Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone –  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!

Liquid Assets: Fine Wine versus Crude Oil

So … which do you prefer? Great Bordeaux or bulk crude oil?

The answer depends on your perspective, I think. For drinking there is no choice — red wine trumps black gold. No doubt about it.

Demand and Supply Always Apply

But how about if you look at the choice from an investment perspective? The surprising answer is that it makes little difference. The prices of fine wine and crude oil have been highly correlated in recent years.  Or at least that is the conclusion of two economists at the International Monetary Fund, Serhan Cevik and Tahsin Saadi Sedik, as reported in their recently published paper “A Barrel of Oil or a Bottle of Wine: How Do Global Growth Dynamics Affect Commodity Markets?” (click on the link to download a pdf of their working paper).

The graph shown above indicates that price indices for crude oil and investment-grade wine are highly correlated. Wine follows the twists and turns of oil prices, although it is somewhat less volatile in terms of peaks and troughs. The conclusions are more or less the same if real data are used instead of nominal measures. Who would have guessed?

How is Oil Like Wine?

What do oil and fine wine have in common? Darn little, from the drinking standpoint, but quite a lot in terms of supply and demand. Both commodities have relatively inelastic supplies, according to the study authors (although for very different reasons, as you may imagine), so that changes in demand account for the majority of price movement effects.

The authors find that the same macroeconomic factors that push up the global demand for oil are associated with rising auction prices for the fine wines in the Liv-Ex index. Certainly in recent years it must be true that China’s fast growth has impacted the relatively narrow investment wine market and the much broader global commodities markets in the same way, albeit for different specific reasons.

Shifting Center of Gravity

So what?  Well, the study tells us a number of interesting things. First, it indicates that economists at the IMF have not entirely lost their sense of humor– a good thing, I suppose, since they are part of the glue that holds the global financial system together (hey Mr. Euro, I’m talkin’ ’bout you!). It is comforting to know that they think about the real world and are not limited by the formal constraints of their charts, graphs and equations.

Second, as the Financial Times points out, it shows that adding wine to an investment portfolio does not necessarily usefully diversify it if oil is also in the mix. You might not have guessed this correlation, but there it is. Always good to do research and not rely upon common sense or intuition.

Finally (and here you need to actually read the paper by following the link above), the authors note an important shift in the global economic center of gravity. Whereas only a few years ago the changes in both oil and wine prices would have been explained by U.S. and Western European economic variable, now it is the emerging markets that have the most clout. The driving forces of world commodity markets have new postal codes. You don’t need to read tea leaves to get the new address — wine and oil both point the way!

Retail Wine Sales: Big versus Hot (Hot Hot)


I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what’s “big” in the wine market (where the most consumer dollars are going) versus what’s  “hot” (or “hot hot hot” as in the video above), showing the fastest growth.  I’m using U.S. off-premises wine sales data from Nielsen for the 52 weeks ending 9/18/2010 taken from the December 2010 issue of Wine Business Monthly.

Baseline information: Off-premises wine sales in the U.S. totaled $9,172 million in the period covered here according to the Nielsen report, with an overall growth rate of 3.2%.

Which product categories are the largest in absolute terms and which are growing the fastest? I’m going to break down the data by wine varietal, country of origin (for imported wines) and price category. Take a minute and write down what wines/countries/price points you think will be at the top in each category and see if you’re right. Here goes

Chardonnay Leads the Way

Forget what you thought you knew about Chardonnay being so yesterday and Pinot Noir kicking Merlot’s butt. In terms of the overall retail market sales, the giants (or are they dinosaurs?) still dominate.

BIG varietals

Varietal $ million
Chardonnay $1,996
Cabernet Sauvignon $1,347
Merlot $911
Pinot Gris/Grigio $734
Pinot Noir $526
White Zinfandel $427

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American wine drinkers are nothing if not traditional, reaching again and again for familiar varietals, so the usual suspects come top of the table. Pinot Noir has indeed surged in the post-Sideways era, but its lead over wounded White Zin is not large and it still lags far behind arch nemesis Merlot.

Obvious Chardonnay is the consumer default with a 50% lead on Cabernet and double the sales of Merlot. Pinot Grigio, the #2 white varietal, lags far behind.

I find the varietal “hot list” below quite interesting. The fastest growing wine varietals  are Riesling, Pinot Noir (of course), Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc. (Interestingly, varietal Sangiovese is rising while Chianti is a shrinking category in the Nielsen league table.)

HOT varietals

Varietal Increase
Riesling 9.4%
Pinot Noir 8.9%
Sangiovese 8.7%
Sauvignon Blanc 8.5%

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It seems to me that while the “big” varietals are wines that many consumers purchase to drink on their own (because of their high alcohol levels and for other reasons), the “hot varietals” are a bit more likely to be food wines. I wonder if that’s a trend?

World Wine Web

Most of the table wines that Americans drink are American — there is a very strong home country preference. Domestic wine sales totaled $6,524 million for the period covered here while imports accounted for $2,648 million. What countries supply the most imported wine as measured by total expenditures? Here’s the Big list:

BIG import countries

Country of Origin $ million
Italy $804
Australia $771
Chile $243
France $228
Argentina $187
New Zealand $125

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As the table shows, Italy and Australia are #1 and #2 respectively in off-premises sales. It is interesting that France has fallen to #4 behind Chile. Argentina and New Zealand make the cut here (Spain did not!) as you might expect, but bear in mind that Italy still sells more wine in the U.S. than Chile, France, Argentina and the Kiwis combined. The concentration ratio in this market is very high: Italy and Australia may be struggling at the moment, but they are in a league of their own.

Italy and Australia will not be over-taken soon, but the market momentum seems to have has passed. Look at the big growth numbers that Argentina and New Zealand are putting up below! Wow. Annual growth rates of more than 20%!

HOT import countries

Country of Origin Increase
Argentina 27.6%
New Zealand 21.1%
Germany 4.4%
Chile 1.7%
Spain 0.6%
Portugal 0.3%

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Now look at the gap between the really hot ones and the rest! Germany comes in at #3 on hot list, but with a low 4.4% increase for the year. Sales of most wine imports (including Italy and Australia) have actually fallen in the last year. Spain and Portugal squeeze onto the list at #5 and #6 by simply avoiding utter collapse. The import wine segment is slumping badly, with Argentina and New Zealand the only significant exceptions.

The Price is Right

Finally, let’s look at the market in terms of price points.  What are the biggest and hottest parts of the wine wall in terms of price?

BIG price points

Price Segment $ million
$3.00 – $5.99 $2,688
$6.00 – $8.99 $1,903
$9.00 – $11.99 $1,868
$12.00 – $14.99 $910
$0 – $2.99 $794
$15.00 – $19.99 $557
$20+ $446

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You can see from the data why Gallo is having a good year (or probably having a good year, since they are a private company and don’t release data so I can only guess). Their brand portfolio is aimed at the heart of the market, from $3.00 to $11.99. Lots of good targets there!

You can also see why Constellation Brands is probably finding this a challenging year. They reconfigured their brand portfolio to take advantage of what they saw as upmarket opportunities.  They moved up the wine wall a bit but the market changed directions and went downmarket, leaving them in a less competitive position.

HOT price points

Price segment Increase
$9.00 – $11.99 9.1%
$20+ 7.4%
$12.00 – $14.99 5.0%
$3.00 – $5.99 4.5%
$15.00 – $19.99 2.5%
$0 – $2.99 (0.1)%
$6.00 – $8.99 (4.0)%

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But Constellation’s upmarket bet may yet pay off. The hot price segments are all in the wine wall’s upper strata.

The Old Elasticity Trap

The rise in spending in the super-premium + categories is an encouraging sign, but I think some caution is necessary in interpreting the data. Many observers see the big increase in expenditures on $20+ wines and conclude that consumers are coming back to this segment strongly — that the demand curve has shifted. But I suspect that there is a lot of bargain hunting taking place and that margins are falling – bad news. Maybe we are just following discounted prices down the demand curve.

For many of today’s buyers a $20+ retail wine is a highly discretionary purchase and so the demand curve may be quite elastic. Econ 101 students will remember that total expenditure increases when price falls for a product with an elastic demand.

The large percentage expenditure increases we seen in the data could result from discounting — $30 wines being sold off for $25 and so on — rather than an actual increase in demand or shift in the demand curve.  The increased revenues are good and inspire optimism, but they may disguise the bad news of shrinking margins.

(As I am writing this, the neighborhood Safeway is offering an extra 20% off any wine selling for $20 or more. I suspect sales revenue will increase at the lower retail markup.)

Overall conclusions? I’d rather not, thanks. These data are interesting more for the questions they raise than the answers they provide. But the questions about how the U.S. wine market is changing are worth pondering (hopefully over a nice glass of wine). Cheers.

Extreme Wine: O Canada Ice Wine

Ice wine, Canada’s distinctive contribution to the world of wine, holds a fascinating place in the world wine price tables and so qualifies for inclusion in The Wine Economist’s extreme wine series.

Top of the World

Which country gets the highest average price for its bottled wine exports? You might think it would be France with all those expensive Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines or Portugal with its costly eponymous after-dinner wines. But both of these countries also export a good deal of much cheaper wine, bringing their average  export earnings (USD per liter) down to $4.24 and $3.70 respectively. (Data are for 2005 from my copy of The Global Wine Statistical Compendium.)

New Zealand with its gorgeous Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs ($6.64) and the UK with its classy sparkling wines  ($6.87) both earn more per liter of bottled wine exports than the “usual suspects” of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain to say nothing of New World powers Argentina ($1.87), Australia ($3.65), Chile ($2.72) and South Africa ($2.42).

(Remember that wines that are exported for, say, $4.00 will have a much higher price on your store shelves due to transport  costs, distribution and retail margins and applicable taxes.)

At the very top of the table, for reasons that I think are due to exchange rate sand import resales more than domestic wine prices, is Switzerland ($8.23 per liter) followed closely by Canada ($7.32).  How can frigid Canada rate so high? Ice wine (or Eiswein) , of course!

The Highest Compliment?

Canada didn’t invent ice wine (credit Austria with that) but it is the world’s largest producer of this chilly wine, making nearly a million liters in a good year according to John Scheiner’s authoritative The Wines of Canada. Ice wine’s high cost is the biggest single factor in Canada’s lofty export earnings average.

Tiny bottles of ice wine bring enormous prices — $50, $100, even $500 and more for a half bottle at retail. Who pays these spectacular prices? Japan and other Asian countries are the largest export market.  Ice wine is the quintessential high end gift wine — attractively sweet, beautifully packaged and luxuriously expensive. Tourists snap bottles at Duty-Free to take home to Asia.

I’ve heard that so much ice wine is bought by Tokyo-bound travelers that some Canadian duty-free stores have special bonded facilities in Japan to make purchases more convenient. Pay at the airport in Canada and pick up your ice wine at baggage claim in Japan. Sweet!

Ice wines are so expensive and sought after in Asia that counterfeiting is a serious problem. Some experts believe that as much as 50 percent of the ice wine sold in Taiwan is bogus — sweet wines from Canada and elsewhere that are doctored up and repackaged.

Check out this image from the label of one of the faked wines — brewed, not fermented! Yikes. Must have got ice wine mixed up with ice beer. These may be big counterfeiting operations, but not necessarily sophisticated ones.

A recent Globe and Mail article suggests the problem may be even worse in China.

Well over 50 per cent of icewine in China is fake from what I’ve seen and heard,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates, which has quit the market entirely. “If it was 80 per cent … I wouldn’t be surprised.

The legitimate Chinese market for Canadian icewine has grown rapidly, which the industry attributes to a burgeoning middle class and the desire to give exotic gifts. It rose to $2.16-million in 2007 from $270,000 in 2005. The market sagged in 2008, but was worth $1.2-million in the first half of this year [2009]. It’s our most important flagship wine produced,” said Bob Keyes, vice-president of economic and government affairs with the Canadian Vintners Association.

Chilly Saga, Intense Experience

Ice wine is a very particular product. The grapes for ice wines are left on the vine long after regular grapes have been picked. By law natural ice wine in Canada can only be made from grapes that have been frozen to -7 degrees Celsius (17 degrees F) and harvested at minimum 35 degrees brix. The juice, what is left of it, is highly concentrated so each grape yields just a drop or so. Picking is done by hand, of course, since many clusters will have experienced bird damage or fallen prey to disease.

Vidal Blanc is the grape of choice for Canadian ice wine — its tough skin can stand up to harsh weather — along with lesser amounts of Riesling and other varietals. Most of Canada’s ice wine is produced in Ontario, where wine makers can pretty much count on frightfully low temperatures early in the winter season. But the first ice wines came from out west in British Columbia.

North America’s first commercial ice wine was made in 1978 by German-born Walter and Tilman Hainle of Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery in Peachland, British Columbia. Tillman Hainle, Walter’s son, generously shared precious bottles of a recent vintage from with us at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous meetings. [See Tilman's helpful comment below.] It was one of the most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted, so I just had to visit Hainle Vineyards on my recent Okanagan wine country expedition.

Sue and I met with Dr. Walter Huber, the proprietor of Hainle Vineyards and Deep Creek Wine Estate, who purchased the business from the Hainle family after Walter’s death.  Dr. Huber was an extremely generous host, pulling corks with almost excessive enthusiasm. He’s refuses to release his wines before their time, choosing to let them dribble out slowly to lucky wine club members. He is generous to a fault with inquisitive visitors like me, even letting us sample an ice wine from 1984. Wow! I purchased some old vine Rieslings to drink a few years from now when they have fully matured.

Only the Beginning

Ice wine is what made Canada’s reputation in wine, Dr. Huber explained, but it’s not all there is to Canadaian wine these days, especially in the Okanagan Valley in eastern B.C., where the vineyards overlook Lake Okanagan and dozens of very different micro-climates co-exist. Winegrowers are able to ripen cool climate grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir, of course, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and apparently even Zinfandel!

I love ice wine, but it is only one element of Canada’s dynamic wine industry. I’ll report on the surprising wine tourism industry in my an upcoming post, followed by a peek at what might be the future of Canadian wine. O Canada, you produce some unexpected wines! Check back soon to learn about what’s happening today and what the future may hold.

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[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

Restaurant Wine: A Double-Sided Puzzle

If there is one thing that wine enthusiasts have in common (maybe the only thing?) it is their frustration with wine in restaurants. I was reminded of this fact as I read through the weekend newspaper wine columns. Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal piece is an extended rant (or maybe she’s venting and not ranting) about wine-by-the glass in restaurants.

The Confidence Game

Teague can’t decide which is worse in restaurant wine-by-the glass programs — the price or the quality. The rule of thumb is that restaurants charge as much per glass of wine as they actually paid for the whole bottle (and sometimes even more). This makes her feel ripped off. At the same time, the wine has been sitting around open for who knows how long, losing some or all of its freshness.  Fancy wine storage systems can help with this, but still it’s difficult to order a glass of wine (sometimes for $25 or more) with much confidence.

Over at the Financial Times Nicholas Lander approaches the issue from the business side and  looks for a solution in cooperative arrangements between wine collectors (who are willing to sell off some of their stash at market prices) and restaurants who offer these wines to their customers at reduced mark-ups.  The collectors get a fair price on their investment, the restaurants get a middle man return without big up-front costs and customers get access to special wines at lower prices. A great idea, but perhaps hard to scale-up.

Restaurant wine is like a double-sided jigsaw puzzle. The same pieces have to fit together to form two different appealing pictures — one for the customers and another for the business. If any of the pieces are upside down or missing, the whole experience is ruined.

Putting the Pieces Together

Not that it is impossible to put it all together. One of my most completely satisfying wine experiences of recent years was a dinner at The Black Rabbit Restaurant at Edgefield, a funky old  hotel in Troutdale, just outside of Portland, Oregon. A bottle of  the stellar 2006 Fielding Hills Cabernet Sauvignon sold for the same price that the winery was charging at that time — what a deal! It wasn’t the only good value on the menu, either. (The current wine list on the Black Rabbit website lists a 2007 Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir for $60. I saw the same wine on another wine list for about $200. Where are my car keys?)

How can they do it? Well, Edgefield is an unusual operation.  It is an affordable destination hotel housed in a former Depression-era poor farm (really!) with its own movie theater, winery, brewery and distillery.  The owners can afford to sell their own wine at good prices and the rest of the list falls into place around those wines. Edgefield is part of a regional chain of restaurants and hotels, so some scale economies may exist, too.

Constantly Disappointed?

Edgefield shows that it is possible to put the pieces together to everyone’s satisfaction. But is it the model for restaurant wine programs generally?  Obviously not. Like Lander’s proposal it is too much of a special case, but it shows that there is hope for constantly disappointed wine enthusiasts. Unlike a real jigsaw puzzle, which has just one solution, I think there are probably many different ways to put the pieces together to improve the restaurant wine experience.

Flemming’s Steak House offers 100 wines by the glass at its restaurants, for example. Although Lettie Teague is appalled by this for the price and quality reasons noted above, the broad choice may please many customers.  After all, we are accustomed to choosing from a huge wine selection at competitive prices at supermarkets and wine shops. Even a very large restaurant wine list (say, 300 choices) is tiny compared with your local upscale supermarket, which may have 2000 or more wines on the shelves.

The fact that the restaurant charges a semi-monopoly price (hard to get a competitive bid once you’ve been seated) makes the situation more frustrating.

One solution is to loosen the monopoly hold on price, which some restaurants are doing right now by reducing or eliminating corkage fees. Bring your own wine (purchased at normal retail prices) and enjoy dinner and a wine experience. Since wine is typically the highest priced item on a restaurant bill (more expensive than the entree, for example), reducing the wine cost removes a disincentive to dine out.

I don’t think many customers take up the “no corkage fee”  offer, but some do and if treated well they are likely to return to dine again. If there are conditions on free corkage (the wine cannot be on our list, for example, or free corkage on one bottle if you purchase a bottle from us) they need to be clearly stated to avoid misunderstanding and hard feelings.

Wine-by-the Keg?

The continuing recession is putting more strain on restaurant wine programs, which is unfortunate for everyone involved. But perhaps it will also spur the search for creative solutions to the double-sided puzzle problem.

One interesting approach to the wine-by-the-glass problem, for example, is keg wine — wine packaged in reusable steel containers. Cheaper per unit than bottled wine (assuming that the keg can be returned and refilled efficiently) with a reasonably long quality shelf life if properly tapped, keg wine may be the rosy  future of restaurant wine-by-the-glass.

Someone should tell Lettie Teague the good news.

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Thanks to Michael and Nancy Morrell for their assistance with this report.

Big Squeeze on Small Wineries in Argentina

Argentina is generally seen as the big winner in the current U.S. wine market. Sales of Argentinean wines have surged at every price point led by the signature Malbecs, (something that I wrote about in a recent post).  The big picture is great — perhaps the New World’s biggest success story since Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc hit the scene.

Both Sides Now

The devil is in the details, however, and a more detailed analysis of Argentinean exports suggests that some parts of the industry are facing significant challenges. As usual, my source for news and analysis about wine in Argentina is WineSur, which reports that small wineries are really feeling the squeeze in the critical U.S. export market. (See the report by Gabriela Mazilia. )

Small producers are what economists call “price-takers.” They cannot do very much to control the prices they receive on the export markets and they don’t have much control over input prices, either. While a great many business decisions are theirs to take, some of the most critical factors are beyond their control. This is true for all businesses, of course, but more so for some than others.

Mazilia’s report suggests that small Argentinean producers are feeling the squeeze from both sides of the market. Costs are rising rapidly, perhaps especially for the goods and services that winemakers require. Argentina’s  inflation rate is about 10% according to official statistics, but unofficial estimates put the number at about 25%, amongst the highest in the world today. Yikes!  The Economist‘s Big Mac Index reports that Argentina’s currency is much less undervalued now than a year ago even though the exchange rate has depreciated, which is consistent with rapidly increasing local prices.

Magnified Price Effects

Small producers would like to pass higher costs forward to consumers or backwards on to input suppliers, but neither of these options seems possible at this time. Mazilia’s report suggests that export price increases of 5%-10% are possible for wines that retail in the USD 10-18 range, where Argentinean wines are seen as good values. Increases for more expensive wines are apparently out of the question — the market for $20+ wines in the U.S. is just too competitive, too filled with expensive wines selling a a discount.

One problem Argentinean exporters face is that every 10% increase in the price they receive is magnified in absolute terms as the wine passes through the supply chain. One producer cited the dismal math that a USD 1 increase in FOB export price translates into a USD 4 increase in retail prices. Here is an example from the WineSur report:

A case in point is the winery Sur de los Andes. The firm’s owner and manager, Guillermo Banfi, announced: “In the course of this second semester we’ll raise prices from 5 to 10%, in particular in our line of classic wines. We won’t touch the prices of the great reserve line or of our icon wine. Margins have shrunk so much that there’s no way we can keep absorbing the high increase in costs.”

When asked how much of a margin of increase could be born by an Argentinian wine without losing market share, Banfi provided an example that illustrates the situation in the US, a reference market. “In the US, our wines in the USD 10-18 retail price segment sell very well – these are wines with an FOB price of USD 3-5. With an FOB price of USD 3, the consumer price is around USD 11. A rise of 5-10% would imply an increase of USD 1-2 in retail prices, which would have a negative impact on sales, since pricing is a very sensitive issue in this segment.”

Not Much Wiggle Room

Small producers are caught in a squeeze without much room to wiggle. If they don’t raise prices they will watch their margins disappear. If they do, well, they risk finding themselves in unfriendly market territory.

“The problem is that there will be a radical change of scenario for Argentinian wines in the USD 10-20 retail price range. Up to now, these wines have sold well because they are, on average, superior in quality to similarly priced European wines. But from now on, the gap in quality will be narrower, and we’ll be competing with wines of similar quality and price, from regions with a longer standing presence in the market.

Turbulent Tide

It sounds like Argentina’s small producers face an uncertain future, but this is nothing new. The great success of Argentina’s large international wineries in the U.S. market has masked a churning pattern among smaller winemakers. Each year several dozen small wineries enter the U.S. market, but each year others are forced to exit as the turbulent tide advances.

International connections, effective distribution, economies of scale and brand prestige are always advantages in competitive international wine markets. The are especially important to Argentina’s struggling price-taking small producers today.

Vinonomics: The Mouton Cadet Index

Richard Hemming, whose writing appears on the  Jancis Robinson website, has invented the Mouton Cadet index to measure international differentials in wine prices. It is an interesting project that is worth following.

Hemming’s price index, which he is calling Vinonomics (in homage to the Freakonomics craze), works like this. First he selected a high-volume wine that is in very wide international circulation to serve as the one-item “market basket” for his international comparisons. Mouton Cadet, the ubiquitous Bordeaux wine, is a great choice since it is so widely distributed (a “15-million-bottle, 150-country brand distributed from Andorra to Zimbabwe,” according to Hemming).

Mouton Cadet may not be the wine sold in the most different countries — Moët & Chandon Champagne would be my pick for that honor — but using Mouton Cadet keeps the Big Mac spirit of tracking the price of an everyday product, not a luxury good.

Sky High in Seoul

Hemming then searched the internet and other sources for prices of Mouton Cadet in as many countries as he could. He converted these prices to Euro, USD and GBP at market exchange rates and published them on the website. (He is hoping that readers will send in additional price data to help complete the table.)

The price differentials that Hemming finds are quite large.  The French ‘home country” price for Mouton Cadet is given as EUR 9.55, which is incredibly more than the reported price of the same wine in the United States (USD 7.99 or about EUR 6). Within the Eurozone, where trade is allegedly free, Cadet’s price runs as high as EUR 19 in Austria and EUR 21 in Italy. So much for the “Law of One Price!”

What’s the cheapest place in the world to purchase Mouton Cadet? So far Hemming’s low price leader is the U.S., where French wines struggle to sell in a crowded and very competitive market, followed by Hong Kong (EUR 8.56).

The most expensive? South Korea (EUR 26), Brazil (EUR 21.5) and Italy (EUR 21). The difference between the high and low price is stunning. It is easy to explain South Korea’s high price in terms of transportation costs, regulatory expenses and multiple middleman markups, but the high price given for Italy is difficult to understand. Hard to know who would pay so much for Cadet in Italy.

Bordeaux with your Big Mac?

Hemming’s research project is based on  the Economist’s famous Big Mac Index (BMI), which tries to measure the relative purchasing power of different currencies by comparing the local prices of McDonald’s ubiquitous hamburger.  Here is a table showing the index as of July 2010.

The table shows that Japan and Australia are very close to Purchasing Power Parity — the condition where a U.S. dollar has the same purchasing power abroad (when exchanged at market rates) as at home.  The dollar cost of a Big Mac is approximately the same in all three countries.

Norway’s currency is very over-valued according to the BMI.  A Big Mac that sells for USD 3.73 in the U.S. costs a whopping USD 7.20 (converting at market exchange rates) in Oslo. The high cost of buying a Norwegian Krone contributes to the hamburger’s high dollar price there.  The Swiss Franc is almost as over-valued — a Big Mac costs the equivalent of USD 6.19 in Geneva.

Hong Kong and China have undervalued currencies by this measure. A Big Mac costs less than the equivalent of USD 2.00 there. The harburger is cheap in part because the currency is so cheap in these countries.

Wine vs Burgers

The Big Mac index is far from a perfect measure of relative purchasing power, but it is not a bad guestimate because Big Macs are standard products with easily discoverable prices and most of the cost of producing a Big Mac takes place within the country in question. I’ve found that if the BMI says a country’s currency is over-valued then it probably is, although not necessarily by as much or little as the index suggests.

The Mouton Cadet index is very interesting for what it tells us about wine prices, but it is probably less useful as a measure of PPP. The wine, of course, comes from France unlike the locally-produced burger ingredients and the local price in South Korea, for example, is influenced by that cost basis (adjusted for exchange rate effects) plus transportation costs. The biggest “local content” factors are the local taxes and  wholesale and retail markups within South Korea, which are probably quite high.

Mind the Gap

At this point the Mouton Cadet index is most interesting to me for the questions it inspires (I’ve always said that questions are more interesting than answers). Who’s buying that EUR 21 Cadet in Rome (and are they interested in buying a bridge I happen to have for sale?)

What accounts for the high price in South Korea? The exchange rate is certainly  part of it. The South Korea Won is undervalued relative to the EUR according to the BMI. A Big Mac costs USD 2.82 in Seoul and USD 4.33 in Paris — a 50% price differential. The exchange rate therefore might explain 50% of the price gap between the Mouton Cadet price in France and South Korea. What accounts for the rest? (And does that fact that South Korea has no substantial domestic wine industry that I am aware of affect the mark ups on foreign wines?)

And what about Brazil? The Euro is actually  undervalued relative to the Brazilian Real according to the Big Mac index, and so the exchange rate is not necessarily a factor in Mouton Cadet’s high price in Rio. What other factors account for the big price gap?

I hope Richard Hemming continues with this project. It would be interesting to have data for additional countries (Japan? Russia? India?) and to see how the rankings change over time and relative to Big Macs.

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I’d like to encourage interested readers around the world to send Hemming local store prices for Mouton Cadet so that he has better data both for international comparisons and to get a sense of intra-country price dispersion.

Wanted: Retail [Wine] Therapy

I know that it is not easy to make good wine. And wine can be difficult to sell, too. But apparently buying wine is even harder.

That ’70s Wine

At least that’s the word from some top wine critics. Lettie Teague’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal was ostensibly about that 1970s favorite, Pouilly-Fuissé, but much of it was actually a gentle rant about the difficulty she experienced in trying to buy a few bottles for a tasting. Seems the specialist wine merchants she contacted just didn’t have much in stock. She had to work pretty hard to put together a reasonable sample.

Is it just a Pouilly-Fuissé problem? Maybe, but Teague reported much the same experience a couple of weeks ago when she tried to put together a tasting of wines  from Washington state. Teague’s merchants carried just a bottle or two of Washington wine, same as that 70′s wine. That’s all we need, they told her. No one cares, they said.

What do Washington wines have in common with the French? I used to think it was latitude but now I know — you can’t buy them in New York! (BTW word of mouth evidence suggests that Washington wines might be easier to find in New York than Teague’s article indicates.)

Mind the Gap

I know there are many factors at work here including New York’s peculiar retail wine regulations, the dollar-euro exchange rate and especially the recent “flight to safety” among wine sellers who seek to minimize inventory in a very uncertain market.

America’s byzantine interstate wine trade regulations are part of the problem, too. I’ve often looked across the pond to Britain and imagined how great it would be to have a unified wine market (without dozens of state and even local regulatory regimes). Wine is easier to sell in Britain because of this and so I’ve always thought that it was easier to buy, too. I guess I forgot my own frustrated wine buying experiences living in London a few years ago, when I tried to find interesting U.S. wines to share with British friends;  pretty much all I could find in my local drinks shop was bottom shelf generics.

I was reminded of this by one of Jancis Robinson’s recent Financial Times columns where she vented her frustration about trying to buy just a bottle or two of very good wine for dinner. You can buy vast quantities of cheap and cheerful wine as Tesco, she said, and of course you can purchase many of the finest wines on earth by the case and have it delivered to your door the next day. But what if you just want one bottle of something a notch or two above the supermarket category?

Yes, you can do it, she said, but it isn’t easy. And then she listed the five British merchants that she thinks fill the bill. Five! Ouch. “… this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers,” she moaned. The gap between BOGOF Tesco and a case of Chateau Lafite is bigger than I thought! Robinson cites the increasing dominance of the big supermarket chains as a critical factor driving the specialist wine merchant out of business. Tesco, of course, is now the world’s largest wine merchant and 70% of British wine comes from a supermarket shelf.

Decanter published an article last year (in the 2009 California supplement) bemoaning the fact that so few American wines are available in the UK. Bottom and top are easy enough to find, but nothing much in the vast middle. They cited a number of factors including American winemakers’ resistance to the deep discounts needed to make export sales, high British retail margins and the incompatibility of American wine styles and British palates. Whatever the reason, it seems that British wine buyers are surprisingly under-served when it comes to America’s diverse wine array.

Why Can’t a Wine Be More Like a Book?

It occurs to me that the situation facing wine buyers today is a lot like book buying was twenty years ago. It was easy to find best sellers and trashy paperbacks. And specialist shops catered to particular interests at a price. But much of the vast book supply was very difficult for buyers to access.

And then came Amazon.com, of course. And now the world of new and used books is only a click away.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an Amazon.com for wine? That would be one “killer app,” as they say. But I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not soon. Amazon.com announced plans to start selling wines online a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it and it is easy to see why.

Although bottled wine does share many of the attributes that made books Amazon.com’s initial target market, there are a number of discouraging negatives to consider. Wine is heavy and costly to ship compared to books.  A books doesn’t care if the weather is hot or cold while it is in transit, but your half-case of Chianti surely does. And of course there are the legal barriers that restrict interstate shipping at every turn.

I’m hoping that someone will come along with that Killer Wine App that makes fine wine buying as efficient as shopping for books, but until then I think that retail [wine] therapy will remain a source of frustration, not relief, for at least some of us.

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Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times suggests that wine books share some of the same distribution frustrations as wine. She reports a trend towards self-publication of specialist wine books.

Extreme Wines: Most Expensive Vintage?

[This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

2009 is by most accounts the most expensive Bordeaux vintage on record. Quite an achievement during a global economic slowdown! Jancis Robinson quotes some amazing prices for the en primeur wines:

Le Pin €1,050
Ausone €800
Cheval Blanc €700
Haut-Brion, Latour €600
Lafite, Margaux, Mouton €550
Yquem €540

Other’s People’s Wine

These prices are per bottle — except that no real bottles exist yet. The 2009 vintage is still in barrel and will stay there for several more months. Since Bordeaux wines are almost always varietal blends — and since the blending won’t take place until the wine is bottled — it is fair to say that the people who are paying these big prices can’t be completely sure what they are buying. They base their purchases on … on what? On faith (in the winemakers), on trust (in the critics’ judgments) and, of course, on speculation, since much of the action at this stage is to lock up hot wines for profitable resale later.

John Maynard Keynes once compared speculators to people who bet on the results of the “people’s choice” beauty contests that were popular in his day. The trick wasn’t to pick out the most beautiful entrant, but rather to  identify the one that other people would vote for. So making the bet was a matter of guessing what other people would think other people would do and playing the odds. That’s Bordeaux en primeur in a nutshell.

How did prices rise so high with the world economy in such a fragile state? There are many theories. Here are four.

(Another) Vintage of the Century

The first theory is quite simple. 2009 was an extraordinary year and the wines are (or will be) spectacular.  Wine enthusiasts will forever regret it if they don’t purchase this vintage, even at high en primeur prices.

This theory is supported by the rave reviews of many wine critics. Perhaps it really is the vintage of the century in Bordeaux, although it must be said that vintages of the century seem to come around pretty frequently these days — their schedule is more like the World Cup than Haley’s Comet.

The China Theory

A second theory is that the high prices of these wines reflects the full emergence of Asia as a market for fine wine.  I’m not sure what to make of all the chatter I heard during the en primeur tasting circus, but the scuttlebutt is that American buyers failed to show up in the usual numbers, but they were not missed because of the demand from China, both direct purchases and London houses buying for eventual Hong Kong resale.

One fact that supports this theory is the huge gap in prices between the top trophy wines and the rest of the Bordeaux market. It is said that Asian buyers want to purchase only the best, most famous wines (rather than looking for bargains or good value further down the list). I don’t know if this stereotype is true, but the stratification in price indicates a disproportionate demand for the top wines, which is consistent with the China theory.

Auction Theory

Another article by Jancis Robinson suggests that the Bordeaux winemakers and their agents are using strategic techniques to try to boost prices, dividing them in tranches, for example, a popular practice in financial markets. Tranche is French for a slice and it is a word that moved from financial jargon to everyday use during the economic crisis, when we all learned how Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were sold off in “slices” that allowed people to convince themselves that their sub-prime mortgage investments were safer than they turned out to be.

Bordeaux wine is sold in tranches, too, with the price of the first slice used to set the standard for the second.  This year, Robinson reports, the first tranche was ridiculously small, creating leaving excess demand and therefore forcing more buyers to weigh in for the second tranche (or risk not getting any wine), which was priced at €100 per bottle more than slice #1 in some cases.

(Wine fact: Tranche is also a winery — and a good one –  Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla.)

Cost-conscious wine drinkers can only hope that the Bordeaux merchants do not start reading the technical economics literature on auction theory, where they would likely find other ways to manipulate the market to squeeze out higher prices.

The No Theory Theory

A final theory is really no theory at all. It holds that the idea that Bordeaux 2009 (broadly defined) is the most expensive Bordeaux vintage ever is a misconception. There are about 8000 Bordeaux producers according to reports I’ve read recently and only about 400 of them take part in the en primeur market. The total production of “first wines” by these makers is surprisingly small. I think it is fair to say that 90 percent of the market’s recent attention is focused on less than 10% (by volume) of the wine produced in Bordeaux.

The prices of the top wines have gone through the roof, but what about the region as a whole? You don’t have to have a theory to appreciate the fact that the makers of ordinary Bordeaux wines do not share the status or benefits of the trophy wines and are probably feeling the pain of hard times like so many winemakers around the world.

Bordeaux 2009 might be extreme in two ways: most expensive and biggest gap between top and bottom!

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