The Economic Origins of the Kosher Wine Conundrum

Wine Economist reader Rob Meltzer has been searching for drinkable kosher wines (and trying to understand why he wasn’t finding them)  and he has been kind enough to share his observations with me along the way. I found his methods rigorous and his analysis fascinating, so I asked him to summarize his research for publication here. Thanks to Rob for sharing his results with other Wine Economist readers!

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During the past year or so, I’ve tasted nearly 90 kosher wines priced between $20-$120 from the United States, Italy, Spain, Chile and Israel. My goal has not been to find the best kosher wines, but rather to determine whether kosher wines exist which could replace non-kosher fine wines in my cellar. From my days living in Northern California, I retain my passion for California reds, but I would prefer to keep exclusively kosher wines. Equally, I wanted to determine which kosher wines I could, with clear conscience, serve to guests in my home.

There are two primary determinants of kosher wines. First, the winemaker must be Jewish. Second, all kosher wines that are served in restaurants and catered events must be “mevushal,” which means that the wine has been boiled before being bottled. If you look at a bottle of kosher wine, you will see “mevushal” specifically referenced. Fine kosher wines exclusive for home consumption can be “non-mevushal.” The “P” next to the kosher symbol denotes that the wine may also be consumed during Passover.

The Search

The methodology of comparison was this: first, my friends and I tasted kosher wines within specific grape types to find the best within each category of grape for red and white. Most of the tastings were “blind.” Food pairings were always the same and the food was always kosher. The “best” kosher wine in each category was then compared to a non-kosher wine in the same category. By way of example, we tasted about ten kosher sauvignon blanc wines from various countries and in various price levels, and determined that Covenant’s 2012 Red C was really most drinkable.  Curiously, both the Red C and the runner-up were non-mevushal. (Red C seems to be going for a “hip” level of quasi-kosher; the label read “non-mev” instead of the usual “non-mevushal” statement.)

Red C was then compared to Honig’s Napa Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. However, as drinkable as Red C was, it also did not compare well with the Honig, or other sauvignon blancs we tasted that day. (The tasting also included Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre (France), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) and Buitenverwachting (South Africa). The Chilean sauvignon blanc we tasted was so unremarkable it didn’t even make it to the tasting notes.

I also went to a number of public wine tastings of kosher wines. I quickly grew tired of having sub-standard product shoved at me, while the philanthropic donors who sponsored most of these events for charity rolled their eyes in ecstasy over glasses of brownish sludgy merlot at $120/bottle that would never be confused with a 2007 Duckhorn.

Failure and Success

I never did find a kosher red wine that seemed satisfactory in terms of both quality and price for the quality received. We had particularly poor luck with Israeli maker Barkan. Its Cabernet Sauvignon was an entirely undrinkable product. We tried everything from allowing it to breathe uncorked, to decanting, to the magical blender-aeration method, without any success. In fact, several of my tasters told me that Barkan normally tastes like that, and they couldn’t understand my complaint. If they are to be believed, they were regularly drinking something without complaint that tasted like vinegar. Poor quality vinegar, at that.

The best whites were non-mevushal. For what it’s worth, if I were interested in stocking only kosher wines, I wouldn’t buy non-mevushal wines, leading some to question the inclusion of non-mevushal wines in this survey. Surprisingly, the mevushal white table wines which scored consistently high in terms of quality and price-appropriateness came from Italian wine maker Bartenura.  Bartenura wines aren’t great, and they won’t be replacing my Napa and Sonoma bottles any time soon. Nonetheless, since they aren’t expensive, they could easily fill out the low end of the cellar quite nicely as a sort of kosher two-buck Chuck. Several of the Spanish cavas were equally good (try En Fuego, as an example of a drinkable Spanish Cava).

An Economic Vicious Cycle

I have several observations from all this. First, boiling wine is never going to be good for the product. Red wines seem particularly vulnerable to damage. The best reds and the best whites were not boiled. Second, the hindrance to a good kosher wine industry seems to be a marketing and economics problem; the percentage of people who drink kosher wines exclusively is very, very small. If you don’t or haven’t compared kosher wines to non-kosher fine wines, you probably don’t know what you are missing and you are unlikely to demand better product. Third, since the available offerings are small, people who really want kosher wine will buy and drink what is offered. Many times, the pricier red wines were found improperly racked at wine stores, and covered with dust. I suspect that the combination of wine-making methods and poor or improper storage explains the poor table experience. I’m also assuming that the boiling precludes proper aging after bottling.

One of the challenges being confronted by kosher wine makers is to find a way to make kosher wines mevushal by some other acceptable heating method that does not damage the wine. While I think this will ultimately solve the problem, the real issue is one of economics. Rather than make a wine that will satisfy the very small market of kosher wine drinkers, the wineries should focus on making fine wines for the broader market, while incidentally achieving the kosher designation. Just as kosher food products are mixed in to the non-kosher product at supermarkets, the day needs to come when Red C is found in the California whites section, not a kosher section. If you don’t keep kosher, you don’t go to that aisle and you would never see or try the product. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t keep kosher who heads to the kosher wine section first. Enlarging the market should naturally create the capital necessary for experimentation of new methods. There is no reason why a kosher wine should not be outstanding. While the industry is moving toward that grail, it’s not there yet.

Juice Box Globalization: Is this the Future of Wine?

applegrapeI’m back from the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and busy trying to process all that I’ve learned while simultaneously catching up on the work that seems to have piled up while I was away. You know the feeling …

One theme of the seminars this year was the impact of globalization on the U.S. wine industry. I thought I would approach this topic in two parts. First, let me tell you a little of what I said on the Tuesday Globalization panel and then I’ll try to synthesize what learned from the discussion in a follow-up post.

Thinking Outside the [Juice] Box

My remarks were an attempt to get the audience to think about the impact of globalization in a broader context (it’s that liberal arts thing I do in my day  job as a college professor). Globalization isn’t a simple thing, I told the audience, and it isn’t a one-way street, either.

Don’t think that globalization is just competition from imports from other countries (although that’s part of it, of course) or just export opportunities abroad (as important as they can be). Globalization is both of them and many more influences, too.

One way to understand wine globalization a bit better is to look at globalization in another industry and seek out parallels and note contrasts, too. The apple industry is a bit further along the globalization process than wine, so maybe it reveals something about the road ahead.

The apple market has always been segmented, for example, but globalization has magnified the category distinctions and intensified competition within them.  Maybe that’s happening to wine? Here are three flavors of apple globalization that may or may not have lessons for wine business in the future.

juicebox

Juice Box Globalization

Consider the common juice box. If you have children or grandchildren or pack your own lunch you probably have these things around you all the time. Who knew that they embody an extreme form of globalization?

Take a look at the list of ingredients. Water, juice concentrate, etc. — no surprises there. But look where the juice concentrate comes from: USA of course but also Argentina, Austria, Chile, China, Germany and Turkey.  The apple juice concentrate that supplies the juicy fruit taste could come from any of five countries on four continents. Wow! That’s globalization for you.

The concentrate is a completely generic product (simply apple — not some particular variety of apple) traded in highly competitive global markets where cost (for standardized quality) is king and minor changes in exchange rates, transport costs and trade fees can have big effects.

As we consider the major increase in bulk wine shipments around the world — 45 percent of all New World wine exports are now big bag – big box bulk shipments – you can’t help but wonder if Juice Box globalization might be on the horizon.

Granny Smith Globalization

I’m old enough to remember when Granny Smith apples entered the U.S. market in 1971 (from New Zealand, as I recall) as a premium product. The Granny Smith was developed nearly 150 years ago by a grandmotherly Australian woman named Smith who discovered the natural cross in  her garden  and propagated it.

Initially, I think, the appeal of Granny Smith was that it was a premium Southern Hemisphere apple that filled a seasonal market niche in United States. Now however, Granny Smiths are grown pretty much everywhere and have lost some of their premium appeal. Highly integrated international apple companies source them from everywhere and distribute them everywhere.

Granny Smith globalization is not nearly so extreme as Juice Box globalization, but it is still quite dramatic. It reminds me of some of the bulk wine trade today, where certain varietal wine brands at certain price points are increasingly sourced from all over the world. Product differentiation in some segments is increasingly based upon brand rather than appellation or country of origin — which can change from California to Chile to Italy and beyond from year to year — just like the  Granny Smiths.

Honeycrisp Globalization

The best margins in the apple business today are probably found in what I call the Honeycrisp market segment where innovative super-premium products command high prices. The Honeycrisp apple was developed by the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Minnesota to be an eating apple with distinctive flavor and especially texture profiles that consumers seem to love. Patented and licensed, it has been a very profitable product.

The plant patent on the Honeycrisp has apparently expired, so production is increasing and prices have fallen a bit, but the idea behind it is still strong. Plant scientists in Europe have developed new specialized patent apple products to take over where Honeycrisp left off. Sue is especially fond of  Kiku and Kanzi, which I think are variations on the Fuji variety from Japan that were developed in Northern Italy and the Netherlands respectively and are grown in limited quantities here in Washington State.

Honeycrisp globalization is about product innovation and product differentiation. Follow the money: the tight margins created by Juice Box and Granny Smith globalization have nudged the Honeycrisp strategy into the spotlight.

Apples, Oranges and Wine

Is there anything to be learned about wine by thinking about apples? Or is it an “apples and oranges” thing? Well, my goal was to get people thinking and I admit that when I asked the big audience if they thought that there was something to the Juice Box (or Granny Smith or Honeycrisp) idea of wine I saw many heads nodding “yes.”

Not a surprise, of course. Apples and wine are specialized industries, but they are both businesses, too, and perhaps the similarities that people see are because of that. Maybe this little lecture has got you thinking, too. If so, come back next time when I’ll talk about some of the interesting ideas I heard from other speakers regarding globalization and U.S. wine.

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Here’s a video about Kiku — about as far from a Juice Box (in terms of product differentiation) as you can get.  Enjoy!

Malbec: The Film! [A World Premier]

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Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec. A film by Sky Pinnick (Kirk Ermisch, executive producer). “Southern Wine Group presents a Rage Productions documentary,” 2011.

We are just back from the BendFilm Festival in Bend, Oregon — an unlikely trip for a guy who sees about one new movie a year. The special occasion? The world premier of a documentary about the Malbec boom, Boom Varietal by filmmaker Sky Pinnick.

Simply Irresistible?

A film? About wine?. How could I resist?

Well, actually I might have been able to resist driving 6 hours from Tacoma to Bend for the premier since the track record for wine films is so mixed. Mondovino is a classic, of course, but it sure is long (or does it just seem that way while you’re watching it?) and it’s kinda annoying, too? So damn earnest! (“Le vin est mort” and all that.)

Then there’s Bottleshock, the film that’s loosely based on the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting of French versus California wines in 1976. The film is a lot of fun (the opposite of Mondo?) but just as annoying since almost every single detail is distorted for dramatic effect or commercial purpose. The best way to watch Bottleshock is to forget that there really was a Paris tasting and enjoy the pure theater of the thing.

A Feast for the Senses

So which way would Boom Varietal go — earnest but annoying like Mondo or annoyingly commercial like Bottleshock?

Well, incredibly it is not annoying at all. In fact, it is completely enchanting. The first five minutes are a feast for the senses. The film captivated me, drawing me into the world of Malbec and the people and places associated with it.

The land and people of Argentina are the stars of this film, especially the winemakers. Executive producer Kirk Ermisch, CEO of Southern Wine Group, no doubt used his industry connections in Argentina to make the film possible, but he commendably resisted the temptation to make this a promotion piece for his business.

Typecasting? Dismal Scientist?

I went to Bend knowing that I had a bit part in the film. Sky and his wife and collaborator Shea Pinnick interviewed me me in my office last spring as they were trying to stitch together the video pieces to tell a coherent story. I’ve been writing about Argentinean Malbec for several years and obviously worrying about its future. My role, I thought, was to be the classic “dismal scientist” and wonder aloud if today’s silver lining isn’t really surrounded by a deep dark cloud. And that’s what it seemed to be when I viewed the film’s “teaser” (see above) a couple of weeks ago.

So imagine my surprise as I watched the film for the first time. I wasn’t dismal at all! Sky was able to capture my enthusiasm for Argentina and Malbec and my cautious optimism about its future in the world of wine. If Argentina’s Malbec industry falters (and that’s always  a possibility in this uncertain world) I think it will be because of factors that are beyond the control of the winemakers — especially inflation and exchange rates.

I was also surprised to see myself on the screen so frequently. I think this is because Boom Varietal tells the story of the land, the people and the markets. A wine economics story! No wonder I had such a good time at the premier.

Beyond Malbec Boom?

I enjoyed this film and even learned a few things from it, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is a film about Malbec, not Argentinean wine more generally. Although the focus on Malbec is understandable and even appropriate for a U.S. audience (Malbec represents abut 2/3 of Argentina’s wine exports to the U.S.), one thing I learned from our trip to Mendoza earlier this year is that Argentina is Malbec, but not just Malbec.

If Malbec boom becomes Malbec bust (and I’m not predicting it will), then Argentina will be glad that it produces many other fine  wines, both red and white. Search for Argentina among the Decanter World Wine Awards results and you will see what I mean. Maybe what lies beyond Malbec boom is not Malbec bust but a growing appreciate of Argentinean wine more generally.

But whatever happens I think Argentina will be thankful that Malbec vaulted them onto the world stage in the first place. An incredible story! Thanks to the makers of Boom Varietal for telling it so well.

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Thanks to Sky and Shea Pinnick and to Kirk Ermisch for their hospitality while we were in Bend and for inviting me to participate in this project in the first place. I wish them every success with their project.

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

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

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

Move Over White Zin

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

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

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

TNBT Effect

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

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

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

Is Torrontés TNBT?

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

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

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

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

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

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Assets: Fine Wine versus Crude Oil

So … which do you prefer? Great Bordeaux or bulk crude oil?

The answer depends on your perspective, I think. For drinking there is no choice — red wine trumps black gold. No doubt about it.

Demand and Supply Always Apply

But how about if you look at the choice from an investment perspective? The surprising answer is that it makes little difference. The prices of fine wine and crude oil have been highly correlated in recent years.  Or at least that is the conclusion of two economists at the International Monetary Fund, Serhan Cevik and Tahsin Saadi Sedik, as reported in their recently published paper “A Barrel of Oil or a Bottle of Wine: How Do Global Growth Dynamics Affect Commodity Markets?” (click on the link to download a pdf of their working paper).

The graph shown above indicates that price indices for crude oil and investment-grade wine are highly correlated. Wine follows the twists and turns of oil prices, although it is somewhat less volatile in terms of peaks and troughs. The conclusions are more or less the same if real data are used instead of nominal measures. Who would have guessed?

How is Oil Like Wine?

What do oil and fine wine have in common? Darn little, from the drinking standpoint, but quite a lot in terms of supply and demand. Both commodities have relatively inelastic supplies, according to the study authors (although for very different reasons, as you may imagine), so that changes in demand account for the majority of price movement effects.

The authors find that the same macroeconomic factors that push up the global demand for oil are associated with rising auction prices for the fine wines in the Liv-Ex index. Certainly in recent years it must be true that China’s fast growth has impacted the relatively narrow investment wine market and the much broader global commodities markets in the same way, albeit for different specific reasons.

Shifting Center of Gravity

So what?  Well, the study tells us a number of interesting things. First, it indicates that economists at the IMF have not entirely lost their sense of humor– a good thing, I suppose, since they are part of the glue that holds the global financial system together (hey Mr. Euro, I’m talkin’ ’bout you!). It is comforting to know that they think about the real world and are not limited by the formal constraints of their charts, graphs and equations.

Second, as the Financial Times points out, it shows that adding wine to an investment portfolio does not necessarily usefully diversify it if oil is also in the mix. You might not have guessed this correlation, but there it is. Always good to do research and not rely upon common sense or intuition.

Finally (and here you need to actually read the paper by following the link above), the authors note an important shift in the global economic center of gravity. Whereas only a few years ago the changes in both oil and wine prices would have been explained by U.S. and Western European economic variable, now it is the emerging markets that have the most clout. The driving forces of world commodity markets have new postal codes. You don’t need to read tea leaves to get the new address — wine and oil both point the way!

Retail Wine Sales: Big versus Hot (Hot Hot)


I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what’s “big” in the wine market (where the most consumer dollars are going) versus what’s  “hot” (or “hot hot hot” as in the video above), showing the fastest growth.  I’m using U.S. off-premises wine sales data from Nielsen for the 52 weeks ending 9/18/2010 taken from the December 2010 issue of Wine Business Monthly.

Baseline information: Off-premises wine sales in the U.S. totaled $9,172 million in the period covered here according to the Nielsen report, with an overall growth rate of 3.2%.

Which product categories are the largest in absolute terms and which are growing the fastest? I’m going to break down the data by wine varietal, country of origin (for imported wines) and price category. Take a minute and write down what wines/countries/price points you think will be at the top in each category and see if you’re right. Here goes

Chardonnay Leads the Way

Forget what you thought you knew about Chardonnay being so yesterday and Pinot Noir kicking Merlot’s butt. In terms of the overall retail market sales, the giants (or are they dinosaurs?) still dominate.

BIG varietals

Varietal $ million
Chardonnay $1,996
Cabernet Sauvignon $1,347
Merlot $911
Pinot Gris/Grigio $734
Pinot Noir $526
White Zinfandel $427

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American wine drinkers are nothing if not traditional, reaching again and again for familiar varietals, so the usual suspects come top of the table. Pinot Noir has indeed surged in the post-Sideways era, but its lead over wounded White Zin is not large and it still lags far behind arch nemesis Merlot.

Obvious Chardonnay is the consumer default with a 50% lead on Cabernet and double the sales of Merlot. Pinot Grigio, the #2 white varietal, lags far behind.

I find the varietal “hot list” below quite interesting. The fastest growing wine varietals  are Riesling, Pinot Noir (of course), Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. (Interestingly, varietal Sangiovese is rising while Chianti is a shrinking category in the Nielsen league table.)

HOT varietals

Varietal Increase
Riesling 9.4%
Pinot Noir 8.9%
Sangiovese 8.7%
Sauvignon Blanc 8.5%

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It seems to me that while the “big” varietals are wines that many consumers purchase to drink on their own (because of their high alcohol levels and for other reasons), the “hot varietals” are a bit more likely to be food wines. I wonder if that’s a trend?

World Wine Web

Most of the table wines that Americans drink are American — there is a very strong home country preference. Domestic wine sales totaled $6,524 million for the period covered here while imports accounted for $2,648 million. What countries supply the most imported wine as measured by total expenditures? Here’s the Big list:

BIG import countries

Country of Origin $ million
Italy $804
Australia $771
Chile $243
France $228
Argentina $187
New Zealand $125

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As the table shows, Italy and Australia are #1 and #2 respectively in off-premises sales. It is interesting that France has fallen to #4 behind Chile. Argentina and New Zealand make the cut here (Spain did not!) as you might expect, but bear in mind that Italy still sells more wine in the U.S. than Chile, France, Argentina and the Kiwis combined. The concentration ratio in this market is very high: Italy and Australia may be struggling at the moment, but they are in a league of their own.

Italy and Australia will not be over-taken soon, but the market momentum seems to have has passed. Look at the big growth numbers that Argentina and New Zealand are putting up below! Wow. Annual growth rates of more than 20%!

HOT import countries

Country of Origin Increase
Argentina 27.6%
New Zealand 21.1%
Germany 4.4%
Chile 1.7%
Spain 0.6%
Portugal 0.3%

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Now look at the gap between the really hot ones and the rest! Germany comes in at #3 on hot list, but with a low 4.4% increase for the year. Sales of most wine imports (including Italy and Australia) have actually fallen in the last year. Spain and Portugal squeeze onto the list at #5 and #6 by simply avoiding utter collapse. The import wine segment is slumping badly, with Argentina and New Zealand the only significant exceptions.

The Price is Right

Finally, let’s look at the market in terms of price points.  What are the biggest and hottest parts of the wine wall in terms of price?

BIG price points

Price Segment $ million
$3.00 – $5.99 $2,688
$6.00 – $8.99 $1,903
$9.00 – $11.99 $1,868
$12.00 – $14.99 $910
$0 – $2.99 $794
$15.00 – $19.99 $557
$20+ $446

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You can see from the data why Gallo is having a good year (or probably having a good year, since they are a private company and don’t release data so I can only guess). Their brand portfolio is aimed at the heart of the market, from $3.00 to $11.99. Lots of good targets there!

You can also see why Constellation Brands is probably finding this a challenging year. They reconfigured their brand portfolio to take advantage of what they saw as upmarket opportunities.  They moved up the wine wall a bit but the market changed directions and went downmarket, leaving them in a less competitive position.

HOT price points

Price segment Increase
$9.00 – $11.99 9.1%
$20+ 7.4%
$12.00 – $14.99 5.0%
$3.00 – $5.99 4.5%
$15.00 – $19.99 2.5%
$0 – $2.99 (0.1)%
$6.00 – $8.99 (4.0)%

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But Constellation’s upmarket bet may yet pay off. The hot price segments are all in the wine wall’s upper strata.

The Old Elasticity Trap

The rise in spending in the super-premium + categories is an encouraging sign, but I think some caution is necessary in interpreting the data. Many observers see the big increase in expenditures on $20+ wines and conclude that consumers are coming back to this segment strongly — that the demand curve has shifted. But I suspect that there is a lot of bargain hunting taking place and that margins are falling – bad news. Maybe we are just following discounted prices down the demand curve.

For many of today’s buyers a $20+ retail wine is a highly discretionary purchase and so the demand curve may be quite elastic. Econ 101 students will remember that total expenditure increases when price falls for a product with an elastic demand.

The large percentage expenditure increases we seen in the data could result from discounting — $30 wines being sold off for $25 and so on — rather than an actual increase in demand or shift in the demand curve.  The increased revenues are good and inspire optimism, but they may disguise the bad news of shrinking margins.

(As I am writing this, the neighborhood Safeway is offering an extra 20% off any wine selling for $20 or more. I suspect sales revenue will increase at the lower retail markup.)

Overall conclusions? I’d rather not, thanks. These data are interesting more for the questions they raise than the answers they provide. But the questions about how the U.S. wine market is changing are worth pondering (hopefully over a nice glass of wine). Cheers.

Restaurant Wine: A Double-Sided Puzzle

If there is one thing that wine enthusiasts have in common (maybe the only thing?) it is their frustration with wine in restaurants. I was reminded of this fact as I read through the weekend newspaper wine columns. Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal piece is an extended rant (or maybe she’s venting and not ranting) about wine-by-the glass in restaurants.

The Confidence Game

Teague can’t decide which is worse in restaurant wine-by-the glass programs — the price or the quality. The rule of thumb is that restaurants charge as much per glass of wine as they actually paid for the whole bottle (and sometimes even more). This makes her feel ripped off. At the same time, the wine has been sitting around open for who knows how long, losing some or all of its freshness.  Fancy wine storage systems can help with this, but still it’s difficult to order a glass of wine (sometimes for $25 or more) with much confidence.

Over at the Financial Times Nicholas Lander approaches the issue from the business side and  looks for a solution in cooperative arrangements between wine collectors (who are willing to sell off some of their stash at market prices) and restaurants who offer these wines to their customers at reduced mark-ups.  The collectors get a fair price on their investment, the restaurants get a middle man return without big up-front costs and customers get access to special wines at lower prices. A great idea, but perhaps hard to scale-up.

Restaurant wine is like a double-sided jigsaw puzzle. The same pieces have to fit together to form two different appealing pictures — one for the customers and another for the business. If any of the pieces are upside down or missing, the whole experience is ruined.

Putting the Pieces Together

Not that it is impossible to put it all together. One of my most completely satisfying wine experiences of recent years was a dinner at The Black Rabbit Restaurant at Edgefield, a funky old  hotel in Troutdale, just outside of Portland, Oregon. A bottle of  the stellar 2006 Fielding Hills Cabernet Sauvignon sold for the same price that the winery was charging at that time — what a deal! It wasn’t the only good value on the menu, either. (The current wine list on the Black Rabbit website lists a 2007 Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir for $60. I saw the same wine on another wine list for about $200. Where are my car keys?)

How can they do it? Well, Edgefield is an unusual operation.  It is an affordable destination hotel housed in a former Depression-era poor farm (really!) with its own movie theater, winery, brewery and distillery.  The owners can afford to sell their own wine at good prices and the rest of the list falls into place around those wines. Edgefield is part of a regional chain of restaurants and hotels, so some scale economies may exist, too.

Constantly Disappointed?

Edgefield shows that it is possible to put the pieces together to everyone’s satisfaction. But is it the model for restaurant wine programs generally?  Obviously not. Like Lander’s proposal it is too much of a special case, but it shows that there is hope for constantly disappointed wine enthusiasts. Unlike a real jigsaw puzzle, which has just one solution, I think there are probably many different ways to put the pieces together to improve the restaurant wine experience.

Flemming’s Steak House offers 100 wines by the glass at its restaurants, for example. Although Lettie Teague is appalled by this for the price and quality reasons noted above, the broad choice may please many customers.  After all, we are accustomed to choosing from a huge wine selection at competitive prices at supermarkets and wine shops. Even a very large restaurant wine list (say, 300 choices) is tiny compared with your local upscale supermarket, which may have 2000 or more wines on the shelves.

The fact that the restaurant charges a semi-monopoly price (hard to get a competitive bid once you’ve been seated) makes the situation more frustrating.

One solution is to loosen the monopoly hold on price, which some restaurants are doing right now by reducing or eliminating corkage fees. Bring your own wine (purchased at normal retail prices) and enjoy dinner and a wine experience. Since wine is typically the highest priced item on a restaurant bill (more expensive than the entree, for example), reducing the wine cost removes a disincentive to dine out.

I don’t think many customers take up the “no corkage fee”  offer, but some do and if treated well they are likely to return to dine again. If there are conditions on free corkage (the wine cannot be on our list, for example, or free corkage on one bottle if you purchase a bottle from us) they need to be clearly stated to avoid misunderstanding and hard feelings.

Wine-by-the Keg?

The continuing recession is putting more strain on restaurant wine programs, which is unfortunate for everyone involved. But perhaps it will also spur the search for creative solutions to the double-sided puzzle problem.

One interesting approach to the wine-by-the-glass problem, for example, is keg wine — wine packaged in reusable steel containers. Cheaper per unit than bottled wine (assuming that the keg can be returned and refilled efficiently) with a reasonably long quality shelf life if properly tapped, keg wine may be the rosy  future of restaurant wine-by-the-glass.

Someone should tell Lettie Teague the good news.

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Thanks to Michael and Nancy Morrell for their assistance with this report.

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