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.

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone —  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!

Argentinean Wine: A SWOT Analysis

The first thing we did when Sue and I arrived in Mendoza was to walk to the offices of Área del Vino, the group that publishes Vinos y Viñas magazine, the WineSur website and provides economic and strategic analysis to the wine industry here. We met with Javier Merino, Área del Vino director, and Gonzalo Merino, director of WineSur. They got our visit off to a flying start.

Our discussion was wide ranging. Gonzalo is working on new media projects to expand the market for Argentinean wine and reach a new generation of consumers. Javier was just back from Hong Kong and China and keen to discuss the potential new markets there. Both were happy to talk about controversial questions, such will the Malbec boom be sustained and whether Torrontés really is The Next Big Thing.

Their analysis has been very useful to me as I have met with wine-makers, winery owners and managers. Based on all these discussions I have prepared this SWOT analysis, which represents my current thinking about Argentinean wine today. This is a work in progress (and necessarily very brief), so I welcome comments that correct my thinking or re-direct my analysis.

Strengths

Argentina has many strengths. The most important may be that it has a “hot” brand, its signature Malbec. When wine enthusiasts think of Argentina they think of Malbec and vice versa — a strong identity that many wine regions envy.

But, as I will explain in future posts, Argentina is not just Malbec (or even just Malbec and Torrontés as some writers propose).  Quality extends across a broad spectrum of wine varieties, styles and price points, which is a very good thing.

Weaknesses

That said, the industry is very dependent upon exports of Malbec to three main markets, the United States, Brazil and Canada.  There would be trouble if Malbec exports to these markets were to falter due to either a decline in demand to a shift to some other “hot” variety.

The domestic market for wine is very substantial, but it is still dominated by low-price basic wines — another weakness. The Argentinean industry would be much stronger if a larger domestic market for quality wines could be developed.

Water is also an issue here as it is in many wine regions. Not an issue today, Javier told me, but for the future. And of course the future is fast approaching.

Threats

There are a number of very serious economic threats that cloud the short term outlook. Domestic inflation is high in Argentina. The government estimate is about 10%, but I failed to find anyone who thinks that it is less than 25%.  Production costs are rising rapidly– labor, grapes and other inputs are increasingly expensive. Land prices for new vineyard projects seem to be growing exponentially.

Revenues are not increasing at the same rate, with the result that margins are being squeezed.  In fact, the pressure is on to cut prices in the competitive U.S. market. It is not clear how long the current combination of rising costs and falling revenues (or soft revenue growth) can be sustained.

I visited several wineries that were clearly focused on increasing efficiency in an attempt to claw back margin without sacrificing quality.  But I also heard rumors of wineries that were taking the perhaps desperate move to source lower cost grapes from other regions to stay in business. The concern was that quality would suffer and The Brand undermined.

Opportunities

There are many opportunities and they fall into two categories: new wines and new markets. By new wines I mean a movement to expand Brand Argentina beyond value Malbec, both into the higher reaches of the wine wall and into other varietals. I’ll be writing more about this in future posts.

I’ve already written about the new markets. As I listened to Javier discuss the great potential in countries like Brazil, with large and growing populations and fast economic growth I knew just what he was talking about: The BRICs (and the New BRICs). Javier believes that the BRIC-like markets  are the key to the next stage of Argentina’s export growth. Because geography still matters in both wine and economics, Brazil is a particularly attractive target, but both Hong Kong and China are high on the list.

Argentina’s China card is that its wines could fill an open market niche. Not cheap bulk wines like those from Chile and Australia. And not overpriced prestige labels like those from France. Quality Malbec from Argentina would be more affordable (and in most cases better) than the French and of course much better than the bulk wines. Distinctive, too, on several dimensions.

But China’s a tough market to break into, as I have said before.  China will require patience and good luck as well as good wine.

The new market with the greatest potential for Argentinean wines may be Argentina itself.  Nearly everyone I talked with said that the best thing that could happen would be for the domestic market for quality wine to expand, making the industry less dependent on exports and less vulnerable to inflation and exchange rate changes.

Bottom Line Analysis

So what’s the bottom line? Well, of course, I believe that the long run opportunities are important, but it seems to me that the short term threats are on everyone’s mind right now, in particular, the inflation-exchange rate squeeze. If inflation continues at high rates and the U.S. dollar – peso exchange rate stays stuck at about 4 pesos per dollar, some producers here will be squeezed out of the U.S. market. Perhaps they can sell to Brazil or on the domestic market, but the prospects are not good if everyone tries to shift focus at once.

What is keeping the exchange rate stuck at an over-valued level? Politics and fear, I suppose. There’s a presidential election in the fall and everything here has taken on a political significance, so it is no wonder that holding the line on the exchange rate (and denying that an inflation problem exists) would be political, too.

And then there is the fear.  Argentina has experienced inflation-devaluation vicious cycles in the past. Inflation leads to a falling currency, which adds to inflation pressures, which forces the currency down even more. Etc, etc.  There’s a worry here that lowering the exchange rate would set the cycle off once again and nobody wants that.

Fear and politics are powerful forces. Argentinean wine, for all its strengths and opportunities, is caught in the squeeze.

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Thanks to Javier Merino, Área del Vino director, and Gonzalo Merino, director of WineSur for meeting with us in Mendoza and to everyone who has talked with us about wine economics in Argentina during our stay here.  Watch for future posts that examine particular elements of the Argentina wine story in more detail.

More Bad News for Australia: Parallel Imports

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I write about the Australian wine industry: bad news, bad news, bad news.

Most recently the bad news was the Dutch Disease. Australia’s mineral export success has driven up the foreign exchange value of the Australian dollar, making imports cheaper and exports (including wine exports) more expensive abroad.

That’s just what the shell-shocked Australian wine industry needs — higher prices or slimmer margins in key export markets!  But now the bad news is even worse — the strong Aussie dollar is driving down wine prices in Australia’s domestic market and slashing producer margins there, too.  How? Through “parallel import” programs that crafty retailers have put into effect. An article from the Sydney Morning Herald explains the situation.

Caution: Economics Content

Parallel imports are a consequence of a very common practice called international price discrimination. Price discrimination is the business strategy of charging different prices to different customers for similar or even identical products. Different buyers have different ability to pay and price sensitivity and it is sometimes possible to charge some customers a high price and others a low price in an attempt to extract all possible revenue from the market demand curve.

Classic examples of price discrimination include the highly complex pricing system that airlines typically employ with some seats being sold for four or five times the cheapest fare depending on when and how the ticket is purchased. Student and senior citizen discounts are relatively benign and generally accepted price discrimination examples.

International price discrimination is the practice of selling similar goods at different prices in different countries based on local demand conditions. In the case of Australian wine, for example, it appears that local wine market conditions in Brazil or Malaysia might cause winemakers to want to sell products there at lower prices than in the more mature domestic market. If the prices are set correctly, the combination of lower prices in some markets and higher prices in others can maximize the winemaker’s profit.

The Key to Price Discrimination

The key to price discrimination, according to your Econ 101 professor, is to prevent resale. The whole strategy backfires if someone finds a way to buy your products in the low price market and resell them (undercutting your sales) in the high price market. This fact limits price discrimination to situations where resale is costly, difficult or just plain impossible.

If someone finds a way to sell your discounted product back to the home market, the logic of price discrimination explodes.

Now the “parallel import” problem in Australia is that some large retailers there have discovered stocks of lower-priced Australian wines in other countries and are importing them back into Australia to sell for less. The strength of the Australian dollar (Dutch Disease again) makes this even more profitable. The Herald reports that

Parallel importing is … hurting business as supermarket chains and some of the bigger independent bottleshop chains bypass Australian brand licensees and import from third parties in countries including Brazil, Malaysia and the US.

Parallel importing hit record levels in the past year as the dollar continued to strengthen and retailers, looking for ways to drive prices down and exert control over their suppliers, became more aggressive in importing.

Some Australian producers are thus getting a double squeeze in their home market. They are exporting wine at the slimmest of margins (because of lower foreign market prices and the strong Australian dollar’s impact) only to see the wine shipped right back and sold by local retailers, undercutting their plans for higher margin home market sales.

Why do they call these “parallel imports?” I imagine it is because the imports and exports form two parallel lines, with cargo ships full of outbound and inbound wine containers crossing mid-ocean. Australian wine producers need to cross their fingers that even more bad news is not in the cards.

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Special thanks to my Australian informant “Crocodile Chuck” for tipping me off to this situation.

The BRICs: The New New World of Wine?

This is the first of a series of articles on wine markets in the BRICs. BRICs? Is that a wine term? No, although it sounds just like brix, a measure of a grape’s sugar level. Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs coined the term BRIC in 2001 to refer to  Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Initially many people suspected that BRIC was just a gimmick — a way to package four very dissimilar countries into an appealing acronym that would draw investor interest. If it was a strategic maneuver it was a brilliant one because of the way it captured the world’s imagination.

More than a Gimmick

“BRICs” is an attractive name for many reasons, perhaps especially because it looks and sounds like NICs — the Newly Industrialized Countries of Hong Kong, Singapore,  Taiwan and South Korea that have been so successful in the global economy.  There was some question initially about why these four particular countries were chosen (why Brazil and not Mexico, for example, and what about Turkey?) and what if anything they had in common, but the idea quickly caught on.

Today the BRICs are firmly established, as the Economist noted earlier this year in an article titled, “The BRICs: The trillion dollar club.”  The BRICs have turned into something real.  Why? According to the Economist

The BRICs matter because of their economic weight. They are the four largest economies outside the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich man’s club). They are the only developing economies with annual GDPs of over $1 trillion (Indonesia’s is only half that). With the exception of Russia, they sustained better growth than most during the great recession and, but for them, world output would have fallen by even more than it did. China also became, by a fraction, the world’s largest exporter.

In a recent Economist article (that included this provocative graph), Goldman’s O’Neil was asked to look ahead 25 years, from 2011 to 2036, and to speculate about the future.

One of the questions he raised was whether the BRICs would have greater total (but obviously not per capita)  income than the G-7 countries and what that might mean if they did. A good question to discuss … over a glass of BRIC wine.

The Future of BRIC Wine?

BRIC wine? Well, yes. All the BRIC countries produce wine and all are important wine markets for the future. As these economies grow, their expanding middle classes will be increasingly attractive target markets for the world’s wine makers and their wines will begin to appear on you local shop’s shelf.

China was the 6th largest wine producer in the world in 2007 according to International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) statistics, with an estimated 12 million hectoliters of wine produced (for readers who still think in “English” units, a hectoliter equals 100 liters or a little more than 11 standard nine-liter cases of wine).

By comparison, #1 Italy and #2 France produced nearly 46 million hl each in 2007 followed by Spain (34 million hl), the U.S. (20 million hl) and Argentina (15 million hl). BRIC Russia was 11th in the global wine league table, with 7.3 million hl of output followed by Brazil in 15th place with 3.5 million hl.

India does not appear in the OIV wine statistics, indicating that its wine industry is quite small at present. But India definitely is on the wine map — the omnipresent Michel Rolland even has a client there (Grover Vineyards). India is already a major producer of table grapes, with 2007 production only a little less than Chile and the U.S. combined (that’s a lot of grapes), so it is not unreasonable to suppose that higher levels of wine grape production may follow. India would be on the wine BRIC list for its potential as wine import market, of course, even if it didn’t make any wine at all.

Solving the BRIC Puzzle

Some people in the wine industry dream that the BRICs will be the solution to the problem of global over-supply. OIV estimates that 266 million hl of wine was produced in 2007 but only 249 million hl consumed,  a gap of 17 million hl or about 200 million cases. Yikes! Do the BRICs have the potential to soak up all that extra wine and bail out the global industry?

Dream on, say the experts consulted for a 2009 article in Meininger’s Wine Business International. “Are the BRIC countries going to solve the problems of oversupply in the world today? I don’t think so,” said Arend Heikbroek, associate director for beverages at Rabobank (and one of the sharpest wine analysts I know). “It’s a long-term shot,” he continued, ” it’s complicated, each market is completely different. You need to understand the risk, the dynamics, the traders, the distribution system and the legal system in each of these markets.”

Fair enough. Each BRIC is its own particular puzzle, I guess, and it is too soon to know how they will fit into the bigger puzzle of global wine.

The BRICs will be important to the future of global wine even if they aren’t a silver bullet solution to current problems. They are the new new world of wine and we need to figure out what we know about them– and we don’t know.

In this series I’ll examine each BRIC wine market in turn starting with Brazil by bringing  together and synthesizing various published reports and then try to pull things together into a summary. I hope readers with particular expertise will leave comments to help broaden and deepen the analysis. So away we go!

Vineyard Plague: The Dutch Disease

As if things weren’t bad enough in Australia, now there’s this: the Dutch Disease. No, it isn’t a fungus spread when you plant tulip bulbs in the vineyard or something you saw on the television series House MD. It’s much more serious than that. And it’s hitting South Africa, too. Look out!

Australia’s Perfect Storm

I’ve written several times about Australia’s continuing wine crisis. It seems like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Too much heat, too little water, excess capacity, collapsing demand — even smoke-tainted grapes caused by runaway brush fires. Yikes!

Now there is more bad news and it’s the result of too much good news? Good news is bad news? Yes. Read on.

The Dutch Disease is the name economists give to the problem of too much good news in one industry and its negative impact on the rest of the economy. If one sector of the economy gets hot on global markets (think oil exports, for example) one effect can be that export sales increase the demand for the country’s currency, causing it to appreciate in real terms. The rising currency value makes all the nation’s other products more expensive on foreign markets, sending them into a tail-spin.

The Good News the Bad News

That’s how good news in one part of the economy can backfire. The Economist magazine apparently invented the term to describe the dilemma of the Netherlands after a big gas field was found there in 1959.

The good news / bad news in Australia is clearly the fact that China’s economy is growing rapidly and sucking in the natural resources that Australia has in considerable abundance. But big purchases of the Australian dollar needed to pay for these products has pushed the currency up, making Australian wines more expensive here in the U.S.

This helps explain why off-premises sales of Australian wines are still falling here even though many other segments of the wine market are recovering. Recent Nielsen retail data show the U.S. wine market growing by 4.3 percent in the period ending in August, but sales of Australian wine fell by 7.5 percent (data from the November issue of Wine Business Monthly).

As the chart above shows, the Australian dollar has continued to appreciate since these data were compiled, magnifying both the Dutch Disease problem and the sense of crisis in the Australian wine industry.

South Africa Also Hit

South Africa seems to be experiencing the Dutch Disease as well. There are many factors that have contributed to the sharp rise of the Rand against the dollar, but surely the surge in gold prices must be the most important one. As speculators and investors who have worried about inflation turn to gold, their purchases have driven up the value of South Africa’s currency as well.

This helps explain why sales of South African wine in the U.S. have been in a bad slump. Nielsen data indicate that South African wine sales fell by 8.3 percent in August and by 9.4 percent in the last year.

The U.S. dollar’s rapid recent fall will affect all countries that depend on our huge markets for exports, but inevitably some will be hit more than others.  Those like Australian and South Africa who suffer the Dutch Disease will be challenged the most.

We’ve entered an era of extremely unstable currencies, reflecting both the inherent instability of international financial flows and the increasingly cut-throat battles in the global currency wars. Inevitably many industries — including wine — will get caught in the cross-fire.

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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.

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