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.

Good News & Bad News from Oz

Sometimes the good news is that the bad news could be much worse. At least that’s how it seemed to me when the wine economists met at UC Davis last week to discuss the continuing Australian wine crisis.

Kym Anderson, a leading expert, spoke about the problems in Oz at the symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” and I thought his assessment of the “challenges” Australia faces was pretty grim.  Big oversupply. Falling grape prices. More and more quality grapes sold off at fire-sale prices in the bulk market (40% this year compared to 15% in the past).

The best selling white wine type in Australia isn’t from Australia any more — it’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even the Australians are tired of “Brand Australia” Chardonnay!

Maybe, Baby

Professor Anderson looked for a light at the end of the tunnel and was able to point to some potential sources of relief. Maybe water reforms could be implemented. Maybe R&D to help the industry deal with climate change would produce results. Maybe the new export strategy to promote Australia’s regional diversity and wine families would catch on. Maybe the China market will open wider and drink up the surplus.

Since the bad news was so compellingly concrete and the hopeful notes so speculative, I took the overall forecast to be very dark indeed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I attended a talk by another Australian expert the next day who described  Anderson’s presentation as optimistic! When the good news is this bad, the bad news must be really bad.

Bad News, Bad News

Sure enough more bad news arrived shortly thereafter in the form of a Wine Spectator article, “Aussie Wine Company Faces Angry Creditor,” concerning the financial problems of The Grateful Palate group, which exports many hot brands to the U.S. market including the unlikely-named Luchador Shiraz shown here.

Trouble is brewing in Australia. The Grateful Palate’s Australian affiliates, which produce wine under labels such as Bitch Grenache, Evil Cabernet Sauvignon and Marquis Philips for American importer Dan Philips, are in receivership and face the danger of possible bankruptcy. Growers and other creditors for the South Australia-based affiliates of the company received notice on June 18. Many growers, already facing tough times, worry that they’ll never get paid for fruit they sold Philips.

Philips, the company’s founder and owner, confirmed that he is in negotiations with his top creditor, Dutch lender Rabobank, but declined further comment. The bank initiated the action to put Grateful Palate International Pty Ltd and several related Australian companies into receivership. The most prominent is R Wines, a partnership with winemaker Chris Ringland, but 3 Rings, a joint venture involving Philips, Ringland and grower David Hickinbotham, is also part of it.

This is bad news, of course, but bad news is no longer a surprise to those of us who are following the Australian wine scene. Perhaps it is really good news of a sort — an indication that the necessary industry shake out is gaining speed. Hard to tell good news from bad.

Darker or Brighter?

The same situation applies to the Foster’s de-merger situation. Foster’s, the Australian beer giant, bought into the wine business at the top of the market, paying an estimated $7 billion for an international portfolio of about 50 top brands including Penfolds, Wolf Blass and  Beringer. The investment may be worth as little as $1.5 billion in today’s market.

Foster’s beer business is an attractive target for global giants like SABMiller, but not with the wine portfolio attached. So Foster’s announced a de-merger to allow the beer group to move ahead independently of the wine group. What will happen to the wine business?  Who will buy these assets in today’s depressed environment?

When I posed this question to an Australian winemaker several weeks ago the answer came back quickly: China! Everyone in Australia is paranoid about the Chinese buying up our natural resources, and so we are convinced that they will buy up Foster’s wine business, too.

Interesting idea, I thought at the time. No multinational wine firm (Constellation Brands? Gallo?) would want to go bigger right now. But maybe a Chinese firm that wants to break into the global markets would take the bait. Might make sense. Maybe.

Bright Idea

Sure enough, the Bright Food Group. (Mission: “To build the company into a leading enterprises group in the national food industry, with famous brands, advanced technology, strong competitive power and deep influence in the world by the end of 2015.”)  recently signed a three-way memorandum of understanding with the New South Wales government and the China Development Bank to explore opportunities for the Bright Group to invest in the sugar, dairy and wine industries.

A Financial Times article reports that  the company is interested in “global top ten players in wine, sugar, food packaging, commodities and healthcare sectors.” Bright Food is currently studying both wine and beer assets in Australia, but has not decided to buy either yet according to the FT.

Many Australians no doubt consider the potential sale of yet another natural resource business to Chinese buyers bad news in terms of their economic sovereignty, but that bad news might actually be the best news they can expect given the sorry condition of the global wine market today.

The {Wine Economics} Magnification Effect

One of my pet theories about globalization could be called “the magnification effect.” Although global markets change things for sure, often their biggest effect is to magnify or exaggerate existing trends and conditions. A Decanter report from Bordeaux provides a good example of how the Magnification Effect works.

The Law of One Price

Although people talk about “Bordeaux wine,” there has never been a “Bordeaux wine market.” The Law of One Price holds that if there is a single market there will be a single price. But it is the difference in prices that is Bordeaux’s most notable feature. Some wines from the region sell for thousands of dollars, others for a few bucks and some … well they go to the distillery for mere pennies.

This market segmentation occurs in all wine regions, but it is more noticeable in Bordeaux because these wines have always been targeted for export (the globalization element) and so price stratification is more pronounced.

Students of wine history know that Bordeaux is in fact defined by these differences. The Classification of 1855, which established a strict hierarchy of Medoc wine producers that persists to this day, was not based upon sensory evaluation, as you might expect, or critical analysis but simply on market price.

The gold's at the top ...

The Twilight Zone

Over the years, as global markets expanded, the price differentials recognized in 1855 became embedded in the market and magnified. The Decanter article illustrates the current extreme. Announced prices for 2009 are substantially higher for the 400 top-tier Bordeaux wines that are sold en primeur: up an average of 18.6% over the 2005 “vintage of the century” and 48.7% above the recession-plagued 2008 market. Good times for the top names, as Orley Ashenfelter pointed out on two occasions during the recent American Association of Wine Economists meeting at UC Davis.

But there are thousands of wine producers in Bordeaux and times are very hard for many who are not in the top tier. Decanter reports that

…  the official price paid by merchants for a tonneau (900 litres, or the equivalent of 1,200 bottles sold in bulk) of AOC Bordeaux red has dropped to around €600 per barrel – less than the ex-chateau price for a single bottle of any of the top wines.  Most producers report that actual transaction fees are dropping as low as €500 per tonneau. Bernard Fargues, president of Syndicate of Bordeaux (which represents over half of the regions’ 8,000 winemakers, all producing AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Superieur) told decanter.com that around 90% of his members were in difficulty, with at least 50% suffering serious financial problems.

If my math is right, some Bordeaux wines have fallen into the Two Buck Chuck danger zone while others have risen to … to what? The Twilight Zone!

This magnification effect has become global, as was readily apparent at a symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” held in association with the Davis meetings. Speakers emphasized the widening market segmentation. Bulk wines (wines that sell for less than $5 per bottle equivalent and often for much less) have developed a truly global market in part, as several speakers noted, because bulk wine buyers aren’t particularly interested in terroir — they basically don’t care where their wine comes from, only what that it has a familiar taste and doesn’t cost very much.

Somewhere vs. Nowhere at Trader Joe’s

I noticed this on a recent visit to Trader Joe’s where a new line of Two Buck Chuck has appeared — Charles Shaw International wines, sourced from Australia’s surplus wine lake and selling for the same low price as the original product. I don’t imagine that anyone will refuse to buy it because it is “international” rather than from the San Joaquin Valley like the rest of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

Bulk wine prices are deeply depressed because of this mass global market, squeezing out inefficient producers (or those who don’t benefit from government subsidies of one sort or another). Profits per acre in the San Joaquin Valley (where most of California’s bulk winegrapes are grown) is down to $200 acre — an amount so low that growers are switching to other crops such as walnuts and almonds where the global competition situation is more favorable. One grower who attended the symposium talked of leaving fruit on the vine for the first time in 25 years.

If the market for bulk wines is global, I guess you could say that the premium wine market is “international.” Buyers do care about where these wines come from and so global sourcing is not an option. This exposes producers to a different set of risks and rewards. Australian winemakers, for example, find themselves victim of the strong Australian dollar. China’s huge needs for Australian minerals has driven the currency up and helped price Australian premium wines out of their traditional market niches.

The Law of Yuan Price

(The exchange rate obviously affects the bulk wine market, too, and is one factor in Australia’s excess capacity in that market segment. The exchange rate depresses price both directly, by raising export costs, and indirectly as unsold premium wines are diverted to low-price bulk wine markets.)

Wines at the very top of the pyramid also face challenges, but they are different from those of bulk wine and premium wine. Globalization is a positive benefit to top-flight Bordeaux, for example, because it means that Hong Kong and Chinese buyers can be found to replace (or apparently more than replace) declining buyer interest elsewhere.

Decanter recently published their first Chinese language Bordeaux report — a clear indication of the expanding global market and a suggestion that the Magnification Effect has not yet reached its peak.

Secrets of Argentina’s Export Success

#1 Wine

Argentina’s wines are hot here in the United States. Recent Nielsen Scantrak off-premises  data show a 38.7 percent dollar value rise in sales of Argentinian wines for the 52 weeks ending April 3, 2010. That’s an enormous percentage increase, much greater than the total market (up 3.5 percent) and a good deal above the next biggest gainer (New Zealand with a 17.2 percent rise).

What’s Argentina’s secret?

The secret? As usual, there is no one simple answer. There are important factors on both the supply side and the demand side: good products, the right products at the right time and favorable economic policies.

Argentina produces excellent wines. Decanter magazine recently (June 2010 issue)  published a report on Argentinian Malbec that featured the largest tasting in their history — a record 255 wines. Four of them received  five stars, the highest designation. The Achaval Ferrer Mendoza 2008, which often sells for less than $20 here in the U.S., led the pack with 19/20 points.

Argentina is fortunate to be producing wines for the times. Many Argentinian wines are good values at a time when consumers are careful with their money and they represent good choices for ABC (anything but Chardonnay) and ABS (anything but Shiraz) buyers.

International Influences

#1 Export Brand

Argentina’s economic policies are another consideration. The favorable dollar/peso exchange rate contributes to Argentina’s competitiveness on the export market. And although I don’t know very much about them, I think that barriers to foreign investment in the wine industry must not be very high because so many important producers have international connections.

Bodega Colome is owned by Donald Hess of Switzerland, for example, who also owns The Hess Collection in the United States. Achaval Ferrer is a joint venture with a Montalcino winemaking family. Bordeaux wine investors are players in Diamandes and Clos de los Siete. O Fournier’s owner is Spanish. Cheval des Andes is a joint venture of Moët Hennessy’s Terrazas de los Andes and St-Emilion’s Cheval Blanc. Bodega Norton is owned by the Swarovski family of Austria (famous for their crystal.) Dig deeper and you’ll find even more international money and talent at work.

Top Export Brands

These are good reasons for Argentina’s recent success, but a recent article on WineSur.com titled “The Top 5 Export Brands” got me thinking that there might be other factors at work. I was particularly intrigued by the table showing the top bottled wine export brands to different markets. I’ve pasted the table below so that you can analyze it along with me. Click on the table to read the full article and view a larger image of the data.The first thing I noticed is how heavily weighted Argentina’s recent exports are toward the North American market. Britain, still the most important wine market in the world, has much lower export volumes as shown here. I suspect that one reason for this, however, is that these data are for exports of bottled wines (including bag-in-box and Tetra-Paks) and I’ll bet that Tesco and some of the big supermarket chains import their Argentinian value wines in bulk and bottle them in the U.K as house brands. Those export sales don’t show up here.

The second thing that caught my eye was the wide range of export prices. Alamos, the U.S. leader, sells for $30.57 per case export price, about the same as #2 Don Miguel Gascon. Marcus James, the top export wine in volume but only #3 in value, sells for just $12.54 per case.  Catena, the #4 brand, exported just 39,000 cases in the time period under consideration, but received an average of $64.97 for each one. Argentina’s exports to the U.S. (and the other markets shown here) span the price spectrum — another advantage.

Location, Location, Location?

Finally, I became interested in the particular brands that topped the export market tables and I think I discovered another secret weapon: distribution. It’s a cliche that in business the three most important things are location, location, location. Location is important in wine, too (ask any terroirist), but efficient distribution sure makes a difference and Argentinian producers have been wise in making good use of the most efficient distribution networks in each country.

Alamos has the highest export earnings by a good margin — why? Well Alamos is made by big gun Bodega Catena Zapata. It is a value line and is imported and distributed by the Gallo company. I suspect that Gallo’s large and efficient distribution network and its marketing prowess are reasons for Alamos’s great success. Significantly, Gallo also handles Don Miguel Gascon, the #2 export brand.

Marcus James, the #3 export brand, is a Constellation Brands product and is also backed by substantial marketing and distribution power. I was actually surprised to see Marcus James on this list because I didn’t realize they sold Argentinian wine. Guess I need to pay closer attention.  They used to source their wine from … Brazil!

Fuzion (a Shiraz-Malbec blend, I understand) is the best seller in Canada. It is made by Familia Zuccardi and distribution is one of its advantages, too. In Canada government wine and liquor shops are key sales vectors. The support of Ontario’s Liquor Control Board (in addition to successful viral marketing) seems to have made Fuzion a hit in a market that is otherwise very difficult to penetrate.  (At one time the Ontario Liquor Control Board was the world’s largest retailer of wine. I think Tesco is #1 today.) Distribution is key and both Alamos and Fuzion seem to have it.

Cracking the Chinese Wine Market

Portuguese Wines in Beijing

President Obama wants to double U.S. exports within five years. With this in mind he recently sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation in Wine-Related Businesses. The press release says that

The United States is one of the leading wine-producing countries in the world, and American wines have been growing in stature internationally for decades as people around the world have learned what American wine producers and consumers have known for years: American wines are outstanding,” Locke said. “Working with the Hong Kong government, we want to create opportunities to heighten exposure to American wines in Hong Kong and the region. This MOU will help do just that.

“Hong Kong and the region” … I think that would be code for China. Everyone wants to crack the Chinese market, something that is easier said than done. I’ve written about this problem before (see “Wine and the China Syndrome”). Sean, one of our recent graduates, wrote his senior thesis on the challenges and opportunities of exporting Washington wine to China. Sean identified a number of significant political, economic and cultural barriers that American wine exporters must overcome. He was optimistic regarding the long term, but very cautious about short term success. (Secretary Locke, you might want to give Sean a call.)

Cracking the Chinese Market

Everyone looks hungrily at China with its growing economy and expanding consumer base. But it is hard to break in. Bulk wine imports are substantial (imported wines get blended with local products and labeled “Chinese wine”), but at unsustainably low prices. No future there.

France and Spain have had better luck. The French have been able to leverage their reputation and the prestige of their finest producers to carve out a attractive niche markets for Bordeaux and Champagne as luxury products.

The Spanish achieved success through old fashioned hard work. They have partnered with Chinese wine producers in both production and distribution. If Chinese wines are improving in quality (and I understand they are) then this is at least in part due to technical improvements facilitated by joint ventures.

Miguel Torres has been particularly active in partnerships and ventures of all sorts. You might be interested in their everwines project, which was recently launched in an attempt to develop a western style Chinese wine culture. If you check out the site be sure to click on the Online Shopping link to purchase a variety of international wines in the $20 range and also Opus One for about $550 and a first growth Bordeaux for more than $1200.

Any Port in a Storm

The U.S. is obviously not the only wine producing country with China on its mind and  I was pleased to receive an invitation from ViniPortugal to participate in their recent China seminar program and tasting of Portuguese wines. Sixteen winemakers flew from Lisbon to Beijing to present and promote their wines. A good chance to observe this Old World wine country’s China strategy in action.

Beijing is a long way to go for an afternoon tasting, so I was represented by my crack China wine research team, Matt Ferchen (Assistant Professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University) and Steve Burckhalter (who works as a translator for the Chinese public relations firm BlueFocus). Matt and Steve are former students of mine at the University of Puget Sound and keen observers of rapidly changing Chinese markets.

Matt said that he was impressed with the wines he tasted.

The first wines I tasted, and the ones I ended up liking the best, were from a cooperative called Adega Coop. De Borba.  A couple of the wineries were family owned and there was a kind of earthiness to the wines that I really enjoyed.  I was especially impressed with the Portuguese whites, which were all very crisp and I think would go very well with spicy Chinese food.

I find that most of the wines available in Beijing, both foreign and Chinese, are expensive and mediocre or cheap and bad.   Across the board the price to quality ratio was just excellent and I really hope that some of these wineries can find distributors here … [but] …there was only one of the wineries that had any presence in Beijing.

So the product is good and a good value. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the Chinese market puzzle.

Most of the representatives seemed rather disappointed that the turnout at the tasting was quite small and that many of those who were in attendance weren’t in the wine business (i.e. they didn’t see many prospects for finding distributors even if they found possible retail customers).  I was asking some of the representatives why Portugal seemed so far behind Spain in terms of entering the Chinese market, especially given what seemed to me the outstanding quality of their product.  The answer mostly just seemed to me a question of focus, that somehow the Spanish wine organization was just more aggressive about getting Spanish wines to China and advertising.

Steve also commented on quality and value — and the problem of focus and establishing reputation.

The[seminar] speaker, who I believe was a Chinese man from Macau, noted the long history of wine making in Portugal, the long time presence and popularity in Macau (“We drink this all the time in Macau”), the diversity of wines they are able to grow thanks to the wide range of different climates in Portugal, wines unique to Portugal – such as a “green wine” they grow in the North, which he reasoned would do well in China, being ‘fruity and sweet’ – and finally he also stressed that “Nearly all Portuguese wines are reasonably priced. It’s hard to find any in excess of 2000 RMB.”

He also expounded on why Chinese outside of the Southeast regions don’t care for white wines, which I found interesting. As for the growers and the distributors, there was some diversity to be found in “Brand Portugal”. Interestingly, some were insistent on showing tasters how they straddled both New and Old World wine making (actually, the speaker also touched on this, going on about a vineyard that had invited Australian winemakers to teach them in the ways of new world wine). Others, however, were insistent that they were exclusively Old World – “Portugal is Old World. How can it be New World – that’s not us.”

In response to how they were looking to position their wines, one of the winery reps said that they were looking to focus on promoting, above all, their grapes: the varieties, why they grow so well in Portugal, etc. And their other edge (which I heard from several people) is in pricing, “what you get for X RMB in a Portuguese wine is better than what you get for X RMB in a French wine.” That tended to be the dual answer whenever someone brought up how Chinese people generally went straight for French or Italian wines.

A Wineglass Half Full. Red or White?

Based on Matt and Steve’s reports you can be either an optimist or a pessimist regarding Portuguese wines in China. The upside is that there are many potential advantages, cost being one of them. It is obvious that Portuguese winemakers would like to be seen as a “value” fine wine and avoid the cheap and anonymous bulk wine trap. Good thinking.

But then there is a bit of an identity crisis. Old World or New? Well, both – a harder sell. Focus on regions or grapes (or both)? That requires a substantial sustained education program.

Even the most basic question is problematic: red or white?  Westerners know that crisp whites like Vinho Verde taste great with Asian foods – great to westerners, anyway. But, as has often been said, the first duty of wine in Asia is to be red.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Portuguese wines in China, especially if they can settle on the right focus and sustain the education/marketing efforts. But they have a long way to go.  Steve reports that “I noticed at a store (targeting Western tastes) last night the only Portuguese wines (out of hundreds and hundreds) were four Ports. Haven’t been to Carrefour in a while, but I bet it’s the same deal.”

Good luck to Portugal – and to American winemakers, too, of course.  China is a key market for the future. But scaling the Great Wall is a real challenge and many will fail in the attempt.

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