Trickle Down [Wine] Economics Jitters

The stock market has the jitters these days and one of the causes is the fear that, even with massive fiscal and monetary stimulus, we may be experiencing a jobless recovery. Things looks OK from the outside (some of the numbers are pretty good), but bad things are still happening deep down where it counts.

A Wine-Free Recovery?

There is some concern that the wine economy is suffering a similar fate. Not a wine-free recover, but just not the big turnaround everyone was hoping for. Although retail sales numbers are cheerfully positive, with overall sales rising at close to double-digit rates and increases even in the $25+ “death zone” range, there’s still enough disturbing news around to give anyone the jitters.

Are jitters justified? I decided to do some fieldwork to see what I could learn about conditions on the ground in my local wine market. An upscale supermarket down the street has recently undergone a major remodel and is have a grand re-opening. One of the areas that seems to have received a lot of attention is the wine wall. Since the supermarket chain is known to do very thorough market research I wanted to see what the redesign would tell me about state of the wine economy today.

First Impressions

My initial impression was very positive. The wine wall is substantially increased in terms of the number of square feet of display space. The quality of the space is much improved, too, with the old industrial shelving replaced in part by the sort of dark wood cases and racks that you see at fine wine shops. Good news! A big investment like this suggests optimism about the future of the wine market.

A second glance provided more information. The wine wall is large enough to need directional signs to help customers find their “comfort zone” area.  Some of the signs were what you would expect: “France/Italy,” Australia” and so on. Just what you’d expect. But other signs pointed to continued “trading down.”

I found areas marked “premium 1.5 liter,” “value wines” and “box wines” and one that said simply “White Zinfandel.” It’s obvious that the marketing and design people knew that many of their customers would be looking for low cost or basic wines and they wanted to help them find them.

Box wine sales surged in the “trading down” wine economy that wine people like to think is over, but apparently isn’t.  There were a number of quality bag-in-box wines for sale in this section, which was conveniently located adjacent to the expanded take-out  delicatessen and bakery areas.

The White Zin section held both the expected Sutter Home and Beringer products plus a limited range of inexpensive domestic rosé wines and a small selection of fruit wine and fruit-flavored wines. My wine snob friends are probably shocked to learn that White Zin, the wine they love to hate  is so popular that it has its own part of the wine wall.  That would be trading down in both price and quality, they say.

Unexpected Discoveries

Now it was time to study the main section of the wine wall carefully. I was impressed by the large selection, of course. Lots of wines. Lots of brands. But some of the wines had unfamiliar labels that I think may be part of a “dumping” strategy where big producers sell off surplus wine under an ersatz value brand to avoid weakening the price position of established brands.

This is a very common practice in Australia, where the wines are sold with very generic labels. They call them “cleanskins” and I guess they are selling like hotcakes. The surplus wine, some of which could be very good, may be trickling down into a sort of  branded cleanskins market here in the U.S. But there’s another trickle down effect that got my attention.

As I surveyed the wine wall I was struck by a small number of hard-to-find or impossible-to-buy wines that were sitting quietly waiting to be found — fine wine that I suspect didn’t find a home in the usual wine club / fine wine shop / restaurant supply chain.

Since we’ve recently returned from a Napa Valley research trip, I was especially struck by the presence of two wines from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – their  Fay Vineyard Cabernet and the famous Cask 23. The Fay sold for $87 or $79 for buyers with the store loyalty card. Buy a case and get a further 10 percent discount. The Cask 23’s price was $164.

You can buy Opus One for $209 ($179 with your loyalty card) or Sassicaia for $245 ($213). The Chimney Rock SLV Cab that I liked a lot when I tasted it in California was a bargain at $60 ($48 with your card).

Pétrus at the 7-Eleven?

It’s hard to believe that these great wines can be found on neighborhood supermarket shelves. I could be wrong, but I suspect that they would not be found there during good economic times. But bad times drives good wines down the supply chain. That’s trickle down [wine] economics.

What’s next? Pétrus at the 7-Eleven? No, although 7-Eleven does have an own wine brand called Yosemite Road.

I’m glad there is finally good news about wine sales in the U.S., but while trading down may have stabilized I don’t think the sour economy’s effects will soon disappear. And so the trickle down effect continues. No wonder everyone’s got the jitters.

Wagnerians vs. Martians

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in American. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagnerians sing an appealing but fundamentally radical song in the American context, where wine is just one of many beverages  and not always the cheapest or most convenient to purchase.  Regulations that treat wine as a controlled substance are very anti-Wagnerian.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms. I guess you could say that Two Buck Chuck is a Wagnerian wine, for example, although I think there’s a lot more to Wagner’s idea of wine than just low price.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms  fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less that superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson today is an undistinguished mass market wine brand — as un-Martian as you can get.

When wine enthusiasts of my generation think of Paul Masson (now part of the Constellation Brands portfolio), it is often because of Orson Welles’ classic television ads, like this one from 1980 promoting California “Chablis.” Roll over, Martin Ray!

Two Ideas of Wine

Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be a Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the bottle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.”

Monolithic Thinking?

I guess I am a Wagnerian, too, if I have to choose, but I’m not as pessimistic as Pinney. I’m about to throw myself into full-time book-writing mode: I need to finish my current project this summer so that it can be in bookstores in early 2011. The more I work on this project the happier I am with its upbeat title.

Grape Expectations started out as a simple pun on the famous Dickens novel, but it has evolved into something more. I have developed genuinely optimistic (if not “great”) expectations for the future of wine and I see the three forces I study in the book — globalization, Two Buck Chuck and the “revenge of the Terroirists” — as possibly bridging the Martian-Wagnerian divide.

Can wine be both common and great? Why not? Wine isn’t one thing, it is many things to many people. No purpose is served in my view, by monolithic thinking. That’s my hope … and my Grape Expectations!

Curse of the Blue Nun

Writing about Riesling got me to thinking about great  German Rieslings and, because I am a Dismal Scientist after all,  I also started thinking about the not-so-great German wines that define that country for wine drinkers of a certain age.  And so, inevitably, my thoughts strayed to memories of Blue Nun.

I haven’t thought of Blue Nun wine in years. I remember it from the 1970s as an unsophisticated Liebfraumilch wine in a tall thin blue bottle with a blue and white-clad nun on the label. She reminded me a bit of the “Flying Nun” television show (starring Sally Fields) that ran from 1967 to 1970. The wine was about as serious as the TV series, but apparently it sold hundreds of thousands of cases to aspiring wine drinkers like me.

I didn’t know that it was still around until I spotted it on a BBC television show about wine. It was a miniseries featuring Oz Clarke, notable British wine guru, and James May, co-host of the popular automobile series “Top Gear.” Oz and James were touring California with wine expert Oz trying to teach neophyte James a bit about wine. James resisted, put off by wine’s snobbish elitist ways.

Terrible. Disgusting. Must be European.

Blue Nun appeared in a sequence where James bet Oz $100 that he couldn’t identify an ordinary everyday wine in a blind tasting (from a plastic beer cup, as it turned out). Oz sniffed and swirled and made a bad face. Terrible, he said. Disgusting. So bad that it couldn’t be from America – market-savvy Americans would never make a wine this bad. This could only come from the Old World.

“Blue Nun!” he shouted, winning the bet, although I suspect that colored bottle gave him an unfair clue. Here is a taste of the show. The Blue Nun episode is not available online, but this will give you a good sense of what the show is like.

I’m not sure that Blue Nun is really that bad, but Oz Clarke’s revolting reaction is telling.  Blue Nun and brands like it established Germany’s place on the lower tier of the World Wine Wall in the 1970s. The wines may not have been as cheap and nasty as memory suggests, but they were not expensive and sophisticated, either. They were the face of German wine abroad and that face, like the Blue Nun herself, was more or less a colorful cartoon version of the great wines of Germany.

The First Global Wine Brand

Blue Nun was by some accounts the first truly global mass market wine brand, an unexpected distinction for a German wine. Its story therefore has some bearing on the globalization of wine. Blue Nun’s roots go back to 1857 when Hermann Sichel started a wine business in Mainz. I know little about the early days of Sichel’s firm except that it managed to survive the political and economic chaos of the ensuing years, which in retrospect seems like a considerable achievement.

The real story begins with the 1921 vintage, said to be one of the best. Sichel sought to export these wines, especially to Great Britain, and the Blue Nun label was invented to facilitate sales abroad. One source holds that the nun on the label was originally clad in standard issue brown robes, but a printer’s error turned them blue and thus a brand was born.

The brand and the famous vintage it represented found a market in England, selling more than 1000 cases a year in the 1930s (quite a lot for a single brand of wine at that time) according to the official company history.  The volumes increased after World War II, rising to 3.5 million bottles a year in the UK in the 1970s before sales collapse back to 800,000 in the 1980s.  The quantity quality trade-off finally came back to haunt Blue Nun, it seems, and the fashion for red wine started by the famous French Paradox discovery did not help either.

Blue Nun, it seems was the original victim of the Curse of the Blue Nun: the simple, sweetish wines that make you will also break you. As tastes changed and wine drinkers sought to move up-market, Blue Nun wine petered out (although 800,000 bottles is hardly a trickle). Passé to some, a joke (as with Oz and James) to others, that was and to some extent is Blue Nun.

It is an over generalization to say that the whole of German wine suffered the Curse of the Blue Nun, but there is some truth in it. Great wines continued to be produced, of course, and snatched up by the educated wine elites (although not at the high prices they once earned), but Brand Germany was Blue Nun, Black Tower and their Liebfraumilch shelfmates. German wine hit its lowest point.

Blue Nun and the New Globalization

I am an optimist about globalization and wine (that’s why next book is called Grape Expectations) and this attitude extends to German wine. The bad news of the crisis of quality is matched by the good news that German wines have changed, even the big brands. Black Tower has moved upmarket into affordable quality wines, not just Liebfraumilch and not just white wines, either. It is the top German brand today.

Sichel sold the Blue Nun brand to Langguth, another German maker, who also upgraded the wines. Blue Nun is once again a major brand, selling 5 million bottles in Britain alone in 2005. It is a German brand but, significantly, reflecting the current wave of globalization, not just a German wine.

Popular wines from around the world are imported to Germany where they are bottled under the Blue Nun label. There are Languedoc Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, California Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Chardonnay from Chile, and a Rosé from Spain, for example. There’s even a Pinot Grigio from Germany, although its unlikely origin is not easy to learn from the front label.[i]

Blue Nun Light is low alcohol (0,5%), low calorie (27 calories per 100 ml glass). Tastes great, less filling.

My personal favorite (perhaps because I’ve never tried it) is Blue Nun Sparkling Gold Edition shown here. It’s a light fizzy wine infused with flakes of 22 carat gold leaf that glitter in the glass.

Young women seem to be Blue Nun’s target market according to both published sources and the look of the advertising copy. Women buy more wine than men, so this is not a crazy strategy, and young women are the market of the future, although the assumption that they are especially attracted to shiny floaty things like these gold flakes is sad if true. The idea that the attractive female image of the Blue Nun might particularly appeal to women never occurred to me … until now.

German wine is back, but it has changed. Quality has improved – even the mass market brands offer some good wines – but the reputation lingers, the legacy of the Curse of the Blue Nun.


[i] The ad copy says it is from the “sunny Palantine region,” which sounds Italian but isn’t. The geographical designation is Pfalz, Germany. I’m sure it is quite good as Pinot Grigio goes.

Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream

groc_receiptOur friend Jerry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would go digging around in the closeout bin or shopping for wine at Aldi — too classy for that — but there he was at Joyce and Barry’s house on Friday showing off his latest finds: cheap wine from a Grocery Outlet store.

The wine wasn’t so much good or bad as simply intriguing — is it really possible for a sophisticated wine enthusiast like Jerry to be satisfied shopping for wine at an “extreme value” store? Only one way to find out, so we got in the car the next day and headed for the strip mall.

Searching for Extreme Values

Headquartered in low-rent Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet bargain market is America’s largest extreme value grocery chain with more than 130 independently owned stores in six western states. It has been in business since 1946. Prices are low, low, low. The website tells the story:

The premise is simple: We offer brand name products at 40% to 60% below traditional retailers. Our offering is wide: groceries, frozen, deli & refrigerated, produce, fresh meat (selected stores), general merchandise — seasonal products, housewares, toys, and gifts — health & beauty, and a most impressive inventory of beer & wine.

How can they charge such low prices?

We source product opportunistically. Simply put, we buy brand name products directly from their manufacturers for pennies on the dollar. When a manufacturer has surplus inventory like excess packaging or manufacturing overruns they call Grocery Outlet first.

About 75% of our product is sourced this way. Some of our greatest buys are in Health and Beauty Care, Wine, Frozen Foods, Organics and Produce. To ensure that the basics are always available at Grocery Outlet, some product is sourced conventionally, like other grocery stores. Because we cannot source these products opportunistically, the savings may not be as phenomenal; however, we think it’s important to provide them for your convenience—to save you that extra trip.

Grocery Outlet stores here in the Pacific Northwest are supermarket sized spaces filled with off brand and closeout products along with a wide enough selection of fresh goods to allow families to do all their grocery shopping in one place. They are nice if not especially fancy stores. I can see why budget-minded families shop there.

Mystery Wine

The wine corner at the nearest store was large and well-stocked. Most of the brands were mysteries (one was even named “Mystery” as in “Mystery Creek” or something like that), although a few third and fourth tier products from recognized mass-market makers were available. Mainly, I think, these were leftover wines closed out by distributors to raise cash or make room for incoming shipments along with no-name brands “dumped” under a bogus label.

The wines came from all over — California, naturally, Australia, France, Italy, Chile. There was even a $3.99 “Champagne” from Argentina. Honest — it said “Champagne.”

Prices were suitably low — most of the wines sold for $2.99 to $5.99. It isn’t hard to make money selling extreme value wine when you can buy up surplus bulk wine for just pennies a liter and package it up for quick sale.  Extreme value retailers are the perfect distribution channel for wines like these.

As you can see from my receipt, I walked out with three bottles of wine for a total of $13.97 plus tax. “By shopping with us you saved $28.00.”  That would mean an average of 67% off the retail price.

Unexplained Tales from Down Under

I wasn’t really surprised at what I saw as I surveyed the wine wall. Then, slowly, a different kind of wine mystery began to unfold.nz_wines

Sue must have sharp eyes because she picked out the first surprise. Sam’s Creek Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 for $3.99.  That’s awfully cheap for a New Zealand wine here in the U.S. I’ve read about heavily discounted NZ wines in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. — until now.

New Zealand is a high cost wine producer that has succeeded in charging a premium price for its wine. Indeed, NZ earns the highest average export price of any country in the world despite surging production that threatens to create unmarketable surpluses. Everyone worries that one day the export limit will be hit and prices will start to tumble from $12-$20 down to, well, $3.99. Is that what this Sam’s Creek wine really means? The end of NZ wine’s premium price?

Frighteningly, Sam’s Creek isn’t a no-name closeout wine. The label says that it is made and bottled by Babich, one of the famous names in New Zealand wine, and the internet tells me that Waitrose sells it for about $10  in Britain. I wonder if the unsold British inventory has somehow made its way here?

Prestige Wine at Extreme Value Prices

Two more bottles raised more questions about New Zealand wines. I paid a whopping $5.99 for a 2008 Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  I almost overlooked it, but the label caught my eye. Isabel Estate is one of the most famous Marlborough quality producers, exceedingly well-known in Great Britain where this wine sells for about £10, but not so widely distributed here in the U.S., I think.

How did it get here and who among the Grocery Outlet clientele would recognize its quality sitting there surrounded by cheap and cheerful closeouts?

The third wine makes the puzzle more complicated. It is a 2004 Te Awa Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay. Te Awa Farm is another famous NZ producer and, while this wine — a estate product from a distinguished producer in a famous region — may be slightly past its prime and therefore a typical closeout risk, it is still very surprising to see it sold at a place like Grocery Outlet for $3.99 rather than the $16-$20 retail price.

These three New Zealand wines may be random surplus wines found in the sort of place where random wines go to be sold. Or they may be indicators of important changes in the world of wine. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Wine markets are all about supply and demand. It is pretty clear that a supply of interesting wines has appeared along with the rock-bottom remainders at extreme value stores like Grocery Outlet, pushed along, no doubt, by the slump in fine wine sales.

What about demand? And what does Grocery Outlet tell us about the wine market more generally? Some thoughts in my next blog post.

Gourmet, Rachael Ray, Chardonnay Connection

1940-2009 RIP

I was trying to explain to my students the lasting importance of Robert Mondavi and I suddenly realized that Julia Child was the key. Mondavi tried to do for wine in America what Julia tried to do for food. This made me think about other parallels between our wine and food cultures — and the significance of the last issue of Gourmet magazine.

The End of Gourmet

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it was pulling the plug on Gourmet magazine, America’s signature culinary monthly since 1940. The cause of death, clearly, is the economic crisis, which has reduced advertising pages by over 30 percent. Gourmet‘s subscribers (there are nearly a million of them) will have to find something else to read on the still-cluttered Food & Lifestyles section of the newsstand. Bon Appétit (another Condé Nast title) is the obviously choice, although it is not a perfect substitute — more recipes I’m told, and less upscale travel and leisure.

Gourmet‘s obituary appeared everywhere — even on the front page of the New York Times. The Times made it clear that this wasn’t just a business decision (although Condé Nast assured us it was — the McKinsey consulting firm made the call). This is really the end of an era. And not a good end.

“It’s Rachael Ray’s world now,” the story declared, referring to the 30-minute-meal Food Network star; “we’re all just cooking in it.” Roll over, Julia Child (as Chuck Berry might have said) and tell Escoffier the news.

Rachel Ray Chardonnay?

Setting aside for a moment the premise of the Times article — that Gourmet defines the era — I wonder if what’s true for food in America is also true for wine? This must be a valid concern because it is he gist of the question that I’m most frequently asked by journalists — is the current slump in fine wine sales (especially wines selling for $20 or more in the shops) a temporary trend or a permanent shift in demand? Is this the end of an era for wine? When the economy perks up eventually, will people want to buy very expensive wines again? Or is the switch to cheaper, simpler wines (my made-up Rachel Ray Chardonnay) here to stay?

The question became more interesting as I read the Times article. I tried to substitute wine terms for food terms in the article and it seemed to make sense. Here’s what I mean.

The death of Gourmet [insert name of expensive wine] doesn’t mean people are cooking less [drinking less] or do not want food magazines [good wine], said Suzanne M. Grimes, who oversees Every Day With Rachael Ray, among other brands, for the Reader’s Digest Association.

“Cooking [wine drinking] is getting more democratic,” she said. “Food [wine] has become an emotional currency, not an aspiration.”

It has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray [Gary Vaynerchuck?] and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl [the Gourmet editor — insert Robert Parker or maybe Jancis Robinson] is a celebrity in the food [wine] world, but of an elite type. She [or maybe he] “is one of those icons in chief,” said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks [budget conscious wine drinkers] want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal.

The substitution works, pretty well, don’t you think? And the McKinsey consultants surely did their job. Food and wine down the tubes. Maybe Robert Mondavi and Julia Child are both turning in their graves!

Exaggerated Rumors

But rumors of the death of both fine dining and fine wine are probably exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said. Gourmet is an iconic brand and the fact that Condé Nast cut it rather than Bon Appetit surely does mean something. But we have to remember that print magazines themselves are an endangered species in this internet age. What information we consume and in what form are both changing very rapidly. Magazines will change rather rapidly in the next few years to remain relevant or else they’ll fade away. Gourmet isn’t the first and won’t be the last to bite the dust.

So I am not willing to declare fine wine (or the Gourmet food lifestyles) dead on the basis of this news alone. The question of whether Americans will return to their old wine-drinking habits when the recession ends remains open for now.

Note: A lot of great wine writing appeared in Gourmet over the years. Look for a future post that tries to understand the changing American wine work through the Gourmet lens.

Restaurant Wines: Good, Bad and Ugly

Many people have written to me over the years expressing their dismay at the sorry state of restaurant wine. Usually they complain about high restaurant prices and ask how they can possibly be justified. They are seldom satisfied with my answer — restaurants charge high prices because people will pay them. Now, however, the critique has shifted to the wines themselves and what they reveal about wine in America.

What Does American Really Drink?

My recent post on “Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine” (see previous post) seemed to catch many wine enthusiasts by surprise. It reported data from Restaurant Wine magazine for the best-selling wines in American restaurants as determined by distributor “on-premises” shipments. This data, based on volumes shipped to all “on-premises” establishments in 2008, reveals that when America goes out it drinks a lot of White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio and (gasp!) “Chablis.” Only one red wine made the top 20 list: Yellow Tail Shiraz.

The list changes only a little if we look at the data for wine brands (as opposed to specific wines):

  1. Kendall-Jackson
  2. Sutter Home
  3. Beringer Vineyards
  4. Franzia Winetaps
  5. Inglenook
  6. Yellow Tail
  7. Copper Ridge
  8. Cavit
  9. Woodbridge
  10. Salmon Creek (Bronco)

The complete list of the top 20 brands is dominated by America’s three largest wine companies with three brands each from Constellation Brands (Woodbridge, Taylor California Cellars and La Terre), Gallo (Copper Ridge, Barefoot Cellars and Ecco Domani) and The Wine Group (Franzia, Inglenook and Almaden). These three giants have large brand portfolios and strong distribution machines. They get their wines into every nook and cranny, both retail and on-premises sales. You can see the results virtually everywhere.

Only 4 of top 20 are international brands (Yellow Tail, Cavit, Ecco Domani and Mezzacorona). I think the fact that three of these four are Italian wine brands says something about the importance of Italian restaurants, including especially Olive Garden, in the American wine market.

Another Picture: The Wine & Spirit Rankings

The Restaurant Wine data give us one picture of the market, Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual restaurant report (April 2009 issue) provides a different (and perhaps more comforting) image. W&S asks a group of wine-focused restaurants to report which wines are on their lists — now how much they sell, but which ones are on offer. Since wines don’t stay on lists long if they don’t sell, this is an indirect measure of availability and popularity, although it isn’t the same as as volume rankings. Here is the W&S top 10 for 2008.

  1. Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards
  2. Cakebread Cellars
  3. Jordan Vineyard & Winery
  4. Silver Oak Wine Cellars
  5. Ferrari-Carano Winery
  6. Robert Mondavi Winery
  7. Veuve Cliquot
  8. Chateau Ste. Michelle
  9. Rombauer Vineyards
  10. Kendall-Jackson Vineyards

Sonoma-Cutrer is #1 on this list, yet it appeared on only about 14% of the surveyed wine lists (and, as noted above, there is no indication of how much was sold).  Only one winery appears in both top 10 lists – Kendall-Jackson. Only two other wineries appears in both top 20s – Beringer and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Gallo and The Wine Group are missing from the W&S top 20, although Constellation Brands makes the list through Robert Mondavi.

Looking over the data, I find myself especially impressed by the performance of Kendall-Jackson and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Both makers seem to combine wide distribution with a range of wines at attractive price points. It isn’t surprising that they rank high on both lists. Perhaps other producers will try to emulate K-J and CSM, especially given this tough economic climate.

Good, Bad or Ugly?

If the first list of restaurant wine brands depresses you, then ignore it and focus on the second list, where White Zin is much harder to find, but don’t get too smug. Remember that there are many markets for wine and that the US is no different from other countries in this regard. Compared to Germany, in fact, much more fine wine is sold here and proportionately less of the bulk product.

For myself, I see a glass half full. My experience working with college students who study wine is that the inexpensive wines serve a really useful function of introducing students to wine and diverting them from beverages that are more closely associated with binge drinking.

Although some White Zin drinkers suffer from arrested development and never move beyond it, I am persuaded that many do. Every staircase, no matter how high it reaches, needs a bottom step.  We have a broad first step in America — no surprise there — but I think it is a step up.

Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine

How an investigation into trends in restaurant wine sales leads to an unexpected discovery.

Reading Down the Wine List

Everyone knows that restaurant wine sales are down as the recession has reduced both the number of diners and their willingness to spend a lot of money on wine. One of the best sources of news on restaurant wine sales is the Wine & Spirits magazine annual restaurant issue, which surveys selected wine-friendly restaurants and reports sales trends.

The W&S data give only part of the picture, however, since they tend to survey restaurants with more sophisticated wine-enthusiast customers. What’s happen to wine sales a bit further down the food chain?

Two studies by Ronn Wiegand (publisher and Master of Wine) in the current issue of Restaurant Wine report that US restaurant wine sales were off by 5.5 percent by volume  in 2008 while sales of the Top 100 wines fell by just 3.5 percent. This suggests some consolidation in this sector, which will make sense once I tell you what the best selling wines are.

The drop in restaurant wine sales overall is less than the numbers I’ve seen for upscale restaurants. One reason for this discrepancy as I understand it  is that Wiegand’s figures come from distributors, who report sales to all restaurants and on-premises establishments, not just purchases by select restaurants. So this gives us a picture of the broader market.

America’s Best Selling Restaurant Wines

Upscale restaurants of the sort that receive Wine Spectator awards get the most attention in the press, but casual dining restaurants are where the volume of wine sales is greatest. The top ten individual wines (by volume not value of sales) in 2008 were (drum roll) …

  1. Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
  2. Cavit Pinot Grigio
  3. Beringer White Zinfandel
  4. Sutter Home White Zin
  5. Inglenook Chablis
  6. Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio
  7. Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio
  8. Copper Ridge Chardonnay
  9. Yellow Tail Chardonnay
  10. Franzia White Zin

None of these is an expensive wine and the #1 K-J is probably the costliest of the lot. The best selling restaurant (“on-premises”) wines are high-volume, widely-distributed inexpensive wines – just the sort that recession-ravaged consumers who want to trade down (in terms of price) and switch over (to a more relaxed view of wine) might find appealing.

Using the rule of thumb that a glass of restaurant wine sells for about the wholesale price of the bottle, these wines would sell from about $5 (for the Sutter Home) to maybe $8 (for the K-J Chard) per glass — and I suspect that a lot of this wine is sold by the glass. An affordable luxury, as they say.

Who Sells the Most Restaurant Wine (and How)?

If you are someone who dines mainly at three star restaurants where the wine list is really a leather-bound book that is handled with biblical reverence (and White Zinfandel must be a typographical error), the facts I’ve just stated about what America drinks when it dines out are probably pretty discouraging. But don’t give up hope just yet.

If you want to see the state of the art in American restaurant wine programs, follow your nose in the direction of the local shopping mall and get in line for a table at Olive Garden. Olive Garden’s 691 restaurants sell more wine than any other restaurant chain in the United States and its sales and education programs are a positive part of the transformation of American wine culture. Olive Garden is the optimistic future of American restaurant wine.

How does Olive Garden, a chain best known for its bottomless salad bowl and endless supply of tasty bread-sticks, sell so much wine (half a million cases in 2006, according to one source, probably much more than that today)? The short answer is education. Americans like wine and enjoy having it with food, but they are intimidated by everything about wine and need education before they are comfortable embracing wine. You’ve gotta learn ’em before you can turn ’em (into mainstream wine consumers).

The educational process at Olive Garden starts with staff, the people who are best placed to influence customer choice. Early on, Olive Garden established a relationship with the family that owns Rocca delle Macie winery in Tuscany. Specially selected staff travel to Italy each year to live, shop, eat, drink, cook and in general soak up knowledge and experience that can be used and shared back home — a  nice employee incentive that pays off in higher wine sales.

Back home, in partnership with several California wineries, Olive Garden has established a similar institute in Napa Valley.  Many restaurants expect that their wait-staff will pick up wine knowledge – Olive Garden really works at it by providing literally hundreds of thousands of hours of training. Of course, it has the chain-wide scale to make this investment pay off.

Selling Wine By Giving It Away

So Olive Garden staff are likely to know their wine list (37 wines from Italy, California, Washington and Australia, 35 of which are available by the glass) and which wines match well with different dishes, but how to you get patrons to try them – and especially to move out of their comfort zone and try something new?

The answer is … wait for it … to give away free samples! Patrons at many Olive Garden restaurants (this is America — local regulations vary) are offered small samples of different wines along with advice on menu pairing. The Italian house wines are the Pincipato brand made by Cavit that sells for $5.35 a glass and $32 for a 1.5 liter bottle meant to be shared family-style. Bottle prices of other wines range from $21 for the Sutter Home White Zin on up to $110 for Bertani Amarone. Most choices are in the $24-$34 range.

Olive Garden takes the free sample idea seriously, giving away 30,000 cases of wine in 2006 and presumably more today. That’s about 3-4 million tastes, according to my back-of-the envelope calculation. And it’s worth it, both in terms of wine sales and customer satisfaction. Customers like the wine, once they’d had a chance to try it, Olive Garden says, and it helps them enjoy the whole family dining experience more. No argument here — I can see how having one of those 1.5 liter bottles on the table would help a family relax and enjoy their meals.

The Olive Garden website continues the education process for customers who develop an interest, with basic Wine 101 information along with an interactive guide to pairing specific wines with particular menu items.

Confidence Game: Olive Garden, Costco and Trader Joe’s

The Olive Garden system sells wine, obviously, and it sells the idea of wine in a very healthy way. Olive Garden customers are more likely to try new wines and have fun with wine, I think, because they trust the Olive Garden brand.

Olive Garden has obviously invested a lot in its wine program and in research about what will appeal to its customers. There is less perceived risk in trying something new at Olive Garden. This is perhaps especially  important in selling some of the Italian wines, where both the producer (Mandra Rossa, for example, or Arancio) and wine name (Fiano or Nero d”Avola) would be unfamiliar to most diners.

In a way, Olive Garden has the same advantage when it comes to selling wine as Trader Joe’s and Costco. The seller’s trusted brand gives buyers confidence in making an otherwise uncertain purchase.

Olive Garden is big enough and smart enough to make the investment required to pursue this wine strategy. It’s a good thing in terms of the development of a healthy American wine culture, but it does contribute to the consolidation of the industry noted at the start of this post. Olive Garden needs large, reliable supplies of each wines to make its system work (minimum quantity 7500 cases, I think), which rules out smaller producers.

But Olive Garden doesn’t have to be everything to everyone and there is plenty of room in the marketplace for other types of restaurants and wine programs. If Olive Garden helps introduce middle America to a healthy idea of wine, it will have done a great service.  And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.

Book Review: Doubts about Bordeaux

Benjamin Lewin MW, What Price Bordeaux? Vendage Press (an imprint of the Wine Appreciation Guild), 2009.

Wine is bottled poetry, I have read, and bottled geography, too. It is also liquid doubt.

Uncertainty is a key obstacle to the purchase of wine because it is so difficult to know what’s really in the bottle at time of purchase (and, of course,  if you will like it) . There are thousands of different wines from different places made in a myriad of styles. The uncertainty is magnified by the fact that wine changes with each vintage, each vintage changes as it ages, and we all have different tastes. Add to this the fact that some wines are frauds – not what they seem to be  — and others are “lemons” with bad corks or random flows. It’s surprising, when you think about it, that anyone buys wine at all.

Diluting the Brand

Doubt is one of the biggest obstacles to the successful intersection of demand and supply for wine and much effort is expended in making consumers more confident in their purchases. Brands are one solution. A brand that has established a reputation for quality and consistency is a valuable thing in the wine market. This applies to both private brands like Robert Mondavi  and to communal brands, like Champagne.

Champagne was the first wine appellation – a geographic designation meant to deter fraud and encourage confident consumption. It is probably the most valuable “brand” in all wine.

If Champagne is the top wine brand then Bordeaux must come a close second. Bordeaux wines are possibly the best, arguable the most famous and certainly the most expensive in the world. Or at least some of them are, because Bordeaux’s production includes much that is common, foul or unsellable at any price.

The paradoxes of Bordeaux and its famous brand are the subject of Benjamin Lewin’s new book, What Price Bordeaux? Although Dr. Lewin might disagree, I would say that one theme of his book is that the Bordeaux brand is a bit of a fraud. Bordeaux’s reputation is rooted in history, for example, as is the case of much Old World wine, but we learn that the Bordeaux wines of today bear little resemblance to wines of the past.

This is a good thing, in some respects. The Bordeaux wines of history were thin products, “corrected” to meet market demand by the addition of darker wines from Spain and the South of France. Bordeaux wines today are more like their arch rivals from the Napa Valley, both by choice and as a  consequence of global warming, which has nearly eliminated the climate differences between the two regions.

Wine Mythbusters

The top brands in Bordeaux were established by the Classification of 1855, which grouped the chateaux into a rigid quality hierarchy based upon market prices at that time. This, Dr. Lewin’s analysis suggests, was a bit of a fraud as well, and not a very reliable guide to wine choices today.

My favorite chapter examines the “second wine” phenomenon. Many Bordeaux producers (and almost all of the top chateaux) produce a second wine (selling at a lower price) in addition to the flagship bottling. The second wine is marketed to people like me, who probably can’t afford to buy the top wine but want an idea of what it might taste like. We buy the cheaper product and imagine the taste of the grand vin.

The problem, Dr. Lewin tells us, is that there is no fixed idea of what a second wine should be and no certain relationship between the greater and lesser products. Indeed, he says, many second wines are poor values – over-priced because they benefit from the borrowed reputation of the top wine. Better off with a better wine at lower cost from a lower-tier producer, he suggests. Good advice for people who taste what’s in the bottle, not what they imagine to be there based upon the label.

Dr. Lewin’s book is unusually full of data for a wine publication – wine writers are better with stories than bar graphs – but it fits perfectly his myth-buster approach. The maps and figures are colorful and engaging – or at least they engaged the wine geek in me. Each chapter examines some particular aspect of the Bordeaux brand and reveals the reality behind the curtain. I admire both the book and Dr. Lewin’s research and expertise, although I would have appreciated a stronger central argument.

It is pretty clear that this exposé is a labor of love not malice – Dr. Lewin is convinced that the wines and the Bordeaux brand could both be much better. The first step is to acknowledge the facts and that’s where this book comes in. Dr. Lewin has done a service to the Bordeaux producers in this regard. Now it is up to them.

Chateau Cash Flow: The Rise of House Brand Wine

Decanter.com reports that house brand wine sales are rising in Great Britain even as the overall market slumps.

Retailers are reporting impressive growth of own-label wines as cash-strapped customers look to rein in their spending.

A Datamonitor survey reports 41% of all grocery sales in the UK are now own-label, up from 38.2% in 2008, and wine sales are following the upward trend.

Supermarket retailer Sainsbury’s told decanter.com its own-label wines had grown at double the rate of its wine range this year. A spokeswoman said: ‘Last year we revamped our own-label packaging and we have put a lot of effort behind the range in store and in the media.’

House brands aren’t so important in the U.S. wine market [yet] but they may well be in the future. The best known U.S. house brand wines are Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) at Trader Joe’s and Kirkland Signature at Costco. Big Box retailers Target and Wal-Mart have launched their own house brands in recent months and other retailer’s have commissioned discount brands (not yet closely associated with their names) in an attempt to get a grip on the trading-down market. Look for this trend to continue, especially if the economic downturn persists.

Chateau Cash Flow

House brands are a solution to several problems, which is why they are likely to increase in importance. On the consumer side, they provide buyers with reputational assurances. You might wonder if a $3 wine can be any good, but you are more likely to try it if Trader Joe’s or Wal-Mart stands behind it. As I have written before, a $3 unknown wine at Safeway makes you think “how can it be any good?” while a $3 wine with the Trader Joe’s imprimatur makes you think “how bad can it be?” You might buy the latter but not the former.

The British have years of experience with house brands — it is why they are [for now] the world’s most important wine market and why Britain’s supermarkets are arguably the most sophisticated wine distribution machines on earth. The U.S. is catching up, but Britain still leads.

Reputation is especially important when consumers are trading down, moving into unfamiliar territory on the lower shelves. Decanter reports that while some British consumers are trading down to house brands, building that market, existing customers are trading up within the house brand portfolio! If this trend continues it will be hard to resist the house brand strategy.

Supply Side Wine

House brands have big advantages on the supply-side, too. Producers with surplus wine are often happy to sell it off through house brand bopttlings because it generates cash flow without directly undercutting their own brands and market. In my international economics class we call this “dumping.” You sell off unintended surpluses (of which there are plenty just now) through retailers in a different market segment, allowing you to maintain reputation and price points in the home market. If you start discounting wine to sell it, we have learned, it is sometimes difficult to regain the ground you have lost.

Some British retailers have moved aggressively into the supply chain, buying up grapes and surplus wines and acting as full-fledged negociants, but it isn’t really necessary to make such a large commitment to get into the house brand wine business. There are plenty of regional and national firms who can quickly respond to demand. No large investment is required, cost is low.

House brands can also have a somewhat fluid identity (not tied tightly to a particular region or style), which allows them to benefit from global opportunities, sourcing Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, for example, and Pinot Noir from Northern Italy or the South of France.

The main problem is to be sure that quality is good enough. Otherwise you have put your own brand in jeopardy.

Three Way Battle

The world’s wine markets are a battleground for three models of wine sales. The German model is based upon low cost (one euro per liter) and hard discount sellers like Aldi. The American model is all about corporate brands like Gallo and Constellation Brands. The British model is built upon upscale supermarkets and the house brands they sell.

Recent news suggests that the British model is gaining ground, both in the UK and here in America, where it is the model that drives Costco sales (Trader Joe, on the other hand, uses a version of the German system). It will be interesting to see if this trend persists once the recession eases up.

Wines from Spain: Challenges and Opportunities

You know that a market niche is expanding when Constellation Brands decides to move into it, as it  has done with Red Guitar, an old vines Tempranillo-Granacha blend from Spain’s Navarra DO that sells for about ten bucks.

Red Guitar is marketed as “a rich, smooth and stylish celebration of the Spanish lifestyle” — a wine for the times, I guess, when consumers are looking for products that let them trade down in terms of price while trading up to a fun, more casual way of living.

Don’t Know Much

I didn’t know very much about the wines of Spain and the Spanish wine industry, so I went back to the classroom this week to try to catch up at a three day seminar on Spain’s wines organized by The Wine Academy of Spain and taught by Esteban Cabezas. My fellow students came mainly from within the wine industry — sommeliers, distributors and retailers. I learned a lot and sampled dozens of great wines. We didn’t taste Red Guitar, but we did survey the market from $5 bottles on up to the highest levels, including table wines, Sherry and sparkling Cavas. Yes, I know. Tough work …

Education is important to the future of the wines of Spain.  As I have written before, the number of unfamiliar regions and grape varieties is a challenge that must be addressed if wines from Spain are to achieve their obvious market potential. Constellation Brands’ decision to market Red Guitar as a “lifestyle” brand probably reflects the difficulty of selling wine from unfamiliar places made with unfamiliar grapes in a market where the international  varietals and styles are the lingua franca. Spanish winemakers need to get the word out — to educate consumers and sellers. Classes like the one I attended are a good step in this direction.

Uncorking the Potential of Wines from Spain

It’s useful to think about Spain’s wine industry using a basic SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) framework. Wines from Spain have many strengths that go beyond their obvious quality in the glass. Spanish food and culture are hot and Spain is a popular tourist destination, factors that can be leveraged in the marketplace. Intangible cultural factors have always helped sell Italian wines, so it is not unreasonable to think that Spain will benefit from them as well. Red Guitar’s marketing strategy is an obvious attempt to do just this.

There are weaknesses, too, of course. While the sparkling Cavas are very popular, offering Champagne quality at beer prices in some cases, other segments of the Spanish industry suffer from consumer ignorance or indifference. Sherry wines from Andalusia, for example, suffer the same challenge as Riesling wines. Consumers think they know what they are (simple, sweet stuff) but they are wrong. The diversity of styles and complexity of the best wines gets lost. For those who know them Sherry wines are the great bargains of the wine world. But most consumers never find out what they are missing. That needs to change.

The amazing diversity of Spain’s table wines is a strength in this market, where consumers are unusually willing to try new products if they perceive good value. But diversity is also a weakness to the extent that it confuses consumers (especially American consumers)  who are looking for a “brand” identity and can’t find it. Spain doesn’t have  a distinct regional identity that would draw in consumers initially and then encourage further experimentation as some other wine producing areas do.

In Search of “Brand Spain”

New Zealand has “brand” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, which put that country on the wine map and gave millions of wine drinkers an excuse to try NZ wines. Oregon has its Pinot Noir, which has helped make it a wine region of international note despite its surprisingly small total production. Spain (like Washington State wine in this regard) produces so many different types and styles of wine that no one of them defines it. The regional identity is unclear. This is a barrier when trying to break into new markets, but a strength once a market beachhead has been established.

Although my terrioriste friends cringe when they hear me say this, I think it would be great if Spain had a Mondavi or Antinori who could define a “brand Spain”  in the global market. I think that a number of quality producers are trying to achieve this, but the industry is still pretty fragmented. Perhaps the consolidation that is sure to accompany the current economic downturn will move this process along.

The continuing economic crisis  is a great opportunity for Spain to expand export market share, especially in the United States where the market for wine is till growing in the mid-market segments. Spain, like Argentina, has a reputation for good value and distinctive wines and this is very useful right now.

Catch-22

It is important, however, to avoid being defined by low price alone. Spain’s first and fourth largest export markets (Germany and France) buy mainly low cost wines to stock the shelves of Aldi and similar discount sellers. Spain needs to focus on the UK and US (numbers two and three on their export table) where higher prices and margins are possible.

Another threat to Spain’s success in the international market is the temptation to conform too closely to the international market style (Pancho Campo, Spain’s leading wine authority, called this “the Australian style” in a Skype-dialogue with my class). Wines that are all alike become commodities at some point and it seems to me that Spain, with its already huge lake of surplus wines, wants to get out of that part of the market.

But there’s a Catch-22. It is easier, perhaps, to break into the market with a good value me-too wine. But it is hard to build upon that foundation (hence Australia’s current wine slump). Better to be yourself, distinctive, even quirky, it you can get consumers to give you a try.

As you can see, the prospects for Spain are as complex and multi-dimensional as the wines themselves.  I am optimistic that Spain’s wine industry will navigate this complicated passage successfully. Look for more on this topic in future posts.

Note: I would like to thank the Wine Academy of Spain and Catavino for allowing me to participate in the seminar on wines of Spain. Special thanks to my professor, Estaban Cabezas, and to Simone Spinner.

Tasting Note 8/11/2009: We tried the Red Guitar with dinner tonight and it was completely lacking in distinguishing qualities. It is hard to imagine that anyone who was introduced to the wines of Spain by Red Guitar would try another Spanish wine. Last night, however, we had the Borsao Tres Pichos, an Old Vines Granacha that sells for only a few dollars more, which was completely enchanting. You need to try Spain’s wines to know if you like them, but quality varies (and not just with price), so choose with care.