An Economic Theory of Thanksgiving Wine

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and many of us will gather with family and friends for the holiday feast. If you have been invited to share Thanksgiving with others (and if you are interested enough in wine to be reading this column), then you must confront a perennial problem: what wine should  you bring?

Deadweight Loss?

Why is the choice of a gift wine an economic problem? Well, it isn’t much of a problem if you plan to drink it all yourself. Then you should just buy what you like — but don’t expect to be invited back next year!

Since the point will be to share the wine with other guests, the choice is more difficult because just as you can’t be sure exactly what dishes will be served, you cannot be certain what wines the other guests will like the best.

There is a pretty good chance that you will experience what economists call a “deadweight loss” which is more or less where the benefit that the guests derive from your wine is less than what they’d have gained from a simple cash transfer.   The story (which is possibly true) is told about the time Malcolm Forbes threw himself an extravagant birthday party where the guests were served some of the rarest, most expensive wines on the planet. Forbes went from guest to guest pouring the evening’s show-stopper wine. Finally he came to Warren Buffet. Wine? said Forbes with a smile. No thanks, Buffet replied. I’ll take the cash!

Warren Buffet understood the concept of deadweight loss and wanted nothing to do with it!

The Problem of Other People’s Money

The problem is asymmetric information. You know your own preferences and budget situation pretty well and so you have a fairly good idea of what you are giving up when you buy an expensive bottle of wine as a gift. But you don’t know the preferences of the other guests very well or whether they would prefer your wine or a simple cash payment to be spent on something else. You can’t be sure that their gain is greater than  your loss.

This leads (I hope you are following along) to the conclusion that you are most efficient when you spend your own money on yourself because you can fairly well calculate both the gain and the opportunity cost. You are less efficient (in terms of deadweight loss) when spend your money on others. You are even less efficient when you spend other people’s money on yourself. And you are hopelessly inefficient when you spend others people’s money on other people. What do you think?

So it would seem like the most efficient thing to do would be to decline that dinner invitation and stay home with your wine. How sad! No wonder economics is called the “dismal science.”

It’s Not About the Wine

But here’s the notion that saves the day. Thanksgiving is not really about the wine (or the turkey or the green bean casserole), it is about the sharing. Thanksgiving is more public or communal good than private good. And so, if you do it well, the particular elements of Thanksgiving including the wine will play a secondary role to the general warmth of the shared experience.

I used to get frustrated when wine wasn’t the centerpiece of gatherings, some of which were actually organized to celebrate the wine. But then I got over it. Wine is doing its job when it makes everything else better. Don’t you agree?

This fact changes a bit how you might approach your choice of a Thanksgiving wine to share. Cost is nearly irrelevant. Picking a wine that draws undue attention to you (and  your fine taste or great wealth) almost defeats the purpose.  A modest wine that makes everyone smile — maybe something with bubbles? — will serve very well. And then you can concentrate on what Thanksgiving is really about.

That said, no one will complain if you bring a nice Port, Madeira, or Sauternes to savor at the end of the meal.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the wine and the feast and most of all each other!

Three Things I Learned About Wine Marketing from Kevin Zraly

Eric Asimov‘s recent “The Pour” New York Times column on Kevin Zraly and his career in wine is titled “The Accidental Wine Educator” and it is required reading for anyone interested in making or selling(or drinking”  wine. It is a fine tribute to Zraly, an iconic figure who has done (and is still doing) so much to shape the American wine market.

Zraly is forever linked to Windows on the World, the fantastic restaurant at the top of New York’s World Trade Center back in the days before 9/11. His work there produced the Windows on the World Wine School, and a popular and influential book, The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.

My first experience of the Zraly magic happened many years ago. Sue and I had the pleasure to dine at Windows on the World just once — in the company of her parents, Mike and Gert. I can remember everything about the view (the Statue of Liberty seemed like a bright little jewel down in harbor far below us) and the company, but alas nothing in particular about the food. I’m pretty sure that the wine we drank was a modest cru Beaujolais — a choice that Zraly (who probably put the wine on the list) would approve because of its ability to pair with many meal choices.

I finally met Zraly and experienced his magic in person in 2015 when I spoke at an Italian wine conference in New York City. The weather outside was terrible — one of those frigid winter blasts — so we were all holed-up in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel — we pretended it was a cruise ship filled with Italian food and wine — best voyage ever!

Zraly was there to give a seminar on Italian sparkling wines and it was the hottest ticket on the program. A big crowd struggled to fit into the room and when I looked around the audience was a who’s who of wine. No one — me least of all! — wanted to miss whatever Kevin Zraly had to share with us.

But Zraly fooled us. He looked out at his audience and decided to “flip” the classroom, deftly orchestrating and organizing a terrific seminar where the audience took the stage, with Zraly as the wise stage manager and conductor. There was a ton of wine IQ in that room, but I think everyone came out knowing more than when they went in. And it was Zraly what did it. Amazing.

Asimov’s NYT column gave me a chance to remember and appreciate those moments and it also made me think about the secrets of Zraly’s success and how those secrets need to be constantly remembered and refreshed. Here are three things Zraly taught me.

Wine Won’t Sell Itself

I suspect that most people who came to the Windows on the World restaurant were interested in having a bottle or glass of wine with their meal. It was part of the experience. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t need help. Zraly realized that the success of his wine program depended on his staff, their knowledge of wine in general and the restaurant’s wine list in particular, and their ability to answer questions and guide diners towards that three-star wine experience they were seeking.

And so he became a wine educator offering classes first to his own staff and then, eventually, to the public through the Windows on the World Wine School. Zraly’s evolution from wine expert to wine educator in order to sell wine reminds me of someone I met at the Walla Walla Saturday Market a few years ago. He was selling organic meat (goat and chicken, as I recall).  “I’m a redneck educator,” he said by way of introduction. His products sold for premium prices and he understood that consumers wouldn’t pay those prices unless they understood the benefits of his free-range organic goods. So he had to educate them before he could make the sale.

No one has to buy a particular wine or wine at all, but the more they understand about wine the more likely they are to be drawn into the world of wine. Zraly has probably helped sell millions of cases of wine over the years through his work as a strictly-not-redneck wine educator.

See Wine Through the Consumer’s Eyes

If you want to get a sense of Zraly’s wine class, simply pick up a copy of his best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. The book is based on the course and you can sometimes hear Kevin’s voice as you read it.

A lot of wine books are organized around geography: old world regions, new world regions, with sections on wine grape varieties and other topics. But people aren’t thinking about the world atlas when they sit down in a restaurant to order, so if you want to reach them you need to start from a different place.

Zraly’s book is organized around a restaurant wine list. Red wines, white wines, sparkling, Rosé, and so on. The goal isn’t to make the reader a wine expert, it is to make them comfortable choosing a wine from a wine list and knowledgeable enough to make pleasing choices.  Indeed, as Zraly reveals in the Asimov article, some of his first students signed up because they were intimidated by the wine list or were afraid to make poor choices.

This is a great example of meeting customers where they are, not where you might want them to be. If the problem is dealing with the wine list, then make the wine is list the focus of the effort. You don’t have to have advanced WSET credentials to enjoy wine with dinner (at least I hope not).

When Consumers Move, Follow Them

When the covid pandemic hit many wineries had to shut down their tasting rooms and find other ways to connect with customers. Some had more success than others and it will be interesting to see which of these practices and strategies endure as the world of in-person experiences re-opens.

Zraly has followed his customers, too, and in the process has entered a global arena. When wine consumers moved on-line during the pandemic — to Zoom meet-ups and web-retailers —  Zraly shifted gears to form a partnership with Wine.com for a series of one-hour classes that have run through the fall (the final class in December is on Pinot Noir).  Tuition for the Pinot class is $100 and the wines, purchased through Wine.com, are about $300 more. Not inexpensive, but not too costly, either, given the quality of the wines and the rare opportunity to have a Kevin Zraly experience, albeit virtually. I hope Zraly and Wine.com continue their partnership in the future.

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A thousand thanks to Kevin Zraly for all he has taught us about wine and how to sell it. And thanks, too, to Eric Asimov for his NYT profile of this great wine educator.

Prosecco Market Competition Bubbles Up

The Prosecco market here in the United States continues to evolve rapidly.  Prosecco has surged in only a few years from a little-known type of Italian sparkling wine to the phenomenon we see today. Amazing!

Once upon a time what Prosecco that you might find on store shelves was pretty basic stuff — or it seemed that way at the time. I remember recommending Prosecco to my university students for their commencement celebrations — they’re all good, I’d tell them, you don’t have to spend more than you can afford.

They are all pretty much still good, but Prosecco is more nuanced now and I encourage friends to explore the Prosecco Pyramid, starting with DOC wines at the base, moving up to DOCG and the Rive wines, and topping out with wines from the magic mountain of  Cartizze. The amazing thing is that top-tier Prosecco often costs less than baseline Champagne — something that students (and many others) can appreciate.

This year has seen the birth of Rosé Prosecco DOC — a pink blend of Glera and Pinot Nero grapes — which adds another facet of Prosecco to think about and enjoy. Recently we’ve received three sample shipments that show how the market for Italian sparklers is evolving. Here is my report.

The Prosecco Battlefield Expands

Chances are that there are many different Prosecco brands available on the shelves of your local wine shop or upscale supermarket, but odds are very good that you will find La Marca and Mionetto. They are top sellers in part because consumer enjoy the wines, but also because they are easy to find.

La Marca is an interesting case because its great success is powered by production scale and distribution muscle. We drove by the big La Marca factory a few years ago when I was giving some lectures at the famous Conegliano wine school and were suitably impressed.

La Marca is a second-level cooperative, we were told — a cooperative of cooperatives. I could be wrong but think that the smaller cooperatives make and supply the base wines, which then undergo secondary fermentation in La Marca’s big autoclaves.  The result is the popular sparkling wine in the familiar bottle with the sky-blue label.

You see La Marca everywhere here in the US because it has a distribution partnership with Gallo, the world’s largest wine producer. How do I know this? Well, Gallo is so big that it has its own UPC “zip code.” Look at the UPC on the back of a bottle of La Marca and you’ll see that it begins with 85000. That’s Gallo-ville’s neighborhood. Any wine with that kind of UPC is either made by or distributed by Gallo.

La Marca and Gallo are a tough competitors, so I am interested to see how a new contestant fares in the Prosecco battleground: Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC. The wines are the result of a partnership between winemaker Alessandro Furlan and U.S. wine firm Regal Wine Imports. Priced at $11.99 for both the Ca’ Furlan DOC Extra Dry Cuvée Beatrice and the Ca’ Furlan Prosecco DOC Rosê Cuvée Mariana, the wines are intended to compete head-to-head with La Marca, Mionetto,  and other market leaders. Plans are to import about 70,000 cases of the Prosecco and 7500 cases of the Prosecco Rosé.

We were impressed by the Cuvée Beatrice when we paired it with duck rice for dinner recently. Sue especially enjoyed the peach notes that emerged as the wine warmed up a little. Is there room in the mainstream market for another attractive Prosecco brand? Well, the market is growing so  I’d say there is still time to join the party. But it is a very competitive environment — wines need to have quality, value, and strong distribution to succeed.

Celebrity Prosecco (and the No Carb Option)

Celebrity wine is a thing (a big thing, actually), so it is no surprise to discover the wine shown at the top of this column, Bellissima Prosecco DOC Brut, the new Christie Brinkley project.

The celebrity connection is modest on the bottle label (“Con Amore, Christie Brinkley”) but it is unavoidable elsewhere. “Bellissima by Christie Brinkley” proclaims the QVC.com  offer, “sip and savor these pours from the celebrated model, actress, & entrepreneur.”

Shopping channels like QVC have become big time wine outlets. A search for “wine” on the QVC website brings up celebrity offerings from Christie Brinkley and Martha Stewart, a couple of Food Network celebrity chefs, and a variety of Vintage Wine Estates packages including some from Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary a.k.a. Mister Wonderful.

I try to have an open mind about celebrity wines. Sometimes the link to a famous person is more than just vino-exploitation. When NFL great Drew Bledsoe started his eponymous winery in Walla Walla, for example, it seemed to be a sincere effort to connect with the town where he grew up and much of the wine community rallied around him and his project. The wines were really good right from the start and Bledsoe has made good on his commitment to help the region grow.

So sometimes the stars align such that a celebrity wine makes good and makes sense. But this doesn’t happen all the time, so there is always a nagging suspicion that, as Kevin O’Leary might say, it’s really all about cashing in for the m-o-n-e-y.

The Bellissima line-up includes Prosecco DOC Brut and Prosecco Rosé DOC, both made with organic grapes, and white and pink “zero sugar” sparkling wines, the white made with organic Glera grapes and the pink with Pinot Grigio grapes. Organic, vegan, zero-sugar, zero-carbs, celebrity endorsement — lots of boxed ticked here and online comments suggest that some diabetic drinkers are happy to find a wine with the carb numbers they are looking for.

That got me thinking — how does a zero (less than 0.5 g/l residual sugar) wine compare with Prosecco? A typical Prosecco Extra Dry product has about 12-15 grams per liter residual sugar which translates into less than  2 grams per glass. The Bellissima Brut has 6-7 g/l or less that 1 gram of residual sugar per glass, which means a lot fewer carbs than a glass of fruit juice, for example, and only a little more than the zero-sugar products. All the Bellissima wines come in at 11.5% abv.

Our tasting team did a comparison tasting of the Brut and Zero-Sugar sparkling white and we found both very drinkable. The Prosecco Brut was softer with more fruit, the Zero-Sugar was happiest paired with a charcuterie plate Sue prepared. Both seemed like they could stand on their own in the market even without a celebrity or wellness connection. Although I guess it defeats the idea of zero-sugar, I think I might like the zero-sugar wine best in a Bellini cocktail.

Italy Beyond Prosecco

If you are a fan of Formula One auto racing you will have seen that the victory celebrations now feature drivers slurping from huge bottles labeled “Ferrari.” You might assume that this is wine from the famous Ferrari racing team, but you would be wrong. Ferrari Trento is an important producer of sparkling wines in the Italian north-east and this is a reminder that there is much more to Italian sparkling wines than Prosecco.

While Prosecco is made from Glera  grapes using the method of secondary fermentation in autoclaves, Trento DOC wines and Franciacorta feature familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) grapes and classic secondary fermentation in the bottle.

We recently sampled Cantine Monfort Cuvée ’85 Trento DOC Brut, for example. A blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Nero secondary fermentation using the classic method, it is a different animal from Prosecco and a reminder that Italy’s treasure house of wine includes a wealth of sparklers worth exploring.

Gosh, this is a delicious wine. Makes me realize I need to pay more attention in the Trento DOC wines and the other great sparkling wines Italy has to offer.

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Here is an Entertainment Tonight segment about Christie Brinkley’s Prosecco. BTW I know many readers will associate Brinkley with swimsuits, so I wonder if you think the wine label, which refers to Botticelli’s famous painting of Venus, is somehow swimsuit-inspired? What do you think?

Wine Book Review: Ch’ Ch’ Changing California

On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State edited by Susan Keevil. Académie du Vin Library, 2021.

Steven Spurrier, through both word and action, has left a remarkable enduring legacy to the world of wine, including the wine book publisher Académie du Vin Library. The Library’s very ambitious wine book list collects both classic works and new contributions (including Spurrier’s own A Life in Wine) that break from the typical “Wines of ____” (fill in the country or region) mold to address a variety of topics from many personal and professional perspective.

From Bordeaux to California

On Bordeaux, a collection of essays about that famous wine region, appeared last year. Given Spurrier’s central role in the famous 1976 France vs California “Judgement of Paris” tasting, On California seems like a natural next step, officially released last week and available directly from the publisher  and via the usual sources including Amazon.com.

Much like the Library itself, On California collects classic and new perspectives on the Golden State’s wine industry. Unevenness is the typical fault of edited volumes like this one, but I have to say that the 39 essays and excerpts by 35 different authors hang together very well and make informative and enjoyable reading.

Perhaps that’s because of the strong thematic thread that runs through the volume: change. And change is everywhere here. The wine, the industry, the climate, even the history, which although quite short is now long enough that a certain amount of revision is needed. What fun to read excerpts from early essays by the likes of Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher,  and Harry Waugh alongside some of the pioneers and shapers including Warren Winniarski, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm. Mix in Elin McCoy, Elaine-Chukan Brown, and many others and you have a complex, balanced blend indeed.

Change and resilience — two key California characteristics — are everywhere in this book, but perhaps especially in a series of chapters that trace the challenges that California wine has faced over the years. Hugh Johnson writes about Prohibition years, Jon Bonné examines the New California that emerged from the ashes, Norm Roby charts the return of Phylloxera, Elaine Chukan Brown addresses drought, wild fire, and environmental change, and finally Clare Tooley MW tackles the threat to California wines form the rising  marijuana industry. Fascinating reading.

Here Comes The Judge  (ment)

If you connect the dots of California + Steven Spurrier + Change you inevitably arrive at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and so it is inevitable that the famous tasting appears here with both an excerpt from George Taber’s excellent book on the subject the commentary from Spurrier and others who had a hand in the wines and the event itself.

The Judgement of Paris, where wines from California were rated higher than some famous French wines by a panel of French judges, did it change everything? No, but it changed quite a lot. It certainly made French producers question their hegemony. I have argued that maybe the biggest impact was in the way it changed Americans’ attitudes about their own wines.  Suddenly there was respect after the long dark decades that followed Prohibition. The wine boom that was launched continues today.

It is interesting to speculate what California wine would look like today if France had won the 1976 competition.  I ask this question with a sense of irony because, depending upon how to look at it, the French really did win (or at least didn’t lose)! Talk about revisionist history!

Here are the average scores (out of 20 points) for the red wines. The winner was Stag’s Leap by a nose.  Stag’s Leap won if we add up and average the points, but did California win?

14.14 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
14.09 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
13.64 Chateau Montrose 1970
13.23 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970
12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
11.18 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
10.36 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
10.14 Clos Du Val Winery 1972
9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969

If we judge the Judgement as a team sport and not an individual competition, the conclusion changes a bit. The four French wines scored 2, 3, 4, and 6 while the California wines ranked 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Even if you throw out the two lowest-ranked California wines to make the team’s equal in size, the result seems clear: Team France gets the gold.

The points table was a little different with the white wines. Although a California wine topped the list, I think you’d have to say the team competition was pretty much a dead heat. Still an impressive showing for California.

The situation gets even more interesting, as several studies have shown, if you dig down into the judges’ individual rankings, which varied enormously from one to another in their relative scores.  The final result could have been much different, too,  if the scores were treated as ordinal rankings rather than cardinal measures that can be summed up and averaged.

Does this finding matter? No. Not now. And probably not in 1976, either. The idea that California and France could be put on the same table was radical then, so the fact of Spurrier’s tasting was enough to raise eyebrows. The discovery that some of the French tasters could not tell which was which was quite a shock. That would have been enough to jump-start the changes that were already on the way.

Thanks to Académie du Vin Library and the many authors for their hard work and insights. Change is still in the air in California and On California connects the past and present with the emerging future. Well done!

Wine and the Trouble with Halloween

Everyone knows that wine consumption is at least in part occasion-driven. Although some of my friends insist that they don’t really need a reason to pop a cork, for many consumers the act of drinking is closely tied to occasions of one sort or another.

Thus, for example, wine sales here in the US typically peak during November and December when a series of holiday occasions roll by starting with Thanksgiving and ending around New Year. Wine sales and festive occasions are a perfect pairing.

The Trouble with Halloween? 

But what about Halloween? The spooky holiday that we celebrate on October 31 is a favorite festive occasion for lots of people who decorate, dress-up, and generally go a bit wild. Over on the food side of the aisle, Halloween is really embraced with lots of special products and offerings. Take a look at the listings for the Food Network this week and you will see many variations on the Halloween theme.

It would be great if wine could jump on the Halloween bandwagon somehow. It has been done, of course. I vaguely remember Dracula-themed Romanian wines showing up on some grocery shelves this time of the year, but not a lot more. And then there is Hallowine, a spiced sweet apple wine from Wisconsin that I found on the internet. That’s the spirit! But you have to admit that Halloween is for the most part a missed opportunity for wine.

The trouble with Halloween is what to drink with it — and what sort of hook would draw consumers into enjoying wine as part of this unique occasion? I really haven’t thought of this before now and I admit that my first thought was Aperol Spritz. The color is seasonally festive and a bit of bitterness is very nice. Yes, I think an Aperol Spritz would work for adult Trick or Treat.

Halloween Haunts the Beer Aisle

I may not be giving the potential Halloween market much thought, but it is clear that some others are thinking hard about it. We recently received samples of two fruit-flavored Hefeweizen beers from German producer Schõfferhofer, for example (a Passion Fruit version is also available). The Pomegranate beer is blood red and the Grapefruit beer — a 50-50 blend of fruit juice and hefeweizen — is pumpkin orange — or at least that’s how I would describe them at Halloween. The sweet/tart fruity flavors are strong and I admit reminded me a bit of the puckery trick or treat candies (think Starburst or Twizzlers) that we also received.

A beer to sip while you munch through the inevitable surplus of trick-or-treat candy left-over after the kids have gone home? Interesting idea — and good response to an under-served occasion. I wonder what would happen if you mixed the two beers together in a sort of witches brew? I’ll bet the color would be great — a little like an Aperol Spritz!

So how was the beer? Well, it certainly delivered on the sweet/tart promise. I liked the Grapefruit better than the Pomegranate. Sue wasn’t keen on either one — not really a fruit drink and not really beer, she said. Kinda a Franken-brew, I guess. But fun for Halloween and food for thought when it comes to addressing this under-served occasion.

The Devil Made Me Do It

Concha y Toro, the important Chilean wine producer, has also taken aim at the Halloween market this year with promotions for its popular Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere.  Google translates Casillero del Diablo as “Devil’s Locker,” but I prefer Devil’s Den because it has a nice haunted house feeling to it.

The wines are good and, at about $12 per bottle, have a price point that drives a stake through the heart of the market (I’m trying to get into the Halloween spirit here). The popular Chilean-born actor Pedro Pascal stars in a commercial you might have seen for the wines that features a suitably devilish twist. I admit that I don’t really understand the video, but it is hard not to like the wines and to enjoy their warmth during the Halloween season.

But What Really Scares Me …

I appreciate the creative leveraging of the Devil’s Den theme, but I think Concha y Toro can tell an even scarier story for Halloween. Ghosts and goblins are frightening, for sure, but do you know what scares me even more? Climate change!  And that’s where CyT is a sort of wine industry ghost-buster.

Concha y Toro recently became the wine world’s largest Certified B Corp, an indication of its commitment to a set of values and practices that embraces the environmental cause. Each of CyT’s operations in Chile, Argentina, and the U.S. is now a Certified B Corp. Outstanding.

Fetzer Vineyards, the California producer that is an important part of the CyT family, was recently re-certified with an even higher score, making it one of the highest-rated Certified B Corps of its size. A very high score for environmental efforts is noteworthy.

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So can we make Halloween into a wine occasion on the scale of Thanksgiving and New Year? Maybe not, but I think there is a creative challenge here to find ways to bring wine more directly into the spooky picture. Trick or treat?

Wine, Stagflation, and the Risks of the Bottleneck Economy

The New York Times headline warned of fears of a bottleneck recession in Germany. Other headlines in  the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and elsewhere noted the impacts of production and distribution bottlenecks on specific industries.

Although the parallel is flawed, it is impossible for those of  us of a certain age not to think back to the 1970s when shortages and bottlenecks created the unwelcome phenomenon of “stagflation” — a stagnant but inflationary economy.

Last  week I wrote about the many bottlenecks inside the wine sector that make this a particularly interesting and difficult business. Today’s column steps back a few paces to look at the bottleneck economy itself and how its outside force impacts wine.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

The most obvious effect of bottlenecks is scarcity and higher cost.  As I noted last week, ocean shipping bottlenecks both push up the cost of container shipments and result in shortages of the relevant products. Some shortages are transitory — the goods are delayed but they still eventually arrive — but other times the rising shipping cost makes delivery of the products uneconomic.

Long lines at petrol stations were a bottleneck result in the UK recently. The problem was a shortage of tanker truck drivers. There was enough gas I understand it, but too few drivers to get it where it needed to be. As soon as consumers caught a whiff of a theoretical shortage, of course, they all rushed to fill up their tanks at once, creating an actual shortage. The government has plans to mobilize some army drivers to help deal with the situation if it persists.

Boris Johnson’s administration advises that rumors that Christmas will not arrive this year due to a general shortage of lorry drivers are exaggerated. Good to know.

Domino Effects

Bottlenecks in one sector often spread to related markets like a row of dominos falling one by one. A noteworthy case of this has happened in the UK, for example. Unseasonably slack off-shore winds this summer resulted in lower than expected electricity production from wind turbines, which shifted demand to generation plants fired by natural gas. This pushed the spot price of gas to very high levels, making the production of fertilizer suddenly uneconomic and forcing some fertilizer plants to shut down. Wind-gas-fertilizer. Got that?

Carbon dioxide is a by-product of the production of fertilizer from natural gas, so CO2 supplies fell. CO2, in turn, is important in the food industry and in wine production, too, so shortages and disruptions appear there. Thus did calm winds plus natural gas bottlenecks cause British food security to diminish.

Changing Commodity Composition

Have you been out shopping for a new or used car recently? Cars today are really computers that happen to have wheels and can haul people and their stuff. The current very serious shortage of microchips is therefore a limiting factor on the production of both autos and all other the equipment and gadgets where computer chips are needed.

Shakespeare warned that for want of a nail a kingdom was lost. If he were writing today, he might pivot to microchips and car sales. With new cars in short supply, the prices of used cars have sky-rocketed.

One side-effect of such bottlenecks is a change in the commodity composition of production. If you don’t have enough chips to produce all the cars you’d like, how do you handle it? It make sense to reduce production of low profit vehicles and reserve the chips for high profit sales, which means pickup trucks and some SUVs in the US.

Another strategy is to reserve production for key customers where there is a long term commitment and cut back on other sales. In short, the bottlenecks affect what is produced, how much, who gets it, and at what price.

The Price Also Rises

Inflation is always a concern in the bottleneck economy and you can sense how nervous economic leaders around the world are as they sort through different measures of inflation and ponder whether specific price spikes will moderate as time passes or form a critical inflationary mass that, by altering expectations, becomes self-sustaining. If economic policy-makers react to inflation fears by jamming on the brakes, stagflation could result. That’s what happened 40 years ago and there is concern that history could repeat.

Should the short-term inflation burst endure, we would normally expect higher interest rates and changing foreign exchange rates to follow. Interest rates might rise as central banks act to push prices back down, but it seems more likely to me that the market will first push interest rates higher and then central banks will follow along. Just a guess.

A combination of higher interest rates (which tend to increase currency value) and higher inflation rates (which push in the opposite direction) make forecasting exchange rate movements even more problematic than usual.  The US dollar’s value has risen recently, for example, as higher interest returns seem to have overcome concerns about higher inflation. Stay tuned.

Just in Time vs Just in Case

How should wine producers react to all this news? Many will simply tune it out but, as I like to say, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Ignore the shifting economic sands at your own risk.

One bit of practical advice is obvious: give serious thought to how exposed your business is to the various direct and indirect bottlenecks in your sector and take appropriate action. At the very least, starting moving from just in time to just in case sourcing if you can.

Beyond that, it would be a good idea to do a quick bottleneck risk audit. How much are you exposed to potential problems? And what about your customers and suppliers? One lesson this situation teaches us is that risk anywhere in the product chain is a potential problem everywhere in the product chain.

What about the big macro risk of stagflation? I don’t see things getting that bad yet, but stagflation puts economic policymakers in a bind and none of them really has a lot of room to maneuver right now. That’s why everyone is so jumpy about the inflation threat and why the recent IMF warnings are taken seriously. As Bette Davis said, fasten your seatbelts.

Wine Business Bottlenecks

Everyone in the wine business knows about the problem of bottlenecks — and I am not just talking about the kind you see in this photo. Bottlenecks or choke-points are found throughout the wine product chain and any one of them can make life difficult.

Wine’s Many Bottlenecks

Growing grapes can sometimes be a bottleneck since winegrowers get just one crop a year (apart from tropical viticulture, where multiple harvests are possible), so bad weather, smoke exposure, or labor supply problems can really mess things up. Wine production has its bottlenecks, too. Tank capacity is limited in the short run, for example, and after a couple of abundant harvests in a row there can be problems making new wine because there’s no place to put it.

Distribution is another bottleneck of the classic kind you see on the highway. Thousands of wine producers channel their products through a much smaller number of distributors — it’s like losing three lanes on a busy freeway! In my experience every industry tends to organize itself around its most severe bottleneck or inefficiency and here in the US distribution and the three tier system shapes much of the rest of the industry to a certain extent.

Logistical Bottlenecks

These days we are all coping with logistical bottlenecks. The old “just in time” system with hyper-efficient logistics has yielded to a “just in case” system, where we stock up on vital commodities when we can get them because bottleneck delays are so common. It is like the toilet paper situation at Costco on steroids.

I know a couple of wine importers, for example, that received the last of their French Rosé wines only in the last few weeks, just as the summer pink wine season was drawing to a close. The wines were caught in the international shipping bottleneck — not enough containers or port capacity to get product to market as per plan, plus of course higher cost. You know the story. Reports suggest that the ocean shipping problems that are in the news every day will not be resolved soon.

On a  trivial personal level, we waited an extra four days for a wine shipment from California that was stuck in the dreaded “Troutdale Triangle” near Portland. Don’t know if the bottleneck was driver availability, trailer space limits, or processing capacity. Maybe all three! At least the wine arrived in good shape. I suspect you have a similar story to tell and perhaps without the happy ending.

Rising Transportation Costs

The cost of shipping a container, when you can book space on a ship, has sky-rocketed. The Drewry World Container Index average cost has increased from less than $2000 per standard container in 2019 to more than $10,000 this summer! The actual cost depends on timing and the specific route desired — it is a supply and demand thing.

The rising ocean shipping costs have an uneven impact on product categories depending on the value of the goods involved. The higher rates have a relatively small impact on the final price of high-value goods such as electronics. But bulky, lower-value products can be hit pretty hard and there are stories circulated about items, such as cheap garden furniture from China, where the new shipping rates are higher than the value of the goods themselves.

Higher shipping rates act like a $8000 per container tax on imported wine, with the proportionate burden falling hardest on less-expensive wines. The higher cost combined with less dependable delivery schedules creates real problems for anyone with business interests in imported wine.

In the past such ocean shipping disruptions have been both smaller and relatively brief. The magnitude of this situation is unprecedented, however, and there are indications that higher costs will not as quickly disappear. Ocean shipping is a boom-bust industry. When ocean rates have been high as they are now, shipping companies have invested heavily in extra capacity that, when it came on-line all at once, pushed rates and profits down. The big shipping firms today intend to be conservative in their orders for new ships to prevent a collapse in rates a few years down the road.

The Big Bottleneck

The bottlenecks within the wine industry directly affect the wine trade, but they are not the only impacts to consider. Micro-bottlenecks within industries like wine aggregate into macro-bottleneck problems and risks that affect national and the global economy.

Come back next week for thoughts about how this big bottleneck issue might affect the economy overall and the implications for wine.

Politics and Wine Trade: Wine2Wine Business Forum

Wine is no stranger to politics and, since everything seems to be political these days, wine trade must be political, too. What’s different about wine politics today? Why is it important? What should wine industry professionals know and do?

Wine2Wine Business Forum 2021

These are some of the questions that I’m thinking about as I prepare my presentation, “Politics and Wine Trade,” for the upcoming Wine2Wine Business Forum 2021, which is being held in hybrid (online/in-person) form in Verona Italy on October 18-19. My presentation will be a virtual seminar on October 18 at 3:45 pm Verona time (6:45 am Seattle time).

The list of speakers and sessions is long and impressive. The emphasis on useful practical information to help guide wine businesses in these turbulent times is clear and welcome. Looks like a great conference. Wish I could be there in person, but happy to contribute virtually.

Thinking About Wine Politics

Politics is so much a part of the wine industry story that you could probably fill a book with examples and analysis. But you don’t have to do that because the book already exists: Tyler Colman’s 2008 Wine Politicswhich I admire and recommend.

Politics and wine trade take several forms that I want to discuss at Wine2Wine. Some of it is what I call inside politics — passions and interests inside the wine sector that take political form. There is also what I call outside politics, which is how wine ends up caught in the crossfire of political squabbles between and among nation-states. Inside, outside — politics is everywhere you look!

Politics Happens

Australia — the lucky country — provides a good example. The Aussies worked very hard to develop the China market for wine exports. And they succeeded — China became the #1 export market for Australian wines, larger than the UK, larger than the US, and at good prices, too.

And then, well, politics happened. The Australian government has been trying to show China that it is more than just an iron ore vending machine (see AUKUS agreement for example) and this backfired. China retaliated for inconvenient comments directed its way, imposing prohibitive tariffs on Australian wine and suddenly the #1 market disappeared. Wine gets  caught in the crossfire in political disagreements that have nothing whatsoever to do with wine.

What does the future look like? What can/should wine industry leaders do? I’ll try to have some answers to these questions by the time Wine2Wine kicks off.

Thinking About Laura Catena’s Grand Cru Project

Laura Catena believes we need to think about the concept of Grand Cru vineyards and wines, so she organized a series of Zoom events for trade and media participants built around the idea of the Grand Cru.

Sue and I recently participated in one of the sessions and it provided food for thought as well as some delicious wine to sample — Catena Zapata and Winebow generously provided a line-up of wine samples to help us think about Grand Cru-class wines in practice as well as theory. I will paste our wine lineup at the end of this column.

The idea wasn’t to do a blind tasting (can you tell Old World from New World, recognized  Grand Cru from an ambitious pretender?)  or stage a sort of “Judgement of Tupungato” competition, but rather to appreciate some really excellent wines and use them to stimulate thought and discussion.

It took me a while to begin to figure out the point of the discussion. Why talk about Grand Cru now? According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the concept of a Grand Cru wine is a bit of a moving target. The term, French of course, has a different meaning in Burgundy (where it applies to specific vineyards), in Alsace (where there are Grand Cru appellations), and Bordeaux (it is all about the producers).

New World Grand Crus?

Can (or should) the Grand Cru concept be applied to the New World? And if so, how and where? Much of the discussion focused on practical problems. Grand Cru is a French idea (or ideas) that would seem difficult to translate to foreign soil. Would consumers understand it? Would producers unite around the concept? And could they ever agree on a Grand Cru league table — who’s in and who’s out? Doubtful on all counts, participants suggested.

In any case, several pointed out, there is already a quality-assessing system in place and it is called the market. If you want to know the best vineyards look at grape prices (and the resulting wine prices). The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 was based on price and the market measure endures.

As an economist, I appreciate the power of price to establish hierarchies and find it interesting that the Bordeaux classification is still relevant. But I also understand that markets are very imperfect measures of quality.  It is not for nothing that Oscar Wilde complained of people who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing!”

I am more interested in the way what we say conditions how we think. Language doesn’t simply transmit thought, it also shapes it. Talking about Grand Cru means thinking about wine in a particular subjective way that reflects respect and admiration for the very best that I’d argue is different from measures such as extremely high prices or 100 point scores.

So talking Grand Cru may help us think about wine in a certain way. But American wine history suggests that as difficult as Grand Cru is to achieve, it may sometimes be even harder to maintain. I am thinking about the story of Martin Ray, which I recounted in my book 2011 Wine Wars (and also in the revised new edition that will be released next year) in the chapter titled “Martians vs Wagnerians.”

The Sad Tale of Martin Ray

Martians — a term I borrowed from wine historian Thomas Pinney — are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Ray was upset that the standard of US wine was so low in the years following the repeal of Prohibition. He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction—wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time. His achievement was short-lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagram’s, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book on American wine history.

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson degenerated into an undistinguished mass-market wine brand that was sold to Constellation Brands, which eventually passed it along to The Wine Group (makers of Franzia bag-in-box wines among other products), which quietly withdrew the spent brand from the market. Paul Masson brandy still exists as part of the Gallo portfolio.

So in the end Martin Ray’s high Grand Cru values degenerated into the market prices they yielded and then degenerated again and again until nothing was left of them. How sad!

Gold in the Vineyards?

Laura Catena’s interest in Grand Cru vineyards isn’t a new thing. Her 2018 illustrated book Gold in the Vineyards surveyed the world of wine through stories of great wines, the families (and especially the women) behind them, and the great vineyards that are their source. The finally chapter is personal, focusing on Catena Zapata’s “Adrianna Vineyard: the Grand Cru of South America,” which is the source of the quote at the top of this column.

As Laura Catena tells the story, her father Nicholas Catena was determined to create a Grand Cru vineyard in Argentina. Scouring the Uco Valley countryside, he came across a cold, dry area with stony soils high up in the Andean foothills at 1500 meters elevation. The winery viticulturalist said it would be impossible to make anything except perhaps sparkling wines from vines planted in such a unfriendly site. But Catena stubbornly forged ahead with what we now call the Adrianna Vineyard, which produced four of the eight wines in our sample pack.

Re-reading Gold in the Vineyard and connecting the dots, I realized the unstated question at the heart of the Zoom events. Did Nicholas Catena and his Catena Zapata colleagues really do it? Is the Adrianna vineyard what he meant for it to be: Argentina’s Grand Cru vineyard? That’s what will be on my mind as Sue and I work our way through these wines in the coming weeks.

We’ve started with the White Stones and White Bones Chardonnay wines, which I have wanted to taste for a long time. They are fantastic — balanced, elegant, complex. The two Catena wines are very different from each other and different, too, from the Chablis wines including in the tasting, which is important since imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s not what great wine is all about. Grand Cru? Gotta think about it some more before I make up my mind. World-class? Absolutely!

The question of what does Grand Cru mean today is thought-provoking and considering what it might mean in a New World context provokes debate. For me, the idea of the Grand Cru is worth holding on to and using as a source of inspiration — I am on board with Laura Catena’s project — even if the practical realities are messy and problematic.

In the meantime, perhaps it would help if you poured yourself a glass of wine from  your favorite maker or region and pondered  the notion of the Grand Cru.

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WINES

  • Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières Premier Cru 2018

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay 2018

Louis Moreau Les Clos 2017

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay 2018

Lingua Franca The Plow Pinot Noir 2019

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec 2017

Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Nicolás Catena Zapata 2017

Three Faces of Wine Strategy: Porto Perspectives

If you walk along the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro from beautiful Porto, you are in the right place to visit the famous Port lodges and sample different types and styles of Port wine. If you dig a little deeper, you can also learn something about the diversity of successful wine industry strategies that these historic firms have deployed.

I’m interested in Portuguese wine because it has experienced rising sales here in the US market while some other countries have struggled and lost market share. And I am interested in wine industry strategies because, as I wrote here last week, the global wine market seems to have plateaued and so everyone wants to know the secret to growth in a stagnant market.

Herewith, for your consideration, three case studies inspired by an imaginary Vila Nova de Gaia excursion.

Taylor’s: Tradition and Innovation

Our first stop is Taylor’s, one of the most famous names in Port wine. Fortified wines, including Port wines, are not the easiest products to sell these days, but Taylor Fladgate, which has been in this business since 1692, is committed to Port and Porto. The Fladgate Partnership’s portfolio of Port brads is broad and deep, including Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn.  No unfortified wines are produced. This focus on its traditional business, however, doesn’t rule out innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port was a Taylor innovation, for example. I have argued that LBV Port helped rescue and revive the Port trade in the 1970s by giving consumers the experience of Vintage Port without the expense and bother. Taylor’s innovation continues today with its canned White Port spritz, Chip Dry & Tonic, a delicious and refreshing addition to the RTD market that may help consumers see Port wine in a new light.

Taylor’s commitment to Port and Porto is also expressed through its investment in the region’s wine tourism industry. First came the fantastic Yeatman Hotel high on the hill overlooking the Douro next door to the Taylor’s Port lodge. The hospitality investment continued with the redevelopment of luxury Hotel Infante Sagres in central Porto and the Vintage House Hotel in the Douro Valley at Pinhão.

That’s really himpressive … but wait, there is more! The the area of warehouses reaching down to the Douro from Taylor’s were developed into Porto’s new wine tourism destination — the incredibly ambitious World of Wine. Sue and I haven’t visited WoW yet, but we look forward to exploring its many varied experiences when we get back on the road again.

Bravo to Adrian Bridge and The Fladgate Partnership for their bold strategy of doubling down on Porto and Port wine.

Symington: Porto and the Douro

If you continue down the pathway along the Douro and up the hillside a few blocks you will come to Graham’s, part of the Symington Family Estates, with its historic Port lodge and destination restaurant, Vinum.

Symington represents a second face of wine industry strategy here in Porto. They are all-in on Port wine, of course, with four famous brands: Graham’s,  Dow’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s. But Symington’s reach extends beyond Port to Portuguese table wines including Quinta do Vesuvio, Quinta do Ataíde, Quinta da Fonte Souto, Altano, and Prats + Symington, a partnership with Bordeaux’s Bruno Prats. All the wines but one come from the Douro Valley. Quinta da Fonte Souto is in Alto Alentejo, which is Symington’s first foray outside of its home region.

Sue and I recently enjoyed a bottle of P+S Prazo de Roriz, a red wine made from younger Douro Valley vines that harmoniously balances fruit and minerality — a seriously attractive wine that punches above its  $20 price point.

Although the Fladgate Partnership and Symington Family Estates have taken different pathways in wine industry strategy, they share a strong commitment to sustainability. Adrian Bridge is a driving force for climate change action in the wine industry and beyond, for example, and Symington is one of the wine world’s most recognized Certified B Corporations.

Sogrape: Portugal Goes Global

As you walked from Taylor’s to Graham’s along the Douro you passed two noteworthy Port lodges that are part of the Sogrape family, Sandeman’s and Porto Ferreira (Offley Port is also a Sogrape brand). Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine producer, is an important force in Port wines and in wine generally. It is the producer, for example, of Mateus Rosé, which was once the best-selling imported wine in the US market and remains incredibly popular around the world.

Sogrape’s strategy extends across Portugal’s wine regions from the Douro north to Vinho Verde and south to the Dao and Alentejo. Sue and I are fans of the Casa Ferreirinha Douro Valley wines, including especially the Quinta da Leda, which we love to pair with duck rice.

Sogrape’s strategy differs from both the Fladgate Partnership and Symington family models in that, while its base in Porto and Port is strong, its vision extends far beyond the Douro. It is, in fact, a global vision, as Sogrape’s extensive portfolio extends to Spain (including the famous LAN wines among others), Argentina (Finca Flichman), Chile (Chateau Los Boldos) and New Zealand (Framingham).

It may be surprising that a wine company from a relatively small country should have such a global reach, but remember that this is Portugal and globalization is in its DNA. The Portuguese practically invented globalization and their Port wines are a global icons. Sogrape, with its Mateus Rosé history, seems well prepared to ride the global wave.

Three Faces of Wine Strategy

So what are the take-aways from this wine strategy tour of Vila Nova de Gaia? The first is that there is a lot going on in Portuguese wine these days. If you haven’t thought seriously about Portugal and its wine recently, it is time to give it some attention.

The second point is that there are many routes to success in today’s market, something that is true in Portugal and elsewhere, too. A key seems to be to identify a comparative advantage and make the long-term investments needed to realize potential gains. Taylor’s has invested in expanding Port wine’s reach while investing in Porto and the Douro as a destination –leveraging the power of place. Port and Porto are inseparable — expanding the appeal of one necessarily raises the profile of the other.

The Symington family have adopted a strategy that focuses on the vineyards and communities — the social and physical terroir, with wines that reflect the region and investments that promote social welfare.

Finally, Sogrape leverages the local-global nexus, thinking global and acting local in a very Portuguese tradition.

What do these firms have in common besides Port and Porto? Well, they are all three family businesses that think in generational terms.  That long-term perspective makes it possible for the sort of strategies we see here to succeed.