Fluid Dynamics: Charting the Global Wine Market

I’m in Innsbruck today, on my way home from the annual meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists. About 160 of us gathered last week in Bolzano, Italy, which is surely one of the most beautiful wine cities in the world, to ponder the state of the world of wine.

I’ll be writing about the meetings in future posts (and about fieldwork we did while in Italy, too),  but for now I want to focus on the conference’s final session, which was on the global wine market.

The gist of the session was that the global wine market is going through a period of seemingly chaotic change (hence the “fluid dynamics” title to this post). Several new trends are emerging and each of them can be tracked, but it is hard to know how they will interact in the global markets.

I’m not sure any one of the speakers (see list below) stressed the uncertainty of the dynamic interaction, but this was the message that came through to me.

Up the Down Staircase in Europe

In Europe, for example, there is some good news in the form of increased wine consumption among young people — a possible reversal in the secular decline in wine consumption in “old world” countries (a group that includes Argentina) which has been responsible in part for the global wine market surplus. A good sign that demographic trends may be changing in a positive way.

On the other hand, there is bad news about the EU wine market reforms that were designed to dry up Europe’s wine lake by rationalizing the wine system there and forcing/permitting wine producers to compete head to head with new world wine companies. The recession’s effects are being used as a tool by anti-reform interests and it now appears possible or likely (depending upon who is talking) that the whole reform program may be ditched in order to stabilize grower incomes.

Although European consumers may be drinking more wine, it is not the wine that the reforms were designed to eliminate, so structural imbalances (and high budget costs) may soon return.

Bulking Up (and Down)

Australia is another dynamic wine region. While wine officials have high hopes for China in the future, the present is problematic. Bottled wine exports (with their higher value added) have dropped quite suddenly and more of the export demand is now being met with lower value bulk wine. This is not a step in the right direction for the long term, of course, although I’ imagine that some Australian producers are happy to export in any form.

Javier Merino from Argentina noted the recent growth in both Chile and Argentina (Argentina is the mirror of Australia, reducing its bulk wine exports and increasing bottle wine sales) as well as the economic problems that both nations face (exchange rate issues in Chile, inflation in Argentina).

China is on (almost) everyone’s mind, of course, as it appears to be one of the major growth areas for the near future, but Brazil and Russia are growing, too, and on the radar for countries with extra wine to sell (which is more or less everyone).

This Changes Everything

But South Africa may be a different story. Nick Vink said that he believes that South Africa’s markets of the future are Africa and India (not Britain and the US) as wine consumption rises in these regions and favorable wine market reforms are implemented (a particular problem in India, I believe, but probably in many parts of Africa, too).

Wine markets shifting to Shanghai? That’s interesting. To Nairobi? That’s very interesting! Nonlinear dynamic systems are very sensitive to initial conditions and the Africa shift (or any of the other changes mentioned here) could very easily “change everything” in faraway corners of the world of wine.

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Here’s a list of the wine economists who spoke at the session on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Global Wine Market

  • Kym Anderson (University of Adelaide, Australia)
  • Johan Swinnen (University of Leuven, Belgium)
  • Nick Vink (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa)
  • Julian Alston (University of California, Davis, USA)
  • Javier Merino (Área del Vino, Mendoza, Argentina)

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The Wine Economist is going to take a short “Fourth of July” break to give me time to get my notes in order. We’ll be back in a few days with more from our fieldwork in Italy. In the meantime, run out and buy a copy of Wine Wars — it makes great holiday reading.

The BRICs: The New New World of Wine?

This is the first of a series of articles on wine markets in the BRICs. BRICs? Is that a wine term? No, although it sounds just like brix, a measure of a grape’s sugar level. Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs coined the term BRIC in 2001 to refer to  Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Initially many people suspected that BRIC was just a gimmick — a way to package four very dissimilar countries into an appealing acronym that would draw investor interest. If it was a strategic maneuver it was a brilliant one because of the way it captured the world’s imagination.

More than a Gimmick

“BRICs” is an attractive name for many reasons, perhaps especially because it looks and sounds like NICs — the Newly Industrialized Countries of Hong Kong, Singapore,  Taiwan and South Korea that have been so successful in the global economy.  There was some question initially about why these four particular countries were chosen (why Brazil and not Mexico, for example, and what about Turkey?) and what if anything they had in common, but the idea quickly caught on.

Today the BRICs are firmly established, as the Economist noted earlier this year in an article titled, “The BRICs: The trillion dollar club.”  The BRICs have turned into something real.  Why? According to the Economist

The BRICs matter because of their economic weight. They are the four largest economies outside the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich man’s club). They are the only developing economies with annual GDPs of over $1 trillion (Indonesia’s is only half that). With the exception of Russia, they sustained better growth than most during the great recession and, but for them, world output would have fallen by even more than it did. China also became, by a fraction, the world’s largest exporter.

In a recent Economist article (that included this provocative graph), Goldman’s O’Neil was asked to look ahead 25 years, from 2011 to 2036, and to speculate about the future.

One of the questions he raised was whether the BRICs would have greater total (but obviously not per capita)  income than the G-7 countries and what that might mean if they did. A good question to discuss … over a glass of BRIC wine.

The Future of BRIC Wine?

BRIC wine? Well, yes. All the BRIC countries produce wine and all are important wine markets for the future. As these economies grow, their expanding middle classes will be increasingly attractive target markets for the world’s wine makers and their wines will begin to appear on you local shop’s shelf.

China was the 6th largest wine producer in the world in 2007 according to International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) statistics, with an estimated 12 million hectoliters of wine produced (for readers who still think in “English” units, a hectoliter equals 100 liters or a little more than 11 standard nine-liter cases of wine).

By comparison, #1 Italy and #2 France produced nearly 46 million hl each in 2007 followed by Spain (34 million hl), the U.S. (20 million hl) and Argentina (15 million hl). BRIC Russia was 11th in the global wine league table, with 7.3 million hl of output followed by Brazil in 15th place with 3.5 million hl.

India does not appear in the OIV wine statistics, indicating that its wine industry is quite small at present. But India definitely is on the wine map — the omnipresent Michel Rolland even has a client there (Grover Vineyards). India is already a major producer of table grapes, with 2007 production only a little less than Chile and the U.S. combined (that’s a lot of grapes), so it is not unreasonable to suppose that higher levels of wine grape production may follow. India would be on the wine BRIC list for its potential as wine import market, of course, even if it didn’t make any wine at all.

Solving the BRIC Puzzle

Some people in the wine industry dream that the BRICs will be the solution to the problem of global over-supply. OIV estimates that 266 million hl of wine was produced in 2007 but only 249 million hl consumed,  a gap of 17 million hl or about 200 million cases. Yikes! Do the BRICs have the potential to soak up all that extra wine and bail out the global industry?

Dream on, say the experts consulted for a 2009 article in Meininger’s Wine Business International. “Are the BRIC countries going to solve the problems of oversupply in the world today? I don’t think so,” said Arend Heikbroek, associate director for beverages at Rabobank (and one of the sharpest wine analysts I know). “It’s a long-term shot,” he continued, ” it’s complicated, each market is completely different. You need to understand the risk, the dynamics, the traders, the distribution system and the legal system in each of these markets.”

Fair enough. Each BRIC is its own particular puzzle, I guess, and it is too soon to know how they will fit into the bigger puzzle of global wine.

The BRICs will be important to the future of global wine even if they aren’t a silver bullet solution to current problems. They are the new new world of wine and we need to figure out what we know about them– and we don’t know.

In this series I’ll examine each BRIC wine market in turn starting with Brazil by bringing  together and synthesizing various published reports and then try to pull things together into a summary. I hope readers with particular expertise will leave comments to help broaden and deepen the analysis. So away we go!

DIY Wine Economics

I’ve just returned from a research trip to Canada to investigate the wine industry in British Columbia (watch for my upcoming report). The wines were very good and the scenery spectacular, but for some reason my attention kept being diverted to small storefront do-it-yourself wine making facilities.  So herewith a report on a Canadian phenomenon:  Wine Kitz stores.

The Old Pandosy Street Connection

Somehow we found ourselves on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, B.C.; I checked out the Wine Kitz store while Sue investigated a yarn shop on the next block. It was a very interesting visit. I have seen many stores that sell wine-making kits and supplies, including grape juice concentrate, yeasts, jugs, hoses, bottles and so forth, but this Wine Kitz was something else — it really got my attention.

Kim McLean and her husband James operate this shop, which has been in Kim’s family since 1976, first an an independent DIY wine operation, now as part of  Wine Kitz.  Wine Kitz is a franchise chain, started in 1959 as “Wine Art” with 70 stores across Canada. There were three stores in Kelowna, a wine, tourism and agriculture town of about 120,000 population, with another store just across the bridge in West Kelowna. There must be a lot of DIY wine on tap here to support four stores!

Wine in a Box

Wine may be made in the vineyard, as they say, but it comes in a box at Wine Kitz and similar stores. Each box makes 23 liters of wine, or about 30 bottles from whichever sort of wine grape juice you choose. There are three quality tiers of juice available, starting with the Wine-Art line (CND 120 per kit) and moving up to Tradition (CND 138) and Ultimate (CND 185). (One USD equals about 1.03 CND at today’s exchange rate — that’s roughly par when you take FX fees into consideration.) The cheaper products have a higher percentage of juice concentrate while the more expensive tiers have more natural juice (and less manipulation). You can dial up the quality level depending upon your preferences and bank account balance.

The juice comes mainly from California, Australia and Italy. The juice selection is really quite broad. Merlot, Chardonnay and Shiraz, of course, but also Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicella. You can even make sherry and port-style products as well as various dessert wines.

The Secret of DIY Success

Why are kit wines so popular in Canada? One reason is the high retail price of bottled wine. Wine that you can make in a Wine Kitz shop for about CND 6 per bottle would sell for perhaps CND 20 or more in one of the province’s government liquor shops, Kim told me.

Checking around I found that Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling sells for CND 14 in BC and CND 17 in Alberta. You can buy it for less than USD 6 at Costco in the U.S.  That’s a pretty strong incentive to make your own wine if the quality is anywhere close. You can, of course, set up your own home winery using the packaged juice as raw material to bring the cost even lower.

The ongoing recession is a second factor, Kim said. People are a bit more interested in saving money when the economy is uncertain. You can think of this as a trading down (to lower prices) effect, but I’d argue that it is more like “trading over” (to different wine experiences) since the product is both cheaper but also a bit more personal and fun.

A final reason is that it is easy to make this wine — much easier that you might think. A loophole in liquor laws allows Wine Kitz to streamline the winemaking process.

Amateur Antinoris  need invest only about 45 minutes per batch of wine — 20 minutes to initiate fermentation and another 25 minutes filtering and filling bottles when the wine is ready to go in a few weeks. All the work in between can be done by Wine Kitz staff on their premises using their equipment. You can be as involved as you want to be as long as you put in that minimum 45 minutes but you can also leave it to Wine Kitz. Honestly, you can’t get much easier than that.

One important rule: once you bottle your wine you must remove it from the store immediately. I asked Kim if her operation was highly regulated and she said it was — and that the easiest thing to do was simply to follow all the rules to the letter and avoid legal problems. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Back Room Confidential

The back room of the Kelowna store I visited was filled with glass carboys in various stages of fermentation and a satisfied young couple (from Switzerland if my ear is any guide) were happily bottling their latest vintage. Perhaps Canada’s longstanding policy of welcoming immigrants is another factor in DIY wine’s popularity — maybe they bring an interest in home wine making with them. But that’s obviously not the whole story. When I asked Kim about her customers she said they are just thirsty — they don’t come from a particular socioeconomic class or walk of life. They just want to make wine.  Interesting — wine-making as a popular home craft like scrap-booking.

I didn’t ask to sample any of the wine — this isn’t a wine rating blog and my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway. What does matter is what the people who come to stores like Wine Kitz think and there are apparently many happy wine drinkers among them (enough to keep four stores busy in a medium-sized town).

DIY wine is an interesting reaction to both the expense of commercial wines (especially in Canada) and the desire of many to be more a part of the products they consume (even if boxed juice is involved) — to be participants as well as consumers.

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Thanks to Kim McLean for taking time to show me around her Kelowna store and explain her DIY operation. The photos shown here are for typical Wine Kitz locations — not the Kelowna store I visited. Watch for additional reports form my BC fieldwork expedition.

The Wine Economist 200

This is The Wine Economist’s 200th post since it began a little more than three years ago under the name “Grape Expectations” —  a good opportunity to reflect briefly on readership trends, just as I did when we passed milepost 100.

Not that kind of list!

Milepost 200

The Wine Economist has an unusually broad readership given its focus (wine economics), content (no wine reviews, no ratings) and style (most posts are way longer than is typical for weblogs).

I never expected to get millions of visitors like Dr. Vino or Gary V. and other popular wine critic sites, so I’m surprised by how many people have found this page and come back to read and re-read.

About 200,000 visitors have clicked on these links, sometimes with surprising intensity. The Wine Economist has been ranked as high as #6 in the big “Food”  category where wine blogs are filed in Technorati‘s daily ratings and as high as the top 30 in the even broader “Living” group.

Reader Favorites

The most-read articles of the last few days are always listed in the right-hand column on this page, so it is easy to see track reader behavior. I thought you might be interested in readership trends since the blog began. Here are the top ten Wine Economist articles of all time.

  1. Costco and Global Wine — about America’s #1 wine retailer, Costco.
  2. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Bag in the Box) — why “box wine” should be taken seriously.
  3. The World’s Best Wine Magazine? Is it Decanter?
  4. [Yellow Tail] Tales or how business professors explain Yellow Tail’s success.
  5. Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine or how Olive Garden came to be #1 in American restaurant wine sales.
  6. Australia at the Tipping Point — one of many posts about the continuing crisis in Oz.
  7. No Wine Before Its Time explains the difference between fine wine and a flat-pack  antique finish Ikea Aspelund bedside table.
  8. How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine — one of many posts on wine and the recession. Can you believe that some people said that wine sales would rise?
  9. Wine Distribution Bottleneck — damned three tier system!
  10. Curse of the Blue Nun or the rise and fall and rise again of German wine.

As you can see, it is a pretty eclectic mix of topics reflecting, I think, both the quite diverse interests of wine enthusiasts and wine’s inherently complex nature.

My Back Pages

What are my favorite posts? Unsurprisingly, they are columns that connected most directly to people. Wine is a relationship business; building and honoring relationships is what it is all about.

KW’s report on the wine scene in Kabul, Afghanistan has to be near the top of my personal list, for example. I am looking forward to following this friend’s exploits in and out of wine for many years to come. (Afghan authorities found KW’s report so threatening that they blocked access to The Wine Economist in that country!)

Matt Ferchen and Steve Burkhalter (both former students of mine now based in China) reported on Portugal’s efforts to break into the wine market there. The commentaries by Matt, Steve and KW received a lot of attention inside the wine trade, but their thoughtful, fresh approaches also drew links, re-posts and readers from the far corners of the web world.

Looking back, I think my favorite post was probably the very first one, a report on my experiences working with the all-volunteer  bottling crew at Fielding Hills winery. I learned a lot that day about the real world of wine and I continue to benefit from my association with Mike and Karen Wade (and their daughter, Robin, another former student) who have taught me a lot about wine, wine making and wine markets.

Look for another report like this when The Wine Economist turns 300. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who’s helped me in various ways with these first 200 posts. I couldn’t have done it without you! (Special thanks to Sue, my #1 research assistant!)

Restaurant Wine: A Double-Sided Puzzle

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

The Confidence Game

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

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

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

Putting the Pieces Together

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

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

Constantly Disappointed?

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

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

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

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

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

Wine-by-the Keg?

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

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

Someone should tell Lettie Teague the good news.

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

The {Wine Economics} Magnification Effect

One of my pet theories about globalization could be called “the magnification effect.” Although global markets change things for sure, often their biggest effect is to magnify or exaggerate existing trends and conditions. A Decanter report from Bordeaux provides a good example of how the Magnification Effect works.

The Law of One Price

Although people talk about “Bordeaux wine,” there has never been a “Bordeaux wine market.” The Law of One Price holds that if there is a single market there will be a single price. But it is the difference in prices that is Bordeaux’s most notable feature. Some wines from the region sell for thousands of dollars, others for a few bucks and some … well they go to the distillery for mere pennies.

This market segmentation occurs in all wine regions, but it is more noticeable in Bordeaux because these wines have always been targeted for export (the globalization element) and so price stratification is more pronounced.

Students of wine history know that Bordeaux is in fact defined by these differences. The Classification of 1855, which established a strict hierarchy of Medoc wine producers that persists to this day, was not based upon sensory evaluation, as you might expect, or critical analysis but simply on market price.

The gold's at the top ...

The Twilight Zone

Over the years, as global markets expanded, the price differentials recognized in 1855 became embedded in the market and magnified. The Decanter article illustrates the current extreme. Announced prices for 2009 are substantially higher for the 400 top-tier Bordeaux wines that are sold en primeur: up an average of 18.6% over the 2005 “vintage of the century” and 48.7% above the recession-plagued 2008 market. Good times for the top names, as Orley Ashenfelter pointed out on two occasions during the recent American Association of Wine Economists meeting at UC Davis.

But there are thousands of wine producers in Bordeaux and times are very hard for many who are not in the top tier. Decanter reports that

…  the official price paid by merchants for a tonneau (900 litres, or the equivalent of 1,200 bottles sold in bulk) of AOC Bordeaux red has dropped to around €600 per barrel – less than the ex-chateau price for a single bottle of any of the top wines.  Most producers report that actual transaction fees are dropping as low as €500 per tonneau. Bernard Fargues, president of Syndicate of Bordeaux (which represents over half of the regions’ 8,000 winemakers, all producing AOC Bordeaux and AOC Bordeaux Superieur) told decanter.com that around 90% of his members were in difficulty, with at least 50% suffering serious financial problems.

If my math is right, some Bordeaux wines have fallen into the Two Buck Chuck danger zone while others have risen to … to what? The Twilight Zone!

This magnification effect has become global, as was readily apparent at a symposium on “Outlook and Issues for the World Wine Market” held in association with the Davis meetings. Speakers emphasized the widening market segmentation. Bulk wines (wines that sell for less than $5 per bottle equivalent and often for much less) have developed a truly global market in part, as several speakers noted, because bulk wine buyers aren’t particularly interested in terroir — they basically don’t care where their wine comes from, only what that it has a familiar taste and doesn’t cost very much.

Somewhere vs. Nowhere at Trader Joe’s

I noticed this on a recent visit to Trader Joe’s where a new line of Two Buck Chuck has appeared — Charles Shaw International wines, sourced from Australia’s surplus wine lake and selling for the same low price as the original product. I don’t imagine that anyone will refuse to buy it because it is “international” rather than from the San Joaquin Valley like the rest of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.

Bulk wine prices are deeply depressed because of this mass global market, squeezing out inefficient producers (or those who don’t benefit from government subsidies of one sort or another). Profits per acre in the San Joaquin Valley (where most of California’s bulk winegrapes are grown) is down to $200 acre — an amount so low that growers are switching to other crops such as walnuts and almonds where the global competition situation is more favorable. One grower who attended the symposium talked of leaving fruit on the vine for the first time in 25 years.

If the market for bulk wines is global, I guess you could say that the premium wine market is “international.” Buyers do care about where these wines come from and so global sourcing is not an option. This exposes producers to a different set of risks and rewards. Australian winemakers, for example, find themselves victim of the strong Australian dollar. China’s huge needs for Australian minerals has driven the currency up and helped price Australian premium wines out of their traditional market niches.

The Law of Yuan Price

(The exchange rate obviously affects the bulk wine market, too, and is one factor in Australia’s excess capacity in that market segment. The exchange rate depresses price both directly, by raising export costs, and indirectly as unsold premium wines are diverted to low-price bulk wine markets.)

Wines at the very top of the pyramid also face challenges, but they are different from those of bulk wine and premium wine. Globalization is a positive benefit to top-flight Bordeaux, for example, because it means that Hong Kong and Chinese buyers can be found to replace (or apparently more than replace) declining buyer interest elsewhere.

Decanter recently published their first Chinese language Bordeaux report — a clear indication of the expanding global market and a suggestion that the Magnification Effect has not yet reached its peak.

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.

Malbec Boom … and Bust?

Malbec is hot and Argentinian producers are harvesting the benefits of a boom market. The Nielsen Scantrack multi-vector retail sales data reported in the April issue of Wine Business Monthly tell the story.

Total U.S. table market sales up 3.0 percent in dollar value over the last 12 months and up 3.5 percent in the quarter.

Argentinian wine sales (mainly but not entirely Malbec) are up 41.4 percent for the year and 36.6 percent in the last quarter.  That’s a rate of growth unmatched in the current wine league table —  much higher than other New World producers like Chile (5.2 percent growth for the year), South Africa and Australia (falling dollar volume sales).

Only New Zealand is remotely in the same sales growth ballpark with an 18 percent increase in the last quarter.

That’s Why They Call It the Dismal Science

Only an economist would look at this picture and wonder if Argentina’s Malbec boom might foreshadow a coming Malbec bust. Sorry to be so gloomly … can’t help it. That’s why they call it the dismal science. When economists see silver linings they start looking around for the dark clouds that come with them.

Personally, I hope the boom continues for a while at least. It has to come to an end some day, of course, since 30+ annual percent growth quickly compounds its way to All The Wine in the World.  Only someone named Ponzi could sell that vision of Argentina’s future.

The idea that bust follows boom isn’t just my dismal side talking, it is a persistent feature of agricultural markets. High prices are great, but when everyone expands production the result is a collapse. Low prices convince producers to invest elsewhere, so supply fails to keep up with demand the prices rise again. Rinse and repeat.

World Wine Wheel

I learned about this cycle back in Econ 101 in the form of the cobweb model of market dynamics. The Turrentine Wine Business Wheel of Fortune (click here for the pdf version) applies this idea to the U.S. wine market in particular.

The 2007 version of the wheel shown above predicted that the U.S. wine industry would be deep into the Emerging Shortage zone in 2010. This obviously didn’t take into account the Great Recession, which has created substantial surpluses of wine today, but I think the general logic still holds.

Data suggests that vineyard plantings are down (at least one major grape vine nursery has shut its doors).  My sense is that wine producers have scaled back supply to the level of current demand and that the persistent overall market surplus is mainly the overhang from previous years. Once that is dealt with (easier said than done!) and demand begins to come back, that “emerging shortage” situation could come to pass.

Having a Good Crisis

Meanwhile, Argentina is having a good crisis, at least in terms of wine, as their good value Malbecs have benefited from consumer trends to trade down and trade over.  WineSur (a great source for Argentinian wine news) reports new vineyard plantings and winery expansions, calling it “a risky supply and demand game.” Risky and high stakes.

The Catena Family group exported 12 million liters of wine in 2009, according to the article, but has expanded its capacity so that it can produce 19 million liters this year to sell in 2012.  “We are running a risk and investing according to our estimates,” chief winemakers Alejandro Vigil reports, “We also continuing buying vineyards … This year we’re planning to implant around 200 hectares … 75% of which will be implanted with Malbec.”

You’ve got to think five or six years ahead in Argentina’s dynamic Malbec market. New vineyards today, more grapes in three years or so when the vines have matured, market-ready wine a couple of years after that. I wonder what the wine market will look like then? No wonder they say that the only person crazier than a winery owner is his banker! Easy to get caught leaning the wrong way under these circumstances.

Will Argentina’s Malbec boom lead to bust? Possibly, but there is reason to think it might not. Nicolás Catena, head of one of the largest firms, is a recovering economics professor (he taught at UC/Berkeley at one point). He  came back to wine and Argentina at his family’s request.  If, as I think, skepticism is hardwired into the economist’s brain, then perhaps Catena’s big investment in the future is more cautious than it seems and will pay off handsomely.

Conventional Wisdom versus Mark Twain

The decision to expand output and exports forces a second risky choice: focus (on Malbec) or diversify? It is conventional wisdom not to put all your eggs in one basket. But Mark Twain once advised the opposite:  Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket!

A new article on WineSur addresses this question and the majority viewpoint seems to be with Mr. Twain but this is perhaps understandable since it is Malbec that has put Argentina on the world wine map. Malbec has established Argentina’s identity and reputation and winemakers are understandably reluctant to bet against their own success.

But it must be said that rapid export expansion focused on a single varietal does magnify the risks. I would advise Argentinian wine industry leaders to watch that basket very carefully — invest in their markets so that Malbec becomes a durable phenomenon with good length and not a short sharp boom/bust fad.

Oregon Pinot Noir: Peaks & Valleys

A quick getaway to Portland provokes a post about Oregon wine’s highs and lows.

Cheers for All the [Peak] Years

I was browsing through the wine books at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore, when I came across a used copy of  Vintage Timelines, a 1989 book by Jancis Robinson. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

It’s a great book for wine lovers (despite its 1989 date) and valuable to me because of the particular wines Jancis selected for the study.  No New Zealand or South African wines, for example. The recent history of their great wines was too brief in 1989 to permit long-term analysis.  Just five Australian wines made the cut (led by Penfolds Grange Hermitage, of course).  Seven California wines are listed and just one from the rest of the U.S. — David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve, the wine that put Oregon on the world wine map.

JR's Vintage Timeline for the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve

There is an inscription in the book. “To Nick — Cheers for all the years — past & future. Dave Lett, Christmas 1989.”  Needless to say, I bought the book as both a research tool and a personal souvenir. It’s a good reminder of Oregon Pinot Noir’s humble origins and the high peaks it has climbed. Oregon’s wine industry is just a little over 40 years old, yet is is often  mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy because of the quality of its best Pinot Noir wines, like David Lett’s Eyrie Reserve.

Whole Foods Letdown

So I was feeling pretty good about the Oregon wine industry when I stopped off at Whole Foods, about a block away, to survey their selection of Oregon wines.  As I entered the store, however, I ran smack into a display of Oregon Pinot Noir priced at … wait for it … $9.99.  That’s about ten dollars less than the usual price for an entry level Oregon Pinot. The wine was produced by Underwood Cellars, a second label of Union Wine Company, which also makes King’s Ridge. The fruit was sourced mainly from Southern Oregon — the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys — not the Willamette Valley where Eyrie and most of the other famous Oregon Pinots are made.  The bargain price was a real shocker.

Oregon is a high cost wine production area. Even higher than  Burgundy, I think, because many of the vineyards there  have been in family hands for years and land costs are often not explicitly considered in calculating cost (an economic mistake, of course, as any Econ 101 student will tell you). That’s not the case is Oregon, where it is hard to ignore the cost of capital.

A study using 1999 data put the average cost of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $12.79 per bottle (see Oregon Viticulture edited by Edward H. Hellman for the details) and more recent proprietary data I have seen puts cost in the same range or higher. $9.99 might or might not be a sustainable price for a wine made from Umpqua Valley fruit, but  it certainly isn’t a  sustainable price point for Willamette Valley wine.  If the price of entry level Willamette Valley Pinot  were to reset from $20-$30 down to $10-$15 … well I think the Willamette River would bleed red ink. Click here to read a recent article from Wines & Vines about the Oregon situation.

Boom and Bust

The quality of Oregon Pinot Noir is higher than ever, I believe, but the industry’s economic health may be falling. Oregon (and New Zealand) rode the Sideways Pinot boom for several years, expanding vineyard plantings repeatedly because it seemed like the demand for this wine would never be satisfied.

Now the recession is here, Malbec is  hot, the new Pinot vineyards in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere are all coming into production at the same time and prices are tumbling. Bargain Pinot Noir is a fact of life for now. It will be interesting to see where the market resets when supply and demand eventually find their new balance.

In the meantime, I guess there’s only one thing to do. Drink more Pinot Noir!

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!

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