Dollar Daze on the Wine Wall

You know that wine economics has become mainstream when you find yourself listening to it on the car radio.

The Dollar and the Wine Wall

Marketplace, a program of American Public Media that is broadcast by many National Public Radio stations, recently featured a story called U.S. Winemakers Toast a Strong Euro. Go ahead and click on the link to listen to the story or read the transcript.

The basic idea, which my International Economics students will recognize immediately, is that exchange rate changes create many direct and indirect winners and losers. This is particularly true in the increasingly integrated global wine market. The Euro has appreciated from about USD 1.35 per Euro to about USD 1.55 in the last year, which means that a wholesale €10 bottle of French or Italian wine’s dollar cost has increased from $13.50 to $15.50. This pushes the retail price from about $20 to $23 or $24, assuming a full cost pass-through, which puts it at a different price point on the supermarket shelf. Higher shipping costs will nudge the dollar price a bit higher still. Basically, you’re looking at a $20 wine selling for as much as $25. U.S. wines are corresponding cheaper in Eurozone countries.

U.S. winemakers hope that the falling dollar will be their ticket to higher sales abroad. I wrote about this in January when a group of Washington and Oregon wineries organized an export event in London. It is difficult to get traction in foreign markets, but the dollar’s weakness should help.

In the meantime, rising import prices here give domestic wines an advantage. Wine buyers tend to make most of their purchases around particular “comfort zone” price points and rising import prices should create some advantageous substitution effects. This comes out in the Marketplace interview. One wine professional puts it this way

Say if they used to enjoy a Sancerre for $20 and now their favorite producer is $25, they’re going to look for a comparable producer in that same price range that they originally purchased.

And the idea is that the “comparable producer” might be from the U.S., although this isn’t always the case.

Now Things Get Complicated

A falling dollar encourages exports and discourages imports — so far we are following the textbook pretty closely. But real world economics, and wine economics in particular, is seldom so simple. Foreign wine producers and distributors obviously have an incentive to keep from losing their market and there are many strategies to soften the exchange rate effects. The New Zealand producers, for example, seem to have been pretty successful in finding new markets for their wine and strengthening their reputation in response to the rising New Zealand Dollar. So far NZ wine seem to be defying gravity — higher quantities and higher prices too. But not everyone can pull of this bit of magic (or necessarily do it forever in New Zealand’s case).

One way to retain market share is for European exporters, distributors and retailers to absorb some of the exchange rate effects themselves, limiting what economists call the “pass through effect.” Canadian wine columnist Anthony Grismondi wrote about this in April in the Vancouver Sun.

I think European winemakers will be under a lot of pressure this year as container shipping costs continue to rise and the Euro’s strength persist. Not all of these higher costs can or will be passed along immediately in the form of higher dollar prices. The biggest effects will probably be felt on low cost wine, where the shipping cost effect is proportionately greater and price sensitivity is higher, too. Look for foreign wineries to go upmarket if they can and to absorb costs or adjust in other ways if they can’t.

But high end wines are not immune from exchange rate problems. Decanter reported in March that the strong Euro was expected to depress prices for Bordeaux en primeur sales.

Winners & Losers

The dollar hasn’t fallen uniformly relative to all currencies. A dollar buys 3.1 Argentine pesos today, for example, which is about the same as a year ago (Argentina’s compounding economic problems have caused a run on the currency in recent days). The Chilean Peso has not appreciated as much as the Euro and the South African rand is actually cheaper in dollar terms than a year ago.

One well known Australian brand, Lindemans, has been sourcing wine from Chile and South Africa to keep costs down as the Australian dollar has risen — a controversial but not uncommon practice in today’s small world of wine. Look for the Lindemans “Country of Origin” wine series.

This suggests that the Dollar Daze on the Wine Wall might feature some interesting shifts, from France and Italy (and Australia and New Zealand) to Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Is it my imagination or are the wine critics and magazines already riding this wave by featuring these New World regions more prominently in their publications?

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