Deconstructing and Disentangling the Disintermediation of the Wine Business

Disintermediation was a hot topic in financial economics a few years ago — I built an entire economics class around it — and it remains a powerful idea even if it may be an unfamiliar word.  I think we don’t use the term so much these days because the concept is now woven into the fabric of our daily lives! Time to untangle it and see how it works, especially in the wine business.

Disinter … what?

Disintermediation refers to the process of “cutting out the middle man” — reducing the number of links in the supply chain by eliminating certain functions. If you’ve ever tried to sell a home yourself rather than using a real estate agent “intermediary” or bought or sold anything on eBay or Craig’s List then you’ve been part of the disintermediation movement to a certain extent. As the video above suggests, the quotidian activity of buying an airline ticket was once upon a time a middleman business. Not so much any more!

Commercial banks were the main focus of financial disintermediation back in the day. Banks and other financial intermediaries provided valuable services (that’s how middlemen earn their pay), but the incentive to borrow or lend directly through “securitized” products was strong and that’s why financial disintermediation started to occur. Disintermediation increased the apparent efficiency of the financial markets but also probably increased risk and volatility because some of the functions of the intermediaries were lost and the bank-based regulatory structure found it difficult to cope with the “non-bank banks” and other institutions that evolved. Or at least that’s my take on how the process unfolded.

Disintermediation still goes on today, but it has become so commonplace that we don’t give it much attention — until we are the links cut out of the chain! The advent of “crowd-sourcing” or “crowd-funding” websites is a good example of disintermediation. There are all sorts of ways to shorten the supply chain, both when it is a good idea and when it is not (sometimes it turns out the missing link was really important).

How Does This Relate to Wine?

Which brings us (finally) to wine. A Wine Economist reader writes to suggest disintermediation as a topic for a column and I think it is a great idea.  There are a lot of big and little examples of disintermediation at work in the wine industry.

On the big end of the scale we have giant firms like Tesco who now often source bulk wines directly from around the world and bottle them under their own labels (sometimes in their own plants) and sell them under house brand labels.  The streamlined process shortens the chain and cuts cost.

Disintermediation was part of the story for one of American wine’s biggest success stories of recent years — Two Buck Chuck (a.k.a. the Charles Shaw wine sold at Trader Joe’s stores). Most wine in America goes through the three-tier distribution system with its built-in middleman structure. But Bronco Wine, which makes 5 million cases of Two Buck Chuck a year, and Trader Joe’s took advantage of a provision in California regulations that allowed companies like Bronco to deliver directly to the retailer, cutting out a link and making it possible to profitably sell a two dollar wine. A lot of factors contributed to Two Buck Chuck’s success and this disintermediation was one of them.

Disintermediation works for medium sized firms, too, such as Naked Wines, which uses an interesting crowd-funding and direct sales model — their “angel” investors finance wine production and become a built-in direct-to-consumer market for the final product — that’s double disintermediation in a way. My helpful reader drew my attention to a direct wine retailer called Fass Selections. which aims to cut out two links in the supply chain for their wines: importer and distributor. That’s disintermediation, all right! Disintermediation isn’t everywhere, but there’s a lot of it around (tasting rooms and cellar door sales?), even in places you wouldn’t think to look.

 Down Under Disintermediation

My favorite example of wine disintermediation was a discovery that Sue and I made while walking through the big Queen Victoria public market  in Melbourne during our visit to Australia in September. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the big stack of wine barrels at the ReWine market stall.

refillers

The ReWine folks offer a carefully curated selection of wines that they have purchased in bulk from Australian producers. They sell them directly to consumers in the Queen Victoria and Preston markets — the bottles are filled from the barrel containers you see in the photos. Bring your bottle back to be refilled (like the wine “growlers” that are gaining popularity here in the U.S. where local law permits them) and you get a discount.

The wines range from basic dry red and dry white wines sold at a low price to some very interesting products on up the line including dry, sweet and fortified wines. There was a nice Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills on offer when we stopped by.

You get what you pay for in the basic range, we were told, as these wines are blends made for a particular price point like basic wines everywhere in the world, with more distinctive products at the higher price points. Something for everyone, I think especially for a wine economist like me!

These examples just scratch the surface of disintermediation in the wine industry. I visited with a  2500 case winery recently that seemed to build its entire distribution model around the concept of cutting out the middleman. Easy to see the incentive to do this and also to appreciate the risks.

Once you start to think about disintermediation you will begin to see it at work everyone, even in the world of wine. Keep your eyes open — it might not change everything, but it’s bound to have a big effect.

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Thanks to my economics-savvy reader for suggesting this topic. Thanks to Sue for the Melbourne photos.

Economic Effects of Washington Liquor Initiatives

This is the third in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws  (click here to read the first and second segments). How would Washington Initiatives I-1100 and I-1105 affect wine makers and wine consumers? Let’s look at wine makers first.

Wine producers in Washington are not united either in support of or opposition to the initiatives. One industry group, The Washington Wine Institute, publicly opposes both initiatives, for example, while the Family Wineries of Washington State supports I-1100 but opposes I-1105.

Winners & Losers

Both initiatives would create more avenues of competition for wineries by removing state restrictions that prevented discounted prices, negotiated payment schedules and so forth. Based on my conversations it seems that some wineries would welcome the opportunity to compete  using a fuller range of business strategies. They would like to be able to go after the business they want and to reward retailers and restaurants that carry the full range of their products or who make long term commitments.

Other wine makers are concerned that they may be disadvantaged in this new environment because they lack the resources or expertise to compete effectively. Interestingly, it is not just small wineries who want to avoid competition and not just large ones who embrace it. Obviously it is a complicated matter.

One wine maker candidly told me that it is hard to know if the gains will outweigh the losses.  This person saw obvious areas for new business expansion but realized there would be negative effects on margins and the need for more capital to accommodate extended payments. I sensed a very pragmatic attitude:  wine is a business and business people have to cope with whatever is thrown at them whether it is Mother Nature (a late harvest) or a change in state liquor laws.

My conversations reminded me of Olivier Torres’ discussion of the difference between French and American business strategy in his book The Wine Wars. American entrepreneurs, Torres says, look for new opportunities, taking risks, while the French business strategy is more about fending off threats. This is an oversimplified stereotype, of course, but it does seem to capture a bit of the wine war raging today in Washington state, where those with “French” attitudes are not necessarily from France.

Will Small Wineries Get Squeezed?

Television ads like the one I have inserted above suggest that small wineries would be especially hard hit by the new laws. A local news analysis of this ad raises some doubts about this claim (see  this King5 report). Will small local wineries get crowded off the shelf? Here’s my brief analysis.

I do think that large wine companies will have an advantage if the law is changed, but they have obvious economic advantages now, so this is nothing new. I would not be surprised to see big companies (Constellation Brands, Gallo, etc) increase their relative share of retail shelf space since they have the resources to offer discounts and incentives.

It is also possible that spirits companies and distributors will bring associated wine brands with them as they rush to fill their newly opened retail market niche if the initiatives pass, adding to the “crowding out” effect.  Retailers are trying to streamline their operations and reduced the number of suppliers they deal with, giving “drinks” companies that can supply wine, beer and spirits an advantage.

This effect will differ by type of retail account, of course, and be different for fine dining versus casual dining restaurant sales. In the supermarket segment, for example, you can already see differences in the relative incidence of the big producer portfolios in Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway stores compared with regional chains like Metropolitan Market.

Although small wineries might get somewhat less shelf space, they certainly will not disappear from wine shelves and restaurant lists. Wine enthusiasts value diversity and smart sellers fill their shelves accordingly. That’s why a typical upscale supermarket offers 1500-2500 wine choices, at least ten times the number of options in any other product category. Retail wine margins are high and sellers profit by catering to their customers’ desire for a wide range of choices.

I think the competition among smaller winemakers will be more of a factor than between the big corporations and the small family wineries. There are hundreds of small wineries in Washington state all seeking a place at the retail table. Right now it is pretty difficult for the maker of a $40 Walla Walla Syrah to get shelf space (or distributor representation) and many producers are sensibly reconfiguring their business plans to focus more on direct sales. This will remain a good strategy if the initiatives pass, but makers who want to compete for shelf space will have more tools at their disposal.

And That’s A Good Thing?

Bottom line: small wineries will get squeezed by the big boys, but other small wineries are the real competition (hence the lack of a consensus among wine makers) and the initiatives will make this competition much more intense.

Is this a good thing? Well, it will probably be good for many consumers who will benefit from lower wine prices. They will likely have more (but different) wines to choose from too. Whether the new choices will be better is bound to be a matter of taste. If, as some have suggested, big box drinks retailers Bevmo and Total Wine open outlets in Washington it will change in significant ways the market terrain.

At the Ballot Box

How am I going to vote? The issue is complicated enough that I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am unlikely to vote for I-1105, however, since it seems like a stumbling half-step towards market liberalization.

I find the wine market aspects of I-1100 appealing and, as an economist, I am programmed to believe in the benefits of competition, but I am still concerned about the liquor law changes. I don’t know how making spirits cheaper and more readily  available will help solve the public health and safety problems associated with liquor consumption. Many will disagree with this view and I respect their opinions.

I guess I’m going to have to weigh the pros and cons before I cast my ballot just like everyone else.

Anatomy of the Costco Initiative

Second in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws (click here to read the first segment).

A recent article on the Wine Spectator website does an excellent job of detailing the specific elements of Initiative 1100 (which I call The Costco Initiative) and I-1105 (a.k.a. The Distributor Initiative) as they pertain to wine. It is required reading for anyone interested in this issue.

For my part, let me approach the question in a different way: how would the initiatives affect Costco (and other wine retailers), wine distributors, wine consumers and wine makers in Washington state?  This post looks at retailers and distributors. I’ll address consumers and winemakers next time.

Costco’s [Big] Dog in the Fight

Let’s start with Costco, which is appropriate since it is a major backer of I-1100.  How would I-1100 affect Costco? Well, the most important factor is that it would allow Costco and other retailers to sell hard liquor, which is currently a state monopoly in Washington.  Other changes are important, but that’s the big one in terms of economic impact in my view.

What about wine? Not surprisingly, Initiative 1100 would allow Costco to be a much more efficient wine retailer.

First, Costco would be able to purchase wine directly from producers and could take advantage of more efficient central warehousing of alcoholic beverages. Costco would be able to negotiate volume discounts from producers and could benefit from other promotions (wholesalers must maintain uniform prices under the current law and are forbidden from providing retailer incentives). Costco could also negotiate payment schedules — current law requires that retailers pay for wine and beer at the time of purchase.

These changes would make the process of selling wine pretty much the same as other products by removing current restrictions. Costco would also be permitted to sell space on its wine shelves to producers (much as supermarkets routinely sell shelf space for grocery items), although it is unlikely this would actually happen. Costco does not sell space now in states where this is legal. Rather, like Wal-Mart I think, it simply asks for a lower wholesale price.

Taken together these market reforms would lower the cost that Costco pays for wine, savings that would be passed on to consumers. Costco’s normal mark-up on wine is 15% (17% for own-brand Kirkland Signature bottlings), so Costco’s existing absolute price advantage for the wines it carries would likely grow.

Don’t expect Costco to use these advantages to monopolize state wine sales, however. Costco has great wine prices, but it carries a surprisingly small number of wines at any time — about 100-150 different wine SKUs compared to the 1500-2500 that you can find at an upscale supermarket.

So while Costco wine sales will rise, there will be lots of room for other retailers, too. In fact, there is speculation that the market reforms will draw big box wine/beer/liquor retailers Bevmo and Total Wine into the Washington state market.

It is easy to see why retailers are backing I-1100. Their costs will fall and they should be able to sell more wine, which is a high margin item compared to most other supermarket categories.

 

The three-tier distribution system for beer (and wine).

 

The Impact on Distributors

It is also easy to see why distributors oppose I-1100 and why they back I-1105. Initiative 1100 privatizes liquor sales, liberalizes the alcoholic beverages market and allows retailers to cut out middlemen and purchase directly from wine, beer and spirits manufacturers. I-1105 is similar to I-1100 in most respects, but requires that the distribution step in the three-tier process be retained.

Distributors recognize that the ability of large retailers to bypass them and buy directly from producers and to demand discounts and other incentives is a threat to their business and it is understandable that they would oppose this.

Don’t expect distributors to disappear if I-1100 passes, however. Distributors play a vital role in connecting producers and retailers and, although they might lose some “rents” from their previous legal status, I can see where their role will change and might even expand in some specific areas as the overall wine market grows.

Larger distributors, who already have some economic advantages, might get an added edge if they are better able to offer retailers payment terms. Competition in general will increase, so there may be a shake out in this sector if I-1100 passes.

Fundamentally, I-1100 shifts market from distributors to retailers and will redistribute profits within each group, too. What about the people who make wine and those who drink it? Check back in a couple of days for analysis.

This Changes Everything? The Washington Costco Initiative

Everyone knows that the wine business is highly regulated. In France, for example, very restrictive appellation regulations govern how wine can be made and even more restrictive laws limit how it can be advertised and promoted.

French winemakers sometimes must feel they are fighting a battle with one arm tied behind their backs.

America’s Long Hangover

But they have an advantage over many American producers, who could be excused for thinking that both their arms are immobilized. The American appellation system is not as restrictive as Europe’s, but the complicated web of federal, state and local regulations makes selling wine, especially across state borders, costly and cumbersome. (HR 5034, which would impose additional barriers to interstate wine shipments, would make this problem even worse.)

In my forthcoming book I call this mess the American Hangover. The U.S. wine market has a hangover, but it isn’t from too much wine. It is still recovering from Prohibition. Most of today’s regulations can be traced back to the repeal of Prohibition, when the federal government retained some regulatory powers, but turned others over the states (and in some cases, to local jurisdictions, too) thus creating a mess that is difficult to untangle.

The Swedish Solution

Here in Washington state, the end of Prohibition coincided with two important initiatives. First, the state government seized control of liquor sales under a modified version of the Swedish system.

Sweden instituted a state liquor monopoly in the 19th century (which lives on today in the form of Systembologet) based on the logic that people want alcoholic beverages (and will find a way to get them if they are banned outright), so Prohibition isn’t really feasible. But if liquor sale is in private hands it will be actively promoted because of the money it spins off, leading to increased alcoholism and public health and safety concerns.

A state alcohol monopoly can provide wine, beer and spirits as a sort of public utility – people get the product at a high price  and at some inconvenient to simultaneously discourage but facilitate consumption. No profit incentive encourages marketing and promotion of alcohol. The state has a monopoly on off-premises spirit sales in Washington; beer and wine are sold both in state stores and by private retailers.

At the same time the Washington state spirits monopoly was put in place, so were laws meant to protect state wine producers from out-of-state (read “California”) competition.  Incredibly, the number of wineries in the protected market actually fell as the industry collapsed. Without outside competition to discipline local producers, Washington wine became a least-common denominator product. The typical wine was sweet and fortified (Thunderbird-class wine, if you know what I mean) and early attempts to produce quality wines were hampered by the lack of an active fine wine culture.

This Changes Everything

The bad old days of Washington wine.

Much changed in 1969 with the passage of House Bill 100, otherwise known as the California Wine Bill. This law allowed out-of-state wines more or less equal access to the local market. Cheaper California wines flooded in and people naturally bought them.  Unable to compete in the low end wine market because of their higher production costs, Washington wine makers were forced to turn up market.

The California Wine Bill didn’t destroy Washington’s wine industry, as many expected it would. It redefined it. The result (to skip a few steps) is the industry you see today, where even large scale wine producers (think Columbia Crest) make wines to a high standard and the best wines compete successfully with the finest wines in the world.

The California Wine Bill changed everything … or nearly everything. This market liberalization remade the competitive landscape in Washington and set up the growth we have seen in recent years.

Now Washington voters are being asked to consider another set of potential market changes in the form of two initiatives on the November ballot. You might call them The Costco Initiative (I-1100) and The Distributor Initiative (I-1105). Costco is the largest backer of I- 1100 ($1 million according to a Seattle Times article). Liquor distributors Young’s Market and Odom Southern Holdings are reported to have contributed $2.2 million to back I-1105 (and oppose I-1100).

Pros and Cons

Are these proposed laws a step in the right direction in terms of the wine industry in Washington state? Will they “change everything” like the California Wine Bill and in a positive way? Since so many people have asked me this question I thought I would devote some space here to considering the issues.

Both proposals would eliminate the state monopoly on spirit sales. State liquor stores would close and private retailers would be permitted to sell spirits along with beer and wine. Costco has an obvious interest in this as do Safeway (which has contributed $325,000 to support the initiative campaign) and even Wal-Mart (a $40,000 contribution).

The move from public liquor utility to private market is a big change, since it substitutes American capitalism for Swedish socialism. Many people will understandably decide how to vote based on this factor alone. There really are public health and safety concerns associated with potential increased consumption of spirits and it is a fair question to ask if more active promotion of these products and more convenient access to them is in the public interest.

Even wine enthusiasts like me who consume alcoholic beverages every day may oppose these reforms, since we often claim somewhat self-righteously that wine is a temperance beverage – different from hard liquor. I’ll admit it: if this was just about letting Safeway and Costco sell vodka and tequila, I would vote against both the initiatives.

But there is more to the proposals than privatizing liquor sales.  How would they change the wine (as opposed to spirits) market? Who would win and lose? Look for answers to these questions in the next Wine Economist post.

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!

Stag’s {Stags’} (Stags) Leap

The Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association has invited us to their  V2V (Vineyard to Vintner) program later this month and we are looking forward to the event.

I have a particular interest in the Stags Leap District. My study of wine economics can be directly traced to a conversation with one of this area’s leading winemakers in his cellar many years ago. I’m looking forward to this focused opportunity to learn more about the Stags Leap District today and see what has changed since my last visit.

Money, Wine and Lawyers

The first stage of my research to prepare for the Stags Leap trip took an unexpected turn that reminded me of Warren Zevon’s song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most stories of famous wine regions are about places, faces and wine. They start with places (the terroir), then move to faces (of the famous winemakers who helped establish the region’s reputation) and end with the wines themselves.

Stags Leap AVA certainly has the terroir. The district, about six miles north of Napa on the Silverado Road, is marked by a 1200 foot vertical basalt palisade that is both landmark and a source of the particular soil and microclimate that helps define the district. The growing season is longer in Stags Leap than in other parts of Napa Valley, with bud break coming two weeks earlier. The grapes ripen more slowly during their longer time on the vine, which seems to have a positive effect.

Stags Leap has it famous wine faces, too. The most notable is Warren Winiasrski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A former lecturer in Greek at the University of Chicago School of Social Thought, he was one of the early movers in Stags Leap. His second vintage, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, was declared the red wine winner at the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting that Steven Spurrier organized to test California wines against the French originals.  (You know about this event if you’ve read George B. Taber’s excellent book on the subject or seen the fictionalized film version, Bottle Shock.)

(Incredibly, the winning wine was made with grapes from three year old vines — infants! Unfortunately, according to my sources here, the vineyard was not in the Stags Leap District but rather farther north in Napa Valley. It established the winery’s and the region’s reputations at once.)

There is even a hallmark Stags Leap style — “perfumey fruit” according to Bruce Cass, although not every wine is made in a way that highlights this.

Lawyers, Wine and Grammar

So where do the lawyers come in? Well, the first thing I did when I started this project was to grab my copy of James Halliday’s classic Wine Atlas of California. Halliday devotes seven pages to Stags Leap places and faces and its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines. But he begins his report with the most controversial part of the AVA’s history: its name and the legal battle over the the valuable intellectual property rights (IPRs) associated with it.

The area takes its name from the legend of a prodigious jump that a stag (or maybe several stags) took on the palisade while fleeing hunters. Warren Winiarski naturally included this colorful reference in the name of his winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, when he founded the operation in 1972.

But so did Carl Dounami, who started founded Stags’ Leap Winery just up the road, also in 1972.  Two wineries, two strong personalities — they battled for years over the right to the Stag’s / Stags’ Leap name. More than an apostrophe separated them, of course, although any grammarian can tell you that where the apostrophe is placed makes all the difference.

The right to label your wine with some variation of Stag’s/Stags’ Leap had obvious economic advantages and both winemakers wanted clear title to the designation. The IPR battle reemerged and intensified when the AVA was formed and its geographic lines drawn.

Clashing economic interests made the process of choosing a name and drawing AVA lines particularly contentious, according to Halliday. The compromise name — Stags Leap (no apostrophe anywhere, purely plural, nowhere possessive) settled the legal squabble, leaving the real task clear: making great wine.

Challenges Old & New

The old wine economics story of Stags Leap was about intellectual property. The new one — the one I want to explore when I visit later this month — is how the winegrowers are dealing with the current economic challenge and will respond to the future ones.

The current challenge, of course, is the continuing economic crisis, which has hit some upscale producers especially hard.

The future challenges? The future is hard to predict, but I’d suggest globalization (with its many threats and opportunities) and climate change, which would seem to be an especially scary prospect for a micro-region like Stags Leap.  But maybe I’m missing an even bigger story? I guess I’ll have to go there and find out!

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Here’s Warren Zevon performing “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”  Feel free to sing along, adding wine and grammar references as necessary. Enjoy!

Book Review: From Demon to Darling

Richard Mendelson, From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America. University of California Press, 2009.

There are many ways to tell the story of wine in America. Wine is a people story (Gallo and Mondavi, Parker and Vaynerchuck), a story of nature and terroir and even, at times, a tale of popular culture as indicated by Sideways, Bottle Shock and the rise of celebrity winemakers. Readers of this blog will know that I think wine is very much an economics story, too.

Richard Mendelson believes that wine is also a legal story and I think he makes a good case. Especially in America, I don’t think you can understand wine without an appreciation of its legal history. This is therefore a very timely and useful volume.

Wine, Bad Wine, and More of It

Changing social attitudes toward alcohol in general and wine in particular obvious affects the legal environment in which wine is made, sold and consumed. The law story is therefore also a social and political story with many unexpected twists and turns. I found many useful nuggets of history as I followed Mendelson’s historical narrative.

The discussion of wine during Prohibition is particularly memorable. Did you know that wine consumption in the United States increased during Prohibition? Commercial wine sales were restricted, of course, limited to a few categories such as medical wine and wine for use in religious ceremonies.  But households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of “bathtub” wine each year for their own use, a significant loophole.

Vast quantities of poor quality homemade wine more than replaced the  better quality but now illegal commercial products. Winegrowers shifted from quality grapes to varieties that could best survive the long train ride to market. Supply and demand both deteriorated in terms of quality, but quantity actually improved.

Please, Sir. May I have More?

I guess I knew the basics of federal wine regulation and the AVA geographic designation system before I read this book, but I found the legal history very revealing. Now I understand why the early AVAs were so crude in terms of defining terroir — they were based, more or less, on the borders of local telephone services and aligned very poorly with winegrowing realities. No wonder there has been continuing pressure to expand, refine and redefine AVAs ever since.

I wish that Mendelson had gone into greater detail regarding today‘s legal wine sale environment, the resulting patterns of wine regimes in the various states and the three-tier system that services them. His basic outline of the current situation is fine, but I’d appreciate more details and state-by-state breakdowns. But maybe that’s beyond the scope of this book.

One test of a good wine is that you want more of it. Who knew that a book on wine law would leave me begging for more? Highly recommended!

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NB: More and more books are being published without full reference “backmatter” to save printing costs, a practice that makes them less useful as research tools even if it does make them more accessible to cash-strapped readers. Joe Stiglitz’s new book on the economic crisis, Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, for example, has endnotes aplenty, but no bibliography and no index.

No index! Sure hope you caught all the important points the first time through because it will be hard to track them down again.

In this light, I want to commend the University of California Press for keeping up scholarly standards. This book has 190 pages of text followed by 68 pages of notes, ten pages of bibliography and a usefully detailed index.

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