Elephants Optional: Two New Reports on South Africa’s Wines

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa (including his much publicized pilgrimage to South Africa) presents us with a good opportunity to reassess our views. Africa has its problems and challenges (don’t we all!), but also successes and opportunities. This is true generally and, thinking specifically of South Africa, about wine.

Two new publications ask us to remember what’s old about South African wine even as we embrace the new. I’m talking about James Molesworth’s cover feature in the current issue of Wine Spectator and Tim James’s just-published book Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution (University of California Press, 2013).

Wine Spectator Showcase

The Wine Spectator report gives South Africa the full glossy wine magazine treatment (over 30 pages of text and photos), starting with James Molesworth’s “At a Crossroads” essay then continuing with a tasting report including ratings for more than 500 wines, a short list of wine recommendations, selected producer profiles, and brief travel recommendations for Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, Paarl and Swartland.

Molesworth does a great job capturing a sense of South Africa’s dynamism — this s a country that is moving quickly into the future. It was interesting to compare his ratings with my own experience when I was in Cape Town last year. I am not an expert taster and I always defer to those who are, but I was pleased to see some similarities in our reactions, particularly regarding the many fine Syrah and Rhone blend wines as well as the Bordeaux-style reds. And we seem to agree that many of the white wines are both extremely delicious and present extremely good value.

If there is one place where we differ just a bit it is Pinotage. I went to South Africa a Pinotage skeptic based on my early experiences with the grape variety back in the 1990s, but I have become a convert. Molesworth correctly notes that many of South Africa’s early post-Apartheid exports were not up to snuff and that’s when U.S. consumers like me got their first tastes of South African wine and their first (and sometimes last) experience of Pinotage.

Pinotage has certainly changed along with the wines more generally as the industry has caught up with international standards  and I found many favorites among wines made from old bush Pinotage vines and with careful use of oak, so I might put Pinotage a bit higher on the scale than Molesworth, but I wouldn’t want to press too hard to make it a “signature varietal.” South African wine is diverse and can’t be captured in any single wine, region or style.

I guess Molesworth just didn’t find the quality he was seeking in Pinotage. Or maybe the South Africa story is easier to tell Americans (at least for now) with Pinotage in the background. Either way, this useful survey of the territory is recommended Wine 101 reading for anyone who wants to discover (or re-discover) South Africa’s wines.

Wines of the New South Africa

But of course Wine Spectator only scratches the surface — it is impossible to do more than that in a few dozen pages. So if Molesworth’s fine feature makes you want to learn more, head straight for Tim James’s new book, Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution.

James digs down a good deal deeper into South Africa’s wine story in his 300+ pages of text and simple maps. The heart of the book is a collection of chapters on ten key wine producing areas with both general regional information and detailed profiles of the major wine producers. The profiles are very much up-to-date and capture effectively the dynamic nature of South African wine today.

The regional discussions are preceded by exceptionally informative overview chapters on history, grape varieties and wine styles and South Africa’s Wines of Origin system. The chapter on grape varieties and styles surprised me — I didn’t think an analysis of the grapes and so forth would be so interesting and teach me so much about South Africa and its wine industry.

This is a fine book  – well-written, detailed and interesting — that deserves your attention. What could make it  better? Perhaps James (or another author) will publish a colorful wine atlas of South Africa to supplement this volume. South Africa’s terroir is so complex and interesting — it would be great to see it explored (and illustrated) in equal depth.

Follow the Wine to South Africa

South Africa is one of the world’s top ten wine producing countries, so it more than fills the 300 pages available here. Want do learn even more? I guess the next step is to take a trip, which is what Sue and I are doing early next year.

I was hoping that the Wine Spectator’s travel section would be useful in making plans, but perhaps I was expecting to much. The collection of brief restaurant and hotel profiles whets the appetite, that’s for sure, but the luxury lodging choices are pretty  much outside my budget range.

Wine Spectator publisher Marvin Shanken says that Johann Rupert nagged him for years to visit South Africa and now that he finally has done it he urges us all to follow his lead. Molesworth and James give us a road map. Start packing you bags. And don’t forget your corkscrew.

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About that Wine Spectator cover photo. Elephants? Really? With all the beautiful Cape winelands vineyard and winery scenery, I wonder why they fell back on a cliché like African elephants? Oh well, if elephants are good enough for Wine Spectator 

The Bottleneck Bottleneck

Bottlenecks are always problematic.  It seems like they are always too narrow or not narrow enough.

We ran into an unusual bottleneck last week when were went to Wenatchee to help our friends Mike and Karen Wade bottle the 2008 vintage at the Fielding Hills Winery.  FHW is award winning 800-case operation and the bottling is done by a volunteer crew of friends, family and wine club members. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts, comparing the wine bottle assembly line to Adam Smith’s famous pin factory.

Bottleneck Bottleneck

The division of labor does improve efficiency,  just as Smith said, but anyone who’s worked an assembly line knows about bottlenecks – the whole process only moves as fast as the slowest work station.  If the corker is slow, for example, nothing else will go very fast. (The corker was no slacker on our shift – John Sosnowy of the Wine Peeps blog.)

Our crew worked very well, but there was still a bottleneck, albeit an invisible one. The capsules that fit over the bottle’s neck hadn’t arrive (a bottleneck bottleneck!) – they were held up somewhere in customs in a container that must contain hundreds  of thousands of capsules for many wineries. We bottled the wine, but when the capsules finally arrive it will be necessary to open each of the 800 cases, pull out every bottle, affix the capsule, return and reseal. That’s about 10,000 bottles. What a headache! I hate bottlenecks.

The biggest bottleneck in the American wine business, of course, is distribution. With 51 different sets of state rules and regulations and the three-tier winery/distributor/retailer/consumer system, it sometimes seems like making wine is the easy part – getting it to customers is the bigger problem. Widening the distribution bottleneck seems to me to be a key to expanding the wine market and building a more robust American wine culture.

Tightening the Distribution Bottleneck

The Obama administration seems to want to build up the U.S. wine industry – that’s why he sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign an agreement to ease the wine export process and open that bottleneck a bit.

But Congress is moving in the opposite direction. Wine Spectator reports that more than 100 members of Congress have announced support for H.R. 5034, a bill that would further restrict direct wine sales in American. It would make it (even) harder to ship wine across state lines. Wine Spectator reports that wine distributors (who benefit from their key position in the three tier bottleneck) actively support the bill.

The supporters of H.R. 5034 argue that direct shipping undercuts the power of states to regulate alcohol distribution and sales, and I understand this logic. But the winery owners I know actually go to extremes to satisfy state regulations because the penalties for making a mistake are often extremely onerous. (I know one winery that has stopped all interstate sales for now because of compliance concerns.)

Focus on Direct Sales

The slack economy has put direct sales in the spotlight. With wine sales down in many categories and price points still eroding, wineries are trying to boost the yield per bottle and increasing direct sales and reducing the flow that goes through distributors is one way to do that. Isenhower Cellars in  Walla Walla  has actually reorganized itself (and opened an off-site tasting room) so that it can rely entirely on direct sales. Their website announced that

Isenhower Cellars is no longer selling wine to restaurants, wine shops, or grocery outlets in Washington State. Our wines are now exclusively available from the winery in Walla Walla, Washington, our tasting room in Woodinville, Washington, or here on our web site. We treasure the past relationships with our Washington State distributors and friends in the wine trade. However a complete focus on quality limits production to 2,000 cases of wine and the success of our wine club and second tasting room leaves no extra Isenhower wines available for sale outside of our winery’s embrace.

Even E&J Gallo, which has done quite well thank you during the recession, is trying to increase direct sales. I’m on a couple of email lists for Gallo wine brands that I follow and they frequently offer nice discounts or low cost shipping to try to encourage orders from their online wine shop, The Barrel Room.

It seems inconsistent to send Gary Locke to China to expand wine exports and then discourage the equivalent interstate trade. As an economist, I am naturally biased toward more choice and freer trade. I hope the attempt to tighten the wine shipping bottleneck gets caught in some legislative bottleneck somewhere down the line and never reaches President Obama’s desk.

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Thanks to Karen, Mike and Robin Wade for their hospitality and great wine. Thanks to the members of the 2008 FHW Cabernet Franc bottling crew both a fun and productive afternoon.

Which Wine Magazine?

Wine enthusiasts spend a lot of time and money on magazines and guidebooks and I guess they are never sure if they’re getting the best advice. One of this blog’s most common referring links is the Google search query “world’s best wine magazine?” Want to know the answer? Read on.

If you were going to read just one wine magazine, which one would it be? I decided to use my university students to try to find out. They are plenty smart and know a lot about wine, but they don’t (yet) spend much of their time reading these publications.  Perfect subjects for a little media analysis experiment.

Three Ideas of Wine

I passed out copies of perhaps the three most influential wine magazines on the planet and asked my students to analyze them in terms of point of view, intended audience and, of course, which one they would want to read.

The three magazines are Wine Spectator, Decanter and Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator has the highest circulation of any wine magazine in the United States and probably the world. Decanter, a British publication, sells fewer copies, especially here in the U.S., but has global reach.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is a subscription-only publication; most people don’t actually read the Wine Advocate, they just see the rating numbers and blurbs on Wine Wall shelf talkers promoting particular bottles. It’s very influential despite its limited distribution.

The magazines are different in almost every way. They certainly represent three different ideas of wine. Which is best? Well, that depends.

Wine Spectator

My students quickly labeled Wine Spectator a “lifestyle” magazine and this isn’t just because it has non-wine or tangentially-related-to-wine  “lifestyle” articles about food, travel, celebrities and so forth. The advertisements were the giveaway to them. While many wine companies advertise in WS, so do the producers of many luxury and designer products.

(Most wine mags are lifestyle publications, they just have differing ratio and proportion of wine, wine-related and pure lifestyle editorial content. It would be interesting in give the students Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and, say, Wine & Spirits to analyze regarding wine versus lifestyle emphasis. Maybe next term.)

Taken together, the editorial content and the advertising (plus the “coffee table” large format) gave my students a strong sense of a plush lifestyle publication. Wine is part of that world, they said, but not the only part of it. Some were attracted to this lifestyle image and other repulsed. They all found it fascinating.

Decanter

Decanter’s cover boldly proclaims that it is “The World’s Best Wine Magazine.” Is it?

Decanter is a lifestyle magazine, too, but that’s not what struck my students. Compared to Wine Spectator they noted a more specific wine focus and talked about finding deeper analysis of wine regions and issues.  I’m not sure if this is really true or if it reflects Wine Spectator’s high advertisement page  count, which might make it seem like there is less wine content.

But for whatever reason Decanter seemed more seriously interested in wine as opposed to lifestyle, according to my students.

Decanter has a different approach to wine ratings, too. Whereas Wine Spectator has many wine reviews in the back covering new releases from the U.S. and many international regions, Decanter typically features in-depth review articles on just two regions. You get more breadth of coverage with Wine Spectator and more depth with Decanter.

Wine Spectator made good  browsing, one student said, and sometimes that’s just what you want, but Decanter would be better to read.

Wine Advocate

My students were shocked by Wine Advocate. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for a “just the facts, ma’am” wine publication. Black type on tan paper. No photos. No ads. Page after page of winery and wine reviews, focusing on three or four regions in each issue.

Not for browsing. Not for reading. You have to study Wine Advocate to get anything out of it they said.

Who reads Wine Advocate? No one would read it for pleasure, according to the students. (I disagree — geeky baseball fans read columns of statistics on their favorite sport. I think there is a similar wine reader.) You would read it for business — because you are a wine retailer, distributor, investor or maybe own a restaurant.  This, they said, was a magazine for readers with a serious professional purpose.

The World’s Best Wine Magazine?

So which one is the best?  I know my answer. If I could only read one it would be Decanter because I think  it is more focused on the supply and demand issues I write about. It’s a wine magazine written by and maybe for “Masters of Wine” who care a lot about commercial concerns.

Unfortunately, Decanter’s specific consumer wine advice is mainly irrelevant to me since the British market it covers is so different from my Wine Wall here in the United States. Very few U.S. wines (apart from the big multinationals) successfully break into the British market, for example, and so we get little space in Decanter compared to wines from Europe and Australia. The market here is just the reverse.

My students weren’t willing to choose a “world’s best wine magazine.” They could see strengths and weaknesses in all three.  One student said it boiled down to a trade-off between accessibility (Wine Spectator) and authenticity (the more detailed analysis of terroir you find in publications like Wine Advocate) and there’s no perfect balance between them.

In wine, as in many other areas of life, we want both accessibility and authenticity and I guess my students have already become both surprisingly self-aware of their position in this struggle and skilled at negotiating the complex space it  creates. Interesting.

World’s best wine magazine? No such thing. It depends on who you are, what you are looking for and your particular idea of wine.

Wine Spectator 100: North and South

The lists of the Top 100 wines have started to appear — just in time for holiday buying. Wine Spectator released their Top 100 last week and now Wine Enthusiast has followed suit. Other lists are showing up, too, such as Paul Gregutt’s list of the 100 best Washington wines.  Fun and informative, these lists provide wine lovers with endless opportunities to discuss, debate and of course pull corks. Gotta love ‘em.

But you’ve gotta hate ‘em, too. Top 100 lists are a mixed blessing on the supply side of the market. Although they do promote wine and wine drinking generally, they necessarily privilege some wines over others and this is always problematic given the thousands and thousands of good wines that are produced each year. Why this wine and not that one? It’s an inevitable question that matters because wines on the list get more attention than the wines that don’t for some reason make the cut.

Dancing in the Streets

Top 100 lists slice up the market in many ways and this year my email inbox has revealed a North-South divide. Here in Washington State we are very happy with the 2009 Wine Spectator league table. Nine Washington wines made the list — more than any previous year — including the #1 spot, which went to the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (95 points, $27 dollars). Two Oregon wines were also listed, so altogether this was a banner year for the Pacific Northwest.

While they are dancing in the streets in Woodinville and Walla Walla, the mood is more sober down south in Mendoza.  Two Argentinian wines appear on the WS100, which is welcome recognition of course, but that’s down from four last year. This is really Argentina’s year to shine in the U.S. wine market, with overall sales surging by more than 40% in dollar value according to Nielsen ScanTrack data. But only half as many WS100 wines! You can’t blame members of the Argentinian industry for kinda hoping to see their success more enthusiastically celebrated in the Top 100 lists. Hmmm. Maybe next year.

A Nobel Prize for Wine?

It seems to me that these top 100 wine lists are a little bit like the Nobel Peace Prize. Highly publicized awards like the Nobel and the Top 100  end up being both reflections of excellence and opportunities for the judges to send a message (political, economic or otherwise). There are many worthy nominees for each award so the final choice is always arbitrary — and the opportunity to send a message is irresistible. Or at least I wouldn’t be able to resist it.

There are obviously many factors that go into a Top 100 wine list and a wine’s objective quality  is just one of them. This is easy to see if you take numerical ratings seriously. The WS100 #1 wine this year earned a 95 score, for example, but the #2 wine received a higher score (96) and the #8 wine’s score was even higher (99). A 100-point wine was placed in the 21st spot last year. This is a numbers game but not just a numbers game.

Don’t Cry for Argentina

Wine Spectator uses four criteria in making their list: quality (the score), value (the price), availability (the volume) and excitement (the X-factor). The Columbia Crest wines (both the Reserve that won this year and their other wines) generally do very well on the first three factors year in and year out. The X-factor this year, I believe, was the recession and the desire to inspire some excitement among American buyers by giving them a #1 wine they could find and afford. That $27 Columbia Crest wine says that American wine drinkers can enjoy truly excellent wines at relatively affordable prices. Time to start pulling those corks! A good message to send in this economic climate.

What about Argentina? Well, I understand their situation. No problem with quality, volume or availability. But I think the market excitement is already there and doesn’t need any help from the wine lists at this point (as much as the Argentinian makers would love to have it). The U.S. industry (like President Obama?) could use some encouragement right now, which may be a good enough reason to draw attention to its outstanding, good value wines like the Columbia Crest Reserve.

Note: Congratulations to Juan Manuel Muñoz Oca, the 34-year old Argentinian winemaker who made the #1 Columbia Crest Washington State wine. What a great North-South connection!

Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Box)

One of my favorite globalization books is The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson. It is the story of how the invention of the standard shipping container (those 20-foot steel boxes you see on ships, rail cars and truck beds) made international trade much cheaper, more efficient and more secure. Now it looks like another kind of box is about to shake up the wine world.

Cheap and Nasty

I’m talking about box wines or bag-in-box (BIB) wines (the Australians call them cask wines) that feature an airtight wine-filled plastic bladder inside a cardboard box. You use a built-in spigot to get to the wine. They can be found on the bottom shelf of the wine wall and behind the bar and out of sight at your local restaurant. They come in several sizes — 3 liter and 5 liter containers are the most common.

Box wines have a bad reputation. They first appeared in the 1970s and were filled with generic bulk wines.  They were one step down from the popular 1.5 liter “magnum” bottles of  “Burgundy,” “Chabils” and the notorious “Rhine” wine. Box wine was cheap, nasty stuff that acquired a frequently deserved bad reputation.

[Re]-Thinking Inside the Box

It’s time to reconsider box wine. Screw caps had a bad reputation, too, until quite recently. We associated them with low grade swill until fine wines appeared under screw cap (the New Zealand producers were in the vanguard) and we began to appreciate that that screw caps have many advantages. Now screw caps are actually associated with quality for some types of wine, especially youthful whites, and no one expects to pay less or get less because of the screw-top closure.

The technology of box wine is very solid. The airtight bladder is a neutral container that is well suited to holding wine for relatively short periods of time. (Don’t cellar box wine — consume within a year of production — check out the “drink by” date on the box.) The bladder and spigot do in fact protect the wine from oxygen in the short run, so it will last longer once opened (especially if the box is stored in the fridge) than similar leftover wine in bottles.

Bladders are so good at the particular thing that they do that they have become an industry standard technology for bulk  imported wines, which are shipped in huge bladders inside steel shipping containers (big bag in big box) and then bottled in the import market. So you may already be drinking box wine and not know it.

The Box Also Rises

The most recent Nielsen retail wine sales figures (reported in the October 2009 issues of Wine Business Monthly) suggest that box wine sales are growing. Wine sold in 3, 4 and 5 liter containers (most of it is box wine, I think) accounts for just under 10 percent of US supermarket wine sales, according to the Nielsen data (compared to 65% for standard bottles with the remainder in 1.5 liter and other formats). Sales are rising in this category, with 3 liter packages up 8.7% in the last year on a dollar basis, for example, and 5 liter packages are up 9.3% by value.

The total market for box wines rises if we include on-premises sales. Recent data (see previous posts) indicate that box wines (served to customers in carafes and by the glass) are strong sellers in casual dining establishments.

The rise of box wine is part of the trading down effect, clearly, since most box wines fall into the two price categories that are experiencing the highest growth. Sales of wines that are less than $3 per 750ml bottle equivalent have risen 7.1 percent according to Nielsen and by 10% for wines between $3 and  $5.99. Supermarket sales of $20+ wines, on the other hand, have fallen by 3.4%.

Nasty, Brutish and Short?

Does this mean that Americans have traded down all the way to the bottom, back to the nasty box wines of the 1970s? The answer, incredibly, is no. Or at least not necessarily, according to the October 15 issue of Wine Spectator.  You can’t miss this issue on the newsstand — it features a cover story on “500 Values for $20 or Less” and includes a set of box wine reviews that make interesting reading.

Wine Spectator purchased 39 box wines in packages that ranged from 1 liter to 5 liters. Twenty seven wines were rated as “good” (a score of 80-84) and ten “very good” (85-89). The names of the 2 wines that scored below 80 were not reported.

The top box wine, going by the rating numbers, is a white: Wine Cube California Chardonnay, which sells in Target Stores for $17 per 3 liter box, which is $4.25 per standard bottle equivalent. It earned a very respectable 88 points. Wine Cube is a partnership between Target and Trinchero, the maker of a wide range of wines including Sutter Home.

The best red wine (at 87 points) is the Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2006, which costs $20 for 3 liters or $5 per standard bottle equivalent. Black Box is a widely distributed Constellation Brands product.

Good and Cheap?

Some box wine, apparently, is both pretty good and pretty cheap. Perhaps just to show that they really do rate wines blind, Wine Spectator gave a pretty good 84-point score to a non-vintage Carlo Rossi Cabernet Sauvignon California “Reserve” wine. Five liters for $13, in case you are interested,  That’s $1.97 per standard bottle equivalent.

How can decent wine be this cheap? One answer, of course, is that you can choose to make the wine itself less expensive by economizing in the cellar in many ways (less oak or none at all for red wines, for example). But to a considerable degree the box itself is responsible for the savings.

The bag in box container costs less than $1, according to the Wine Spectator article, which automatically saves $4 to $8 compared with a similar quantity of wine in standard glass bottles and the box they come in. Shipping costs are also less since the boxes weigh much less than glass bottles for the same quantity of wine and are less likely to be damaged in transit.  There are environmental benefits too, especially in areas where glass bottle recycling is problematic because the sour economy has undermined the market for recycled glass.

Is box wine the future of wine? No. The wine market is too complex to be dominated by any single trend. But with better wine in better boxes (and with consumers embracing a more relaxed idea of wine) box wine deserves to play a bigger role in the future of wine. Another triumph for The Box!

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November 1, 2009: I was recently interviewed about box wines by Simon Morton of Radio New Zealand’s  This Way Up . Click on the link to listen to the interview.

Book Review: Oceans of Wine

David Hancock.  Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste. Yale University Press, 2009.

As the author of a book called Mountains of Debt I am predisposed to like a book called Oceans of Wine based on the title alone. In fact, it is a masterpiece. I wish I knew as much about anything as David Hancock clearly knows about the Madeira wine trade between 1640 and 1815. This serious social and economic history is filled with interesting facts, detailed analysis and thoughtful insights. What a delight!

America’s First Wine

Madeira was America’s wine in the 18th century, when we were a wine-drinking country but before a domestic industry had taken root. Wines from this small island found their way into shops, taverns and cellars throughout America, one element among many in what this book reveals to be a surprisingly complex network of trade connections that supported an unexpectedly cosmopolitan consumption culture.

Wine exports became a trade necessity when Madeira lost its comparative advantage in sugar production in the 17th Century and, unlikely as it may seem,  its wines soon dominated the Atlantic trade. Madeira could be found just about everywhere in America, from the cellars of wealthy families in big cities to humble country taverns and shops.

Although it would be nice to be able to say that its great success was the result of a unique terroir, in fact Madeira wine evolved into a highly manipulated manufactured product, blended, fortified, heated, agitated and tailored to the preferences of specific consumer markets. It was, in short, everything that wine snobs today hate and fear about wine, but it was treasured and enjoyed by the societies that created it. Give up romantic notions of wine’s pure and glorious past all who enter here!

Atlantic Commodity Chains

The wine trade evolved, in Hancock’s deft telling of the story, through complex formal and informal networks where information was successfully exchanged via “conversations” between buyer and seller and between and among network members at each stage of the complex production and distribution process.

If you think that the interactive, diffused global commodity chain of today is a new thing, you need to read this account of how the Madeira trade worked 300 years ago!

Hancock is not content to simply paint a landscape of Madeira trade. He uses each link in the commodity chain (from Madeira viticulture all the way to American country tavern) as an opportunity to drill down into detailed (and generously illustrated) essays on the economic and social institutions of the time. The result is a work of remarkable scope and depth — a noteworthy accomplishment.

Seriously Interesting

This is a great book of economic and social history told through the wine trade. It is a serious book of history that offers many lessons. Like Madeira itself, it will give much pleasure to many audiences, including historians, wine drinkers and economists. Bravo!

Note: Thanks for Francine Graf, my editor at CHOICE magazine, for suggesting this book.

Wine Distribution Bottleneck

I have often argued that to really understand an industry you first need to understand where the bottlenecks are in the value chain.  Bottlenecks disrupt the efficient flow of resources and so industries tend to evolve around them.  I believe that this observation holds especially true for wine. Herewith a brief update on the current situation.

Do the Math

Silicon Valley Bank released their annual State of the Wine Industry Report yesterday.  SVB is a major lender to US wine producers and thus has a strong interest in producing clear, relevant wine economics research. (I also admire the wine economics research produced by the Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank.)

The report provides some good news along with many worrisome  observations (click on the link above to download the study) and fresh data on the biggest single bottleneck in the U.S. wine industry — distribution.

Here’s the basic math.  SVB estimate that there are 6000 wineries actuve in the US market producing about 7000 wine brands.  All these brands need to squeeze through the U.S. three tier distribution system bottleneck.  This means they need to go from maker (first tier) to state-licensed distributor (second tier) to local retailer (third tier). That’s the law here in the United States,  where we still think of wine as a controlled substance.

There are only limited opportunities for producers  to skip a step.  I understand that Bronco Wines, for example, can sell its Charles Shaw brand directly to Trader Joe’s in California because of a legal loophole there, but has to use an independent  distributor in other states. That’s why Two Buck Chuck costs $1.99 in L.A. but $2.99 here in Washington State.  That extra buck is the cost of the extra distribution layer.

The Big Squeeze

Now we get to the big squeeze. These 7000 brands get funneled through about 550 major distributors according to SVB (obviously this does not count many smaller Mom-and-Pop and specialized distributors that I am familiar with), which is about half as many as a few years back.  Hopefully you can appreciate the bottleneck — 7000 brands worth $30 billion in retail sales have to squeeze  through 550 distributors in 50 states on their way to 76 million wine consumers.  Any blockage in the distributor tier backs up the whole industry.

And the problem gets worse because the distributors are obviously getting squeezed themselves by the economy — falling sales, trading down, shrinking margins, credit limits and counter-party risk.  Expect distributors to consolidate in some cases and pull back to reduce cost and risk in others.

The net effect is clear — distributors are reducing their SKUs (stock keeping units to non-economists) and focusing a smaller number of  reliably profitable products lines.  This means that it is harder and harder for new and niche wineries to get on the warehouse pallet.

The Missing Middle

I’m not sure exactly how this all will shake out, but I suspect the problem will be worse in the middle market. Very small wineries can often successful self-distribute.  Very large ones will probably get distribution because of the volumes they can generate.  The middle falls awkwardly in between — too big to sell it all yourself, too small to be worth a major distributor’s time. The fact that the distribution system is fragmented into 50 (plus DC) pieces just makes the situation worse.

In the same way, SVB data suggest that lower priced fine wines ($35 and less on their scale — remember that a lot of SVB’s customers are in Napa Valley) are still selling pretty well and very expensive icon wines apparently are doing OK, too.  The mid-range is in trouble.  SVB calls $35-$50 a “gray area” and $50-$125 a “dead zone.” Ouch.

I would hate to be a new 3000-5000 case winery trying to sell wine made to be priced in the dead zone.  Unfortunately, I think there may be a lot of new wineries coming on line now who planned to do just that back when economic conditions were sunnier. It will take exceptional effort (or truly exceptional wine) to make this business model work in the current economic environment. I recently talked with one middle-sized premium winemaker who has already figured this out and pulled back — lower output, lower prices — to get clear of the dead zone.

This is the “missing middle” effect that economists are familiar with in other contexts (small family operations and huge corporate businesses survive, the middle simply disappears).  The distribution bottleneck isn’t necessarily the cause of the coming missing middle effect in the wine industry, but it will certainly make it worse.

Crisis and Change in the Wine World

When the economic crisis began to unfold last year many people said that it wouldn’t affect the world of wine — people will still want to drink, they said, even more so when they are worried or depressed.  Recession is good for wine, they assured us.

Well, we all know now that that line of reasoning was misguided.  The crisis is hitting almost every shelf on the Wine Wall as consumers cut back and trade down (only a few value brands like Barefoot Cellars seem to be benefiting).  The most recent issues of Wine Spectator and Decanter feature cover stories that are designed to appeal to recession-shocked bargain-hunting wine enthusiasts. (See note below.) Wine industry publications are packed full of stories about how producers, retailers and restaurants are coping with declining demand.

Cycle or Shift?

Now that we know that economic crisis is having a real impact on wine, it is time to think more seriously about what form that impact is taking. Most people that I have talked to are thinking in terms of boom-bust cycles. The current downturn will be very difficult — and a shake out will take place across the industry — but, they say, the wine economy will bounce back again once the economy itself starts to recover.  This is probably the correct way to think about the future of wine markets, but it isn’t the only way.

A second possibility is that the crisis will produce a long term structural change in the wine market.  The market won’t bounce back from its low, but rather will reset itself and proceed along a new and possibly unpredictable future path. Economists who study other sectors (finance, automobiles, agriculture) and taking the possibility of structural shifts seriously.  Could it be happening in the world of wine?

I have given a lot of thought to question of cycles and shifts over the years.  My best known work in this regard is a comparative economic history of public debt in advanced economies called Mountains of Debt: Crisis and Change in Renaissance Florence, Victorian Britain and Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 1990).  (Mountains went out of print in the Clinton years when the US deficit went away, but George W. Bush and the current crisis convinced the publisher to bring it back).

One point of the book is that some crises are more significant than others.  Sometimes a crisis is a tremor that shakes things up for a while but leaves the landscape pretty much unchanged.  Other crises are major earthquakes, with more lasting long term implications.  Maybe this is a “Big One,” at least in terms of wine. I’m going to use the next few blog posts to think through this important question.

The Market Center Shifts

One early indicator of structural change comes from London, the center of the wine world.  Great Britain, as I’ve said before, is the most important wine market in the world. The British don’t drink the most wine in the world or produce the most, either, but they buy a lot of wine from other countries, making them the largest import market and therefore the focus of international competition (Germany and the United States along with Britain form the Big Three import markets).

But this may be changing.  Britain’s economy is being badly battered by the economic crisis, as an article in yesterday’s Financial Times makes clear.

As the UK economy contracts at its fastest rate since the second world war, the … Industry Watch report predicts that more company casualties will follow in 2010. It says 39,000 businesses, or one in 50, are likely to fail next year.

Britain’s banking sector is in bad shape, perhaps even worse than the US industry, and its government budget deficit is also spiraling into the red.  This has general wine market effects similar to those in the US (cutting back, trading down, switching over), but some different ones, as well, the most important of which is due to the exchange rate.

As Britain’s economy has imploded the pound has collapsed as well. The pound has fallen by about 25% against both the dollar and the Euro. It took about $2 (or €1.30) to buy a pound a year ago, now it is selling for $1.45 (or €1.06) today.  This means that imported wine (which in Britain is, well, wine) costs much more because of the exchange rate at the same time that the slumping economy (and lowered expectations) are undermining demand. The US dollar, on the other hand, has appreciated relative to most currencies apart from the yen, promising wine buyers lower prices to match their reduced economic circumstances.  So the recession is affecting wine in Britain more than the US wine market.  A shift is taking place — is it temporary or will it be permanent?

Although it is too soon to know for sure, I think it is possible that these factors could cause London to lose its preeminent position in the world wine market.  I see indicators in the decline of the Australian industry (complicated by other factors, I know — but the collapse of the British market is part of it) and the recent global focus on Argentina and its excellent wine values (both Wine Spectator and Decanter make this point).

Although Argentinean producers are looking to export wherever they can get a foot in the door, my strong sense is that they see their future in the U.S. market more than Great Britain.  Perhaps they are at the head of the pack as the world wine market resets and proceeds on a different path.

[Note: Wine Spectator includes 18 tips on stretching your wine dollar. My favorite is tip #7: buy by the case and get a discount (page 55 of the April 30, 2009 issue).  Sound advice, although the particular example cited may miss the point: "A 10 percent discount on a $300 case translates into a saving of $2.50 per bottle. That adds up fast."  The problem, of course, is that the people who used to buy those $300 cases are cutting back the hardest and I'm not sure that $2.50 a bottle  is going to turn them around.]

Wine Critics and their Discontents

The Principal-Agent Problem

You might think that the job of wine critic would be heavenly – traveling the world, tasting wines and talking and writing about them.  What could be better?  But there are downsides and trade-offs to the job.  One is that your credibility depends upon objectivity – if your ratings are thought to be biased, your advice is correspondingly discounted.  But, on the other hand, you need income to work as a critic or to publish magazines and websites and the most obvious source of income is the wine industry itself.  How can we trust wine critics when the potential conflicts of interest are so obvious?

This situation is not at all unlike that faced by candidates for political office, who receive money from “special interests” but still need to serve (and appear to serve) the general interest. It isn’t impossible to walk this tightrope, but it isn’t always easy either.  You probably can think of many politicians who have done it successfully and a few who fell off.

In economics we see this as an example of the principal-agent problem.  You understand the principal-agent problem if you’ve ever wondered if the cab driver was really taking the shortest route back to the hotel.  Although cab driver and rider have entered into a mutually advantageous contract, interests are not fully aligned and the fact of asymmetric information means you may not be sure that you are getting a fair deal.

Wine enthusiasts (the principals) hire critics (the agents) to give us objective advice, but we know that the critics may have their own interests as well as ours in mind.  How can we trust them to place our interests above their own?

It seems to me that all the wine critics I have surveyed confront this problem openly and honestly, although they arrive at different strategies to deal with the problem.  All the examples I will cite below are effective, in my view,  so I have come away from this little study well satisfied, but the fact that they are so different can create some confusion for wine enthusiasts who fail to read the fine print.

Parker and Vaynerchuck

Robert Parker’s solution to the problem of potential economic conflict of interest at the Wine Advocate is simply to refuse all advertising and to charge his principals fees for web access, hard copy subscriptions, books and so forth.  Who does Parker work for?  He works for us.  It is pretty hard to criticize this model, although interestingly he is probably the most criticized wine critic.  People don’t complain about economic conflict of interest, however, but rather that Parker’s particular idea of wine favors particular styles of wine and particular producers.

Gary Vaynerchuck at Wine Library TV takes a different approach.  His family owns a major wine retailer in New Jersey, so in fact he has a very direct financial interest in the sales of some of the wine he reviews.  Rather than trying to build a firewall between the wine critic business and the wine retailer business, however, he tries to be completely transparent about it and to accentuate his personal credibility as an objective reviewer.  Unexpectedly, this seems to work.  Reputation matters. Accepting the conflict of interest and being open about it is a risky strategy, but Gary pulls it off.

There was one case of a potential conflict of interest a few months ago that shows that he is not unaware of the risks.  The top wine in a particular tasting turned out to be a proprietary label of Gary’s store.  Apparently Gary didn’t know this when the tasting was recorded and when he found out he immediately took the video down from the internet so that he could not gain financially from his honest appraisal of the wines. We only know about it now because of his online apology and explanation.  I think this case shows just how very important it is to wine critics to maintain their reputations as honest objective agents.


Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been studying how wine magazines handle reviews and the images that sometimes appear with them because it seems to me that a review that is shown along with a photo of the bottle or label is a lot more memorable than the plain text, so the choice of which wines to favor with an image is important..  Some of the magazines use these images to generate advertising revenue, others do not.  This is potentially confusing for readers who may mix up editorial content (the review) with paid advertising (the label image).

Britain’s Decanter magazine keeps its paid advertising and editorial wine ratings reasonably separated.  The top rated four- and five-star wines are featured with bottle photographs while the rest (three stars and below) have simple text listings. It is clear that the photos reflect editorial evaluation. Advertising pages bookend each set of ratings, but they are labeled “Decanter Promotion” so it is pretty clear that the wineries have paid for the space.

Wine & Spirits magazine has a different system (clearly explained in each issue).  After it has rated a group of wines it invites the wineries to purchase feature space in the form of wine label images that are included with the relevant reviews.  You might assume that the editors picked the wines to receive more attention this way, but you are wrong — stop assuming!  The label images are product placements and I appreciate Wine & Spirits’ honesty in revealing it.

Wine Enthusiast has a similar policy according to the explanation I found on page 182 of the September 2008 issue.  All the rated wines appear in long unadorned columns of reviews, but some wines also show up along with label images in the colorful pages that precede the main review text.  Some of these are top-rated wines, but others are not.  Like Wine & Spirits, producers are invited to buy image space in this section of the magazine, but only after the wines have been rated so that it is clear that they are buying the image space not the review — a good policy.

Wine Spectator doesn’t sell image space.  There are highlighted pages of wine reviews with labels at the front of the ratings sections, but these are editorial endorsements rather than paid placements.  Otherwise all the listings get equal treatment in the magazine.

Mixed Messages

If you see a bottle or label image alongside a review in Wine Spectator or Decanter, it means that the editors recommend the wine.  Label/review combinations in Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits are product placements. Each publication is very clear about this to protect its reputation – and I believe them when they say that their reviews are not influenced by advertising.  But the fact that there is more than one system means that readers of Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits and other magazines with similar practices may sometimes confuse paid product placement with editorial endorsement.

Solution?  I think all the critics cited above are honest agents and they have the right to choose different strategies to protect their reputations while generating needed revenues.  The burden falls on us, the wine buying “principals,” to understand what sort of “contract” we have with our critic “agents” so that we know when we are viewing paid product placements.

The Wine Spectator Award Hoax

It has been a couple of weeks now since the Wine Spectator hoax hit the news. Robin Goldstein (a.k.a. fearlesscritic.com) “blew the whistle” on Wine Spectator in a session that I happened to chair at the American Association of Wine Economists meetings in Portland. (Robin actually revealed his hoax as an unscheduled prelude to a completely different presentation at the meetings.)

The wine media quickly picked up the story and now it is everywhere. The story has generated a certain amount of embarrassment for Wine Spectator and given Robin and his new book a lot of  publicity.

What Robin did was to create a fake Italian restaurant (Osteria L’Intrepido di Milano) along with a made-up menu and wine list. Then, following directions on the Wine Spectator website, he applied for an Award of Excellence, which is the way that Wine Spectator recognizes and encourages restaurants with strong wine programs. Wine Spectator tried but was not able independently to confirm the facts about the fake restaurant; they took the application on trust as an honest entry and presented it with the appropriate award in the August 31, 2008 special restaurant issue (see page 181). You can read all about it on Robin’s website for the fake restaurant, http://osterialintrepido.wordpress.com/

Where is the Outrage?

How upset should we be to discover that Wine Spectator can be tricked into giving its wine award to a fake restaurant?  Michael Morrell, my chief cheap wine research assistant, was outraged.  Although price is the most important factor for him in choosing wine, he admits that he is also influenced by wine ratings. The award hoax undermines his trust in wine critics in general and the ratings and advice they produce.

I can understand Michael’s concern, so I consider this a very serious matter, but I don’t think the fact that Wine Spectator fell for a hoax is reason for us to doubt its integrity.  Here is my report.

The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence is given to restaurants to recognize their wine programs.  Although the actual criteria for receiving an award seem very modest to me (you can read them on page 97 of the special restaurant wine issue), it is a fact that about 30% of the new entries each year fail to meet them (the success rate is obviously higher for establishments who enter and receive an award year after year).

There are three levels of award.  3254 restaurants received the base level recommendation.  802 second tier “Best of Award” ratings were given to restaurants with more comprehensive wine lists. 73 top of the line “Grand Awards” were bestowed.  The people at Wine Spectator are proud of their award program and believe that it has encouraged restaurants to upgrade their wine programs.

Caution: Economics Content

I’m sure this is true, but I tend to view the matter in economic theory terms.  Consumers have lots of restaurant options and are uncertain which ones might have good wine choices. The restaurants know how good their wine selections are but have trouble effectively communicating this to potential customers. This is the classic economic problem of “asymmetric information” and the classic economic solution is “signaling” – where one side of a potential transaction finds a way to reveal key information to the other side to help seal the deal.

Restaurants that want to attract wine enthusiast customers need a way to “signal” them about their wine programs and the Award of Excellence is one way to do this.  Restaurants that think sending this signal is worth meeting the criteria and paying the entry fee do it and get on the list.  Others, even some that have strong  wine programs, don’t bother. They have other ways to send the message, I guess.

Wine Spectator fell for the Osteria L’Intrepido hoax because it relied upon the honesty of applicants, assuming, I suppose, that no one would go to the trouble and expense of applying without a conventional commercial purpose. This is another side of asymmetric information — Robin presumably knew his motives in setting the fake restaurant “sting” and Wine Spectator could only guess or assume.

In Vino Veritas

Truth is especially important in the wine world and, because of the problem of asymmetric information, it is particular difficult to know with confidence.  We depend upon the honesty of self-interested actors and the truthfulness of their signals. When we read wine ratings or see wine competition awards, for example, we assume that the judges and critics are tasting the same wines that we buy in the market. But it would be easy for a dishonest producer or distributor to put special wines in the bottles sent to the critics or wine award competitions. The easiest switch would be to put some of last year’s highly ranked wine in place of this year’s weak effort. Most wine critics rate products that are sent to them by makers and distributors and rely upon the honesty of the sender.  Only a few – Gaiter and Brecher at the Wall Street Journal come to mind – seek out and purchase their wines through normal retail channels.

Doctored “critic cuvee” wines are a potential hoax problem.  I am not aware of any wine publications that have been hoaxed in this manner, but I have read and heard speculation about special “award cuvee” wines being entered in competitions.  The nature of the situation makes us all vulnerable to hoaxes.

Wine Spectator fell for this hoax but it wasn’t because its editors are dishonest in giving their awards.  I think most of the criticism of Wine Spectator in this situation is a bum rap, especially since the magazine’s editors seem to be unusually careful in avoiding advertising conflicts of interest.  That’s the subject of my next post.

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