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.

Australian Winequake

Market tremors seem to be felt everywhere — food, fuel, money, natural resources. And now in the wine world.

Wine Tremors

It has been hard to ignore the feeling of instability in the wine world for the last few months. There has been a lot of shifting around of brands and alliances, as if the big wine producers are feeling off balance and need to get recentered. In January, for example, Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company, sold off their high volume Almeden and Inglenook brands along with the Paul Masson winery to The Wine Group. The reported logic was that Constellation wanted to focus more on premium and superpremium wines. The Wine Group is a privately held San Francisco-based company that has its roots in Coca Cola’s old wine division. (See Note below.)  It makes and markets a variety of high volume brands, including Franzia, Concannon, Corbett Canyon, Glen Ellen, Mogen David and several international brands.. It is the third largest wine company in the United States, behind on Gallo and Constellation, with 44 million case sales in 2007.

I felt another tremor on Tuesday, when a Decanter.com story reported that Constellation had sold more of its wine brands, this time to a new Healdsburg, California-based group called Ascentia Wine Estates. The wineries are Geyser Peak Winery in Alexander Valley, Atlas Peak in Napa, Sonoma Valley’s Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell Winery, Washington’s Columbia Winery and Covey Run, and Idaho’s Ste Chapelle. They produce about a million cases of wine a year between them. Vineyards in Napa and Sonoma county were included in the $209 million deal. The logic, the article said, was to allow Constellation to continue to sharpen its focus on key upmarket brands.

There are several interesting things about this sale. From the Constellation standpoint brands like Geyser Peak, Buena Vista Carneros and Columbia are a good deal more upscale than high-volume Almaden and Inglenook brands that were sold in January. Constellation sold 59 million cases of wine in the U.S. alone in 2007, so the loss of a million case capacity is less important, I think, than the sign that the company is very serious about reshaping itself to adapt to changing market conditions. Constellation says that they are going to focus on fewer brands at the top of the pyramid and I guess they really mean it.

Ascentia is clearly making a different bet. Ascentia is a private group that includes major investors GESD Capital Partners, a San Francisco-based private equity fund, wine distributor WJ Deutsch & Sons and Jim DeBonis, former chief operating officer of Beam Wine Estates (several of the brands included in this deal were part of the Beam Wine Estates portfolio when Constellation acquired that operation last year).

The involvement of the Deutsch family is significant. Deutsch is the masters of marketing and distribution of value-priced wines. They partnered with Australia’s Casella family to create [Yellow Tail], the best selling import wine in the U.S. (I have written about this in my [Yellow Tail] Tales article. They also import and distribute George DeBoeuf, J. Vidal Fluery and other important wine brands. They clearly see opportunity where Constellation does not. It will be interesting to see how this group adapts to the shifting wine landscape. I cannot believe that they are through assembling their new portfolio because I think there may be more wine brands on the market soon (see below).

Winequake

The news from California on Tuesday regarding the Constellation-Ascentia deal was interesting. But the news from Australia in yesterday’s Financial Times as stunning and represents the first of what might prove to be a series of significant winequakes.

Foster’s, the big Australian drinks group, announced major write-downs of its wine assets and the resignation of its CEO, Trevor O’Hoy. The FT’s Lex column summarized the situation like this:

We all know the feeling: a night of bacchanalian excess followed by regrets and a light wallet the next morning. Foster’s, after a 12-year bender in which it spent A$8bn in the wineries of Australia and the US, has a severe hangover. Australia’s biggest beer and winemaker on Tuesday announced A$1.2bn of write-offs, lowered profit forecasts and parted company with its chief executive.

Foster’s last big splurge, the A$3.7bn purchase of Southcorp, is partly responsible. Foster’s bought the Australian winemaker in 2005 for a generous 14 times enterprise value to forward earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, among the highest multiples for deals in the wine sector at the time. It even mocked Southcorp, as it attempted to defend itself against the hostile takeover, for being unduly conservative with respect to its own earnings forecasts.

Fast-forward three years and the hubris has been punished. Integration was botched, partly due to the ill-judged decision to blend sales forces into a single unit in Australia. In the US, distribution was poorly managed. External factors packed the final punch. Australia’s vineyards produced a glut of wine and prices plummeted. The Aussie dollar surged, from about 76 US cents at the time of the acquisition to 95 cents today. Foster’s reckons that every cent move lops A$3.2m off the wine business’ earnings before interest and tax – forecast to total A$1.2bn this year.

Fosters owns 22 wineries in five countries and 60 wine brands, including Beringer, Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Rosemont and Matua Valley. Among other things it is writing off A$ 70 million of bulk wine inventory. It will try to trim its US inventory by 1.4 million cases. (Fosters was the fifth largest wine seller in the U.S. in 2007 with 20 million cases, about the same as Bronco wines and its Two Buck Chuck brand). This is more than a tremor. What does it mean? It is a Foster’s problem, or does it have larger significance?

The assumption for the last few years has been that bigger is better in the global wine market and that big global firms like Constellation and Foster’s had an unbeatable advantage. Is this just a shakeout, or are these recent events a signal that the world of wine is experiencing a fundamental change? Watch this space for updates.

Note: Coke purchased Franzia some years ago and built its wine division from that foundation. The Franzia family now owns Bronco Wines, the Two Buck Chuck company.

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