Big & Hot Wine: Cab Boom, Napa Bubble, Think Pink, Back to the Future?

Last week’s Wine Economist column featured a very basic “Big and Hot” analysis of recent U.S. wine market data, focusing on which parts of the market are the most interesting in terms of “big” total expenditures versus the fastest growing “hot” categories. (If you haven’t read the first column, click here to check it out.)

This week I invite you to give some thought to the implications of that information. Here are a few observations to get you started.

Cabernet Boom, Napa Bubble?hqdefault

Cabernet Sauvignon is both Big and Hot these days. Cab will soon eclipse Chardonnay as the best-selling varietal wine in the U.S. market.

When you combine this fact with the general up-market trend, where the fastest growing parts of the wine market are in the super-premium and luxury segments, it is easy to understand how and why the California wine industry is being transformed by a movement toward quality, with Cabernet Sauvignon in the lead.

The Cab Boom is at its fiercest in the Napa Valley, where sky-high grape prices translate into stratospheric land prices. According to the most recent Allied Grape Growers newsletter (see pdf here),  The average price of Cab grapes in the Napa district was over $6800 a ton. And that’s just the average. The best grapes? If you have to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

Cabernet seems to be good as gold generally, especially in Napa.

samuelson

Fool’s Gold?

Or is it fool’s gold? In particular, is the Cab-driven Napa vineyard value boom sustainable or is it a bubble that will someday burst? I think the possibility must be considered.

Agricultural markets in general are subject to what my Econ 101 professor called a “cobweb” model of price dynamics, where today’s high price leads to over-investment, which causes next year’s collapse, which leads to under-production, which brings on a future price spike and so on.

You can see the cobweb graph in this photo of Nobel Prize economist Paul Samuelson. Some cobwebs converge to an equilibrium. Some, like the one that Samuelson drew here, explode.

Wine is different from the standard agricultural commodity that was the inspiration for the cobweb model. Its longer production cycle actually makes the potential for price swings worse than for corn or wheat.

Maybe the current boom isn’t a bubble and I am just doing that Chicken Little thing that I sometimes do.  But it seems to me that you have to take the possibility of a bubble seriously unless you have a very good answer (which I do not yet have) to the question, what exactly makes this time different? 

Rise of the Red Blends

The rise of the red blends, which I discussed last week, is an interesting trend that has persisted long enough to be taken seriously. I admit that I have changed my opinion about red blends over time. Initially I saw Hot red blends as a response to Cold market conditions for Merlot and Syrah/Shriaz. Merlot fell out of favor after Sideways and negative reaction to simple Aussie Shiraz wines somehow turned contagious, infecting Syrah generally.

Consumers, it seemed, didn’t want to buy Merlot and Syrah. But they actually liked to drink them! So surplus Merlot and Syrah, plus a few other varietals, were mixed into market friendly Red Blend. Voilà!  You can be a Merlot or Syrah snob and enjoy drinking it, too. What could be better?

Back to the Future?

But then red blends seemed to change, with different grape varieties in the mix, and attention turned to the surge in sweet red blend wines. The focus was on what the higher residual sugar said about the changing wine market generally.

Now I’m more interested in the fact that many of the most popular red blends are intentional creations aimed specifically at the Hot super-premium market segment. Some of the common characteristics of these wines are that they have strong brand identities that are not linked to particular wine-growing regions (hence California appellation) or specific grape varietal (proprietary blends).

The flexibility that this affords the makers of these wines is very useful as they can alter the blend within reason both in terms of grape varieties and grape source depending upon demand scale and supply conditions.  Customers are buying the brand, not the particular recipe.

In a way these two parts of the red blend phenomenon (sweeter wines and stronger focus on brands over regions or varieties) strike me as a “Back to the Future” trend, a throwback to the 60s and 70s, especially since some of the largest wine producers are responsible for many of the new successful brands that have emerged.  What’s different is that we have moved up dramatically on the price ladder.

Is this the end of varietal wines? No, but it is a reorganization of the market. Varietals were seen to be a step up over generic jug wines. Now some of the proprietary blends are positioning themselves above the varietals. Interesting!

Think Pink

The recent popularity of Rosé wine caught most observers (including me) off guard. Why should pink wines (and even relatively expensive pink wines) suddenly be in fashion? A new documentary is about to be released called “La Révolution du Rosé” — can’t wait to see how the Rosé rise is explained in this timely film.

Is Rosé a thing? The biggest skeptics I have met have been the European wine producers who, ironically, have the most to gain from this trend since they have a lot of good pink wines to sell. They have been burned before and hesitate to make big investments until they are convinced that pink wines is not just another short-term fad.

I have heard many theories about the Pink explosion. Here’s one that’s inspired by last week’s Big and Hot analysis. The Red Blend boom seems to be real. What about the White Blend boom? Well, it didn’t happen. Personally, there are many white wine blends that I love, but there has been no real movement in white wine blends to mirror the changes in red wine blends. Unless, that is, you Think Pink.

Rosé wines have a lot in common with the red blends.  They can be and are made from many different wine grape varieties and are sourced from dozens of countries and regions. Some consumers may be nerdy about which grapes, which regions, and (especially) which particular shade of pink they like best. But many more consumers are open to all sorts of possibilities, judging the wines on their qualities more than pedigree.mateus

Sue and I have been on a bit of a Pink wine binge recently drinking pink Cinsault from Lebanon, pink Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa, and a variety of different pink blends from various regions in the South of France. They were all delicious and refreshing.

Pink wines are often dry, but they can sometimes be sweeter, too, which fits well with the Red Blend comparison. Maybe we are missing the white wine boom because we haven’t learned how to Think Pink?

So are Pink wines the Next Big Thing. No … but I only say that so that I can finish this column on another Back to the Future note. Pink wine is actually an old thing that has come full circle here in the United States. Don’t forget that one of America’s all-time top-selling Big and Hot imported wines was Proudly Pink.

Can you name it? Yes, I am talking about Mateus Rosé! Think Pink!

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5 responses

  1. Love rose and I believe it is here to stay. Love the price point too. My favorites are the sparkling roses which make fabulous pairings. This weekend we will begin our dinner with a vintage rose Krug with lobster bisque.

  2. Ciao Mike, very interesting the lines about sweet red blends. We’ve realized a special issue on this phenomenon on our magazine, taking some data from a research of the Texas Wine Marketing Institute about drinking habits of the millennials. We call them the “sugar generation”, as their palate is used to sweeteness since their childhood, and this may explain the explosion of sweet wines. Why blended? Maybe it’s a kind of antithesis versus the drinking habits of the previous generation, their parents: my dad drinks Cab? I’ll drink something different, and the blends (with sparkling wines, of course) is the most suitable drink for young people who do not know so much about wines, but want to simply enjoy them, without too much thinking. Last week I was talking with the president of Riunite, and he said: the US market of today is so similar to the 70’s, when Lambrusco phenomenon raised up. Now, while in Italy the sweet and semi-sweet Lambruscos, in 1,5 liters bottles, are declining, as young people want dry ones, in 0,75, in US – especially in South US, Texas and so on, where Hispanic are the most, there’s a return to original Lambruscos: sweet!
    The Roscato from Cavit – a red blend made with grapes such as Croatina – is an excellent example of what Italian wineries should do to enlarge their portfolio beyond the classic Pinot grigio.
    The question is: when these young generation will be mature, what will they drink? Will they evolve to dry, “conventional” wines, or the sweet share of the pie will remain? And, what will the very next genartions drink?
    Sorry for this long text…

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