I was talking with a group of California winegrowers just before the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium‘s State of the Industry session a couple of weeks ago and the stories they told me made me understand that The Big Squeeze, which I wrote about around this time last year, is still going strong.
Margins? What Margins?
The Big Squeeze? Many winegrowers have for some time been caught in a squeeze between rising costs and stagnant or sometimes even falling wine grape prices. Your margins are getting squeezed, I asked? Margins? What margins? they replied. Margins got squeezed away some time ago.
The Big Squeeze is significant and not limited to the United States. When I travel the world speaking to wine industry groups I will ask quietly about how the growers are doing? Often the reply is a shrug, downward look, and slow shaking of the head. Not so good, they tell me.
South Africa is a good case in point. Every year Vinpro, the important South African winegrowers organization, reports its survey of vineyard profitability. Rico Basson, Vinpro’s executive director, released the results for 2022 at the annual Nedbank Vinpro Information Day last month and the chart above summaries the conclusions.
Only about 9% of the South African winegrowers were earning a sustainable level of income per hectare — a high enough return to support long-term investment. Fifty percent were caught in a low profit zone, with positive net income, but less than they might earn elsewhere. (If you remember your Econ 101 definitions, this would be positive accounting profit but zero or negative economic profit — it’s an opportunity cost thing.)
The actual level of income per vineyard hectare (the green line in the chart above) is far below the sustainable income level (black line). Fully 41% of the South African winegrowers in the survey were either at break-even (3%) or bleeding red ink (38%). The average return on investment in 2022 was minus 2.4% and the gap between costs and revenues was widening. That, my friends, is a really big squeeze.
Volume or Value?
Which is the better strategy to escape the squeeze: volume or value? Do you push to raise vineyard yields or try to raise price though lower yields but higher value?
I don’t know the answer for South Africa today, but when I spoke at the Vinpro event a few years ago the answer was clear. The higher the yields, the better the chance for success. Sacrificing quantity for quality didn’t consistently pay, I was told, because South African wine found it hard to break through the premium price-point ceiling on international markets. Most producers couldn’t manage to raise price enough to compensate for the higher unit costs. Ouch!
I told this South Africa story to my winegrower friends and they shook their heads. Pretty much the same here, they said. Given the limits on what buyers would pay for their grapes, the best way to profits was to increase yields to, say, 12 tons per acre or more depending on grape variety.
Limited Yields, Limited Opportunity
But there were two problems,, I was told. First, some buyers won’t go along — they were concerned about loss of quality at the higher yield, although modern viticulture practices make it possible to raise yields without loss of quality possible in certain circumstances. So in these situations raising yields is a non-starter.
And it isn’t always possible to get yields up to an economically sustainable level because many older vineyards just aren’t set up for that and have built-in limits that were OK when they were planted years ago, but make life difficult today.
So what are you supposed to do, one grower asked me, if you have an older vineyard that needs to be renewed at high cost? This is where the unsustainable profitability issue really hits. Do make a big bet that the Big Squeeze will loosen up in the future? My winegrower friend was less than optimistic.
Not all vineyards bleed red ink, of course. The situation is different in different winegrowing regions with different market conditions and vineyards of different ages and farming set-ups. But the problem remains. As I reported last year, wine prices have fallen in real terms recently and one result has been to make the already-serious vineyard squeeze even worse.
When you talk about sustainable vineyards, people naturally think about environmental sustainability. But economic stability is an issue, too.