Premiumization: Is This the Wine Market’s New “New Normal?”

Is the current U.S. wine market the new “new normal” — can the recent upmarket shift in wine sales be sustained into the future? Two recent Wine Economist columns have detailed the surprising bifurcation of the U.S. wine market and tried to understand what forces are behind it. Wine sales below about $9 are stagnant or falling while upmarket sales revenues are increasing, with the largest percentage rise in the $20+ segment.

This is a surprising state of things, I argued two weeks ago, because the conventional wisdom once held that the Great Recession had created a “new normal” that centered on trading down behavior and discounting strategies. Not many people argued that we’d be “trading up” in the post-recession world.

And, as I noted in last week’s column, it is not clear that it is a simple return to previous behavior. I analyzed several theories for the change and concluded that none of them told the entire story, but together they explain the situation fairly well. So now we have to ask if those trends will continue — if the new market structure is the new “new normal” — or if the upmarket movement is unsustainable.

My answer — typical of an economist — is that it depends. It is really too soon to tell what will happen in the long run because there are so many unpredictable factors to consider. But since I asked this question I feel I ought to give more of an answer, so here’s my attempt at crystal ball gazing.

It’s too soon to tell about the U.S. market in the long run, but the current pattern is likely to be sustained for the medium term, although not necessarily due to the same factors that created it in the first place. Here’s my reasoning.

Decline and Fall of Down-market Wine

Inexpensive wines are not going away, but it seems unlikely that they will soon return to solid growth. This might be because of the alleged “bad wine” effect that I talked about last week, but it is more likely due to supply-side effects.

With water issues rising to the surface almost everywhere and higher irrigation costs in many places, the economic sustainability of low-cost wine grapes is in serious doubt at current prices. Jeff Bitter’s presentation at this year’s Unified Symposium in Sacramento included photos of acres of healthy Central Valley grapes left to rot on the vine because they were not worth the cost of harvest this year and probably not worth irrigation costs next year.

What is the future of these vines? Thousands of acres of vines have been grubbed up in California in recent years to make way for other crops with higher potential value — almonds and pistachios are the most frequently cited crop alternatives, but I’m sure there are others.  Imported bulk wines can easily fill in the gap left by falling California production in the short run, but sustainability issues (both economic and environmental) are a global phenomenon.

Low-cost wine grapes (and the wines they produce) are not going away, but there is limited incentive to invest here and so the focus is upmarket, where margins are better and business sustainability is more feasible.

Up the Down Staircase?

The upmarket movement in wine sales is likely to be sustained at least for some time because it is driven by factors affecting both demand and supply that are not specific to the U.S. but part of strong global trends. The supply-side element is easy to understand. Intense competition has cut margins on basic wines to the bone (and even deeper than that in some markets). Follow the money, Deep Throat said, and wine producers are listening to that advice now more than ever.

Once again, that doesn’t mean that basic wines and the bulk wine trade that has evolved around them are going away. It is simply that this is not the market segment that will get investment in future. Producers are likely to focus even more on the premium, super-premium and ultra-premium segments in the future. Every wine producer I have talked with around the world is focusing on moving up the up staircase and plotting effective distribution and marketing strategies.

On the demand  side I would point to the increasing importance of retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and their many upscale local market competitors that attract customers by providing them with a sense of authenticity and affordable luxury in the quotidian consumption experience.

Products of origin and artisan creations with sustainability credentials — these are the hallmarks of the new retail environment and upscale supermarkets and a growing number of their customers seek out wines that fit that profile. Even hard-discount Aldi is playing along on the wine aisle, providing unexpectedly premium wines in their U.K. stores.

Bronco Busting

Don’t believe that the shift is important? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been wrong, but I think you will find evidence all around you if you look for it. Let me give you just one data point to get you thinking.

Consider the Bronco Wine Company, the famous maker of Two Buck Chuck and many other inexpensive wines. Bronco chief Fred Franzia once said that no wine should cost more than $10 and he built the 4th largest wine company in the U.S. by making those wines both for his own labels and, under contract, for other firms.

Where is Bronco headed today? Well, Two Buck Chuck is still in the picture and I think it is probably still selling about 5 million cases a year as it was the last time I wrote about it. But Bronco is busting out of that market segment via a variety of new products that, while they don’t aim for Screaming Eagle or DRC cult status still fit the profiles I’ve outline here. Several of Bronco’s wines illustrate the upmarket trends that I see for the future, including Garnet and Green Truck.

Garnet Vineyards are maybe not what you’d expect from the maker of Two Buck Chuck. They are all about cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Monterey and more cool climate Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. The highly-regarded Alison Crowe (author of the popular blog The Girl and the Grape)  makes the wines . The Garnet Rogers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ticks the boxes key to buyers seeking authenticity and sells for $29.99 on Amazon.com, about ten times the price of a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

(Editor’s note: Bronco is the sales agent for Garnet but does not make this wine — see Alison Crowe’s comment below, which clarifies the relationship. Thanks to Alison for her correction.)

The long list of wines that Bronco produces and/or distributes includes six different organic wine brands plus a number that are vegan-friendly. Green Truck wine from Mendocino County is a good example. The wines are made from organic grapes and when I searched to see the nearest retailer to me there was Whole Foods near the top of the list.

Buckle Up!

Wine is looking up! The new normal will focus on wines that tell as good a story as other contemporary market products, such as craft beers and spirits and locally-sourced food products. It’s a great opportunity for wine producers, but the market is very competitive and will only get more so.

Buckle up!  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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I thought you might enjoy this 2007  video of  wine critic Oz Clarke and “Top Gear” presenter James May meeting Bronco’s Fred Franzia. Their reaction to Two Buck Chuck may surprise you. Cheers!

6 responses

  1. Mike
    Consider the rising cost of labor and reduced supply of labor as a bigger factor than the cost of water, especially in WA state, for the rising cost of grapes.

    • That’s a great point, Ken. With the drought in the news so much these days it is easy to forget about the labor issues you mention, which are unlikely to go away soon. Thanks! Mike

  2. With the high water demands to grow almonds it makes no sense to switch from grapes to almonds…unfortunately for some California farmers it makes perfect sense.

  3. Again, I wonder if we are seeing true bifurcation – high end/low end – or stratification where wine buyers are extending their range upward as their palates evolve while continuing to buy quality wines that cost less than $10.

    I value quality over snob appeal, and while I usually get what I pay for (and more!) from $15 – $35 wines, it’s also true that I’ve been extremely disappointed in some $80+ wines.

    Kent is right about labor costs, but I am hoping that economies of scale will help keep a few of my value wines affordable.

  4. Hi Mike- interesting article and timely topic! However I really would like to clarify something that might have an impact on how you structure your argument. My company, Garnet Vineyards (I am the Winemaker as well as partner) grows and makes the wines. Bronco as a grower and winemaker (yes, the Two Buck Chuck people) has nothing to do with the growing or winemaking of Garnet Vineyards wines. Bronco Wine Company is Garnet’s *Sale Agency* – Like Niner Winery, Balletto Winery and Rancho Sisquoc (and many others), the relationship is purely on the sales side. Their national sales force represents Garnet in the marketplace. What I grow and what is in the bottle has nothing to do with Bronco as a wine producer. Thanks for letting me clear this up!

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