The Real Dirt on the Parker Theory and Chateau Al Gore

The new issue of the Journal of Wine Economics (JWE) leads off with a fascinating article by Julian M. Alston, Kate B. Fuller, James T. Lapsley and George Soleas titled “Too Much of a Good Thing? Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes.”  It’s the kind of wine economics research that makes me smile: rigorous, clever, relevant — and it even includes a poem! What could be better!

Demand-Side Explanations: The Parker Theory

The puzzle that the article examines is why sugar levels (measured in degrees Brix) have risen in California, taking wine alcohol levels with them. Sugar levels in white grapes grown in California increased 12% from 1980-84 to 2005-08, for example, with the average degree Brix rising from 20.7 to 23.2. Average Brix for red grape varieties increased from 22.2 degrees Brix to 24.3. Sugar levels in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes increased from 22.8 to 25.0 degrees Brix at harvest.  Higher sugar levels mean higher alcohol levels, all else being equal.

Two simple explanations are usually cited to explain the rising sugar/alcohol trend. The first is based on changes in demand. Robert Parker (and some other powerful wine critics) are said to prefer a certain style of wine that is riper. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased as wine growers have worked to produce the grapes that make the wines that most please the Golden Palate of Robert P. (or that otherwise appeal to changing consumer preferences).

Supply-Side Explanations: Chateau Al Gore

I call the second theory the “Chateau Al Gore” hypothesis because Al Gore is associated in popular culture with global climate change and that’s what this theory is about. Rising temperatures, according to this line of reasoning, produce riper grapes pushing up sugar levels, boosting alcohol.

It is pretty easy to line up facts to make a persuasive case for Chateau Al Gore. Temperatures as measured by a heat index have been rising in California, according to the article’s authors. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased, too. Although additional sugar may be welcome (the Parker principle), there are indications that producers would prefer lower levels. A good deal of wine in California is partially de-alcoholized, for example. Alcohol is removed from a portion of the vintage (using reverse osmosis or the spinning cone method I am told) and then the treated wine is blended back, reducing overall alcohol levels and allowing winemakers the opportunity to find the “sweet spot” alcohol level for their wines.

Some of the de-alcoholization may be motivated by federal taxes, which increase substantially on a per-gallon basis for wines that rise above the 14% ABV level. The extra 50 cents tax per gallon may not concern the makers of expensive wines like Screaming Eagle, but it can be a significant cost factor for bulk producters and thus worth the expense of alcohol reduction. In any case, the authors find that lower-priced grapes tend to have lower average Brix readings, which is consistent with the tax hypothesis but doesn’t prove it.

If alcohol levels of wine have increased even after partial dealcoholization, this suggests that rising sugar levels must be unwanted and this notion is at least partially confirmed by preliminary data reported here that many wineries under-estimate alcohol levels on product labels. The authors have obtained access to data from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (one of the largest wine merchants in the world), which show that the average stated alcohol level of California wine exported to Ontario was 12.63 percent in the sample period while the actual level was 13.35 percent. The gap is clear, but the authors suggest that more work is needed to fully understand it. I’ll be interested to read their final report.

Ceteris Paribus

The Chateau Al Gore theory seems pretty persuasive. Ceteris paribus (holding everything else constant) it makes sense that sugar and alcohol levels would rise with average vineyard temperature. The fact that winemakers work to offset the alcohol boost and maybe fudge it a bit (within legal limits)  on the label suggests that this is a climate change event that they struggle to contain.

But ceteris is seldom really paribus in wine. Employing multi-factor regression analysis, the authors find that the rising heat index is responsible for some of the increase in sugar levels, but not all of it. Put another way, climate factors alone are not sufficient to explain the total increase in sugar and alcohol. Other factors must also be at work.

Which pushes us back to the demand-side Parker Theory, but in a  usefully complicated way. It is important to understand how much the California wine industry has changed in the last 30 years. The type of wine produced has changed, for example, with varietal wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon) increasing faster than production of generic wine (“Chablis,” “Burgundy”). Varietal wines accounted for 71% of California production in 2000, according to the authors, compared to just 19% in 1985.

The move upmarket required different grape varieties of higher quality from different production zones. Thus while total California wine grape production rose by 60% in the survey period, the biggest increase (+185%) was in the Delta region (including the Lodi AVA) with the North Coast (including Napa and Sonoma Valleys) increasing by 128%.  Wine grape production in the San Joaquin Valley rose but by a much smaller amount. The southern San Joaquin valley accounted for just 30% of California vineyard acreage in 2008 (down from 50% in 1981), although it still produced more than 60% of wine grape tonnage because of higher yields.

So wine grape production has increased and also shifted in terms of desired quality, price per ton, grape variety and growing location. It is perhaps not surprising that average sugar levels would change too. Much of the growth in the California wine industry has thus been associated with the demand shift towards premium and ultra-premium wines and the rising sugar levels are to some extent associated with this “grape transformation” of the American palate. Robert Parker is part of this movement although I think it would be unfair to give him all the credit or blame for the changes noted here.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

So the JWE article finds evidence for both the demand-side and supply-side theories of rising sugar levels. But wait, there is more, including rootstocks (this is the “real dirt” in the title of this post).

Phylloxera struck California starting in the mid-1980s when the supposedly Phylloxera resistant AxR#1 rootstock was found to be susceptible to this root-sucking parasite. Eventually nearly all the vines affected were grubbed up and replaced with vines grafted to different (and hopefully more resistant) rootstocks. Several winemakers have suggested to me that the new rootstocks and associated changes in viticultural practices affect grape ripening — sugar levels peak before the desired flavor profile (phenolic ripeness) has been achieved. Longer hang times are needed to get the flavors right,  leaving wine growers with the problem of too much sugar and so forth.

The rootstock hypothesis is beyond the scope of the JWE study, but it indicates how complicated it can be to explain seemingly simple questions in wine economics and how much wine remains an agricultural product after all.

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I don’t think I’ve done justice to this research so I hope you will click on the link in the first paragraph above and read the study yourself.

Sniff & Swirl Meets Bits & Bytes


Marshall: Ordinary businessman

Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people as they go about the ordinary business of life. People who love wine believe that it is special and they are right to a certain extent, but it is also ordinary at least in terms of some of the business functions. Herewith the first of two posts about how ordinary and extraordinary intersect in the wine business.

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Information technology (the bits and bytes of the title) has insinuated itself into almost every aspect of our daily lives — why should wine (the sniff and swirl) be any different? And indeed it is not, although most of us probably romantically wish it were otherwise.

The most obvious place where IT comes into play is in the marketing of wine. Most winemakers today try to use social media vectors such as FaceBook and Twitter to establish and nurture relationships with customers. I’ve read that the hard sell approach isn’t generally effective (readers: use the comments section below to share your experiences with this), so the focus is on soft sell.

But is it worth it? That’s the business question. Yes, it is probably a mistake to ignore social media entirely  (just as you would be crazy not to have a winery website or a website for your barber shop if that’s your business), but what’s the smart level of investment? After all, social media doesn’t create and manage itself. Someone’s got to represent the winery as host, posting content and responding to friends and followers. How much investment makes sense?

One big time winemaker friend put it this way. Which is better for the winery — a full time employee to manage social media or three full page advertisements in Wine Spectator? Wow, that’s a tough one, especially since the audiences and the nature of the impact are so different. But, from a business standpoint, that’s the sort of trade-off that must be evaluated.

It’s the same thing for QR codes. Wineries can use QR codes to enrich their story-telling to smart phone-enabled customers, which is surely an advantage, but not without some investment. The old marginal cost versus marginal revenue questions will always be there, even in the wine game.

Cloud Data Systems

Trend Micro sent me information about their SafeSync for Business cloud data system. It provides a safe, secure data storage system. What got my attention is that they featured a winery case study: Good Harbor Vineyards on Michigan’s Leelanau Pennisula.

 “As a wine maker, we are highly monitored and regularly audited by numerous government agencies. We have to keep track of everything—every bottle and every ounce has to be accounted for—from purchase through production, bottling, sale, and shipment. We were worried that someone could gain access to these records. Losing our files would be crippling in any type of audit — and these take place frequently.

This made me realize that wineries have all the business IT needs that other types of firms do, and a few more as well. I think it is interesting that a big firm like Trend Micro would make a point to feature winery applications. I wonder if small and medium sized wineries (like similar businesses generally) have lagged behind the IT cutting edge and are therefore a ripe market for upgrades. Or maybe wine is just the sort of example that makes everyone realize how important data can be.

Extraordinary Business Needs

While some parts of the wine business are not so different from any other business (with a couple of special wrinkles in the cloth just to keep things interesting), some business needs really are fairly specific to wine. Every business needs to be able to track shipments and inventory, for example, but wine’s needs often go beyond the norm.

A London to Hong Kong shipment record.

The wine business is large enough to spawn IT applicantions to meet its particular specialized needs. For example, a company called eProvenance has been formed to provide reliable detailed information about wine shipping conditions. Wine buyers, especially those at the high end of the market, now seek assurance of the quality and authenticity of their investments and their concerns extend all the way through the supply chain.

A Bordeaux to Beijing shipment record.

Your bottle of Chateau Margaux (lucky you!) won’t be the same if it has been “cooked” in an improperly handled shipping container, for example.  But how can you be sure it hasn’t been? Enter the NFC temperature sensor!

Boston, Massachusetts – December 6, 2011 – eProvenance, a Franco‐American company applying advanced technology to monitor the temperature of fine wines as they travel from wine producer to customer, has developed temperature sensors that are compatible with the Near Field Communication (NFC) protocol and can be read through wooden cases of wine. Using the NFC protocol, which makes it easy to communicate data via smartphones (like the Google Nexus S), the new eProvenance sensors can transfer the temperature history for the case of wine through a reader or smartphone to the secure eProvenance online database. Using their NFC mobile phones, consumers will be able to access the eProvenance temperature history, and thus verify the provenance of the wines they purchase.

As you can see from the two temperature tracks above, not all wine shipments are treated with the care they deserve (and their buyers probably expect), so the tracking data can be very important. And now data can be collected in the warehouse as well as the shipping container for longer time periods, another way to ascertain quality.

With a 15‐year battery life, the new 2G (second generation) eProvenance sensors can be embedded in the wooden wine case to provide continuous, long‐term temperature monitoring, which creates a record of provenance over time that adds to the value of the wine. eProvenance customers can choose either to convert the temperature data into a provenance rating or simply share the data, allowing the importer or customer to make their own judgment about the temperature conditions.

The Opus One Story

Opus One is taking the logical next step in the use of IT, according to the press release from eProvenance — combining story-telling and temperature tracking at the single-bottle level.

Presenting at WineFuture Hong Kong 2011, David Pearson of Opus One said, “Starting with our 2008 vintage, we have an NFC tag on each bottle under the back label, which connects consumers to a video of our winemaker. Now we envision adding an eProvenance sensor inside each case to monitor the temperature for 15 years, allowing consumers with an NFC phone to read the entire temperature history with one click. The potential to connect with our consumers and to safeguard their wine is tremendous.”

I’m not sure if Alfred Marshall liked wine, but I’m pretty sure he would like the wine business today for its combination of ordinary and exceptional business practices.

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Thanks to eProvenance for giving me permission to use the temperature charts above. Thanks to Ken B. for the suggestion that provoked the “ordinary business” blog posts.

Wine Science: Better Drinking Through Chemistry

I’m always excited to read the final papers written by students in my class on “The Idea of Wine.” The students come from all corners of the university and bring with them a diverse range of skills, interests, and experiences both with wine and with academics and life generally.

Reading these papers is never tiring or boring, but that’s probably obvious. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment about London, a person who is tired of wine is tired of life. As in the past, I’ve picked a handful of papers from the fall semester to feature here. This time I want to focus on two themes: wine science and wine politics.

Better Living Through [Wine] Chemistry

Alex (a Math and Chemistry major) wrote an excellent survey of  “Improvements in Wine Making Through Chemistry” that argued  that “In every part of the [winemaking] process there are questions that can only be addressed using modern chemical models and knowledge.” He supported this point with several examples of detailed chemical analysis. I suspect Alex was “provoked” to write this excellent paper by the combination of the anti-scientific sentiment of the film Mondovino, which the class watched, and the very pro-science attitude of Biology PhD and Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s book Wine Myths and Realities, which we read.

Two papers dealt with health issues. Julie (Biochemistry) wrote on “Resveratrol: Potential Health Benefits of Red Wine” while Abby (Exercise Science)  analyzed “Moderate Intake and the Risk of CVS: Resveratrol, NO pathways and SIRT1.” Both papers took the conventional wisdom of the French “Red Wine Paradox” and examined it in detail through the lens of scientific papers and studies. I learned so much from these papers and I can’t thank Julie and Abby enough for writing them.

Frankenwine and Tropical Terroir

Fletcher wrote “Happy Halloween, Enjoy Your Glowing Wine,” an analysis of what I call the “Frankenwine” issue – the application of genetic engineering to wine. As a Business major, Fletcher was naturally interested in consumer attitudes towards GMO products and the marketing implications, but I was impressed with his more technical survey of the application of GMO technology to grapes (to deal with climate change?) and yeasts (such as the ML01 strain, which has been in use since 2003).

Mike (International Political Economy) wrote about “New Lattitdes” viticulture in “Towards a Tropical Terroir: Winemaking Lessons from Thailand.” Although the Thai wine industry is a work in progress, Mike argued that the technical lessons learned in tropical viticulture might eventually be applied to other parts of the world as climate change progresses. His paper combined science with economics and also politics in his analysis of how the AOC system might make it more difficult for Old World producers to benefit from the technical findings of Thai and Brazilian researchers. Very interesting!

Crossing Over, Breaking In

Two students wrote especially interesting papers that probed wine politics issues.  Immigration policy is a hot button political issue this  year – it seems to come up in every Presidential candidate debate. Katherine (Spanish and Art History) wrote about “Grapes of Wrath: Immigration Policy and the U.S. Wine Industry,” looking at immigration flows both in terms of U.S. agriculture generally and the wine grape industry in particular. She suggests that the wine industry would be particularly impacted by changing immigration policy

Patrick (an International Relations major) wrote “The U.S. Racialized Wine Industry: Can Latinos Break Through?”  We know that Latino migrants provide skilled labor in the vineyards – have they been successful in breaking into the cellar, becoming winemakers and winery owners? The answer is yes, but not very often. Patrick examined the structural barriers that seem to stand in the way and speculated about the future .

Thanks to all my “Idea of Wine” students for their great work, both during the semester and on the final papers. A note to students who have signed up for the Spring 2012 class: the Fall students have set the bar pretty high!

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My policy with student papers is that they belong to the students not me, so I do not post them on-line. If you’d like to get a copy, send me an email and I’ll try to put you in touch with the particular students, who may or may not choose to share their work.

Chilean Wine at the Crossroads


When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.

Preaching to the Choir

Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious  Strategic Plan 2020  about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.

The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of  “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.

The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:

  • Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
  • Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
  • Country Image. Chile is good for you.
  • Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.

The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine  (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)

Audacious Goals?

Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production.  The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.

Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth.  Good idea, but easier said than done.

So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with  with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report  issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.

 Something Completely Different

Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even  negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.

It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so  “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”

There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.

Getting the Message Out

One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.

This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)

Is Carmenere The Key?

Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program.  Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?

A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.

The Big and Hot (and Not) Wine List

It’s time to update the “Big and Hot” list that I published last November. The list is pretty simple — what segments of the wine market are the biggest (measured by revenue) and which are the fastest growing? What’s big isn’t always hot and what’s hot isn’t always big. Here is my report, which also includes some notes on what’s not so hot.

But first a few disclaimers. The list is based upon published data found in the December 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly. The data are from Nielsen surveys of table wine sales made through the off-premises food/drug/liquor store channels, not including convenience stores. These data measure an important slice of  wine sales, but not the whole thing (see the comments section of last year’s post for a good exchange on the strengths and limitations of Nielsen data).

Finally, data are for the 52 weeks ending 8/20/2011. Sorry for these limitations, but you know what they say about data: you want it good, fresh (or fast) and cheap but you can only have two at a time. These numbers are pretty good (if you understand their limitations) and relatively cheap, but not so fresh.  Not ideal, but it’s worth a look, especially if you haven’t checked on these trends in a while.

Category

$ millions in 52 weeks to 8/20/11

% change from previous year

Total Nielsen survey table wine

9,637

4.5%

Domestic table wine

6,924

6.2

Imported table wine

2,713

0.6

750 ml

6,584

6.1

1.5 l

1,977

1.1

3 l

323

3.3

4 l

111

-6.9

5 l

382

-0.9

Red table wine

4,797

4.3

White table wine

4,234

6.5

Chardonnay

2.050

1.8

Cabernet Sauvignon

1,444

6.6

Merlot

871

-4.6

Pinot Gris/Grigio

790

7.5

Italy import

831

3.2

Australia import

751

-7.1

Chile import

240

-2.1

France import

224

-4.4

Argentina import

222

20.2

New Zealand import

156

24.2

Syrah/Shiraz

240

-13.3

White Zinfandel

405

-6.0

Source: Wine Business Monthly 12/2011

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Start with good news: the wine market measured here grew by 4.5% in these 52 weeks, which is up from 3.2% growth in the previous  year. The growth was concentrated in domestic wine versus imports. Domestic wine is both big (in $ revenues) and relatively hot (growing faster than the overall market). Imported wine? Not so hot as a broad category.

Wine in 750ml bottles is both big and hot. 1.5l bottles are big but not very hot. One liter containers are growing quickly (+14.8%), but from a small $18 million base. Interestingly, the 3l, 4l and 5l box wine formats grew more slowly than the overall market. Perhaps the box wine boomlet is fading?

Pinot Gris/Grigio is overtaking Merlot for the #3 spot on the “varietal wine” list. PG is hot and Merlot is cold in these data.

Australia continues to be big in terms of sales — it is far ahead of Chile for the #2 spot among wine imports. The gap is so huge that even though Australia wine sales are “cold,” falling 7% in the measured period, it would take years for them to fall to Chile’s level.

In the meantime, Argentina and New Zealand continue to be red hot, with 20+ percent sales gains on the year. In fact, it looks like Argentina will overtake France on this list, which is quite an achievement. But remember that this data excludes on-trade sales, where France may have an advantage.

Finally, I note that Syrah/Shiraz continues to shrink along with White Zinfandel and the whole blush wine category. In the case of White Zin, I suspect that it is a victim of the current trend towards Moscato and sweetish red wines. But these wine types don’t appear on the Nielsen list.

Let’s toast the good news of the growing wine market and hope that it continues!

Boom Boom! On Money and Wine

I’m just back from the San Francisco Treasury Symposium where I gave the luncheon keynote speech on “Wine Boom and Bust — With Lessons for Finance in the 21st Century.” You might well ask what business a wine economist has speaking to a group of treasury executives (I asked that question myself!), and the answer has two parts.

First,  I actually know a little bit about global finance from my day job as a university professor. I’ve written frequently about global financial flows and especially the periodic crises that seem to plague them.

The other reason is that the conference organizers thought it would be interesting and different to hear someone talk wine, but in a way that would still be relevant to their treasury executive audience. So that was my challenge.

Money into Wine? Easy! Wine into Money … Not So Much

Money and wine are closely tied, although it is an asymmetrical relationship. It is pretty easy to convert money into wine, for example. In fact, it may be a little too easy to do this. Some of my friends report that the whole “money into wine” thing has gotten way out of hand for them. You probably know the problem from personal experience if your cellar has grown bigger than your bank account.

It is harder to convert wine into money, especially if you are in the wine business. The best way to make a small fortune in wine, people tell me, is to start with a large one.  I focused on three aspects of wine economics for my talk: globalization’s opportunities and threats, the “new rules of the game” and the need to embrace (or at least accept) volatility. All these points apply to both wine and 21st Century finance.

Globalization: Opportunity and Threat

Globalization offers a world of opportunity to winemakers and financial managers alike, but it is a complex world and a very competitive one. New markets open their doors … but your market doors are open wide, too. Optimists will see the wine glass more than half full and seize the opportunities that present themselves, hopefully taking the associated costs and risks into account.

One problem with globalization is that the risks are so difficult to fully evaluate. The Australian wine industry, for example, is currently suffering from a bad case of globalization gone bad and part of the problem has nothing directly to do with wine.

Although the Crash of 2008 slowed down the global economy, China continues to surge ahead, its demand for natural resources (one of Australia’s strong sectors) growing year after year. Australian has come down with a bad case of the “Dutch Disease” where success in one sector causes chaos elsewhere. As mineral sales have increased, the strong Australian dollar has depressed the already weakened wine industry by discouraging exports. Click on the “Dutch Disease” link to see my report on this problem.

The [New] Rules of the Game

Global finance is dominated by a number of key financial centers that set the “rules of the game” for money. Wine works the same way, but the centers have shifted and the rules of the game have changed.

Producing nations (think France and Italy) once determined the rules of the game with their AOC designations.  The center shifted to Great Britain, Germanyand the United States in the last 20 years and now the rules are written by those who sell wine (think Tesco, Costco and Aldi) more than by those who produce it. The most successful wine sectors so far are those that have best adjusted to the new rules.

The rules will change again soon, I suspect, as the BRIC and new BRIC nations make their wine market influence felt. I think finance will also experience shifting centers with new rules and have to adjust accordingly.

Volatility was my final point and wine markets have plenty of it. Boom and bust cycles seem to be “baked in the cake” in both money and wine. I talked about Australia’s five big wine booms and busts in the past 150 years and characterized them in terms of Hyman Minsky’s famous “seven stages” description of financial crises.

Beyond Boom and Bust

Booms and busts are bad enough, but wine markets also suffer from medium-term cycles of surplus and scarcity as illustrated by the Turrentine Brokerage “Wine Business Wheel of Fortune.”  High prices today sow the seeds of low prices a few years down the road, according this analysis, which is based on the well-known “cob-web” model of lagged adjustment in agricultural markets.

Anyone who has tried to guide their 401k portfolio (much less manage corporate financial affairs) knows how volatile financial markets can be – the wine world’s bubbles and cycles must seem pretty peaceful by comparison.

Wine and money may be very different, but the problems they face bear a certain resemblance, don’t you think? What can wine teach money in these uncertain times?

One lesson, I proposed, is to “think global but drink local.” This sounds pretty simplistic, but it captures trends that I see in wine today. Economic imperatives have made both global and local markets more important than in the past. Developing direct sales vectors and developing and maintaining personal relationships is high priority today. Wine (like money) is a relationship business that needs constant attention.

Boulding’s Law

But it’s useful (and often necessary) to keep a global mindset even as you cultivate local markets. The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time and the rules of the game continue to change.

The second lesson is what I call “Boulding’s Law” after Kenneth Boulding, the famous economist. Boulding once made a study of the history of the future. He looked at what people thought about the future at various points in time and then did a “fast forward” though the history books to see if they were right.

His conclusion? When the future came around people were usually surprised. It wasn’t what they expected at all (even if it was exactly what they predicted years before!).

Hence Boulding’s Law: The best way to prepare for the future … is to prepare to be surprised. That holds for wine, I think, and for money, too.

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Thanks to the San Francisco Treasury Management Association for inviting me to speak at their symposium. Special thanks to Jim Lindsay and Larry Goldman.

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!

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