The Democratization of Wine

As a known “Wagnerian” sympathizer,  I am naturally in favor of the “democratization” of wine. Power to the People is good, Wine to the People is even better (and sometimes equally difficult to manage). Recently I’ve run into a couple of stories that suggest that good wine may be trickling down to the masses in interesting ways.

Le Froglet Wine

The first story comes from Britain, where “wine by the glass” now has a new meaning. I’m talking about Le Froglet wine, which comes in ready-to-drink stemmed plastic cups. The special “glass” is sealed by a patent-applied-for process that replaces oxygen with inert gas before a peel-away airtight foil seal is applied, thus keeping the wine fresh (in the short term) in its unlikely container

The 187 ml serving of French Shiraz (really?), Chardonnay or Rose wine sells for £2.25 at Marks & Spencer stores.  This is wine that you can take anywhere and consume as you please, even if you only want a single glass. It is sort of a wine juice box in functional terms, if you know what I mean, but classier, with a stemmed plastic glass in place of the cardboard box and sippy-straw. I have seen Le Froglet here in the U.S. selling in the $3.50-$4 range.

Expert Opinion?

Le Froglet is noteworthy for several reasons, First, it seems to be very popular in Britain, where it has created a new market category. That doesn’t happen very often.

It has succeeded despite highly publicized expert opinion that the idea of takeaway “cuppa wine” is totally lame. James Nash, the inventor of the packaging and process, appeared on the popular BBC television show Dragons’ Den where supersmart investors took his product and business plan apart brick by brick, leaving him standing in a pile of rubble. Fuggetaboutit, they told him in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly, the people at retailer Marks & Spencer saw the same idea and came to a different conclusion.  They viewed the single-serving glass as a perfect place to put their line of Le Froglet French wines. I suppose with a name like Le Froglet they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Why not wine by the glass to go? Why not indeed? And so they gave it a try. They seem to be pleased with the results.

An M&S spokesman said: ‘The glasses are merchandised in our ‘Food on the Move’ section, which is obviously the aisle people on the go head to – particularly office workers. ‘We think that they are proving popular with people who want to perhaps enjoy the summer with a glass of wine in the park as part of an impromptu picnic – either after work or for a relaxing lunch.

‘They are also popular with commuters who want to enjoy a drink on the train home from work to wind down. We have found that they are very popular in locations popular with tourists.’  The M&S winemaker, Belinda Kleinig, said:  ‘This is a really exciting step for M&S – our research has shown that our customers really like the greater convenience of lighter weight bottles so we thought we’d take it one step further with great quality wine ready to drink from a glass.’

The Benefit of Low Expectations

I think one key to Le Froglet’s success is that it exceeds everyone’s expectations (except perhaps the grumpy Dragons’ Den gurus). You don’t really expect the packaging to work, for example. You expect the seal to leak or the plastic glass to break. But apparently it works pretty well. Surprise!

And then there’s the wine itself. You logically expect it to be crap since it comes in such a goofy container. Who’d put good wine in something like this? But apparently the wine is surprisingly good. In fact, Decanter magazine recently announced that Le Froglet Shiraz has won a hard-to-get  Gold Medal in its 2010 global wine competition.  The award is actually for the bottled version of the wine, which sells for £5.49.   Decanter’s editor reported that

‘The bottle is a great value find. It’s fragrant and complex, with lots of dark fruit and savoury chocolate. The plastic glass version is a great idea, but given that the bottled version has a screwcap, won a gold medal and works out cheaper per serve, I’d probably buy a bottle and find my own glasses.’

One element of the democratization of wine is making it more convenient and Le Froglet certainly does that. Of course this convenience comes at a price. One £5.49 bottle of Le Froglet holds four £2.25 single-serving glasses, making the bottled product the  better buy. But that glass-bottle price ratio is about what you find in most restaurants, where the rule of thumb is that the retail price of a glass of wine is equal to the wholesale cost of the whole bottle.

Good, cheap and convenient seem to form a trilemma with wine — difficult to get all three at once.  Cheers to Le Froglet for making decent wine more convenient, even if it isn’t really cheap.

Burger, Fries and Syrah?

What could be more democratic than fast food wine? Sounds perfect, but it is hard to imagine a fast food restaurant that could find a way to serve wine here in the U.S. with our Byzantine regulatory system.

So you can appreciate my pleasant surprise when I was able to order wine with my dine-in meal at the Burgerville fast food outlet near Vancouver, Washington. Burgerville is a popular Oregon-based fast food chain that specializes in fresh, local and sustainable products.

Burgerville is designed to exceed your expectations about what a fast food meal can be and if you pay a bit more for the food you probably get more, too. The restaurants have always been very busy when I have visited, so people must think they are a good value. I certainly do.

Here is the sales receipt from our meal at the Salmon Creek Burgerville (the only store in the chain to offer wine by the glass so far). I passed on the upscale burger / fries / shake part of the menu this time to take advantage of seasonal offerings: a mound of Walla Walla Sweet Onion Rings (yum!) and two Full Sail Amber Ale Battered Albacore fillets with a side of Oregon cranberry-studded summer slaw. My beverage of choice, a $5.95 glass of flavorful and refreshing A to Z Wine Works Oregon Pinot Gris. Heaven! Fast food taken to a new level.

Burgerville offers three red wines and three white wines by the glass at this location priced at $5.95 and $6.95. I think I’ll have a glass of the Syrah with a bacon cheeseburger on my next visit!

Small Steps [in the Right Direction]

The wines sell pretty well, I was told, which is of course what I hoped to hear. The Salmon Creek store is testing the concept of what you might call premium fast food wine. This store was apparently chosen because it has a large and well organized dine-in area that made it possible to meet regulatory requirements.  (Don’t look for wine at the drive through window just yet, although with Le Froglet I suppose it isn’t completely out of the question!).

The democratization of wine?  We’re not there yet — wine is still more difficult to buy, sell and consume than it needs to be — but Le Froglet and Burgerville show what we are headed in the right direction. Wagnerians, rejoice!

Vinonomics: The Mouton Cadet Index

Richard Hemming, whose writing appears on the  Jancis Robinson website, has invented the Mouton Cadet index to measure international differentials in wine prices. It is an interesting project that is worth following.

Hemming’s price index, which he is calling Vinonomics (in homage to the Freakonomics craze), works like this. First he selected a high-volume wine that is in very wide international circulation to serve as the one-item “market basket” for his international comparisons. Mouton Cadet, the ubiquitous Bordeaux wine, is a great choice since it is so widely distributed (a “15-million-bottle, 150-country brand distributed from Andorra to Zimbabwe,” according to Hemming).

Mouton Cadet may not be the wine sold in the most different countries — Moët & Chandon Champagne would be my pick for that honor — but using Mouton Cadet keeps the Big Mac spirit of tracking the price of an everyday product, not a luxury good.

Sky High in Seoul

Hemming then searched the internet and other sources for prices of Mouton Cadet in as many countries as he could. He converted these prices to Euro, USD and GBP at market exchange rates and published them on the website. (He is hoping that readers will send in additional price data to help complete the table.)

The price differentials that Hemming finds are quite large.  The French ‘home country” price for Mouton Cadet is given as EUR 9.55, which is incredibly more than the reported price of the same wine in the United States (USD 7.99 or about EUR 6). Within the Eurozone, where trade is allegedly free, Cadet’s price runs as high as EUR 19 in Austria and EUR 21 in Italy. So much for the “Law of One Price!”

What’s the cheapest place in the world to purchase Mouton Cadet? So far Hemming’s low price leader is the U.S., where French wines struggle to sell in a crowded and very competitive market, followed by Hong Kong (EUR 8.56).

The most expensive? South Korea (EUR 26), Brazil (EUR 21.5) and Italy (EUR 21). The difference between the high and low price is stunning. It is easy to explain South Korea’s high price in terms of transportation costs, regulatory expenses and multiple middleman markups, but the high price given for Italy is difficult to understand. Hard to know who would pay so much for Cadet in Italy.

Bordeaux with your Big Mac?

Hemming’s research project is based on  the Economist’s famous Big Mac Index (BMI), which tries to measure the relative purchasing power of different currencies by comparing the local prices of McDonald’s ubiquitous hamburger.  Here is a table showing the index as of July 2010.

The table shows that Japan and Australia are very close to Purchasing Power Parity — the condition where a U.S. dollar has the same purchasing power abroad (when exchanged at market rates) as at home.  The dollar cost of a Big Mac is approximately the same in all three countries.

Norway’s currency is very over-valued according to the BMI.  A Big Mac that sells for USD 3.73 in the U.S. costs a whopping USD 7.20 (converting at market exchange rates) in Oslo. The high cost of buying a Norwegian Krone contributes to the hamburger’s high dollar price there.  The Swiss Franc is almost as over-valued — a Big Mac costs the equivalent of USD 6.19 in Geneva.

Hong Kong and China have undervalued currencies by this measure. A Big Mac costs less than the equivalent of USD 2.00 there. The harburger is cheap in part because the currency is so cheap in these countries.

Wine vs Burgers

The Big Mac index is far from a perfect measure of relative purchasing power, but it is not a bad guestimate because Big Macs are standard products with easily discoverable prices and most of the cost of producing a Big Mac takes place within the country in question. I’ve found that if the BMI says a country’s currency is over-valued then it probably is, although not necessarily by as much or little as the index suggests.

The Mouton Cadet index is very interesting for what it tells us about wine prices, but it is probably less useful as a measure of PPP. The wine, of course, comes from France unlike the locally-produced burger ingredients and the local price in South Korea, for example, is influenced by that cost basis (adjusted for exchange rate effects) plus transportation costs. The biggest “local content” factors are the local taxes and  wholesale and retail markups within South Korea, which are probably quite high.

Mind the Gap

At this point the Mouton Cadet index is most interesting to me for the questions it inspires (I’ve always said that questions are more interesting than answers). Who’s buying that EUR 21 Cadet in Rome (and are they interested in buying a bridge I happen to have for sale?)

What accounts for the high price in South Korea? The exchange rate is certainly  part of it. The South Korea Won is undervalued relative to the EUR according to the BMI. A Big Mac costs USD 2.82 in Seoul and USD 4.33 in Paris — a 50% price differential. The exchange rate therefore might explain 50% of the price gap between the Mouton Cadet price in France and South Korea. What accounts for the rest? (And does that fact that South Korea has no substantial domestic wine industry that I am aware of affect the mark ups on foreign wines?)

And what about Brazil? The Euro is actually  undervalued relative to the Brazilian Real according to the Big Mac index, and so the exchange rate is not necessarily a factor in Mouton Cadet’s high price in Rio. What other factors account for the big price gap?

I hope Richard Hemming continues with this project. It would be interesting to have data for additional countries (Japan? Russia? India?) and to see how the rankings change over time and relative to Big Macs.

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I’d like to encourage interested readers around the world to send Hemming local store prices for Mouton Cadet so that he has better data both for international comparisons and to get a sense of intra-country price dispersion.

Fair Trade Wine’s Long Journey

In this global age we are accustomed to having the world’s assorted products (including wine) wash up conveniently on our local supermarket shores. We seldom give much thought to how they got there or why, but wines don’t make, move or sell themselves so there is always a story to tell.

Case in point: this bottle of 2008 Fairhills Mendoza Vineyards Carbernet Sauvignon purchased last week at a Cost Plus World Market store in Tacoma, Washington. It is the product of a rather complex process of globalization.

Uncorking a Bottle’s Biography

The Fairhills brand is South African, but the wine is from Argentina. Must be a story there. The logo at the bottom proclaims that it is Fair Trade certified – wine with an ethical intent. You don’t see Fair Trade wines every day. The red tag up on the bottle’s shoulder indicates market reality: marked down from $9.99 to $8.88.

(Some studies suggest that wine buyers are not willing to pay more for “ethical” organic or biodynamic wines. In fact, one study found that wines labeled “organic” sold for less than identical wines without the ethical indicator. I wonder if this inverse price/ethics relationship holds for Fair Trade wine as well?)

Fair Trade products, like this wine, ask us to think about supply chains more seriously because they promise to return a bit more to the original producers to help build sustainable communities. I’m interested in the Fair Trade wine movement (I wrote about Fair Trade wines here, here and here), so I thought I’d try to learn a bit about this particular bottle’s long journey.

Twists and Turns

The story begins, unexpectedly, at the Du Toitskloof Winey in South Africa, founded in 1962 as a cooperative by six wine families. Originally a bulk wine producer in the bad old days of South African wine, DTK as it is known has moved upmarket in the post-apartheid export-driven era and Fair Trade wines are part of its strategy.

Since 2005 DTK has worked with the Fairhills Association to produce Fair Trade wine. Fairhills brings together a group of South African vineyard owners and their workers, with the workers having a majority of votes. Fairhills wine farmers supply the grapes, DTK makes the wine and Origin Wine, the third partner, provides logistical and market support. The growers receive a premium for their Fair Trade grapes and funds are returned to the Fairhills Association for community investments, a typical Fair Trade practice.

The initial market for Fairhills wines seems to have been Great Britain, since they worked closely with the UK-based Fair Trade certification group there. Susy Atkins,  the Telegraph’s wine critic, reports that Fair Trade wines have good penetration in London through supermarket chains including Co-op and Sainsbury’s and are featured in annual Fairtrade Fortnight programs. Click here to view a list of Fair Trade wines available in the UK. Fairhills has the largest listing (44 wines).

Fair Trade Pipeline

The South Africa-UK wine pipeline proved very robust (South African wines are now the fastest growing segment of the British market) and helped to expand the market both in terms of supply (drawing Chile and Argentina into the mix) and demand (introducing Fair Trade wines to the U.S. and other markets). Argentina is the biggest supplier of Fair Trade wines to the U.S. and the Fairhills Mendoza Vineyards Cab that I purchased at Cost Plus is part of that pattern. Organic Wine Trade Company distributes Fairhills here along with their other “ethical” wine products.

Whole Foods Market is one of the most important retailers of Fair Trade wine in the U.S., which makes sense since they sell so many other Fair Trade products (coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, energy bars, body care products, flowers and rice according to one list). Other national retailers that stock Fair Trade wine include Sam’s Club, Target and of course Cost Plus World Market where I bought this bottle.

TransFair USA reports that over 120,000 cases of Fair Trade wine were sold in the U.S. in 2009, up from about 20,000 cases in 2008. The growth rate is a source of optimism, but the absolute quantity is relatively modest  – about the production of a single medium-sized domestic winery. TransFair says that the 2008-2009 sales produced a “premium” of over $130,000 that was returned to the grower cooperatives — quite a lot relative to the low wages they receive as farm workers. The distributor website reports that:

Fairhills Cabernet Sauvignon benefits the local farmers of Bodegas y Viñedos de Marañon and three small producers along with their farm worker community in Mendoza, Argentina.  The Fair Trade initiative is dedicated to ten farms to improve the quality of life for 210 members and 300+ children. The initiative is one of the first in Argentina and has used their sales to upgrade various schools in the region, purchasing new toys, establish a soup kitchen, and purchase an ambulance for the local health care center.  Future plans are to convert from conventional farming to all organic, building a sports club, and continue improving health care clinics and schools.

The journey that brought this bottle to my cellar is thus quite complicated. The wine comes from Argentina, but it wouldn’t have got here without help from people in faraway London and South Africa. The fact that this complex web can return community benefits to Mendoza farm workers is heartening, even if the amounts are quite modest at present.

The Future of Fair Trade Wine

Fair Trade coffee is easy to find these days — in fact it is impossible to buy anything other than Fair Trade coffee on my university campus. Fair Trade chocolate is everywhere, too. But Fair Trade wine remains a tiny (but growing) market niche. I wonder if this will change and what barriers Fair Trade wine must overcome to achieve the success of Fair Trade coffee? With this question in mind I’m starting a small research project to learn more about Fair Trade wine’s present market condition and future prospects. Watch this space for occasional related posts in the coming months.

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Thanks to Kazuko Golden at TransFair USA for helping me with statistics about the Fair Trade wine movement. Thanks to Leigh Barrick for sharing her research on Fair Trade wine with me.

Wanted: Retail [Wine] Therapy

I know that it is not easy to make good wine. And wine can be difficult to sell, too. But apparently buying wine is even harder.

That ’70s Wine

At least that’s the word from some top wine critics. Lettie Teague’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal was ostensibly about that 1970s favorite, Pouilly-Fuissé, but much of it was actually a gentle rant about the difficulty she experienced in trying to buy a few bottles for a tasting. Seems the specialist wine merchants she contacted just didn’t have much in stock. She had to work pretty hard to put together a reasonable sample.

Is it just a Pouilly-Fuissé problem? Maybe, but Teague reported much the same experience a couple of weeks ago when she tried to put together a tasting of wines  from Washington state. Teague’s merchants carried just a bottle or two of Washington wine, same as that 70′s wine. That’s all we need, they told her. No one cares, they said.

What do Washington wines have in common with the French? I used to think it was latitude but now I know — you can’t buy them in New York! (BTW word of mouth evidence suggests that Washington wines might be easier to find in New York than Teague’s article indicates.)

Mind the Gap

I know there are many factors at work here including New York’s peculiar retail wine regulations, the dollar-euro exchange rate and especially the recent “flight to safety” among wine sellers who seek to minimize inventory in a very uncertain market.

America’s byzantine interstate wine trade regulations are part of the problem, too. I’ve often looked across the pond to Britain and imagined how great it would be to have a unified wine market (without dozens of state and even local regulatory regimes). Wine is easier to sell in Britain because of this and so I’ve always thought that it was easier to buy, too. I guess I forgot my own frustrated wine buying experiences living in London a few years ago, when I tried to find interesting U.S. wines to share with British friends;  pretty much all I could find in my local drinks shop was bottom shelf generics.

I was reminded of this by one of Jancis Robinson’s recent Financial Times columns where she vented her frustration about trying to buy just a bottle or two of very good wine for dinner. You can buy vast quantities of cheap and cheerful wine as Tesco, she said, and of course you can purchase many of the finest wines on earth by the case and have it delivered to your door the next day. But what if you just want one bottle of something a notch or two above the supermarket category?

Yes, you can do it, she said, but it isn’t easy. And then she listed the five British merchants that she thinks fill the bill. Five! Ouch. “… this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers,” she moaned. The gap between BOGOF Tesco and a case of Chateau Lafite is bigger than I thought! Robinson cites the increasing dominance of the big supermarket chains as a critical factor driving the specialist wine merchant out of business. Tesco, of course, is now the world’s largest wine merchant and 70% of British wine comes from a supermarket shelf.

Decanter published an article last year (in the 2009 California supplement) bemoaning the fact that so few American wines are available in the UK. Bottom and top are easy enough to find, but nothing much in the vast middle. They cited a number of factors including American winemakers’ resistance to the deep discounts needed to make export sales, high British retail margins and the incompatibility of American wine styles and British palates. Whatever the reason, it seems that British wine buyers are surprisingly under-served when it comes to America’s diverse wine array.

Why Can’t a Wine Be More Like a Book?

It occurs to me that the situation facing wine buyers today is a lot like book buying was twenty years ago. It was easy to find best sellers and trashy paperbacks. And specialist shops catered to particular interests at a price. But much of the vast book supply was very difficult for buyers to access.

And then came Amazon.com, of course. And now the world of new and used books is only a click away.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an Amazon.com for wine? That would be one “killer app,” as they say. But I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not soon. Amazon.com announced plans to start selling wines online a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it and it is easy to see why.

Although bottled wine does share many of the attributes that made books Amazon.com’s initial target market, there are a number of discouraging negatives to consider. Wine is heavy and costly to ship compared to books.  A books doesn’t care if the weather is hot or cold while it is in transit, but your half-case of Chianti surely does. And of course there are the legal barriers that restrict interstate shipping at every turn.

I’m hoping that someone will come along with that Killer Wine App that makes fine wine buying as efficient as shopping for books, but until then I think that retail [wine] therapy will remain a source of frustration, not relief, for at least some of us.

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Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times suggests that wine books share some of the same distribution frustrations as wine. She reports a trend towards self-publication of specialist wine books.

Extreme Wine Report: Wine in Kabul

I’m starting an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.

The first report comes from one of the least likely places to find wine: Kabul, Afghanistan. It is unlikely because Afghanistan is a Muslim country and Islamic Law is not very wine-friendly.  Wine is pretty much the last thing you think of when someone mentions Kabul. But there is it, as a recent Time magazine story makes clear.

The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent (codename K.W.) sends this report on the wine scene there, including a rough and ready shopping guide, firsthand market (and black market) analysis and … tasting notes!. Here’s the report.

Note: This is a report from The Wine Economist’s Chief Kabul Correspondent, “K.W.”  All names have been changed. Click here to read a recent Time magazine article on nightlife in Kabul.

In Kabul, if you know the right people you can have them use their security clearance to get wine, beer and spirits from one of the military bases or the UN. Unfortunately, I have not been able to utilize such resources. My wine supply comes through slightly less direct channels and is only available at night when the streets of Kabul are sufficiently dark.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country but is also home to thousands of foreign workers who very much enjoy winding down the evening with some type of alcoholic beverage. The legal technicalities with respect to alcohol are consequently rather vague. At times, the Afghan National Police Force sweeps through the restaurants frequented by foreigners in Kabul and seizes their supply of alcohol. These “raids” only happen every once in a while and it is largely assumed that they are simply a way of maintaining a supply for their own consumption. At other times, it seems to be legal for alcohol to be consumed by foreigners but not by Afghans. For this reason, my Afghan coworkers from my day job at an NGO are hesitant to join me at the bar I manage at night.

All of this ambiguity means that when the bar runs out of red wine and our normal supplier is on leave in Dubai, Hamad (the bartender) and I are forced to find alternate sources.   Hamad and I jumped into his car and after I came to terms with the fact that the seat wasn’t going to slide back from the fully-forward position it was in we were on our way. Hamad floored it out onto the main road, with Bollywood beats on full blast and the windows down – Hamad puffing on a cigarette. Traffic can get pretty bad in Kabul but that depends on how good you are at weaving and playing chicken with on coming traffic. I had about a thousand dollars in twenties wadded up in my pocket.

On Flower Street, named after the displays of bright, plastic flowers in front of nearly all of the stores, we went in a spoke with a man behind the counter who wore a Mona Lisa grin. You would think that buying something out of the black market would mean you could get it for cheap. Not so much. After trying very unsuccessfully to haggle the price down I handed over a little over half the money in my pocket and we got back in the car and waited, with the trunk just barely open. The Afghan National Police has a bigger presence on Flower Street than anywhere else I’ve seen. When the time was apparently right three guys ran out of the store with four cases of beer and a case of Tajikistan vodka wrapped up in black plastic bags, dumped them in the trunk, slammed it shut and ran back into the store. The engine had been running and we took off only to be stopped behind another car right next to three Policemen.

If I get caught buying alcohol it gets taken away, they pretend to make a big deal out of it and then they send me on my way. If Hamad – an Afghan – gets caught buying alcohol he gets taken to prison where he could stay for years if he is unable to pay a several thousand dollar fine. A flashlight scanned our faces for an uncomfortably long period of time as the policeman holding it took a long, thoughtful drag of his cigarette. Traffic cleared, Hamad shifted into gear and I watched the policeman in the rear view mirror look passively back to his friends.

Before we had finished letting out our sighs we had made a few turns and were stopped in the middle of a dark, dirt road ready for our next purchase – the main reason for our trip. Hamad sent a text and we waited for about two minutes before two dark figures with boxes under their arms appeared down the street walking towards us. The two men shifted their eyes at us. After the greetings, a quick series of questions which neither side answers, I broke open the boxes to see what we were getting. Right then I felt I was in the scene of the movie where the mobster checks the trunk to make sure “the goods” were all in order and accounted for.  I looked down, half expecting to find some sort of vastly illegal contraband and instead found “Calvert Varietals” a French Cabernet marketed towards an international market, and then Sutter Home California Cabernet. I pointed at the Sutter Home and told one of the guys he should be the one paying me to take it off his hands. The joke didn’t really go over. Wine snobbery, even in jest, isn’t really understood here. We didn’t have enough money for all of it so some of the Sutter Home found its way back into dark alley wine supply to await its next nervous, desperate wine-starved foreigner.

I was reminded of the last wine purchase we made, an unusually large order of 72 bottles, all of a relatively drinkable and non-threatening Merlot, my favorite varietal. One customer, for some reason eager to expound his wine knowledge upon a 24 year old behind a bar in Kabul, expressed his distaste with the selection. “Merrrllot?”, he exclaimed, “Is that really all you have? I think I’ll stick to Becks”. While opening his bottle of beer I had wondered at how the reputation of one of the worlds greatest wine grapes had been tainted all the way out here. There was a chance that the customer knew what he was talking about and that his owns tastes led him to prefer other types of wines over what he reasonably assumed was a run-of-the-mill example of the often-times poor crafting of Merlot. There was also a chance that having tried a good amount of mediocre Merlot in the 1990’s the customer developed his own aversion to the grape that has continued to this day. More likely than not, this customer – an American – saw a movie and perhaps some snippets of Merlot criticism in the media and decided to use the outside influence to help guide him down the sometimes overwhelming path of wine selection, which is not unreasonable. After finishing a fervent defense of the grape (in my head), I took a sip and remembered that fewer people wanting to drink Merlot meant that there would be more for me.

Most of the bar patrons know better than to ask for a specific type of wine beyond red and white. In fact, most patrons of the bar know better than to ask for wine in the first place. That said, nearly every week we have a different red wine on the shelf and you never know, this could be the week when it’s drinkable before rather than after those rum and cokes. Recently we’ve had a decent supply of a South African white which is decent, especially now that the summer is swinging into gear and most everyone chooses to sit out in the garden at a picnic table. Red will typically be either Italian or French with the occasional American, Australian and Spanish bottles as well. As I cringe at the blown out fruit I have to remind myself that much of this wine has been sitting in giant metal shipping containers for months, seeing some of the worst transportation conditions possible.

How did this wine get here? For the most part, deals are cut with distributors or directly with producers and larger shipments are flown in on large cargo planes, destined for Embassies, the UN, the military bases and perhaps one or two influential individuals or groups. But what about my handful of cases in the alley? My guess is that occasionally, cases find their way off the pallets while waiting to be trucked off to the bases. Somebody’s cousin has a friend who’s brother knows somebody who once mentioned to Hamad the bartender that he may be able to get him something. Most of the wine I see is fairly recent, usually 2008, but every once in a while I see something like the dateless Barolo we had a few bottles of the other day with its yellowed, ripped labels and corks that indicated at least decade. What channels had those bottles gone through to eventually find their way to the bar?

When Hamad and I get back to the bar “Alain”, the rather stereotypical Frenchman is relieved to see the cases under our arms. Most of the customers are there for the Heineken or the Jim Beam but occasionally I see hopeful eyes peruse the bottles of wine behind me, looking for something that has not already disappointed them. In general, you are forced to ask the question, “why is this wine in Afghanistan in the first place?” The answer, more often than not, is revealed with the first unfortunate sip. That said, there is always the hope of finding that diamond in the rough, a glass of which will make you forget that when your last bottle of Tuscan red was fizzing in your glass, you shrugged your shoulders and decided to take a sip anyway.

Kabul Tasting Notes:

Calvert Varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Vin Pays d’OC France

When the back label, in English, tells you that this bottle is good with everything from burritos to Satay beef your hopes tend to whither just a bit. A cooked nose (perhaps literally, given the way it was likely transported here), not unpleasant in taste but lacking in body and length.

Dona Beatriz, Rueda Verdejo, 2007 Spain

Very promising and interesting nose with several layers of red to dark-red fruit laced with deep roses. Unfortunately, it seemed watered down, completely lacking in taste.

Torregaia Negromaro Salento Indicazione Geographica Typica Italy

Bright fruit in the form of moderately high acidity. Dried cranberry followed by a small hint of cluster rot – as if the grapes were caught in an early rain while still too young and the vintner left them on the vine to try to get them a little riper.

The Bottleneck Bottleneck

Bottlenecks are always problematic.  It seems like they are always too narrow or not narrow enough.

We ran into an unusual bottleneck last week when were went to Wenatchee to help our friends Mike and Karen Wade bottle the 2008 vintage at the Fielding Hills Winery.  FHW is award winning 800-case operation and the bottling is done by a volunteer crew of friends, family and wine club members. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts, comparing the wine bottle assembly line to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory.

Bottleneck Bottleneck

The division of labor does improve efficiency,  just as Smith said, but anyone who’s worked an assembly line knows about bottlenecks – the whole process only moves as fast as the slowest work station.  If the corker is slow, for example, nothing else will go very fast. (The corker was no slacker on our shift – John Sosnowy of the Wine Peeps blog.)

Our crew worked very well, but there was still a bottleneck, albeit an invisible one. The capsules that fit over the bottle’s neck hadn’t arrive (a bottleneck bottleneck!) – they were held up somewhere in customs in a container that must contain hundreds  of thousands of capsules for many wineries. We bottled the wine, but when the capsules finally arrive it will be necessary to open each of the 800 cases, pull out every bottle, affix the capsule, return and reseal. That’s about 10,000 bottles. What a headache! I hate bottlenecks.

The biggest bottleneck in the American wine business, of course, is distribution. With 51 different sets of state rules and regulations and the three-tier winery/distributor/retailer/consumer system, it sometimes seems like making wine is the easy part – getting it to customers is the bigger problem. Widening the distribution bottleneck seems to me to be a key to expanding the wine market and building a more robust American wine culture.

Tightening the Distribution Bottleneck

The Obama administration seems to want to build up the U.S. wine industry – that’s why he sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign an agreement to ease the wine export process and open that bottleneck a bit.

But Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Wine Spectator reports that more than 100 members of Congress have announced support for H.R. 5034, a bill that would further restrict direct wine sales in American. It would make it (even) harder to ship wine across state lines. Wine Spectator reports that wine distributors (who benefit from their key position in the three tier bottleneck) actively support the bill.

The supporters of H.R. 5034 argue that direct shipping undercuts the power of states to regulate alcohol distribution and sales, and I understand this logic. But the winery owners I know actually go to extremes to satisfy state regulations because the penalties for making a mistake are often extremely onerous. (I know one winery that has stopped all interstate sales for now because of compliance concerns.)

Focus on Direct Sales

The slack economy has put direct sales in the spotlight. With wine sales down in many categories and price points still eroding, wineries are trying to boost the yield per bottle and increasing direct sales and reducing the flow that goes through distributors is one way to do that. Isenhower Cellars in  Walla Walla  has actually reorganized itself (and opened an off-site tasting room) so that it can rely entirely on direct sales. Their website announced that

Isenhower Cellars is no longer selling wine to restaurants, wine shops, or grocery outlets in Washington State. Our wines are now exclusively available from the winery in Walla Walla, Washington, our tasting room in Woodinville, Washington, or here on our web site. We treasure the past relationships with our Washington State distributors and friends in the wine trade. However a complete focus on quality limits production to 2,000 cases of wine and the success of our wine club and second tasting room leaves no extra Isenhower wines available for sale outside of our winery’s embrace.

Even E&J Gallo, which has done quite well thank you during the recession, is trying to increase direct sales. I’m on a couple of email lists for Gallo wine brands that I follow and they frequently offer nice discounts or low cost shipping to try to encourage orders from their online wine shop, The Barrel Room.

It seems inconsistent to send Gary Locke to China to expand wine exports and then discourage the equivalent interstate trade. As an economist, I am naturally biased toward more choice and freer trade. I hope the attempt to tighten the wine shipping bottleneck gets caught in some legislative bottleneck somewhere down the line and never reaches President Obama’s desk.

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Thanks to Karen, Mike and Robin Wade for their hospitality and great wine. Thanks to the members of the 2008 FHW Cabernet Franc bottling crew both a fun and productive afternoon.

Wagnerians vs. Martians

Rhine maidens from an opera by a different Wagner.

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in American. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagnerians sing an appealing but fundamentally radical song in the American context, where wine is just one of many beverages  and not always the cheapest or most convenient to purchase.  Regulations that treat wine as a controlled substance are very anti-Wagnerian.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms. I guess you could say that Two Buck Chuck is a Wagnerian wine, for example, although I think there’s a lot more to Wagner’s idea of wine than just low price.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms  fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less that superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson today is an undistinguished mass market wine brand — as un-Martian as you can get.

When wine enthusiasts of my generation think of Paul Masson (now part of the Constellation Brands portfolio), it is often because of Orson Welles’ classic television ads, like this one from 1980 promoting California “Chablis.” Roll over, Martin Ray!

Two Ideas of Wine

Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be a Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the bottle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.”

Monolithic Thinking?

I guess I am a Wagnerian, too, if I have to choose, but I’m not as pessimistic as Pinney. I’m about to throw myself into full-time book-writing mode: I need to finish my current project this summer so that it can be in bookstores in early 2011. The more I work on this project the happier I am with its upbeat title.

Grape Expectations started out as a simple pun on the famous Dickens novel, but it has evolved into something more. I have developed genuinely optimistic (if not “great”) expectations for the future of wine and I see the three forces I study in the book — globalization, Two Buck Chuck and the “revenge of the Terroirists” — as possibly bridging the Martian-Wagnerian divide.

Can wine be both common and great? Why not? Wine isn’t one thing, it is many things to many people. No purpose is served in my view, by monolithic thinking. That’s my hope … and my Grape Expectations!

Chinese Wine: Challenges & Opportunities

Harvest time at Grace Vineyards.

Wine in China is getting a lot of attention just now. Jancis Robinson is back from Beijing and Shanghai, where she celebrated the release of a Chinese edition of her indispensable Oxford Companion to Wine with wine dinners and tastings. Recent issues of Decanter (April 2010) and the Wall Street Journal (March 20, 2010) feature big stories about Chinese wine. One of my senior thesis students is even doing research on the potential market for Washington State wine in China.

Coffee Grounds and Ashtray

I’ve written about China’s wine market on several occasions. I discussed the challenges facing their industry in “The China Syndrome” in January 2008 and the difficulties of penetrating the Chinese market in October 2009. I even reported a London wine merchant’s forecast that China would eventually overtake France as the world’s greatest wine nation.

Challenges and opportunities: those seem to be the recurring themes.

The challenge is easy to appreciate if you taste Chinese wine. At present this is difficult (unless you travel to China) because import supplies are very limited. The Morrisons supermarket chain apparently carries some Chinese wine in Great Britain. So far I haven’t seen Chinese wine for sale in the U.S., but I think it’s here somewhere so I’ll keep looking. There is obviously a large potential ethnic market (at Asian food stores like Uwajimaya and at the tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants that dot the country) in addition to curious wine enthusiasts like me.

I have tasted two Chinese wines, thanks to a former student who schlepped them back from Beijing for me. The first, tasted with a group of students a year ago, showed the murky past of Chinese wine. It was a 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon — a recent release mass market product by China’s oldest winemaker. Tasting notes I found on the internet warned about coffee grounds and ashtray with a hint of urinal cake. Right on the money, unfortunately. Drinkable (hard to believe, I know), and weirdly fascinating, but really only interesting as a novelty.

The Grape Vine Supply Chain

The basic problems, as I have pointed out in the past, are the undemanding domestic consumer base and the badly broken supply chain.

Wine is only as good as the grapes that go into it, or so growers tell me, and the grape supply situation in China is difficult. Most of the wine grapes are grown by families that lease about an acre of land from their local agricultural commune. That acre is typically divided into four or five small plots that are planted with different crops so as to minimize risk. One or perhaps two of the plots may be wine grapes in the vineyard regions. So vineyard scale is impossibly small — smaller even than in the south of France.

These small growers insist on calling the shots, which is natural since they are so dependent upon the success of their tiny farms. The wine producers have no control over what these hundreds of thousands of micro-vineyards produce, how they are cropped, and when the grapes are picked. Researchers suggest that the grapes are chosen and grown to maximize quantity not quality and that the grapes are picked as soon as possible to minimize risk of poor weather than could destroy the crop. So small crops of flavorful fully ripe grapes — the winemaker’s dream — that’s not going to happen in a typical Chinese vineyard. One study I found suggested that the grapes sell for as little as $80 a ton.

There is not much incentive for individual growers to sacrifice quantity for quality because their grapes are sold by weight to agents who lump together fruit from dozens or hundreds of individual growers. Good fruit would quickly get mixed with inferior fruit, so why pay more? The local agents often then resell the fruit to regional agents who sell again to the large winemakers. You can just imagine the condition of the fruit by the time it finally gets to the winemaking facility having passed through so many hands. This system is worse than the European cooperatives I have read about (and I didn’t think anything could be worse than that).

China’s Hopeful Future

Recently a group of us tasted the hopeful future of Chinese fine wine, a bottle of 2003 Grace Vineyards Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc.  Grace Vineyards is often cited as the most promising winemaker in China and the contrast between this bottle and the Changyu was night and day. The attention to detail in the winemaking was evident and the use of estate grapes (rather than the unreliable supply chain cited above) was apparent, too.

The contrast between the two wines was stunning, mainly because the Changyu was so very bad, of course. The Grace Vineyards Cab Franc was a solid effort but nothing special– a bit light compared to our Washington State Cab Franc wines, for example, with the distinctive  “green”  taste I associate with wine made from under-ripe Cab Franc grapes.

[Update 3/24/10: A reader suggests that the "green" flavor may be intentional -- he has heard that this flavor is familiar to Chinese consumers and that some Chinese wineries may harvest grapes in a less than fully ripe state in order to achieve it. Interesting and understandable if true. Thanks to Bob Calvert for this insight.]

This points to another challenge and one that will be hard to overcome.  China is a pretty difficult place to grow and properly ripen  vinifera grapes. The combination of  very cold winters and hot and humid summers in the principal grape growing regions makes winegrowing particularly tricky. (The Decanter article does a good job explaining this.) Some reports indicate that white varietals like Riesling can be grown with success, but wine’s first duty in China is to be red and ripening the preferred Bordeaux varietals is a significant long term problem.

Seventy-Two Buck Chuck

The Wall Street Journal article by Stan Sesser included tasting notes by a panel of local experts.  The nonvintage Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon they sampled sold for the equivalent of $5.40 and reminded them of dirty sweat socks and cleaning fluid — possibly a step up from the one I tasted.

At the other extreme, a 1998 Cab from Great Wall was apparently really quite good — “deep colored, full bodied, tannic, but with a lot of fruit.” Price? The equivalent of $72. Yikes!

I have to think that Chinese wine will benefit in the long run from all the attention it is receiving at home and abroad. It will be interesting to see how the challenges and opportunities develop over the next few years.

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Note: Anyone interested in the Chinese wine market should read Grape Wall of China, a terrific blog.

Digital [Wine] Dreams

It is probably no surprise that the wine industry has become very interested in figuring out how to use electronic media to draw consumers into the wine market and intensify the relationship. Much of the focus so far has been on social media vectors such as Facebook and Twitter, which connect consumers and producers and facilitate conversations of various sorts.

For what it’s worth, insiders believe that CellarTracker, the online wine community and cellar management program, has had the biggest impact so far. Click here to read Jancis Robinson’s analysis from today’s Financial Times.

Wine’s digital dreams go beyond social media, however. I’m impressed with Tesco’s smart phone wine app, which I have written about before. My college class was awed when I showed them this video of the wine app in action.

Now Microsoft has developed its own touchscreen tabletop wine program for restaurants and bars to help consumers get more involved in their wine-by-the-glass choices (and to keep them entertained until their wine arrives, I suspect).

(I remember when tables like this held quarter-eating video games like PacMan. Back to the future!)

Leave it to the French, however, to really think outside the bottle and box. Here is their vision of the digital [wine] dream.

(I wonder what Sarkozy thinks of this! He seems to want to make wine less — not more — accessible.)

I think we are in the early stages of understanding which of these digital wine ideas will catch on as a way to educate and inform consumers and create a more personally satisfying and commercially successful wine experience. My guess is that we will have to explore many blind alleys before we find the right approach.

So keep your eyes open for new ideas — and pass me that little USB spigot. I want to download some Brunello.

Who Sells the Most Wine?

Who is the #1 retailer in the wine world?  The answer is Tesco, the British-based supermarket company.

Tesco sells more than 320 million bottles of wine each year in Britain alone (one of four bottles in this important market). It is a wine selling machine, using every available mechanism to market wine and build the brand.

Tesco stores feature attractive Wine Walls, for example, tailored according to the demographics of individual stores. Wine displays are strategically positioned near the fish, meat and cheese counters as you will appreciate from your own experience. Wine tastings and wine-related events are organized by the no-fee Tesco Wine Club, which boasts hundreds of thousands of members.

Wine, wine – everywhere.

Tesco takes the everywhere seriously, so their quest to sell wine doesn’t stop whey you leave the store. Internet wine sales are an important retail vector in Britain since nation-wide shipping and delivery is not a problem as it is in the United States, where jurisdictional issues complicate every aspect of interstate wine sales. The Tesco Wine by the Case website provides  consumers with a rather stunning array of wine selections that range from a heavily discounted mixed case of “mellow reds” for £28 to a Vosne Romanee Domaine Hidelot Noellat 2006 Red Burgundy for about the same price, but for just one bottle. Tesco has captured about a quarter of all internet wine sales in Britain.

Buyers earn Tesco ClubCard points both online and in the stores. The loyalty card system carefully tracks the purchases of each customer (and notes non-purchases, too, I suppose), providing data to guide store strategy and the opportunity to produce individualized checkout coupons to encourage wine drinkers to buy more or better wines or perhaps to try something different. Tesco was an early pioneer in loyalty cards and is thought to use this data very effectively.

By Land, Sea and even Phone

Tesco has goes to great lengths to reach British consumers whenever and wherever the urge to buy wine might hit them. Tesco and its UK competitors have established substantial wine stores in Calais, France just minutes from Hovercraft ferry and Eurostar train stations. British consumers have long crossed the English Channel in search of duty-free bargains and British duties still make the trip an attractive excursion for some. Wine can cost about 25 percent less in Tesco’s Calais store and online ordering makes stocking up quick and easy.

Tesco’s latest (as of this writing) innovation is a smart phone app for wine lovers. Enjoying a nice bottle of Chianti at your favorite Italian restaurant? Want to know where to buy it? Well launch the app and use your phone to take a photo of the label on the bottle in front of you. High tech label recognition software will identify the wine, provide maker information and tasting notes and even search through the Tesco online inventory so that you can order a case right now for immediate delivery. Tesco and wine are with you anytime, anywhere.

Tesco and the other British supermarkets use wine to make money and to change the way at least some British shoppers think about grocery stores and even how they think about themselves. In the process, of course, these retailers have acquired a certain amount of power. Indeed, Decanter’s 2009 “Power List” of the most influential people in the world of wine ranks Tesco’s wine director Dan Jago at number six – a few places behind Robert Sands, head of the world’s largest wine company, Constellation Brands, and wine critic Robert Parker but ahead of French President Nicholas Sarkozy and E&J Gallo President Joseph Gallo. This power is put to a surprising number of uses.

That Tesco would use its market muscle to reduced wine costs in not unexpected. Volume purchasing has always been an excuse to press for lower prices. Tesco goes further, however. The New World wines in the Tesco lineup are shipped to Britain in bulk, is 20-foot shipping containers that contain giant plastic bladders holding thousands of liters of wine. The bulk wine is bottled once it reaches Britain, eliminating the cost of hauling fragile bottles half way around the world. Tesco has even started moving the bulk wine to its bottling plant using Britain’s historic system of canals, saving the expense of tanker truck shipment and lower the wine’s carbon footprint.

New Bottles for New Wine

Tesco is very focused on innovation and uses its power to achieve it. Tesco has pressed its suppliers to switch from cork closures to screw caps, for example, in order to eliminate the three to five percent loss that is commonly experienced due to TCA cork taint. Anyone who wants to get wines into the Tesco pipe had better not show up with a corkscrew (iconic brands excepted, of course).

Recently, Tesco has introduced the world’s lightest wine bottle in an attempt to further reduce production and shipping costs and reduce environmental impacts. The new 300g bottles are 30 percent lighter than Tesco’s previous lightweight bottle  and much lighter, of course, than some of the heavyweight containers that one sometimes finds on the Wine Wall. Structural concerns require that the new bottle have a new shape – somewhere between the high shoulders of the classic Bordeaux and the soft silhouette of a Syrah or Burgundy. Tesco estimates that use of this special bottle will have 560 metric tons of glass that it uses to bottle the more than 10 million liters of wine that it imports each year and sells under its own label.

You don’t think of supermarkets as being especially innovative, but it is pretty clear that Tesco is using its market power to encourage innovation in the world of wine. Whether or not you shop at Tesco (or at its U.S. arm — the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets in the American southwest) you are probably affected its activist wine policies.

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