Fat Wine: Middle Class, Middle Market, Middlebrow

The world is becoming Hot, Flat, and Crowded according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s bestselling 2008 book. Hot and crowded are easy to understand, but flat?

Yes, Friedman, said, flat as  “a metaphor for the rise of middle-class citizens, from China to India to Brazil to Russia to Eastern Europe, who are beginning to consume like Americans. That’s a blessing in so many ways–it’s a blessing for global stability and for global growth. But it has enormous resource complications ….”

Fat Not Flat

Friedman is counting on the world’s growing middle class to shake things up and he is probably right. Here in Wine World, however, I think the trend is fat more than flat, although it might amount to the same thing in the end.

“Flat” suggests to me that the gap between the top and bottom — 1% elites and 99% masses — is closing. Wine certainly isn’t getting flat in this sense, although the recent softness of Bordeaux en primeur prices argues against this a bit.

No, the floor and the ceiling aren’t getting any closer when it comes to wine — so  I think the best way to describe this trend is Fat — fat in the sense of “thick in the middle:” middle class, middle market, middlebrow.

Thick in the Middle

Wine’s recently-concluded long slack cycle (see previous post) flooded many  markets with good, reasonably priced wine. The impact of the economic crisis encouraged consumers to trade down (to cheaper wines), to trade over (to different types of wines), and trained wine drinkers to look for bargains. Many new consumers entered the wine market at the same time, bringing with them new tastes, new attitudes, and a refreshing willingness to experiment.

There are several key indicators of the degree to which wine markets have been open to new ideas. The great success of New Zealand and Argentina as wine exporters reflects both the quality and value of the products from these countries but also, I believe, their good fortune in entering the global market at this time.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec are easy to understand, easy to drink and even easy to pronounce. They are the hottest import categories in the U.S. market. Significantly, neither of these wines is especially cheap. They are generally priced in the middle market, well above Two Buck Chuck and even higher than popular brands like Barefoot. They fit my “thick in the middle” model to a “T.”

The Moscato boom is another indicator, although I won’t press this too far since there is not yet a consensus about where it came from, what it means or how long it will last (readers should feel free to correct me about this in the comments section — I’d really like to know the answers).  Moscato/Muscat sales have surged in the U.S. — up by 65% in the last year alone according to Nielsen data published in this month’s Wine Business Monthly. Moscato wines had higher dollar sales than Riesling, Syrah/Shiraz, Zinfandel or Malbec in the last year in the retail vectors that Nielsen monitors . Wow!

Now For Something Completely Different

The one thing I am sure about is that Moscato’s unexpected popularity indicates that consumers are willing to try something new. And while they look for bargains and value, they don’t seem to be focusing on the bottom shelf.  Nielsen reports that sales of wines below $6 have been essentially flat in the past year in revenue terms and spending on wines in the $6 to $8.99 range declined. Spending on wines in the $9.00 to $11.99 range, however, has actually increased by about 10%.

We’ve also seen the emergence of hot new brands in this middle market middlebrow segment. The rapid rise of brands like Gallo’s Apothic Red Blend and Ste Michelle Wine Estate’s 14 Hands suggests that consumers are focusing on this market category.

It’s not quite true that these particular wines came out of nowhere to achieve great success in the off-premises trade, but it’s not entirely wrong either. They are another sign of the thickening of the middle segment of the wine market of consumers ready and willing to try new things and not entirely constrained by old attitudes and allegiances.

The Supply Side of the Story

So far I’ve focused on the demand side of the story but supply plays an important role, too. As grape and bulk wine markets tighten up (see previous post) it is only natural that scarce wine resources will go where the margins are and where substitution is easiest. The “middle” wines I’ve just discussed are often priced at the “fat” part of the market where better margins may be found. (I say “may” because this market segment is quite competitive and competition has a way of squeezing margins.)

Some of these “middle” wines are blends, not single varietal wines, and come from broad appellations (Washington State, California). A few are non-vintage. These properties allow winemakers to more easily substitute among supplies of grapes and bulk wines to make or complete their products — the ability to substitute is important when supplies are tight and costs are rising.

Middle market wine for middle class, middlebrow consumers — is this a good thing? I guess it depends upon whether you are a Martian or a Wagnerian. I’m a Wagnerian myself, so I see this as a healthy development, even if wine loses a little of its mystery and becomes just a bit more like other everyday products. Making wine a part of everyday life is a worthy goal here in the U.S. and I don’t think the 1% wines (or even the 25% wines) have much to fear.

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There’s one more trend on the horizon that completes this theme. Come back next week to learn about how wine has become even more “uncorked.” And I’m not just talking about screw caps!

[This is the third in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry in the near future.]

Wine’s Future: Tighten Up

“Tighten Up” was a big hit for a Archie Bell and the Drells back in 1968. If you aren’t familiar with this R&B tune and its trademark dance you might want to take a moment to learn it because Tighten Up is where the U.S. wine market is headed.

[This is the second in a series of articles on Tight, Fat and Uncorked, the three trends I see shaping the wine industry in the near future.]

Up and Down Economics

There is nothing new about tight wine markets (where shortages pull prices higher) or slack markets either. Wine is an agricultural product subject to the sort of persistent cycles that economists have long studied. Today’s high price encourages farmers to plant more even as it discourages growth in demand. Result: future surplus and falling price when the new crops hit the market. Low prices discourage production but encourage consumption growth, resulting in shortages and future price hikes.

Up and down — that’s happens in wine markets. The Turrentine Brokerage’s “Wine Business Wheel of Fortune” illustrates the U.S. wine cycle — click here to view a detailed pdf version that will be helpful in understanding what follows.

This Time Really Is Different

If tight and slack wine markets are not uncommon, what’s the big deal? The answer is that we are coming off an unusually long period of low prices and most likely headed into a long period of tight supply. It is the length of the cycle, not the fact of it, that is striking and important.

The current Turrentine Wine Wheel shows the most recent cycles. The figure shows that prices started falling in 1982, for example, hitting bottom in 1986. By 1989 prices were at their peak again, setting up the next cycle, which ran from 1990 until 1999.  It took seven years for the first cycle to work itself out and nine years for the second cycle.

Now let’s look at the current wine cycle, which Turrentine says began in 2000 and that they project will last an incredible 18 years!  The slack side of the cycle was exceptionally long — 2000 to 2011 — because it combined several factors. First was the typical domestic surplus that results as vineyards planted at the previous cycle’s peak begin to bear fruit. The second factor was increased global wine production, which served to keep prices low even as some domestic producers cut back. This extended the period of falling price.

The Great Recession is the final factor, depressing prices and further extending the slack side of the cycle past 2010. As you can see from the figure, Turrentine originally expected the down side to last only through 2006, but a “perfect storm” kept prices low through 2010 as demand and supply slowly moved into balance.

Ebb Tide

Now we have finally entered the tight market phase where demand exceeds available supply at the current price  and this part of the cycle is likely to be extended as well.  Vineyard capacity did not expand sufficiently during the long down cycle and in fact it contracted dramatically in particular places. The EU wine market reforms removed some capacity in Europe and the collapse of part of the Australian industry has done the same there. In the U.S. some Central Valley producers, tired of low or negative margins, switched from wine grapes to more consistently profitable crops like tree nuts.

In theory it should take only a few years to rebuild vineyard capacity but in practice it will take longer for several reasons. First, the length and severity of the slack part of the cycle will naturally make some who have left the market in the U.S. and elsewhere hesitate to reenter it. The supply response in the U.S. will be delayed for this reason and also because of what I am told is a shortage of nursery stock needed to establish new vineyards and renew old ones.  It will take a few years to rebuild stocks needed to rebuild vineyard capacity.

Prices for grape contracts and bulk wine have already risen (dramatically in some specific cases) as they must do to eventually bring the market back into balance, but this will be a slow adjustment process. Domestic wines must compete with imports, which act to limit price increases in some segments of the market. And of course consumers have become accustomed to lower prices and are not generally expected to “trade up” (except in response to bargain pricing) as much as they may have previously traded down.

Hysteresis: Winding and Unwinding

Rising grape costs are good news for growers, who have borne the brunt of adjustment costs during the long slack cycle. Now the big squeeze will move up the supply chain in the form of tighter margins and the effects are expected to be substantial precisely because the length of the tight market cycle will be so long.

What will the wine industry look like when we get back to the top of the cycle? One thing we can be sure about is that it won’t look the same as it did back in 2000. Economic adjustments are not necessarily symmetrical — they don’t wind up the way they unwound. (Economists have a name for this property: hysteresis.) The history that unfolds in the intervening years matters a lot and there has been a lot of time for things to change since the last market cycle began.

In particular, the long slack tide brought new products, new consumers and new consumer behavior into the market. This doesn’t change everything, but it changes a lot — as I’ll explain in next week’s post.

Big Apple Report: Where’s Washington [Wine]?

Waldo is easier to find than Washington wine in NYC.

Lettie Teague wrote a Wall Street Journal column back in 2010 called “Stalking the Wines of Washington.” In it she complained about her difficulty finding Washington wines in the New York City area. There’s just no demand, she was told, so wine shops don’t bother with Washington wines.

The Incredible Story

That’s incredible, I thought as I read Lettie’s story, since so many Washington wines are both very good (served at White House dinners, we are told) and very good values, too. Hard to believe that smart New Yorkers aren’t interested in these wines! So I decided to do a little fieldwork on the question during my recent East Coast speaking tour to see if the situation has changed.

OK, am I the only one who thinks visiting out-of-town wine shops is a fun way to spend the day? In this case I headed for the Morrell & Co store in Rockefeller Center and the Sherry Lehmann shop a few blocks away. Two wine shops is a very small sample size, so this study isn’t statistically significant, but these are the flagships of the region’s wine fleet, so surely they reveal something. Here’s what I found.

Both stores were smaller than I expected given their fame  — I guess I didn’t factor in Manhattan retail floor space costs when I imagined what they would look like. But the number of bottles isn’t as important as the quality of the selection (that’s the key to Costco’s wine selling success).

New York State of Wine

My attempt to find Washington red wines in these stores was not very successful. I managed to locate a wine from Betz Family Winery at Morrell and a modestly priced red blend from Claar Cellars at Sherry Lehmann. And that was it for Washington reds. I might have missed a bottle or two (I blame my bifocals), but even if I did the selection was pretty limited. I didn’t check the white wines — maybe there were more over there.

There were plenty of French and Italian wines. Sherry Lehmann’s Burgundy selection made my mouth water and my credit card cry. Lots of great wines from Bordeaux, too. But where was the Washington wine section? Nowhere. No California wine territory, either. They were all grouped together as “American wines,” suggesting that Sherry Lehmann’s customers might be more interested in the fine points of French geography than domestic wine terroir.  And apparently almost completely uninterested in Washington. Why?

Supply Side Theory

I talked a bit with a friend who knows New York wine business pretty well and we came up with a couple of theories. Maybe it is a supply-side problem — distribution?

Yes, I suppose that could be the case. Distribution inefficiencies usually affect the “middle market” the most. Iconic wines (and I’d put the Betz wine in this category) get distribution and so do larger volume wines (Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, etc), but in-between producers (like Claar Cellars) get squeezed out.

As you can see, my “small n” obversations aren’t completely consistent with a supply-side explanation, although you cannot rule it out, either. So what about demand?

Demand Side Theory

Maybe the demand just isn’t there as the shop owners told Lettie Teague. So why not? Well, here’s where a second set of observations is useful. While I was looking for Washington wines I also kept an eye out for Oregon Pinot Noir. And, while the Washington wines were all but invisible, I discovered a handful of interesting Oregon Pinots in each store.

So now the question gets more interesting. Why is Oregon part of the New York state of wine but not Washington? Here my NYC friend (who is a Washington wine fan) offered another theory: Oregon stands for something concrete in the crowded New York market, but Washington doesn’t.

When you think of Oregon wine you think of Pinot Noir because that’s its signature wine variety and demand-side market focus. But what do you think of when you think of Washington? Well, that’s the problem because Washington makes so many great wines but lacks a signature variety or style. I’ve written about this situation before and I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but you can see how it can be a demand side problem.

Every NYC customer who asks for Oregon wine is probably thinking Pinot, but if ten customers ask for Washington wine they are unlikely to request the same wines or types of wines or grape varieties. It’s easy to see how a critical customer mass for Oregon Pinot Noir might appear but not for any particular Washington wine.

The Gravity Theory

A final theory comes from the economics literature — you might call it the “home court advantage” theory but technically it is based on the “gravity model” that is used to analyze international trade patterns. The gravity model holds that geographical proximity is a strong predictor of trade patterns — the closer countries are to one another the stronger the force of  “economic gravity” that pulls their economies together.

I see the home court advantage at work here within Washington State and it is widely observed that while the wine industry is global, wine consumption has a strong local bias. If this theory applies to the New York case, then it suggest that Europe is New York’s home court and that the pull of French gravity is especially strong. Given the many different languages that fill conversations on cosmopolitan New York City streets, this doesn’t seem like a crazy theory at all.

Convergence Zone

A quick analysis of the Morrell and Sherry-Lehmann websites reinforces my on-the-scene observations and adds more data since the warehouse selection is so much bigger than the Manhattan stores.

I found more Washington wines in the online stores, but I was still surprised by the relatively  limited selection. And I was surprised as well that Washington and Oregon had about the same number of wines on the sales lists despite Washington’s vastly greater number of wineries and total production. Burgundy (1122 wines on the Sherry-Lehmann site) has many more wines than California (612), Oregon (31) or Washington (30).

The particular wines listed on the Sherry Lehmann site suggest that the distribution theory is part of the explanation. More high volume Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest wines and some famous name icons, but a thinner middle market selection. It looks to me like all three forces are at work here, making this a particularly complex and difficult situation.

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Readers: use the comments section below to provide your own observations and theories.

No One-Liners in Wine

King of One-Liners: Take my wine ... please!

Jon Fredrikson likes to say that there are no one-liners in wine. He isn’t saying that there aren’t any one-line jokes (take my White Zinfandel … please!) but rather that nothing in wine is cut and dry. Wine is always complicated — always this and that, too —  so generalizing is a dangerous practice.

I was reminded of this twice during our recent California expedition. The first time was by Jon Fredrickson himself, who stated the case very well in his talk at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento (North America’s largest wine industry trade show and seminar series).  His dynamic analysis of how the wine market is evolving was widely reported in the press.

Winery of the Year

At the end of Jon’s report he always names a “winery of the year” and for 2011 it was DFV Wines of Manteca, California. DFV (for Delicato Family Vineyards) has its roots in the decision of Italian immigrant grape grower Gasparé Indelicato to try his hand at winemaking in early post-Prohibition California. His grandson, Chris Indelicato, has been CEO since 2004 and many other family members populate the company’s org-chart.

DFV sits in the #10 position in the Wine Business Monthly Top 30 American Wineries league table for 2011, producing more than 4.5 million cases. DFV owns more than 10,000 acres of vineyards (quite a change from Gasparé Indelicato’s first farm). But it is the business’s dramatic growth, not just its large size, that drew Jon Fredrikson’s attention and, well, everyone’s attention. “Delicato” was all that I heard in pre-announcement speculative conversations.

Gnarly and Twisted

You have probably seen Delicato wines on store shelves, but they are just the tip of the family business iceberg. Other DFV brands include Bota Box, Twisted, Gnarly Head and many more. I usually think of the DFV wine portfolio in terms of good value wines and I think this good value accounts for the company’s success.

But saying that a wine is a good value sometimes imposes a subconscious ceiling on perceived quality and distinctiveness. I admit that I tend to think of DFV wines as good, but not necessarily great. That’s because I sometimes forget Jon Fredrick’s line about one-liners. Good value doesn’t rule out distinctivenes — wine is too complicated for that.

On the Old Silverado Trail

This point was driven home to me for the second time as I stood at the tasting room bar at Black Stallion Estate Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa Valley — DFV’s newest venture, which it acquired just a couple of years ago. The winery itself resists being a one-liner as it is both historically significant (as an equestrian center) and an architectural beauty.

We drove by the winery a couple of years ago (on our way to a Stags Leap AVA event) but didn’t stop.  We were impressed with the BSEW Cab at a tasting back home (it is a larger production wine that is widely distributed), so we came back to try the small production (4000 total cases) wines sold only at the winery.

Imagine my surprise to learn that the same company that makes Botta Box also makes a $150 red blend called Bucephalus. I’m interested to see what happens as the Indelicato family’s winemaking knowledge and resources are focused on this relatively new enterprise — perhaps even more distinctive wines like the Rockpile Zinandel that was my tasting room favorite?

I expect there will be lots of interesting wines to taste and things to say as DFV and Black Stallion continue to develop. But don’t expect to hear any one-liners.

Economic Impact: Wine [Not Just] By the Numbers

Apple, maker of iPods, iPads and other iGadgets, recently released data that tried to establish the corporation’s economic impact on the American economy (this in response, I think, to charges that its high-outsource policies mean that its products benefit China and other countries more than its U.S. home market).

The company published the results of a study it commissioned saying that it had “created or supported” 514,000 jobs in the United States. The study is an effort to show that Apple’s benefit to the American job market goes far beyond the 47,000 people it directly employs here.

The number of indirect jobs claimed drew attention from economists.

David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said via e-mail that the “entire business of claiming ‘direct and indirect’ job creation is disreputable” because most of the workers Apple is taking credit for would have been employed elsewhere in the company’s absence.

I tend to agree with Prof. Autor’s comment mainly because I can do the math. If Apple is right, then its small labor force is responsible for an incredible fraction of all U.S. jobs. If we made similar estimates for all other U.S. industries I am confident that the total number of jobs claimed would quickly exceed the total number of jobs … period.

Suspicious Minds

But then I tend to be suspicious of economic impact studies … period … whether they are about the gadget industry or any other industry. And this is due mainly to the incentives that are present. No one ever commissions an impact study unless they have a reason to want to show a large impact (usually it is politics — to prevent a political backlash against Apple’s outsourcing policy, for example, or to encourage provision of “key industry” government benefits).

And I know from personal experience that no one ever takes on an economic impact study without realizing that higher numbers are better for the client. I’m not saying that anything shady takes place. I’m just pointing out the incentives and you know what economists think about the power of incentives!

So (and I’m sure you can see this coming) I’m also suspicious of economic impact studies of the wine industry that are occasionally published. Economic theory says that economic impact (the total value added throughout the supply chain) should be equal to the final sales price of the product. This is such a strong idea in economics that it is stated as an identity rather than an equation or theory.

And the reported economic impact always seem to exceed the final sales by a large margin just like Apple’s jobs study. Yikes. No wonder I have my doubts!

Visible Hands

It is good to be critical in assessing numbers, but I’m afraid my skepticism sometimes goes a bit too far, to the point where I don’t really appreciate how important the wine industry is and how broad its impacts really are. That’s why my travels this year to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposiium and the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers meetings have been so useful.

It’s not [just] that the presentations have been useful, although they have. It’s really the trade shows that have taken my breath away and provided a needed perspective. I’ve been able to see and meet the people behind the numbers and it has been very helpful.

This was especially true at the Unified in Sacramento, which had two huge floors brimming with about 650 exhibitors. The trade show was so large that Wine Business Monthly created an online planning guide to help visitors navigate the room (http://www.winebusiness.com/planningguide/2012/). Wow! I heard that there was a smartphone app available to optimize your walk through the trade show based upon your business interests. A great idea.

The Ordinary Business of Wine

I’ve pasted in a directory of exhibitors from the 2011 Unified event so that you can see the wine range of businesses that come to the meetings (and the wide range of economic impacts involved, too). I really wanted to use a photo for this, but I couldn’t find an image that captured the sense of the place, so the table (more numbers) will have to do.

Many of these firms are specific to the wine industry, but a number are what I would call “ordinary businesses” (see my last post) that provide the wine industry with the sorts of goods and services that all businesses need, albeit often with a special wine slant. If wine has a large economic impact, and I think it does, these ordinary businesses — banking, accounting, marketing, legal services, flooring, hoses, tanks and even iPad-enabled electronic sommelier apps — are part of the process.

iPad apps for wine? Wow, I guess this means that we are part of the Apple empire, too. (Or is it the other way ’round?)

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Thanks to Ken (who put it better than I did here) for suggesting the “wine as an ordinary business” theme.

State of the Wine Industry: Global Perspectives

I’m back from Sacramento where I moderated two panels at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, North America’s largest wine industry gathering.  I chaired the morning “State of the Industry” session (estimated audience = 2200 according to one news report) and a smaller afternoon break-out on “Leveraging Global Supply.”

You can find a list of the session speakers at the end of this post and you can read a comprehensive  news report here. I thought I would use this space to outline what I said   in the morning session. My job was to try to provide a global frame for the speakers who followed.

Silver Linings and Dark Clouds

Global Perspective. Wine is a global business. When David Ricardo wrote his economics textbook almost 300 years ago the example he used to illustrate international trade was the wine trade between Britain and Portugal. It has always been important to have a global view of wine, but now more than ever as the wine world gets smaller and more tightly connected.

Silver Linings. This is a year with much good news for the wine industry, especially for winegrape growers as the shortage phase of the wine cycle unfolds and prices rise after years of structural surplus.

But as an economist, it is my responsibility to channel Alan Greenspan and to caution growers to avoid irrational exuberance. Silver linings don’t always come wrapped in dark clouds, but sometimes they do. There are dark clouds a plenty for the global economy and some of them will affect the wine industry.

A Dangerous Phase

A Dangerous Phase. The global economy has entered a “dangerous phase” according to the International Monetary Fund. It is a time of great uncertainty and risk because global growth is slowing, albeit unevenly, at a very inconvenient time.

The problem, of course, is the debt crisis. And while each country has built “mountains of debt” in its own way, there is only one route down from the summit: stop adding to the debt and then try to outgrow the debt burden.

Europe, the U.S. and Japan are all struggling to contain growing debt. Stopping the bleeding is the first priority, of course, but no one seriously expects the debt to be paid off. The only solution is for debtor countries to grow faster than their  compound interest bills and to slowly make the debt and its burden a smaller and smaller proportion of GDP.

Catch 22: Slowing growth (and the probability of recession in Europe) means that even more emphasis must be put on cutting budgets, which unfortunately makes it even more difficult to generate growth.

The Growth Squeeze. So everyone will be desperate for growth, but where will they find it? Consumer spending? Not likely with unemployment high and the housing crisis still unresolved. Business investment? Not with credit so tight and business confidence so low. Goverment spending? Please! The pressure is on to cut government outlays, not expand them.

This leaves only international trade and it seems likely that many countries will try to stimulate exports through currency depreciation to get the growth they so desperately need. This has worked for the U.S., which has had a secret “weak dollar” policy. Look for currency wars as many countries try to follow suit by depressing their exchange rates.

Wild Cards. There are many “wild cards” in the global economic scenario — factors that could change everything. The Euro is probably the biggest wild card, since a collapse of the single currency would be a financial earthquake with global repercussions. The U.S. economy is another wild card, especially in an election year.

A Tight Squeeze for Wine

A Tight Squeeze. The wine industry is connected to the global economy but not perfectly synchronized with it. The wine industry is in for a tight squeeze in the coming year. There will be increased competition on both ends of the market — for wine grapes (and bulk wine) and for wine drinking customers and retail accounts.

[The intensity of the squeeze, as detailed by the other speakers in this session, was probably the biggest news to come out of the State of the Industry panel. Vineyard plantings have been stagnant for several years, so there is not enough supply to meet rising demand in many market categories.]

The shortage of grapes and bulk wine will force wineries to search high and low for product to sell. The higher costs that result will put even more pressure on margins and this may be the biggest squeeze of all since buyers are now accustomed to discounts and, having reset once down to lower prices, will be not quickly reset back up again across the board.  The pressure on margins will increase because of rising competition for market share.

Currency Wars. Exchange rate shifts will make this situation more complex. The U.S. has enjoyed a weak dollar for several years — this stimulated wine exports and kept the price of import competition high. The dollar strengthened in 2011 and  is likely to continue to strengthen in 2012 and this will reverse some of those effects, making the U.S. wine market more attractive to foreign wine firms. These effects will loosen the big squeeze in some places and tighten it in others, creating both dark clouds and silver linings.

Wild Cards. There are lots of  wild cards, but the most interesting one for me is China. We expect China’s growth to slow in 2012  — perhaps to 8% or less — if Europe’s recession is more serious than projected and if U.S. growth stalls.

The “bicycle theory” of Chinese economic growth holds that China must grow by at least 8% in order to overcome structural weaknesses and social instability. If growth falls below 8%, the theory holds, a “tipping point” effect might cause rapid deceleration.

No one knows if the bicycle theory really holds for China, no one knows if 8% is the tipping point number. And no one wants to find out.

A Chinese slump would have some direct effect on wine sales there, but the biggest impact on global wine would be indirect, spread through trade flows and financial flows. The Chilean Peso, Australian dollar and South African rand would all likely fall in value dramatically altering the competitive structure of global wine trade.

All this could happen, but of course it might not. That’s the biggest squeeze this year — uncertainty.

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Thanks to the Unified Symposium’s organizers for inviting me to take part. Special thanks to my fellow panelists, who helped me so much, and to Jenny and Lisa for their guidance and support. Here are the details of the two sessions.

State of the Industry

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what is selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and will offer incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Nat DiBuduo, Allied Grape Growers, California
Steve Fredricks, Turrentine Brokerage, California
Jon Fredrikson, Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, California

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Leveraging the Supply Side of the Global Wine Market

This session will focus on supply to Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) as well as to Chile and Argentina.

Moderator:
Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist Blog/University of Puget Sound

Speakers:
Steve Dorfman, The Ciatti Company, California
Liz Thach, Sonoma State University, California

New Year’s Resolution: De-Alcoholized Wine

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution: De-Alcoholized Wine. I’ve resolved to study this misunderestimated wine market niche. Heck, I might even drink some!

My resolution is provoked by a friend who had a bad bicycling accident. She’s going to be OK, but she suffered a serious head injury and her doctor says no alcohol while her brain recovers from the shock.

No Wine? No Way!

No alcohol? Well, that’s easy enough. But no wine? No way! Wine is more than just alcohol — it’s civilization. And so she’s exploring the possibilities of de-alcoholized products as a way to enjoy wine without having to deal with the negative effects of alcohol. And she is not alone.

A lot of people are interested in alcohol-free beverages — you see non-alcoholic beer all the time at summer picnics, for example, and I think every holiday party features non-alcoholic alternatives like sparkling cider and fruit juices. Less alcohol means fewer calories, another advantage. No reason why wine shouldn’t be added to this mix.

In fact there might be particular reasons to consider wine, since it famously features health benefits. Many supermarkets feature gourmet grape juice as a health product and growers like Draper Valley Vineyards bottle unfermented juice of Riesling, Pinot Noir and other wine grape varieties. These juices are delicious, but they don’t taste like wine. In fact I have my students taste them so they can see how much different wine is from its juice.

With only a couple of exceptions (I think Moscato might be one of them), wine grape juice does not taste like the corresponding wine. The magic of fermentation does more than produce alcohol, it changes things in a good way. So making the wine then removing the alcohol is the way to go.

Haven’t Tried It? Yes You Have!

Have you ever tried de-alcoholized wine?  I’ll bet you have and don’t know it!

That’s because a lot of today’s wine is actually partially de-alcoholized. Some but not all the alcohol’s been removed (don’t look on the label — the info isn’t there).  It is not uncommon for wineries to take a portion of their wine and have the alcohol removed, with the resulting liquid blended back into the original vat, lowering the average alcohol level by a percent or two. Why do they do it? To correct the taste or style. And sometimes to bring the alcohol level below the 14 percent threshold where higher federal tax rates kick in.

No one talks much about this (or about the practice of adding “jesus units” — water — to fermenting wine to accomplish more or less the same result) but I am told that it happens all the time.  Imagine how much of a punch some of those big Zins and Shiraz/Syrahs would have if they weren’t tamed a bit!

My bicycling friend reports that the de-alcoholized wines she’s tried have been very satisfactory. They are clearly wine, not grape juice, she reports, and while the flavors and aromas aren’t as complex, they provide the civilized experience she seeks. “I find it a very acceptable way to feel like you’re drinking your traditional glass of wine with appetizer or dinner, especially if you have compelling reasons to avoid alcohol intake.”

Red, White and Orange?

De-alcoholized wine actually contains a tiny bit of alcohol, but can be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage so long as it contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Amazingly, this is about the same amount of alcohol you will find in orange juice. Really!

A trip to my local upscale supermarket  revealed a surprisingly good selection of de-alcoholized wines (six still wines and one sparkler) selling for about $5 (a holiday discount price) to $12.  Fre (a Sutter Home brand) and Ariel (owned by J. Lohr Vineyards) are the two largest producers and accounted for all the wine I saw.

Other brands you might see here in the U.S. include Carl Jung from Germany and posssibly Vandalia from Napa Valley, the subject of a 2010 Wall Street Journal story (they’ll sell you a case of their 2002 de-alcoholized Cabernet Sauvignon for $200 if you act now). Other countries have de-alcoholized wines, too, including Wine Zero in Italy.

Interestingly, the two big U.S. brands are made in very different ways. Both begin with wine, of course. Ariel uses reverse osmosis to remove alcohol and water, resulting in a concentrated wine. The image above (from the Ariel website) shows how it works. Fresh water is added to the de-alcoholized wine concentrate before bottling.

Fre, on the other hand, uses the spinning cone method to remove alcohol and then adds back in a small amount of the unfermented juice to give the wine better body.

A Growing Market Segment?

I wrote to both companies asking for sales data but neither sent a reply. I wanted to test my hunch, which is that sales of de-alcoholized wine are growing. This might make sense since interest in wine is on the rise and concern about alcohol’s health effects is also strong. Possibly these two trends are in complete conflict, but maybe there is an overlapping niche where brands for Fre and Ariel (and the juice products, too).

Now that I am sensitive to the issue, I seem to see news reports about head trauma problems everywhere — in the international news about soldiers returned form overseas duty, for example, and in the sports pages where football, hockey and even soccer injuries are reported. I can’t help thinking that my bicycle-riding  friend is not alone among head trauma patients in her desire to enjoy wine in some form during her recovery.

My New Year’s Toast: Raise a wine glass (alcohol optional) to good health. Cheers!

Holiday Wine Sales: That’s Where the Money Goes!

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That’s where the money goes

To buy my baby those

Crisp German Riesling wines

And Oregon Pinot Noir.

She shifts to bubbles when

Santa’s back in his den

Oh boy, that’s where my money goes.

I remember learning this tune from a Mitch Miller singalong LP years ago (click here to hear the song). I’ve written new lyrics to highlight a report from Nielsen about holiday wine and spirits sales (see chart above).

Wine sales surge around the holidays, but sales don’t increase evenly across the board. Here’s a summary of the findings, courtesy of Danny Brager, VP Beverage/Alcohol Group, Nielsen.

The U.S. consumer is much more inclined to open up their pocket books during the holidays.  While overall wine sales are 67% higher in that week leading up to Christmas compared to an average week, that jumps up to 124% higher for wines priced $15-$20, and 180% higher for wines $20 and higher

And which varieties tend to really shine during the holidays? Rieslings and Pinot Noir lead the way – with sales increases compared to an average week in the year 107% and 74% higher respectively, even more of a jump than the wine category overall.

By country, wines from Germany, tied to that Riesling jump, followed by France and Italy exhibit the greatest holiday sales leap compared to an average week, while wines from Oregon pop the most when looking at major U.S. wine producing states

Trading up for the holidays doesn’t surprise me, but I must admit that I would not have predicted surging sales for Riesling and Pinot Noir. Those are actually the wines that I recommend to my students for festive holiday meals (along with bubbles, of course). I guess the word is out!

Illusive Progress in Wine Advertising?

A lot of money, talent, and technology goes into advertising today, but is the product really better than in the past? For your consideration (and winter holiday fun) we present three television wine commercials from past and present. All feature celebrities along with increasing levels of money and technology. The wine gets better as we move along,  but does the quality of the message? What do you think? Cheers!

Thunderbird: Not quite like anything I’ve ever tasted

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Paul Masson Chenin Blanc: Yummy

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Legendary wine (and acting)

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I know, I know, you were hoping for one of those famous Orson Welles commercials for Paul Masson. Well, you can find them and more on YouTube.com. Click on this link for a selection.

Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

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

An Unlikely Curse

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

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

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

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

Carmenere Comes to Britain

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

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

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

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

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

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

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

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

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

Blogger Tasting Wine List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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