In Vino Veritas? The Truth About Wine in Three Tastings

In vino veritas — in wine there is truth — this is one of the touchstones of the wine enthusiast world. I like the sound of this, but I admit to being a bit confused by two recent wine tastings that I organized where the wines easily fooled us (or perhaps we just fooled ourselves), but a third tasting helped put things right.

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Mary Thomas asked if I would be willing to speak at a wine tasting that she donated (along with autographed copies of Wine Wars) to the local  YWCA fund-raising auction. Yes, of course — and I knew at once what I wanted to do. A flight of red wines made by three University of Puget Sound alumni (Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate, Chuck Reininger of Helix and Reininger Cellars and Michael Corliss of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars), but first a blind tasting of white wines that figure prominently in Wine Wars.

If you’ve read Wine Wars you know that I end each flight of chapters with a wine tasting designed to explore the themes raised in the book. Three Sauvignon Blancs make up the first flight and thus inspired I put together a tasting of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) Sauvignon Blanc from California, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc from Napa Valley and Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

After tasting the three wines blind in the order given above I asked the tasters to (1) name the grape variety, (2) guess the country or region of origin for each wines, (3) guess the prices and (4) choose their favorite wine from among the three. I am not a big fan of blind tastings, but this one is fun to do in a group. I thought the auction group would enjoy it (and they did).

But first I decided to try out the blind tasting on my “lab rats” — the students enrolled in my university “Idea of Wine” course. Their tasting featured the same blind first flight followed by a different set of reds — a vertical of three Phelps Creek “Le Petit” Pinot Noirs from three years with very different weather. My hypothesis was that students would have more trouble guessing the grape, terroirs and prices of the blind flight than would the more experienced wine drinkers in the auction group.

Things did not go according to plan.  After tasting the three white wines the college students were very confused and guessed all the grape varieties they could think of, but not Sauvignon Blanc. For me the signature taste of the Cloudy Bay is a giveaway — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc — but tasted in the context of the Fume Blanc and Two Buck Chuck wines, which are so very different, nothing seemed to make sense.  The common thread that connected the three wines was difficult for these wine novices to detect.

Interestingly, the experienced auction tasters did no better than the lab rat students in this regard. This really did surprise me and I think it was the confusing context that caused the trouble. Tasting the Mondavi Fume or the Cloudy Bay by itself might yield a good guess of type of wine or place of origin, but stringing the three wines together apparently distorted the view a bit too much.

One place where there was a significant difference between the groups was when it came to guessing the prices. The experienced auction group did much worse! How is that possible? Well, the big difference was the Two Buck Chuck. No frugal college student would offer to pay more than $12 for it in the blind tasting, but at least one member of the auction group was willing to pay $25 or more!

Why were seemingly rational people willing to pay so much for such a modest wine? Well, the quality of the Two Buck Chuck must be part of the answer. Wine drinkers of a certain age (and I include myself in this category) remember when cheap wines were really foul and Two Buck Chuck and its bargain priced siblings changed all that.  The quality may not be high (only a couple of people in the two groups picked it as their favorite of the three), but it does reach a commercial standard that actually shocked one experienced drinker who had not previously tasted a $2.49 wine.

But the real answer is again probably context. The students are used to me presenting them with wines that are just outside a student budget — wines that cost say $10 to $30. They guessed at the low end of that range, which made sense given their expectations. The auction group’s higher guess also reflected context. Who would expect to attend a charity auction tasting and be served such a simple inexpensive wine? Impossible! So it must cost a lot, the logic probably went, and I just can’t taste the difference! If true, this is a classic case of using price (or expected price) as a proxy for perceived quality.

Which was the favorite wine? The auction group was pretty much divided between the Mondavi Fume and Cloudy Bay. The students were divided, too, but Cloudy Bay received most of the votes. That Marlborough style is so distinctive — like nothing they ever had before — and in a blind tasting context it stood out to them.

What conclusion can we draw from these two tastings?  Our perception of wine is sometimes less about truth and more about  context and expectations than we might want to think. That’s not the conclusion I thought I would find when I set up this tiny experiment. Fortunately a third tasting helped balance the scale.

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The nice people at Wines of Chile sent us three Cabernet Sauvignons, which we decided to use for a small scale student tasting. Sue and I were joined by Bruce Titcomb, Eben Corliss and Ali Hoover. Ali’s attendance was based upon her study abroad experience in Chile and a paper she wrote about its wines. Bruce and Eben are enthusiastic students of geology and business respectively with a special personal connection — their parents also took classes from me back in the day.  It promised to be an interesting tasting. We began with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (from Chile this time) and then got to work on the Cabs we were sent. Here is the list.

  • Montes Classic Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Colchagua Valley 85% Cabernet + 15% Merlot 14% abv. Typical price: around $10.
  • Santa Carolina Colchagua Estate Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (from Miraflores in Andes Foothills) 13.5% abv. Around $12.
  • Undurraga T. H. (Terroir Hunter) Alto Maipo Calbernet Sauvignon 2009 (from Picque in Andes Foothills) 14% abv. Around $20.

We sampled the three Cabs by themselves, with food (savory empanadas) and then with chocolate truffles. The wines were very different from each other and each had its moment in the spotlight. On first tasting, the Montes (the least expensive of the group) was simple, enjoyable, and fun. When Ali tasted the Santa Carolina her eyes lit up — this was Chilean wine as she knew it from her time there, she said — a reminder of her temporary South American home. The Undurraga T.H. lived up to its “Terroir Hunter” name — it was much more precise and focused.

Returning to the wines to pair then with food the Montes was a puzzle — Blake noted a strong caramel aroma when the wine had time to air out a bit.  The Santa Carolina seemed to be the best match for the empanadas just as the T.H. was the favorite on its own. Then we broke out the dark chocolate truffles and tried again. This time it was the Montes that stood out — that caramel aroma really worked with the chocolate and made a hard to beat combination.

Which wine was best? Well the T.H. was probably my personal favorite but the answer depended on how you drank it (alone, with savory food, with chocolate) and what you were searching for (for Ali that memory of her time in Chile was pretty special).

So what did we learn from our three tastings. Well, I don’t really want to argue against the idea of in vino veritas, but I do think our impressions of wine are context-sensitive — perhaps more so than we really want to admit.

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Blake, Eben and Ali at the Chilean Cabernet tasting.

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Thanks to Emily Denton of The Thomas Collective for providing  the Chilean wines for this tasting. Thanks to Blake, Eben and Ali for their help with the Chilean Cab tasting. Photos by contributing editor Sue Veseth.

Good to Great: Rethinking Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

“Good wine, great value” — that’s been Chile’s wine reputation for many years. And while this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it is a bit of a self-limiting category. “Great wines” might be a more desirable label, or maybe “great values, great wines.”  But things are changing in Chile. Is it time to rethink Chilean wine?

A Tale of Two Tastings

This post is inspired by a pair of tastings of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The first was in London at Decanter magazine’s headquarters, where a team of four experts tasted 80 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines for a report just published in the June 2012 issue. The tasters included Peter Richards MW, Mel Jones MW, Juan Carlos Rincon and Annette Scarfe.

The second tasting, a much more casual affair, took place 4500 miles away at our house in Tacoma. Sue and I were joined by three of my University of Puget Sound “Idea of Wine” students for a tasting of wines supplied by Wines of Chile. We tasted five Sauvignon Blancs (see wine list below) that were sent to us along with three Chardonnays that we tasted separately.

I was very interested to hear what my students would have to say about these wines. Abby and Marina studied abroad in Chile, so they brought some regional focus to the group. Ky is a quintessential Millennial wine “newbie” with a refreshingly open and thoughtfully candid attitude. They were the perfect tasting team to balance the experienced Decanter experts.

Upward Trajectory

Sauvignon Blanc is an important factor in the Chilean wine industry, as this table from the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020 makes clear. Sauvignon Blanc is now #2 in the export dollar league table behind Cabernet and ahead of Merlot and Chardonnay. Exports of Sauvignon Blanc almost tripled in dollar value between 2002 and 2009 — much faster growth than Cabernet, Merlot or Chardonnay. Why?

One theory is that Chile has ridden New Zealand’s wave. Certainly Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has opened doors and minds to Sauvignon Blanc, to the benefit of producers in South Africa, Chile and elsewhere.

But the Decanter tasters have a better theory: the wines themselves have improved as winemaking practices have caught up to the global “best practice” standard. Decanter’s team recommends buying the most recent vintage of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc not just for freshness but because they believe the quality of the wine making is improving every year.

That said, stuff sometimes happens and the Decanter team reported a few bottles that suffered from too much sulfur or excess acidity. We had the same problem — one of our five bottles pushed acidity to the borderline in our opinion.

Common Ground

Of the 80 wines that the Decanter team judged, two earned 5-star honors, twelve received four stars and 50 were “recommended” 3-star winners. Fifteen wines were judged “good values.” Is this a good showing?

Yes! A review of 121 Argentinean Malbecs in the same issue produced three 5-star wines, sixteen with 4-stars and 55 “recommended” 3-star wines. Twenty were declared good values.  Adjusting for the number of wines sampled, I think you’d have to declare it just about a dead heat between Argentina and Chile (a statement that is likely to provoke a response on both sides of the Andes!).

We enjoyed the wines and commented upon the French stylistic influence which made them a change from the New Zealand wines we often drink. How did they compare to the wines you drank with your homestay families in Chile, we asked Marina (upper photo) and Abby (shown with Ky in the lower photo)? We didn’t drink white wines, they both replied. Always red.

Good to Great

“At the top end, I think New Zealand is still ahead of Chile, because the experience it has counts for so much,” according to one of the Decanter reviewers. “But the very best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic wines that can more than hold their own in a global context. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic value for money next to New Zealand, South Africa and the Loire, and that is its forte”.

Overall these wines were very good — we will certainly enjoy them with summer meals — and our ranking of individual wines matched very well to Decanter’s point scores. Yet we a little disappointed. Good, no question, but not great.

Or not yet great. If quality continues its upward trajectory, “great wines, great values” may soon be within Chilean wine’s grasp.

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Thanks to Wine of Chile for supplying wine, olive oil and spices for the tasting. Here is a list of the Sauvingon Blancs we tasted along with their U.S. suggested retail prices.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley ($25.00)

 Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($13.99)

 Cono Sur Visión Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($14.99)

 Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($12.99)

 Veramonte Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($18.00)

The Paradox of [Wine] Choice

I always look forward to the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays because that’s when the pace seems to slow down a bit and I can settle in to read The Economist‘s special double issue.

Of particular interest this year is the essay on page 123 called “Tyranny of Choice: You Choose.” The main point is simple, but the implications are quite broad, with particular relevance for today’s wine markets.

Good — Up to a Point

The simple point? Choice is good, but only to a certain degree. Too much choice is, well, too much and can sometimes stop decision-making dead in its tracks. I say that this is a simple point because we have all suffered from the problem of too many options overloading our preference systems. Or am I the only one who sometimes has trouble ordering coffee at Starbucks or a sandwich at Subway?

Government is a good example of this Paradox of Choice. One party rule is notoriously problematic.  Multiple parties provide useful competition. But at some point more political choice is really less –particularly less in terms of stability.  Fragile, shifting multi-party coalitions mean short governmental half-lives with no one looking after the whole since everyone’s focused on their own tiny slice of the electoral pie.

What makes The Economist article interesting is that it ties together so many elements of this dilemma, from literature to academic research and from potato chips to human reproduction.

Rollerblading Monstromart

Super-abundant choice is a fact of modern life. The Economist suggests that you …

Wheel a trolley down the aisle of any modern Western hypermarket, and the choice of all sorts is dazzling. The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. Carrefour’s hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.

One cost of this embarrassment of riches is confusion or, put another way, higher transactions costs. Making a choice means comparing the qualities and value of different options, which is difficult enough when there are only two brands of breakfast cereal, but mighty time-consuming and complicated when there are 200.

The Economist explores several dimensions of this problem, citing a Nobel Prize winning economist (Daniel McFadden), an Italian novelist (Italo Calvino) and cartoon character Marge Simpson!

Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists, argues Renata Salecl in her book “Choice”. … In one episode of “The Simpsons”, Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. “How is it”, muses Ms Salecl, “that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect leads not to more satisfaction but rather to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems.

Greater choice first delights us, then overwhelms us, then it can sometimes drive us crazy. There must be a “best” among all the rest. Which is it? And how will I know? The quest for the best can sometimes destroy the pleasure of the very good by introducing an unwanted but unshakable sense of doubt.

The Age of Anxiety

Which brings us to wine. It does seem like the problems of exaggerated choice apply especially to wine. Of those 48,000 items on the upscale supermarket shelves, chances are that 1500 or more are bottles of wine. Wine is the largest choice space in the modern grocery store, ten times richer in terms of the number of options than the #2 area (breakfast cereals) and much more complex.

Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.

I find it interesting that some of  the hottest products in the wine market seem to simplify wine just a bit and perhaps unintentionally  address this anxiety. Gallo’s inexpensive Barefoot brand wines have very done well in the last few years; most people view this as a price thing — the result of trading down. But Barefoot also offers consumers a more casual idea of wine that would appeal to anyone who wants to get out of “perfection” rat race and just enjoy wine without over-thinking it. (And every Barefoot bottle features a “Gold Medal” from a wine competition, giving buyers the security of a sense of quality.)

The hottest wine sectors today are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec; is it a coincidence that these wines are easy to understand, with many good producers at various price points? The problem of choice still exists for buyers of these wines, of course, but perhaps more of the pleasure of choosing survives.

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Several people have asked about the series on BRIC wines.  Fear not — it will resume in a few days with a report on Russia,

Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream

groc_receiptOur friend Jerry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would go digging around in the closeout bin or shopping for wine at Aldi – too classy for that — but there he was at Joyce and Barry’s house on Friday showing off his latest finds: cheap wine from a Grocery Outlet store.

The wine wasn’t so much good or bad as simply intriguing — is it really possible for a sophisticated wine enthusiast like Jerry to be satisfied shopping for wine at an “extreme value” store? Only one way to find out, so we got in the car the next day and headed for the strip mall.

Searching for Extreme Values

Headquartered in low-rent Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet bargain market is America’s largest extreme value grocery chain with more than 130 independently owned stores in six western states. It has been in business since 1946. Prices are low, low, low. The website tells the story:

The premise is simple: We offer brand name products at 40% to 60% below traditional retailers. Our offering is wide: groceries, frozen, deli & refrigerated, produce, fresh meat (selected stores), general merchandise — seasonal products, housewares, toys, and gifts — health & beauty, and a most impressive inventory of beer & wine.

How can they charge such low prices?

We source product opportunistically. Simply put, we buy brand name products directly from their manufacturers for pennies on the dollar. When a manufacturer has surplus inventory like excess packaging or manufacturing overruns they call Grocery Outlet first.

About 75% of our product is sourced this way. Some of our greatest buys are in Health and Beauty Care, Wine, Frozen Foods, Organics and Produce. To ensure that the basics are always available at Grocery Outlet, some product is sourced conventionally, like other grocery stores. Because we cannot source these products opportunistically, the savings may not be as phenomenal; however, we think it’s important to provide them for your convenience—to save you that extra trip.

Grocery Outlet stores here in the Pacific Northwest are supermarket sized spaces filled with off brand and closeout products along with a wide enough selection of fresh goods to allow families to do all their grocery shopping in one place. They are nice if not especially fancy stores. I can see why budget-minded families shop there.

Mystery Wine

The wine corner at the nearest store was large and well-stocked. Most of the brands were mysteries (one was even named “Mystery” as in “Mystery Creek” or something like that), although a few third and fourth tier products from recognized mass-market makers were available. Mainly, I think, these were leftover wines closed out by distributors to raise cash or make room for incoming shipments along with no-name brands “dumped” under a bogus label.

The wines came from all over — California, naturally, Australia, France, Italy, Chile. There was even a $3.99 “Champagne” from Argentina. Honest — it said “Champagne.”

Prices were suitably low — most of the wines sold for $2.99 to $5.99. It isn’t hard to make money selling extreme value wine when you can buy up surplus bulk wine for just pennies a liter and package it up for quick sale.  Extreme value retailers are the perfect distribution channel for wines like these.

As you can see from my receipt, I walked out with three bottles of wine for a total of $13.97 plus tax. “By shopping with us you saved $28.00.”  That would mean an average of 67% off the retail price.

Unexplained Tales from Down Under

I wasn’t really surprised at what I saw as I surveyed the wine wall. Then, slowly, a different kind of wine mystery began to unfold.nz_wines

Sue must have sharp eyes because she picked out the first surprise. Sam’s Creek Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 for $3.99.  That’s awfully cheap for a New Zealand wine here in the U.S. I’ve read about heavily discounted NZ wines in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. — until now.

New Zealand is a high cost wine producer that has succeeded in charging a premium price for its wine. Indeed, NZ earns the highest average export price of any country in the world despite surging production that threatens to create unmarketable surpluses. Everyone worries that one day the export limit will be hit and prices will start to tumble from $12-$20 down to, well, $3.99. Is that what this Sam’s Creek wine really means? The end of NZ wine’s premium price?

Frighteningly, Sam’s Creek isn’t a no-name closeout wine. The label says that it is made and bottled by Babich, one of the famous names in New Zealand wine, and the internet tells me that Waitrose sells it for about $10  in Britain. I wonder if the unsold British inventory has somehow made its way here?

Prestige Wine at Extreme Value Prices

Two more bottles raised more questions about New Zealand wines. I paid a whopping $5.99 for a 2008 Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  I almost overlooked it, but the label caught my eye. Isabel Estate is one of the most famous Marlborough quality producers, exceedingly well-known in Great Britain where this wine sells for about £10, but not so widely distributed here in the U.S., I think.

How did it get here and who among the Grocery Outlet clientele would recognize its quality sitting there surrounded by cheap and cheerful closeouts?

The third wine makes the puzzle more complicated. It is a 2004 Te Awa Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay. Te Awa Farm is another famous NZ producer and, while this wine — a estate product from a distinguished producer in a famous region — may be slightly past its prime and therefore a typical closeout risk, it is still very surprising to see it sold at a place like Grocery Outlet for $3.99 rather than the $16-$20 retail price.

These three New Zealand wines may be random surplus wines found in the sort of place where random wines go to be sold. Or they may be indicators of important changes in the world of wine. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Wine markets are all about supply and demand. It is pretty clear that a supply of interesting wines has appeared along with the rock-bottom remainders at extreme value stores like Grocery Outlet, pushed along, no doubt, by the slump in fine wine sales.

What about demand? And what does Grocery Outlet tell us about the wine market more generally? Some thoughts in my next blog post.

Stein’s Law and New Zealand Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chateau Ponzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Buck Kiwi Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Black?

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

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

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

Supply and Demand in New Zealand

My copy of the second edition of Michael Cooper’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand arrived this week and I am having trouble putting it down. Cooper’s coverage of the wines, the wineries, the people, the industry and the market is exceptional. And it is stunningly beautiful, too, with excellent maps and spectacular photos. A coffee table book in terms of size and weight, but with real substance. One of the two best regional wine atlases I own (the other is Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy, which is still a valuable reference 20 years after its publication).

(Note: Cooper’s NZ Wine Atlas hasn’t been released yet in the US, but it is easy buy from UK online sellers like Amazon.co.uk.)

The Amazing NZ Wine Story

I’ve always been fascinated by the New Zealand wine story — how a tiny (0.5 percent of global output) wine producer at the far corner of the earth could become a leading global brand (a NZ wine is the #1 Sauvignon Blanc in the US) and earn the highest average export price of any country in the world.

I couldn’t wait to get Cooper’s second edition because a lot has changed for New Zealand wine since the first edition was published in 2002 and my last research trip there in 2004.  A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same, too.

The biggest threat to New Zealand’s success has stayed the same: the problem of balancing supply and demand. New Zealand was plagued by boom and bust cycles for many years. Overproduction of low quality wines created a crisis in the 1980s. Many winemaking businesses collapsed and were snapped up by NZ or foreign buyers, leading to the internationalization and consolidation of the industry. The NZ government initiated a grubbing up scheme in 1986 to reduce vineyard plantings, especially of low quality wines, setting the stage for the current boom.

New Zealand has been extremely successful in this era of global wine, which has been characterized by high quality, a strong global brand (Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and now Pinot Noir as well), and a liberal trade regime that accepts high import levels of inexpensive wine as the price to be paid for high levels of higher-priced exports.

The Spectre of Surplus

Despite this success — or more precisely because of it, fear of wine and grape surpluses, price wars and market collapse continue to haunt New Zealand producers — at least those who are old enough to remember the crisis of the 1980s. In agriculture we know that nothing generates a surplus tomorrow faster than high prices today.

Cooper’s data make this boom-bust concern easy to understand. New Zealand’s industry has grown rapidly — can it be sustained? Producing vineyard area in New Zealand tripled from 10,000 hectares in 2000 to more than 31,000 hecrates (projected) in 2010. Wine production rose from 60 million liters in 2000 to 200 million in 2008. The number of wineries risen, too, if not quite so quickly: about 600 today, up from 334 ten years ago.

NZ domestic wine sales and wine imports have been relatively flat over the last ten years, so essentially all of the increased production has been targeted for export: 87.8 million liters in 2008 compared with just 15.2 million liters in 1998.

So far the world market has been wiling to absorb this rising production (and without diluting the NZ brand and the price premium it commands).  Can this continue into the future or does Stein’s Law (see note below) apply?

A recent Rabobank report on “New Zealand Wine Supply — Testing Limits” provides mixed indicators. Rabobank acknowledges the importance of balancing supply and demand, especially given the world economic crisis, and notes that nature may limit runaway growth. Marlborough is running out of land suitable for vineyards, according to the report.

The day will come when the quantities of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc available … will reach its physical limit and the long term supply and demand outlook looks very favorable for growers and producers in the region. It is vital that in the next 10 years the reputation and bargaining power of producers in this region be maintained in order for the region to enjoy higher returns in the future.

In other words, things look good in the long run, it’s the short run that NZ needs to worry about. Persistent short term surpluses could devalue NZ wines from premium products to commodities. That would be enormously damaging to the industry.

There are some indicators that the damage is happening now. I have heard of deep discounts on some New Zealand wines in Britain, for example, and I even saw iconic Cloudy Bay on sale at Costco this week for just $20, about $10 less than its price last year.  More to the point, however, today’s Gisborne Herald reports that Pernod Ricard, which owns a number of important NZ brands, is terminating many or most grower contracts in the Gisborne region (North of Hawkes Bay on the North Island). The president of the Gisborne Winegrowers group is quoted

I have fielded a lot of calls from very concerned and distressed growers — my advice to them is to certainly not spend any more money on any of those blocks … Meantime, they should talk to their accountants and bankers.

Gisborne is a major producing area, but it doesn’t have the name recognition abroad of Marlborough, Martinborough, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago. It is Chardonnay country with 52.8% of producing vineyard area in that varietal compared to 8.2% planted to Pinot Gris and less than 4% each to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Chardonnay has become unfashionable — it is not where the market growth is these days. It makes sense therefore that Gisborne might be the first area to feel the combined effects of an overall surplus and shifting demand.

The Next Big Thing?

What is to be done? The Rabobank study looks to Pinot Gris, arguing that it could join Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as a leading NZ export wine thereby expanding and diversifying the NZ export market. The expected growth of wine consumption in Asia is one factor in this optimistic scenario, since Pinot Gris is said to pair well with Asian foods. Food friendly and premium price — these are attractive qualities it is said in the growing Chinese wine market, according to Rabobank.

Pinot Gris is also thought to be a style that younger wine drinkers will find fun, friendly and easy to like (but also flavorful, unlike certain Pinot Grigio  you may have been served …). Michael Cooper is optimistic, too, in his Wine Atlas discussion of the varietal., citing “high potential” and “impressive weights and flavour richness” on both North Island and South wines.

Pinot Gris is profitable, too. Made in stainless steel tanks with no oak aging, Pinot Gris is a good cash flow wine.  I can’t remember seeing NZ PG on store shelves here in the U.S., however. Perhaps I’ve just missed them or maybe NZ producers are focusing on different markets — Britain, Australia or Asia? — to avoid undercutting Sauvignon Blanc sales here.

“Demand for Pinot Gris,” the Rabobank report asserts, “should underpin even greater returns for growers in the medium to long-term.” A good thing, I think, if things hold together until the medium- and long-term arrive (there’s a famous Keynes quote about this, although I don’t think he was talking about wine). There is still the old problem of the short-term supply-demand balance to be worked out.

Note: Stein’s Law (named for Presidential economic advisor Herbert Stein, is that if something cannot go on forever it will stop. Stein’s point was not that all bubbles burst but rather that market forces tend eventually to rein in unsustainable trends (although not always in a gentle way) and you don’t necessarily need government to do the job for you.

The #1 Sauvignon Blanc

Decanter.com reports that Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has overtaken Kendall Jackson as the best selling Sauvignon Blanc in the United States. The ranking is based upon sales volume, but the wines retail for about the same $10 to $12 price,  so Nobilo probably ranks first by value as well. An amazing achievement, given the many obvious challenges the New Zealand wine industry faces in terms of size, production cost, shipping distances, access to US distribution and so on.

A Matter of Style

It is interesting to consider how Nobilo and the New Zealand industry have  managed to achieve this success. The first reason is the distinctive quality of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc itself. Even wine critics who don’t think very highly of Sauvignon Blanc in general (I’m talking about you, Jancis Robinson) acknowledge that the Marlborough wines are distinctive and that the best of them are truly exceptional. In my house they set the standard for Sauvignon Blanc.

Why are these wines so good (and so popular)? Winemakers always start with the vineyard and it is certainly true that Marlborough seems ideally suited to produce Sauvignon Blanc grapes. (Ironically, no grapes at all were grown there before the mid-1970s). The skills of the winemakers are also important. The distinctive style of the wines is another factor. The June 2009 Wine Business Monthly includes a fine article by Curtis Phillips on Sauvignon Blanc yeasts that nicely explains the NZ style. NZ SB, he writes, emphasizes a varietal style, letting the fruit speak forcefully. The French SB style is “anti-varietal,” he says, emphasizing texture and minerality over fruit aromas and flavors.

Finally there is the oak-influenced style, which originated in France but was made famous by Mondavi as Fumé Blanc. This barrel-fermented SB style remains very popular in the U.S., but has obviously been eclipsed in the marketplace by the fruit-forward Marlborough product.

The New Zealand varietal style is a hot commodity. New Zealand producers should hope that it stays hot and doesn’t fade as some popular regional styles have done (I’m thinking about how quickly Australian Shiraz has fallen from favor).

The International Influence

Nobilo’s rise to #1 in the US market is not an accident, according to the Decanter.com article. Nobilo is a Constellation Brands product — one of five New Zealand export brands of ConstellationNZ (see logos above).  Joe Stanton, the ConstellationNZ CEO, explains that his company’s strategy was to make Nobilo the top US SB by focusing on “traditional” wine buyers and giving them what they expect in the way of packaging for premium wine: cork instead of screw-cap, for example, and flint-colored glass bottles instead of traditional French green. Plus, of course, the intense Marlborough aromas and flavors. New wine in old bottles (and closures), I guess, and it worked.

ConstellationNZ accounts for 40% of all NZ wine sold in the US — an astonishing figure, but understandable given the strong brands that it has acquired (Nobilo, Kim Crawford, Drylands, Selaks) or built (Monkey Bay)and the efficient distribution system that has evolved to get these wines and all the other Constellation products on store shelves and restaurant wine lists.

In fact, the New Zealand industry is dominated by foreign-owned wineries, as wine writer Michael Cooper points out in the new edition of his fine Wine Atlas of New Zealand. Of the top wine producers only two (Delegat’s and Villa Maria) are Kiwi-owned. The largest producer is Pernod Ricard NZ (formerly Montana wines), part of the big French drinks group. Pernod manages 25 NZ brands according to their website, including of course Montana (sold as Brancott Estate in the US), Corbans, Church Road and others.

The most famous NZ wine — Cloudy Bay — is owned by LVMH Möet Hennesy-Louis Vuitton, the French luxury goods conglomerate.  Matua Valley, another leading NZ producer, is part of the Australian Foster’s Group. The list goes on.

It is tempting to consider the pluses and minuses of international ownership as Michael Cooper does briefly in the article linked above. This is a topic that I plan to analyze in more detail my next book. In the meantime, however, it is perhaps best to consider how the combination of the local (New Zealand’s wonderful terroir) and the global (big multinationals like Constellation and Pernod Ricard) have combined to both produce New Zealand’s tasty wines and to deliver them to our doorsteps.

New Zealand has done specutacularly well in the global wine market so far. What lies ahead? Watch this space!

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