Flashback Friday: Malbec & Maradona

51gap2blvbgl-_sx332_bo1204203200_Here is another Flashback Friday column in honor of Malbec World Day, which Wines of Argentina has set for Sunday, April 17. This is a book review from 2012 that links Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape variety, with Diego Maradona, one of that country’s legendary soccer stars.


Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

One of the most stunningly creative student papers I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.ce1509cd596b49b050639487b3d03dcc

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.e91c4e409ca6d78d656bc85a82fa6422

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.


Editor’s note: The way this 2012 book review ends with the reference to a “Maradona moment” is timely because of the recent election of the Macri government. I wrote two columns on Argentina wine’s prospects for revival back in January 2016. Click here and here to read them.

Here’s a short video about Maradona.

Flashback Friday: Malbec World Day

Wines of Argentina has designated Sunday April 17 Malbec World Day 2016. That’s only a week away, so you had better get started thinking about how you will celebrate this holiday. Please use the comments section below to share your Malbec World Day plans.

Malbec World Day is a good excuse for a Flashback Friday column since Malbec has appeared frequently in these pages in the context of the Argentinean wine industry. Malbec was, for example, the subject of an award-winning  documentary called “Boom Varietal: the Rise of Argentine Malbec”  (see video trailer above) that provided my first (and so far only) opportunity to be a supporting character in a film.

Here is a column from back in 2011 that honors all Malbec producers by revisiting Mendel Wines (a bottle of Mendel Malbec is on the short list of possibilities for our Malbec World Day celebration along with a “flashback” tribute Malbec from Colomé called Auténtico).


Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNBT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big original concrete fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the [20th] century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.

[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Will Argentina Wine Export Growth Return in 2016?

Last week’s column analyzed the reasons Argentina’s wine boom fizzled out. Wine exports to the U.S market have more or less plateaued since 2010 after a decade of rapid growth. Part of the problem, I wrote, is increased competition in the wine market, particularly from the so-called Red Blends that seem to have taken some of the momentum from Argentinian Malbec.

But the biggest factor has been Argentina’s domestic economic policies, which made it very difficult to do business and squeezed the margins of export industries, including wine. The squeeze has been particularly severe in the value wine categories, where the margins are so tight (or even negative) that Argentinian producers have been squeezed out.

Yes / No / Maybe?

Will Argentina wine growth in the U.S market return in 2016? Maybe is the answer, although 2017 looks like a better bet than 2016. The main reason for optimism is the change in government that took place in December 2015 when Mauricio Macri became President of Argentina, promising an end to the policies that crippled the economy, especially export industries like wine, and pushed inflation skyward.

The Economist magazine reports that Macri is “off to a fast start,” removing export taxes and allowing the peso to fall from its artificially high level. These actions will benefit exporters, but also send a shock to the domestic economy through higher interest rates and a short-term boost in the inflation rate due to rising import costs.

Argentina’s wine industry it likely to be twisted in 2016, with falling domestic economic activity offset by the exchange rate’s boost for exports. Growth in both domestic and export markets will have to wait until 2017 and beyond.  Good news under the circumstances even if it is far short of an instant cure for the ailing industry.

Like a Normal Country

But some of my friends in Argentina tell me that they are not expecting a miracle. They just want Argentina to be “like a normal country,” as they put it, in terms of its politics and economics and perhaps that’s what they will get.

If “normalization” works, will Argentina’s wine boom return to the U.S market? Perhaps, but things have changed and adjusting the macroeconomic levers won’t turn back the clock entirely. Argentina will come back, that’s for sure, although it will take a while for the foreign exchange and other factors to be fully felt  But don’t expect a return of the boom.

The best that Argentina should hope for — and it is actually a good thing — is to be like a “normal country” when it comes to the U.S. wine market. By this I mean that its exports are driven by the normal factors and not subject to booms or crises. Being a normal country in this context suggests a focus on the $10 and above price points, because that is where market grown and margin opportunities are.

A recent Rabobank report on Argentina’s wine sector notes that the reforms will allow more competitive pricing for Argentine wine exporters, but cautions against a rush into the value wine segment where Argentina used to be strong. “There are now opportunities to be more flexible with pricing,” Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv notes, “but these need to be managed carefully in order to avoid undermining the long-term premium positioning of the brand and the overall category. … Excessive pricing moves may allow for windfall profits today, but could create headaches in the long run.”

And being a normaql country also means resisting the temptation to define Argentina as Malbec-ville. I know the temptation to adopt a particular grape as a region’s “signature variety” is strong, but I don’t see it as the best path for the industry.

Three-Dimensional Argentina

Argentina has Malbec, and that’s a good thing. But before the growth slowed smart Argentinean producers were already trying to add dimensions to their market space. Terroir is an obvious dimension that is even more important in signalling quality and  authenticity than it was a few years ago. I think many consumers now look for region — Uco Valley? Salta? — and especially elevation (Malbec develops differently in Argentina depending on the vineyards’ altitude) as quality indicators.

Another way to add dimensions is to exploit grape varieties beyond Malbec. There are so many wines that do well in Argentina besides Malbec and Torrontes, the two “designated” signature grapes. I love Mendel’s old vine Semillion, for example, And we recently surprised a Syrah-loving friend at a local Argentinean restaurant by ordering a higher elevation Syrah from the Uco Valley. He loved it, but would never have thought of  ordering an Argentine Syrah. Time to get that thinking started.

The options are nearly endless, as we learned a few years ago when we visited Buenos Aires and had lunch with sommelier Andrés Rosberg (you can read about the lunch here).  Andrés knew that we would taste many Malbecs during our visit and he wanted to be sure that we understand that Malbec was only the most visible part of the story — not the whole story and maybe not even the best story.

No Sure Things

So he served us a line-up of wines that featured everything except Malbec and it was great. Lesson learned and it was reinforced as we met with winemakers and tasted distinctive Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Bonarda. Malbec? Yes and that’s a good thing. But a lot more, too.

This is an age of discovery for wine and Argentina has much to discover, both within the Malbec terroirs and beyond Malbec. That’s the sort of strategy that “normal countries” are embracing in the U.S. wine market today.

Argentina has little experience as a normal country, making its way without crisis or drama. The success of Macri’s economic policies is not a sure thing since they depend on short-term sacrifice for long-term gains in an uncertain and even unstable global economic environment. It won’t be easy to become normal, but it is an important step.

Sometimes, as Argentina’s national soccer team has demonstrated, great players and great ideas can come to a disappointing end. I am optimistic, however, and hopeful that the wine sector gain will regain momentum while avoiding the boom-bust cycles of the past.

Whatever Happened to Argentina’s Wine Boom?

Whatever happened to Argentina’s wine boom (and can that country’s wine industry recover the momentum it has lost)?

Argentina is an important player in world wine. Recent OIV statistics (click here to download the pdf) tell us that Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world (behind the USA and ahead of Australia) and the eighth largest consumer country. Just a few years ago it seemed like Argentina was poised to become the next New Zealand in terms of its export growth, especially here in the U.S.

Anatomy of the Malbec Boom

New Zealand somehow manages  to sell more Sauvignon Blanc each year and it seemed like Argentina might find a way to do the same with its signature Malbec wines. In fact, the boom was so strong that it made some people nervous, as the award-winning 2011 documentary Boom Varietal revealed. Maybe it was too good to be true? Maybe the world would suddenly get tired of Malbec and move on to something else? What then? Bust?

The boom had many causes. Perhaps the most important was the Argentine Peso Crisis of the early 2000s. The collapse of the peso and the opening of the economy to foreign investment was a painful transition for the people of Argentina, but it restored international competitiveness and encouraged foreign investment, both critical to the industry’s rise.

Shift to US Exports

Like many European countries, wine consumption in Argentina is in long-term decline and the economic crisis made things worse for the domestic market, where inexpensive jug wines dominate. As explained in Laura Catena’s book Vino Argentino and Ian Mount’s The Vineyard at the End of the World, Argentine producers found themselves with no choice but to focus on export markets for growth and that meant major investments to improve quality. The U.S. market was the prime target, a different strategy than Chile, which developed more diversified export opportunities.

The US-led export push was effective for several reasons. First the wines presented good value and rapidly improving quality. The U.S. wine market was growing and consumers were turning away from Merlot and later Syrah/Shiraz, opening the door for easy to drink and understand Malbec.

Some of the most important brands established effective distribution partnerships, which enabled them to lead Argentina into the market and firmly establish the category. Catena partnered with Gallo, for example, to make Alamos the market leader No wonder Argentina’s wine exports boomed year after year.

The only questions, it seemed at the time, were would demand continue to rise and, if it did, could Argentina produce enough Malbec to satisfy thirsty buyers?


The End of the Boom

And then? Well, the boom didn’t turn to bust as many feared, but Argentina’s export growth has skidded to a stop. As Kim Marcus reports in his recent Wine Spectator article, exports to the U.S. have plateaued at about 13.2 million cases overall. Recent Nielsen data for off-premises sale as reported in Wine Business Monthly paint only a slightly more optimistic picture, with a meager 0.3% growth rate over the previous 52 week and a 2.5% fall in sales revenues over the most recent four weeks.

The Wine By Numbers figures for January through September 2015 shown above (click on the table to enlarge it) tell the story in detail. Export volume is up overall, but revenues are down because of falling unit price. Good success in bottled wine sales in some markets (UK, Germany and China, for example), is offset by declines elsewhere, including Sweden and Denmark. Note the huge rise in UK bulk sales. But the US market is still #1 for Argentina and it remains flat.

An article by Angel Antin in the current issue of Market Watch adds more detail about the U.S. market situation. Impact Databank statistics show that Argentina wine shipments to the US market peaked in 2010-11 in terms of volume after a decade of rapid growth. 2014 volume was modestly down from that peak, but lower than any year since 2009. The boom seems to have faded.

The situation for individual brands depends very much on price point and margin. Constellation’s Marcus James was the market leader in 2009 with 425 thousand  cases in the U.S. market compared with Alamos with 75 thousand cases. But the situation has changed. Alamos, which sells at a premium price point, has plateaued at 900 thousand cases in 2014. Marcus James, selling at a much lower price point, has slumped to just 180 thousand cases.

The Red {Blend} Menace

What accounts for this situation? The U.S. market has indeed shifted. “Red Blends” are now the fastest growing red wine category, rising to #2  after Cabernet Sauvignon and ahead of Merlot and Pinot Noir. I suspect that some of the Red Blend growth is coming at the expense of Malbec sales.

The Red Blend category is very diverse, encompassing all sorts of blends (even some that include Malbec). I like to joke that the key to Red Blend success is that many of the products are blends of two wines that consumers say they hate but secretly love: Merlot and Shiraz. Whether this is really true or not, Red Blend is a convenient category for producers with stocks of red wines and an inconvenient truth for Argentina producers.

But Red Blends are far from the most important problem. It seems to me that the most severe constraint on Argentina exports in recent years has been supply not demand. Not so much difficulty growing grapes and making wine as navigating the harsh economics of the situation.

Economic Policy Squeeze

The economic policies of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner pushed up inflation rates, which pushed up wage rates, which increased the cost of producing wine. At the same time, the exchange rate was frozen at an artificially high rate, which squeezed margins. Capital controls added to the problem by making it difficult for Argentina to import technology and winemaking supplies from abroad.

The inflation/exchange rate squeeze was particularly hard on the value wine exports that were the initial key to Argentina’s success. It is nearly impossible to profit from exports of Argentinian Malbec with a retail price below about $10, so many of these wines have simply disappeared from the market (a few brave firms are absorbing short-term losses to maintain their market positions for the future).

The good news is that the $10+ part of the U.S. market is growing, and so the Argentinian wines that remain are in a good place. The bad news is that this market segment has become intensely competitive, so it will not be easy to survive and thrive. And of course the Red Blend trend continues.

I’ll end on a positive note. Economic policies are changing in Argentina, which gives hope for the wine industry there for 2016 or perhaps 2017. I’ll analyze the changing market environment in next week’s column.


Here’s a good soundtrack for any discussion of a boom. Enjoy.

Celebrating Malbec World Day 2015

April 17, 2015 is Malbec World Day — a great opportunity to pull the cork on a bottle of Malbec wine and to appreciate how quickly this grape variety has come to be an important part of the U.S. and global wine scene.

I have a warm spot in my heart for Malbec because it reminds me of all the nice people and great wines Sue and I encountered during our visit to Argentina a few years ago.  So many interesting experiences learning about old vine Malbec from Roberto De La Mota at Mendel winery, about Malbec -Cabernet blends at Catena and that Argentina is much more than Malbec at a special tasting arranged by Andrés Rosberg.

My appreciation of Malbec deepened when I was asked to take part in the award-winning 2011 documentary Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec produced by Kirk Ermish and directed by Sky Pinnick.  The economics of the Malbec story came to play a surprisingly large part in the film and so I had more screen time than I would ever have expected.

Malbec’s story is inevitably associated with Argentina, but it has become a world-wide phenomenon, breathing life into the Malbec industry back home in its native France (where it is often called Côt) and opening doors to wine-growers around the world (perhaps especially here in the Pacific Northwest).

I’ll be toasting the rise of Malbec with a glass of … what else? … Argentinean Malbec on April 17. Please join me. Cheers!

Argentinean Wine & Restaurants: Reflections on a Catena Asado

Sue and I and our friends Ron and Mary recently attended a sold-out Bodega Catena Zapata wine dinner at Asado Cucina Argentina in Tacoma.  Some people came for the wine, which Daniel McKeown of Catena importer Winebow carefully explained to each table of guests. Others came for the music and dancing, which was simply spectacular. Everyone enjoyed the wonderful food — the menu is shown at the bottom of this post.

Most of the guests were already familiar with Argentinean wine, but I think some were surprised by the range of wines we sampled, including sparking pink  Malbec (the only non-Catena product), Chardonnay, a Malbec from Vista Flores, a gutsy Malbec blended with a bit of Petit Verdot, and a Cabernet Sauvignon that was served with the chocolate course.

Although Argentina is known for Malbec, its signature grape variety, it is not and should not be defined by it. When we visited Argentina a few years ago our friend Andrés Rosberg made a point of showing us just how much the country has to offer beyond Malbec. You can read about our experience here.

The diners clearly enjoyed themselves and I think we all learned a lot. Hopefully this event and others like it will help interest in and sales of Argentinean wine to continue to grow.

The Gaucho Effect: How Malbec Conquered Britain

Restaurants are an important wine sales vector, of course, particularly for wines that need to be hand sold because consumers are not familiar with them. When diners try and enjoy a new wine at the sommelier’s suggestion they may become both continuing customers and also brand ambassadors. That’s why there is so much competition to get on a popular restaurant’s wine list.

But sometimes restaurants can have an even bigger impact. Some say that the rising British interest in Argentinean wines in general and Malbec in particular is due to the efforts of a single restaurant group. For the English to embrace the wines of Argentina is a remarkable event given the turbulent history of relations between the countries in the last century, including the Falklands / Malvinas War and the 1986 “Hand of God” World Cup soccer match.

So I think it was quite a bold move to open an Argentinean steak house in London, but that’s what Gaucho did and now they have 14 restaurants in Britain, have invested in Sucre, a popular eatery in Buenos Aires and opened a Gaucho outpost in Dubai. The Gaucho wine list includes more than 200 different wines from Argentina and is said to be the largest such collection outside of that country.

I haven’t dined at a Gaucho restaurant yet, but I hope to remedy that when I’m in London in November. Gaucho seems to succeed by embracing the whole Argentinean experience — the food, wine, people, culture, history — drawing British diners into the story. Irresistible! And great for Argentina’s wine industry.

But wait — there’s more. They have also opened a specialist wine shop in London, Cavas de Gaucho, to promote the wines of Argentina. They purchased a small vineyard with 80-year old vines in Lunlunta, Mendoza and started their own winery, Viña Patricia, which supplies the restaurant group.  Gaucho also sponsors a widely publicized winemaker award in association with Wines of Argentina.

The total “Gaucho Effect” is very important — it shows the story-telling (and selling!) power of restaurants that bring together wine, food and culture in a way that captures consumer imagination.

Argentina’s Upbeat Future

I used the occasion of the Catena wine dinner to contact Laura Catena, who was just back from Florence and shared a nice story, which was appropriately set in a restaurant. She was dining with some members of the Italian wine industry, enjoying fine Italian food and wine, when she brought out a bottle of Nicolas Catena Zapata 2002 — her winery’s flagship Cabernet – Malbec blend. The Italians were blown away by the wine, she wrote — completely unprepared for the idea that a wine of such elegance could come from far-away Argentina.

I asked Laura about the state of the Argentinean wine industry and she was very upbeat. There are problems, of course, especially with domestic politics and the economy, but all of the elements are there for success, especially in export markets now that the Peso has weakened a bit. Former Central Bank chief Alfonso Prat Gay recently proposed that Argentina would rapidly emerge from its malaise once a new government is elected in October 2015. “Short pain, long gain,” he said, which would be good news for Argentinean wine.

I hope that Laura Catena and  Alfonso Prat Gay are right — Argentina could certainly use some good economic news. Once the country’s political and economic policies are on track, the wine industry seems poised to advance.  Argentina has distinctive terroirs, which many wineries including especially Catena are now highlighting in their wines. And as Laura said,  Malbec continues to be hugely popular because it tastes so good. And then there is diversity …

There are many other varietals that do well in Argentina – chardonnay (we recently received 96 points from Parker for our white Stones Catena Zapata chardonnay), syrah, red blends, torrontes, bonarda, cabernet sauvignon +++ (many Argentines prefer cab to malbec or the blend) and the future holds all these new varieties as well as consumers discovering the high end, the ageability, collectibility (our Estiba Reservada Catena Zapata was recently ranked by wine searcher as one of the 50 most expensive wines in the world.)

Sustaining the Boom

I love Malbec and I am one of those who thinks that Cabernet and Cab-Malbec blends (and Syrah, too) have great potential in Argentina. Argentina remains a hot wine category in the United States (along with New Zealand).

How do you sustain such a boom? Obviously quality and value must be present in each glass, but you must also tell the right stories in the right ways to engage consumers and renew their interest.  Wine dinners like the one we attended at Asado (and Laura’s dinner in Florence and the Gaucho Effect in Britain) are an important part of this process.




Stein’s Law and the Coming Crisis in Argentinean Wine

Stein’s Law, named for famed economist Herbert Stein, holds that if something cannot go on forever it will stop.  Unsustainable trends ultimately yield to the inevitable in one way or another.

Stein’s Law seems to be simply stating the obvious, but you would be surprised how many people find a way to ignore the obvious when it is in their interest to do so.  As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Argentina’s Inflation Problem

And so we consider the case of the Argentinean wine industry. It’s not just the wine sector, of course, it’s the whole Argentinean economy, but wine is especially affected.  Something’s going to happen according to Stein’s Law, because it can’t go on forever as it has up to now, but it is hard to know exactly what.

The problem begins with Argentina’s high inflation rate. The official statistic puts the annual increase in consumer prices at around 10%, but this number is viewed with disbelief by the international economic community. The Economist magazine quit publishing the official figure in 2012, saying “Don’t lie to me, Argentina” to the officials there. The most commonly cited estimate of the actual inflation rate is 25% per year.

Inflation is a sensitive political issue in Argentina as it is in every country that has ever experienced a hyperinflation crisis (think Germany, for example). Some in Argentina go to great lengths to deny the obvious reality of inflation.

The story (which may be true) is told about a McDonalds restaurant in Buenos Aires that displayed all the usual products on its big backlit menu board except the signature Big Mac. Where’s the Big Mac? Oh, we have that price hidden around the corner so that no one will see it — especially the people from The Economist magazine who use it to estimate the purchasing power of the peso in their Burgernomics index!

Inflationary Squeeze

As a recent article on The Drinks Business website suggests, high inflation is putting the squeeze on Argentina’s wine producers. (The squeeze is made worse,  I understand, by government policies that restrict imports of products used in wine production as part of a general policy to control foreign exchange reserves). Production costs (grapes, labor, etc.) may have doubled over the past four years, putting a squeeze on margins.

It is difficult to pass these peso costs along to consumers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Brazil, the main export markets. Consumers are price sensitive and while the average export price of  varietal Cabernet and Merlot wines have risen by 7.2% and 24.8% respectively in the past year, this provides only limited relief from rising costs since Malbec takes the lion’s share of the export market and its dollar export price has risen by just 1% in the last year and by an average of only 2.8% per year since 2009.

Purchasing Power Inaction

The textbook remedy to this situation is for the foreign exchange value of the peso to fall to achieve what economists call Purchasing Power Parity. In a system of market determined exchange rates, according to the PPP theory, a 25% fall in the domestic purchasing power of the peso due to inflation should result in a 25% decrease in its foreign exchange value.


And indeed the peso has depreciated, but not by nearly enough to overcome the inflation difference between Argentina and the four main export markets. The peso has fallen in value by about 20% in the last two years, if we look at the official exchange rate, so each dollar of export earnings brings in more pesos,  but inflation-driven peso costs have increased by much more.  That puts a real squeeze on margins. This can’t go on forever — something has to give.

[I’m told that the black market exchange rate is 8 pesos per U.S. dollar, far below the official rate of about 5 per dollar. Such a big differential is often an indicator of crisis to come.]

Something’s Gotta Give

What happens when a country gets itself caught in a squeeze like this? Well, the conventional wisdom is there needs to be a sharp currency devaluation followed by monetary tightening to control inflation. This is a painful process and Argentina has been through it before. What if the government ignores the conventional wisdom? Internal adjustment must eventually take place to restore competitiveness if external adjustment through the exchange rate is ruled out.

A recent Wall Street Journal article about real estate prices in Buenos Aires shows one pattern of adjustment. The dollar prices of luxury apartments have tumbled as owners seek to cash out of their real estate investments and buy into the more credible U.S. currency.  The WSJ reports that

In May last year, Argentine President Christina Kirchner strictly limited access to U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies in a bid to stem capital flight. With the Argentine peso facing about 25% annual inflation (government figures, widely discredited, set the rate much lower), and an unofficial exchange rate that has effectively devalued the peso sharply, demand is high for dollars.

These days, the main feature that foreign buyers say they look for in a Buenos Aires property has nothing to do with closet space or a wide terrace. It is a seller with a bank account outside Argentina to which they can legally wire funds. This is a way to get around having to convert any dollars wired into Argentina into pesos at the official rate, after which it is nearly impossible to convert back into dollars at the official rate.

Something will have to give in the wine industry, too, if the exchange rate doesn’t adjust and the currency controls continue. In the meantime, I think every effort is being made to control costs and to keep margins out of the red. But, as Herb Stein might say, this can’t go on forever so somehow it will stop.


Herbert Stein may be best known today as father of Ben Stein, the actor, law professor, and columnist, but he was ever so much more famous in his day as a chairman of the president’s council of economic advisers

Little known fact: the Pabst beer company held an economics competition in 1944 (the year of the Bretton Woods conference)  for the best plan to sustain high employment in the post-war era. Herb Stein’s plan was named the winner from among the more than 36,000 entries. He was 28 years old and the prize was $25,000 — the equivalent of $330,000 today.