Marketing the Wines of Spain

Mario Batali famously said that there is no such thing as Italian food – there are only the diverse regional cuisines of Italy. I believe the same idea applies to the wines of Spain. Spanish wine? No such thing. 

The many regions are so different and the wines, grapes and styles so diverse that it is impossible to say very much about them as a group. They are best understood individually.

Something for Everyone

This is a great advantage for wine enthusiasts who are seeking diversity. And it is an advantage for Spain’s producers too just now because their wines are seen to be good values and at time when value is so important.

Diversity and value mean that Spain can offer something for everyone and indeed sales of Spanish table wines are up 3.7 percent in the last year (same as the overall market), rising at an annual rate of 9.4 percent in the last quarter according to Nielsen Scantrak data.

The Diversity Challenge

But diversity is also a challenge because it means that you need to be both a winemaker and an educator. Spain’s regions and grape varieties are unfamiliar to many wine enthusiasts and to engage them you need to inform them. How do you establish a market identity for such a diverse group of wines? It’s a real problem and I decided to look closer at how Spain’s wine establishment is trying to solve it.

What image or images do current marketing campaigns project of the wines of Spain and how do they compare with other national or regional advertising efforts? Raphaela Haessler and Lily Chiang, two of my students, volunteered to help me find out. I loaded them up with a stack of wine and lifestyle publications (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Bon Appétit, and Gourmet among them) and asked them to prepare a comparative analysis of the advertising they found. Here, in part, is what they had to say.

The ads portrayed Spanish wines as new, different, fresh, and lively.  In contrast, the French seemed outdated, austere, cold, and inaccessible.  The Spanish ads had bright but earthy colors connoting Southern Spain, late summer and late evening parties; whereas Italy’s romantic black and white photos and France’s monotone or beige imagery did not pop out as much to the reader.  The French, Italians, and even Americans based their advertising off of their reputation, family, and tradition.  The Spanish, on the other hand, focused more on moments of joy and lightheartedness.  While the traditional wine producers said “you should buy our wines” the Spanish message was “anyone’s invited to our party.”

I think this is a great message for the current economic climate. Wine enthusiasts don’t want to simply trade down because wine is a lifestyle product and trading down means accepting a lower self-image for many buyers. They would rather “trade over” to a different lifestyle that is more fun and relaxed (and, incidentally, less expensive to support).

Reputation versus Lifestyle

Reputation and tradition are still powerful marketing tools, to be sure, but the lifestyle message is potent in today’s market

The Spanish wine ads also highlighted the wine’s uniqueness and diversity with the national wine slogan being “far from ordinary” (and the national tourism slogan being “Smile, you’re in Spain.”)  The ads mention that there is great variety and something for every taste.

Something for every taste — yes!  And every wallet, too, I suppose. Good to see the diversity advantage being exploited. But there are two sides to diversity when it comes to wine.

The ads promoted a specific state of mind, but what they were lacking was a sense of place.  While one ad had historical sights of the country, there were no images of vineyards, cellars, or even winemakers.  There was also a lack of refinement.  Most of the other advertisements presented wine as a cultured, luxurious form of leisure, or at least a family endeavor resting on tradition.  In contrast, Spain’s ads came across as youthful, energetic, social, yet naïve and flippant.

Faceless and Placeless

As you can see, Lily and Raphaela really reacted quite strongly to the lack of terroir in the Spanish wine advertisements. The association with a fun Spanish lifestyle is a plus in their view, but compared with other marketing schemes Spain was surprisingly faceless and placeless. That’s the diversity challenge.

So what is my bottom line of Spain’s wine identity? First it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this study — these conclusions are based on a snapshot of Spanish wine marketing at the present moment in a small number of important publications. A more detailed analysis over a longer time frame might produced different conclusions.

I think that the current campaign is right for the times, but incomplete as an overall stragegy. I hope Spain’s wine marketing gurus are prepared a follow up program that will educate and inform about the particular wines and regions (or an orchestrated set of private marketing campaigns by the major producers and distributors to accomplish the same thing).  It is important to drop the second shoe and not leave well enough alone.

That’s the message that Australian producers have learned the hard way. Their inexpensive Shiraz wines were so successful that they let them become Brand Australia. Now that they have fallen from favor, the job of re-branding Australian wine in terms of its fabulous regions is very hard. Spain should start now on this project and not wait until the fun lifestyle fad fades.

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Thanks (and a bottle of Las Rocas Garnacha from Calatayud) to Raphaela and Lily for their research assistance on this project.

American Wine Laws: Time for a Change?

No food for sale in this NYC Trader Joes. No wine for sale at the Trader Joes next door.

Only in America? You can't buy food at this NYC Trader Joe's wine store. And you can't buy wine at the Trader Joe's next door.

A European visitor pulled me aside recently to complain about American wine laws, which considerably restrict the what, where and how of wine sales and consumption compared to more relaxed European practices.

“I thought there was separation of Church and State in America,” he said, showing that he hadn’t forgotten what he learned in Civics class years ago as a high school exchange student in Cleveland. He put the blame for America’s wine parochialism squarely on the influence of conservative religious groups.

Church and State vs. Special Interests

Religious groups are political powerful, I told him, and they no doubt have had some influence on the development of America’s wine laws. But that’s not the reason the laws don’t change, I said. It is the interests of those who gain from the current set up. He wasn’t convinced. He seemed to think that a moral explanation was inherently more persuasive (or more American?) than an economic one. But I still think I’m right.

My explanation — that economic forces organize around any set of regulations, become entrenched and use their political and economic clout to prevent change — has a good economic pedigree. It is the theory of structural rigidities developed by Mancur Olson in his two classic books, The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Decline of Nations.

Olson’s theory is elegantly simply. Restrictive economic arrangements benefit a small number of actors a great deal, so they have a strong incentive to organize and fight change. Eliminating the restrictions benefits a larger but widely diffused set of actors who have correspondingly smaller individual incentive to take action.

Even though the collective gain from liberalizing arrangements is likely to exceed the collective loss, the concentrated established interests have more of an incentive to influence legislators and regulators than the general public. This is why regulations, once enacted, are difficult to change. Public gain cannot seem to trump concentrated private interests.

Olson developed this theory in The Logic of Collective Action and used it in The Rise and Decline to explain why rich, stable economies sometimes experience slower growth rates. Stability allows interests to become entrenched and structural rigidities to solidify. Change becomes more and more difficult and potential collective gains from innovation are systematically sacrificed on the altar of vested interest.

Every once in a while, Olson argued, advanced nations need something that will shake things up and weaken the grip of special interests. Then all sorts of change becomes possible.

A Loaf of Bread But No Jug of Wine

An article by Graham Rayman in the August 11, 2009 Village Voice provides evidence to support this theory. New York is one of 15 US states where it is illegal to purchase wine or beer in a supermarket (and you can’t buy bread or cheese in a NY wine shop, either). It isn’t so much separation of Church and State as the division of  Wine and Cheese. Supermarkets can sell wine, beer and spirits as provided by the law, and some do this, but they must have separate stores with separate entrances, checkout stands and so forth.

Two doors, two lines, two sets of store staff. Greater legal control alcohol sales is possible, I suppose, but at a considerable sacrifice in convenience.  It is probably not a surprise that wineries and wine enthusiasts would want to change this, but it isn’t an easy thing to do.

The Village Voice article explains how liquor store interests organized and lobbied the NY legislature to kill a recent bill that would have permitted supermarket sales. The main force behind the proposal was the state government’s need for revenue — the state projected that increased sales though supermarkets would have added to state tax coffers. The story focuses on the anti-reform lobby — it would be interesting to know more about than the author reports here about how supermarket chain and corporate wine producer interests reacted to the bill. But the point about the blocking power of small but concentrated interests is well made.

Shake It Up, Baby

Supermarkets are just one distribution vector for wine, of course, and New Yorkers have many competitive specialist stores to keep prices down and service up, so we don’t need to feel too sorry for them. But it does seem that the increased convenience of grocery store sales would help expand the wine market and promote wine as a lifestyle choice. It’s too bad the reform effort failed.

The inconvenience of wine buyers in the 15 supermarket-ban states is important, but the grip of special interests on wine regulations extends to other areas.The cumbersome three-tier distribution system and restrictions on inter-state wine shipments are two other areas where entrenched interests have successfully fought off liberalization efforts.The result is the restrictive system my European friend finds so difficult to understand.

If Mancur Olson is right, restrictive regulations will be difficult to change unless something happens to shake things up. Maybe the economic crisis, which has put every link in the wine value chain under stress, will ultimately provide just such an opportunity. Consumers, wine producers and even state tax departments all have something to gain from changing the system now.

We Will Sell No Wine [Reform] Before Its Time

I told my European friend not to hold his breath waiting for wine reforms to trickle up from grassroots wine enthusiasts. The real hope is that the big players will push for liberal reforms.

Personally, I pin my hopes on Costco, the largest single wine retailer. And I wonder if Wal-Mart will get involved now that it is selling wine in many stores (it even has its own version of a Two Buck wine called Oak Leaf). OK, Wal-Mart is a long shot, given its Arkansas roots, but these are unusual times — almost anything is possible.

The New York defeat is a definite setback (and the California plan to increase wine taxes is a step in the wrong direction) but maybe European-style wine market regulations are an idea whose time has finally come.

8/27/2009 Update

Interesting article in the New York Times about Whole Foods’ failed attempt to open a wine shop in New York City.

Whole Foods learned the hard way that opening a wine store in New York is not easy. The wine shop at its market in the Time Warner Center was closed by the state liquor authority because the shop was deemed part of the supermarket; state law bans selling wine in food stores. Then Whole Foods’s license request for a wine shop near its store in the Bowery was denied because of community opposition. But the company succeeded in starting a wine store in the same building as its newest store on the Upper West Side: it opened on Aug. 24, and the supermarket will open on Aug. 27.

Read the whole story at

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/dining/26whole.html?_r=1

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.]

The Future of Wine?

What will the world of wine look like in 50 years? A look in the crystal ball.

What if the Chinese were French?

A journalist with a Brazilian newsweekly called me on Thursday to ask for help with a story on China. The magazine is doing a sort of “worst case scenario” report on the potential impact of China’s economic growth on world markets. What would happen to oil prices, for example, if the Chinese used as much fuel per capita as Americans do? Yikes, that would be a lot of drivers using a lot of gas and it would send oil prices through the roof. What would happen if Chinese consumers generated as much waste and pollution per person as people in the West? Once again, the global effects would be dramatic.

What would happen, the journalist asked me, if Chinese tastes changed and they drank as much wine per capita as the current world champtions, the French? Well, that is a very interesting question, even if it isn’t a very realistic one. Annual Chinese consumption of wine is about a half-liter per capita and rising, according to my copy of The Global Wine Statistical Compendium (and a lot of that wine isn’t grape wine, as I wrote in The China Wine Syndrome). Wine consumption in France, on the other hand, is 55 liters per person and falling (it was more than 120 liters per capita in the early 1960s). The figure is about 8.5 liters per capita for the U.S. and 20 liters per capita for Great Britain.

It is hard to imagine how Chinese wine consumption could rise to the current French level. Heck, it is unlikely that the French will sustain their current level for long. But isn’t entirely out of the question that Chinese consumpion could rise to the world average, which is about 3.5 liters per capita per year. That’s a lot smaller increase than the Brazillian reporter was concerned with, but it would still have a huge impact on global wine markets. Much of the increase would probably be met by higher Chinese production; China is already a major wine producer — smaller than Chile but larger than Portugal in total production. But the global effects would be substantial and prices would surely rise.

We can already see some indication of the potential “China Effect” in the market for fine wine. Everyone seems to think that at least some of the rise in Bordeaux prices in recent years is due to Asian and especially Chinese purchases. This trend seems likely to accelerate now that Hong Kong has eliminated its high tax on wine transactions so that it can become the auction hub of the Asian wine market. The latest Wine Advocate reports prices of 2005 Bordeaux that reach stratospheric levels — $500, $1500, $2500 per bottle! This is what happens when a global market focuses on an object of speculation — huge rents (excess returns) are created. As China (and India, too) become more completely integrated into global markets for products like fine wine, these rents will likely rise higher still.

The View from London

The Brazilians are not the only ones interested in the future of wine. Berry Bros. & Rudd (BBR), the London fine wine house, recently celebrated its 310th anniversary with the release of the Future of Wine Report written by four of their top wine buyers (Alun Griffiths MW, Jasper Morris MW, Simon Field MW and David Berry Green). It makes pretty interesting reading if you are interested in what wine markets might look like in 2058.

I say wine markets (plural) because BBR correctly recognizes that there is not one wine market but many interrelated ones. The fine wine market, BBR predicts, will see the rise of China and India as important factors in terms of both demand and supply. “I absolutely think China will be a fine wine player rivalling the best wines from France,” writes Jasper Morris. Britain will become an important producer of fine wines, too, perhaps especially Champagne-like sparkers.

Wine prices will soar even higher, according to the report. “If values increase by 15% per annumn, as they have been doing recently, a case of 2005 Ch. Lafite-Rothschild, currently available for £9,200. could be worth just shy of £10 mllion by 2050,” according to Simon Staples.

The forecast changes are more dramatic in the volume wine market. China will be the world’s largest wine producer. Global warming will shift wine production from France to Eastern Europe and from Napa Valley to Canada. Australia, the report speculates, could see a collapse of its volume wine industry if recent droughts persist. Goodbye Yellow Tail. Hello boutique producers in cooler, wetter areas like Tasmania.

Brands will become even more important in the volume business, BBR suggest. “In 50 years, consumers will ask for wine by the brand name or flavour and won’t know, or care, where it has come from. Grapes will be genetically modified to change a wine’s taste,” according to Jasper Morris, “and producers will add artificial flavourings to create a style wanted by consumers.” Wait — OMG I think I drank those wines back in the 1970s when I was in grad school!

Bottles and corks? They’re history. Corks will disappear because they are inefficient — the contamination rate is too high. Bottles are heavy and environmentally problematic. Tetra pak containers (like the ones used in today’s French Rabbit wines) and other sustainable packaging systems will prevail for volume wine.

The Future of Wine?

So what should we think of these visions of the future of wine? Economists like to say that prediction is difficult, especially about the future, so long range forecasts need to be taken for the educated guesses that they are.

Some forecasts, will be wrong because they are more or less simple straight line extrapolations (How much wine would the Chinese drink if they were French? How much will fine wine costs if its price compounds at the current rate?). It seems to me that simple projections are usually wrong because they are sensitive to initial conditions. Who is to say if long term trends will match those of the recent past?

Some predictions, like the £10 million case of wine, are extreme, but others are probably too conservative. The wine world has a way of surprising us — who in 1958 would have predicted the importance of Chile and Argentina today or the decline of consumption and production in France? People matter, too. People and their ideas are powerful forces that do not always respect historical trends, as refelction on the recent death of Robert Mondavi remind us.

Kenneth Boulding, the great 20th Century social scientist, once wrote a history of the future. He looked back to see what people in the past had said about the world just ahead. What he learned, he told me, was that when the future eventually rolled around, it never matched the predictions, it was always unexpected. The best way to prepare for the future, he concluded, was to prepare to be surprised. I expect this rather general advice applies as well to wine.

Hong Kong Wine Taxes: The Papillon Effect

How Tax Cuts in Hong Kong May Create a Tornado in Bordeaux

everwise-poster.jpgWine prices are dropping in Hong Kong (click on the image to see one merchant’s sale announcement). The reason is that Hong Kong has abolished taxes on beer and wine. The tariff on wine was an incredible 80% until a few years ago, when it fell to a still hefty 40%. So the drop to a zero rate and the price reductions that should follow will be welcome news indeed for wine-drinkers in this prosperous Asian hub.

What prompted the HK government to take such an action, which cost the city over $70 million in lost tax revenue? One factor was a budget surplus, which made tax cuts possible. But why cut wine taxes? Imported wine in Asia is often an expensive luxury sold to well-heeled buyers who may not be very sensitive to price — just the kind of product that makes a logical target for tax policy. If the government can afford to cut taxes, why not target a tax that would provide more general benefit?

The answer, according to published accounts, is that Hong Kong’s policy isn’t about wine, it’s about money. By cutting wine taxes, the Hong Kong authorities hope to bring in more money, not less.

The world auction market for wine is large and growing. London (with annual wine auction sales of $1.2 billion) and New York are at the center of this market, but as much as 40 percent of the expensive auction wine is sold to Hong Kong residents. The high taxes on wine discourage HK buyers from bringing auction purchases home to drink or to re-sell, so the wine is held in foreign warehouses (or sometimes in bonded warehouses in HK).

Much of the world’s supply of great wine and demand for it too resides in Hong Kong, but the wine itself lives elsewhere. By abolishing the wine tax, the Hong Kong government hopes to exploit this fact and turn Hong Kong into Asia’s wine market center. Look for the big auction houses to organize HK wine practices to take advantage of the new market environment. And look for HK government revenues on the resulting auction enterprises to rise, perhaps enough to compensate for the initial tax cut.

The Papillon Effect

The impact of Hong Kong’s auctions are likely to be felt well beyond Asia and well outside the gilded halls of the auction houses. Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It is the idea that small changes in complex interconnected systems can sometimes produce large effects. The name, coined by Edward Lorenz in 1961, comes from the idea that a butterfly beating its wings in Brazil, by disturbing air flows in ways that compound and multiply, can theoretically cause a hurricane in Texas. It is a famous concept in the field of non-linear dynamics.

Natural systems are obviously complex and interdependent and sensitive to initial conditions. Tipping points, butterfly effects and the like are both theoretically possible and empirically observable. Economic systems can have these same properties. (I wrote a book a few years ago that examined the turbulent flows and non-linear dynamics of foreign exchange markets, for example.) This is perhaps especially true for complex global markets, like the market for wine.

The shift in the wine market to Hong Kong should have fairly significant effects on wine flows and prices — especially for trophy French and especially Bordeaux wines, the object of much London and soon Hong Kong auction activity. So I’m calling the effect of the HK wine tax cut the Papillon Effect (papillion is French for butterfly — if the HK buyers were focused on Italian wines it would be the Farfalle Effect). I will be interested to see just how much market turbulence the HK tax change creates.

Will the HK butterfly’s wings cause a tornado in Bordeaux? Yes, I think it will, although it might be difficult to tell how large the effect is because of the boom already in progress, both in the auction and en primeur markets, for these wines. Prices are already staggeringly high for the most famous and highly-rated products.

But the really interesting question concerns the side effects in other markets. How will surging Bordeaux prices affect the rest of the wine world? Will the object of speculation remain fairly narrowly focused or will the boom’s domain expand to include investment-grade wines from around the world? How far will the Papillon Effect extend?

And then there is the question of stability. The clear message of the Butterfly Effect is that the compoud effects of small changes may not be sustainable — they can be disruptive and even explosive, like a tornado.

Will the HK tax changes merely shift the wine market centers and expand demand and supply, or will it blow up a bubble, as often happens in financial markets? This is a question that Hong Kong financiers should consider as they raise their bidding paddles at the great wine auctions that seem sure to be coming their way soon!

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