The times they are a-changing. In fact, they have already changed, so the wine industry needs to change, too. That was the over-arching theme of the just-concluded 2019 edition of the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium. More that 14,000 wine industry participants from 27 countries came Sacramento to assess the evolving landscape and debate appropriate strategies.
There were so many informative sessions that even working together Sue and I could not attend them all. I am especially sorry we missed the program about cannabis and the wine market — everyone was talking about it.
Herewith some field notes from three sessions that Wine Economist readers are likely to find interesting.
The State of the Industry session
One of the lines in David Bowie’s song “Changes” notes that “pretty soon now you’re going to get older” and that is part of the problem that the California wine industry faces today. Baby boomers, who powered the U.S. into the top spot among wine-consuming nations, are starting to get older and their ability to push consumption higher and higher no longer exists. For a variety of reasons that I have written about recently, Gen-X and Millennials are not stepping up in sufficient numbers to fill the gap.
Wine consumption isn’t collapsing, it is just reaching a plateau. Peak wine? Not sure. Some wine categories are booming — especially Rosé and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — but the overall trend is much less optimistic than last year or the year before that.
Wine production has continued to rise, especially in the premium and super-premium wine coastal regions. The value of sales is still rising, especially for higher-priced wine, but volumes are down in many categories. There is a lot of wine in California (plus increased import pressure) and great concern about who is going to buy it and at what price.
Jeff Bitter, President of Allied Grape Growers, shared information from his annual nursery survey that indicates that the problem will not go away soon. Based on nursery sales and analysis of non-producing acreage (vines that have already been planted but are not yet productive), it is clear that grape production will continue to rise in the short term all around California except perhaps the Central Valley.
New vineyards are disproportionately planted to what Jeff called the chocolate-vanilla-strawberry grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Since even these very popular wines are already unusually abundant, with falling price trends in the bulk markets, it looks like there are dark clouds on the horizon.
Jeff argued that root of the problem was demand and not supply, and the recent Silicon Valley Bank Report makes clear that selling wine in the changing environment is going to be challenging. But it isn’t a demand problem alone. Someone once asked the great British economist Alfred Marshall (who actually invented demand and supply curves) which force set price — demand or supply? Which scissor blade cuts the paper, he replied? Both is the right answer and that’s true of wine markets, too.
Jeff, Danny Brager (Nielsen), Glenn Proctor (Ciatti), Marissa Lange (LangeTwins Winery) and I all contributed to the State of the Industry session’s analysis, which news reports thought was both realistic in terms of the problems on the horizon and cautiously optimistic that effective strategies were available. But you can’t confront change without changing and expect everything to work the way it once did.
Technology Thursday: From Drones to Chatbots; How the Wine Industry is Embracing Digitalization
The new Tech Thursday session , which I was pleased to co-moderate with Dr. Tom Collins of Washington State University, pushed the change theme beyond the marketplace and well into the future. A dozen speakers told of their experiences with digital technology in wine business operations, grape growing, wine making, and wine marketing. Together they illuminated change in the present, peered at what is just on the horizon, and probed the distant future (which, because this is technology and change happens quickly, is only a few years away).
There were so many different ideas in the air, each presented in only a few minutes, that it was exciting just to be in the room. I especially liked what Dr. Nick Dokoozlian (E&J Gallo Winery) had to say: you must measure, model, and manage. Digital sensors have the potential to flood us with real time data, so we need effective models to organize it and strategies for action.
I am no expert in this field, but it seems to me that it would be easy to put the cart before the horse by asking “what can we measure?” rather than what can we manage and how can data and models facilitate better and more timely actions? Lots of research and innovation here.
Keynote Speaker Luncheon: Lance Winters, St. George Spirits
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits, opened the 2019 Symposium as the luncheon speaker. Winters is an entrepreneur who has expanded St. George’s into one of the most innovative craft distilleries in the nation.
What can wine people learn from a successful spirits entrepreneur? I am a firm believer that there is much to gain by crossover analysis, but Winters actually began his talk by saying he wasn’t sure if he had anything relevant to say. He asked the audience to help him figure it out during the Q&A session.
Winters is right that craft spirits is very different from wine, especially from the production side, but I found some things to take away from his entertaining talk (which included tasting of three of his spirits). He noted that spirits has appropriated some of the terminology and special character of wine. We tasted Winters’ “Terroir Gin,” for example, which was distilled with herbs and spices chosen to give it the character of a particular forest location that Winters discovered. It is sort of manufactured terroir, I admit, since the flavorings don’t actually come from one particular place, but there was a much more rooted- in-place sense than, say, industrial vodka.
Winters also stressed that story-telling was important in marketing his products and, with this in mind, he suggested the wineries ought to consider producing grappa by distilling the pressed skins of their wine grapes. You already have a story for the wine, he said, which you can leverage into the spirits space. This is an appealing idea, especially for small producers, and some wineries are already taking advantage of the opportunity. Perhaps more will follow suit.
Sue and I also attended a seminar on growing, making, and selling Rosé, which will be the subject of an upcoming column. Overall, I have to say that this was one of the best Unified Symposia I have attended. Congratulations to organizers and speakers!
The Wine Economist will be back in two weeks with a column about the Rosé boom. I will be in Washington state next week to speak at the Washington Winegrowers Conference. I’ll moderate and speak at their State of the Industry session and talk about global market trends in a seminar on “Intentional Rosé.”
In the meantime, here is a version of David Bowie’s “Changes” from the film Shrek 2.