Wine Recession: Winners & Losers

Some people think that the long hard winter of the economic crisis is coming to an end and “green shoots” are emerging. It is too soon to tell if this view is correct, but not too early to begin to assess which parts of the wine economy have been hardest hit by the recession and which have actually benefited. Herewith a brief analysis of winners and losers.

Wine Market Breakdown

There are several ways to break down the winners and losers in the wine market. The first and most obvious is by price segment. Distributors are finding wines in the $25 and up category difficult to move through normal retail or “off premises”  sales channels. This doesn’t mean that everyone is buying Two Buck Chuck, however. The “super-premium” $10-$15 segment continues to grow, for example, although the trading down effect is still significant. The woman who was willing to pay $20 two years ago now aims to spend $15 or less, with similar changes further down the line.

Some wine brands have been particularly well positioned to attract value-seeking buyers. Gallo’s Barefoot wines, for example, have gained market share among the “fighting varietals” and the CMS by Hedges red and white blends have done well in the $10-$12 category, as have many others.

Since most Wine Walls are arranged with the most expensive wines on the top shelf and the cheapest at the bottom, it is almost as if the top shelf has been eliminated and all the other wines moved up one rank. Whether this is a temporary or a permanent shift remains an open question. I explicitly do not assume that everything will reset back to “normal” once the recession’s game of musical chairs has come to an end.

On-premise sales have declined, too, as restaurants have felt the recession’s sting. It has been especially interesting to watch as restaurants adjust by switching to lower cost wines from beyond the “usual suspect” regions. Reds from Spain and whites from Oregon, for example, can be sold profitably at lower price points than the better known French and Californian alternatives. Because buyers may not be as familiar with these wines they can enjoy the adventurous experience of “switching over” rather than simply “trading down.” Restaurants can maintain their margins at lower prices.

Wine Geography

Inevitable the recession has had uneven effects on different regions and countries. The news from Northern California is not good, for example, with many reports of surplus grapes, some that will not find a buyer this year. Cost is a big factor. Napa and Sonoma are high cost growing regions. The rule of thumb is that $2000/ton grapes produce $20/bottle wine — that’s how it pencils out when all the costs and mark-ups are accounted for. It is difficult to know who will buy wine made with $3000/ton grapes in the present market if, as we are told, the $25+ segment is a “dead zone.”

There is better news here in Washington state, on the other hand. Sales of Washington wine are rising at a 9% rate according to recent data. This makes sense because so much of Washington’s wine is positioned in the $15 and under category. About three quarters of all Washington wine is produced by Ste Michelle Wine Estates’s brands such as Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest that provide good quality and good value.

Argentina is another winner. Much like Washington State, Argentina produces good value wines at every price point and has increased sales across the board, although I suspect that Malbec at $10-$12 leads the way. While the overall US wine market has grown by 4.8% over the last year according to the most recent Nielsen Scantrack numbers, sales of Argentinian wines have risen by 46.8% — a tremendous if unsustainable rate of growth. By comparison Chilean wines sales have risen by 12.7%.

New Zealand’s wine industry is heading toward a crisis, as I have written before, but this seems less about the recession than a simply matter of demand and supply. You cannot double and redouble vineyard acreage forever and expect the export market to absorb every drop.

Australia is suffering, too, but like New Zealand I think the recession is a secondary “tipping point” factor. Wine imports from Australia are down 2.5 % for the last 52 weeks and Syrah/Shiraz sales are off 5.2% for the same period. Australia is facing all sorts of problems — drought, fire, recession and so forth — but the biggest problem maybe that “brand Australia” has gone out of sytle, taking the whole Syrah/Shiraz category with it. Even unfashionable Merlot has done better, with 0.8% growth.

The French Connection

I think France is the big loser from the recession, especially the segments that previously earned a “prestige premium,” particularly Bordeaux and Champagne. There is enough Champagne squirreled away in producer cellars to supply the market for several years. I think the big houses would pass on making any new wine this year if they could.

Even the famous chateaux are cutting price in Bordeaux this year, so I can only imagine what things are like for the producers of ordinary bottlings and bulk wine. French wine is a drag on the market even in Britain, where South African wines are surging ahead. Brand France, like Brand Australia, is in steep decline, although for different reasons.

There is a lot to be learned from a close study of the wine recession. The most important, at this point, is that it is more than a decline in demand. There are hints of more profound structural changes taking place. The more things change, the French say, the more they stay the same. I wonder if that will be true this time as the recession’s grip slowly weakens?

8/31/2009 update: An article in today’s Times of London suggests how severe the crisis is in Champagne. (Click on the link to read the rest of the story.)

Hopes of a glut of cheap champagne are set to be dashed when vineyards meet next week to agree on a big cut in production to prop up prices.

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market.

Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said. “The only disagreement is on the scale of the cut.”

The backdrop to the debate is a slump in sales for champagne makers, from 338 million bottles in 2007 to 322 million last year and a predicted 270 million this year. The fall stems in part from a slide in demand, estimated at about 10 per cent, and in part from destocking by distributors, notably in Britain and the United States.

9/3/2009 update:  A great article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the crisis in Champagne. Check it out!

Chateau Cash Flow: The Rise of House Brand Wine

Decanter.com reports that house brand wine sales are rising in Great Britain even as the overall market slumps.

Retailers are reporting impressive growth of own-label wines as cash-strapped customers look to rein in their spending.

A Datamonitor survey reports 41% of all grocery sales in the UK are now own-label, up from 38.2% in 2008, and wine sales are following the upward trend.

Supermarket retailer Sainsbury’s told decanter.com its own-label wines had grown at double the rate of its wine range this year. A spokeswoman said: ‘Last year we revamped our own-label packaging and we have put a lot of effort behind the range in store and in the media.’

House brands aren’t so important in the U.S. wine market [yet] but they may well be in the future. The best known U.S. house brand wines are Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) at Trader Joe’s and Kirkland Signature at Costco. Big Box retailers Target and Wal-Mart have launched their own house brands in recent months and other retailer’s have commissioned discount brands (not yet closely associated with their names) in an attempt to get a grip on the trading-down market. Look for this trend to continue, especially if the economic downturn persists.

Chateau Cash Flow

House brands are a solution to several problems, which is why they are likely to increase in importance. On the consumer side, they provide buyers with reputational assurances. You might wonder if a $3 wine can be any good, but you are more likely to try it if Trader Joe’s or Wal-Mart stands behind it. As I have written before, a $3 unknown wine at Safeway makes you think “how can it be any good?” while a $3 wine with the Trader Joe’s imprimatur makes you think “how bad can it be?” You might buy the latter but not the former.

The British have years of experience with house brands — it is why they are [for now] the world’s most important wine market and why Britain’s supermarkets are arguably the most sophisticated wine distribution machines on earth. The U.S. is catching up, but Britain still leads.

Reputation is especially important when consumers are trading down, moving into unfamiliar territory on the lower shelves. Decanter reports that while some British consumers are trading down to house brands, building that market, existing customers are trading up within the house brand portfolio! If this trend continues it will be hard to resist the house brand strategy.

Supply Side Wine

House brands have big advantages on the supply-side, too. Producers with surplus wine are often happy to sell it off through house brand bopttlings because it generates cash flow without directly undercutting their own brands and market. In my international economics class we call this “dumping.” You sell off unintended surpluses (of which there are plenty just now) through retailers in a different market segment, allowing you to maintain reputation and price points in the home market. If you start discounting wine to sell it, we have learned, it is sometimes difficult to regain the ground you have lost.

Some British retailers have moved aggressively into the supply chain, buying up grapes and surplus wines and acting as full-fledged negociants, but it isn’t really necessary to make such a large commitment to get into the house brand wine business. There are plenty of regional and national firms who can quickly respond to demand. No large investment is required, cost is low.

House brands can also have a somewhat fluid identity (not tied tightly to a particular region or style), which allows them to benefit from global opportunities, sourcing Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, for example, and Pinot Noir from Northern Italy or the South of France.

The main problem is to be sure that quality is good enough. Otherwise you have put your own brand in jeopardy.

Three Way Battle

The world’s wine markets are a battleground for three models of wine sales. The German model is based upon low cost (one euro per liter) and hard discount sellers like Aldi. The American model is all about corporate brands like Gallo and Constellation Brands. The British model is built upon upscale supermarkets and the house brands they sell.

Recent news suggests that the British model is gaining ground, both in the UK and here in America, where it is the model that drives Costco sales (Trader Joe, on the other hand, uses a version of the German system). It will be interesting to see if this trend persists once the recession eases up.

Wines from Spain: Challenges and Opportunities

You know that a market niche is expanding when Constellation Brands decides to move into it, as it  has done with Red Guitar, an old vines Tempranillo-Granacha blend from Spain’s Navarra DO that sells for about ten bucks.

Red Guitar is marketed as “a rich, smooth and stylish celebration of the Spanish lifestyle” — a wine for the times, I guess, when consumers are looking for products that let them trade down in terms of price while trading up to a fun, more casual way of living.

Don’t Know Much

I didn’t know very much about the wines of Spain and the Spanish wine industry, so I went back to the classroom this week to try to catch up at a three day seminar on Spain’s wines organized by The Wine Academy of Spain and taught by Esteban Cabezas. My fellow students came mainly from within the wine industry — sommeliers, distributors and retailers. I learned a lot and sampled dozens of great wines. We didn’t taste Red Guitar, but we did survey the market from $5 bottles on up to the highest levels, including table wines, Sherry and sparkling Cavas. Yes, I know. Tough work …

Education is important to the future of the wines of Spain.  As I have written before, the number of unfamiliar regions and grape varieties is a challenge that must be addressed if wines from Spain are to achieve their obvious market potential. Constellation Brands’ decision to market Red Guitar as a “lifestyle” brand probably reflects the difficulty of selling wine from unfamiliar places made with unfamiliar grapes in a market where the international  varietals and styles are the lingua franca. Spanish winemakers need to get the word out — to educate consumers and sellers. Classes like the one I attended are a good step in this direction.

Uncorking the Potential of Wines from Spain

It’s useful to think about Spain’s wine industry using a basic SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) framework. Wines from Spain have many strengths that go beyond their obvious quality in the glass. Spanish food and culture are hot and Spain is a popular tourist destination, factors that can be leveraged in the marketplace. Intangible cultural factors have always helped sell Italian wines, so it is not unreasonable to think that Spain will benefit from them as well. Red Guitar’s marketing strategy is an obvious attempt to do just this.

There are weaknesses, too, of course. While the sparkling Cavas are very popular, offering Champagne quality at beer prices in some cases, other segments of the Spanish industry suffer from consumer ignorance or indifference. Sherry wines from Andalusia, for example, suffer the same challenge as Riesling wines. Consumers think they know what they are (simple, sweet stuff) but they are wrong. The diversity of styles and complexity of the best wines gets lost. For those who know them Sherry wines are the great bargains of the wine world. But most consumers never find out what they are missing. That needs to change.

The amazing diversity of Spain’s table wines is a strength in this market, where consumers are unusually willing to try new products if they perceive good value. But diversity is also a weakness to the extent that it confuses consumers (especially American consumers)  who are looking for a “brand” identity and can’t find it. Spain doesn’t have  a distinct regional identity that would draw in consumers initially and then encourage further experimentation as some other wine producing areas do.

In Search of “Brand Spain”

New Zealand has “brand” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, which put that country on the wine map and gave millions of wine drinkers an excuse to try NZ wines. Oregon has its Pinot Noir, which has helped make it a wine region of international note despite its surprisingly small total production. Spain (like Washington State wine in this regard) produces so many different types and styles of wine that no one of them defines it. The regional identity is unclear. This is a barrier when trying to break into new markets, but a strength once a market beachhead has been established.

Although my terrioriste friends cringe when they hear me say this, I think it would be great if Spain had a Mondavi or Antinori who could define a “brand Spain”  in the global market. I think that a number of quality producers are trying to achieve this, but the industry is still pretty fragmented. Perhaps the consolidation that is sure to accompany the current economic downturn will move this process along.

The continuing economic crisis  is a great opportunity for Spain to expand export market share, especially in the United States where the market for wine is till growing in the mid-market segments. Spain, like Argentina, has a reputation for good value and distinctive wines and this is very useful right now.

Catch-22

It is important, however, to avoid being defined by low price alone. Spain’s first and fourth largest export markets (Germany and France) buy mainly low cost wines to stock the shelves of Aldi and similar discount sellers. Spain needs to focus on the UK and US (numbers two and three on their export table) where higher prices and margins are possible.

Another threat to Spain’s success in the international market is the temptation to conform too closely to the international market style (Pancho Campo, Spain’s leading wine authority, called this “the Australian style” in a Skype-dialogue with my class). Wines that are all alike become commodities at some point and it seems to me that Spain, with its already huge lake of surplus wines, wants to get out of that part of the market.

But there’s a Catch-22. It is easier, perhaps, to break into the market with a good value me-too wine. But it is hard to build upon that foundation (hence Australia’s current wine slump). Better to be yourself, distinctive, even quirky, it you can get consumers to give you a try.

As you can see, the prospects for Spain are as complex and multi-dimensional as the wines themselves.  I am optimistic that Spain’s wine industry will navigate this complicated passage successfully. Look for more on this topic in future posts.

Note: I would like to thank the Wine Academy of Spain and Catavino for allowing me to participate in the seminar on wines of Spain. Special thanks to my professor, Estaban Cabezas, and to Simone Spinner.

Tasting Note 8/11/2009: We tried the Red Guitar with dinner tonight and it was completely lacking in distinguishing qualities. It is hard to imagine that anyone who was introduced to the wines of Spain by Red Guitar would try another Spanish wine. Last night, however, we had the Borsao Tres Pichos, an Old Vines Granacha that sells for only a few dollars more, which was completely enchanting. You need to try Spain’s wines to know if you like them, but quality varies (and not just with price), so choose with care.

Crisis and Change in the Wine World

When the economic crisis began to unfold last year many people said that it wouldn’t affect the world of wine — people will still want to drink, they said, even more so when they are worried or depressed.  Recession is good for wine, they assured us.

Well, we all know now that that line of reasoning was misguided.  The crisis is hitting almost every shelf on the Wine Wall as consumers cut back and trade down (only a few value brands like Barefoot Cellars seem to be benefiting).  The most recent issues of Wine Spectator and Decanter feature cover stories that are designed to appeal to recession-shocked bargain-hunting wine enthusiasts. (See note below.) Wine industry publications are packed full of stories about how producers, retailers and restaurants are coping with declining demand.

Cycle or Shift?

Now that we know that economic crisis is having a real impact on wine, it is time to think more seriously about what form that impact is taking. Most people that I have talked to are thinking in terms of boom-bust cycles. The current downturn will be very difficult — and a shake out will take place across the industry — but, they say, the wine economy will bounce back again once the economy itself starts to recover.  This is probably the correct way to think about the future of wine markets, but it isn’t the only way.

A second possibility is that the crisis will produce a long term structural change in the wine market.  The market won’t bounce back from its low, but rather will reset itself and proceed along a new and possibly unpredictable future path. Economists who study other sectors (finance, automobiles, agriculture) and taking the possibility of structural shifts seriously.  Could it be happening in the world of wine?

I have given a lot of thought to question of cycles and shifts over the years.  My best known work in this regard is a comparative economic history of public debt in advanced economies called Mountains of Debt: Crisis and Change in Renaissance Florence, Victorian Britain and Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 1990).  (Mountains went out of print in the Clinton years when the US deficit went away, but George W. Bush and the current crisis convinced the publisher to bring it back).

One point of the book is that some crises are more significant than others.  Sometimes a crisis is a tremor that shakes things up for a while but leaves the landscape pretty much unchanged.  Other crises are major earthquakes, with more lasting long term implications.  Maybe this is a “Big One,” at least in terms of wine. I’m going to use the next few blog posts to think through this important question.

The Market Center Shifts

One early indicator of structural change comes from London, the center of the wine world.  Great Britain, as I’ve said before, is the most important wine market in the world. The British don’t drink the most wine in the world or produce the most, either, but they buy a lot of wine from other countries, making them the largest import market and therefore the focus of international competition (Germany and the United States along with Britain form the Big Three import markets).

But this may be changing.  Britain’s economy is being badly battered by the economic crisis, as an article in yesterday’s Financial Times makes clear.

As the UK economy contracts at its fastest rate since the second world war, the … Industry Watch report predicts that more company casualties will follow in 2010. It says 39,000 businesses, or one in 50, are likely to fail next year.

Britain’s banking sector is in bad shape, perhaps even worse than the US industry, and its government budget deficit is also spiraling into the red.  This has general wine market effects similar to those in the US (cutting back, trading down, switching over), but some different ones, as well, the most important of which is due to the exchange rate.

As Britain’s economy has imploded the pound has collapsed as well. The pound has fallen by about 25% against both the dollar and the Euro. It took about $2 (or €1.30) to buy a pound a year ago, now it is selling for $1.45 (or €1.06) today.  This means that imported wine (which in Britain is, well, wine) costs much more because of the exchange rate at the same time that the slumping economy (and lowered expectations) are undermining demand. The US dollar, on the other hand, has appreciated relative to most currencies apart from the yen, promising wine buyers lower prices to match their reduced economic circumstances.  So the recession is affecting wine in Britain more than the US wine market.  A shift is taking place — is it temporary or will it be permanent?

Although it is too soon to know for sure, I think it is possible that these factors could cause London to lose its preeminent position in the world wine market.  I see indicators in the decline of the Australian industry (complicated by other factors, I know — but the collapse of the British market is part of it) and the recent global focus on Argentina and its excellent wine values (both Wine Spectator and Decanter make this point).

Although Argentinean producers are looking to export wherever they can get a foot in the door, my strong sense is that they see their future in the U.S. market more than Great Britain.  Perhaps they are at the head of the pack as the world wine market resets and proceeds on a different path.

[Note: Wine Spectator includes 18 tips on stretching your wine dollar. My favorite is tip #7: buy by the case and get a discount (page 55 of the April 30, 2009 issue).  Sound advice, although the particular example cited may miss the point: "A 10 percent discount on a $300 case translates into a saving of $2.50 per bottle. That adds up fast."  The problem, of course, is that the people who used to buy those $300 cases are cutting back the hardest and I'm not sure that $2.50 a bottle  is going to turn them around.]

Santa Margherita Syndrome

Many articles have appeared recently advising wine consumers on “trading down” strategies for the recession — where to find the best values and bargains as the market slump continues. (Thanks to my crack team of research assistants — Michael, David and Tom — for your tips on this topic.)

One of the best pieces I’ve read comes from Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher at the Wall Street Journal: 10 ways to save money ordering wine at restaurants. All their advice is timely, but rule #6 really caught my eye:

6. Never order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. We don’t mean to pick on Santa Margherita. We know many people like it and that’s fine. But because so many people like it, it is routinely one of the most outrageously priced wines on the list.

Nothing personal, Dottie and John said, it’s just supply and demand plus a certain bandwagon effect that seems to afflict wine drinkers when confronted with a complicated and uncertain set of choices.

We note it here only as a classic example of this: If you stay within your comfort zone, ordering only wines you already know, you will be punished for it, price-wise. In addition, no wine is going to seem like a good value to you when you know you could buy it at a local store for half the price or less. That’s why it’s so important to focus on labels or kinds of wines that you wouldn’t otherwise see. …  Remember: There is value in tasting something new.

Sensible advice, although not always easy advice to follow in practice given the high cost of restaurant wine. Everyone wants to find that delightful unexpected bargain, but no one really likes paying the bill for a wine experiment that disappoints.  So restaurants and wine consumers alike seem to find themselves drawn to a small set of “usual suspects.”

Demand and Supply

Wine & Spirits magazine surveys restaurants each year to try to discover  trends both in general and in specific segments of the market. This year’s poll (see the April 2009 issue) provides early data on how the recession is affecting wine sales and some of the strategies that restaurants are trying to deal with this increasingly serious problem.

W&S provides a lot of information about what successful restaurants are doing to cope with the weak economy.  One unexpected implication of the survey seems to be this: 

Always try to sell customers Santa Margherita Pinto Grigio.

The W&S editors do not advise this, of course (they are very careful in this regard — they just report the findings); it just seems to be restaurant conventional wisdom.

W&S asks restaurants to identify the wines that they offer by the bottle or serve by the glass and then publishes the names of the most-reported products.  The most listed wine-by-the-glass, for example, is Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay (11.1 responses per 100 restaurant replies), which sold for an average price of $12.67 per glass in 2008.  Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was #6 on the list (number six again … spooky), reported by 6.7 per 100 restaurants.  It sold for an average price of $14.40 per glass in 2008.

A quick internet search reveals that Santa Margherita often sells for around $20 per bottle retail, which suggests a wholesale price of $14-$15 — suspiciously close to the $14.40 average per glass tariff.  You can begin to see why it would be a popular restaurant choice.  And why Dottie and John’s number one rule is …

1. Skip wine by the glass. Restaurateurs like to make enough on a single glass to pay for a whole bottle, which is great for them but not so great for you.

W&S lists Santa Margherita as the number one wine in both the Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio and the Italian wine categories.  The average per bottle restaurant price was $52, which indicates a somewhat higher mark up over wholesale than the usual restaurant rule of thumb.  All of which makes me think that wine consumers need to become a bit better educated about wine economics because it is pretty plain that restaurants have been hitting the books on how to use demand and supply to preserve profit in these unsettled economic times.

What Should I Order?

So where are the values on restaurant wine lists?  The simple answer is that there is no simple  answer (apart from Dottie and John’s good advice).  The W&S poll asked restaurants to list wines under $25 per bottle and the most frequent response was Cooperidge White Zin and Chardonnay, $24 average price.  Cooperidge is a Gallo restaurant brand.  Interestingly, it appeared in just 1.9 per 100 responses.

The number two and three bargain wines were both Ste Michelle Wine Estate products from Washington State — Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling ($24 / 0.7 responses per 100) and 14 Hands Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.50 / 0.7 responses per 100).

No very strong conclusions can be drawn from this data but they do suggest that (1) there is no one wine or brand that restaurants consistently go to for the value-seeking customers, so you will have to explore the wine list carefully to find what you are looking for, but (2) it might be smart to include Washington State wines in your treasure hunt.

Wine, Recession and the Aldi Effect

Aldi stores are about to expand in the United States, drawn here by the recession according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal ( “Aldi Looks to US for Growth” ).  I wonder how this will affect the wine market?

A Tough Nut to Crack

Aldi is a German “hard discount” store chain.  A “hard discounter” sells a limited selection of house-brand goods at very low prices in small, bare-bones outlets.

Hard discounters are a niche, albeit a growing one, in the U.S.  Wal-Mart is a successful discounter, of course, but not a hard discounter because it still features many mainstream branded products, its prices are higher and its stores a bit more plush.  Aldi and other hard discount stores drove Wal-Mart out of Germany, according to the WSJ article, but the U.S. market has been a tough nut for the hard discounters to crack. American consumers are primed to buy brand-named products and they like lots of choice, marketing experts say, and so tend to resist the house brands that hard discounters feature, which has limited their penetration here.

Germans are more willing to sacrifice brand names for low prices, apparently.  Aldi and other hard discounters are dominant powers in German retailing. The WSJ reports that 90% of German households shop at Aldi stores and 40% of all grocery purchases are made in hard discount outlets.

Divide and Conquer

Interestingly, there are actually two Aldi store chains in Germany (with similar but different logos — see illustration above).  Aldi is short for ALbrecht DIscount. The Albrecht brothers  who founded the company after World War II fell out over the issue of tobacco sales in their stores.  They divided the German market between them (Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd) and then, eventually, split up the world market too.  Here are links to Aldi USA and Aldi International websites if you want to learn more about this retailer’s local presence and international reach.

Aldi Süd has been in the United States since the 1970s.  The corporate website tells the story this way.

The ALDI way of shopping has been continuously honed and refined since our first store opened in Southeastern Iowa in 1976. Committed to bringing food to customers at the lowest prices possible, our early stores set up shop in small spaces and introduced shoppers to the limited-assortment concept, carrying only 500 private-label items. Compared with other supermarkets, our stores seemed tiny. But ALDI found a niche with Americans hungry for real value, and the chain grew rapidly.

Over time, more products were added, including more refrigerated and frozen foods. ALDI also began experimenting with Special Purchase items, to great success. More recently, Sunday hours were instituted, and ALDI began accepting debit cards.

Today, there are nearly 1,000 ALDIstores in 29 states, from Kansas to the East Coast. And today’s ALDI store carries about 1,400 regularly-stocked items, including fresh meat, and, in certain locations, beer and wine. Though the original ALDI concept has been modified somewhat to accommodate our ever-changing tastes and preferences, the core concept remains: “Incredible Value Every Day.”

The German origins of the store are apparent in this description, from the traditional Sunday closing to the very limited selection.  Your local upscale supermarket carries at least 10 times as many products as a typical Aldi.

Wine is an important product in Aldi’s German stores, as you can see from the wine selections featured on their website.  I believe that Aldi is the largest single retailer of wine in Germany.

Since Germans are rich and Germany makes great wines, you would think that Aldi must sell mainly fine wines, but you would be wrong.  Aldi’s median  German wine sale is red not white, imported from a low cost producer, sold  under a house-brand name, packaged in a box or TetraPak and priced at around one euro per liter.

You could say that it is Two Buck Chuck (TBC) wine, but in fact TBC is more expensive.  TBC is to Aldi wine as Wal-mart is to Aldi itself. (Note: Wal-Mart now has its own brand of two dollar wine, which makes this comparison even more appropriate. It is called Oak Leaf Vineyards and is made for Wal-Mart by The Wine Group.)

The Aldi Effect

Aldi figures that the recession is its moment to press more vigorously for U.S. market share.  Data indicate that consumers are much more cautious now, so perhaps they won’t be so picky about brand names and will, like their German cousins, be willing to trade down for a lower price. The Financial Times reports that Aldi sales in Great Britain are up 25 percent! Aldi plans to speed up store openings in the U.S. and to expand into New York City. New York!  If you can make it there … well, you know.

This may be Aldi’s opportunity in wine, too. Most but not all Aldi stores in the U.S. (damn U.S. liquor laws!)  sell beer and wine. Aldi’s U.S. website boasts that

ALDI believes that life’s little pleasures should be affordable for everyone. In many of the countries where ALDI calls “home,” we’re known for exceptional values in wine and beer. And now, we’re bringing that tradition to the United States.

Thanks to our global reach, we’re able to partner with winemakers and brewers around the world, to bring you exceptional beers and wines at remarkably modest prices.

Our wines come from all of the world’s best wine producing regions: Germany, France, Spain, California, Argentina, and Australia. Our beers are sourced from Holland, Germany, and Latin America. Some carry our private labels, others carry the labels they wear in their native lands—but all are exclusively ours in the U.S. So now you can raise a glass to “Incredible Value Every Day.”

The good news here is that Aldi’s U.S. push may also help drive wine deeper into the U.S. consumer mainstream.  You can say all you like about the quality of Two Buck Chuck but it sure did help expand the wine culture in the U.S. and some (but not all) my TBC-drinking friends have moved upmarket for at least some of their purchases. The wine may not be very good (a matter of taste), but its market impact has not been all bad.

Will Aldi Succeed?

Will Aldi’s drive be successful?  There is reason to think it will be. They seem committed to tailoring their hard discount operations to local market conditions, which is important because markets have terroir as much as wine.

But there is a more important reason.  Both German Aldi chains are present in the U.S. now, although you are probably not aware of them.  Aldi Süd operates on under the Aldi name, of course, with the same logo as in Germany.  The owners of Aldi Nord invested years ago in a different chain, based in California and intentionally tailored for thrifty but upwardly mobile U.S. consumers. It’s an upscale Aldi Nord and it has been very successful here.

Perhaps you’ve heard of them.  They have limited selection, smaller stores, lots of house brands, and low prices.  They even sell a lot of wine.  The name?

Oh, yes.  Trader Joe’s!

How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine?

Some people think that wine is recession proof.  They’re wrong.

Demand and Supply

The still evolving economic crisis is already having serious impacts on the wine industry.  Although some segments of the industry are gaining as a result of the collapsing credit markets and contracting real economy, there are a lot of losers, too.  Herewith a brief report compiled from a variety of published and industry-insider sources.

In the short term the problem is all about falling and shifting demand.  In the longer run, the supply effects of the financial crisis need to be considered.

The hospitality industry is a bellwether of the overall economy — restaurant meals and hotel stays are some of the first things to be sacrificed when people and businesses are uncertain about the future.  It is no surprise, therefore, that restaurant wine sales are down, apparently a reflection both of fewer customers and smaller tabs (wine tourism is falling, too, although high gas prices are part of that story).  This is already affecting both wineries who target restaurant sales and restaurants that have invested in high-margin wine programs in the last year to try to compensate for soaring food costs.  The squeeze is on, as I wrote in March, and getting worse.

The evidence I’ve seen concerning supermarket and wine store sales suggests that buyers are trading down.  The $10 and up market segment has been the fastest growing part of the Wine Wall in the last two years.  It’s still expanding, but the pace of growth has slowed considerably and there is evidence that buyers are trading down within it.  An article in today’s New York Times suggests that even very affluent buyers are being more cautious.

Low cost wines ($4 and less) are seeing a surge in sales.  This has apparently created something of a crisis in Great Britain that pits the big retailers (the supermarket chains) versus the big producers (the global wine companies like Constellation Brands) in a battle for control of the Wine Wall.  The producers see their long term future in upmarket wines and have worked hard to reposition themselves in at the top of the Wine Wall.  They are very much committed to this strategy.  The retailers, however, are focused on value wines.  They see a real short term threat in discount store competitors.  They need to stress value and lower price, on the Wine Wall and throughout their stores, they believe, to keep their customers from switching to Aldi-class hard discount outlets.

There is a lot of turbulence in the middle of the Wine Wall ($4-$10), which is the heart of the market in some respects.  Microdata harvested from grocery store loyalty card programs suggests that buyers really are trading down from $7.99 to $5.99, for example.  Since the cost of making the distributing a $5.99 wine is not $2 less than a $7.99 wine, trading down has a big effect on producer and retailer profits.  Wine may be recession proof if you look only at overall volumes, which have held up pretty well for the industry as a whole, but don’t expect revenues and profits to tell the same sanguine story.

Not everyone will lose from this trend, of course, as there are many wines that are positioned to appeal to value-conscious buyers.  But the upmarket strategy that so many winemakers have embraced, and which I still believe is wise for the long run, is taking a short term hit.  And the effects on the wine industry may be especially large because some of the key regional wine markets are also the areas that have been most affected by the mortgage crisis and will be heavily hit by credit tightening.

Credit Crisis Effects

Most industry people I’ve talked with are focused on the short run impact of the recession on wine demand, and that makes sense.  Making wine is all about long term decisions and relationships, but making a living  from wine means holding onto buyers now. But I think there will be longer term supply effects that should be considered because this economic downturn isn’t just a recession, it is also a credit crisis.

Even if the Treasury rescue plan is a success, I still believe that credit will be much tighter for the next three years (some of my colleagues think it will take even longer to work though the credit cycle).  This will have serious effects because so much of the real economy has become dependent upon ready credit to finance business operations and to fund customer purchases.  Winegrowers are obvious potential victims of this trend.  Winegrowing is a risky business with special credit needs and an overall credit freeze could have serious effects that may extend all the way from the price and availability of the grapes themselves to the value of vineyard properties. Retailers and distributors may also need to scale back their operations to match their reduced access to credit.

The big global wine companies may be affected, too.  Anyone who follows the business has noticed that the big corporations are all trying to reconfigure themselves around particular market strategies.  Constellation is moving upmarket and shedding downmarket wine units while others are refocusing on particular parts of the Wine Wall.  A credit squeeze will both change the logic of some of these investments and make funding of sales and purchases more difficult.

Finally, the credit squeeze is affecting foreign exchange rates and this means that producers around the globe, who may or may not be affected directly by the crisis, will inevitably suffer indirect effects. The dollar has appreciated rapidly against many currencies in recent weeks (the Euro’s cost has fallen from $1.44 to $1.38 is just the last few days, for example) as international investors have sought a save haven for their capital until the international effects of the crisis become clearer.  This exchange rate effect will work against those US producers who hoped to increase sales abroad and benefit European exports here.

There will be a lot of economic turbulence from shifting demand and supply before we come out of this crisis. Buckle your seat belts.  We’re in for a bumpy ride.

The End of Cheap Wine?

It is becoming increasingly clear that a golden age of sorts (for American wine drinkers) is coming to an end. Good quality wine has been amazingly affordable for the last several years and New World wine consumption has risen as a result.

This is changing (or has already changed, as Jancis Robinson writes in Saturday’s Financial Times) and a quick look at the economics of the wine market explains how and why.

The demand for wine in the United States has increased for a number of reasons. Studies that show that moderate consumption of wine (especially red wine) is healthful gave consumers license to experiment with table wines. The existence of Two Buck Chuck (the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores) and other value brands made this experimentation affordable.

The increasing emphasis on wine brands helped demand grow by making the wine purchase itself somewhat less mysterious. The wine aisle is the most complex choice space in any grocery store — there are more options at more price points than anywhere else. Brands reduce uncertainty and so encourage consumption. The enormous success of [Yellow Tail] brand wine from Australia is testament to this fact. Costco, the nation’s largest wine retailer, has used limited selection and its Kirkland Signature own-brand wine to achieve spectacular results.

The demand for wine has not just increased it has also evolved as many consumers have moved to higher quality (or higher price,anyway) and developed specialized wine expertise. Wine is more than a beverage, it is a lifestyle for many people who collect wines, take wine tourist vacations and subscribe to wine publications such as Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate and read the wine columns now found in many newspapers. There is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to wine. Knowing more about wine and having more experience with it increases the pleasure that wine provides and makes further learning more efficient. In economic terms, the specific investment in wine knowledge makes the demand for wine more inelastic — less sensitive to changes in price since buyers are less likely to switch from wine to other products or beverages where they have less expertise.

The supply of wine has also changed to create higher prices. The falling U.S. dollar has increased the cost of imported wine, which contributes to rising domestic prices both directly, as those costs are passed along to consumers, and indirectly, as higher import prices allow domestic producers to raise price, too. I don’t think that we have seen the full pass-through effect of the exchange rate changes yet, so expect dollar-driven price increases to continue.

But domestic prices would have increased even without the dollar’s decline. Wine buyers in recent years benefited from a global surplus of wine grapes that drove down price and pushed up quality. Faced with accumulated surpluses that sometimes amounted to a year or more of sales, winegrowers held back on expansion plans (except for hot varietals like Pinot Noir). Demand has slowly grown into the existing supply and may soon exceed it for some wine types. Falling prices due to surpluses are coming to an end and rising prices seem likely, even in Australia where drought and disease have further reduced production. The new EU wine regime, if it is effective, should further reduce wine surpluses and tighten supply.

When you combine these factors along with a few others, such as growing interest in wine in Asia, the result is a new market environment and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The latest round of wine magazines seem to take higher prices in stride. The Wine Advocate reports that the cellar door price of California cult wine Screaming Eagle is now $500 per bottle — if you can get some — and a long list of wines are listed with prices above $100 or $200. Wine Spectator and the wine columnists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all seem to be struggling to keep a lid on their definition of an inexpensive or good value wine — a $12 or $15 or even $20 ceiling no longer provides much choice! You can still buy cheap wine, but the good value bargains are disappearing.

It will be interesting to see how the American wine culture, which has been built in part on good quality at low prices, copes with this new world of wine. In the meantime, enjoy those bargains and good values when you find them, but don’t count on your good fortune lasting forever.

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