Wine, Coronavirus, & the Falling Dollar

xratesWhat is going to happen to the value of the U.S. dollar as the coronavirus crisis unfolds? That was the question that a couple of wine economists (I was one of them) were asked in a zoom meeting back in May.

The dollar’s going to stay strong, we both said. That’s what happens in a crisis. Investors rush to the safety and security of the dollar whenever there is uncertainty and risk. Ironically, the dollar sometimes rises even when the U.S. is the source of the uncertainty, but that’s another story.

Up and Down Economics

Zoom ahead a few weeks to the start of August. The dollar’s value unexpectedly fell dramatically in July as this chart from x-rates.com shows — the largest monthly drop in a decade. The sudden exchange rate change will affect the economy directly and indirectly in many ways — some even believe that it has contributed to the somewhat puzzling situation in the stock market, where values have risen recently despite bad economic and pandemic news. The cheaper dollar makes dollar-denominated  financial assets cheaper for foreign buyers, who look for capital gains when the currency eventual rebounds.

What happened? Why? And why does it matter for the wine industry?

Some people believe that a strong dollar is good and a weak dollar is bad, but the truth is that exchange rate shifts create many positive and negative forces and the net effect depends on the economic environment at the given point in time and  your particular circumstances. The strong dollar of the last few years, for example, made wine imports cheaper in dollar terms and discouraged wine exports — both big negatives for U.S. growers and producers.

But the strong dollar also tended to reduce the cost of equipment and supplies used in U.S. wine production including vineyard and cellar machinery, bottles, capsules, corks, and so on. The strong dollar also indirectly benefited the U.S. companies that import and distribute foreign wine and the on- and off-premise firms that sell it. Wine has a long supply chain and so there are complex exchange rate effects.

The falling dollar tends to reverse all this by increasing the cost of imported wine and wine production supplies and making U.S. exports relatively cheaper abroad.  If you run a vineyard in California, the reduced competition from imports is good news. If you run a distributor that specializes in imports this is more bad news in a year with lots of bad news to digest.

Elementary, My Dear Watson

Although the falling dollar caught me by surprise because I focused on the crisis effect, others who watched exchange rate fundamentals might have seen it coming. That’s because there were indications that the U.S. dollar was over-valued and ripe for a fall at some point.

When we say that a currency is over-valued, we mean that the exchange value is such that the currency purchases more abroad than it does at home. If you travel to Europe, for example, and your euro purchases seem cheap in terms of their dollar equivalent, it is an indication that the dollar is over-valued (and the euro under-valued).

bigmac

The Economist newspaper keeps track of how much currencies are over- or under-valued using their famous Big Mac index. As this graph shows, as of June 2020  the Economist index suggested that U.S. dollar was over-valued compared to all but three (Sweden, Lebanon, and Switzerland) of the currencies that the newspaper tracks.

The British pound was 25% under-valued relative to the dollar. Other wine country currencies: Canadian dollar (-11%), Euro (-16%), Australia (-19%), New Zealand (-23%),  Argentina (-38%), Chile (-39%), and South Africa (-67%). Logically, the U.S. dollar would need to fall quite a lot to restore equilibrium between the currency’s internal and external purchasing power.

In my experience, the Big Mac index is a reasonably good predictor of long-run exchange rate tendencies, but there are many other factors that impact the exchange rate in the short term. In particular, the flight to safety that many of us expected seemed very likely to overwhelm the trade-based adjustments that the Big Max index is based on.

None of the Above

But an article in last weekend’s Financial Times suggests that there is more going on than  adjustment based on “burgernomics.”  Faith in the U.S. as a safe harbor in the storm has weakened, according to the article, because of what is seen as a very poor response to the pandemic. The coronavirus continues to spread, the economy remains very weak, the Federal Reserve is running short of tools, and Congress is gridlocked. And have you heard that there is an election coming up? The eurozone looks like a calmer, safer haven by comparison.

Safer yet, in some eyes, is gold, which isn’t tied to any particular country. Buying gold is a way to vote “none of the above” regarding major currencies. (There’s also Bitcoin, but that’s another story;)

The price of gold hit a record high of $1983 per troy ounce last week. The high price is the result of some investors looking for safety and others making speculative purchases. Demand for gold for use in jewelry and so forth is down because of the pandemic’s impact on sales of the finished products.

Looking ahead, it is difficult to know where the dollar will go next. Financial markets tend to over-shoot — to zoom too high when they are rising and over-state declines.  So it will take a while to know whether July’s dollar decline will persist or if the currency will bounce back quickly.

So pay attention to the risks that exchange rate variability produces. Many wineries will find their exposure to exchange rate risk is small and difficult to identify. But if you have substantial foreign currency costs or revenue streams, you might think about hedging strategies to insure to some degree against unfavorable movements. And everyone ought to consider counter-party risk: are the people who owe you money exposed to increased risk? Will it affect their ability to fulfill their obligations?

 

 

Cooper’s Hawk Winery Leverages Its Unique Business Model

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It is time to circle back to check in on one of America’s most innovative wine companies: Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant.  Cooper’s Hawk has carved out an unexpected market segment (it is too big to be called a niche) and built a loyal following. Can its unique business model continue to thrive in today’s challenging wine business environment?

Cooper’s Hawk by the Numbers

The numbers are impressive. The big winery in Woodridge, Illinois produced 675,000 cases of wine in 2019, according to Wine Business Monthly data, making it the 29th largest wine company in the U.S. — just behind Hess Family Wine Estates and ahead of Wente Vineyards in the U.S league table. Grapes come from the main U.S. vineyard regions and select international sources.

The wines are sold exclusively through a 43-location restaurant/tasting room network that supports what might be the largest wine club in the world with nearly 450,000 members. That takes my breath away.

I first wrote about Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in a 2018 Wine Economist column. I was impressed with the vision — bringing wine country (and wine!) to consumers located far away from California vineyards. Customers enter through a “Napa-style” tasting room that includes a gourmet foods market space. The upscale casual restaurant features Cooper’s Hawk wines by the bottle, glass, or flight, with carefully-chosen pairings suggested for each menu item.  Wine club members can pick up their “wine of the month” at the tasting room, giving them an opportunity to sample other wines and to dine in the restaurant.

The thing that excited me about Cooper’s Hawk Winery back in 2018 was the fact that they were successfully engaging consumers in a new way and obviously building interest in wine in general while expanding their own customer base. Bringing a taste of wine country to the local mall or other nearby location might not work for everyone, but it obviously resonates with a lot of folks who can’t get to wine country themselves but still want a bit of that experience.

Epic fail: Sue and I have so far failed in our resolution to experience a Cooper’s Hawk restaurant first hand, but that makes sense in a way when you think about it. We spend a lot of our time in wine country, which is exactly where Cooper’s Hawk is not. So we were excited when we received an invitation to attend a celebratory virtual tasting of Cooper’s Hawk and other wines.

Go Big in Chicago

The occasion for the celebration was the announcement that Cooper’s Hawk’s new flagship location Esquire Chicago received a 2020 Best of Award of Excellence recognition from Wine Spectator magazine.  The 23,000 square foot facility features a 50-foot high wine tower and offers guests 1200 different wine selections. The list includes the Cooper’s Hawk wines, of course, but also hundreds of other wines from wine producers around the globe, which is a first for Cooper’s Hawk.

I suppose you could say that Esquire Chicago and the tall wine tower is at least in part a reaction to some of the key wine market trends of the last few years. Consumers have shown a willingness to broaden their comfort zone of wine styles and, via premiumization, to stretch the budget a bit, too. If the goal of the Cooper’s Hawk organization is to unlock consumer passion for wine by simplifying choice and controlling quality and value, Esquire Chicago aims to provide opportunities to turn the flame up a notch or two. Accordingly, the wines we tasted  in the virtual seminar included two wines from Bordeaux and two Cooper’s Hawk California blends.

Thankfully there was no attempt to create a “Judgement of Paris” result. The purpose wasn’t to probe whether Cooper’s Hawk wines are better than those from Bordeaux, but simply to taste and enjoy different wines of similar general types much as an Esquire Chicago guest might do in a tasting flight.  Perfect. So we sampled a left-bank Bordeaux, Chateau La Tonnelle, alongside a Cabernet-forward Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage blend made from Mendocino-sourced grapes. Then we tried Chateau Coutet from the right bank along with a Merlot-forward Cooper’s Hawk Napa/Sonoma blend called Camille Proud, a special creation of CHW’s Master Sommelier Emily Wines made to honor powerful women role models.

The wines were all very good and, because they were still pretty young, even better when we returned to them over the next two days. If these are representative of the kinds of experiences that Emily Wines and Esquire Chicago sommelier Jordyn Sotelo create, then I think their guests are in good hands.

How important is the Wine Spectator restaurant award? Those who attain it are obviously proud, but there are doubters, too. There was even a case of a hoax a few years ago when someone faked an application for the award and fooled the Wine Spectator staff. My opinion is this. There are wine enthusiasts (like you, perhaps) who seek out restaurants that take wine seriously and offer interesting wine choices. A Wine Spectator award is a way for the restaurant to signal consumers of their interest in and commitment to wine.  In a world of asymmetric information (the famous “market for lemons”) such signals can be very valuable.

Navigating Uncharted Waters

Any advantage is worthwhile in the current market environment. Although we did not talk about it during the celebration tasting, the shadow of the conoravirus pandemic is hard to avoid.  This is a difficult time to be in the restaurant business and not the best time for in-person tasting room sales, either. And, of course, Cooper’s Hawk has uniquely combined these two now-problematic areas to define its business model. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it?

But that doesn’t take into account the huge wine club, which seems to be proving itself even more important than before. With almost 450,000 members, the possibilities for engagement though virtual tastings (like ours, but scaled up considerably) are pretty much endless.  And curbside pick up of wine club shipments and to-go restaurant meals, too, where allowed,  ought to cushion somewhat the economic impacts while fostering relationships with sheltered club members.

So triple congratulations to Cooper’s Hawk: for their flagship Esquire Chicago restaurant, for the Wine Spectator recognition, and for their remarkable achievement in keeping so many club members engaged with wine during this difficult period.

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Thanks to Cooper’s Hawk for inviting us to the virtual tasting and to Emily Wines and Jordyn Sotelo for leading the discussion. Fingers crossed that readers everywhere will be able to safely visit CHW and enjoy their hospitality in person before too many more weeks have passed.

Long, Slow Road to Recovery for U.S. Wine

23-sep-2How long will it take for the economy to get back to normal? That’s the question I am asked most often these days, where “back to normal” is code for conditions at the start of 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic and the recession it has produced.

Try to Keep It Real (Compared to What?)

The answer to this question depends on how you look at it. If you are thinking about a world without concern for virus contagion, face masks, and social distancing, the answer might well be “never,” but only time will tell.

Economists often distinguish between “monetary” and “real” economic factors. If you think in monetary terms — stock market valuations, for example — we are already most of the way back. Our modest Wine Economist retirement account is pretty much back to its January 1, 2020 level thanks in part to a few trillion dollars of Federal Reserve and federal government stimulus, which has done a lot to prop up valuations.

But if you are looking at the “real” economy, where output, jobs, and incomes are what count, then the scene is not so serene. A recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit is titled “A Q3 recovery, what Q3 recovery?” and it warns that the hoped-for big economic bounce in the third quarter of the year is no longer likely. Other business news reports that appeared over the weekend tell a similar story. Here is a link to a summary of the EIU report.

Down the Drain?

The EIU projects that when all the dust settles the U.S. economy will shrink by about 5% in 2020 compared with the previous year. That performance is roughly on par with forecasts for Japan, Canada, and Germany, The other G7 nations will envy a mere 5% decline. The EIU projects that growth rates in the UK and France will be closer to minus 10%, with Italy’s situation a bit worse.

How long will it take for these countries, which are all important wine markets, to return to their pre-pandemic levels of economic activity?  The EIU projects that the U.S. will get there first, but not until Q3 of 2022 — about two years from now. Japan, Canada, and France will be next, hitting the pre-pandemic level in Q4 2022.  Full recovery for the UK will wait until Q4 2023 followed by Italy (Q3 2024) and Japan (Q4 2024). Long road. Slow progress.

In general, the EIU reports, output in the G7 countries in Q3 2020 will be about the same as it was in 2016. Four  years of growth down the drain.

Economic forecasting is an inexact science, or maybe a black art, so you cannot bank on these specific numbers. This is especially true right now given the unknown unknowns about global public health, economic policies, and potential election surprises. But the fact that conservative estimates now suggest a long, slow economic recovery is something we need to digest.

Wine’s Particular Challenges

There are special concerns for the wine industry. An economy isn’t like a train, where all the cars are connected and move at the same speed. Different sectors adjust at different speeds and sometimes move in different directions. While wine is influenced to a great degree by overall economic trends, some particular paths to market are especially influenced by the coronavirus pandemic.

On-trade sales and DtC sales via tasting room visits will likely be slower to recover than retail sales, which we can see now as California has closed down indoor dining and cellar door operations for the second time. And this isn’t the feared “second wave” of infections — that isn’t expected until fall. This is just the echo of the first wave.

It is also important to remember that our 2019 “normal” wasn’t a terrific situation for wine. American wine was challenged by slow growth of demand, supply that was so abundant that vines needed to be pulled, and growing competition from other countries as well as other beverage alcohol categories. Curse you White Claw! U.S. wine producers need to do more than recover volumes, they need to adapt to evolving reality, too.

Simple Pleasures

So it is important and even inspiring to see how active many in the wine industry are in adjusting to what they think the new normal will be. Joana Pais, director of communications and public relations for Sogrape, the important Portuguese producer, told me in an email about the wine tourism situation in Porto and the challenges she and her colleagues face.

Travel to Portugal was booming before the pandemic and wine tourism in Porto and the Douro benefited.  These travel flows collapsed during the spring and are only slowly rebuilding. “It is true that tourism is scary slow,” she writes, “but let’s face it as an opportunity to rethink the purpose of hospitality and work on developing truly incredible experiences, enjoying the simple pleasures of life!”

She’s right about that and more. As I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines, wine’s great gift is its ability to give us pleasure. So long was we keep that front and center wine’s future is secure. But the challenges we face on the road to the future are daunting.  The next two to four years will test our collective resilience, but I hope they also excite our imaginations.

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I am already starting to think about what wine market situation will be in January 2021 when the next Unified Wine and Grape Symposium takes place. The conference and trade show will be virtual this time around, reflecting the reality of the pandemic and the uncertainty that must necessarily cloud plans for large gatherings. It will be different, that’s for sure, but there are opportunities, too.

 

Bastille Day Reflections: Libertè, Ègalitè, Rosè

Rose auroreToday is July 14, France’s national day — Bastille Day — and it is a good moment to consider Rosè and the democratization of French wine and wine in general.

One thing that I like about Rosè is that is symbolizes to a certain degree the classic values of freedom (libertè) and equality (ègalitè).  There isn’t any fixed recipe for Rosè. Winemakers have considerable liberty in choosing grapes, blends, and styles. And Rosè levels the playing field a bit, too, allowing less well-known regions to compete with the elites.

I have friends who tell me they just don’t like Rosè — and I believe them — but which Rosè offends them? There are so many different styles that it seems like there would be something for everyone. If you don’t like Rosè maybe you just haven’t tried the right one yet. Sue and I have sampled Rosè wine all around the world (see this list of global Rosè wines of note from the recent Decanter wine competition) and enjoyed pink wine’s diversity of hues, flavors, and aromas.

 Libertè, ègalitè

French wines are traditionally identified by place, a practice that privileges a few elite regions and their wines. Bordeaux. Burgundy. And especially Champagne. This is not an accident. As I wrote in my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated, the appellation system was more or less invented by Champagne producers to protect their sparkling wines first from copycat wines produced elsewhere and then from sub-standard quality wines made at home.  Only Champagne was Champagne, which consigned many first-class French sparkling wines to the third class carriage.

The famous Classification of 1855 established a pecking order for Bordeaux wines. It is not a big stretch to move to the idea that wine in general is rank-ordered, with the most famous names at the top. France has lots of different wines (even more different wines than cheeses, if that is possible), but they are not equal, at least in the marketplace.

This situation is changing. The popularity of Prosecco has weakened Champagne’s hegemony. Besides, the joyous gatherings where special corks are popped are fewer and smaller in the age of Covid-19. Bordeaux, which priced itself into irrelevance in some ciercles, has descended a bit with softer prices flowing out of this year’s unusual en primeur circus.

The Pink Wine Boom

But the biggest force in the growing democratization of French wine is Rosè. Sales of French Rosè were booming in the U.S. before the crisis and continue to be very strong. Indeed, French wine today rides on a pink wave. This is apparently true even within France, where reports suggest that pink outsells white wine in French supermarkets. Incroyable!

Yes, I know there is a hierarchy within the Rosè world. Provence is a first among unequals in the opinion of some. But even taking this into account, I think that Rosè is the wine of French democracy. What is Rosè after all? It is not a region (Rosè is made all over France and the world). It is not a grape variety, either. Rosè wines from all over France and sometimes all over the world are often displayed together in shops and supermarkets, giving humble appellations and obscure grape varieties an opportunity to compete on their own terms, which does not happen very often in the world of wine.

An Arrogant Frog?

carte-domaines-paul-mas-2017Three wines that we received from Paul Mas illustrate these points very well. Les Domaines Paul Mas is an ambitious family wine business rooted in the South of France. Paul Mas reminds me of Jackson Family wines in California. Jackson is best know for its high-volume Kendall-Jackson wines, especially the popular Chardonnay. But when you look more closely you see a collection of focused, high quality wineries that together explore the complex possibilities of the region’s terroir.

Paul Mas is a little bit like that. You might know it best in the U.S. for its popular Arrogant Frog wines. Labels feature a snooty but suave wine-drinking, beret-wearing frog. The wines were fine when I first encountered them, as I recall, but the marketing was the thing that caught my attention. Arrogant Frog is still with us (there is a Chateau Arrogant Frog) and better than ever, but under Jean-Claude Mas’s leadership the firm has grown and focused its attention on the specific terroirs of Languedoc and Rousillion. We tasted and appreciated several of these wines when we visited Languedoc and Roussillon two years ago. So we were pleased to get the chance to focus on the pink wine portfolio.

Three Shades of Pink

We tasted three very different Paul Mas Rosè wines. The first is the Côté Mas Rosè Aurore, a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah with the IGP Pays d’Oc designation. You get a full liter of this fun wine for about $12.99. Full of flavor, the packaging (see image above) emphasizes casual elegance and screams “picnic.” Picnics can be rustic or elegant and this wine would work either way. You would not regret opening this bottle on a warm day in the company of friends (social distanced friends, of course).

Next came Chateau Lauriga, a Syrah and Grenache blend, AOP Côtes du Roussillon, with a retail price of about $20. Lighter, more elegant, a very different take on Rosè, which is as it should be since both the blend and the terroir are different. A bit more serious, too, if you know what I mean.

We enjoyed both these wines with early summer meals, but our favorite was the Domaine Lauriga Le Gris. I’m not sure what made this wine stand out, but we just loved it. Could be the grape variety, terroir, or maybe the older vines (43 years old) made the difference.  Le Gris is 100% Grenache Gris, designated IGP Côtes Catalanes. At about $14 per bottle, it sits comfortably in the Rosè market sweet spot.

A Mind of Its Own

Do you see why I associate these and other Rosè wines with libertè and ègalitè?  Speaking of libertè, there’s one more Rosè wine I want to tell you about.

liberteOur friend Caro Feely (author of several  excellent wine books), invited us to zoom into a virtual tasting with members of Chateau Feely‘s wine club. Chateau Feely is a biodynamic estate in Saussignac, about an hour from Bordeaux. Caro’s books document the challenges and satisfactions Caro and family experienced as they worked endless hours to make their vineyard sustainable in every sense. I recommend the books to anyone who is thinking about buying a vineyard to winery.

The subject was Rosè and the intimate internet audience was pleased to sample two of Feely’s fine Rosè wines, an experience that might have changed how they think of Saussignac, Rosè, or both. One of the wines especially caught my attention.

It is called Libertè. Made with native yeasts from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (one of the approved varieties for Bergerac AOP), the wine exploited its freedom by taking an unusually long time to complete fermentation, thus earning its designation. It is a wine with a mind of its own. Everyone agreed that Liberty’s taste is something special.

So please raise a glass of Rosè and join me in a toast.  Libertè, ègalitè, Rosè!

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If you want to know more about Rosè you should read Elizabeth Gabay’s recent book on the pink wine revolution. Here is our review. 

Einstein’s Law & Washington Wine

einsteinEinstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible … but not simpler. At some point further simplification loses the essence of whatever is being studied. I am pretty sure that he was talking about physics, not wine, but I think the concept applies here as well.

I was reminded of Einstein’s Law when I learned about what the Auction of Washington Wines is doing to try to spread the word about this region’s dynamic wine scene. Usually the auction is an in-person event and so the impact is limited a bit by attendance constraints. This year, however, they’ve gone virtual, which opens up expanded possibilities. And they’ve partnered with the world-class story-teller, Karen MacNeil, to spread the word, simplify the story, but not too much.

The Signature Grape Syndrome

The temptation to violate Einstein’s law is strong. Wine people look at the success of New Zealand and Argentina,. for example,  and decide that a single signature grape is the answer. I have argued that a signature variety is no silver bullet and, in any case, what grape variety would Washington choose? Riesling makes sense. Chateau Ste Michelle is the world’s largest producer of Riesling wines. Merlot had proponents for a while (pre-Sideways).

Cabernet Sauvignon was the recent favorite, but too much was planted both in Washington and parts of California, and it is not the easy sell it once was.  And there are lots of other contenders including Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, and rising Tempranillo. No one grape variety rules them all … or should.

waWashington’s wine diversity is a blessing for consumers, but a problem for marketers. No wonder the Washington State Wine Commission went to the other extreme in choosing a new logo. Some of my wine friends admire the austere graphics, but I think it simplifies too far.  What story does it tell? Einstein would not approve, although I am not sure what alternative he’d suggest. He’d probably just pour another glass of great Washington wine and leave it at that.

Happily the new logo is part of a useful package of resources to help wineries tell their (and Washngton’s) story. And I don’t think anyone will mistake WA wine for the logo of Wawa, the Pennsylvania-based gasoline and convenience store chain.

Washington Wine Storybook

Karen MacNeil and the Auction of Washington Wines have to simplify, too, but virtual platforms allow more depth and detail.  They’ve organized a series of on-line interviews and tastings, each with a particular theme.  Wines for each session are available for purchase.

wawine

A webinar on Washington wine “trailblazers” (originally web-cast on June 18  but you can still watch the video) brought together pioneers Allen Shoup, Rick Small, and Marty Clubb. Shoup, Small, and Clubb have seen the Washington industry grow from just a hand full of wineries to over 1000 producers. MacNeil begins the conversation by asking, did you always know this was going to be a success? Good question. Click on the image to hear their answers.

The second webinar, which first appeared on July 2, focuses on the next generation, giving a sense of the dynamic of this young industry. Andrew Januik, Rob Mercer, John Bookwalter, and Caleb Foster are featured.

Next up (on July 16, so you still have time to place your wine order) is a program on women in Washington wine featuring Leah Adint, Lisa Packer, and Jessica Munnell. The status of women in the wine industry is one of Karen MacNeil’s particular concerns, so this session is an opportunity to add this important issue to the mix. Hopefully future programs can explore issues of diversity and inclusion in even greater depth and breadth.

Three Ps: It’s Complicated

Other programs in the series will explore the topics of terroir (Red Mountain) and grape varieties. There’s no way they can tell the whole story of Washington wine any more than the previous sessions could, but they aren’t likely to violate Einstein’s Law, either.

Sometimes complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways, so there is plenty of room for future webinars to examine the great diversity of Washington’s “Three Ps,” the people and their distinctive visions, the places (the varied terroir), and the plants (the grape varieties that thrive here).

Wine, Recession & the Fed-Ex Effect

botThe impact of the evolving coronavirus recession on the wine industry is complicated. It seems like you get a slightly different story depending on when and where you look.  One way to think about this situation is to analyze  other industries where the impacts might be easier to discern. Fed-Ex, the package delivery giant, offers several potential insights.

Business is Booming, But …

How is Fed-Ex doing in this environment? A recent report from The Economist newspaper provides some clues. You’d think that business would be booming, since so many consumers have turned to on-line shopping and home delivery in the past few months. Of course there is competition to consider. United Parcel Service is a strong competitor. And Amazon.com has developed its own package delivery service. But there is plenty of delivery business to go around. So Fed-Ex must be doing well, right?

Well, yes and no. Home package delivery is booming, but bring those boxes to your front door is a high cost part of the business. And the costs of protecting the workers who process the packages have increased, too. So the business surge has put pressure on margins.

And the most profitable part of the business — which is bulk shipment to businesses — has actually fallen as overall consumer spending has decreased, reducing the pull-through effect. Higher margin deliveries to businesses and retailers have been only partly replaced by lower margin deliveries to you and me.

Fed-Ex announce quarterly earnings after market close on Tuesday of this week.  The MarketWatch.com report noted that

Commercial volumes were down significantly due to worldwide business closures, but there were surges in residential deliveries for its FedEx Ground business and in transpacific and charter flights for FedEx Express, which required incremental costs to serve.

The company also incurred in about $125 million in increased operating costs related to personal protective equipment and medical and safety supplies for its employees, as well as additional security and cleaning services to protect them, it said.

Quarterly earnings were well below the level of a year ago, but much better than analyst expectations. The company’s stock rose in after-hours trading. It sounds like
Fed-Ex is managing the unavoidable big squeeze pretty well under the circumstances.

Lessons for the Wine Industry

Can you see how the Fed-Ex effect relates to wine? It isn’t a perfect parallel, but the surge in supermarket and on-line wine purchases is one side of the coin — like the boom in Fed-Ex home delivery — and if we focus just on that we end up drawing the wrong conclusions.

Higher operating costs and stagnant overall sales, when lost on-trade business is taken into account, are the rest of the story for wine. Depending on where your business is in wine’s market constellation, you might find yourself doing quite well or, like Fed-Ex and many other firms, caught in a squeeze.

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What’s that gizmo in the photo above? Well, Amazon.com is experimenting with drone delivery. Fed-Ex has tested an autonomous delivery robot.

 

Holiday Flashback: How the U.S. and Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourThese are tough times for many people in the wine industry, especially those who depend on bar and restaurant sales for much of their income. The restrictions necessary to address the coronavirus pandemic have had many unintended consequences.

The wine industry has been shut down before and took decades to recover. But the story isn’t exactly what you might expect. This special holiday week flashback column takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

The U.S. government is considering imposing 100% tariffs on some wine imports from Europe, an act that would hurt both European producers and many in the U.S. wine trade, too. The unintended consequences of acts like this are serious business.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July holiday.

Unintended Consequences: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

March 17, 2015

At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

Rediscovering Ruchè, One of Italy’s “Invisible” Wines

rucheThe coronavirus pandemic has paused The Wine Economist’s usual travel and speaking schedule and while I don’t miss the chaos of international air travel I do miss the opportunity to meet interesting new people and the chance to discover wines made from indigenous grape varieties that often don’t get the attention they deserve.

At this time last year, for example,  we were visiting Sardinia and Friuli, two regions of Italy that are especially known for their indigenous wine grapes. Some of these wines are pretty readily available here in the U.S. — Cannonou di Sardegna is a good example. You can find good examples if you look around at bit. But others are much too local to get much outside distribution — you sometimes need to go to the source to try them. Vermentino di Gallura and Carignano del Sulcis are examples, also from Sardinia, of wonderful wines that you may not easily find.

Discovering Invisible Wines

These intensely local wines are a special treat and I wrote about them in a chapter called “Invisible Wines” in my book Extreme WineI cited three wines from Italy — Pignoletto from the vineyards around Bologna, Lacrima di Morro d”Alba from Marche, and Ruchè di Castagnolo Monferrato in Piemonte.

As I wrote on The Wine Economist in 2011, we discovered Ruchè (prndounced ROO-kay) by accident. We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to an enthusiastic luncheon crowd. As I reported then,

“I had never heard of Ruchè and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruchè , marinating fruit in Ruchè and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruchè everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.”

Tenuta Montemagno

Sue and I were excited to re-live our Ruchè discovery when we were contacted by Tenuta Montemagno and offered the opportunity to taste their two Ruchè wines, Nobilis and Invictus. Sue prepared a special meal (see note below) and we pulled the corks.  The Nobilis brought back many memories. A juicy, light bodied red wine, it had the distinctive aroma of roses and the mix of red fruit and warm spices on the palate. It was great with Sue’s signature veal meatballs.

And then  came Invictus, made from riper grapes, vinified dry (2g/l compared to 1 g/l for Nobilis) with a bit more alcohol (15.5% versus 15%).  A fuller wine, Invictus is what I call a philosopher’s wine — something you might want to sit with for a while so you can appreciate how it develops in the glass.  Recognizably Ruchè, but a different experience.  Fascinating. Memorable.

No one comes to The Wine Economist for tasting notes, but here is a video note that captures some of what we found special about these wines. Watch closely and you will see that this seasoned reviewer is surprised (at one point nearly at a loss for words) at what’s in his glass and is keen to learn more. That’s Ruchè.

Tenuta Montemagno is devoted to the tradition of these wines in addition to their Grignolino, Barbera D’Asti, and Barolo reds.  The white wines include Sauvignon and Timorasso, another  indigenous grape variety that I need to learn more about the next time we are in the neighborhood. But maybe I won’t have to wait that long. The winery is working to get its products into wider distribution in the U.S. market and I hope they succeed so that more people can discover their “invisible wine.”

The Priest Did It

Today Ruchè is nearly invisible — you won’t find it unless you make an effort. But it could have been much worse. Like some other indigenous varieties, Ruchè fell from favor and was on the road to commercial extinction. It was saved starting in the 1960s by one man: the parish priest.

As Ian D’Agata explains in the chapter on Ruchè in his recent book Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, Don Giacomo Cauda, Castagnole Monferato’s town priest, was obsessed with Ruchè, studied it, collected specimens from scattered small plots,  and promoted Ruchè as the region’s signature wine. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato received DOC recognition in 1987 and was elevated to DOCG in 2010, putting it up among the elite of the Italian wine world. A long climb from near-extinction to the summit in just 50 years.

The Oxford Companion to Wine reports that there were about 100 hectares (247 acres) of Ruchè in all of Italy in 2010. Not a lot, but a viable amount that I hope will grow. Now the challenge is to assure the economic success of Ruchè and invisible wines like it, which is why I encourage you to seek them out, both at home and when you (eventually) travel. You will enjoy the experience, of course, and help support local wines.

Thanks to Tenuta Montemagno for providing Nobilis and Invictus for us to taste for this column. I hope Sue and I can visit you in person once the pandemic crisis has passed.

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These wines really want to be paired with food and so Sue made one of my favorite dishes which, although it comes from a different region of Italy, proved to be an excellent match. A few years ago we spent an entire day cooking and eating with Bologna’s famous Simili sisters  (see this New York Times article by William Grimes about these celebrated chefs). They had closed their cooking school and were experimenting with personal classes in their apartment. Try the Tenuta Montemagno wines with the Simili sisters’ veal meatballs in Port sauce.

China’s 10-Point Scale: Wine Ratings with Chinese Characteristics

chinasaleA couple of years ago the China Alcoholic Drinks Association announced that it was working on a new wine ranking system to help guide Chinese consumers to the best wines and best values.  A recent newsletter from Rob Geddes MW reports that things are moving forward quickly.

Geddes says his China sources indicate the new scale  will soon become a national standard. He should know. As an important actor on the Australian wine scene — his annual book of wine ratings is the gold standard when it comes to Aussie wines — Geddes naturally spends a lot of time in China. China is Australia’s largest export market and Geddes has helped develop the market there through his tastings and seminars.

Much of the discussion about the China ratings system focuses on the fact that it uses a 10-point scale for maximum clarity rather than the 20-point or 100-point scales commonly used elsewhere. I think the real news is that this is moving toward a national rating system that would potentially assign an official score to each wine on the market taking into consideration, it is said,  Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.

I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world. I guess it is part of a movement to a wine industry and culture with distinctly Chinese characteristics. What do you think?

The new Chinese scale makes me think about wine rating systems generally. There are all sorts of scales in use. Geddes (along with South Africa’s Platter’s Guide) use a five-star system. Gambero Rosso rates Italy’s wines on a Tre Bicchieri (3-glasses) scale that mirrors Michelin’s three-star restaurant ratings. And of course Robert Parker is famous for the 100-point system he helped make so popular.

What’s the best wine rating system? Glad you asked! Here is a vintage Wine Economist column from way back in 2008 that tries to answer that very question. Cheers!

Wine By the Numbers

February 9, 2008

Rating the Wine Rating Systems

People turn to wine critics to tell them what’s really inside that expensive bottle (or that cheap one) and how various wines compare. Some critics are famous for their detailed wine tasting notes (Michael Broadbent comes to mind here) that provide comprehensive qualitative evaluation of wines, but with so many choices in today’s global market it is almost inevitable that quantitative rating scales would evolve. They simplify wine evaluation, which is what many consumers are looking for, but they have complicated matters, too, because there is no single accepted system to provide the rankings.

I’m interested in the variety of wine rating systems and scales that wine critics employ and the controversies that surround them. This blog entry is a intended to be a brief guide for the perplexed, an analysis of the practical and theoretical difficulties of making and using wine ranking systems.

Wine Rating Scales: 100-points, 20-points, Three Glasses and More

winescales.jpgThe first problem is that different wine critic publications use different techniques to evaluate wine and different rating scales to compare them. Click on this image to see a useful comparison of wine rating systems compiled by De Long Wine (click here to download the pdf version, which is easier to read).

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast all use a 100-point rating scale, although the qualitative meanings associated with the numbers are not exactly the same. It is perhaps not an accident that these are all American publications and that American wine readers are familiar with 100-point ratings from their high school and college classes.

In theory a 100-point system allows wine critics to be very precise in their relative ratings (a 85-point syrah really is better than an 84-point syrah) although in practice many consumers may not be able to appreciate the distinction. Significantly, it is not really a 100-point scale since 50 points is functionally the lowest grade and it is rare to see wines rated for scores lower than 70, so the scale is not really as precise as it might seem. (Any professor or teacher will tell you, there has been both grade inflation and grade compression in recent years and this applies to wine critics too, I believe.)

The 100-point scale is far from universal. The enologists at the University of California at Davis use a 20-point rating scale, as does British wine critic Jancis Robinson and Decanter, the leading global wine magazine. The 20-point scale actually corresponds to how students are graded in French high schools and universities, so perhaps that says something about its origins.

The Davis 20-point scale gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 points for smell, 8 points for taste and 2 for overall harmony, according to my copy of The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud. The Office International du Vin’s 20-point scale has different relative weights for wine qualities; it awards 4 points for appearance, 4 for smell and 12 for taste. Oz Clarke’s 20 point system assigns 2, 6 and 12 points for look, smell and taste. It’s easy to understand how the same wine can receive different scores when different critics used different criteria and different weights.

A 20-point scale (which is often really a 10-point scale) offers less precision in relative rankings, since only whole and half point ratings are available, but this may be appropriate depending upon how the ratings are to be used. Wines rated 85, 86 and 87 on a 100-point scale, for example, might all receive scores of about 16 on a 20 point scale. It’s up to you to decide if the finer evaluative grid provides useful information.

Decanter uses both a 20-point scale and as well as simple guide of zero to five stars to rate wines, where one star is “acceptable”, two is quite good, three is recommended, four is highly recommended and five is, well I suppose an American would say awesome, but the British are more reserved. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher (who write an influential wine column for the Wall Street Journal) also use a five point system; they rates wines from OK to Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious(!).

The five point system allows for less precision but it is still very useful – it is the system commonly used to rate hotels and resorts, for example. ViniD’Italia, the Italian wine guide published by Gambero Rosso, uses a three-glasses scale that will be familiar to European consumers who use the Michelin Guide’s three-star scale to rate restaurants.

Which System if Best?

It is natural to think that the best system is the one that provides the most information, so a 100-point scale must be best, but I’m not sure that’s true. Emile Peynaud makes the point that how you go about tasting and evaluating wine is different depending upon your purpose. Critical wine evaluation to uncover the flaws in wine (to advise a winemaker, for example) is different in his book from commercial tasting (as the basis for ordering wine for a restaurant or wine distributor or perhaps buying wine as an investment) which is different consumer tasting to see what you like.

Many will disagree, but it seems to me that the simple three or five stars/glasses/points systems are probably adequate for consumer tasting use while the 20- and 100-point scales are better suited for commercial purposes. I’m not sure that numbers or stars are useful at all for critical wine evaluation – for that you need Broadbent’s detailed qualitative notes. Wine critic publications often try to serve all three of these markets, which may explain why they use the most detailed systems or use a dual system like Decanter.

In any case, however, it seems to me that greater transparency would be useful. First, it is important that the criteria and weights are highlighted and not buried in footnotes. And I don’t see why a 20-point rating couldn’t be disaggregated like this: 15 (3/6/6) for a 20-point system that gives up to 4 points for appearance, 6 for smell and 10 for taste. That would tell me quickly how this wine differs from a 15 (4/3/8). Depending upon how much I value aroma in a wine and what type of wine it is, I might prefer the first “15” wine to the second.

Wine and Figure Skating?

So far I’ve focused on the practical problems associated with having different evaluation scales with different weights for different purposes, but there are even more serious difficulties in wine rating scales. In economics we learn that numerical measures are either cardinal or ordinal. Cardinal measures have constant units of measurement that can be compared and manipulated mathematically with ease. Weight (measured by a scale) and length (measured in feet or meters) are cardinal measures. Every kilogram or kilometer is the same.

Ordinal measures are different – they provide only a rank ordering. If I asked you to rate three wines from your most preferred to your least favorite, for example, that would be an ordinal ranking. You and I might agree about the order (rating wines A over C over B, for example), but we might disagree about how much better A was compared to C. I might think it was a little better, but for you the difference could be profound.

To use a familiar example from sports, they give the Olympic gold medal in the long jump based upon a cardinal measure of performance (length of jump) and they give the gold medal in figure skating based upon ordinal judges’ scores, which are relative not absolute measures of performance (in the U.S. they actually call the judges’ scores “ordinals”). Figure skating ratings are controversial for the same reason wine scores are.

So what kind of judgment do we make when we taste wine — do we evaluate against an absolute standard like in the long jump or a relative one like the figure skating judges? The answer is both, but in different proportions. An expert taster will have an exact idea of what a wine should be and can rate accordingly, but you and I might only be able to rank order different wines, since our abilities to make absolute judgements aren’t well developed.

This is one reason why multi-wine social blind tasting parties almost always produce unexpected winners or favorites. The wines we like better [relative] are not always the ones we like best [absolute] when evaluated on their own.

Ordinal and cardinal are just different, like apples and oranges (or Pinot Gris and Chardonnay). Imagine what the long jump would look like if ordinal “style points” were awarded? Imagine what figure skating would look like if the jumps and throws were rated by cardinal measures distance and hang time? No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

Economists are taught that it is a mistake to treat ordinal rankings as if they are cardinal rankings, but that’s what I think we wine folks do sometimes. I’ve read than Jancis Robinson, who studied Mathematics at Oxford, isn’t entirely comfortable with numeric wine ratings. Perhaps it is because she appreciates this methodological difficulty.

Lessons of the Judgment of Paris

paris2.jpgOr maybe she’s just smart. Smart enough to know that your 18-point wine may be my 14-pointer. It’s clear that people approach wine with different tastes, tasting skills, expectations and even different taste buds, so relative rankings by one person need not be shared by others. This is true of even professional tasters, as the Judgment of Paris made clear.

The Judgment of Paris (the topic of a great book by George M. Taber – see below – and two questionable forthcoming films) was a 1976 blind tasting of French versus American wines organized (in Paris, of course) by Steven Spurrier. It became famous because a panel of French wine experts found to their surprise that American wines were as good as or even better than prestigious wines from French.

A recent article by Dennis Lindley (professor emeritus at University College London – see below) casts doubt on this conclusion, however. Read the article for the full analysis, but for now just click on the image above to see the actual scores of the 11 judges. It doesn’t take much effort to see that these experts disagreed as much as they agreed about the quality of the wines they tasted. The 1971 Mayacamas Cabernet, for example, received scores as low as 3 and 5 on a 20-point scale along with ratings as high as 12, 13 and 14. It was simultaneous undrinkable (according to a famous sommelier) and pretty darn good (according to the owner of a famous wine property). If the experts don’t agree with each other, what is the chance that you will agree with them?

Does this mean that wine critics and their rating systems are useless and should disappear? Not likely. Wine ratings are useful to consumers, who face an enormous range of choices and desperately need information, even if it is practically problematic and theoretically suspect. Wine ratings are useful commercially, too. Winemakers need to find ways to reduce consumer uncertainty and therefore increase sales and wine ratings serve that purpose.

And then, of course, there is the wine critic industry itself, which knows that ratings sell magazines and drive advertising. Wine ratings are here to stay. We just need to understand them better and use them more effectively.

References:

Dennis V. Lindley, “Analysis of a Wine Tasting.” Journal of Wine Economics 1:1 (May 2006) 33-41.

George M. Taber, Judgment of ParisCalifornia vs. France and the History 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. Scribner, 2005.

Wine & Coronavirus Recession: Three Questions

51ufhc3glvl._sx361_bo1204203200_This is the Age of Uncertainty (to reference the title of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous book) both in general and with respect to the wine industry. Everyone’s looking  for answers as they confront a murky future. But most answers right now (especially including my own) are at best informed speculation, subject to frequent revision.

If we can’t have solid answers, maybe the next best thing is to try to refine the questions. Herewith my attempt to pin down three important questions about the near- and intermediate-term wine market and environment.

Please use the comments section below to raise other questions that need attention now

Q1: Recession Uncertainties

It is clear that the conoravirus pandemic and its health and economic effects have  produced a global recession of historic proportions.  Income and wealth have declined and unemployment increased. There is no way that wine cannot be affected by such an economic downturn. Many questions about the recession beg for answers. How deep?  How long? The Great Depression made a indelible mark on the people who lived through it. Will the coronoavirus recession do the same?

There are pluses and minus to consider. Monetary and fiscal stimulus packages have been huge by historical standards — much larger than during the Great Recession of a dozen years ago.  And we’ve seen some bright spots in the data. The May employment numbers in the U.S. surprised nearly everyone with a strong net increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment. A short, sharp V-shaped recession, while still unlikely, may not be as impossible as most of us believed.

But there are problems starting with the jobs report figures themselves, which may result in under-estimates of unemployment by several percentage points because of unusual data collection and classification problems created in part by the deep churning of the labor market.  I am also very concerned about changes in state-local government employment. Budget deficits in the second half of the year may lead to big lay-offs in local governments just as economic re-opening brings others back to the workplace. Programs to stabilize employment have so far focused on private sector jobs and left public sector employment pretty much alone. This will be a problem, but how big is unclear.

Bottom Line: I think it is all going to come down to the question of consumer spending.  Governments have already gone all-in — they may not have much more to contribute to a recovery. Business investment — the real kind, not the stock market — will probably lag consumers, not lead them. And trade has fallen taking potential net export gains down, too. It’s going to be up to consumers to get the economy moving.

Consumers have surprised many analysts by saving an amazingly high proportion (about 30%) of their incomes in recent weeks, which may be good for their individual financial security but unhelpful in terms of  increasing aggregate demand. It is easy to say that they didn’t spend because the shops were closed, but there is more going on. It is that age of uncertainty thing.

Consumers will continue to hold back on spending so long as they lack confidence in economic recovery. Until that confidence switch is flipped, economic growth is uncertain and consumers are right to be cautious. Is that a Catch 22 problem? Yes.

Q2: Wine’s New Normal?

Consumers are also at the center of questions about how the wine market will look when the recession and pandemic fogs start to clear. In the short run, the situation is a bit like the person who was swept over a waterfall. Half-way down things seem to be going just fine, but there’s a big splash ahead and it is hard to know who’s going to sink or swim away.

As noted in recent Wine Economist columns, there has been much turbulence in the wine market so far this year. Wine sales volumes are up overall but revenues not so much as high-margin restaurant sales have been replaced by lower-margin retail. On-line sales have risen dramatically, albeit from a relatively small base.  Wine hasn’t done as well as spirits, which seem to fly off the shelves, but better than beer.

As Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv noted in a recent Ciatti market update webcast, the wine industry is going to need to rethink the route to market and how on-trade, off-trade, on-line, cellar door, phone sales (!), and other strategies fit together and what products work best in each channel. Consumers are changing their buying behavior for other products and wine shouldn’t think it is different in this regard. On-premise sales, in particular, are likely to be slow to recover as bars and restaurants struggle to both safely and profitably serve customers.

Bottom Line:  They say that generals are always preparing to fight the last war and so are often unprepared for new battle lines when they emerge. The same might be said for many wine businesses. The lesson that many small and medium-sized wineries learned in the last war (the Great Recession) was the importance of direct-to-consumer cellar door sales.

This strategy is problematic in a socially-distanced world. Shifting on-line now seems like the obvious reaction, but does that change the nature of consumer relationships and perhaps the nature of wine itself? Remember that Jeff Bezos picked books for his Amazon.com start up because they could easily be commodified. If that’s where wine is going, there will be implications. Fortunately (see last week’s Wine Economist column), many wineries are finding ways to keep wine personal even in the virtual space. How is wine going to evolve to succeed in an increasingly on-line market place?

Q3: Global Wine Market Threats

The global wine market environment is most directly defined by the big exporting wine economies. Italy, Spain, and France are the Big Three that together producer more than half the world’s wine. Argentina, Chile, and Australia are much smaller, but very important. New Zealand is tiny but punches above its weight. China, like the U.S. is currently most important in terms of global dynamics as an importer.

Wine sector conditions are unfavorable in all the largest wine-exporting countries. On-trade sales are much more important in Europe than the U.S., accounting for more than half of wine purchases. The closures of bars and restaurants during the pandemic lock down period has therefore produced a huge unsold inventory of wine. Some of this will disappear through emergency distillation schemes, which promise to dispose of between 750 million and one billion liters of excess wine. The rest will be looking for export market sales.

The bad old days of the EU wine lake depended on distillation to eliminate subsidized unmarketable wine. The policy changed several years ago to focus subsidies on modernization and marketing to encourage producers to make wines that the market would absorb. But no amount of marketing euro is going to help this year, so surplus wine will head off to the distillery. Maybe it will end up as hand sanitizer?

A billion liters is a lot of wine taken off the market. But I don’t think it will be enough to prevent a short term worldwide wine glut, especially when you consider the troubles that Southern Hemisphere producers are experiencing (despite short harvests in many regions). Australia and Chile depend on China to buy much of their wine and China’s growth has slowed dramatically. New Zealand looks especially to the UK and US markets, which are in recession. Argentina and South Africa have large domestic markets, but there are complicated economic and political problems in both countries that have affected sales.

Bottom line: A lot of wine is going to be looking for a home in the next year. Who in the world is going to buy it?

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Galbraith’s Age of Uncertainty was both a book and a 1977 television series. Here is the first episode.