Gourmet, Rachael Ray, Chardonnay Connection

1940-2009 RIP

I was trying to explain to my students the lasting importance of Robert Mondavi and I suddenly realized that Julia Child was the key. Mondavi tried to do for wine in America what Julia tried to do for food. This made me think about other parallels between our wine and food cultures — and the significance of the last issue of Gourmet magazine.

The End of Gourmet

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it was pulling the plug on Gourmet magazine, America’s signature culinary monthly since 1940. The cause of death, clearly, is the economic crisis, which has reduced advertising pages by over 30 percent. Gourmet‘s subscribers (there are nearly a million of them) will have to find something else to read on the still-cluttered Food & Lifestyles section of the newsstand. Bon Appétit (another Condé Nast title) is the obviously choice, although it is not a perfect substitute — more recipes I’m told, and less upscale travel and leisure.

Gourmet‘s obituary appeared everywhere — even on the front page of the New York Times. The Times made it clear that this wasn’t just a business decision (although Condé Nast assured us it was — the McKinsey consulting firm made the call). This is really the end of an era. And not a good end.

“It’s Rachael Ray’s world now,” the story declared, referring to the 30-minute-meal Food Network star; “we’re all just cooking in it.” Roll over, Julia Child (as Chuck Berry might have said) and tell Escoffier the news.

Rachel Ray Chardonnay?

Setting aside for a moment the premise of the Times article — that Gourmet defines the era — I wonder if what’s true for food in America is also true for wine? This must be a valid concern because it is he gist of the question that I’m most frequently asked by journalists — is the current slump in fine wine sales (especially wines selling for $20 or more in the shops) a temporary trend or a permanent shift in demand? Is this the end of an era for wine? When the economy perks up eventually, will people want to buy very expensive wines again? Or is the switch to cheaper, simpler wines (my made-up Rachel Ray Chardonnay) here to stay?

The question became more interesting as I read the Times article. I tried to substitute wine terms for food terms in the article and it seemed to make sense. Here’s what I mean.

The death of Gourmet [insert name of expensive wine] doesn’t mean people are cooking less [drinking less] or do not want food magazines [good wine], said Suzanne M. Grimes, who oversees Every Day With Rachael Ray, among other brands, for the Reader’s Digest Association.

“Cooking [wine drinking] is getting more democratic,” she said. “Food [wine] has become an emotional currency, not an aspiration.”

It has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray [Gary Vaynerchuck?] and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl [the Gourmet editor -- insert Robert Parker or maybe Jancis Robinson] is a celebrity in the food [wine] world, but of an elite type. She [or maybe he] “is one of those icons in chief,” said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks [budget conscious wine drinkers] want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal.

The substitution works, pretty well, don’t you think? And the McKinsey consultants surely did their job. Food and wine down the tubes. Maybe Robert Mondavi and Julia Child are both turning in their graves!

Exaggerated Rumors

But rumors of the death of both fine dining and fine wine are probably exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Gourmet is an iconic brand and the fact that Condé Nast cut it rather than Bon Appetit surely does mean something. But we have to remember that print magazines themselves are an endangered species in this internet age. What information we consume and in what form are both changing very rapidly. Magazines will change rather rapidly in the next few years to remain relevant or else they’ll fade away. Gourmet isn’t the first and won’t be the last to bite the dust.

So I am not willing to declare fine wine (or the Gourmet food lifestyles) dead on the basis of this news alone. The question of whether Americans will return to their old wine-drinking habits when the recession ends remains open for now.

Note: A lot of great wine writing appeared in Gourmet over the years. Look for a future post that tries to understand the changing American wine work through the Gourmet lens.

Wine Festivals Uncorked

jancis

Jancis Robinson and Wine Economist Mike Veseth at the IPNC. Wine Festivals draw celebrity wine critics, who taste, talk, sign books, pose for photos and lend credibility to the event.

Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.

International Pinot Noir Celebration

The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.

The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.

I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a  half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).

What’s In It For Me?

It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?

One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.

I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.

The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.

I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X  where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.

Hemispheric Exchange

A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged.  The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of  connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.

Don and Carole McCrone

Don and Carole McCrone

Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon  produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the  winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.

Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.

Relationships not Transactions

I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring  relationships.  I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.

The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.

What I Think I Have Learned

So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.

Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.

Wine, or really the sharing of wine,  is a personal  relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world.  That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?

Book Review: The Business of Wine

The Business of Wine (edited by Geralyn G. Brostrom and John C. Brostrom) is organized as an encyclopedia with entries from A (Airlines comes first) to Z (for Zinfandel, of course). I opened the book with two questions on my mind: Why an encyclopedia? And why another encyclopedia?

Why an encyclopedia?

This question comes up because there are a lot of different ways to tell the story of the business of wine and to organize that story. An encyclopedia, with alphabetically arranged entries of various lengths, is a peculiar choice when you think about it.

On one hand, it gives a lot of freedom to the reader to cut and paste her own story by darting back and forth among items, possibly but not necessarily hitting all the key points along the way. On the other hand it also gives the editors quite a bit of control, since they get to choose what gets in (and in which author’s account) and what and who are left out.

Does the encyclopedia format work, or would a series of essays by various experts  (the format chosen for another recent book also titled The Business of Wine) have been more useful?

Why another encyclopedia?

This question arises because we already have a really excellent encyclopedia of the business of wine — it is embedded in The Oxford Companion to Wine 3/e edited by Jancis Robinson. Although the Oxford Companion is an encyclopedia of wine in general, there is a lot of great wine economics to be found here.

This is understandable. It is difficult to think about wine without straying, intentionally or not, into wine economics. Winemaking is an art, a science and a business and you really can’t leave the business part out if you want to understand the whole process. That’s why about a third of the Masters of Wine exam deals with questions about the business of wine.

The Oxford Companion does a good job dealing with many wine economics topics. Does the new encyclopedia add something to a bookshelf that already contains the Oxford Companion?

Managing the Trade-Offs

How does the encyclopedia format work? Well, having spent some time with this book I have to say that it is an OK compromise. It is a lot more hit-and-miss than the ideal book of essays that I imagine, but apparently that book is very difficult to write because no one seems to have written it. The business of wine is very complicated and the parts of the business and the factors that affect it are both numerous and highly interconnected.

The encyclopedia format is problematic, but all the other wine business books I have read have had their problems, too. (One in particular — I won’t name it, but you probably know the one I’m talking about  —  promised a first-person account of the wine trade  but descended into something closer to a personal vendetta against professional colleagues.)

Do we need another encyclopedia – this specialized one – when the Oxford Companion already does a pretty good job covering wine economic topics? Yes, I think so, but as a supplement to the Oxford Companion not a replacement for it. I find it useful to have a book that drills down into the wine business in many cases, rather than treating it as part of a more general survey.

And some of the choices the editors have made are interesting. The Argentina entry, for example, is written by Laura Catena, VP of Bodega Catena Zappa and owner of Luca winery. And Joel Butler MW, the head of wine education at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, wrote the Washington State essay. Interesting to get these industry insider views.

Possible Improvements

My initial doubts about this new book have been overcome to a considerable extent. There are a number of ways the book could be improved, however. It seems to me that the editors might want to tinker with ratio and proportion a bit. Most encyclopedias like this divide entries into short, longer and longest (the longest being a couple of thousand works at most) and it is probably difficult to match topics and lengths. Maybe the entry on Airline wine sales could have been shorter and the discussion of Biodynamic wine a bit longer – you know what I mean. It’s a tricky business.

Most of the entries include suggestions for further reading and these are often  inadequate (as is the brief attempt at a bibliography). An encyclopedia like this is usually the introduction to a topic for readers, not the last word, so readers need to know where to go next. A little more guidance would be useful, especially for students.

And although this is an encyclopedia, I would have appreciated a longer introductory essay that tried to say something interesting about the state of the wine industry today and its challenges for the future.

Got data?

Finally, I am an economist, so I’d naturally like to see more data. Many of the entries include a good deal of data, as you would expect, and there is an appendix on “international wine data,” providing basic consumption and production information on many but not all the countries discussed in the main text. I think this could be usefully expanded to include more country-level data as well as data about international flows and time series data on prices and quantities.

Let me end on a positive note. This book exceeded my expectations and I think it is a useful reference, especially good for anyone just getting started in the study of the business of wine. And especially useful when read alongside other standard references like the Oxford Companion and Tom Stevenson’s excellent Wine Report annual series.

The Center Does Not Hold

Two recent articles in the Financial Times give a strong sense of the structural (as opposed to cyclical) forces that are transforming the world wine market.

The Age of Uncertainty

Jancis Robinson’s column in the March 21 FT is titled “Wine’s Age of Uncertainty,” echoing John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1977 book and 13-part BBC television series.”The wine world,” she writes,  “is currently every bit as riddled with uncertainty as any other.” And that sure is true. None of the quotidian constants seem to hold. Robinson writes that …

Perhaps the greatest certainty might be said to be that vines will bring forth a crop each autumn and the Bordelais will do their best to sell it the following spring. But even the Bordeaux 2008 en primeur campaign, just about to kick off, seems desperately uncertain.

London is the center of the Bordeaux trade, of course, and the prominence of Bordeaux wines among collectors has been both cause and effect of London’ rise as the nexus of global wine markets.  Now, however, this “virtuous” cycle seems to have turned inconveniently “vicious.”  London and Bordeaux seem to be collapsing together, and uncertainty creates anxiety and even fear.  Robinson searches in vain for some stabilizing force in global wine.

One would normally look to nature to offer some degree of certainty in contrast to the quicksands of commercial activity, but even the effects of the seasons seem to be less and less predictable, resulting in the increasing incidence of drought, bushfires, floods, frost and dramatic storms. These in turn have led to wine gluts and shortages, in Australia particularly, with concomitant effects on prices.

Nothing is reliable. Even our money betrays us.

These [problems] have been exacerbated by the current giddy gavotte of the world’s currencies, with particularly gloomy and inflationary effects on the price of wine in the UK. Britons are bracing themselves for the full effects of the slide of the pound on shop shelves, and it is hardly surprising that the wine trade is lobbying hard against any increase in UK excise duty. Already, pathetically few pence actually go to pay for the wine in any bottle retailing at £4.99.

These combined effects — recession, falling pound, potentially rising wine taxes — threatened Britain’s hold on its position as the leading global wine market.  But wait, it gets worse when you take into account adaptive expectations.

And then there is the general uncertainty now for any UK supermarket customer as to whether and when individual wines will be discounted. The pervasive discounting culture has lulled them into being afraid to buy any full price wine for fear of seeing it on promotion the following week.

How deep are the strains?  Robinson tries to put a happy face on the situation to end her column (“Perhaps, in wine anyway, it is not that we are more uncertain, just much better informed than we used to be,” she writes), but the evidence for something bigger at work is just too persuasive. We are better informed, but there’s more to it than that.

Drying Up

UK Loses Thirst for Bordeaux Wines” is the title of the second FT article, which appeared on March 23.  It provides more evidence of the death spiral that has seemingly ensnared London and Bordeaux.

British merchants are selling fine wine back to counterparts in Bordeaux and exporting it to Asia as domestic demand for the most expensive wine slumps and sterling weakens against the euro.

Everything seems to be be conspiring against London and Bordeaux, pushing the wine back to France and then on to Hong Kong, where a new market center has emerged now that HK’s high wine tariffs have been lifted.

Meanwhile, the price of fine wines sold in the UK has fallen by some 20 per cent since June, according to Liv-Ex.The return of wine to Bordeaux occurs as total French wine production is falling, raising fears that France is losing global market share to other producers like Italy.

And not just Italy, of course.  U.S. wine exports to Britain have quietly been increasing in the last year, overtaking France as the number one import,  as demand for French and Australian goods have slumped. It’s not all Stag’s Leap or Screaming Eagle, of course, but that’s not the point.  Every national wine market is stratified and Britain’s is not exception.

None of this is proof, of course, that London has permanently lost its place as the center of the wine world.  Maybe it really is just a cycle, where London’s falling status today will be reversed in 2010 or 2011 or whenever the heck the economic crisis ends.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  What if real structural changes are at work?

Then perhaps the center of the auction world will relocate to Hong Kong and the center of the retail wine universe will be the United States, with Costco and Trader Joe’s taking center stage. Nothing is certain — Jancis Robinson is right — and the Age of Uncertainty (Galbraith) yields uneasily to the Age of Anxiety.

More to follow.

Chateau Cash Flow

Everyone knows that wine is a big business in the United States, but how big is it and where does the money flow? I’ve spent the last couple of days reading studies of the economic impact of the wine industry to try to get answers to these questions. Here’s a brief summary of what I have found out (follow the links for more details).

Economic Impact Studies

Let’s start with grapes. Grapes were the sixth most valuable agricultural crop in the U.S. in 2005 (and the #1 fruit crop) worth nearly $3.5 billion, according to a 2007 economic impact study by MKF Research LLC, a leading wine economics research consultancy based in St. Helena, California. California accounted for about 6.1 million of the 6.9 million tons of total U.S. grape production in 2005 followed by Washington (415,000 tons), New York (178,000 tons) and Michigan (100,000 tons).  A ton of grapes yields 50-60 cases of wine according to published sources.

Roughly half the grape crop ends up in wine. The other half becomes raisins (30%), table grapes (11%) and grape juice (9%). Raisins and table grapes come mainly from California while Washington is an important player in the juice market (juice grape production actually exceeds wine grape production in Washington!). Juice grapes, mainly native Concords, sell for about $150 per ton (Washington data). Wine grapes sell for much more depending upon varietal type, quality and provenance.

There are about 5000 bonded (commercial) wineries in the U.S., according to the study. Nearly half of these are located in California, as you would expect, with Washington (about 500 wineries), Oregon (about 300) and New York (about 250) trailing far behind.

There are bonded wineries in every state including Alaska . I visited one in Anchorage that blended local huckleberry juice with grape must from Washington State to make Alaskan wine. The study indicates that Puerto Rico’s sole commercial winery closed in 2003, suggesting that the Caribbean wine boom has peaked. :-)

Follow the Money

One of the things I have learned in studying wine economics is that the wine business is more than wine. Wine (its production, distribution and sale) is important to the wine economy, but there are a lot of associated businesses that are sometimes as important as wine itself. I have seen some small, scenic wineries, for example, that use wine strategically to create an attractive venue for other more profitable activities, such as restaurant sales and money-earning events such as weddings and parties. Wine is important because of the opportunities it creates for other activities.

The economic impact study gives some sense of this. Winery sales totaled about $11.3 billion in 2005, for example, while wine tourism expenditures were reported at $3.5 billion (about 30% of wine sales). Other related industries include wine labs and consulting ($11 million), winery research and education ($31 million) and the value of charitable contributions (goods and services, $128 million).

The economic impact studies I studied are very complete, but they don’t provide data for some interested wine-related businesses. Wine publishing (books and magazines) is a business that is growing as more consumers seek out knowledge and advice. Wine critics may indeed be parasites, as Jancis Robinson recently asserted, but they do generate cash flow even when they add little value.

I am also interested in the growing wine lifestyle industry. Some people build satisfying lifestyles around wine and the material goods that are associated with it and I think that the total economic impact may be quite large. It starts with wine, of course, and glasses, corkscrews, and storage units of various sorts. Wine tourism (eno-tourism according to a European email correspondent) comes next, followed by wine collecting and investing, which can be expensive indeed.

Then finally there is the urge to own a winery or at least live a winegrower lifestyle. There are a number of winery properties for sale today, according to the Wine Business Monthly real estate listings. Some of these are working operations but others are tailored for lifestyle investors. Recently I have become aware of the growth of gated winery communities like this one in Mendoza, Argentina, which offer the benefits of a luxury villa in a planned and managed (but romantic) vineyard setting. I know of several vineyard estate projects like this being developed in the United States.

Wine consumption is rising in the United States, but I think the economic impact of wine is growing faster as wine tourism and lifestyle investments grow. It will be interesting to see if this trend can be sustained or if some aspects of the wine economy prove to be bubbles.

Masters of Wine (and Economics)

imwlogo.gifPeople always seem surprised when I tell them that I’m a wine economist, that there is an American Association of Wine Economists and even a Journal of Wine Economics. I don’t know exactly how they think about wine, but they don’t seem to consider it in economic terms — until they start talking to me, of course.

Wine is a business and if you want to understand what’s in your wine glass, where it comes from, how it got here, and why you paid so much (or so little) for it, you have to learn a little wine economics. This is true even for the most famous names in wine.

Masters of Wine

The most respected title in the world of wine is Master of Wine (MW). It is a title that you wear proudly, appending it to your name like this: Jane Hunter, MW. I would say that it is the Ph.D. of the wine world except that it seems to be harder to get than a Ph.D.

The MW is not a degree given by Harvard or Yale. It is a special designation created by the Institute of Masters of Wine, a 50-year old London-based, industry-supported non-profit organization dedicated to wine education. The MW program was originally created for British wine traders, who obviously needed to be very knowledgeable to succeed in their profession, but it eventually expanded both in occupational and geographic terms. Today there are 264 Masters of Wine in the world scattered across 22 countries. Not surprisingly, Britain remains the center of MW membership and activities, reflecting its central position in the world wine market generally.

Some of the world’s most famous wine critics and winemakers hold the MW designation. Jancis Robinson, Michael Broadbent, David Peppercorn and Serena Sutcliffe are famous MW wine critics, for example. Among the winemakers who have earned the MW title are Steve Smith and Jane Hunter in New Zealand and David Lake and Bob Betz here in Washington State.

It’s hard to get a Masters of Wine. You need to work in the wine industry for at least 5 years and take preliminary studies at a major wine research center such as UC Davis, the University of Bordeaux, Geisenheim University in Germany or the University of Adelaide. Then, once admitted to the MW program, you have to pass exams in four theory areas, stagger successfully through three 12-wine blind tastings, and write a 10,000 word dissertation on a topic relevant to the wine industry. (Jancis Robinson’s dissertation, I understand, was a very complete study of the world’s grapes and wines which was published in book form as Vines, Grapes and Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties. It is one of my favorite wine reference volumes.)

Master of Wine Economics

I’m not planning to apply for a MW myself (I’m quite sure that I would not survive the blind tasting trials), but I’m interested in knowing what wine experts think they need to know about wine economics, so I’ve been reading the MW syllabus. It is full of wine economics.

The first two papers MW candidates must write deal with the theory and practice of wine production. The syllabus says that …

The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ knowledge and understanding of wine production. An understanding of the processes of grape growing and wine making should be complemented by knowledge of the science which underlies the practical issues. Candidates should be aware of the implications for wine style, quality and costs of decisions taken at each stage of wine production. An awareness of areas of active research in topics relevant to wine production will be necessary. Whilst region specific questions are unlikely, candidates will require a broad background knowledge of the world’s wine regions and wine styles. The examples given in answers should demonstrate a familiarity with a variety of wine regions. Candidates should know how issues such as finance, economics, law, general management, quality assurance/quality control and the environment bear on wine production.

You can see how much the business of wine enters into the understanding of wine. The third paper is even more closely focused on wine economics:

The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

The fourth paper is written on contemporary issues. Then comes the blind tasting and dissertation. You can see why the MW is so hard to get and why it is so valuable. MW holders understand wine from the vine roots up to the global market structures. I can’t say that wine economics is the most important element in the curriculum, but it certainly is a key component.

It looks like wine economics accounts for about a third of the MW syllabus. That makes sense to me, both given the MW’s clearly commercial original purpose and more generally given the influence of economics on the wine industry today.

A New Wine Designation

Robert Parker does not have a MW, but he and Kevin Zraly have recently launched their own wine certification program. I haven’t looked into the Parker/Zraly program in detail but it seems to be aimed at wine enthusiasts more than wine professionals and I’m not sure how much wine economics is included. Here is a brief description.

The Parker & Zraly Wine Certification Program consists of three certification levels. After completing all eight examinations of Level I – Aficionado of Wine (AW) (launching September 20, 2007 with the Wines of France exam), wine lovers can gear up for the March 2008 launch of Level II – Connoisseur of Wine (CW). The most advanced, Level III – Expert of Wine (EW), will debut in September 2008 and will challenge even wine experts and professionals. Levels I and II consist entirely of online examinations. Level III will include a written exam as well as a meeting with Robert Parker and Kevin Zraly for a blind wine tasting and oral examination on wine.

I hope Parker and Zraly include a good dose of wine economics in their EW exams. I don’t see how you can really understand the world of wine without it.

The Wizards of Oz

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australian’s are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

Wine by the Numbers

Rating the Wine Rating Systems

People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.

I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.

Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More

winescales.jpgThe first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine(click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.

In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. ( Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)

The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.

The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.

A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.

Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).

The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.

Which System if Best?

It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.

Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.

In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15″ wine to the second.

Wine and Figure Skating?

So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurment that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.

Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how much better A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.

To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.

So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.

This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.

Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.

Lessons of the Judgment of Paris

paris2.jpgOr maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.

The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.

A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?

Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.

And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.

References:

Dennis V. Lindley, “Analysis of a Wine Tasting.” Journal of Wine Economics 1:1 (May 2006) 33-41.

George M. Taber, Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the History 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. Scribner, 2005.

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