Wine Spectator 100: North and South

The lists of the Top 100 wines have started to appear — just in time for holiday buying. Wine Spectator released their Top 100 last week and now Wine Enthusiast has followed suit. Other lists are showing up, too, such as Paul Gregutt’s list of the 100 best Washington wines.  Fun and informative, these lists provide wine lovers with endless opportunities to discuss, debate and of course pull corks. Gotta love ‘em.

But you’ve gotta hate ‘em, too. Top 100 lists are a mixed blessing on the supply side of the market. Although they do promote wine and wine drinking generally, they necessarily privilege some wines over others and this is always problematic given the thousands and thousands of good wines that are produced each year. Why this wine and not that one? It’s an inevitable question that matters because wines on the list get more attention than the wines that don’t for some reason make the cut.

Dancing in the Streets

Top 100 lists slice up the market in many ways and this year my email inbox has revealed a North-South divide. Here in Washington State we are very happy with the 2009 Wine Spectator league table. Nine Washington wines made the list — more than any previous year — including the #1 spot, which went to the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (95 points, $27 dollars). Two Oregon wines were also listed, so altogether this was a banner year for the Pacific Northwest.

While they are dancing in the streets in Woodinville and Walla Walla, the mood is more sober down south in Mendoza.  Two Argentinian wines appear on the WS100, which is welcome recognition of course, but that’s down from four last year. This is really Argentina’s year to shine in the U.S. wine market, with overall sales surging by more than 40% in dollar value according to Nielsen ScanTrack data. But only half as many WS100 wines! You can’t blame members of the Argentinian industry for kinda hoping to see their success more enthusiastically celebrated in the Top 100 lists. Hmmm. Maybe next year.

A Nobel Prize for Wine?

It seems to me that these top 100 wine lists are a little bit like the Nobel Peace Prize. Highly publicized awards like the Nobel and the Top 100  end up being both reflections of excellence and opportunities for the judges to send a message (political, economic or otherwise). There are many worthy nominees for each award so the final choice is always arbitrary — and the opportunity to send a message is irresistible. Or at least I wouldn’t be able to resist it.

There are obviously many factors that go into a Top 100 wine list and a wine’s objective quality  is just one of them. This is easy to see if you take numerical ratings seriously. The WS100 #1 wine this year earned a 95 score, for example, but the #2 wine received a higher score (96) and the #8 wine’s score was even higher (99). A 100-point wine was placed in the 21st spot last year. This is a numbers game but not just a numbers game.

Don’t Cry for Argentina

Wine Spectator uses four criteria in making their list: quality (the score), value (the price), availability (the volume) and excitement (the X-factor). The Columbia Crest wines (both the Reserve that won this year and their other wines) generally do very well on the first three factors year in and year out. The X-factor this year, I believe, was the recession and the desire to inspire some excitement among American buyers by giving them a #1 wine they could find and afford. That $27 Columbia Crest wine says that American wine drinkers can enjoy truly excellent wines at relatively affordable prices. Time to start pulling those corks! A good message to send in this economic climate.

What about Argentina? Well, I understand their situation. No problem with quality, volume or availability. But I think the market excitement is already there and doesn’t need any help from the wine lists at this point (as much as the Argentinian makers would love to have it). The U.S. industry (like President Obama?) could use some encouragement right now, which may be a good enough reason to draw attention to its outstanding, good value wines like the Columbia Crest Reserve.

Note: Congratulations to Juan Manuel Muñoz Oca, the 34-year old Argentinian winemaker who made the #1 Columbia Crest Washington State wine. What a great North-South connection!

Wine Economist Top 100

This is the Wine Economist‘s 100th post.  The idea of a Wine Economist Top 100 — my 100 best blog posts — is therefore kinda ridiculous.

But my wine enthusiast friends hungrily devour Top 50 and Top 100 wine lists even though the idea that it is possible to identify and rank the Top X [fill in the number] wines is kinda ridiculous, too, although in a different way. This provokes a digression on wine rankings and a brief report on what I’ve learned so far from writing this blog.

Supply and Demand

Ranking wines from 1 to 100 is certainly not an exact science; there are literally  thousands of wines on the market, so narrowing down the list to 100 and then actually ranking them from bottom to top (with no ties) is necessarily a problematic exercise when examined closely.

Individual tastes differ significantly and consumers are not uniformly able to detect even objective qualities in wine (much less make comparable subjective judgments), so it is hard to see why so many people take these ratings so very seriously. But they do.  It’s a matter of demand and supply.

Consumers demand wine rankings.  They use Top X lists as guides to shopping (or investing) and sometimes as a means to establish status or credibility with other wine enthusiasts.  This makes top wine lists a really useful tool for wine merchants and distributors, who supply what consumers demand (and sometimes try to help the demand along a little, too).

Wine critics must feel some pressure to supply what buyers and merchants want.   The Top X lists get so much attention that any critic who fails to issue a ranking must be a little bit concerned about the effect of this action in the crowded wine opinion marketplace. If I ranked wines, which I don’t, I’d sure want to publish a Top X list of some sort if only to draw attention to my other work. Everyone has an interest in these lists, so it’s no wonder they are so popular.

Winner-Take-All

It is interesting to consider how Top X lists and the attention they receive  may have invisibly shaped the wine world. Cornell economist Robert H. Frank has written two books that are worth reading in this regard.  The Winner-Take-All Society (co-authored by Philip J. Cook, 1995) looks at what happens when market attention is focused on a few top-rated products.  The result, not surprisingly, is that everyone wants the best (or what is rated the best) and the nearly-as-good and really-quite-pleasant are left behind. Who wants to drink pretty good Chardonnay when you can get a 90+ bottle for the same price (even if you cannot really taste the difference yourself)?

The book’s subtitle tells you where the argument goes: “How more and more Americans compete for fewer and bigger prizes, encouraging economic waste, income inequality and an impoverished cultural life.” If you’ve seen Mondovino, you know what Frank and Cook are talking about.

Frank’s 1999 book Luxury Fever continues the argument, looking more deeply at the impact of a world where status, identity and satisfaction are linked to money and the purchase of top-rated products.  Frank talks about the high price that some consumers will pay for goods that are just a little bit better or harder to get.  He calls it the “charm premium.”  Unsurprisingly, he cites the “charm premium” that highly rated ultra-premium wines receive as an important example (pp. 29-30).

Elite winemakers can mine the charm premium effect by offering increasing expensive variations on their main product: regular bottling, reserve, single-vineyard and so on. Each increase in perceived quality (or decrease in general availability) produces a disproportionate increase in price.  Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

Some wine merchants and producers see the charm premium in a different light.  Wines that get 95+ points sell out immediately — they essentially don’t exist.  Ultra-premium wines that receive less than 90 points are hard to sell, because no one wants a merely very good wine when they can get an apparently excellent one.  (I understand that there is at least one wine store that automatically discounts any wine that is cursed with an otherwise unsellable 89-point rating.) That just leaves the 90-94 point wines and large charm premiums are sometimes paid for what must be impossibly small absolute quality differences within this range.

Wine buyers are a diverse group and so it is dangerous to generalize, but a lot of them search not just for good wine, but for the best wine (or the best wine value).  For better or worse, Top 100 lists have evolved to satisfy that demand and have therefore helped spread luxury fever and create the winner-take-all wine market segments we see today.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been writing this blog for about a year and a half and it has been a great experience — I’ve met a lot of thoughtful, interesting people and had some great wine conversations.  Because my posts are a bit longer than most — about 900 words on average — the total 100-post output is equivalent to a short book.  What have I learned from this process?  Well, I know a little more about what internet wine readers are looking for.

The most popular Wine Economist article in its 100-post history is my piece on Decanter magazine (The World’s Best Wine Magazine?), part of an occasional series on wine critics.  This post gets a lot of hits because the web is crawling with people searching for “best wine,” “best wine magazine” and “world’s best wine.”  The winner-take-all dynamic this represents shows up everywhere, even in my blog stats.

Almost as many readers are searching for the best wine value, which   explains why my posts on[Yellow Tail] Tales and Costco and Global Wine are the second and third most read articles on this blog.

Wine industry readers are worried about the future, as most of us are in this economic environment.  This helps explain why How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine? and Big Trouble Down Under: Crisis in Australian Wine receive so many hits.

Finally, many readers come here looking to unlock the mysteries of the wine buying experience.  What do the ratings mean?  Who are the most credible wine authorities?   This search leads them to posts onWine by the Numbers and Masters of Wine (and Economics), which get dozens of hits each week.

Thanks for reading The Wine Economist.  I’ll give an update on trends in reader interests and concerns in a few months, when I published the Wine Economist Top 150.

Fair Trade Wine

p11802461A Sam’s Club purchase provokes some thoughts on a new wine movement.

The Economics of Ethical Consumption

Fair Trade products attempt to use globalization to offset some of the negative potential effects of globalization.  Global market forces can sometimes lead to the exploitation of natural resources and unskilled labor, for example. The “sympathy” that Adam Smith thought would condition market relations breaks down when producer and consumer are separated by thousands of miles and multiple commodity chain links.

Fair Trade products and other ethical consumption goods seek to create a global market for products that provide more benefits to those at the first stages of the global product chain.  Some consumers are willing to pay a bit more for such products once they are aware of the problem and even a small slice of a global market can have real economic clout.  Global markets for ethical good thus have the potential to offset somewhat any “race to the bottom” forces and to educate consumers in the bargain. You have almost certainly seen Fair Trade coffee and I think Fair Trade chocolates are pretty widely available, too. Look for Fair Trade roses on Valentine’s Day.

Enter Wal-Mart

Sam’s Club, the membership warehouse store arm of Wal-Mart, is currently selling a Fair Trade wine called Neu Direction.  It is a 2005 Malbec from Argentina and I think it illustrates the potential of Fair Trade.  It is a very nice wine, much more interesting than its $9.99 price tag would lead you to believe.  It was judged the best Fair Trade certified red wine at a competition organized by The Independent of London in February 2008. Sam’s Club is the exclusive U.S. distributor.

According to their website,

Neu Direction Malbec benefits the local farmers of Viña de la Solidaridad (Vine of Solidarity), an association based on preserving the rich, cultural heritage of the contratista-landowner relationship.  Ten small vineyard owners and nine contratistas make up the association.  The contratistas lives on the land with their families and are paid a percentage of the grape harvest by the vineyard owners.  The association currently owns 200 acres of vineyards with about a third certified organic, with plans to convert more over the coming years.

The association members receive a guaranteed minimum payment for their grapes and revenues are also channeled to community development projects such as schools.  2008 was the first year of the U.S. Fair Trade wine certification program, which is administered by a NGO called TransFair.

Neu Direction makes the positive case for Fair Trade wine very well.  It is, first of all, an excellent wine at a good price and so can attract buyers on these merits alone.  It is distributed in about 450 Sam’s Clubs across the U.S.  and benefits from the built-in market that Sam’s Club members represent.  Sam’s Club (and Wal-Mart) gains in some small way through its association with “ethical” productions (Fair Trade, sustainable and organic products) and so has a reason to promote them.

Leigh Barrick, one of my students who has studied both Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade wine, argues that wine may be well suited to Fair Trade markets because consumers are often better informed and more interested in the origins of and production conditions associated with wine than for most other consumer goods.  Wine enthusiasts are thirsty for information about where wines come from, who made them and how.  Fair Trade provides this information in a way that informs, educates and potentially produces social and economic change.  A good fit, Leigh says, and I agree.

A Case of Trade-offs

But Fair Trade wines aren’t automatically going to be winners.  First, not every Fair Trade wine is likely to be as good or as inexpensive as Neu Direction – or to have the Wal-Mart distribution system behind it.  More important, however, the Fair Trade system itself is full of trade-offs.

Fair Trade certification is necessary, it seems, to prevent the designation from being exploited or debased. But certification is often expensive and time consuming (this problem applies to organic or biodynamic certification processes, too) so many small producers may be unable to bear the cost. The benefits of Fair Trade wine are therefore likely to be unevenly distributed and may required financial sacrifice in the short run to achieve gain in the long run.

That’s not to say that Fair Trade isn’ta positive force,  just that it is not a panacea. It is just one new direction — a progressive one– among many in the world of wine today.

Photo by Michael Morrell, my chief inexpensive wine research assistant.We’d like to thank Michael and Nancy for their hospitality during our stay with them in Tucson.

The French Have a Word For It

Old Europe is afraid of change, afraid to take chances.  That’s what President Bush is supposed to have said a few years ago in a conversation almost certainly not about wine.  Why the French, he said, they don’t even have a word for entrepreneur!

Innovator of the Year

But apparently they do.  Or at least that is the impression of the editors of Wine Enthusiast magazine. They recently announced the winners of their Wine Star 2008 awards and the Innovator of the Year is French, Jean-Charles Boisset, President of Boisset Family Estates.  The citation reads:

Tetra-Paks, aluminum and PET plastic bottles are all part of Boisset Family Estate’s drive to reduce their carbon footprint. The launch this November of Mommessin and Bouchard Aîné Beaujolais Nouveau in PET bottles has not only created a stir in the traditional wine industry, but has also continued a serious commitment. Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, whose headquarters are in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Burgundy, France, launched Tetra-Paks of French Rabbit wine in 2005. Infinitely recyclable, the aluminum packs weigh less than half the weight of a conventional bottle. For his contribution to the environment through his company’s innovative use of packaging, Jean-Charles Boisset has been awarded Wine Enthusiast’s first Wine Star Award for Innovation.

Boisset Family Estates is a multinational wine company with roots in Burgundy and interests in Italy (Batasiolo) and California (several properties including DeLoach and Lyeth).  I follow Boisset because it seems to me that they are real entrepreneurs — moving in many directions at once, reflecting the many forces at work in wine world today.

The Wine Star 2008 award highlights sustainability-driven innovations, for example, but Boisset is also moving seriously toward biodynamic viticulture (at DeLoach, for example) and experimenting with new marketing models. It’s easy to be cynical about wine innovations, but it is pretty clear that new ideas can prevail in the wine market if they are very good ideas. And if the time is right. This is the lesson the screw cap’s success. Maybe more environmentally friendly “bottles” will be next.

The 70-70-70 Rule

Jean-Charles Boisset argues that using traditional glass containers with cork closures makes little sense — either environmentally or economically — for most of the wine sold today.  He observes that at least 70 percent of wine retails for $12-$10 or less (probably much  more than 70 percent, I suspect) and 70 percent is consumed within three hours of purchase.  Finally, 70 percent of the production cost of these low price wines is in the packaging, not the wine itself.

These wines are quotidian pleasures, purchased for quick consumption. Heavy, expensive “traditional” packaging makes little sense for 70-70-70 wines.  Producers, consumers and their environment would all likely benefit if these wines were packaged and sold in ways that reflect their real consumer product function, not a false elite identity.  Wine will have come of age, some argue, when it no longer needs the borrowed prestige of the heavy bottle or a faux-tradition label.

False Dichotomy

What I most appreciate about Boisset is the fact that it is difficult to put the company in a box.  Is it an Old World winery?  Well, yes of course, based on geography.  Is it New World?  Well, yes but not just because it owns properties in California. Its marketing innovations have a distinct New World flavor and its entrepreneurial spirit would make Adam Smith smile.

There is nothing particular Old World about quality and terroir or New World about innovation.  It’s all part of the blend and always has been — even in France.  No wonder they have a word for it.

[Note: In case you missed the irony of the opening paragraph, entrepreneur is a French term.]

The Wine Spectator Award Hoax

It has been a couple of weeks now since the Wine Spectator hoax hit the news. Robin Goldstein (a.k.a. fearlesscritic.com) “blew the whistle” on Wine Spectator in a session that I happened to chair at the American Association of Wine Economists meetings in Portland. (Robin actually revealed his hoax as an unscheduled prelude to a completely different presentation at the meetings.)

The wine media quickly picked up the story and now it is everywhere. The story has generated a certain amount of embarrassment for Wine Spectator and given Robin and his new book a lot of  publicity.

What Robin did was to create a fake Italian restaurant (Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano) along with a made-up menu and wine list. Then, following directions on the Wine Spectator website, he applied for an Award of Excellence, which is the way that Wine Spectator recognizes and encourages restaurants with strong wine programs. Wine Spectator tried but was not able independently to confirm the facts about the fake restaurant; they took the application on trust as an honest entry and presented it with the appropriate award in the August 31, 2008 special restaurant issue (see page 181). You can read all about it on Robin’s website for the fake restaurant, http://osterialintrepido.wordpress.com/

Where is the Outrage?

How upset should we be to discover that Wine Spectator can be tricked into giving its wine award to a fake restaurant?  Michael Morrell, my chief cheap wine research assistant, was outraged.  Although price is the most important factor for him in choosing wine, he admits that he is also influenced by wine ratings. The award hoax undermines his trust in wine critics in general and the ratings and advice they produce.

I can understand Michael’s concern, so I consider this a very serious matter, but I don’t think the fact that Wine Spectator fell for a hoax is reason for us to doubt its integrity.  Here is my report.

The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence is given to restaurants to recognize their wine programs.  Although the actual criteria for receiving an award seem very modest to me (you can read them on page 97 of the special restaurant wine issue), it is a fact that about 30% of the new entries each year fail to meet them (the success rate is obviously higher for establishments who enter and receive an award year after year).

There are three levels of award.  3254 restaurants received the base level recommendation.  802 second tier “Best of Award” ratings were given to restaurants with more comprehensive wine lists. 73 top of the line “Grand Awards” were bestowed.  The people at Wine Spectator are proud of their award program and believe that it has encouraged restaurants to upgrade their wine programs.

Caution: Economics Content

I’m sure this is true, but I tend to view the matter in economic theory terms.  Consumers have lots of restaurant options and are uncertain which ones might have good wine choices. The restaurants know how good their wine selections are but have trouble effectively communicating this to potential customers. This is the classic economic problem of “asymmetric information” and the classic economic solution is “signaling” – where one side of a potential transaction finds a way to reveal key information to the other side to help seal the deal.

Restaurants that want to attract wine enthusiast customers need a way to “signal” them about their wine programs and the Award of Excellence is one way to do this.  Restaurants that think sending this signal is worth meeting the criteria and paying the entry fee do it and get on the list.  Others, even some that have strong  wine programs, don’t bother. They have other ways to send the message, I guess.

Wine Spectator fell for the Osteria L’Intrepido hoax because it relied upon the honesty of applicants, assuming, I suppose, that no one would go to the trouble and expense of applying without a conventional commercial purpose. This is another side of asymmetric information — Robin presumably knew his motives in setting the fake restaurant “sting” and Wine Spectator could only guess or assume.

In Vino Veritas

Truth is especially important in the wine world and, because of the problem of asymmetric information, it is particular difficult to know with confidence.  We depend upon the honesty of self-interested actors and the truthfulness of their signals. When we read wine ratings or see wine competition awards, for example, we assume that the judges and critics are tasting the same wines that we buy in the market. But it would be easy for a dishonest producer or distributor to put special wines in the bottles sent to the critics or wine award competitions. The easiest switch would be to put some of last year’s highly ranked wine in place of this year’s weak effort. Most wine critics rate products that are sent to them by makers and distributors and rely upon the honesty of the sender.  Only a few – Gaiter and Brecher at the Wall Street Journal come to mind – seek out and purchase their wines through normal retail channels.

Doctored “critic cuvee” wines are a potential hoax problem.  I am not aware of any wine publications that have been hoaxed in this manner, but I have read and heard speculation about special “award cuvee” wines being entered in competitions.  The nature of the situation makes us all vulnerable to hoaxes.

Wine Spectator fell for this hoax but it wasn’t because its editors are dishonest in giving their awards.  I think most of the criticism of Wine Spectator in this situation is a bum rap, especially since the magazine’s editors seem to be unusually careful in avoiding advertising conflicts of interest.  That’s the subject of my next post.

The Martha Stewart Wine System

march-2008-cover.jpgWine Enthusiast magazine celebrates its 20th anniversary with the March 2008 issue and editor and publisher Adam Strum reflects on the changing market in “The Enthusiast Corner” column. He writes that

“I’d like to think Wine Enthusiast played an important part in helping to bring wine to the attention of the American public at large, and not just the elite, over these 20 years. Wine magazines, books and the rise of food television have all undoubtedly played a role in making America a wine drinking nation. Other factors abound: American cuisine at home and in fine dining restaurants underwent a renaissance, and wine naturally became an important part of that. News of wine’s health benefits enlarged its consumer base. But most responsible for the growth of wine is the incredible leap in terms of overall quality at the same time that wine became more affordable. How often does that happen? Name me one consumer product that can compare.”

I think he is right in all this. Wine’s vigorous growth in the United States is a complex phenomenon. Many factors have contributed to the rise in per capita consumption in the United States and other New World markets at the same time that wine drinking has fallen dramatically in the Old World. The wine media’s role may be an under-appreciated element of this phenomenon.

The Supermarket as Home Depot with Wine

My friend Patrick works the wine aisle at a local upscale supermarket and he constantly delights me with his original insights into consumer behavior. He sees cable TV’s influence everywhere, for example. People watch Trading Spaces or the home remodeling network HGTV, he says, and run out to Home Depot for wallpaper and remodeling supplies. A huge industry has been built around their media-driven passion to renovate and restore. People watch the Food Network, he says, and run to supermarkets for exotic ingredients — and the wine to go with them. Wine is scattered throughout the store, not just in the wine aisle, to make the idea of a sophisticated meal (one that would please the Barefoot Contessa) a convenient choice.

Wine, in other words, is a lifestyle product that is promoted by lifestyle media like cable TV and lifestyle magazines that encourage and enable consumers to develop adventurous, sophisticated, consumption-driven identities. I don’t mean this in a bad way, although I know it sounds pretty bad. It’s just a fact. The magazine racks at Borders are filled with lifestyle magazines. You probably read a couple of them yourself. Even serious newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times now have thinly disguised weekend “lifestyle” sections. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean!

Wine Enthusiast is a particularly good lifestyle magazine — there is a reason it has lasted 20 years. One factor in its success is that globalization has helped the wine market expand, providing more choice at affordable prices. Mr. Strum writes that

“New regions such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and others new to a global industry muscled their way on to the world stage. Competition drove improved methods in the winery and the vineyard. Competition also drove prices down at the middle and lower tiers.

“The world wine map has been redrawn so dramatically in the past 20 years it’s almost unrecognizable. Back then, it consisted of France, Italy, Spain and, way off in the margins, California. Now you must include Oregon and Washington State, not to mention the other New World countries I mentioned above. Every state in the union now produces wine. Countries like China and India are ramping up production in numbers that boggle the western mind.”

Martha Stewart Wine

Globalization has certainly made wine more interesting and wine drinkers can appreciate the value and variety. It would be a mistake to think that the wine media are passive observers of this phenomenon, however. It is in their interest to promote the industry that they cover and to try to profit from every aspect of it. You aren’t surprised when cable television networks expand outside the box, are you? They sell advertisements on their programs along with videos of the shows, books, lectures and assorted types of lifestyle paraphernalia. Think Martha Stewart! (And yes, there really is a Martha Stewart wine – made by Gallo).

Wine critic publications do the same thing — they have adapted the Martha Stewart System to lifestyle wine. I will focus on Wine Enthusiast here because it is their anniversary, but they are not an unusual example. Wine Spectator, Decanter, Gambero Rosso and most of the others have commercialized the wine experience in the spirit of Martha Stewart.

Mr. Strum describes Wine Enthusiast’s expansion this way

“Wine Enthusiast, as a company, has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years, too. In addition to the success of our catalog and our magazine, we have created an events division that is an astonishing success. We now annually produce four Toast of the Town events to introduce American consumers to wines that are available in their markets. These walk-around tastings, held in spectacular cultural venues, offer a sample of each city’s restaurants, accompanied by tastes of the portfolios of 70 wine companies. These events help educate and expand the palate of the American consumer, and to reinforce wine’s place at the table.”

Wine Enthusiast is more than a magazine, it is a lifestyle system. It sells magazines, of course, plus wine-related products through their catalog and website, produces wine events and so on. It informs, enlightens, educates and enables. A Wine Enthusiast cable network (or YouTube.com channel) would be the next logical step.

Even the magazine is commercialized in perhaps unexpected ways. Everyone knows that wine magazines sell lots of advertisements, of course. The editors always say that they don’t let advertising dollars influence their ratings, and I actually believe them — although market forces obviously do have some influence over the wines that they choose to consider for their reviews. National magazines need to pay attention to wines that are in national distribution. And these are the wines that are featured in the ads.

Wine Enthusiast takes one more step into commercial waters, however. The magazine includes a monthly Buying Guide that provides 100-point ratings and thumbnail reviews of dozens of wines. (I actually find their reviews to be very accurate, by the way.) But just before the long list of ratings there is section where a smaller number of wines are featured, with images of their labels for easy supermarket identification. These are the wines you will remember if you scan through the magazine quickly. I have always assumed that these were featured wines, selected by the editors for their good value or wide availability.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading the fine print about how Wine Enthusiast rates wines and discovered that the labels are in fact “paid promotions.” Wineries can’t write the reviews or designate their products “best buys,” but they can pay to have them highlighted in the illustrated section! I wonder if that is true of other wine magazines? I’m going to be reading the fine print a lot more closely now so that I have a better idea of what is editorial content in the wine press and what is “paid promotion.”

Martha Stewart has only recently entered the wine business (with Paul Newman close behind), but it seems to me that the Martha Stewart system of total lifestyle marketing is already here. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s a good thing?

Washington and Oregon Wines in London

There is a special tasting of Washington and Oregon wines in London today, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at 12 Carlton House Terrace. More than 190 wines from 40 Pacific Northwest wineries are being sampled. Marty Clubb of L’Ecole 41 in Walla Walla is leading an educational seminar about the Washington wines and Howard Rossback of Firesteed is doing the same for the Oregon products. The event is funded in part by a $200,000 federal trade grant. I believe it is the largest organized effort (so far) by Northwest winemakers to break into the European markets. It will be interesting to see if this seedling can grow to bear fruit.

Washington and Oregon are important winemaking regions, of course, but their reputations and sales are concentrated in the United States. Although Oregon Pinot Noirs are always included in the discussion when people anywhere talk or write about new world Pinots, the fact is that not much of it is sold abroad. Oregon wine sales in the UK and France were just over 2000 cases in 2006, for example, out of total production of 1.6 million cases. The word may be out around the world about Oregon wines, but wine distribution and sales haven’t followed — yet.

I don’t have figures for Washington wines, but I suspect that the situation is more or less the same. Washington makes excellent wines (better than Oregon wines, if you judge by the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate ratings, where several Washington wines receive 95+ points), but so far Washington doesn’t seem to have that one distinctive wine that could establish an international reputation. The state is too varied, I think, in terms of climate and geography for that to happen. Washington is Riesling country, judging by volume of production, but it hasn’t yet established an international reputation with this wine (although it is trying to do so with the Riesling Rendezvous conference). A variety of reds do well here, including both the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, but no signature style of wine has emerged as the champion. Marty Clubb is telling the people in London that Washington has the ideal climate for wine (that’s the official Washington wine theme), which may be true but doesn’t really define the product for confused international buyers.

Washington does have one advantage over Oregon in the export market: distribution muscle. The Washington wine industry features a few very large players that have the financial clout to potentially open up foreign distribution channels. Money is necessary; it isn’t easy to establish a brand abroad in this crowded market and margins on exports are necessarily lower than for domestic sales, at least at the beginning. I have read that export sales by small scale winemakers are “vanity” projects and there may be some truth to this. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, however.

The Chateau Ste Michelle family of wines have penetrated some European markets. I was surprised to discover a large display of CSM wines in an upscale supermarket next to the train station in Riga, Latvia, for example. I haven’t been able to find out how the wines got there yet — my guess is that CSM’s deal to distribute Antinori wines in the U.S. may be reciprocated by Antinori in Europe but I don’t really know. Other Washington wines including Columbia, Covey Run and Hogue are part of the Constellation Brands portfolio, which may aid in their international distribution, too.

The London tasting isn’t the first effort to get Northwest wines attention in the UK. I remember being in London in about 1990 and walking into Fortnum and Mason only to be shanghaied by an excited clerk who was directing anyone she could to a lonely wine tasting display where they were sampling wines from Hogue Cellars of Yakima. Needless to say, no one had any idea where Yakima was located, but they were amazed that such a unlikely place could produce good wine. Today’s London event is a much larger project than that Fortnum display, but the goal is much the same, to make friends, establish relationships, and get our foot in the door.

I hope the London tasting goes well. Many of the wineries are apparently looking for UK distribution, which makes sense. The UK is the most important wine market in the world. It is a good market to sell wine and to establish a worldwide reputation. A disproportionate number of the world’s leading wine writers and experts are based in London, including Jancis Robinson, Oz Clark, Michael Broadbent and Steven Spurrier. A good word by any of these celebrity wine critics would encourage wine enthusiasts in the UK and around the world to give Northwest wines a try. But the real prize would be a distribution deal with Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which dominate supermarket sales, or one of the big high street wine store chains, since you can’t try wines you can’t buy.

One reason this is a good time to try to break into the UK and European markets is that the exchange rates favor U.S. exports. The dollar fell dramatically in 2007 against both the Pound and the Euro, making U.S. wines relatively less expensive. This will help, but it will still be difficult to get British wine drinkers to think beyond Gallo and one end of the market and Napa Valley at the other.

It’s tough to break into foreign wine markets. Ernie Hunter famously did it the DIY way — he brought his wines to London and entered them in the Sunday Times wine festival, where they won the people’s choice award. Ernie was from New Zealand and his surprise victory paved the road for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s dramatic rise in the world of wine. Washington and Oregon are taking a direct and organized approach, with tastings and seminars. Every case is different. My next post will tell an unlikely story of how Washington wines first came to Sweden.

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