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. “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,

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 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.

Message in a Bottle? The 2007 Wine Star Awards

Wine Enthusiast has announced the winners of their 2007 Wine Star Awards and I find the selections pretty interesting. Usually wine magazine awards go to famous winemakers like Robert Mondavi or Paul Draper the “philosopher/winemaker” at Ridge. But Wine Enthusiast positions itself as more of an industry publication than an enthusiast mag, so these awards are a bit different — they honor exceptional achievement in an increasingly complex global wine market and send a message to those who pay attention about how the global market is evolving.

The top award — Man of the Year (yes, they really call it man of the year) — goes to Ray Chadwick, who is not a household name unless your house is pretty deeply involved in the wine business. Chadwick has an MBA from the University of Chicago instead of a oenology degree from Davis. He runs the Chateau & Estate group of Diageo, one of the world’s largest drinks companies. His achievement was to build a successful global brand portfolio of premium wines. The citation for the award says in part

Chadwick has overseen tremendous growth at DC&E, launching new brands from California, Australia, New Zealand and France, growing its wine portfolio from three brands to 21, and focusing on premium wines. DC&E’s strong California portfolio includes Beaulieu Vineyard, Sterling Vineyards, Acacia and Chalone. In the last year, it launched Newharbor (NZ), B&G Bistro (France), Beauzeaux (CA) and A by Acacia (CA). Under Ray’s leadership, DC&E began fiscal 2007 as the No. 4 premium wine company in the United States (8.7% market share), and finished the year at No. 3, with a 9% market share. With sales of 5 million cases a year, at a retail value of $1 billion, DC&E is one of the 10 biggest U.S. wine companies. But beyond the astonishing numbers, Chadwick has helped build an engaged and dedicated team. As an insightful strategist and superb administrator, he has repeatedly met and mastered an enormous challenge: to bring together different corporate cultures, successfully merging Diageo, Seagram’s, and finally Chalone, providing a collaborative and winning environment.

This says a lot about what the wine industry in the U.S. and the world. First, the award stresses the importance of marketing and distribution in today’s market environment. Second, although the trend towards consolidation continues, the premium wine segment is still pretty open — the third largest firm has just 9% of market share. Third, it stresses that fact that having a diversified international portfolio of premium wines is of growing importance. Retailers like to deal with a small number of suppliers, so successful distributors must have products that will fill a lot of different spots on the wine rack. And finally, the stress on team building reminds us that this is still a people business. Personal relationships and trust are necessary in a business where you don’t always know what’s in the bottle you are selling.

Several of the other awards also make interesting statements about the wine business today. The Importer of the Year is Gallo, which we all think of as company deeply rooted in California’s Central Valley (and now Sonoma, too, of course). But wine is a global business and so Gallo has become global, too. The citation explains

The importing side of the business began in 1997 with Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio from Italy, a company which Gallo started from scratch. It was one of Ernest Gallo’s ideas, and a fairly radical one, considering the company’s exclusive focus up to that point on California wines. The company currently imports 15 brands from 11 wineries in nine countries: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Of these, seven were created, while the other eight represent partnerships.

Gallo is a master of brand management. Gallo’s emphasis on expanding its imports (and exports, too, although that’s another topic) underlines the point that a diversified portfolio of international brands is the dominant competitive strategy today.

But global markets don’t necessary spell the end of regional family wine firms. They can survive and even thrive, but they have to evolve along with the market. Two other Wine Star awards recognize achievements in this vein.

DFV Wines (Delicato Family Vineyards) was named the American Winery of the Year for its successful portfolio of California brands. The citation reads

DFV Wines is a family-owned winery committed to its 80-plus-year wine heritage in California. Three generations of the Indelicato family have overseen vineyard operations and winemaking, and produce a portfolio of wine brands from their various properties. Originally a top quality supplier of grapes and bulk wine, in the 1990s they moved into bottled varietals; they currently offer 9 different brands, which appeal to a wide range of consumers. In the late 1980s, the family purchased the 12,000-acre San Bernabé Vineyard in Monterey, and in the 1990s they added Clay Station vineyard in Lodi, and North Coast vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. The Indelicato family has earned a reputation for maintaining the highest standards in farming, with an unwavering dedication to environmentally sensitive winegrowing practices and economically sustainable business practices. Individual wines that have gained recognition in recent years include Gnarly Head Zinfandel, Clay Station Viognier, Irony Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, 337 Cabernet Sauvignon and Delicato Shiraz. DFV Wines answers consumer demand for great tasting, mindfully grown, intelligently vinified wines for every occasion

The New World Winery of the Year is one of my personal favorites, Villa Maria. The citation reads

Villa Maria is one of New Zealand’s leading wineries. It was founded in 1961 by its current owner and Managing Director, George Fistonich, and is 100-percent New Zealand—and family—owned. The company’s primary focus is on the vineyards themselves,to produce the highest possible grape quality, while respecting the importance of regional differences. Astute site selection is followed by superior vineyard management and then complemented by expert winemaking. Villa Maria is also known for its innovations in its native country: a tiered system of payment for grape growers based on the fruit quality and the creation of reserve and single-vineyard wines. Under Fistonich’s leadership, Villa Maria also became the first major wine company in the world to declare its wineries “cork free,” opting for screw cap closures on all of its wines. Through his ceaseless pursuit of quality, Fistonich and Villa Maria have made outstanding contributions not only to New Zealand wines, but also to the wine world in general.

Villa Maria shows that it is possible for a family-owned winery in what must still be considered an “emerging” wine region to achieve international success without a huge brand portfolio or multinational money — through a stubborn and consistent commitment to quality. Villa Maria’s success comes from a combination of good old-fashioned winegrowing (a strong focus on grapes, vineyards and growers) and an openness to innovations like the screw cap.

Congratulations to all the winners of the 2007 Wine Star Awards. And thanks to Wine Enthusiast for using these awards to highlight important characteristics of the contemporary wine market.


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