Extreme Wine South Africa: The International Connection

One of the issues I wanted to explore during my visit to South Africa was the nature of international investment, partnerships and strategic alliances in that country.  There is so much about South African wine that is very old and traditional that I wondered how it was  dealing with the new and global. Here’s some of what I found out.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

The International Connection

I am interested in international economic connections in particular because they have proved to be so important elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere wine world. The modern wine boom in New Zealand really took off when the international wine trade was opened up, for example, along with opportunities for inward investment. Now the export-focused NZ wine business is largely foreign owned,  part of the Faustian bargain that generated New Zealand’s great success.

International investment, partnerships and strategic alliances have been important in Argentina, too, with European, American and Chilean relationships exerting strong influence.  Chile and Australia also have important stories to tell in this regard, too, but as they say on Facebook “it’s complicated” for these two countries — too complicated to be included here.

The Screaming Eagle Connection

What’s the story in South Africa, I wondered as I walked into CapeWine 2012? I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The opening general session featured remarks by Charles Banks, former managing partner of California cult winery Screaming Eagle,  and Troy Christensen, CEO of Accolade Wines, which is the phoenix that has risen from the ashes left behind when Constellation Brands offloaded their wine assets in Australia and Europe. Banks and Christensen were seen as leading indicators of international interest in the South African wine industry.

Banks received special attention, which probably isn’t surprising given his Screaming Eagle background. He is CEO of Terroir Capital, an investment group whose international holdings now include Mulderbosch Vineyard and Fable Wines in South Africa. He is very positive about South Africa’s wine future and obviously purchased assets there with an eye towards taking them to the next level.

Mulderbosch was already a global brand, he told the international audience, and he saw potential to increase quality and expand scale. With Fable Wines Banks intends to take a highly-regarded existing South African winery (Tulbagh Mountain Vineyard) and rename (to make it more pronounceable, Banks said), rebrand and re-position it in international markets. The focus is on old bush vine Chenin Blanc and red Rhone varietal wines.

So clearly South Africa is on the wine investment radar, I concluded, despite what American investor Bill Foley told Lettie Teague in a recent Wall Street Journal article. But how deep does the interest go?

A Half Dozen Answers

I got my answer and more at a seminar the next day that was organized and led by Mike Ratcliffe, the managing director of Warwick Wine Estate. Mike wanted to showcase international investment in the South African industry and he decided to do it through a tasting of the six wines shown in the photo at the top of this post and listed below. Each wine had a different international story to tell and together I think they give an idea of the variety of actors, interests and motivation.

 # Wine & Vintage
1 Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2011
2 Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2009
3 Glenelley Lady May 2009
4 Anwilka 2008
5 Fable Bobbejaan 2010
6 Vilafonte Series M 2009

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Waterkloof  Wines is the creation of UK wine executive Paul Boutinot, whose title is listed as “Custodian” on the website, which suggests that he is in this for the long run.  Boutinot, his UK business, is an ambitious and successful enterprise that produces, imports and sells wine; it was named Sommelier Wine Awards “Wine Merchant of the Year” four years in a row. The South African winery is a personal investment that reflects Boutinot’s passion for wine and sincere interest in terroir. I expect it will also benefit from his business background and distribution experience.

Delaire Graff Estate is the project of Englishman Laurence Graff, Chairman of Graff Diamonds International and I think you can see the luxury lifestyle influence in the video and on the website. The intention was to create more than a winery — Delaire is a destination resort that includes the winery of course, but also luxury lodges, a “destination Spa,” and two restaurants in an atmosphere filled with art and natural beauty.


Madame May de Lencqauesaing is the proprietor of Glenelley Estate and you are correct if you guess that she is French. She was born in Bordeaux and managed her family estate Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande until its sale to the Roederer Champagne house in 2007.  Since then she’s focused on her South African estate, which makes “South African wine with a French Touch” according to the website.

Anwilka is a multinational partnership between South Africa’s Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia, Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Chateau Angelus in Bordeaux and Bruno Prats, former owner of another Bordeaux property, Chateau Clos d’Estournel. The bulk of Anwilka’s production of its Syrah-Cab-Merlot blend is exported, according to a Wine Advocate note, and sold through the Bordeaux marketplace.

The fifth wine was the Bobbejaan from Fable Wines , which I’ve already discussed. It added an American name to the mix and was the perfect prelude to the final glass.

Mike Ratcliffe saved his own project for the last act, but it was worth waiting for. Vilafonté  is an ambitious collaboration between South Africa, represented by Ratcliffe, and America in the form of head winemaker Zelma Long and head winegrower Dr. Phillip Freese. Long is legendary in California for her work at Robert Mondavi, Simi and her own family winery, Long Vineyards. Freese was head of winegrowing for Mondavi for 13 years and designed the first Opus One vineyards.  He has consulted with several South African wineries including Warwick. Like the other wines in the tasting, Vilafonté was a South African wine made to international standards and positioned for export.

These wines will be good ambassadors for South Africa, I believe, and represent intelligent (and generally delicious) international initiatives and collaborations. Each international investment brings something useful to the South African wine table while highlighting the best of what’s already here.

I know that there are other international investments in South Africa (Donald Hess’s investment in Glen Carlou springs to mind)  and I know that all of them have not worked out as well as the ones showcased here (I won’t name names). It’s too soon to tell how the story will turn out in the end, but on balance it seems to be a healthy collaboration so far.

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This is the last post in my series on South African wine, but look for the topic to come up again in other contexts. Thanks to Mike Ratcliffe for organizing the seminar and encouraging me to attend.

I hope you don’t mind the videos that I’ve inserted in the post. I found them on YouTube and I think they add something to the story.

Wine’s Future: Tight, Fat, and Uncorked

Hot, Flat, and Crowded was the title of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s bestselling 2008 book about the future of globalization (Friedman released an upgraded 2.0 version of the book in 2009 — times change, I guess).

Global climate change, the rising global middle class and population growth were the three key issues that he identified in the book, which advocated a “green revolution” that would renew America.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria (excerpted on the book’s Amazon.com home page), Friedman exlains that

There is a convergence of basically three large forces: one is global warming, which has been going on at a very slow pace since the industrial revolution; the second–what I call the flattening of the world–is a metaphor for the rise of middle-class citizens, from China to India to Brazil to Russia to Eastern Europe, who are beginning to consume like Americans. That’s a blessing in so many ways–it’s a blessing for global stability and for global growth. But it has enormous resource complications …

And lastly, global population growth simply refers to the steady growth of population in general, but at the same time the growth of more and more people able to live this middle-class lifestyle. Between now and 2020, the world’s going to add another billion people. And their resource demands–at every level–are going to be enormous. I tell the story in the book how, if we give each one of the next billion people on the planet just one sixty-watt incandescent light bulb, what it will mean: the answer is that it will require about 20 new 500-megawatt coal-burning power plants. That’s so they can each turn on just one light bulb!

Recently I’ve been thinking about the “big picture forces” that are shaping the future of wine and Friedman’s unholy trinity keeps coming to mind. If the world is becoming hot, flat and crowded, then obviously these forces will affect the world of wine, too. But what other forces are involved? What are the key wine-specific factors that should be considered when looking to the future?

After giving this question some thought, I’ve settled on a trio of trends that are inspired by Friedman’s book and in fact overlap with his list just a bit. Over the next few weeks I’ll explore the the implications of a wine world that is Tight, Fat, and Uncorked. Here is a brief introduction.

Tight [Markets]

Wine markets go through the sorts of cycles that are so common with agricultural products. The Turrentine wine brokerage firm has formalized wine’s particular cycle in its famous “Wine Business Wheel of Fortune.”

The period of low and falling wine prices, which brought so many consumers into the wine market (and pushed some growers and makers out of it) has come to an end here in the U.S. and prices are on the way up. Markets have already started to tighten up and some are close to seizing up. The low price part of the cycle was unusually long (for reasons I’ll discuss in my next post) and the cycle’s tight turn may be long, too.

Tight markets will affect the whole wine supply chain and impact different parts of the market differently. We haven’t seen wine markets this tight in a while and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.

Thick Around the Middle

The World is Flat is the title of another Thomas Friedman book and when it came out I boldly declared it Globaloney (which is the title of one of my earlier books).

Friedman’s “flat” back then referred to global competition and the mythical “level playing field” where everyone competes with everyone else. Geography didn’t matter any more, Friedman seemed to suggest, because some smart guy in Bangalore could take your job in an instant by offering to do it better or cheaper or while you are asleep. The book was really a call for America to invest in itself — in education and technology — and the flatland analogy was supposed to motivate politicians and policymakers to take action.

When Friedman says the world is flat today, he means it in the sense of flat organizations. He specifically argues that the rising middle class around the world is a powerful force for change and this I believe is not globaloney, although I wonder if he would say exactly the same thing today, with the “occupy” movement still active and the gap between the 1% and the 99% so prominent in the public mind.

The world wine market isn’t getting flat so much as fat.  Even though the prices of some “1%” wines have fallen, there is still a gap big enough for the 99% to want to “occupy.” The impact of the growing global middle class will be very important in the long run. The wine market is becoming “fat” in the sense of being “thick around the middle” — middle class, middle market, middlebrow. That’s global trend #2.

Now Lose the Cork

The cork in question is a symbol of the practices and traditions associated with an aristocratic view of wine that will not be swept away but that will be joined by many other, more “democratic” practices as the era of tight and fat unfolds.

Generational transition, the adoption of wine by new global middle class consumers, the lingering impact of the economic crisis and America’s continuing recover from its Prohibition hangover will all play a part in this story.

Tight, Fat and Uncorked: if this sounds terrible for the future of wine, please relax. It’s not all bad (or good either), it won’t all happen at once or in the same way and it it’s not [just] about the wine.

I invite you to read along over the next few weeks as I try to work out these ideas in Friedman-esque style. I hope to benefit as I usually do from the comments, critiques and creative ideas of my readers.

State of the Wine Industry: Global Perspectives

I’m back from Sacramento where I moderated two panels at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, North America’s largest wine industry gathering.  I chaired the morning “State of the Industry” session (estimated audience = 2200 according to one news report) and a smaller afternoon break-out on “Leveraging Global Supply.”

You can find a list of the session speakers at the end of this post and you can read a comprehensive  news report here. I thought I would use this space to outline what I said   in the morning session. My job was to try to provide a global frame for the speakers who followed.

Silver Linings and Dark Clouds

Global Perspective. Wine is a global business. When David Ricardo wrote his economics textbook almost 300 years ago the example he used to illustrate international trade was the wine trade between Britain and Portugal. It has always been important to have a global view of wine, but now more than ever as the wine world gets smaller and more tightly connected.

Silver Linings. This is a year with much good news for the wine industry, especially for winegrape growers as the shortage phase of the wine cycle unfolds and prices rise after years of structural surplus.

But as an economist, it is my responsibility to channel Alan Greenspan and to caution growers to avoid irrational exuberance. Silver linings don’t always come wrapped in dark clouds, but sometimes they do. There are dark clouds a plenty for the global economy and some of them will affect the wine industry.

A Dangerous Phase

A Dangerous Phase. The global economy has entered a “dangerous phase” according to the International Monetary Fund. It is a time of great uncertainty and risk because global growth is slowing, albeit unevenly, at a very inconvenient time.

The problem, of course, is the debt crisis. And while each country has built “mountains of debt” in its own way, there is only one route down from the summit: stop adding to the debt and then try to outgrow the debt burden.

Europe, the U.S. and Japan are all struggling to contain growing debt. Stopping the bleeding is the first priority, of course, but no one seriously expects the debt to be paid off. The only solution is for debtor countries to grow faster than their  compound interest bills and to slowly make the debt and its burden a smaller and smaller proportion of GDP.

Catch 22: Slowing growth (and the probability of recession in Europe) means that even more emphasis must be put on cutting budgets, which unfortunately makes it even more difficult to generate growth.

The Growth Squeeze. So everyone will be desperate for growth, but where will they find it? Consumer spending? Not likely with unemployment high and the housing crisis still unresolved. Business investment? Not with credit so tight and business confidence so low. Goverment spending? Please! The pressure is on to cut government outlays, not expand them.

This leaves only international trade and it seems likely that many countries will try to stimulate exports through currency depreciation to get the growth they so desperately need. This has worked for the U.S., which has had a secret “weak dollar” policy. Look for currency wars as many countries try to follow suit by depressing their exchange rates.

Wild Cards. There are many “wild cards” in the global economic scenario — factors that could change everything. The Euro is probably the biggest wild card, since a collapse of the single currency would be a financial earthquake with global repercussions. The U.S. economy is another wild card, especially in an election year.

A Tight Squeeze for Wine

A Tight Squeeze. The wine industry is connected to the global economy but not perfectly synchronized with it. The wine industry is in for a tight squeeze in the coming year. There will be increased competition on both ends of the market — for wine grapes (and bulk wine) and for wine drinking customers and retail accounts.

[The intensity of the squeeze, as detailed by the other speakers in this session, was probably the biggest news to come out of the State of the Industry panel. Vineyard plantings have been stagnant for several years, so there is not enough supply to meet rising demand in many market categories.]

The shortage of grapes and bulk wine will force wineries to search high and low for product to sell. The higher costs that result will put even more pressure on margins and this may be the biggest squeeze of all since buyers are now accustomed to discounts and, having reset once down to lower prices, will be not quickly reset back up again across the board.  The pressure on margins will increase because of rising competition for market share.

Currency Wars. Exchange rate shifts will make this situation more complex. The U.S. has enjoyed a weak dollar for several years — this stimulated wine exports and kept the price of import competition high. The dollar strengthened in 2011 and  is likely to continue to strengthen in 2012 and this will reverse some of those effects, making the U.S. wine market more attractive to foreign wine firms. These effects will loosen the big squeeze in some places and tighten it in others, creating both dark clouds and silver linings.

Wild Cards. There are lots of  wild cards, but the most interesting one for me is China. We expect China’s growth to slow in 2012  — perhaps to 8% or less — if Europe’s recession is more serious than projected and if U.S. growth stalls.

The “bicycle theory” of Chinese economic growth holds that China must grow by at least 8% in order to overcome structural weaknesses and social instability. If growth falls below 8%, the theory holds, a “tipping point” effect might cause rapid deceleration.

No one knows if the bicycle theory really holds for China, no one knows if 8% is the tipping point number. And no one wants to find out.

A Chinese slump would have some direct effect on wine sales there, but the biggest impact on global wine would be indirect, spread through trade flows and financial flows. The Chilean Peso, Australian dollar and South African rand would all likely fall in value dramatically altering the competitive structure of global wine trade.

All this could happen, but of course it might not. That’s the biggest squeeze this year — uncertainty.

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Thanks to the Unified Symposium’s organizers for inviting me to take part. Special thanks to my fellow panelists, who helped me so much, and to Jenny and Lisa for their guidance and support. Here are the details of the two sessions.

State of the Industry

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what is selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and will offer incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Nat DiBuduo, Allied Grape Growers, California
Steve Fredricks, Turrentine Brokerage, California
Jon Fredrikson, Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, California

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Leveraging the Supply Side of the Global Wine Market

This session will focus on supply to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) as well as to Chile and Argentina.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Steve Dorfman, The Ciatti Company, California
Liz Thach, Sonoma State University, California

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.

Reimagining Chile’s Wine Identity

What do you think of when you think of Italian wine? Many people think first of Italy — the place, the art, the people, the culture and the food (OK, especially the food). The romantic idea of Italy sells Italian wine. Brand Italy is stronger, it is said, than any Italian wine brand and Italian winemakers have profited from this fact.

Changing Places

The relationship between country and wine image is reversed for Chile, or at least that’s the theory I found in a recent report called the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020.  The wines of Chile are the nation’s ambassadors to the rest of the world, the report asserts. The wines of Chile have a more distinct image than Chile itself (although of course the two are related) and so when people think of Chile they think first of its wines.

I am not sure that I completely agree with this idea — “Chile” conjures up many images and associations for me — but I am willing to consider it for the sake of argument. Certainly how we think about the wines of Chile has some impact on our attitudes towards this country more generally. Chile’s wine identity, as important as it is to people in the wine industry, may have an even broader significance in terms of international investment, export sales, tourism and so forth.

Good and Good Value

So what is Chile’s wine identity? Well, for most of the last 50 years Chilean wine has been synonymous with “good value for the money.” As I wrote in a previous post, Chile has been trapped in a vicious cycle of rising expectations that has made it difficult for them to increase price even as the quality of their wines has continued to improve.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I know that it is better to be known for good value than for bad value, but in today’s very competitive global market it is also good to have products that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for. The average FOB export price of Chilean wine hovers around USD 2 per liter or less than USD 20 per case. The appreciation of the Chilean peso in 2010 combined with the difficulty of raising the USD price has really put the squeeze on Chilean wine producers.

Chile is the most trade dependent of the top wine producing countries, according to the Wines of Chile report, exporting nearly 70 percent of their production.  Wine accounts for over 2.5% of Chile’s total export earnings. So enhancing the image of Chilean wine abroad by moving it upmarket is important.

There are several ways to define a country’s wine identity and this video illustrates the current theme, Wines of Chile: The Natural Choice. As you can see the theme connects the dots of factors contributing to Chile’s complex terroir and stresses the fact that that its phylloxera-free vines grow on their own rootstocks — a  nice “natural” connection.

But broad messages like this have their limitations since by definition they cannot thoroughly take into account detailed factors that may be important to understanding and promoting the wine.  The New Zealand wine tagline is “Pure Discovery,” for example, and here in Washington the motto is “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” None of these tag lines is especially stirring or sharply defining, although the key words — Natural, Pure, Perfect — have obvious appeal.

Is Carmenere the New Malbec?

Another way to think about wine identity is in terms of grape varieties, although this has limitations, too. If you think Burgundy  you think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example. And Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon. There is much more to the wine from these regions than type of grape, of course, but the iconic varieties are straightforward identifiers that confused New World consumers can easily understand.

Wine in Chile is really about three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere. Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc together account for more than two-thirds of all wine grape plantings in Chile. These wines can be very good, but it must be said that they are cursed with that “good value” label that will be hard to shake no matter how many Wine Spectator Top 100 awards they receive.

Carmenere represents only 7 percent of vineyard plantings now, but it is seen by many as the breakthrough wine of the future, a uniquely Chilean wine that has the potential to do for Chile what Malbec has done for Argentina. The Wines of Chile report has high hopes for Carmenere both as an export product and as a tool to redefine Chile’s wine identity. But it warns against cutting corners to capture low price sales. Carmenere needs to be a premium brand if it is to serve its useful symbolic function.

Blogger Wine Tasting

Which brings us to Syrah and Pinot Noir — not grape varieties that you usually associate with Chile. They were the focus of a recent tasting organized by Wines of Chile that brought together, if that is the right phrase, a virtual group of U.S. wine bloggers including members of The Wine Economist staff. The idea was to use new media to get out the message about Chilean wine’s new directions and to help establish its wine identity among younger tech-savvy consumers. We were sent wines to sample, literature to read and provided with online access to Chilean winemakers for interactive Q&A.

Are wines like these the way forward for Chile? Syrah and Pinot Noir are high value bottled wine exports (FOB prices of $4.66 and $4.08 per liter respectively in 2009 compared with $3.37 for Cab Sauv and $2.79 for Sauv Blanc) and so they may be useful tools in this task of getting consumers to rethink the wines of Chile and what they might be willing to pay for them.

(Math note: Chile receives only about $2 per liter on average for its wine exports because lower priced bulk wine sales drag the average down while higher priced bottled wine exports try to hold it up.)

I asked the winemakers to comment on the potential for these wines on the international markets. How can Chilean Pinot Noir differentiate itself from New World Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand? And how can Chilean Syrah succeed in the U.S., where Syrah sales are slumping?

Wine Economist volunteer tasting staff: Scott, Janice, Kevin and Jeni

Their responses were not very enlightening, but I blame the online environment for that, with the group of winemakers in a boardroom in Chile trying to answer questions submitted from thousands of miles away by faceless bloggers. Anyone who has been on a conference call knows the problem. But, like conference calls, this internet session facilitated a great deal of interaction even if it wasn’t completely satisfying and so the pluses outweigh the minuses. I’ll just need to follow up, that’s all.

Tasting Notes? From the Wine Economist?

No one comes to The Wine Economist to read tasting notes, but I thought you might be interested in the team’s reactions to the wines. On the whole we liked the Pinots a bit better than the Syrahs — we just found more complexity in the glass and more to talk about. That said, I noticed that when everyone was given the opportunity to take home a partial bottle, it was the Syrahs that disappeared. Interesting.

The Syrahs were better with food, which in our case included tasty empanadas purchased from Pampeana Empanadas here in Tacoma and bruschetta with Fontina and  Huerto Azul Myrtleberry Chutney with Merken, a Chilean product that was provided by Wines of Chile along with the wines and is available from puro-gourmet.com.

I was especially interested in how college students Jeni and Kevin reacted to the tasting since young consumers are a key wine marketing target and new media initiatives like this are often organized with them in mind. Jeni said that she had never purchased a bottle of wine from Chile — her image of Chilean wine was pretty much a blank canvas —  but that the tasting put Chile on the wine map for her and she was more likely to try these wines in the future. Jeni’s image of Chilean wine changed from invisible to positive — a good sign.

Kevin had tasted Chilean Pinots before — he comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is friends with many winemaker families. In Oregon, the aim is to be Burgundian, he said, and he was surprised by a couple of these Chilean Pinots. They weren’t exactly what he was expecting, which made him want to taste more to try to understand the Casablanca Valley terroir and the winemaker styles a bit better. Another good sign

Overall I would say it was a successful tasting that answered some questions and raised many more. The question of the future of Chile’s wine identity remains to be answered, however, so I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post.

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Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate in the blogger tasting and to Amber Gallaty of the thomas collective for making the arrangements. Special thanks to Sue Veseth, Janice Brevik, Scott Hogman, Jeni Oppenheimer and Kevin Chambers for their insights on the wines and the virtual tasting process. The photos are by Sue and Scott.

Here are the wines featured in the April 2011 blogger tasting

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.

The Trouble with Wine Porn

Not for everyone.

Sometimes I have doubts.  Here at The Wine Economist we seem to be interested in what you might call everyday wines. Not that you necessarily drink them every day, but they are generally available and you can buy them if you can afford them. It’s a matter of choice. Everyman wines might be a better term if it didn’t sound just a little bit sexist.

Wine Porn

But much of the wine world seems preoccupied with impossibly expensive or incredibly rare trophy wines. A lot of attention is given to stories, ratings, tasting notes and images of wines that only a lucky few of us will ever have an opportunity to taste.

I’m tempted to call this wine pornography,  mirroring the well-documented phenomenon of food porn. Stare if you like, drool if you must, but never, never  touch!  (I didn’t coin the term; I found it in Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Porn of the Highest Order.“) The whole Bordeaux en primeur phenomenon strikes me as borderline wine porn, if only the soft-core kind.

Wine porn may be a harmless vicarious thrill for the most part, but like pornography generally it can be a problem when people become compulsively attracted to it. I’m worried that all the fuss that trophy wines receive really does divert us from the excellent Everyman wines on offer and the problems and delights of everyday wine life.

Broadbent to the Rescue

Well, thank goodness for Michael Broadbent. I realize that this is an unlikely thing for me to say at this point because it would be easy to make the case that Broadbent is one of the inventors of wine porn. As the director of the wine department at Christie’s auction house in London, he certainly helped create the winner-take-all economic environment that fuels the wine porn industry now.

And then there’s his writing. Gosh! Broadbent’s tasting notes are extraordinary. Some, dare I say,  are voluptuous! My glasses steam up when I read them. But it turns out that he shares many of my distinctly non-pornographic concerns about wine.

Broadbent recently published his 400th consecutive monthly column for Decanter magazine and he used the occasion to talk about the state of the wine world, very much focusing on Everyman and her wines. “My feeling is that consumers have never had so much choice but they have never been so confused,” he said. ‘”The whole world is making a good standard of wine today and they need some guidance.”

The Perfect Disguise Below

This embarrassment of riches sounds like good news, but Broadbent is concerned that the democratization of wine has created a power vacuum that big players will rush to fill. “Big business seems to be taking over and I don’t like the way things are going,'” he says. He’s concerned about the fate of small producers.

Head-spinning number of choices

Well, I certainly agree with Broadbent’s premise. Globalization has spread wine and wine expertise around the world. The discipline of global markets is slowly driving technically flawed wines from the market place (some still hang on, justifying their existence on the basis of low price or disguising their flaws as terroir).   More wines, from more places, with a higher overall quality standard: good news for Everyman.

But globalization really has created problems. More choice is good, but only up to a point. Some times too much is too much, especially as wine draws in new consumers.  The Constellation Brands study of American wine buyers found that 23% of potential buyers were “overwhelmed” by the choice and frequently walked away empty handed. Broadbent’s right about the confusion factor.

Globalization has changed the problem from making good wine to distributing and marketing it. Here (especially in distribution) large firms really do have an advantage, but this is not a new thing. Power in the wine world shifted to those who could manage distribution long ago — with the introduction of the railroad system in France in the 19th Century.

Beyond Wine Porn

Broadbent is concerned that the corporations will destroy wine as they try to simplify it for the mass market. This is contrary to their own business interests, of course, since people pay more for distinctive products. Building a wine portfolio ladder that starts buyers in Two Buck Chuck territory and leads them up to a higher (or at least more expensive) shelf only works if wine’s diversity is preserved.

Dumbing down to create a simple flat wine world is economic suicide as much as it would be an aesthetic tragedy of the commons. But these are desperate times for some large wine businesses and desperate CEOs do desperate things, so I do not rule this out absolutely.

I guess I am more optimistic about the future than Broadbent, even if I share his concerns. I think there is a pretty large middle ground between the bland corporate wine that worries him and the spicy wine porn that troubles me. This probably suggests that the state of wine today is quite good!

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Congratulations to Michael Broadbent on his 400th Decanter column and his extraordinary life in wine.

Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

Riesling’s Rising Tide

The continuing globalization of wine presents many challenges and opportunities. The opportunities are fresh in my mind because I recently attended the third Riesling Rendezvous conference – an international gathering of Riesling makers from around the world (Germany, Austria, France, Canada, Australian and New Zealand) and across the U.S. (Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan, New York and New Jersey).

It was a real love fest. Riesling is the fastest growing market segment in the United States right now and the rising tide raises all boats. There was a strong sense of good will and collective achievement.

International [Wine] Relations

The meeting was organized by Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle (CSM), the number one U.S. Riesling maker, and Dr. Loosen, a leading Mosel producer. Their partnership was really at the core of the event — you could see evidence of it everywhere. Loosen and CSM have collaborated for a dozen years on a number of projects, the most visible of which is Eroica, consistently one of America’s top Rieslings.

It was interesting to listen to Ernie Loosen and Bob Bertheau, CSM’s head winemaker, talk about their work together and how much they have learned from each other. There was a real sense of mutual respect and pride of accomplishment – part of the feel-good feeling.

Another of Washington’s best Rieslings is also the result of international collaboration. I’m thinking of Poet’s Leap, the wine that Germany’s Armin Diel makes with Gilles Nicault, the resident winemaker at Allen Shoup’s ambitious Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla. I got the same feeling about this collaboration from Gilles.

Eroica and Poet’s Leap are wines I recommend to my students – exceptional wines, widely distributed and  priced at around $20. Loosen & CSM and Diel & Long Shadows have made their partnerships work very well.

The Ghost of Rieslings Past

But collaboration is difficult and partnerships don’t always work out so well. This was the case with the first attempt by an international winemaker to make Riesling in Washington State. I’m talking about the great failed (and now nearly forgotten) F.W. Langguth winery experiment.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth is today best known mainly for its mass market wines – it purchased the Blue Nun global brand (see  the Curse of the Blue Nun ) a few years ago and makes many of the low cost wines that fill German supermarket shelves.

Langguth became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s (two of its current brands, made in Tunisia of all places, were born in this period). The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

A Simple Idea

The idea was simple – make German-style Rieslings in Washington State and ride the rising U.S. market tide. The first vintage (220,000 gallons) was made in 1982 and released the next year. The wines sold for $4 to $6 per bottle, equivalent to the $8 to $12 price band today. There was a heady feeling of coming success, both at Langguth and within the Washington wine industry generally, which I think was flattered and encouraged by the international attention.

It did not last long. By 1986 the bankrupt Langguth winery was being sold to Snoqualmie Vineyards, where Mike Januik and Charlie Hoppes made wine. Snoqualmie was eventually absorbed by CSM’s parent company and the gleaming stainless steel of the Langguth facility disappeared. The big building was eventually used for storage.

What went wrong? Well, as I said, collaboration is difficult and it seems that there was a great failure to communicate in this one. The wine was made in Mattawa, of course, but I understand that all the decisions were made back in the Germany. The grapes were picked early at low brix and high acid, just like in Germany where climate and geography make this necessary, even though that combination didn’t make much sense in sunny Mattawa, where longer hang times are the current norm.

Remote Control Winemaking

The technicians back at the mother ship analyzed the data – wine by the numbers — but I guess they didn’t taste the grapes, as winemakers around the world always do. So they couldn’t tell that the resulting wines were soulless (as one critic concluded) and seemed over-processed. The market was under-whelmed by the wines when they were released.

Although Langguth wines improved in the following vintages, it was already too late. The market opportunity was gone. It is too harsh to say that Langguth was the Edsel of Washington Rieslings, but that’s the general idea I get from published accounts.

No one talked about Langguth at the Riesling Rendezvous – and I don’t blame them. Why dig up old skeletons?

But I think remembering the failed Langguth experiment usefully helps us appreciate how truly exceptional these recent successful partnerships really are. Here’s to Riesling’s rising tide!

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle for inviting me to participate in Riesling Rendezvous. Information for this report was drawn from Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines & Wineries (2005), Ronald Irvine’s The Wine Project (1997) and Ronald and Glenda Holden’s Touring the Washington Wine Country (1983).

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.

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