Wine and Inflation: Will the Rising Tide Lift Wine’s Boat?

The U.S. is experiencing the highest inflation rates since the 1980s and cost-of-living increases are on everyone’s mind here and around the world. The Federal Reserve has signaled that it will speed up monetary tightening to try to reverse rising inflationary expectations — too little and too late, according to   the Economist newspaper (The Federal Reserve Has Made a Historic Mistake on Inflation).

I am very concerned about how higher inflation will impact the wine industry, especially when combined with a stagnant overall economy (GDP actually fell in the US in Q1/2022).

The Big Squeeze

Costs are increasing, some dramatically, throughout the wine and grape commodity chains and rising interest rate expenses will add to cost woes. The list of cost factors is long and includes energy, fertilizer, transportation, glass and other inputs, and especially labor, which remains in short supply.

Will growers and wineries be able to hold on to their margins by passing higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? A lot of people I talk to think so. Surveys suggest that many wineries plan to raise prices in 2022 and there is an attitude that consumers might not push back too much, given that the price of everything else is rising, too.

So I am a little bit surprised that some of the data suggests that wine prices have not risen along with the prices of other goods — at least not yet.  Wine Business Monthly, for example, cites NielsenIQ data on average bottle prices. The May 2022 issue reported an average price of $8.52 for the most recent 4 week survey period, up from $8.18 reported in the May 2021 issue — an increase of 4.1  percent. Average domestic bottle price rose  from $8.12 to $8.46 and average import bottle prices rose from $8.35 to $8.69.

The Booze Bust

Prices are rising, according to these figures, but at about half the current rate of overall inflation. NielsenIQ doesn’t measure all sales channels, of course, and there is a lag in the data, so maybe prices are really rising faster than these numbers suggest and wine industry margins will hold.

But the IRI data shown above, taken from a recent Rabobank report about inflation and the beer market suggest that wine in particular and beverage alcohol in general is struggling to increase prices in line with rising costs. Take a close look at the top half of this table, which shows that some non-alcohol beverage categories have been able to boost price much faster than the roughly 8% general inflation rate for the U.S. economy — topped by sports drinks with an incredible 17%+ annual rate price increase. Wow!

Beer, wine, and spirits have all increased average prices, but much less than, say, coffee, and substantially below the overall inflation rates. In other words, the real price of wine, on average, has actually fallen in the last year and the relative price of wine with respect to some other beverage categories has fallen, too. Averages hide a lot, of course, and some strong brands have successfully pushed prices higher while others have not. But beverage alcohol generally, according to the Rabobank figures, has fallen behind in terms of price.

Why haven’t wine prices increases faster.? Here are a few of the many possible explanations.

  1. Radar’s Rule. Wine prices will increase — “wait for it,” as Radar used to say on M.A.S.H. — it just takes time for price changes to work their way through the system.  It is hard to refute this because it is impossible to know the future. Maybe there is something about wine’s annual production cycle that causes price changes to come more slowly. But then why do beer and spirits, which are in continuous production, also lag behind the inflation rankings?
  2. The Wall. Consumer pushback is too strong in the wine category for large price increases to take hold. Yes, I agree that wine buyers are very price sensitive, but prices do rise when they are driven by short supply. And of course there is the whole premiumization phenomenon, where consumers pay more for what they see as better products while resisting price rises on products they already buy.
  3. The Hidden Price Increase Trick. Candy bar makers sometimes try to disguise price increases by simply shrinking the size of the product. Wine makers can do something a bit like that by shifting grape sources from coastal to inland vineyards and in some cases by blending in wines from earlier vintages. Consumers may not notice (just as they might not immediately realize their candy snack has shrunk a little).  Wineries can also increase their average revenue by reducing production of lower-tier wines, shifting the grapes up the ladder.
  4. Three-tier Blues. It’s the three-tier system, where producers sell to distributors who sell to retailers who sell to consumers. On one hand this system means that there are three margins at stake and to each tier has an interest in raising the price at which it sells wine. But each tier also has an incentive to resist increases in its cost of goods. So distributors push back on producers who want to raise price, retailers push back on distributors, and consumers push back on retailers.  The three-tier effect may explain why the lowest average price increases in the Rabobank table above are for beer, wine, and spirits.

More Questions Than Answers

There are other theories and explanations about inflation and the wine category, but perhaps the most important thing to say is that, with the most recently experience of significant U.S. inflation so far back int he rearview mirror, we are left with more questions than answers.

All the basics — the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the wine market have changed very dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s.

Will wine prices rise in line with inflation? If so, when? And how will consumers react? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Thanks to Steve Fredricks at Turrentine Brokerage for stimulating my thinking on this topic.

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