Book Review: Jurafsky on The Language of Food (with implications for wine)

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky is a Stanford University computational linguist who is fascinated by the way we talk about food. He’s written this provocative book that tells a series of stories that mainly trace the way that the language of food changes over time and how this is related to global cultural and economic exchange.

Turkey, turkey, sushi and ketchup

One story, for example, explain how the turkey, which is native to Southern Mexico, came to be named for the country of Turkey in England and here in the U.S. while acquiring names associated with India in France and elsewhere.

Another chapter traces the origin of ketchup (or sometimes catsup) back to China and then around the world to the familiar red Heinz bottle buried in the back of your refrigerator.  Great stuff if you are interested in food, globalization, history or language.

Unsurprisingly, I was hoping to read about wine in this book and I did both directly (the origins of the social custom of the  “toast” in spiced toasted bread that was dipped in wine to improve its flavor) and indirectly (vinegar, wine’s close relative, as the unlikely global connection between sushi, the food of Japan, English fish and chips, and a host of other delicacies).

Menu Language and Economics

The most thought-provoking ideas about wine actually came from the chapter of the language of restaurant menus. Jurafsky and his colleagues were able to amass a considerable database of restaurant menus for digital analysis. The data is both broad (there are hundreds of thousands of menus on the web) and deep (the New York Public Library has a historical collection of 10,000 menus dating back to 1843). So it is possible to analyze both how the language of the menu has changed over time and how if has evolved differently for different types of restaurants.

The menus don’t just describe food, they also list prices, which makes them interesting to an economist. What types of words are most associated with higher and lower menu prices? The researchers adopted the necessary control procedures (so that they were comparing apples with apples) and here’s what they found.

Language varied by the type of restaurant. Inexpensive restaurants tended to talk about the choice they provide their customers, which I suppose makes sense. Diners understand that inexpensive cafes often offer long menus and so standardized products are the norm. Choices (eggs as you like them, for example, or a dozen different flavors of dipping sauces and salad dressings) are a way to diminish the industrial quality of the experience.

More expensive fine dining restaurants don’t stress choice and, in fact, sometimes deny choice by having chef-chosen set tasting menus (sometimes even “blind” set menus where the list of dishes is not revealed when the diner maker her order).  Instead of stressing choice, the menus focus on the particular characteristics of the food, the origins of ingredients, and the nature of the preparation. Language literally “counts” here. There is a positive correlation between average word length in the menu descriptions and the price of the item. Each one letter increase in the average word length is worth about 18 cents!

You Said a Mouthfull!

Longer words and more specific terms are associated with higher menu prices. This is correlation not causation, of course, so it isn’t necessarily true that you and I see longer words or detailed descriptions and pull out our credit cards, but it could be true that these characteristics help us justify a higher price because they seem to signal to us higher quality. If wine drinkers have trouble avoiding the assumption that higher price signals higher quality, it’s not impossible that high-end diners respond to sophisticated word play.

Interesting finding: there seems to be a “spicy” or “exotic” tax. Menu items that include these words typically carry a higher average price than similar products without this designation.

So chicken you order at Wendy’s is about choice (do you prefer grilled or fried?) and at a fine dining restaurant it is about specific qualities and longer words (spicy Palliard of vegetarian-fed Draper Valley Farm chicken with exotic accompaniments), what about casual dining restaurants that occupy a vast middle ground?

Casual dining restaurants like TGIFriday’s, Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday have a menu language all their own, stressing how the food tastes or is prepared, but in very broad general terms. Chicken is tender. Steak is juicy, Crab is … real (because you might think it could be fake crab). Interestingly, terms of this type are all associated with lower prices! It isn’t that you are thinking that tender chicken is worth less, it’s just that a higher quality place wouldn’t need to tell you that the steak is juicy or the crab is real, but a less expensive restaurant would.

Jurafsky calls these “filler words” and they are the types of things you say when you have to say something but there isn’t anything better or more specific to say. The more filler words on the menu, it seems, the less distinctive the actual food items and the lower the price. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Language of Wine

So what does this have to do with wine? Well, it seems to me that the same sort of research could be done on the language of wine, both how it has changed over the years and also the way that certain types of terms are associated with different categories of wine. I’m going to start paying more attention to wine advertising, wine label text and wine reviewer descriptions.

Some off the cuff observations are inevitable. If box wines are the vinous equivalent of fast food, then it makes sense that they would talk about convenience the same way that inexpensive restaurants talk about choice. No sense dwelling on low cost since that’s obvious. It’s the way that the product can be made to accommodate your desires that matters.

Very detailed descriptions reign at the top of the wine food chain just as they do for restaurant food — and this is perhaps because indicators of place and craftsmanship are now almost universally seen as indicators of quality and authenticity. It’s not just food or wine, it is pretty much everything that consumers look for.

Maybe this is why so many AVAs have been created in the U.S. — having an AVA associated with your wine is important to its credibility even if the consumer doesn’t really know what or where it is (and even if it doesn’t really mean very much in terms of quality or style of wine). Sue and I enjoyed a nice Vioginier recently that got my attention because it came from the Clarksburg AVA. Clarksburg? You don’t see that every day. Interesting! Gotta try it (and it was indeed interesting).

I’ve inserted an image of the back label of that Viognier above so that you can read the text. Pretty upscale messaging, don’t you think? Even the average word length is impressive.

What about the wine equivalent of casual dining — branded wines selling in the $8-$12 range?  A quick look at some labels suggests that the descriptors are just as vague (“juicy,” “delicious”) as on the casual dining menus and they probably fill the same function — fillers to provide a little (very little in some cases) textual weight when more specific terms don’t apply. Sometimes, I have noted, the labels can have very little to do with wine at all — simple but perhaps effective filler.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that wine is bottled poetry, but I think there is even more to it than that! The language of food and the language of wine seem to have something in common. Food for thought for wine marketers and consumers both!

The Curse of Corporate Wine-Think?

When I wrote about the global financial crisis in my 2010 book Globaloney 2.0: The Crash of 2008 and the Future of Globalization, I focused on three forces that I saw as both key to the crisis and limits on global finance: misperceptions of risk, the excessive use of leverage and the resulting moral hazard, which produced the boom and then the bust.

Now, as I think about the reasons why corporations are not more dominant in the wine industry, I find myself returning to those same themes. Is this an important insight, or am I just a broken record? You be the judge!

Note: This is the final column in the current series on family wine businesses. This column is more speculative than the earlier ones — as many questions as answers! — reflecting the fact that it is difficult to generalize about either corporate wineries or family and private wine firms.

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Asking the Right Questions

Last week’s column ended by questioning the question of the curious success of family wine business. There are good explanations for the success of family-owned wine businesses, I wrote,  but sometimes they feel a bit ad hoc, tailored to explain a particular case and less capable of generalization.  And they often fail to fully account for the fact that many family wine businesses  either fail or, like the Taylor family, end going over to the dark corporate side.

The question of why family wine businesses are successful isn’t easily answered. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue isn’t why family-owned wine businesses are surprisingly robust and instead why corporate owned wine businesses are sometimes ineffective? Is there something about wine that turns smart corporate brains to mush (not all of them, but a few)?

Protecting Assets versus Leveraging Them

One difference that I have noticed about family wine businesses versus some of the corporations regards the role of key assets such as brand and reputation.  Many family wineries that come to mind seems to see their role as protecting brand and reputation so that they will continue to provide benefits well into the future. Some corporations that come to mind, on the other hand, seem to focus on leveraging brand and reputation in order to increase short run returns.

What’s the problem with leveraging a brand? Leverage has the potential to increase returns in any business, but it also increases risk. And one risk is that the integrity of key assets can be undermined by the leverage process itself.

An example? Well, I hate to pick on Treasury Wine Estates because they have seen enough bad news in the last few years, but one of my readers emailed me in dismay when a news story appeared about Treasury’s latest market strategy. I’ll use this as an example, but Treasury isn’t the only wine corporation that I could pick on and maybe not even the best example

One element of Treasury’s plan is to develop brands for the “masstige” market segment, which means taking a prestige brand and levergaing it by introducing a cheaper mass market product that rides on the iconic brand’s reputation. 

Masstige? Sounds like something from a Dilbert cartoon, which means of course that it is a totally authentic contemporary business term. Prestige fashion house Versace, for example, seems to have developed a masstige product line for mass market retailer H&M. The line was launched in 2011 and I’m not sure where it stands today. Maybe it was a big success? If  masstige  worked for shoes and dresses, how could it be a bad idea for wine?

I’m sure a prestige association helps sell the cheaper mass market products, but I can think of some examples in the wine business (Paul Masson? Beringer?  Mondavi?) where it might have undermined the iconic brand itself a little or a lot, which seems self-defeating. I know that has happened in the fashion field (think about how the Pierre Cardin brand was diluted by cheap logo products) so I imagine it could be a factor in wine, too.

Think Global, Source Global

Here’s another example. Regional identity is more important in wine than in some other industries and Treasury owns some famous “wine of origin” brands — wines associated with particular regions, which are valuable assets.  But my worried reader was concerned about Treasury’s plan to source globally to expand the scale of some of these regional brands.

“Building scale via sourcing breadth is one of the most critical platforms necessary for the globalization of wine brands,” according to the report. Gosh, that even sounds like corp-speak, doesn’t it? Logical, I suppose, but maybe locally-defined brands need to be locally sourced to maintain authenticity? Maybe consumers would be suspicious of a Stags Leap wine, to make up an example, that is sourced from Australia or some other distant place as a way of leveraging its brand power? I wonder just how flexible these terroir-based brand concepts are in the real world where consumers are the ones who decide what is authentic and what is bogus.

Cupcake Vineyards, a Wine Group brand, is an example of a multi-regional strategy that has been astonishingly successful, so it is clearly possible to build a globally sourced brand and perhaps this is Treasury’s model. But I’m suspicious of the idea of leveraging a place-specific brand through global sourcing. Does it make sense to try to turn icon Penfolds, for example, into a Cupcake look-alike? Maybe! But I worry that you’d lose what’s important about Penfolds in the process.

Treasury has no doubt studied this thoroughly and they are probably right about their strategies and I am probably wrong, but it seems problematic to me. I wonder if family firms are more likely to resist corporate wine-think and  try to protect key assets like a prestige brand or a regional identification while corporations are driven instead to try to leverage these assets to expand their market share? I am sure there are counter-examples to this theory and I can think of a few myself. I’d appreciate hearing from readers in the comments section below.

Global Market Moral Hazard

What about moral hazard? Some big wine corporations that have had troubles in recent years seem to have made the mistake of thinking that big global markets will soak up all that they (and the other big firms) can produce. It’s a matter of global-think. The global markets are huge. There’s always a market for another dozen containers somewhere in the big world of wine, or so it might seem, and so the risk of failure is misunderestimated, to use a GW Bushism.

In finance we would say that the false sense that the global market is always there to bail you out  leads to moral hazard and this is probably true in wine, too.  Moral hazard encourages excessive investment and promotes booms and the busts that often follow. What seems to be true for an individual company is not necessarily true for an industry and misunderstanding this sort of risk is downright dangerous in an industry like wine, which is by its nature subject to cycles and booms and busts.

If private- and family-firms avoid the tendency to think global when their markets are local and thus avoid misunderestimating risk and if they really do work to preserve rather than leverage key assets it might help explain their lasting power and influence. Lots of “ifs” there, but its a theory. What do you think?

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Thanks to everyone who has followed this series. Next up: what wine can learn from the analysis of the language of restaurant menus.

The Curious Dominance of Family-Owned Wine Businesses in the U.S.

Last week’s column about the rise and fall of the Taylor Wine Company of New York raises a number of interesting issues and one of them is the singular importance of family-owned and privately-held businesses in the U.S. wine industry and the very mixed record of publicly-listed wine corporations. In retrospect, a case can be made that Taylor’s downfall began when they made the initial move from family ownership to public corporation.big10

The conventional wisdom holds that family-owned and privately held firms can be very successful, but their scale and scope are necessarily limited. Corporations, it is said, can have better access to capital and may be able to negotiate risk more successfully because of limited liability structure. You might expect the largest firms in any given industry to be corporations and this is true in some industries, but not in others.

Wine Exceptionalism

Wine is one exception to the dominant corporation rule. Here (above) is a table of the ten largest wine businesses in the U.S. market (measured by estimated or reported volume not value of sales) for 2014 and 2003. The data are from Wine Business Monthly, which publishes an analysis of the 30 biggest U.S. wine firms each February.  I’m looking at just the top ten to keep the analysis simple, although I should note that these ten firms collectively account for about three-quarters of all wine sold in the U.S. You can find a link to the whole list at the end of this column.

Looking at the 2014 data, you will note that only four of the top ten firms (those in italics) are public corporations or subsidiaries of public corporations. The other six are family-owned or, like The Wine Group, privately-held and together they produce more than half of all the wine sold in America. The bias towards private- and family-ownership is even stronger if we look at the next 20 wineries where only a few corporate names like Pernod Ricard make the list.

The picture becomes even more interesting if you look at the list for 2003, the first year that Wine Business Monthly released its Top 30 report. Many of the players remain the same, but the names of three public companies (shown in boldface) that were in the top ten a dozen years ago have disappeared by 2014: Beringer Blass Wine (now part of Treasury Wine Estates), Robert Mondavi Winery (now part of Constellation Brands), and Brown-Forman Wines, which sold its big Fetzer wine business to Concha Y Toro in 2011 so that it could focus on spirits. Concha Y Toro is #11 on the 2014 list.

Looking closely at the 2014 numbers it is hard not to be impressed by the growth of family firms Delicato and Jackson Family Estates and also the success of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which seems to behave like a privately-held firm even though it is a subsidiary of a public one, albeit in a different line of business (Altria specializes in tobacco products, not drinks).

All in the Family

Family- and private-owned wine companies are if anything more important today than they were before the Great Recession. Why are family-owned wineries so vibrant despite their structural economic limitations?

The conventional answer to this question — and there is in fact a substantial academic literature dealing with family businesses and even family wine businesses — stresses the ways that family businesses take a multi-generational approach and are able to negotiate the trade-off between short run returns and long run value. Corporations, it is said, are sometimes driven too much by quarterly returns and end up sacrificing the long term to achieve immediate financial goals.

When business requires a long run vision, it is said, families gain an advantage. Wine is certainly a business where it is necessary to look into the future if only because vines are perennials not annuals like corn or soybeans and successful brands are perennials, too.

Another school of thought examines issues of trust and transactions costs within the firm and the ways that family ties can reduce internal barriers and make interactions more effective.  It is commonplace to say that wine is a relationship business and family firms may have advantages in this regard. I have knows some family wine businesses that even go out of their way to work with family-owned distributors and so forth.  I think one author saw family-to-family links (the Casella family and the Deutsch family) as keys to the success of Yellow Tail brand wine.

Maybe the Real Question Is …

There are good explanations for the success of family-owned wine businesses, but sometimes they feel a bit ad hoc, tailored to explain a particular case and less capable of generalization.  And they often fail to fully account for the fact that many family businesses (and family-owned wine businesses) either fail or, like the Taylor family, end going over to the dark corporate side. Family relationships can be good, bad or ugly — you cannot think of the Mondavi family story without channeling an episode of Family Feud) and not every new generation wants to stay in the business. So there must be something more here than simple families think long-term. But maybe we are actually asking the wrong question.

Maybe the question isn’t why family-owned wine businesses are so strong and instead why corporate owned wine businesses are sometimes so ineffective. Is there something about wine that turns smart corporate brains to mush (not all of them, of course, but maybe some of them)? Come back next week for some thoughts on this provocative question.

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You can view the February 2015 issue of Wine Business Monthly here. The story on the Top 30 wine U.S. wine businesses begins on page 40.

Why Haven’t Corporations Crushed the Family Wine Business?

The featured essay in the current issue of The Economist newspaper focuses on family businesses and makes the case that they are a surprisingly robust feature of post-industrial capitalism.

This struck a note with me because the next two scheduled Wine Economist columns deal with different aspects of family wine businesses.  The Economist survey, which is written by Adrian Wooldridge, would make great background reading to what’s coming up here.

All in the [Wine] Family

The conventional wisdom, as The Economist explains, is that family businesses were a natural fit with early capitalism, when trust was at a premium and finance mainly came from within the family or the firm itself. The principal-agent problem can be mitigated somewhat if principal and agent are part of the same family unit. And family members can be more reliable (and patient) sources of finance than others.

There are problems with family firms, however, which are said to limit their scale, scope and longevity. One problem is generational transitions, which are often difficult (in business as is other aspects of life). The British have a saying that it is “clogs to clogs in three generations” as the dynamism that built the family firm is dissipated and the business eventually shrinks, fails, or falls into the hands of outsiders. You can probably think of examples of this from your own experience. I have heard it said that it is “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” here in the U.S. and it amounts to the same thing.

The conventional wisdom, descended from management guru Alfred Chandler and others, is that the modern company is increasingly rationalized and best run by highly-trained hired professional managers not hereditary top dogs. The irrational, unprofessional family necessarily plays a smaller and smaller role.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generations

The Economist makes the point that successful family companies have adapted in many ways. In some regions (Asia is highlighted) and some sectors, they have achieved conventional wisdom-busting dominance.  Under the right circumstances, it seems, family companies more than hold their own again publicly-traded competition.

Would it surprise you if I said that several of The Economist‘s examples of successful family firms come from the wine industry? I hope not, because that’s one of the themes I aim to explore in the next two columns. What wine companies get spotlighted? The first is very old indeed. The family behind Marchesi Antinori has been in the wine business for 26 generations. Giovanni di Piero Antinori entered the Florentine winemakers’s guild in 1385. That’s a lot of family wine history!

The second example is very different. The Economist cites Bernaud Arnault’s family ownership of Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. LVMH is a world class luxury goods conglomerate with substantial investment in wine and spirits brands, but I’m not sure if it is as much a multi-generation family company as a closely-held company (especially compared to the Antinori). But the success is still important and, as you will see, privately-held firms play a role in my analysis, too, and stand in general opposition to Chandler’s orthodoxy.

Another informative example of this type is the Rupert family of South Africa. The Ruperts have built a considerable luxury goods empire through their Richemont holding company. Richemont controls many familiar brands including Cartier and Alfred Dunhill. Anton Rupert was an important force in the development of the contemporary South African wine industry and the family is today well-known for its South African fine wine projects including Rupert & Rothschild, Antonij Rupert and La Motte.

Beyond the South Sea Bubble

The last example given is Berry Bros. & Rudd, the London fine wine merchant that has been in business since 1698. The discussion of BB&R focuses on the ability of families to ride out short term crises while keeping an eye on the horizon. Once your business has lived through the South Sea Bubble, seventh generation company chief Simon Berry quips, you are ready for whatever the modern economy throws at you.

Berry’s comment actually understates the situation because all business have to deal with the disruptive consequences of financial crises and macroeconomic cycles. The situation for wine businesses is even worse because wine is fundamentally an agricultural product and so is subject to natural harvest variations as well as boom-bust “cob-web” cycles of high prices, over-planting and decline or collapse. Any wine business — public, private or family — must navigate an unusually treacherous sea.

What’s the key to the success of family wine businesses? And what happens when family firms turn corporate? It’s impossible to generalize because there are so many diverse factors, but I think we can learn something from case studies. Come back next week for the family boom to corporate bust story of the Taylor Wine Company. Cheers!

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This week’s Economist also includes a very short article about investing in wine.

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Creative destruction? The Who ta-ta-ta-talk about their genereation.

Premiumization: Is This the Wine Market’s New “New Normal?”

Is the current U.S. wine market the new “new normal” — can the recent upmarket shift in wine sales be sustained into the future? Two recent Wine Economist columns have detailed the surprising bifurcation of the U.S. wine market and tried to understand what forces are behind it. Wine sales below about $9 are stagnant or falling while upmarket sales revenues are increasing, with the largest percentage rise in the $20+ segment.

This is a surprising state of things, I argued two weeks ago, because the conventional wisdom once held that the Great Recession had created a “new normal” that centered on trading down behavior and discounting strategies. Not many people argued that we’d be “trading up” in the post-recession world.

And, as I noted in last week’s column, it is not clear that it is a simple return to previous behavior. I analyzed several theories for the change and concluded that none of them told the entire story, but together they explain the situation fairly well. So now we have to ask if those trends will continue — if the new market structure is the new “new normal” — or if the upmarket movement is unsustainable.

My answer — typical of an economist — is that it depends. It is really too soon to tell what will happen in the long run because there are so many unpredictable factors to consider. But since I asked this question I feel I ought to give more of an answer, so here’s my attempt at crystal ball gazing.

It’s too soon to tell about the U.S. market in the long run, but the current pattern is likely to be sustained for the medium term, although not necessarily due to the same factors that created it in the first place. Here’s my reasoning.

Decline and Fall of Down-market Wine

Inexpensive wines are not going away, but it seems unlikely that they will soon return to solid growth. This might be because of the alleged “bad wine” effect that I talked about last week, but it is more likely due to supply-side effects.

With water issues rising to the surface almost everywhere and higher irrigation costs in many places, the economic sustainability of low-cost wine grapes is in serious doubt at current prices. Jeff Bitter’s presentation at this year’s Unified Symposium in Sacramento included photos of acres of healthy Central Valley grapes left to rot on the vine because they were not worth the cost of harvest this year and probably not worth irrigation costs next year.

What is the future of these vines? Thousands of acres of vines have been grubbed up in California in recent years to make way for other crops with higher potential value — almonds and pistachios are the most frequently cited crop alternatives, but I’m sure there are others.  Imported bulk wines can easily fill in the gap left by falling California production in the short run, but sustainability issues (both economic and environmental) are a global phenomenon.

Low-cost wine grapes (and the wines they produce) are not going away, but there is limited incentive to invest here and so the focus is upmarket, where margins are better and business sustainability is more feasible.

Up the Down Staircase?

The upmarket movement in wine sales is likely to be sustained at least for some time because it is driven by factors affecting both demand and supply that are not specific to the U.S. but part of strong global trends. The supply-side element is easy to understand. Intense competition has cut margins on basic wines to the bone (and even deeper than that in some markets). Follow the money, Deep Throat said, and wine producers are listening to that advice now more than ever.

Once again, that doesn’t mean that basic wines and the bulk wine trade that has evolved around them are going away. It is simply that this is not the market segment that will get investment in future. Producers are likely to focus even more on the premium, super-premium and ultra-premium segments in the future. Every wine producer I have talked with around the world is focusing on moving up the up staircase and plotting effective distribution and marketing strategies.

On the demand  side I would point to the increasing importance of retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and their many upscale local market competitors that attract customers by providing them with a sense of authenticity and affordable luxury in the quotidian consumption experience.

Products of origin and artisan creations with sustainability credentials — these are the hallmarks of the new retail environment and upscale supermarkets and a growing number of their customers seek out wines that fit that profile. Even hard-discount Aldi is playing along on the wine aisle, providing unexpectedly premium wines in their U.K. stores.

Bronco Busting

Don’t believe that the shift is important? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been wrong, but I think you will find evidence all around you if you look for it. Let me give you just one data point to get you thinking.

Consider the Bronco Wine Company, the famous maker of Two Buck Chuck and many other inexpensive wines. Bronco chief Fred Franzia once said that no wine should cost more than $10 and he built the 4th largest wine company in the U.S. by making those wines both for his own labels and, under contract, for other firms.

Where is Bronco headed today? Well, Two Buck Chuck is still in the picture and I think it is probably still selling about 5 million cases a year as it was the last time I wrote about it. But Bronco is busting out of that market segment via a variety of new products that, while they don’t aim for Screaming Eagle or DRC cult status still fit the profiles I’ve outline here. Several of Bronco’s wines illustrate the upmarket trends that I see for the future, including Garnet and Green Truck.

Garnet Vineyards are maybe not what you’d expect from the maker of Two Buck Chuck. They are all about cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Monterey and more cool climate Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. The highly-regarded Alison Crowe (author of the popular blog The Girl and the Grape)  makes the wines . The Garnet Rogers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ticks the boxes key to buyers seeking authenticity and sells for $29.99 on Amazon.com, about ten times the price of a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

(Editor’s note: Bronco is the sales agent for Garnet but does not make this wine — see Alison Crowe’s comment below, which clarifies the relationship. Thanks to Alison for her correction.)

The long list of wines that Bronco produces and/or distributes includes six different organic wine brands plus a number that are vegan-friendly. Green Truck wine from Mendocino County is a good example. The wines are made from organic grapes and when I searched to see the nearest retailer to me there was Whole Foods near the top of the list.

Buckle Up!

Wine is looking up! The new normal will focus on wines that tell as good a story as other contemporary market products, such as craft beers and spirits and locally-sourced food products. It’s a great opportunity for wine producers, but the market is very competitive and will only get more so.

Buckle up!  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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I thought you might enjoy this 2007  video of  wine critic Oz Clarke and “Top Gear” presenter James May meeting Bronco’s Fred Franzia. Their reaction to Two Buck Chuck may surprise you. Cheers!

Trading Up? The New Conventional Wisdom About the U.S. Wine Market

Last week I wrote about the unexpected state of the U.S. wine market today, where sales of wines above about $9 are strong and growing while the below $9 segments are stagnant or in decline. Thinking back to the dismal state of the wine market a few years ago, with trading down and heavy discounting, the current situation comes as a big surprise.

What accounts for the transformation of the U.S. wine market? And is this the “new normal” that we should expect for future years? Let’s look at the emerging conventional wisdom on these questions.

Trading Up?

I don’t know many people who think that the shift toward more expensive wines is a simple reversal of the recession years’ trading down, although that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Consumers seem as price sensitive as ever, which is why store shelves are still papered with “shelf talkers” like the one shown here that beckon buyers with discounted prices.

Yes, discounting is still going on, although perhaps not quite at the same level as during the Great Recession. The best argument for trading up is that consumers who had an opportunity to sample better wines during the deep discount days and  liked them now are feeling more economically secure and are continuing to buy them at higher prices. I’m sure that this is happening to a certain extent, but I don’t think it is the whole story.  Consumers are simply too focused on price to have suddenly changed.

Price resistance means that most consumers aren’t willing to pay more for the same or similar wine, but they are willing to spend more for something different. Who is doing this?

The Millennial Theory

One theory holds that the changing shape of the wine market is driven by younger wine drinkers — we often call them the millennials here in the U.S. but I have also seen the term “echo boomers” used and Constellation’s latest Project Genome study calls them “engaged newcomers.” As a group they tend to buy wine less frequently than some other groups (they also drink spirits, craft beers and so on) but spend more per bottle. This is the opposite of my behavior as a young wine drinker and probably a good thing.

If what we think we know about millennials is true, then they can account for some of the trend towards higher price wine sales, but they are certainly  not the whole story.  They don’t explain the shift away from lower-priced wines because they were never the driving force there. And they cannot account for all of the upmarket shift because at this point they don’t buy enough wine to move the whole market this way. Millennials are part of the story, but not the whole answer. What else?

The Bad Wine Theory

One very interesting theory is that the relative quality of wine below about $9 has fallen, driving customers away in search of something better to drink. They have found it, too, in craft beers, ciders and spirits.

W. Blake Gray recently made this point in a column titled “Wine under $10 sucks. Should we care?”  Tim Atkin made a similar point about wine in the UK market.  It’s very difficult to find decent wine below £5, he says, which is a change from the past.

A recent article on Bibendum’s website tells the sad UK story, which this graphic illustrates. If you want to get value in wine in the UK, it seems you have to move upmarket. The actual cost of the wine is more than a third of the total cost of a £20 bottle, but less than 10% of the cost of a £5 wine. Shocking!

This deteriorating value of inexpensive wines, if true, is a surprising situation. Only a few years ago we experienced something of a revolution when the character of commercial quality wine improved  quite dramatically (I called it the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck in my book Wine Wars). A structural surplus of decent wine and grapes on the U.S. and world markets made it possible for winemakers to assemble products at low price points that rivaled some brands in higher price segments. The unexpected value they provided drew millions of consumers into the wine markets Is poor quality and value pushing them away?

Well, poor value is certainly part of the answer in the U.K., where high wine duties have distorted the market and undone much of the miracle of the past. And I have some friends in California who complain that cheaper and lower quality bulk wine imports are now filling bottles of California-brand wine. The brand is associated with California (like Barefoot, for example) but the wines themselves come from many places (and are so-designated on the packaging).

Have quality and value suffered? I’m an economist not a wine critic, so I will leave it up to you to decide, but some of my California friends think that’s what’s happened. If this is true, then where is the better California wine going? Some of it is sitting in tanks, which are pretty full after a couple of generous vintages in a row. The rest? Some of it, I think, fills the bottles of wine brands specially created for the new market environment.

The Branded Age

This supply-side theory holds that smart wine executives have noticed that many consumers are willing to pay more for something different (and are put off by the commodity wines) and they have responded by creating new brands to fill specific upscale market niches. This helps explain the great proliferation of wine brands and even virtual wineries on the scene.

Each year I enjoy Jon Fredriksen’s talk about the state of the U.S. wine market at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, but recently I have noticed that his list of the hottest wine brands is full of unfamiliar (to me) names. These aren’t new wineries, simply new brands created by innovative existing large- and medium-sized wine firms.

Jon’s data suggest to me that these are some of the wines that are attracting buyer interest and pulling the market along. An example? Take The Wine Group, which is the second largest wine producer in the U.S. with 57.5 million case sales according to Wine Business Monthly. A few years ago I thought of them in terms of brands like Almaden and Franzia wines, which are  in that lower market tier that is stagnating today.

Now when I think of The Wine Group I think of Cupcake Vineyards, which at 3 million cases is small compared to Franzia’s 26 million, but perfectly fits that upmarket profile and is often priced right at or just above key $9-$10 threshold along with Apothic, 14 Hands and other hot brands.

Which Theory? The New New Normal?

No single theory explains what has happened and the market is full of special cases. Take Argentinian wines, for example. Customers are buying more expensive products from Argentina now in part because the cheaper labels have disappeared. With inflation still soaring and the exchange rate stuck, many Argentinean firms cannot afford to export cheaper Malbecs to the U.S., which shifts the center of gravity upmarket.

All these ideas (and others, too) are part of the explanation of today’s transformed market. It’s a perfect story of effects (or a train wreck, depending which end of the market you are in). Is this the new “new normal” and, if so, how long will it last? That’s a question for next week.

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Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s columns — great ideas! Keep them coming.

The Surprising Rebound & Unexpected Bifurcation of the U.S. Wine Market

Let’s climb in my time machine and go back a few years to 2008-2009, when the impact of the global financial crisis was beginning to be felt in the wine markets. It was a pretty gloomy time and there was a lot of talk about the need to reset our expectations to the “new normal.”

Gone were the days of great expectations as everyone scrambled to cope with the changing economic and consumer environment. What did we imagine the future would hold? Well, opinions varied, of course, but the “conventional wisdom” generally revolved around a few dire trends.

Trading Down and Trading Over

One of the most-cited trends was trading down. It sure looked like wine consumers were pulling away from wines at higher price points and shifting to less expensive products — or even moving away from wine altogether. Here’s a video that captures the moment fairly well (it was the first time I was ever interviewed by an animated character)

Trading down seemed like an unstoppable force at the time, although I suggested that it was more complicated. I noticed the strength of the Barefoot wine brand and proposed that it wasn’t just the price of the wine that made it so appealing to recession-battered wine drinkers, it was also the casual image that it offered with its surfer dude footprint in the sand style.

No one wants to admit to themselves that they are trading down, I wrote. Not good for self-esteem. But we can all embrace the idea of trading over — over to a more relaxed, less serious (and incidentally also maybe less expensive) idea of wine. Relax (there is even a brand of Riesling called “Relax”) and just enjoy wine. That’s what I thought I saw in the marketplace.

The $20+ Dead Zone

Whether it was trading down or trading over, the result was the same: the $20 and up segment of the wine market was declared a “dead zone” where nothing moved.  People still drank more expensive wines, then just didn’t buy them. They “drank up” from their cellars rather than “trading down” at the wine shop.

Wineries found that many wine club members were pulling back from scheduled shipments. Restaurant wine sales took a very big hit, too, as consumers dined out less frequently and economized on wine purchases when they did. Restaurants coped by trading down themselves, putting more pressure on wineries.

Dumping, Discounting and Flash Sales

Some wineries held their prices and absorbed inventory accumulations rather than discount or dumped excess wine on the bulk market (where Cameron Hughes and others found some outstanding bargains for their customers). They saw price cuts as a one-way street. You can lower prices, but can you raise them back up again when good times return?  Some wineries split the difference by bringing out second labels to sell for less — chateau cash flow wines — while holding the price line on prestige brands.  Lots of mistakes were made along the way and some wineries fell out of the market.

Many discounting strategies were rolled out. Safeway stores began running promotions where $20+ wines could be purchased for 30% off the regular price (or 40% off with a 6-bottle purchase) — a clear attempt to reduce inventories in the “dead zone” category. A number of “flash sale” wine websites appeared that allowed wineries to sell off surplus stock quickly and outside of the usual sales vectors.

Sometimes wineries found themselves caught in competition with their own wines as buyers (wine club members, restaurants, a few distributors) dumped their stock back on the market, under-cutting carefully calculated producer pricing strategies.

There were some great bargains for buyers who recognized them (and had the credit card headroom to take advantage), but there were not very many true winners among wine producers, especially those in the higher price ranges. The frankly defensive strategy of generating cash flow while protecting key price points was the best that many wineries could hope for.divide

Up the Down Staircase

Would consumers shift back when the recession was over? Not many people held out hope for a reset of the reset. So the current state of the U.S. wine market, which Jon Fredrikson has called “A Tale of Two Markets” comes as something of a surprise.

The U.S. wine market has split in two as the table above shows. (The table shows recent data for off-premises wine sales as measured through the particular retail channels monitored by the Nielsen Company. These data are indicative of what’s going on in the broad market.)

While the market is expanding at a moderate +3.4% pace (at least it is growing, unlike wine markets in some Old World regions), there is a clear division between wines selling at prices below $9 and those that sell for more. Although the cheaper wines make up the majority of the market by volume, they are shrinking in dollar sales value, especially the $6.00 to $8.99 segment.

The New Conventional Wisdom?

More expensive wines, on the other hand, represent a rising market segment. All price segments over $9 are growing as per these data, with the fastest growth at the highest price point — $20 and above!

This is truly a dramatic turnaround for U.S. wine. What is behind this unexpected change?  I’ll survey the new conventional wisdom in my next column.

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BTW that’s a really old picture of me in the video — I hope that  I’ve improved with age since 2008. The Costco reference is a bit off in that interview, too. Costco sells wine at a low mark-up, but they don’t try to compete at the very bottom of the market as the video images suggest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen boxes of Franzia at a Costco, for example.

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