Thursday is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States and it is a time for remembering and being grateful. I am grateful for friends and family and for all the wonderful wine choices we have today. As for remembering, here is an abridged version of a Thanksgiving Wine Economist column from 2009.
The Black Friday Wine?
I called Beaujolais Nouveau a “Black Friday wine” back in 2009 because good sales were critical for producers and distributors who wanted to finish the year profitably “in the black.” Success was certainly not guaranteed back then, with the global financial crisis still casting its dark shadow over wine sales.
A lot has changed in 10 years. The economic crisis has passed, for example, but the current trade war, with its 25% tariff on French still wines below 14% abv has come at a bad time for Nouveau. Some of it arrived on U.S. shores just in time to pay the extra tax. Yikes! The Georges DuBoeuf we found at the local market is listed at 13.8% abv, just below the 14% abv line where the tariff would disappear.
Indications are that suppliers are absorbing some of the additional cost in order to preserve their market. That makes sense since the selling window for Nouveau is relative narrow. No one is very interested in old (last year’s) Nouveau.
The DuBoeuf’s price — $10.99 — is about the same as last year, suggesting slimmer margins somewhere along the product chain in an effort to keep price down. Will this be a Black Friday? Too soon to be sure.
Here’s a blast from the 2009 past. Happy Thanksgiving!
(November 23, 2009) Although the United States is not the only country to set aside a day for giving thanks, we like to think of Thanksgiving as our distinctive holiday. It was conceived as a day for deep reflection, but Thanksgiving has evolved into a long weekend of over-consumption and discount shopping. Some of my friends really prefer to celebrate Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the holiday shopping season formally begins and retailers find out if they will be “in the black” for the year based upon early sales data.
If you plan an Old Time giving-thanks Thanksgiving, then Nouveau is not for you. If wine were literature, my friend Patrick points out, Nouveau would be the trashy paperback novel you read at the beach. Nothing wrong in that — everyone needs an escape once in a while.
The grapes for Nouveau are picked in late September or thereabouts and the only thing that prevents instant sale is the necessity of fermentation and the mechanics of distribution. It’s still a bit sweet when it’s bottled and sometimes a bit fizzy, too, when it arrives with great fanfare on the third Thursday in November (a week before Turkey Day). Best served cold (like revenge!) it is the ultimate cash flow wine.
Black Friday Wine?
Nouveau is not very sophisticated, so why do the French, who otherwise are known to guard their terroirist image, bother with it? The Beaujolias producers make very nice ordinary (non-nouveau) wines; character complexity, you can have it all and for a surprisingly low price.
Ah, but that’s the problem. Sitting close to prestigious Burgundy, the Beaujolais cannot command high prices for their wines, good as they are, so they must try to make money through turnover more than markup. They churn out millions of bottles of Nouveau to pay the bills.
At the peak of the bubble in 1992 about half of all wines made in Beaujolais were Nouveau. The proportion remains high even today. Ironically, Nouveau often sells at prices as high as Beaujolais’ more serious wines because it is marketed so well. So it is hard to see why you’d want to buy it instead of the region’s other wines. It’s easy, on the other hand, to see why you’d want to sell it.
Beaujolais Nouveau, it seems, is France’s Black Friday wine! If the makers can sell their Nouveau, then maybe the bottom line for the year will be in the black. If the Nouveau market fails, well that red stain on the floor won’t be just spilled wine.
Nouveau is therefore generally marketed around the world with more than the usual urgency (just as those Black Friday sales seem a little desperate at times) — and not just because young wines hit their “best by” date pretty quickly. This year things are even more stressful than usual, as you might imagine, with the economic crisis still on everyone’s minds and 10+ percent unemployment here in the United States.
An American Wine?
Beaujolais Nouveau sounds like the perfect wine for American consumers brought up on 2-liter jugs of fizzy-sweet Mountain Dew and Diet Coke. If you were kinda cynical, you would think Nouveau was an American wine … made in USA.
And it is, in a way. Although the wine obviously comes from France (and there is actually a long tradition of simple and fun early-release new wines in France and elsewhere), I think it is fair to say that the Nouveau phenomenon is an American invention.
W.J. Deutsch & Sons, the American distributors, really put Beaujolias in general and Nouveau in particular on the U.S. wine market map when they became exclusive distributors for Georges Duboeuf some years ago. They took this simple wine and made it a marketing event. To paraphrase an old Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China and only the brilliant Deutsch family could sell Nouveau!
In fact they were so successful that they partnered with another family firm — the Casella family from Australia — and created a second wine phenomenon tailored to American tastes: Yellow Tail!
So although Nouveau is an American wine of sorts and might be perfectly crafted for this American holiday as we actually celebrate it on Friday, I’m going to pass this year (on Thursday, at least) and see if I can nurse some thoughtful reflection from my holiday glass instead. Cheers, everyone! And thanks.
2019 update: I passed on Nouveau back in 2009, but I will try some of the 2019 vintage over the holiday weekend this year. Hmmm. I wonder if I can find it in a can?
Happy Thanksgiving to all!