.

Hemming’s price index, which he is calling Vinonomics (in homage to the Freakonomics craze), works like this. First he selected a high-volume wine that is in very wide international circulation to serve as the one-item “market basket” for his international comparisons. Mouton Cadet, the ubiquitous Bordeaux wine, is a great choice since it is so widely distributed (a “15-million-bottle, 150-country brand distributed from Andorra to Zimbabwe,” according to Hemming).

Mouton Cadet may not be the wine sold in the most different countries — Moët & Chandon Champagne would be my pick for that honor — but using Mouton Cadet keeps the Big Mac spirit of tracking the price of an everyday product, not a luxury good.

Sky High in Seoul

Hemming then searched the internet and other sources for prices of Mouton Cadet in as many countries as he could. He converted these prices to Euro, USD and GBP at market exchange rates and published them on the website. (He is hoping that readers will send in additional price data to help complete the table.)

The price differentials that Hemming finds are quite large.  The French ‘home country” price for Mouton Cadet is given as EUR 9.55, which is incredibly more than the reported price of the same wine in the United States (USD 7.99 or about EUR 6). Within the Eurozone, where trade is allegedly free, Cadet’s price runs as high as EUR 19 in Austria and EUR 21 in Italy. So much for the “Law of One Price!”

What’s the cheapest place in the world to purchase Mouton Cadet? So far Hemming’s low price leader is the U.S., where French wines struggle to sell in a crowded and very competitive market, followed by Hong Kong (EUR 8.56).

The most expensive? South Korea (EUR 26), Brazil (EUR 21.5) and Italy (EUR 21). The difference between the high and low price is stunning. It is easy to explain South Korea’s high price in terms of transportation costs, regulatory expenses and multiple middleman markups, but the high price given for Italy is difficult to understand. Hard to know who would pay so much for Cadet in Italy.

Bordeaux with your Big Mac?

Hemming’s research project is based on  the Economist’s famous Big Mac Index (BMI), which tries to measure the relative purchasing power of different currencies by comparing the local prices of McDonald’s ubiquitous hamburger.  Here is a table showing the index as of July 2010.

The table shows that Japan and Australia are very close to Purchasing Power Parity — the condition where a U.S. dollar has the same purchasing power abroad (when exchanged at market rates) as at home.  The dollar cost of a Big Mac is approximately the same in all three countries.

Norway’s currency is very over-valued according to the BMI.  A Big Mac that sells for USD 3.73 in the U.S. costs a whopping USD 7.20 (converting at market exchange rates) in Oslo. The high cost of buying a Norwegian Krone contributes to the hamburger’s high dollar price there.  The Swiss Franc is almost as over-valued — a Big Mac costs the equivalent of USD 6.19 in Geneva.

Hong Kong and China have undervalued currencies by this measure. A Big Mac costs less than the equivalent of USD 2.00 there. The harburger is cheap in part because the currency is so cheap in these countries.

Wine vs Burgers

The Big Mac index is far from a perfect measure of relative purchasing power, but it is not a bad guestimate because Big Macs are standard products with easily discoverable prices and most of the cost of producing a Big Mac takes place within the country in question. I’ve found that if the BMI says a country’s currency is over-valued then it probably is, although not necessarily by as much or little as the index suggests.

The Mouton Cadet index is very interesting for what it tells us about wine prices, but it is probably less useful as a measure of PPP. The wine, of course, comes from France unlike the locally-produced burger ingredients and the local price in South Korea, for example, is influenced by that cost basis (adjusted for exchange rate effects) plus transportation costs. The biggest “local content” factors are the local taxes and  wholesale and retail markups within South Korea, which are probably quite high.

Mind the Gap

At this point the Mouton Cadet index is most interesting to me for the questions it inspires (I’ve always said that questions are more interesting than answers). Who’s buying that EUR 21 Cadet in Rome (and are they interested in buying a bridge I happen to have for sale?)

What accounts for the high price in South Korea? The exchange rate is certainly  part of it. The South Korea Won is undervalued relative to the EUR according to the BMI. A Big Mac costs USD 2.82 in Seoul and USD 4.33 in Paris — a 50% price differential. The exchange rate therefore might explain 50% of the price gap between the Mouton Cadet price in France and South Korea. What accounts for the rest? (And does that fact that South Korea has no substantial domestic wine industry that I am aware of affect the mark ups on foreign wines?)

And what about Brazil? The Euro is actually  undervalued relative to the Brazilian Real according to the Big Mac index, and so the exchange rate is not necessarily a factor in Mouton Cadet’s high price in Rio. What other factors account for the big price gap?

I hope Richard Hemming continues with this project. It would be interesting to have data for additional countries (Japan? Russia? India?) and to see how the rankings change over time and relative to Big Macs.

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I’d like to encourage interested readers around the world to send Hemming local store prices for Mouton Cadet so that he has better data both for international comparisons and to get a sense of intra-country price dispersion.

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.

The {Wine Economics} Magnification Effect

One of my pet theories about globalization could be called “the magnification effect.” Although global markets change things for sure, often their biggest effect is to magnify or exaggerate existing trends and conditions. A Decanter report from Bordeaux provides a good example of how the Magnification Effect works.

The Law of One Price

Although people talk about “Bordeaux wine,” there has never been a “Bordeaux wine market.” The Law of One Price holds that if there is a single market there will be a single price. But it is the difference in prices that is Bordeaux’s most notable feature. Some wines from the region sell for thousands of dollars, others for a few bucks and some … well they go to the distillery for mere pennies.

This market segmentation occurs in all wine regions, but it is more noticeable in Bordeaux because these wines have always been targeted for export (the globalization element) and so price stratification is more pronounced.

Students of wine history know that Bordeaux is in fact defined by these differences. The Classification of 1855, which established a strict hierarchy of Medoc wine producers that persists to this day, was not based upon sensory evaluation, as you might expect, or critical analysis but simply on market price.

The gold's at the top ...

The Twilight Zone

Over the years, as global markets expanded, the price differentials recognized in 1855 became embedded in the market and magnified. The Decanter article illustrates the current extreme. Announced prices for 2009 are substantially higher for the 400 top-tier Bordeaux wines that are sold en primeur: up an average of 18.6% over the 2005 “vintage of the century” and 48.7% above the recession-plagued 2008 market. Good times for the top names, as Orley Ashenfelter pointed out on two occasions during the recent American Association of Wine Economists meeting at UC Davis.

But there are thousands of wine producers in Bordeaux and times are very hard for many who are not in the top tier. Decanter reports that

…  the official price paid by merchants for a tonneau (900 litres, or the equivalent of 1,200 bottles sold in bulk) of AOC Bordeaux red has dropped to around €600 per barrel – less than the ex-chateau price for a single bottle of any of the top wines.  Most producers report that actual transaction fees are dropping as low as €500 per tonneau. Bernard Fargues, president of Syndicate of Bordeaux (which represents over half of the regions’ 8,000 winemakers, all producing AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Superieur) told decanter.com that around 90% of his members were in difficulty, with at least 50% suffering serious financial problems.

If my math is right, some Bordeaux wines have fallen into the Two Buck Chuck danger zone while others have risen to … to what? The Twilight Zone!

This magnification effect has become global, as was readily apparent at a symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” held in association with the Davis meetings. Speakers emphasized the widening market segmentation. Bulk wines (wines that sell for less than $5 per bottle equivalent and often for much less) have developed a truly global market in part, as several speakers noted, because bulk wine buyers aren’t particularly interested in terroir — they basically don’t care where their wine comes from, only what that it has a familiar taste and doesn’t cost very much.

Somewhere vs. Nowhere at Trader Joe’s

I noticed this on a recent visit to Trader Joe’s where a new line of Two Buck Chuck has appeared — Charles Shaw International wines, sourced from Australia’s surplus wine lake and selling for the same low price as the original product. I don’t imagine that anyone will refuse to buy it because it is “international” rather than from the San Joaquin Valley like the rest of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

Bulk wine prices are deeply depressed because of this mass global market, squeezing out inefficient producers (or those who don’t benefit from government subsidies of one sort or another). Profits per acre in the San Joaquin Valley (where most of California’s bulk winegrapes are grown) is down to $200 acre — an amount so low that growers are switching to other crops such as walnuts and almonds where the global competition situation is more favorable. One grower who attended the symposium talked of leaving fruit on the vine for the first time in 25 years.

If the market for bulk wines is global, I guess you could say that the premium wine market is “international.” Buyers do care about where these wines come from and so global sourcing is not an option. This exposes producers to a different set of risks and rewards. Australian winemakers, for example, find themselves victim of the strong Australian dollar. China’s huge needs for Australian minerals has driven the currency up and helped price Australian premium wines out of their traditional market niches.

The Law of Yuan Price

(The exchange rate obviously affects the bulk wine market, too, and is one factor in Australia’s excess capacity in that market segment. The exchange rate depresses price both directly, by raising export costs, and indirectly as unsold premium wines are diverted to low-price bulk wine markets.)

Wines at the very top of the pyramid also face challenges, but they are different from those of bulk wine and premium wine. Globalization is a positive benefit to top-flight Bordeaux, for example, because it means that Hong Kong and Chinese buyers can be found to replace (or apparently more than replace) declining buyer interest elsewhere.

Decanter recently published their first Chinese language Bordeaux report — a clear indication of the expanding global market and a suggestion that the Magnification Effect has not yet reached its peak.

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.

Stags Leap Through the Looking Glass

This week I’m reporting on my research expedition to Napa Valley, where I attended the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association Vineyard to Vintner’s (V2V) event and ventured “through the looking glass” to consider the past, present and future of wine.

My last post ended with a question: Stags Leap was still an emerging region when I visited in 1980, but it was already attracting a great deal of attention and international investment. Would the influx of big money into the Stags Leap District destroy its great wines or would the terroirists managed to save them? Here’s what I found out.

Follow the Money

The big money certainly arrived and you can see it today in the wonderful facilities that the wineries have created.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was a tiny one-building operation when I visited there 30 years ago. Now that original structure with its oak doors is Building 1 on an expanded campus of facilities that includes a vast arched barrel room and a network of tunnels for barrel storage (I’ve heard these called wunnels — wine tunnels). Everything is sleek and custom made for entertaining clients and visitors as well as making wine.

The barrel room at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is gently curved like a barrel stave. The barrels are stacked five deep.

Warren Winiarski is responsible for these changes, but he doesn’t own Stag’s Leap any more. He sold out in 2007 to Italy’s Antinori family. I’ve read that he figured he could trust the Antinori to uphold his vision of wine.

The Antinori partnered with Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) of Washington State, who they trusted because of their successful joint venture on Red Mountain, Col Solare. (SMWE is owned by Altria, a corporation that also owns Phillip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.)

Changing Hands

Stag’s Leap is not the only winery in the district to be acquired big business. Chimney Rock is now owned by The Terlato Wine Group, a company that owns several notable U.S. wineries and is a major force in wine distribution (they represent Gaja and Santa Margherita wines from Italy, for example).

Pine Ridge Winery, which produced its first vintage in 1978,  was acquired by the Leucadia National Corporation in 1991, which also owns Archery Summit in Oregon but is is best understood as a diversified holding company investing in manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas drilling gaming, entertainment and real estate activities.

So the big money did in fact come to Stags Leap and the many of the wineries they created are rather grand – as far from the simple cellar that I visited 30 years ago as can be imagined.

The Economic Factor

Dinner at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Economics dictated the large scale and luxurious feel of many of today’s Stags Leap District wineries. Winemaking is capital intensive, so it is important to produce in volume. Stags Leap AVA Cabernet Sauvignon (necessarily limited in supply by the AVA’s tiny size) is often therefore produced alongside higher volume “Napa Valley” wines, for example, and Chardonnays from Carneros grapes in order to get volumes up to an economic level. Nothing wrong with that.

The plush feel of the wineries themselves, with plenty of space for entertaining, events and on-site culinary staff, is a product of the practicalities of distribution. Direct sales – to cellar visitors and wine club members – yield more revenue than restaurant and retail sales that must make their way through the tortuous and costly three-tier distribution system. So it is important to build and establish direct-sale personal relationships and to provide appropriate winery facilities.

One winery’s wine club manager told me that nearly 70% of sales came through this direct channel. Wow! That’s a lot of revenue and worth a substantial investment. So it is important to both make good wine and to create a memorable winery experience. Understandable.

But what happens to the wine in the process? Is there so much focus on image and marketing that the wines themselves are an afterthought?

The Mondovino hypothesis

My answer, based on an intense weekend in Stags Leap, is that it ain’t necessarily so. Sure, we tasted a couple of wines (I won’t name the makers) that seemed like they were made to catch the attention of critics more than to capture a sense of place, but for the most part the wines we sampled seemed to be authentic variations on a Stags Leap theme. And the winemakers we talked to spoke with conviction of wine made in the vineyard, not the advertising agency.

Can big multinational money coexist with an authentic idea of wine? Yes, at least in Stags Leap. (Robert Parker goes further — he seems to think that the Antinori/Ste Michelle money and technical attention might actually restore the  faded — according to him — glory of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.)

So the way I framed my question — money, business and globalization versus terroir — was plain wrong. Money, marketing and multinationals doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it doesn’t make it impossible, either. Wine is too complicated for that.

The pessimistic Mondovino hypothesis that the wine business inevitably destroys wine itself doesn’t always hold. I’m not saying this is true everywhere, but I am quite sure that the somewhereness of Stags Leap has survived these 30 years.

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Thanks to the Stags Leap District Growers Association for inviting us to attend the Vineyard to Vintner program. Thanks as well to Russell Weiss (Silverado), Mark Smith and Jim Duane (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Elizabeth Vianna (Chimney Rock), Tim Dolven (Steltzner), Jeff Virnig (Robert Sinskey) and Michael Beaulac (Pine Ridge) conversations and help in various ways.

Myth of the Level (Vineyard) Playing Field

Terrain matters, both in wine and in markets.  Many of the world’s best vineyards  cling to hillsides or follow natural contours (like the famous Pewsey Vale vineyard shown here).

While wine people seem to appreciate the challenges and opportunities that complicated terrain presents, economists are drawn (at least metaphorically) to tabletops. We think of the world in competitive terms and seek out “level playing fields” where our favorite theories are most applicable.

The Difference Between Vineyards and Soccer Fields

As a wine economist, I can appreciate the flat and the steep of the wine world and I have come to upon a particular irony.  Wine market reforms in the European Union are intended to create a level playing field and to encourage, induce and sometimes force winegrowers to compete. The days of big subsidies and routine “emergency” distillation are gone, or will be soon, we are told.

But wine markets are as complicated as the vineyard shown above and establishing a flat competitive arena is not a simple matter.  Wine markets are more like vineyards than we like to think.  Tariffs, quotas, subsidies and selling regulations can be brought into line, of course, but that is just the beginning. The uneven contours of the market run very deep.

Whither/Wither the Vines?

I was reminded of this by a recent post on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog titled “Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine?” (Tablas Creek is a well regarded maker of Rhone-inspired wines in California’s Paso Robles area.)

The question that the article posed was whether it made economic sense for the winery to develop a new vineyard property to produce high quality reasonably priced wine (the $20 price point plus or minus a few bucks). The answer? Probably not, but with a rather thorough cost analysis provided so you can see how the various factors (land cost, debt service, planting cost, operating cost, even opportunity cost) factor in.

It’s a really good article for anyone who thinks that the decision to start of vineyard or a winery is an easy one.  (The sommelier  in the video above would do well to read it!)

At the end of the day, the single most important factor was the cost of the land. Even in a depressed market, land costs create a hurdle too high to overcome in Paso Robles.

(Note: I was also struck by planting and operative cost differences associated with dry farming the vines. Much lower cost, somewhat lower yields — worth serious consideration where feasible given the growing water shortage.)

Why are vineyard land prices so high that they make the vineyards themselves uneconomic?  Well, the land has many uses aside from the obvious one of growing wine grapes. Speculators might want to buy it to hold and resell, not operate for the long run. Lifestyle investors push up the price because they consider the amenity value of a vineyard home more than the economic value of its grape crop. These alternative demands can push the price above the level growers can afford.

Tilting the Playing Field

This distorts the playing field on which international wine markets operate. Land costs are a big factor for many expanding New World wineries because those costs are so recent that it is difficult to ignore them.

Land costs are often ignored for Old World producers, I am told — especially the thousands of small winegrowers who have owned their land for several generations. Ignoring the cost of capital allows them to sell for less, depressing prices (and therefore, ironically, the value of their land, too).  Poor economic choices in the Languedoc tilt the playing field against Paso Robles.

But the loudest cries I have heard in this regard are from Australia, not California, where vineyards that produce grapes for bulk wine find themselves more directly in competition with those economically untutored Languedoc vignerons. The low prices that result when French winegrowers ignore the cost of vineyard capital are not the only or even the biggest source of Australia’s current crisis, but they are certainly a contributing factor.

Wine Recession: Winners & Losers

Some people think that the long hard winter of the economic crisis is coming to an end and “green shoots” are emerging. It is too soon to tell if this view is correct, but not too early to begin to assess which parts of the wine economy have been hardest hit by the recession and which have actually benefited. Herewith a brief analysis of winners and losers.

Wine Market Breakdown

There are several ways to break down the winners and losers in the wine market. The first and most obvious is by price segment. Distributors are finding wines in the $25 and up category difficult to move through normal retail or “off premises”  sales channels. This doesn’t mean that everyone is buying Two Buck Chuck, however. The “super-premium” $10-$15 segment continues to grow, for example, although the trading down effect is still significant. The woman who was willing to pay $20 two years ago now aims to spend $15 or less, with similar changes further down the line.

Some wine brands have been particularly well positioned to attract value-seeking buyers. Gallo’s Barefoot wines, for example, have gained market share among the “fighting varietals” and the CMS by Hedges red and white blends have done well in the $10-$12 category, as have many others.

Since most Wine Walls are arranged with the most expensive wines on the top shelf and the cheapest at the bottom, it is almost as if the top shelf has been eliminated and all the other wines moved up one rank. Whether this is a temporary or a permanent shift remains an open question. I explicitly do not assume that everything will reset back to “normal” once the recession’s game of musical chairs has come to an end.

On-premise sales have declined, too, as restaurants have felt the recession’s sting. It has been especially interesting to watch as restaurants adjust by switching to lower cost wines from beyond the “usual suspect” regions. Reds from Spain and whites from Oregon, for example, can be sold profitably at lower price points than the better known French and Californian alternatives. Because buyers may not be as familiar with these wines they can enjoy the adventurous experience of “switching over” rather than simply “trading down.” Restaurants can maintain their margins at lower prices.

Wine Geography

Inevitable the recession has had uneven effects on different regions and countries. The news from Northern California is not good, for example, with many reports of surplus grapes, some that will not find a buyer this year. Cost is a big factor. Napa and Sonoma are high cost growing regions. The rule of thumb is that $2000/ton grapes produce $20/bottle wine — that’s how it pencils out when all the costs and mark-ups are accounted for. It is difficult to know who will buy wine made with $3000/ton grapes in the present market if, as we are told, the $25+ segment is a “dead zone.”

There is better news here in Washington state, on the other hand. Sales of Washington wine are rising at a 9% rate according to recent data. This makes sense because so much of Washington’s wine is positioned in the $15 and under category. About three quarters of all Washington wine is produced by Ste Michelle Wine Estates’s brands such as Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest that provide good quality and good value.

Argentina is another winner. Much like Washington State, Argentina produces good value wines at every price point and has increased sales across the board, although I suspect that Malbec at $10-$12 leads the way. While the overall US wine market has grown by 4.8% over the last year according to the most recent Nielsen Scantrack numbers, sales of Argentinian wines have risen by 46.8% — a tremendous if unsustainable rate of growth. By comparison Chilean wines sales have risen by 12.7%.

New Zealand’s wine industry is heading toward a crisis, as I have written before, but this seems less about the recession than a simply matter of demand and supply. You cannot double and redouble vineyard acreage forever and expect the export market to absorb every drop.

Australia is suffering, too, but like New Zealand I think the recession is a secondary “tipping point” factor. Wine imports from Australia are down 2.5 % for the last 52 weeks and Syrah/Shiraz sales are off 5.2% for the same period. Australia is facing all sorts of problems — drought, fire, recession and so forth — but the biggest problem maybe that “brand Australia” has gone out of sytle, taking the whole Syrah/Shiraz category with it. Even unfashionable Merlot has done better, with 0.8% growth.

The French Connection

I think France is the big loser from the recession, especially the segments that previously earned a “prestige premium,” particularly Bordeaux and Champagne. There is enough Champagne squirreled away in producer cellars to supply the market for several years. I think the big houses would pass on making any new wine this year if they could.

Even the famous chateaux are cutting price in Bordeaux this year, so I can only imagine what things are like for the producers of ordinary bottlings and bulk wine. French wine is a drag on the market even in Britain, where South African wines are surging ahead. Brand France, like Brand Australia, is in steep decline, although for different reasons.

There is a lot to be learned from a close study of the wine recession. The most important, at this point, is that it is more than a decline in demand. There are hints of more profound structural changes taking place. The more things change, the French say, the more they stay the same. I wonder if that will be true this time as the recession’s grip slowly weakens?

8/31/2009 update: An article in today’s Times of London suggests how severe the crisis is in Champagne. (Click on the link to read the rest of the story.)

Hopes of a glut of cheap champagne are set to be dashed when vineyards meet next week to agree on a big cut in production to prop up prices.

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market.

Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said. “The only disagreement is on the scale of the cut.”

The backdrop to the debate is a slump in sales for champagne makers, from 338 million bottles in 2007 to 322 million last year and a predicted 270 million this year. The fall stems in part from a slide in demand, estimated at about 10 per cent, and in part from destocking by distributors, notably in Britain and the United States.

9/3/2009 update:  A great article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the crisis in Champagne. Check it out!

Stein’s Law and New Zealand Wine

Stein’s Law, named for presidential economic advisor Herb Stein who coined it, holds that if something cannot go on forever it will eventually end.

If that sounds like an obvious conclusion remember that, Freakonomics aside, most of what economists do is point out the obvious to people who somehow fail to see it.

Think about everyone who was surprised that the housing bubble imploded and that credit crashed. Everyone knew that rising housing prices and expanding mortgage debt couldn’t go on forever, but many acted like it would never end. If only they had remembered Stein’s Law!

I wonder if this is a Stein’s Law moment for the New Zealand wine industry?

Objectively the New Zealand wine industry has all of the classic characteristics of a bubble (and I’m not talking about sparkling wine here). The industry has expanded at a break-neck pace in recent years, fueled by foreign investment. The home market is quite small, so increasing output has been pushed into export markets, especially Australia, the U.S. and Great Britain. New Zealand wines are best sellers in each of these markets.

Incredibly, New Zealand has been able to continually expand export sales while maintaining its historically high export price. (No country has received a higher average price for its table wine exports in recent years.) The high prices, of course, draw in more investment, so production continues to grow and the cycle repeats.

Chateau Ponzi

If I told you a story like this about a financial investment of some sort you’d probably tell me that it sounds like a Ponzi scheme — no way this can go on forever. Pretty soon the market will be saturated and prices will have to fall. This is what worried the New Zealand winemakers I talked with when I visited there a few years ago: the moment when exports at a premium price would become unsustainable. They worried that their fine wines would become commodities, sold in bulk at permanently lower price points.

Any luxury good retailer will tell you that it is hard to push prices back up once buyers come to expect discounts.

Yesterday’s Marlborough Express suggests that the tipping point may have been reached. The article reports that

New Zealand Winegrowers’ annual report released yesterday shows exports surged 24 per cent to $992 million and the industry is on track to reach the $1 billion mark this year, a year ahead of expectations.

This was largely driven by bulk exports, which Mr Smith said were a concern to the industry. Historically, bulk wine exports have accounted for less than 5 per cent of total export volume; in the past year this quadrupled to nearly 20 per cent as producers looked to shift excess inventories.

Bulk exports might relieve pressure on wineries in the short term, but in the long term they could damage the market positioning and the reputation of New Zealand wine, Mr Smith warned.

The fact of falling prices due to bulk sales is hard to dispute.  I have not seen big discounts on New Zealand wine here in the U.S., but the Marlborough Express reports that

A surplus of Marlborough sauvignon blanc is driving down wine prices, says a Nelson wine producer. Brightwater Vineyards’ owner, Gary Neale, says his company is up against an oversupply of discounted Marlborough sauvignon blanc exports.

Mr Neale sells his wine for 10.50 (NZ$25.80) in Britain, but British consumers are being offered three bottles of Marlborough sauvignon blanc for 10 , or 3.99 for one bottle. An email from his Sydney agent tells of New Zealand wine being sold at A$4 a bottle, and Marlborough sauvignon blanc is selling there for as little as A$2.75 when buying six bottles.

“In the past, Australia has been a very easy and a profitable market, but Australia is absolutely flooded with cheap Marlborough sauvignon blanc,” says Mr Neale.

Two Buck Kiwi Wine

With the Australian dollar trading at about 83 U.S. cents this morning, that makes makes the Marlborough six-pack price a little over $2.25 US per bottle — Two Buck Chuck (TBC) range.

An article posted today on Decanter.com reports low prices in the U.K. market, too, although not so low as in Australia, and sounds an optimistic note.

The sale of £3.99 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a short-term ‘blip’, according to the European head of New Zealand Winegrowers.

Following the record 2008 and 2009 vintages, increased production created an oversupply problem, giving rise to the first-ever £3.99 New Zealand wines as producers tried to clear tank space.

But David Cox, European director for New Zealand Winegrowers told decanter.com: ‘We are going to see the odd £3.99 New Zealand wine but not very often. I don’t think the consumer will ever get to the stage where they think they can get New Zealand wines for under £4.’

£3.99 translates to about $6.50 US — well clear of the TBC price, but frighteningly low for New Zealand wines in the UK market. Let’s put this price in context.

New Zealand producers received an average price of $6.00 for their exports in 2001-2005. Retail prices in the export markets were necessarily much higher to reflect transportation and distribution costs, tariffs and retail mark-ups. No wonder so many Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs have been priced in the $15-$20 range in the past.

If NZ wines are retailing for the equivalent of $6.50 in London then, working backwards, this suggests that net producer prices have plunged to less than $3, at least for the bulk wine product. That’s a huge drop and it is hard to see how production is sustainable at this price point.

All Black?

So is this it? Has the bubble burst? Is the future of New Zealand wine all black? No. The reputation of New Zealand wine is very strong and it may well be that consumers will be able to differentiate the bulk product at bulk price from the premium product higher up on the shelf as they do for products from France and California. The danger is that the whole national brand is devalued. That would be a devastating blow.

It would be a mistake to over-react to this news, but it would also be a mistake not to react at all.

Stein’s Law holds here as it does in so many cases and the surpluses will go away one way or another — either because the growers act to control them or else because the market collapses and they get sold off at bulk wine prices.

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