How Much Has the Strong Dollar Affected U.S. Wine Exports?

loonieLast week I wrote about the strong U.S. dollar and its impact on U.S. wine imports. My conclusion was that there was an exchange rate effect, but it was less than you might otherwise expect because of specific factors that are at work in the sparkling, bulk, and bottle wine import markets today.

This week we turn to U.S. wine exports. Econ 101 tells us that a strong currency discourages exports by increasing their cost to foreign buyers and this is an important factor. Thus, for example, we would expect U.S. wine exports to Canada to have fallen over the last year.

Loonie Times

The U.S. dollar has appreciated  dramatically against Canadian dollar (or “Loonie,” as they call it) over the past two years. After coming close to parity in 2014 the Canadian dollar nose-dived and it now takes in the neighborhood of C$1.45 to purchase one U.S. dollar.

After weathering the global financial crisis better than most countries, Canada has fallen victim to its dependence on natural resource exports, especially oil exports. As the price of oil has fallen the foreign exchange value of the Canadian dollar has plunged, which raises the cost of imports for Canadian buyers. They are feeling the pain.

How bad is it? The New York Times reported that the combination of drought in California, which raised agricultural goods prices, and the falling Loonie has resulted in  soaring imported fruit and vegetable prices. How high? Eight dollars for a head of cauliflower! Yikes!

Canada is largest single market for U.S. bottled wine exports so you would expect this situation to depress wine sales to Canada and to have a similar but perhaps smaller effect in other countries where the exchange rate shift has not been as extreme. Has it happened? Let’s look at the data.

us ExportsU.S Wine Exports by the Numbers

Here are wine export data for the first three quarters of 2015 as as provided by Wine by Numbers, a publication of the Unioni Italiani Vini (click on the chart to enlarge). These data show that U.S. wine exports actually increased in the time period covered here rather than decreasing as theory predicts. The story varies from country to country (as it did with imports), but the overall trend is to higher exports — exactly opposite of the textbook prediction. What gives?

A first answer is that perhaps it takes more time than has passed so far for the higher exchange rate value to pass through to higher import prices, higher wholesale prices, higher retail prices and then for the quantity effects (lower depletions, lower reorders etc) to funnel back. International finance theory has a whole chapter on how these lags can create distortions. There is something to this lag theory, but I think there is more going on.

A second factor, especially on higher value bottled wines, is branding strategy. Rather than raise price and lose market share, it is possible that some big players are absorbing lower margins to keep on the shelves and in the game abroad. How long can they do this? Some Argentinean wineries have been doing it for three or four years so far here in the U.S. It’s expensive, but could be worthwhile if things turnaround before too long.

A third factor, which applies especially to the bulk wine market, is that U.S. tanks are full of these wines with no indication that domestic consumer demand for them will pick up soon. Better to sell them off abroad as bulk exports than dump them out when they are too old and tired to find buyers.

A final piece of the puzzle is the duty drawback program, which I wrote about last year. This is a very peculiar U.S. government program that under some circumstances will refund import duties for a winery if it exports a similar U.S. wine abroad. Sometimes this makes it seem like exports subsidize imports and, as now, it might be true that imports provide rebated duty funds that can subsidize exports. To be honest, I am not really sure of the net effect except to say that there is an incentive for large integrated wine companies to balance imports and exports.

As we saw last week, while bulk wine imports have not surged due to the exchange rate effects, they have remained significant. This fact means that, for certain companies (especially larger wineries) importing and exporting the right wines to and from the right places, duty drawbacks can be significant.

General Conclusions

Looking back over these two columns, the first conclusion is that so far in this cycle the pure foreign exchange effects have largely been offset by specific forces in different sectors of the wine business and in different countries. Exchange rates matter, but they are just one of many forces at work. Since those forces are likely to be different in the future, it is important to be cautious in projecting these trends ahead too far.

I used to warn my students against trying to forecast foreign exchange rates. Too many variables. Too many unknowns. Exchange rates are the most difficult thing in economics to predict, I would tell them. But now I know that I was wrong. Wine trade may be more difficult because it is affected by all the forces that hit the exchange rate and a whole lot more.

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I encourage readers to drill down in the data provided here because there are a lot of individual country stories to be examined along with the big picture analysis I have provided here.

 

Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Wine Uncorked: The Rise of Big [Really Big] Box Wine

This is the fourth in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry. This week’s topic is how wine is becoming increasing “uncorked” and what this implies.

If you take the “uncorked” metaphor and add it to the “box wine” reference in the title, you might reasonably assume that I’m going to talk about alternative wine packaging — boxes, bags, 1-liter tetrapak containers and so on. That would sure make sense.

But you’re wrong. The box I’m talking about is big [really big] as in 20 foot ocean shipping containers holding maybe 25,000 liters of bulk wine in a “flexitank” bag.

Welcome to the New World of international wine trade — the ultimate ‘uncorked’ experience!

The Incredible Bulk

I’ve known about Big Box wine for a while — my 2009 post on “Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag [in the Box]” is one of the most-read articles in Wine Economist history. But I didn’t realize how big the big box wine trade had become until I received a Rabobank  report titled “The Incredible Bulk: The Rise in Global Bulk Wine Trade” earlier this year.

Rabobank’s report focuses on New World wine trade since 2001 and the change in the composition of wine shipments (in terms of bottled versus bulk) is dramatic. Bulk wine (the big box stuff) accounted for about 22% of New World wine exports in 2001 (the remaining 78% was shipped in bottle). By 2010 the bulk share increased to over 40% while the bottle share fell to less than 60%. That’s a near doubling of the bulk wine share of New World wine trade in less than a decade, an amazing shift that is all but invisible to consumers.

Big Green Wine

What drives the shift from bottle to bulk in New World wine trade? The short answer is Big Green, but green in two ways. Green, first, in the environmental sense. Bottled wine is both heavier and bulkier than bulk wine (glass accounts for more than 40% of a standard bottle’s total filled  weight). All else being equal (a big assumption in wine economics) shipping wine in bulk and bottling closer to the final consumer should lower the wine’s carbon footprint.

Tesco, the world’s largest wine retailer,  is reported to be particularly aggressive on this front with bulk wine imports being bottled in screw cap-topped lightweight glass for its high volume private label brands. (Click here to read about their very green “furnace glass” wine bottles!)

Cost is another green (as in greenback) factor and there are savings here as well. Rabobank estimates that bulk shipping yields an average cost savings of $2.25 per standard 9-liter case (they estimate total annual savings of $142,300,000 in 2010 compared with the 2001 level of bulk shipments).  This is a very substantial saving for commodity wines of the type that often appear in private label brand portfolios.

The movement towards increased bulk wine exports started in the Age of Abundance, when surplus wine flooded the markets and it was important to move it as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Those days are now in the past; rising costs and tight margins are likely to make that $2.25 per case saving even more attractive to producers now, especially as they scour the world for supplies of wine (did someone say “Moscato?”) to supplement scarce domestic juice.

Subtracting Value Added

For vertically integrated international wine producers, the decision to ship in bulk and bottle in the domestic market is mainly about these cost savings.  They pay less to ship the wine and pay lower import excise, too, since the wine enters the country at the lower bulk value rather than a higher bottled value.

But more is at stake, as the Rabobank report notes, for wine makers who sell to third party importers. In this case bulk shipping results in a new division of value added in the supply chain, with less in the producing country and more further down the line. The impact is thus complicated: bulk wine shipment subtracts some value added in the producing country, although the lower overall cost encourages exports.

There are also relative price effects to consider. Bulk shipping increases the relative price of traditional bottled wine imports relative to bulk products, a difference that may be magnified as wholesale costs differentials are passed along through the supply chain.

Economic Impact: The Box

The standard 20-foot shipping container (a.k.a. “The Box”) revolutionized international trade when it became widely adopted. It changed everything (OK, maybe not everything) because it was so much more secure and efficient than the previuosly standard “break bulk” shipping system. One of the things it changed was the scale of international transactions because the greatest economies were realized by those who could reliably fill ocean containers.

I don’t think the rise of “uncorked” big box bulk wine shipments is going to change everything in the same way the ocean container did, but I do think the effects will be significant. I’ll talk about this more in my next post where I consider how the world of tight, fat and uncoked wine is likely to unfold.

Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

Can Carmenere be for Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina — a game-changing wine that opens up new markets and upgrade perceptions in old ones? That’s the question I asked at the end of my last post.

An Unlikely Curse

Chile has earned a reputation for good value Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; this good reputation is ironically an anchor holding the industry back as it attempts to move upmarket. It will be quite a struggle to get consumers to pay more for established varieties of Chilean wines in the UK and US. New markets and new wine varieties may be the key to future success.

This is where Carmenere comes in. Carmenere is a variety that once produced famous wines in Bordeaux. But when vines were replanted after phylloxera, Carmenere was phased out because of its succeptability to a disease called coulure, which reduces yields. It thrived in phylloxera-free Chile, where it was mistaken for Merlot, an error only corrected in 1994. It is still unclear how many of Chile’s Merlot vines are really Carmenere.

Carmenere is a niche product here in the United States. If you take varietal Carmenere and blends together they account for about 0.2 percent of Nielsen- measured U.S. off-premises wine sales. Concha y Toro is the leading brand followed by Santa Rita and Root 1. By comparison, Chile has about a 2.7% overall share of the measured U.S. market by dollar value, so Carmenere is still quite small, but not insignificant. Total sales of all Chilean Carmenere and blends are less than the dollar value of revenues from Concha y Toro’s 1.5 liter Cabernet Sauvignon alone.

The first Chilean Carmenere that I remember seeing here in the U.S. was a line of wines called Oops, playing up the Merlot-Carmenere mix up. Here’s a nice Chilean Merlot … oops! It’s really something else! I remember trying a bottle and while the label was memorable it didn’t do much to establish Carmenere or Chile in my mind as a quality wine segment.

Carmenere Comes to Britain

Fast forward to 2010. Wines of Chile launched a big campaign in the key UK market called  Carmenere: made for Curry.  It was apparently quite successful, winning the prize for “generic promotion campaigns” at the International Wine Challenge Awards. The idea was to link Chilean Carmenere with Indian food (generically called “curry” in the UK), which is Britain’s most popular ethnic food category, and hope that Chicken Tikka Masala would do for Carmenere what Argentinean steak has done for Malbec.

But a big Carmenere tasting report in the July 2011 issue of Decanter raises some doubts about the quality of the wines, which is obviously a key factor in the strategy. Chilean Carmenere is a “work in progress” according to one of the panelists. Others suggested that Carmenere’s best bet is in blends (especially with Syrah), not as a varietal wine. None of the 132 wines tasted earned Decanter’s top 5-star rating and only 6 received 4 stars. Eight-six wines were “recommended” and 35 were named “good value” (Chilean good value — of course!).

[By comparison, a June 2010 Decanter tasting of 255 Argentinean Malbecs produced four 5-star, twenty-one 4-star and 131 three-star “recommended” ratings.]

Interestingly, the panel suggested that the “overt, oaky, alcoholic, heavy-bottle wines” were made to appeal to the U.S. and South American markets and lacked the balance they’d need to find favor in the U.K. The tone of the review was not as dark as I am probably painting it here, but the conclusion was clear: there was nothing revealed in those 132 bottles that would fundamentally alter Chile’s reputation.

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

The Curry and Carmenere campaign was so successful in the UK that Wines of Chile brought it to the U.S. earlier this fall and we were invited to participate in a blogger tasting. Sue and I asked two of my “Idea of Wine” students, Marina Balleria and Mike Knape, to join us.  Marina and Mike both studied abroad in Chile and brought local wine knowledge to the table as well as excellent critical thinking (and tasting) skills.

 We concluded that Curry and Carmenere is not a ridiculous idea (Mike reported a “perfect” bite with one of the wines and an onion empanada with a curry sauce), but not all the matches were equally successful. In any case, curry doesn’t have the same significance here in the U.S. that is does in the U.K. Even if Carmenere hit a home run with curry that wouldn’t automatically open up a very large U.S. wine market segment.

We found the alcohol and oak that the Decanter tasters noted, but Marina suggested that oak is part of what she expects from Chilean red wine, so this was a positive feature for her — a defining style. One of the bottles was heavy indeed — 1084 grams according to our scale, the heaviest bottle I’ve encountered since I started keeping track.  Not exactly in keeping with the “Chile is good for you” environmental theme. Most of the wines were more interesting when re-tasted the next day.
 So what did we decide about the critical question — is Carmenere the special one that will lead Chile into the next phase of its wine market evolution? Not yet — I think that’s the answer. We didn’t find the distinctive style and consistent quality that we were looking for although there were some we really liked (and — sorry! — thought were good values).
Project Carmenere is still under construction. When will it be finished? This is hard to say. Malbec wasn’t built in a day, although the Malbec boom, when it came, developed very quickly. Carmenere’s story may be the same — or maybe the time has passed when hot new red varieties can make wine drinkers swoon.
Either way I think it will be tough for Chile to achieve its 2020 goals but I think they need to try. Carmenere may be Chile’s best bet and I look forward to tracking its progress.

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Here are the wines we tasted for the Curry and Carmenere event. Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate and thanks to Mike and Marina (see photos above) for their insights.

Blogger Tasting Wine List

1- Emiliana Natura Carmenere 2010 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

2- Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $22

3- Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

4- Montes Alpha Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 90% Carmenere, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon SRP: $24.00

5- Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 / Apalta Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

6- Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 / Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

7- Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2009 / Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $20.00

8- Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon / Carmenere 2007 / Maipo Valley 40% Cab. Sauv., 37% Carmenere, 13% Cab. Franc, 10% Syrah SRP: $13.00

Chilean Wine at the Crossroads


When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.

Preaching to the Choir

Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious  Strategic Plan 2020  about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.

The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of  “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.

The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:

  • Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
  • Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
  • Country Image. Chile is good for you.
  • Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.

The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine  (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)

Audacious Goals?

Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production.  The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.

Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth.  Good idea, but easier said than done.

So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with  with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report  issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.

 Something Completely Different

Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even  negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.

It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so  “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”

There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.

Getting the Message Out

One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.

This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)

Is Carmenere The Key?

Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program.  Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?

A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.

Is Bordeaux Still Relevant?

The brand is Bad Boy Bordeaux

Is Bordeaux still relevant? Relevant to those of us in the United States, I mean. It used to define fine wine, but now we don’t seem to buy much of it – the momentum’s shifted to Asia. It’s just another “brand” to many Americans, and not one that is especially successful.

Shanken News Daily recently published Bordeaux export data that suggest that interest in Bordeaux has dropped off sharply in the U.S., now the world’s biggest overall wine market but no longer a powerful player in the Bordeaux game.

Bordeaux By the Numbers

Germany leads the Bordeaux export league table measured by volume with 2.9 million 9-liter cases in 2010. China, Belgium, the UK and Japan follow, with the U.S. and Hong Kong lagging behind.

Things change markedly when the ranking is by value not volume. Hong Kong received €251 million worth of Bordeaux wine followed by the UK, China, Belgium, Germany and then the United States and Japan. U.S. Bordeaux purchases amounted to €99 in 2010, down from €247 in 2008 (when the U.S. was second only to the British in Bordeaux imports).  Outrageous pricing is the problem, the Shanken report suggests, and not just the dismal economic climate.

U.S. importers paid €99 million for 1.3 million cases of Bordeaux in 2010, or about a bit more than €76 per case. Germany, on the other hand, paid €111 million for 2.9 million cases, which works out to less than €40 per case — a very different kind of Bordeaux. By comparison, Hong Kong paid €251 million for 0.8 million cases of Bordeaux for an average of over €300 per case. Obviously there are many Bordeaux wines and markets, not just one. And obviously the United States is not a leading player in any of them.

Vintage Arias

I was thinking about all the fuss that there is about Bordeaux, the annual en primeur circus and the critic ratings of these wines and suddenly I found myself humming an opera tune. What can opera teach us about Bordeaux wine? Maybe nothing! But please read on anyway.

Bordeaux’s problem is that it is so expensive. Opera has that problem, too. Opera is arguably the most expensive form of art. Large capital expenditures are required (have you priced an opera house recently?). The sets and costumes used in high end opera are so expensive that they are stored for future use and rented out to earn a few extra bucks. Opera is enormously labor intensive, too.  You need soloist singers, a chorus and an orchestra and conductor. Dancers are often also required. Most of these artists have trained for years and years, so we might add in human capital costs, too.

There may be some type of regularly produced art that is more expensive to make, but I don’t know what it is. It isn’t a surprise, therefore, that opera evolved as an art for rich elites and the opera houses became gilt palaces of conspicuous consumption. The tunes made it out onto the street, of course, and into the parlor, too, when sheet music publishing caught on, but the focus was on Grand Opera, the elite patrons who watched it and the elite artists who performed it.

Opera video: Champagne not Bordeaux and J. Strauss not R. Wagner, but you get the idea.

Elites and Masses

Opera soon went global as the influence of European elites spread to the Americas and Asia. You can still see evidence of this cultural flow in the beautiful opera houses scattered across the world wherever colonial centers emerged  and in faded news articles about the famous (if fading) touring opera stars who performed in them.

Then technology in the form of broadcast radio and recordings (and then television, dvds etc.) brought opera to the masses. Opera on the radio here in the U.S. began  in 1931 with the first Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. The regular Saturday performances, sponsored for years by Texaco, became  part of the common experience of American life. Opera really meant something.

But technology, which initially democratized opera, eventually became a corrosive force, too. Technology allowed opera to move from free broadcast media to pay-to-listen satellite radio and pay-to-view HD opera showings in movie theaters.  More significantly, however, communications technology opened up an alternative universe of tunes to whistle and performances to enjoy.

Back to Bordeaux

Opera lost its privileged status and became just another artistic niche. Attention was paid, as it must, because of the quality of the works and the sacrifices of those who organized and performed them, but opera’s high cost became harder to justify. Attention became focused on the tried and true “war horses” that would be certain to sell tickets. New operas were still written and sometimes performed, but not as often as one might hope. Opera still means something, but it is not the same.

It seems to me that the attention given to Bordeaux bears more than some superficial similarity to our attitude towards opera, although I naturally do not want to push the analogy too far. Bordeaux, like opera, used to be a signifier of taste both among elites who could afford it and the masses who could not. (And probably still is in Hong Kong and China.)

Like opera, top flight Bordeaux is a victim of its successes and excesses – now so expensive that even rich Americans balk at the prices. The focus is on those wines at the top of the 1855 Classifications and a few others that have been identified by Parker and other critics.

It is What it Is

But Bordeaux is not the only game in town. The globalization that made Bordeaux prices soar has also opened up a world of excellent alternatives. There are a lot of great wines; maybe Chateau Lafite is as great as La Traviata, but only a few will have the money, taste and opportunity to sample either one at its best.

I started this essay by asking if Bordeaux is still relevant and I have decided that it is, but in the particular way that great opera is still relevant.   Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture)  generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux. At least that’s how it looks here in the U.S.

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Reading this post, I think it is a fair criticism to say that I may have overstated the prior cultural significance of both opera and Bordeaux in order to make their current status seem like a great fall from grace.  This may be true about opera, but I’m not sure about Bordeaux. I see a great disconnect between the attention given Bordeaux and sales here in the U.S.

Another criticism is that I have ignored Bordeaux’s premier status in the wine auction market. This is true, although I am not sure if the fact that Bordeaux has become a prized “alternative asset class” investment necessarily weakens my argument.

Reimagining Chile’s Wine Identity

What do you think of when you think of Italian wine? Many people think first of Italy — the place, the art, the people, the culture and the food (OK, especially the food). The romantic idea of Italy sells Italian wine. Brand Italy is stronger, it is said, than any Italian wine brand and Italian winemakers have profited from this fact.

Changing Places

The relationship between country and wine image is reversed for Chile, or at least that’s the theory I found in a recent report called the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020.  The wines of Chile are the nation’s ambassadors to the rest of the world, the report asserts. The wines of Chile have a more distinct image than Chile itself (although of course the two are related) and so when people think of Chile they think first of its wines.

I am not sure that I completely agree with this idea — “Chile” conjures up many images and associations for me — but I am willing to consider it for the sake of argument. Certainly how we think about the wines of Chile has some impact on our attitudes towards this country more generally. Chile’s wine identity, as important as it is to people in the wine industry, may have an even broader significance in terms of international investment, export sales, tourism and so forth.

Good and Good Value

So what is Chile’s wine identity? Well, for most of the last 50 years Chilean wine has been synonymous with “good value for the money.” As I wrote in a previous post, Chile has been trapped in a vicious cycle of rising expectations that has made it difficult for them to increase price even as the quality of their wines has continued to improve.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I know that it is better to be known for good value than for bad value, but in today’s very competitive global market it is also good to have products that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for. The average FOB export price of Chilean wine hovers around USD 2 per liter or less than USD 20 per case. The appreciation of the Chilean peso in 2010 combined with the difficulty of raising the USD price has really put the squeeze on Chilean wine producers.

Chile is the most trade dependent of the top wine producing countries, according to the Wines of Chile report, exporting nearly 70 percent of their production.  Wine accounts for over 2.5% of Chile’s total export earnings. So enhancing the image of Chilean wine abroad by moving it upmarket is important.

There are several ways to define a country’s wine identity and this video illustrates the current theme, Wines of Chile: The Natural Choice. As you can see the theme connects the dots of factors contributing to Chile’s complex terroir and stresses the fact that that its phylloxera-free vines grow on their own rootstocks — a  nice “natural” connection.

But broad messages like this have their limitations since by definition they cannot thoroughly take into account detailed factors that may be important to understanding and promoting the wine.  The New Zealand wine tagline is “Pure Discovery,” for example, and here in Washington the motto is “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” None of these tag lines is especially stirring or sharply defining, although the key words — Natural, Pure, Perfect — have obvious appeal.

Is Carmenere the New Malbec?

Another way to think about wine identity is in terms of grape varieties, although this has limitations, too. If you think Burgundy  you think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example. And Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon. There is much more to the wine from these regions than type of grape, of course, but the iconic varieties are straightforward identifiers that confused New World consumers can easily understand.

Wine in Chile is really about three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere. Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc together account for more than two-thirds of all wine grape plantings in Chile. These wines can be very good, but it must be said that they are cursed with that “good value” label that will be hard to shake no matter how many Wine Spectator Top 100 awards they receive.

Carmenere represents only 7 percent of vineyard plantings now, but it is seen by many as the breakthrough wine of the future, a uniquely Chilean wine that has the potential to do for Chile what Malbec has done for Argentina. The Wines of Chile report has high hopes for Carmenere both as an export product and as a tool to redefine Chile’s wine identity. But it warns against cutting corners to capture low price sales. Carmenere needs to be a premium brand if it is to serve its useful symbolic function.

Blogger Wine Tasting

Which brings us to Syrah and Pinot Noir — not grape varieties that you usually associate with Chile. They were the focus of a recent tasting organized by Wines of Chile that brought together, if that is the right phrase, a virtual group of U.S. wine bloggers including members of The Wine Economist staff. The idea was to use new media to get out the message about Chilean wine’s new directions and to help establish its wine identity among younger tech-savvy consumers. We were sent wines to sample, literature to read and provided with online access to Chilean winemakers for interactive Q&A.

Are wines like these the way forward for Chile? Syrah and Pinot Noir are high value bottled wine exports (FOB prices of $4.66 and $4.08 per liter respectively in 2009 compared with $3.37 for Cab Sauv and $2.79 for Sauv Blanc) and so they may be useful tools in this task of getting consumers to rethink the wines of Chile and what they might be willing to pay for them.

(Math note: Chile receives only about $2 per liter on average for its wine exports because lower priced bulk wine sales drag the average down while higher priced bottled wine exports try to hold it up.)

I asked the winemakers to comment on the potential for these wines on the international markets. How can Chilean Pinot Noir differentiate itself from New World Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand? And how can Chilean Syrah succeed in the U.S., where Syrah sales are slumping?

Wine Economist volunteer tasting staff: Scott, Janice, Kevin and Jeni

Their responses were not very enlightening, but I blame the online environment for that, with the group of winemakers in a boardroom in Chile trying to answer questions submitted from thousands of miles away by faceless bloggers. Anyone who has been on a conference call knows the problem. But, like conference calls, this internet session facilitated a great deal of interaction even if it wasn’t completely satisfying and so the pluses outweigh the minuses. I’ll just need to follow up, that’s all.

Tasting Notes? From the Wine Economist?

No one comes to The Wine Economist to read tasting notes, but I thought you might be interested in the team’s reactions to the wines. On the whole we liked the Pinots a bit better than the Syrahs — we just found more complexity in the glass and more to talk about. That said, I noticed that when everyone was given the opportunity to take home a partial bottle, it was the Syrahs that disappeared. Interesting.

The Syrahs were better with food, which in our case included tasty empanadas purchased from Pampeana Empanadas here in Tacoma and bruschetta with Fontina and  Huerto Azul Myrtleberry Chutney with Merken, a Chilean product that was provided by Wines of Chile along with the wines and is available from puro-gourmet.com.

I was especially interested in how college students Jeni and Kevin reacted to the tasting since young consumers are a key wine marketing target and new media initiatives like this are often organized with them in mind. Jeni said that she had never purchased a bottle of wine from Chile — her image of Chilean wine was pretty much a blank canvas —  but that the tasting put Chile on the wine map for her and she was more likely to try these wines in the future. Jeni’s image of Chilean wine changed from invisible to positive — a good sign.

Kevin had tasted Chilean Pinots before — he comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is friends with many winemaker families. In Oregon, the aim is to be Burgundian, he said, and he was surprised by a couple of these Chilean Pinots. They weren’t exactly what he was expecting, which made him want to taste more to try to understand the Casablanca Valley terroir and the winemaker styles a bit better. Another good sign

Overall I would say it was a successful tasting that answered some questions and raised many more. The question of the future of Chile’s wine identity remains to be answered, however, so I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post.

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Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate in the blogger tasting and to Amber Gallaty of the thomas collective for making the arrangements. Special thanks to Sue Veseth, Janice Brevik, Scott Hogman, Jeni Oppenheimer and Kevin Chambers for their insights on the wines and the virtual tasting process. The photos are by Sue and Scott.

Here are the wines featured in the April 2011 blogger tasting

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