Unified Symposium XXX: Back to the Future for the Super Bowl of Wine Industry Meetings

As harvest 2023 draws to a close, many of us are gearing up for the 2024 edition of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento on January 23-25, 2024. The Unified is sort of the Super Bowl of North American wine industry events, so I’ve decided to follow Super Bowl practice and call this Unified XXX.

A lot has changed in the economy and the wine business since the first Unified Symposium was convened. The 1990s were a very different time. This was the era of “The End of History” as the collapse of Communism was said to close the era of ideological conflict and open a world of rising liberal democracy.

Surfing the Global Wave

The economy was expanding and markets were becoming more open and more global. Although Ross Perot claimed to hear a “giant sucking sound” of jobs being pulled to Mexico by the new NAFTA agreement, economic growth was remarkably robust. I recall that interest in university economics studies declined because there didn’t seem to be any big economic problems to solve.

As the 1990s moved ahead, the budget deficit in the United States shrank and then eventually actually achieved a surplus! The budget deficit for the last fiscal year was more than $1.5 trillion. What a difference!

The wine world was changing very rapidly in the 1990s, too. Wine surfed the globalization wave much to the benefit of Southern Hemisphere producers. This was the time when Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile wines became more widely available in the U.S. market, for example.

Wine’s Golden Age?

The U.S. wine market was growing and a Wine Business Monthly article published at the end of the decade provides useful context. “Demographic and Macroeconomic Factors Fueling Increased Wine Consumption” by research analyst Kristine Koerber identified four forces driving American wine: demographic trends, moderate wine consumption’s image as heart-healthy (think “60 Minutes” and the French Paradox story), rising wealth among consumers, and a successful generic marketing campaign (think Got Milk? but for wine).

Koerber concluded her report by saying, “We expect favorable trends to persist. The aging of the baby boomer will be the key demographic trend providing robust growth for the wine industry in the coming years. This demographic group has more disposable income and is reaching its peak spending years at 46.5 years of age, which should further facilitate the consumption of premium wines. High-quality wines with strong brand recognition such as Beringer and Mondavi are positioned to benefit from the growing premium wine market.”

Changing Times

An insightful forecast! But the situation today is pretty much the mirror image of that report. Demographic trends are widely seen to work against wine and alcoholic beverages generally today. Some consumers are wealthier but don’t necessarily feel that way because of pressure from inflation, rising interest rates, higher housing costs, and other factors such as student loan obligations.

Wine was the healthful choice in the 1990s but that tide has turned, too, with anti-alcohol initiatives gaining steam.  The wine industry’s response has been muted, creating what I call in my recent book Wine Wars II the wine identity crisis. Wine has a positive case, but consumers seem to have trouble hearing it.

Which brings me back to Unified XXX. The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium has become the place where the American wine industry comes together to think about, talk about, and form strategies regarding the challenges and opportunities of the day. (A lot of relationships are strengthened and business takes place on and off the trade show floor, too).

Unified I in Perspective

Now flash back to Unified I. That first event drew about 500 participants to the symposium sessions and to visit the 20 exhibitor tables (too small to call a trade show back then). Five hundred wine industry players is a lot and that attendance would be impressive for most meetings today. But Unified XXIX (the 2023 edition) was a lot bigger. About 12,000 people attended over three days, harvesting insights from the 96 speakers and doing business with the 879 exhibitors at the trade show. Unified XXX is on course to be bigger yet.

I have been involved with the Unified since 2012, mainly as moderator and/or speaker at the Wednesday morning State of the Industry session, the largest gathering of a three-day event. So I was interested to see what the equivalent program looked like at Unified I.

Jon Fredrikson was the lead-off speaker, giving a half-hour survey of market conditions. Knowing Jon, I’ll bet it was jam-packed with data and insights and that the audience hung on every word. Jon went on to be a featured speaker at almost every Unified meeting for the next 25 years until his retirement.

Jon’s lead-off presentation was followed by a teleconference that brought the voices of wine retailers into the room. This was not an easy thing to do in the landline era of the 1990s. Everyone wanted to know as much as they could about who was buying wine, who was selling it, and how the market looked for the future.

Globalization was obviously on everyone’s mind, too, as the next three sessions made clear, with a session on international trade effects, global perspectives, and how efforts to drain Europe’s wine lake might affect the American industry.

The Unified XXX State of the Industry lineup shows how the program has evolved to even more directly address the concerns of its wine industry audience.  Jeff Bitter and Danny Brager take deep dives into the trends and issues on the grower and consumer sides of the wine market respectively and Steve Fredricks analyzes the markets that connect them and the global market environment in which everything takes place. Susana Garcia Dolla, Director General of the Interprofesional del Vino de España, will provide an important international perspective, helping us understand how Spain’s wine sector has weathered the wine world’s storms and what lessons can be learned from their experience.

But Wait, There’s More!

There was a lot more going on at that first Unified meeting, of course. I am particularly struck by sessions titled “Monsters in the Closet: Major Issues Impacting Growers & Vintners” and “Government Landmines & Opportunities.” Monsters and landmines? Sounds like wine was a dangerous place! John Gillespie and Mike Boyd spoke on “Who’s Not Drinking Wine and Why?” — a question we are still asking today.

Unified XXX will feature a vast array of sessions (here is the complete schedule) that examine important issues in virtually every aspect of wine growing, production, distribution, regulation, and sales. Several sessions are offered in Spanish. It is quite a multi-discipline University of Wine.

A special treat this year is the Tuesday Keynote Luncheon. Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, will be the featured speaker. Secretary Ross was President of the California Association of Wine Growers before taking her current job and in that role was instrumental in expanding the Unified into the impressive event it is today.

I am looking forward to hearing what Secretary Ross has to say about how the wine industry has adapted (and must continue to adapt) to the monsters and landmines that lurk around the corner. And to see everyone and learn as much as I can at Unified XXX.

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