The “One Big Tank” Myth

My recent post about How Much Choice Do Wine Drinkers Really Have? made the point that true diversity in wine choice is complicated. Although there are constellations of wine brands that are theoretically available, from a practical standpoint the choice available to you depends on your price point “comfort zone,” how you shop (on-line or wine club versus bricks and mortar stores), where you shop (local shop versus national chain store), where you live (state regulations vary enormously) and many other factors.

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and it takes an entire product chain to raise up a diverse selection of wine … or not!

The Illusion of Choice?

A persistent concern is the influence of giant wine companies with dozens of wine brands in their portfolios. The conventional wisdom seems to be that these big firms merely create the illusion of choice, not choice itself. I guess the idea is that all of these different wine brands actually pour out of the spigot of one giant wine tank. If they all come from Gallo (or Constellation Brands or Treasury Wine Estates, etc.) then they must all be the same — or so similar as to make choice irrelevant.  I call this the “One Big Tank” theory and I think it’s a myth, although like all myths it contains a grain of truth.

The reality is that giant wine companies can and often do produce distinctive wines. And smaller operations sometimes pump out quantities of relatively terroir-free negociant wine to pay the bills. Size matters in wine, but it’s not the only thing. My motto is still “think global, drink local,” so I am not arguing against small terroir-driven producers, but I think at least some of the big wine companies have an undeserved poor reputation from the wine choice standpoint.

Giant wine companies have many advantages: access to capital, technology and vineyards, for example, and economies of scale in purchasing, distribution  and some aspects of production. What matters from the consumer choice standpoint is how these advantages are employed. You can aim to fill that one big tank as cheaply as possible or you can leverage the large scale advantages to create real quality and diversity.

Big Tank Stereotypes

A good example of how the myth unravels at least some of the time comes from my visit to South Africa. I was a guest of Distell for part of my visit (Distell owns Nederberg and I gave the keynote at the Nederberg Auction) and this gave me an opportunity to learn about the company, which is South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer.

If you go strictly on stereotypes, Distell has got to be one of those “big tank” operations because it has most of the defining characteristics. It is, first of all, a “drinks company” and not a “wine company,” to use a distinction I first heard from a New Zealand winemaker (who worked for a “wine company,” of course). Here’s how the wine vs drinks dichotomy works.

Wine companies make wine (and only wine) and are often family owned. Drinks companies, on the other hand, manufacture all sorts of alcoholic beverages and are usually public corporations.  Whereas wine companies think tradition and  terroir, the story goes, drinks companies think marketing and product positioning.  Wine companies sometimes stay in the founding family’s control for generations. Drinks companies often get acquired, merged and traded back and forth like properties on a Monopoly board.

Distell fits the drinks company profile pretty well. It dominates the market for brandy in South Africa and is the leading wine producer, too. It is the world’s #2 producer of cider, another “drinks” category. Distell has strong international interests and owns  both a French Cognac house (Bisquit) and an Asian distributor. It has over 30 spirits brands in its portfolio and an even larger number of wines, wine apertifs, ciders and “ready to drink” beverages.

Distell is probaby best known in the U.S. for its Two Oceans and Fleur du Cap wine brands, but its hottest product is a cream liqueur called Amarula, “the Spirit of Africa.” It is the #2 best-selling cream liqueur in the world according to the company’s 2012 annual report.

Circumstantial Evidence

Distell also has a complicated business history.¹ The current firm was created in 2000 with the merger of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers Corporation, but the history stretches back a ways. Key players include the South African billionaire Rupert family, which controls a diversified multinational business portfolio (they own the  Richemont  group of luxury goods companies, for example), the South African wine giant KWV and the big beer player SAB (think SABMiller — SAB stands for South African Breweries).

So, Distell fits the big tank  stereotype pretty well and some of its products have the classic “drinks company” profile, too. But the evidence that wine choice at Distell is an illusion is what Perry Mason would call “circumstantial.”  Can a “drinks company” like Distell offer consumers wines that give then a real choice and not just an illusion of choice?

Inside the big drinks company I found a good deal of counter evidence to the big tank theory. Join me in my next post as I climb into a snorkel-equipped Land Rover 4×4 and visit Distell’s Durbanville Hills Winery.

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The top image is an historic example of a great big tank: the famous Heidelberg Tun, made in 1751, with a reported capacity of 220,000 liters. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about it in A Tramp Abroad (1880). 

Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.

¹ Most of what I think I know about Distell’s business history I learned from the company’s investor website and from Nick Vink, Gavin Williams and Johann Kirsten, “South Africa” in Kym Anderson (editor), The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work (Edward Elgar, 2004).

How Much Choice Do Wine Drinkers Really Have?

galaxy2*

How much choice do U.S. wine drinkers really have? The answer to this question, according to a study by a group of Michigan State University scholars, is that it depends on how you look at the question and where you seek your answer.

The study is called “Concentration in the U.S. Wine Industry” by Phil Howard, Terra Bogart, Alix Grabowski, Rebecca Mino, Nick Molen and Steve Schultze and it follows up on previous research on concentration in the U.S. beer and soft drinks industries. (Click on the link to read the whole report and select the tabs you will find there to view the beer and soft drinks information.)

A Question of Perspective

If you look at the question in terms of the number of different wine brands on the market and varieties within each brand, then the answer is clear. U.S. consumers have a galaxy of choices when it comes to wine. I use the term “galaxy” because I’ve taken one of the key info-graphics from the report and doctored it up to look like an image of the stars in the night sky.  More wines than than there are stars in the universe — or at least it seems that way some of the time.

But click on that galaxy image above and you will open a window that shows how those wine stars are aligned. And I am sure that you won’t be surprised to see that there are several huge business “solar systems” with dozens of brands each: Gallo, the Wine Group and Constellation Brands among the producers, for example, and Deutsch and Winebow among the importers.

mktshare

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The wine world has its share of Mega and Mini businesses and some of the Megas are very large indeed, although the degree of market concentration is much less in wine than in beer or soft drinks.  So if you look at wine compared to beer, for example (and I suspect that this would hold true for spirits, too), there is a very low level of concentration — lots of different choices even taking the biggest firms into account. And if you look at it in terms of number of individual wines for sale you get the same sort of answer. But if you look at the number of wine firms and the amount of the total wine market they fill, the choice seems a lot narrower.

As the graphic above suggests, the top 5 firms account for more than half of U.S. wine sales, which is a lot even if it is less than the corresponding figure for beer or soft drinks. Although the study does not provide any international comparisons, I believe the the U.S. wine market is much more concentrated than France, Italy or the U.K., for example,  but less so than Australia. (In the UK the critical concentration factor is at the retailer rather than the producer level since the big retail chains are so influential there.)

The degree of concentration also differs depending upon whether you look at all wine as this study does or segment the market according to price, which is the analysis I prefer. The market for wines selling for less than $5 per bottle equivalent is much more concentrated than the $20+ segment, for example. Most consumers make most of their purchases within a relatively narrow price range and it’s the diversity in that segment that matters most to them.

Location, Location, Location

The Michigan State team found that the nature of your choice also depends upon where you shop. Some of the supermarkets and wine shops that they surveyed in Michigan sourced their wine from dozens of different suppliers, providing that galaxy of choices that the vast potential selection promises. But other stores — national-chain convenience or drug stores, for example — can (and frequently do) quite easily fill a 100-item wine wall with products from just two or maybe three suppliers. The Megas can easily provide foreign and domestic selections of all the main varieties at every relevant price point. So choice is both smaller and different, if you know what I mean.

This has an impact on wines produced or imported by smaller firms, of course, and also (according to an interesting study by Rebecca  Mino) on local wineries.  Mino found that Michigan wines were far more likely to be available in Michigan-only retailers than at the Michigan affiliates of national retail chains.

These studies are very interesting and fun, too  — I admit that I played with the “galaxy” graphic for quite a while because I enjoyed seeing the business connections within the different wine portfolios. It is just fascinating — if you haven’t clicked on that “galaxy” image at the top of the page already you’ve got to do it now.

What’s the Right Way to Think About Choice in Wine?

But the main thing I appreciate about this research is the question that it raises: how should we think about choice when it comes to wine? Does that fact that some of the Megas have dozens of brands diminish choice? Certainly not if the brands have considerable autonomy when it comes to winemaking (like the “string of pearls” model that Ste Michelle Wine Estates follows).  Sometimes the vast perceived choice is real.

But that doesn’t mean that that there aren’t any effects of industrial concentration in wine, as the national chain store part of the study indicates. Some of the national retail chains treat wine as they do other products and attempt to minimize the number of suppliers while maintaining choice. Choice is diminished when the availability of “Mini” products and especially locally-produced wines is taken into account and  this would be a problem if these stores are the only choice for wine (as they may be in some areas). Apparently we need a mix of different retail suppliers to assure that the true diversity of wine is represented on the shelves.

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Thanks to Phillip H. Howard for sharing his results and giving me permission to reprint some of the graphics.  Speaking of “it depends on how you look at it” questions, here is one of my favorite science videos — “Powers of Ten” from the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (1977). Enjoy.

Extreme Wine South Africa: The International Connection

One of the issues I wanted to explore during my visit to South Africa was the nature of international investment, partnerships and strategic alliances in that country.  There is so much about South African wine that is very old and traditional that I wondered how it was  dealing with the new and global. Here’s some of what I found out.

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa.  Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

The International Connection

I am interested in international economic connections in particular because they have proved to be so important elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere wine world. The modern wine boom in New Zealand really took off when the international wine trade was opened up, for example, along with opportunities for inward investment. Now the export-focused NZ wine business is largely foreign owned,  part of the Faustian bargain that generated New Zealand’s great success.

International investment, partnerships and strategic alliances have been important in Argentina, too, with European, American and Chilean relationships exerting strong influence.  Chile and Australia also have important stories to tell in this regard, too, but as they say on Facebook “it’s complicated” for these two countries — too complicated to be included here.

The Screaming Eagle Connection

What’s the story in South Africa, I wondered as I walked into CapeWine 2012? I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The opening general session featured remarks by Charles Banks, former managing partner of California cult winery Screaming Eagle,  and Troy Christensen, CEO of Accolade Wines, which is the phoenix that has risen from the ashes left behind when Constellation Brands offloaded their wine assets in Australia and Europe. Banks and Christensen were seen as leading indicators of international interest in the South African wine industry.

Banks received special attention, which probably isn’t surprising given his Screaming Eagle background. He is CEO of Terroir Capital, an investment group whose international holdings now include Mulderbosch Vineyard and Fable Wines in South Africa. He is very positive about South Africa’s wine future and obviously purchased assets there with an eye towards taking them to the next level.

Mulderbosch was already a global brand, he told the international audience, and he saw potential to increase quality and expand scale. With Fable Wines Banks intends to take a highly-regarded existing South African winery (Tulbagh Mountain Vineyard) and rename (to make it more pronounceable, Banks said), rebrand and re-position it in international markets. The focus is on old bush vine Chenin Blanc and red Rhone varietal wines.

So clearly South Africa is on the wine investment radar, I concluded, despite what American investor Bill Foley told Lettie Teague in a recent Wall Street Journal article. But how deep does the interest go?

A Half Dozen Answers

I got my answer and more at a seminar the next day that was organized and led by Mike Ratcliffe, the managing director of Warwick Wine Estate. Mike wanted to showcase international investment in the South African industry and he decided to do it through a tasting of the six wines shown in the photo at the top of this post and listed below. Each wine had a different international story to tell and together I think they give an idea of the variety of actors, interests and motivation.

 # Wine & Vintage
1 Waterkloof Circle of Life White 2011
2 Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2009
3 Glenelley Lady May 2009
4 Anwilka 2008
5 Fable Bobbejaan 2010
6 Vilafonte Series M 2009

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Waterkloof  Wines is the creation of UK wine executive Paul Boutinot, whose title is listed as “Custodian” on the website, which suggests that he is in this for the long run.  Boutinot, his UK business, is an ambitious and successful enterprise that produces, imports and sells wine; it was named Sommelier Wine Awards “Wine Merchant of the Year” four years in a row. The South African winery is a personal investment that reflects Boutinot’s passion for wine and sincere interest in terroir. I expect it will also benefit from his business background and distribution experience.

Delaire Graff Estate is the project of Englishman Laurence Graff, Chairman of Graff Diamonds International and I think you can see the luxury lifestyle influence in the video and on the website. The intention was to create more than a winery — Delaire is a destination resort that includes the winery of course, but also luxury lodges, a “destination Spa,” and two restaurants in an atmosphere filled with art and natural beauty.


Madame May de Lencqauesaing is the proprietor of Glenelley Estate and you are correct if you guess that she is French. She was born in Bordeaux and managed her family estate Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande until its sale to the Roederer Champagne house in 2007.  Since then she’s focused on her South African estate, which makes “South African wine with a French Touch” according to the website.

Anwilka is a multinational partnership between South Africa’s Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia, Hubert de Bouard, co-owner of Chateau Angelus in Bordeaux and Bruno Prats, former owner of another Bordeaux property, Chateau Clos d’Estournel. The bulk of Anwilka’s production of its Syrah-Cab-Merlot blend is exported, according to a Wine Advocate note, and sold through the Bordeaux marketplace.

The fifth wine was the Bobbejaan from Fable Wines , which I’ve already discussed. It added an American name to the mix and was the perfect prelude to the final glass.

Mike Ratcliffe saved his own project for the last act, but it was worth waiting for. Vilafonté  is an ambitious collaboration between South Africa, represented by Ratcliffe, and America in the form of head winemaker Zelma Long and head winegrower Dr. Phillip Freese. Long is legendary in California for her work at Robert Mondavi, Simi and her own family winery, Long Vineyards. Freese was head of winegrowing for Mondavi for 13 years and designed the first Opus One vineyards.  He has consulted with several South African wineries including Warwick. Like the other wines in the tasting, Vilafonté was a South African wine made to international standards and positioned for export.

These wines will be good ambassadors for South Africa, I believe, and represent intelligent (and generally delicious) international initiatives and collaborations. Each international investment brings something useful to the South African wine table while highlighting the best of what’s already here.

I know that there are other international investments in South Africa (Donald Hess’s investment in Glen Carlou springs to mind)  and I know that all of them have not worked out as well as the ones showcased here (I won’t name names). It’s too soon to tell how the story will turn out in the end, but on balance it seems to be a healthy collaboration so far.

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This is the last post in my series on South African wine, but look for the topic to come up again in other contexts. Thanks to Mike Ratcliffe for organizing the seminar and encouraging me to attend.

I hope you don’t mind the videos that I’ve inserted in the post. I found them on YouTube and I think they add something to the story.

Blue Nun Gets a Makeover


Blue Nun wine reinvented itself a few years ago — I wrote about it in a chapter in Wine Wars called “The Curse of the Blue Nun.” It stopped being that rather mediocre sweetish German white wine that some of us remember from the 1970s (along with Matteus Rosé) and became something a bit different.

The classic Blue Nun

The classic Blue Nun white wine got better. It became Riesling, not a Liebfraumilch blend, for example. And the brand became more global, with Blue Nun wines in many different varieties (Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, Rosé) sourced from several countries. There was an alcohol-free “lite” Blue Nun and a bubbly wine with tiny sparkly, floaty golden bits to brighten your day.

Blue Nun became a brand with the same sort of broad portfolio of wines that, say, Barefoot Cellars offers. This approach is very successful in today’s market and, as the promotional video above indicates, Blue Nun is back (if it ever really went away).

One key to the transformation was the Blue Nun herself. She was perhaps the one constant. Marketers saw the gentle, friendly nun on the label as a key marketing tool — memorable and and maybe especially appealing to women, who are a target market.

More Than Skin Deep

I was prowling the Wine Wall recently and I noticed that Blue Nun has had a makeover — and it’s more than just skin deep! The surface change is significant, however. The bottle is still blue, of course (but not for all the varieties – see images here). But the blue nun is now only a shadow of her former self — a small golden cameo medallion.

Blue Nun Makeover

The gold highlights a smaller gold seal that I thought must be a wine competition award of some sort (all the Barefoot bottles feature them), but turns out to be a seal of “Sichel Superior Vinification.” Good to know!

I guess the sleek modern look and gold accents must now be seen as a more powerful image than the kindly nun. But the change goes deeper than the label.

I was puzzled to see “Rivaner” on the label. “Now made from the classic Rivaner grape, it has more balance, softness and depth of fruit flavor.” That’s what it says on the back. More than Riesling? Really?

More Appetizing?

I wasn’t sure that I’d ever had a Rivaner wine before, so I rushed home to check out my copy of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine:

Rivaner: another name for müller-thurgau, used in Luxembourg, where it is the most planted grape variety, and, increasingly, elsewhere. Rivaner sounds more appetizing.

And I suppose it does sound more appealing — or maybe just easier for a novice to pronounce. Am I the only wine veteran who didn’t know that  Müller-Thurgau is now Rivaner?

Blue Nun Delicate is another interesting innovation. With just 5.5% alcohol by volume, it rides the Moscato-powered low alcohol  wave (just fyi the Rivaner is only 10% abv).

I’m looking forward to twisting the cap on this bottle with a couple of my research assistants when they get back from a trip to the Northeast. Müller-Thurgau can make fine wine, but its general reputation is for quantity more than quality, especially in Germany. It is the most-planted variety is Rheinhessen, where this wine is from. In Vino Veritas, as they say. How deep is the Blue Nun’s makeover?

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I encourage readers to use the Comments section below to report their experiences with Blue Nun, both today and in the past, and to comment generally on the transformation. You might also be interested in these cooking videos from Blue Nun.

Fat Wine: Middle Class, Middle Market, Middlebrow

The world is becoming Hot, Flat, and Crowded according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s bestselling 2008 book. Hot and crowded are easy to understand, but flat?

Yes, Friedman, said, flat as  “a metaphor for the rise of middle-class citizens, from China to India to Brazil to Russia to Eastern Europe, who are beginning to consume like Americans. That’s a blessing in so many ways–it’s a blessing for global stability and for global growth. But it has enormous resource complications ….”

Fat Not Flat

Friedman is counting on the world’s growing middle class to shake things up and he is probably right. Here in Wine World, however, I think the trend is fat more than flat, although it might amount to the same thing in the end.

“Flat” suggests to me that the gap between the top and bottom — 1% elites and 99% masses — is closing. Wine certainly isn’t getting flat in this sense, although the recent softness of Bordeaux en primeur prices argues against this a bit.

No, the floor and the ceiling aren’t getting any closer when it comes to wine — so  I think the best way to describe this trend is Fat — fat in the sense of “thick in the middle:” middle class, middle market, middlebrow.

Thick in the Middle

Wine’s recently-concluded long slack cycle (see previous post) flooded many  markets with good, reasonably priced wine. The impact of the economic crisis encouraged consumers to trade down (to cheaper wines), to trade over (to different types of wines), and trained wine drinkers to look for bargains. Many new consumers entered the wine market at the same time, bringing with them new tastes, new attitudes, and a refreshing willingness to experiment.

There are several key indicators of the degree to which wine markets have been open to new ideas. The great success of New Zealand and Argentina as wine exporters reflects both the quality and value of the products from these countries but also, I believe, their good fortune in entering the global market at this time.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec are easy to understand, easy to drink and even easy to pronounce. They are the hottest import categories in the U.S. market. Significantly, neither of these wines is especially cheap. They are generally priced in the middle market, well above Two Buck Chuck and even higher than popular brands like Barefoot. They fit my “thick in the middle” model to a “T.”

The Moscato boom is another indicator, although I won’t press this too far since there is not yet a consensus about where it came from, what it means or how long it will last (readers should feel free to correct me about this in the comments section — I’d really like to know the answers).  Moscato/Muscat sales have surged in the U.S. — up by 65% in the last year alone according to Nielsen data published in this month’s Wine Business Monthly. Moscato wines had higher dollar sales than Riesling, Syrah/Shiraz, Zinfandel or Malbec in the last year in the retail vectors that Nielsen monitors . Wow!

Now For Something Completely Different

The one thing I am sure about is that Moscato’s unexpected popularity indicates that consumers are willing to try something new. And while they look for bargains and value, they don’t seem to be focusing on the bottom shelf.  Nielsen reports that sales of wines below $6 have been essentially flat in the past year in revenue terms and spending on wines in the $6 to $8.99 range declined. Spending on wines in the $9.00 to $11.99 range, however, has actually increased by about 10%.

We’ve also seen the emergence of hot new brands in this middle market middlebrow segment. The rapid rise of brands like Gallo’s Apothic Red Blend and Ste Michelle Wine Estate’s 14 Hands suggests that consumers are focusing on this market category.

It’s not quite true that these particular wines came out of nowhere to achieve great success in the off-premises trade, but it’s not entirely wrong either. They are another sign of the thickening of the middle segment of the wine market of consumers ready and willing to try new things and not entirely constrained by old attitudes and allegiances.

The Supply Side of the Story

So far I’ve focused on the demand side of the story but supply plays an important role, too. As grape and bulk wine markets tighten up (see previous post) it is only natural that scarce wine resources will go where the margins are and where substitution is easiest. The “middle” wines I’ve just discussed are often priced at the “fat” part of the market where better margins may be found. (I say “may” because this market segment is quite competitive and competition has a way of squeezing margins.)

Some of these “middle” wines are blends, not single varietal wines, and come from broad appellations (Washington State, California). A few are non-vintage. These properties allow winemakers to more easily substitute among supplies of grapes and bulk wines to make or complete their products — the ability to substitute is important when supplies are tight and costs are rising.

Middle market wine for middle class, middlebrow consumers — is this a good thing? I guess it depends upon whether you are a Martian or a Wagnerian. I’m a Wagnerian myself, so I see this as a healthy development, even if wine loses a little of its mystery and becomes just a bit more like other everyday products. Making wine a part of everyday life is a worthy goal here in the U.S. and I don’t think the 1% wines (or even the 25% wines) have much to fear.

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There’s one more trend on the horizon that completes this theme. Come back next week to learn about how wine has become even more “uncorked.” And I’m not just talking about screw caps!

[This is the third in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry in the near future.]

No One-Liners in Wine

King of One-Liners: Take my wine ... please!

Jon Fredrikson likes to say that there are no one-liners in wine. He isn’t saying that there aren’t any one-line jokes (take my White Zinfandel … please!) but rather that nothing in wine is cut and dry. Wine is always complicated — always this and that, too —  so generalizing is a dangerous practice.

I was reminded of this twice during our recent California expedition. The first time was by Jon Fredrickson himself, who stated the case very well in his talk at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento (North America’s largest wine industry trade show and seminar series).  His dynamic analysis of how the wine market is evolving was widely reported in the press.

Winery of the Year

At the end of Jon’s report he always names a “winery of the year” and for 2011 it was DFV Wines of Manteca, California. DFV (for Delicato Family Vineyards) has its roots in the decision of Italian immigrant grape grower Gasparé Indelicato to try his hand at winemaking in early post-Prohibition California. His grandson, Chris Indelicato, has been CEO since 2004 and many other family members populate the company’s org-chart.

DFV sits in the #10 position in the Wine Business Monthly Top 30 American Wineries league table for 2011, producing more than 4.5 million cases. DFV owns more than 10,000 acres of vineyards (quite a change from Gasparé Indelicato’s first farm). But it is the business’s dramatic growth, not just its large size, that drew Jon Fredrikson’s attention and, well, everyone’s attention. “Delicato” was all that I heard in pre-announcement speculative conversations.

Gnarly and Twisted

You have probably seen Delicato wines on store shelves, but they are just the tip of the family business iceberg. Other DFV brands include Bota Box, Twisted, Gnarly Head and many more. I usually think of the DFV wine portfolio in terms of good value wines and I think this good value accounts for the company’s success.

But saying that a wine is a good value sometimes imposes a subconscious ceiling on perceived quality and distinctiveness. I admit that I tend to think of DFV wines as good, but not necessarily great. That’s because I sometimes forget Jon Fredrick’s line about one-liners. Good value doesn’t rule out distinctivenes — wine is too complicated for that.

On the Old Silverado Trail

This point was driven home to me for the second time as I stood at the tasting room bar at Black Stallion Estate Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa Valley — DFV’s newest venture, which it acquired just a couple of years ago. The winery itself resists being a one-liner as it is both historically significant (as an equestrian center) and an architectural beauty.

We drove by the winery a couple of years ago (on our way to a Stags Leap AVA event) but didn’t stop.  We were impressed with the BSEW Cab at a tasting back home (it is a larger production wine that is widely distributed), so we came back to try the small production (4000 total cases) wines sold only at the winery.

Imagine my surprise to learn that the same company that makes Botta Box also makes a $150 red blend called Bucephalus. I’m interested to see what happens as the Indelicato family’s winemaking knowledge and resources are focused on this relatively new enterprise — perhaps even more distinctive wines like the Rockpile Zinandel that was my tasting room favorite?

I expect there will be lots of interesting wines to taste and things to say as DFV and Black Stallion continue to develop. But don’t expect to hear any one-liners.

Ants, Elephants and Washington Wine

I’m just back from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meetings where I gave a talk about Wine Wars and its implications for Washington wine. Wine Wars focuses on global wine markets and the forces that are shaping them — what insights can it offer for Washington wine growers?

The Confidence Game

Wine Wars argues that reputation (and the value of  your brand) is an increasingly important factor in today’s crowded and competitive marketplace. No one has to buy your wine (or to buy wine at all given the many liquid alternatives). You have to stand for something (your reputation) and your brand has to reflect and effectively communicate that to break through the market noise. I call it The Confidence Game and reputation is a key strategy. That my friends is the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck that I talk about in Wine Wars.

But reputation and brands are complicated — a pretty obvious lesson that I only really learned a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento.  My session (on The State of the Industry) examined the wine market from the global, international, national and California perspectives. After the session I was talking with a friend who has a 50,000+ case winery in Napa Valley. I think my business is important, he told me, but I today I felt like an ant in a room full of elephants.

Life in Ant-Ville

The U.S. wine industry is very large (and California dominates it, of course) but Napa Valley is just a thin stripe at the  bottom of the wine production bar graph (compared to the bigger producers elsewhere in the state) and my friend’s winery is only a small part of that. That’s ant-ville — nearly invisible — compared with elephant-land, the domain of the large scale producers and bulk wine trade (although 50,000+ cases is not at all insignificant in an absolute sense).

Washington is ant-town, too, I told my audience. (No offence intended! Ants are great creatures. They can carry many times their own weight. A colony of ants can probably strip an elephant carcass in a few hours. Ants are powerful collectively. But individually they are pretty don’t have much clout.)

Wine world ants need all the help they can get to get their brand or reputation out there. They need to have a strong private brand, of course, but they also need a strong regional brand (Napa Valley, for example) to create a reputational wave that the winery brand can ride. That’s one reason my friend’s winery is successful, even if it is just an ant in a crowded room.

Why Elephants are Different

Elephants are different these days — and it is not entirely by choice. Elephants (wineries that produce millions of cases) need strong brands, too, but increasingly they are being forced to distance themselves from regional brands such as AVAs and rely more and more on their own reputations. The reason? The emerging wine shortages that are forcing them to search far and wide for grapes and wine to fill their massive pipelines.

Years of stagnant vineyard expansion combined with rising demand have created a growing structural shortage of certain types of wine (bad news for those of us who have gotten used to deep wine discounts in the surplus years).

This is why so many wines that used to carry regional appellations are now forced to identify themselves as “California” wines. They need to blend wine from all over the state to fill their orders. Take a look at $8-$12 Zinfandels the next time you are in the supermarket and you will see what I mean.

The Logic of American Wine

“California” is a pretty broad appellation, but I am hearing rumbles from elephant land that increased use of the previously rare “American” appellation is in the cards. And expect more bulk wine imports (legally labeled to be sure) to make their way into bottles of wines you might reasonable suppose to hold All-American wine.

Is this a good thing? Well I’m not sure that it is good or bad — it’s just necessity. And I suppose it helps the ants with their stronger regional associations to differentiate themselves from the more generic elephants. But, on the other hand, the elephants’ promotion of regional brands in the past probably strengthened them, unintentionally benefiting local ants.

Since Washington wine is a teeming ant colony, it follows that it would benefit from a stronger regional brand. What is Brand Washington? Good question. (Paul Gregutt recently suggested how Brand Washington might be better promoted — click here to read his  column.)

[At this point my talk veered into a discussion of Brand Washington compared to Oregon, Napa Valley, Argentina and Chile. This part of the talk will have to wait for future Wine Economist post.]

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Another speaker joked that Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), which is by far Washington’s largest wine producer, is the state’s only elephant, but CEO Ted Baseler objected, citing the Wine Wars description of SMWE’s “string of pearls” (or chain-of-ants?) structure.

Who am I to disagree with Ted, especially since he was on the program to announce an exceptionally generous $1 million donation to help create a Wine Science Center on the Washington State University campus in wine country!

Thanks to WAWGG for inviting me to speak and special thanks to all the Wine Wars and Wine Economist readers I met at the conference.

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