[Yellow Tail] Tales

caselawinery-coloured-small1.jpgYellow Tail is the best selling imported wine in the United States. Yellow Tail accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. imports in 2005. This one wine brand represents about 8 percent of all Australian wine production and 15 percent of that country’s total wine exports. Yellow Tail sells more wine in the U.S. than all French producers combined.

This is an aerial photo of the winery, which is located in a small village called Yenda in the Riverina region of South East Australia. If it doesn’t look like a quaint little craft winery it is because the volumes are so large. The warehouse structure in the upper right corner can store 900,000 cases of wine at a time, according to Wine Business International. The bottling line next door is the fastest and loudest in the world, filling 30,000 bottles per hour (two more lines are planned to increase capacity). Total production is about 11 million cases, of which about 8.5 million are exported to the United States.

It is a sophisticated factory, with blending facilities that assure that each bottle tastes just like the one before. That differentiates it from Charles Shaw wine (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck), the Trader Joe’s wine, which people say can vary considerably from case to case.

Yellow Tail is expanding in every imaginable way: more varietals (an Australian Pinot Grigio), a Reserve line of wines sourced from cooler-climate vineyards and now sparkling wines, too. The Yellow Tail’s distinctive yellow-footed rock wallaby “critter” is everywhere.

Yellow Tale is a phenomenon, but not one you will read about in the supermarket wine magazines. They don’t waste much ink on wine that costs about as much per bottle as the magazine itself does per issue. Magazine? Bottle of wine? It’s easy to tell which one the Yellow Tail customer will purchase! So I’ve been trying to find out more about Yellow Tail and here is my report.

Wine as a Family Affair

The interesting thing about the Yellow Tail success story is that it can be told in several different ways. This is not unusual in my experience. Stories of success and failure are frequently spun into meaningful narratives to try to make particular points. One version of the Yellow Tail story, for example, focuses on family and the importance of family businesses in the wine business.

This Yellow Tail Tale begins with the Casella family, winemaking immigrants who came from Italy in the 1950s and eventually planted their own Australian vineyards in 1965, selling grapes under contract to larger producers. Keen to make their own wines and export them, Casella invested in production facilities in the late 1990s and started looking for ways to crash the emerging U.S. wine party.

The key event in this version of the story is the alliance that was struck between Casella Wines Ltd, an Australian family business, and an American one, the William J. Deutsch company. Deutsch is a major U.S. wine distributor — they helped make the French Georges DuBoeuf wines a major U.S. brand — and they were willing to take a chance on an unknown Australian wine with a clever label. A partnership was established, with each family firm owning half of the Yellow Tale brand. Casella made the wine, Deutsch sold it. U.S. sales soared, from about 60,000 cases in 2001 to more than 8 million cases today.

Why was Yellow Tail so successful? One theory is that it is family and trust that are the key elements and that the cooperation and commitment that Casella and Deutsch have demonstrated would not have been possible if either of them had been a public corporation, beholden to shareholders and driven to meet quarterly profit targets Family is the key to Yellow Tail.

Red Ocean, Blue Ocean, Yellow Tail

A second group of business analysts have also appropriated Yellow Tail and made it the basis of a wholly different narrative, this one told using some unfamiliar jargon (unfamiliar to me, at least). Here is the Yellow Tail story told in terms of Blue Ocean versus Red Ocean.

The oceans in question are markets. Blue Oceans are markets for new products. Red Oceans are markets for existing products. Why are they red? I don’t really know but based upon what I saw last summer on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” I’m willing to guess that existing markets are a tough environment to enter. You’ve got to compete with well-adapted predators who will cut you up badly if you aren’t really strong (Red Ocean = bloody ocean — get it?). A Blue Ocean, on the other hand, is uncontested open water. You’ve got a much better chance of profit if you can stake out the market for a new product before the competition gets there.

So how is Yellow Tale a Blue Ocean product? According to one article it is because Yellow Tail isn’t wine as we know it — it’s a whole new thing. The Wine Business International article cited above provides the details. People don’t really like wine, the article suggests. Even the Casellas don’t like it (is this possible?). It’s very tannic and acid and people aren’t used to those qualities except in tea. Who wants to pay $6 a bottle for something that is bitter and sour. The key to Yellow Tail was the realization that wine without tannin and acid could be very appealing, especially to the majority of Americans who really don’t like wine. (It was designed to appeal to the 85% of non-wine drinkers, according to the article, while not offending the 15% who already like wine. That’s 100%, if my math is correct. No wonder it is so popular). Yellow Tail isn’t as strong a brand in Great Britain — maybe it’s because the British actually like wine, acid tannin and all?

The Red Ocean, then, is the market for wine and the Blue Ocean is the market for wine that doesn’t taste like wine. (You might call it the Blue Nun Ocean in honor of a popular semi-wine wine of the 1970s.) If this analysis is correct, then you can see why Yellow Tail is such as success. But you can also see why its success might be short lived (and why, therefore, Casella may be moving into other markets). The Blue Ocean of semi -wine was quickly populated by competing predator species. Two Buck Chuck is an obvious example but there are really dozens and dozens of copycat critter wines out there. The trick for Yellow Tail is thus how to succeed now that their Blue Ocean is turning Pink.

Water Torture

Here’s a final Yellow Tail Tale that continues the focus on water. A third explanation for Yellow Tail’s success can be summarized in a single word: irrigation. Yellow Tail was made possible by the existence of enough water to irrigate the vast Casella and South East Australia vineyards. Water made it possible to grow grapes so efficiently that you could ship the wine half way around the world and sell it cheaply and make a fortune.

a_wby_lg_pic01.jpgBut the environment is changing for Casella’s vineyards. It’s not Blue to Red, but wet to dry. Australia has experienced several consecutive drought years, which have caused vineyard yields to crash and changed the whole business model of Australia wine. Put simply, the plentiful cheap fruit that has fueled Yellow Tail’s growth is now just a memory. What is to be done?

Casella seems to be considering several approaches. The first is conservation. According to their website, they have invested heavily in water recycling facilities, which will allow them to reclaim 400 million liters of wastewater each year for use in their vineyards. That’s a good start — and sustainable winegrowing is everywhere a concern — but I don’t think it will be enough to irrigate all the vineyards.

So another strategy may be considered: outsourcing. There are many places on earth where inexpensive wine can still be produced. Will Yellow Tail consumers care if their wine comes from Chile, South Africa, France or maybe even Romania instead of Australia? My guess is that it won’t matter very much and that Yellow Tail may become a globally-sourced brand. Boy, that little wallaby gets around.

But the long term threat to Yellow Tail probably isn’t water, it is wine. If Yellow Tail customers ever learn to like wine (you know — the stuff with tannin and acid?) then the brand’s days will be numbered! Until then, little critter, wallaby wine is safe.

The Wizards of Oz

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australian’s are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

The End of Cheap Wine?

It is becoming increasingly clear that a golden age of sorts (for American wine drinkers) is coming to an end. Good quality wine has been amazingly affordable for the last several years and New World wine consumption has risen as a result.

This is changing (or has already changed, as Jancis Robinson writes in Saturday’s Financial Times) and a quick look at the economics of the wine market explains how and why.

The demand for wine in the United States has increased for a number of reasons. Studies that show that moderate consumption of wine (especially red wine) is healthful gave consumers license to experiment with table wines. The existence of Two Buck Chuck (the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores) and other value brands made this experimentation affordable.

The increasing emphasis on wine brands helped demand grow by making the wine purchase itself somewhat less mysterious. The wine aisle is the most complex choice space in any grocery store — there are more options at more price points than anywhere else. Brands reduce uncertainty and so encourage consumption. The enormous success of [Yellow Tail] brand wine from Australia is testament to this fact. Costco, the nation’s largest wine retailer, has used limited selection and its Kirkland Signature own-brand wine to achieve spectacular results.

The demand for wine has not just increased it has also evolved as many consumers have moved to higher quality (or higher price,anyway) and developed specialized wine expertise. Wine is more than a beverage, it is a lifestyle for many people who collect wines, take wine tourist vacations and subscribe to wine publications such as Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate and read the wine columns now found in many newspapers. There is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to wine. Knowing more about wine and having more experience with it increases the pleasure that wine provides and makes further learning more efficient. In economic terms, the specific investment in wine knowledge makes the demand for wine more inelastic — less sensitive to changes in price since buyers are less likely to switch from wine to other products or beverages where they have less expertise.

The supply of wine has also changed to create higher prices. The falling U.S. dollar has increased the cost of imported wine, which contributes to rising domestic prices both directly, as those costs are passed along to consumers, and indirectly, as higher import prices allow domestic producers to raise price, too. I don’t think that we have seen the full pass-through effect of the exchange rate changes yet, so expect dollar-driven price increases to continue.

But domestic prices would have increased even without the dollar’s decline. Wine buyers in recent years benefited from a global surplus of wine grapes that drove down price and pushed up quality. Faced with accumulated surpluses that sometimes amounted to a year or more of sales, winegrowers held back on expansion plans (except for hot varietals like Pinot Noir). Demand has slowly grown into the existing supply and may soon exceed it for some wine types. Falling prices due to surpluses are coming to an end and rising prices seem likely, even in Australia where drought and disease have further reduced production. The new EU wine regime, if it is effective, should further reduce wine surpluses and tighten supply.

When you combine these factors along with a few others, such as growing interest in wine in Asia, the result is a new market environment and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The latest round of wine magazines seem to take higher prices in stride. The Wine Advocate reports that the cellar door price of California cult wine Screaming Eagle is now $500 per bottle — if you can get some — and a long list of wines are listed with prices above $100 or $200. Wine Spectator and the wine columnists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all seem to be struggling to keep a lid on their definition of an inexpensive or good value wine — a $12 or $15 or even $20 ceiling no longer provides much choice! You can still buy cheap wine, but the good value bargains are disappearing.

It will be interesting to see how the American wine culture, which has been built in part on good quality at low prices, copes with this new world of wine. In the meantime, enjoy those bargains and good values when you find them, but don’t count on your good fortune lasting forever.

Big Trouble Down Under: Crisis in Australian Wine

Most people find it hard to imagine that the Australian wine industry could possibly be in trouble. Isn’t Australia the great success story of wine’s current globalization era? Australian wines are the #1 imports in Great Britain, having overtaken the French, and they may soon replace Italy as the #1 wine import in the United States. Where is the trouble in this?

And aren’t Australia’s best wines, like the iconic Penfolds Grange shown here, recognized as among the finest wines in the world? Australian Shiraz has set a high standard and its popularity has ignited interest in Shiraz and Syrah around the world. What’s wrong with that?

And yet big trouble there is for Australia’s wine industry and it is important to understand the situation both to appreciate the forces at work in Australia and to recognize their impact on the rest of the wine world.

First, however, we have to understand how Australian wine really works. Although famous brands like Penfolds Grange established Australia’s reputation for fine wines, they are a small and limited segment of the market. The evolution of Australian wine during the 1990s has produced an industry dominated by a small number of very large producers focused on branded products for export to Great Britain and the United States (about 75% of Australian wine exports are aimed at these two markets).

The bulk of Australia’s exports are inexpensive bulk wines, like the Yellow Tail brand that sells so well in the U.S. In fact, Yellow Tail wines account for nearly one-third of all Australia’s exports, making the industry incredibly dependent upon market conditions at the bottom end of the market. And those market conditions are not favorable: price competition is fierce. Penfolds Grange is the sophisticated image of Australian wine, but Yellow Tail, with more than 10 million export cases per year, is the inexpensive “critter wine” that pays the bills.

Or doesn’t pay the bills. Three years of rising harvests from 2004-2006 left Australia awash in bulk wine and the market worked just like the textbook says: prices dropped. The fact there is surplus wine, at least for now, in many parts of the world made the situation worse, of course. Bulk wine export prices are now less than 85 cents per liter, an unsustainable level.

I have read some reports that suggest that cheap French wines are part of the problem. The wine industry in the South of France,the Languedoc, is badly fragmented, with tiny family vineyards that can undercut new world wines because they do not count the cost of inherited capital (the vineyards) or family labor. And, of course, there are those EU subsidies, at least for now.

The wine world has become very small and Australian bulk producers compete head to head with those from Chile and France in the main global markets. And this creates a problem, too, because there is only so much demand to go around at any given time. If Australia exports a bit more to the U.S., for example, it pushes that extra U.S. wine into an export market, where it undercuts existing Australian sales. The result, once again, is falling price. Australian wine producers are on the lookout for new markets, focusing on Russia, China and South Korea. I would guess that these are not the easiest markets to enter except through the undesirable bulk wine route.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Australia’s big brands seem to have hit a wall in the export markets. Everyone has “critter” wines, now (or haven’t you noticed) and the competition among branded wine products has become positively frenzied. Sales of some of the Australian “popular premium” brands have actually declined for the first time, with these wines pushed down into the bulk market, pulling prices even lower there. More and more, Australian wines compete in a single category and market conditions on that part of the wine rack have deteriorated.

There is good news, but even the good news is bad. The good news is that the Australian wine surplus is shrinking and supply is becoming more closely aligned with demand. The bad news is that this isn’t because demand is rising, but rather because 2007 was a disastrous vintage. Grade production fell by 30% due to disease, frost and especially drought. Drought conditions are projected to continue into 2008, so there is not much hope of a quick recovery. Bad news is sometimes good news in agricultural markets, where bad crops push up prices and make people rich. But Australia’s bad crop won’t do much to push up global bulk wine prices. The only good news is that the surplus stocks that Australian producers have been holding can be used up at last.

What can be done? The Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (a government marketing agency) has released a study titled Wine Australia: Directions to 2025 that presents a plan to turn the troubled industry around without ripping out vines the way that they did in Canada and New Zealand during their wine gluts in the 1980s and the European Union proposes to do to shrink their wine lake now. The key to the plan is to “re-brand” Australian wines using a market segmentation scheme described in the report and then to move up market and away from bulk wines with more innovative brands and an attempt to focus on distintive regional terroir.

The logic is simple: move from the bottom shelf in the supermarket, where prices are unsustainable in any case, into the middle and top shelves, where consumers are willing to pay higher prices. The problem? Well, changing consumer expectations isn’t easy, although it is possible. But isn’t everyone trying to do that? It seems like every winemaker is trying to move upmarket. Gallo and Constellation have dozens of brands in these market segments, with more coming every day. (Just this week, as it happens, Gallo announced a partnership with Martha Stewart to produce a Sonoma-sourced Martha Steward Vintage brand wine to sell for $15 in select markets!)

The Wine Australia report is a good beginning. They recognize the current crisis and they know what to do. But can they do it?

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