This week’s Wine Economist looks back at the five columns first published in 2018 that captured the most interest among the wine industry audience that frequents this page.
Sometimes it is difficult to find a common thread among the top columns, but not this year. Readers were concerned about U.S. wine sales and they focused on analysis that they hoped might give them insights into the changing market place and especially how to deal with the changing wine consumer base. Take a look at the Top 5 and see if you agree.
Concerns about wine sales were obviously on readers’ minds when this September 2018 column appeared. The premise of the piece was simple: we are all pretty familiar with the conventional wisdom about the wine market but the conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold in a changing world. Sometimes you need to look more closely at the data (Nielsen data in this case) to see what’s actually going on.
There were plenty of surprises to be found (five of them, as the title indicates), including Zinfandel’s high average price (higher than Pinot or Cab), Cabernet’s move past Chardonnay in total sales, the resurgence of French wine (think pink), Australia’s real sales challenge (price, not quantity), and Washington wine’s unexpected prominence when you shift the frame of reference a bit.
The Silicon Valley Bank‘s annual wine industry report always gets a lot of attention and with good reason. Timely analysis + innovative thinking + clear presentation = required reading. But the complexity of the study is sometimes lost in the rush to report the headline conclusions. So I decided to take a deeper dive and shine a light on some of the aspects that weren’t getting the attention they deserved, especially with respect to the generational transition in the wine market.
This also gave me an opportunity to make a point of my own: sometimes the differences within generational cohorts are as important as the difference between them.
Organic food has moved from a niche to an important market segment. A lot of us have been waiting for wine to catch up. Bronco Wine, the makers of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck), apparently got tired of waiting and, working with Trader Joe’s stores, introduced Shaw Organic, a line of affordable wines made with organic grapes.
Bronco is the largest vineyard owner in the U.S. (40,000 acres at last count) and has quietly become the largest grower of organic grapes as well. Is Shaw Organic the breakout wine — the wine that will create a critical mass of consumers who look for organic wine the same way that Two Buck Chuck democratized the wine market more generally? Too soon to tell, but it is a trend to watch.
Direct-to-consumer wine sales are on everyone’s mind. With costs rising faster than prices in most cases, those full-margin wine club sales have become a very high priority. Some say that many Napa Valley producers couldn’t keep the lights on without their wine club sales.
So who has the largest wine club? Incredibly, it is an Illinois-based restaurant and winery business called Cooper’s Hawk, which counts about 300,000 wine club members who visit their local restaurants once a month to pick up the latest wine. What makes Cooper’s Hawk so successful (and how can wineries reach the market they’ve developed)? And can the lessons of Cooper’s Hawk be applied more generally? Timely questions. No wonder this is the #2 column of the year.
Millennials. They are the wine market of the future and the future is now. But what do they want and how do you get their attention? This May 2018 column, which is top of the list, looks at an incredibly successful Treasury Wine Estates product that was specifically developed to appeal to millennial men.
It is called 19 Crimes, which is kind of a strange name for a wine, and while I am not a big fan of the wine itself (it wasn’t crafted to appeal to me), I am very impressed with the way it has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations by breaking all the wine marketing rules.
This is the final Wine Economist column of 2018. See you next year!
“It’s very popular — one of the varietals is nearly sold out already.” That was my friend Kelly’s response to a question about a new wine at her Trader Joe’s store: Shaw Organic. It is the latest wine from the people who brought you Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) and I think it might say something about where the wine market could be going in the U.S.
Two Billion Buck Chuck
I wrote about the “miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The miracle, I said, wasn’t that the Bronco Wine Co. could make a wine that Trader Joe’s could sell for just $1.99 (the price has gone up over the years, but it is still inexpensive). Making value wine is all about controlling cost and there are many ways of doing that. In Europe some hypermarkets have sold what I call One Buck Chuck: one liter for one Euro in a tetrapack container. That’s about a dollar per 750 ml bottle equivalent.
No, there’s no miracle in making a wine to sell for two bucks. The miracle is getting people to buy it because they tend to confuse price with quality and are suspicious that anything that costs so little could be any good.
I gave credit to Bronco for making clean, consistent, drinkable wines and Trader Joe’s for backing the wines with their reputation for quality and value. The miracle continues — Fred Franzia announced in 2016 that Bronco/Trader Joe’s had reached the one billion bottle milestone, which provoked Paul Franson to christen Franzia “two billion buck Chuck” for the massive total expenditure on this modest wine.
Organic Wine vs “Made with Organic Grapes”
Shaw Organic is an extension of the Charles Shaw / Two Buck Chuck line that is noteworthy in several respects. First, there is the organic element. Bronco is very careful not to call this an organic wine, noting correctly that it is wine “made with organic grapes.”
What’s the difference? To be certified an organic wine by the USDA it must use only organic grapes and be produced with no added sulfites in a certified facility. Wine that is “made with organic grapes” is allowed up to use 100 ppm of added sulfites, which is how Shaw Organic is made. Most but not all conventional wines have less than 100 ppm of added sulfites, according to my quick wine wine literature review.
The Shaw Organic wines we saw were priced at $3.99 per bottle for Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio. How is it possible to make a sell a wine made with organic grapes at such a low price? Well, as with Two Buck Chuck, economies of scale are part of the answer. In this case, the story starts in the vineyards.
You may know that Bronco is America’s largest vineyard owner, with about 40,000 acres of grape vines. You may not know that Bronco is also the largest grower of organic wine grapes in the United States. According to a 2016 article by Deborah Parker Wong (pdf) Bronco has converted more than 5000 acres of vines to certified organic status — enough to produce 400,000 cases of wine. That’s roughly a third of all the organic wine grapes produced in the U.S.
Unscrew the Cork?
Alternative packaging is a hot trend in wine markets these days and Shaw Organic features the latest twist from Amorim Cork: a twist-cork closure called Helix that allows consumers to have the cork stoppers that research shows they often associate with wine quality along with the convenience that comes with a screw cap.
The Helix cork closure is a special cork and bottle combination. You grab the cork, which looks a bit like a fat sparkling wine cork, and twist it out to open. Reverse to re-close the bottle. Helix has been around for a couple of years, but not everyone has seen it yet. The Shaw Organic wines we saw had informative tags on the bottle necks to explain the how cork system works.
Amorim and Bronco worked closely on this project so I asked Antonio Amorim to comment on the partnership. “Shaw Organic features an innovative packaging that seamlessly matches the unique sustainability of cork with easy-to-open, consumer-driven convenience,” he said. “All this is now available enhancing the premium aspects of an organic wine ”
Sue and I have been on a Rosè wine binge recently, so we bought a bottle of the Shaw Organic Rosè to try at home. We were surprised at the quality, especially given the $3.99 price tag. The Shaw Organic Rosè was subtle but refreshing and opened up a bit with time. It’s quite dry, which I didn’t expect. I’d be pleased to have it in my glass at a party or reception or just sitting on the patio any time.
Do You Believe in Miracles?
So will I be writing about the Miracle of Shaw Organic in my next book? Well … maybe. But if it does perform a miracle, it will be a different one from Two Buck Chuck. TBC democratized wine — the low price and consistent quality gave millions of consumers the confidence to try wine. Many of them stuck with TBC, but others moved up the wine wall to more expensive products.
Can Shaw Organics do the same thing for consumers who are interested in organic products? Maybe. It will certainly draw consumer attention to the organic category for wine. The conventional wisdom is that there are so few mass market wines with “organic” anywhere on the label because producers fear that buyers will be turned off by the designation. (It’s a complicated problem — I wrote about the “Organic Wine Paradox” here.)
Bronco and Trader Joe’s are bold to push the concept to the fore. Maybe they will give other producers confidence to “go organic” and it would be great if they could expand the overall market for these wines the way that Two Buck Chuck did for wine generally.
Decanter, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” organizes the mother of all wine competitions each year. The results of the 2011 judging are out — you can read them here.
I think that the Decanter World Wine Awards is the largest and most comprehensive wine competition in the world. The press release proclaims that “This year a staggering 12,252 wines from 44 countries were tasted in the DWWA, with 8,327 medals awarded.” Staggering is right! That’s a lot of wine from a lot of places and a lot of awards, too.
Can you imagine a wine competition with more than 8000 winners (two thirds of all wines entered)? What an incredible undertaking.
Wine economists are suspicious of wine competitions. This is partly because economists are suspicious people in the first place, always looking for the dark dismal cloud whenever they spy a silver lining. But there are other reasons, too. De gustibus non est disputadumis the economists’ motto; everyone is entitled to her own opinion on matters of taste. The idea that anyone, even experienced judges, could objectively rank something as inherently subjective as wine runs against an economist’s nature, so you can imagine how suspicious we are about big competitions where thousands of wines are tasted and rated.
Richard Hodgson, a winemaker and retired statistics professor, was for many years a judge at the Mother of All American Wine Competitions, the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. California State Fair judges evaluated more than 3000 wines from 600 wineries in 2009. It’s a huge competition, although nothing compared to the Decanter contest. Hodgson’s analysis of raw data from wine judges suggests that they are only human after all and likely to suffer the sort of tasting inconsistencies that you would expect (if you are a suspicious-minded economist).
Hodgson and his colleague G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski, California State Fair Wine Competition manager and chief wine judge discussed their findings at the 2010 meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Davis, California. Here’s a summary taken from the Wine Business Monthly report on the session.
Hodgson served as a judge in the California State Fair competition, and is now on the competition’s Wine Advisory Task Force working with Pucilowski to try to improve judging quality and consistency.
With Pucilowski’s assistance, Hodgson has been evaluating the competition judges since 2005 with trials that place three samples from the same wine bottle in one flight of judged wines to see if the judges ranked each sample consistently. Hodgson, who taught statistics at Humboldt State University, said, “Fewer than 10% of judges could judge the three wines and maintain consistency in their scores.” He added, “Some of the same wines received ratings that ranged from no award to gold.” When the study, “An Examination of Judge Reliabiity at a Major U.S. Wine Competition,” was published in the JWE, it received significant media attention and created a stir among wine judges and within the wine industry.
Pucilowski, who has managed the State Fair competition 25 years and often serves as a judge in other competitions, openly admits that his competition and all wine judging events are highly subjective. To his credit, he is constantly looking at ways to improve the competition and to help judges improve their abilities.
The Value of Wine Competitions
So it seems like there is good reason to be skeptical about wine competition results. Why, then, do winemakers enter these competitions, given that they are the people who are most likely to know when their wines are scored too high or low compared with others? Ego may have something to do with it, but the obvious answer is that there is commercial value in a gold medal and the attention it receives, although I don’t know how much a medal is really worth — probably depends upon the circumstances. I noticed, for example, that the Achaval Ferrer Malbec that was the top wine last year in Decanter’s big comparative tasting of Argentinean Malbec did not receive a medal at DWWA. I’ll bet that’s because it wasn’t entered. Nothing to gain for this famous (and probably sold-out) wine.
Some wine producers probably enter competitions on the theory that they might win a medal in at least one of them, which gives them bragging rights. There has been a medal on the label of every bottle of Gallo’s value-priced Barefoot wines that I’ve ever seen, for example. A medal gives the cautious bargain-buyer some assurance of quality. Three non-vintage Barefoot wines — Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Moscato — earned “commended” medals in this year’s Decanter competition.
The Charles Shaw 2005 California chardonnay (yes, the $1.99 “Two Buck Chuck” made by Bronco Wine Company sold at Trader Joe’s) was judged Best Chardonnay from California at California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.
The chardonnay received 98 points, a double gold, with accolades of Best of California and Best of Class.
As the video above shows, Decanter (like the California State Fair competition) goes to great lengths to overcome the inherently problematic elements of wine judging. This makes sense since there is so much at stake, both for the winemakers and for Decanter itself, which puts its reputation on the line. The Decanter awards probably have more commercial value than most because the Decanter name has credibility, especially in the U.K. Decanter sells colorful foil medals to decorate winning bottles and the decorations sell the wine, the magazine and, well, the whole enterprise.
Winning a medal is good, but perhaps the biggest prize for many wineries is winning distribution. Making good wines is often easier than getting them into consumer hands, both here in the U.S. where our fragmented three-tier system creates many obstacles, and also in Great Britain, where the big supermarket chains dominate. Scrolling through the online winner lists I notice that a lot of the wines that are received medals in the competition aren’t currently sold in the UK. Perhaps that’s the point of entering — to get distributor attention and break into the market.
Thick and Thin
Wine competitions are fun, but I admit that I don’t take the results too seriously since they depend on so many uncontrollable factors, including which particular wines are entered and which (like the Achaval Ferrer Malbec) are held out. I do, however, find the Decanter results worth careful study because they have some important stories to tell.
The wine world is very broad but the world wine market surprisingly thin and uneven. Looking at the award list, it is interesting to see the large number of countries (44, including India, China and Thailand) that sent wine to London for the judging. As someone who writes about the globalization of wine, it is great to see evidence of the world wine web’s continuing expansion.
But the list of entries is also relatively thin and uneven in some respects, even with more than 12,000 entries, reflecting the fact that the British market is difficult to break into and so not everyone sees value in entering Decanter’s competition.
If you search for U.S. award winners, for example, I think you will be a bit puzzled by the long list of wineries that result, both in terms of the wines that appear and those that are missing, probably because they were not entered in the competition. There are affordable wines from large scale producers (like Gallo’s Barefoot noted above) and some expensive boutique ones, too, but much of America’s vast middle kingdom of wine, which is in many ways the country’s great strength, is under-represented. Not interested in the award because not represented in the British market, I suspect.
The U.S. Medal Count
This perhaps accounts for the odd showing of American wines on the Award league table. Only four U.S. wines earned top awards in 2011 (many more earned Silver, Bronze and Commended medals, however). The top four are:
Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Huerhuero Estate 2008 (Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo County) earned a regional trophy (second only to an international trophy in Decanter’s galaxy of awards). It was the top U.S. wine. No U.S. wine earned an international trophy.
Three wines earned gold medals: Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage 2007 (Columbia Valley, Washington State), Justin Justification 2008 (Paso Robles. SLO) and the Silverado Vineyards Estate Cab 2008 (Napa Valley).
Are you surprised? I’ll bet this isn’t the list you were expecting. And it is interesting that none of the American wines made the highest level of awards.
Is four a good medal count? Not compared to Argentina, which received almost 20 gold medals and nine regional trophies. Why the big difference? Perhaps the judging panels applied different standards or maybe there just aren’t as many really good wines from the U.S. these days, but I think it has something to do with the intensity of Argentina’s export drive and the importance they attach to Decanter’s international reputation compared with producers from the United States.
I’ve been asked to chair the session on wine competitions at the annual meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists later in the month. It will be interesting to see shat new insights the panelists will provide. Watch this space for a report.
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.
I have often argued that to really understand an industry you first need to understand where the bottlenecks are in the value chain. Bottlenecks disrupt the efficient flow of resources and so industries tend to evolve around them. I believe that this observation holds especially true for wine. Herewith a brief update on the current situation.
Do the Math
Silicon Valley Bank released their annual State of the Wine Industry Report yesterday. SVB is a major lender to US wine producers and thus has a strong interest in producing clear, relevant wine economics research. (I also admire the wine economics research produced by the Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank.)
The report provides some good news along with many worrisome observations (click on the link above to download the study) and fresh data on the biggest single bottleneck in the U.S. wine industry — distribution.
Here’s the basic math. SVB estimate that there are 6000 wineries actuve in the US market producing about 7000 wine brands. All these brands need to squeeze through the U.S. three tier distribution system bottleneck. This means they need to go from maker (first tier) to state-licensed distributor (second tier) to local retailer (third tier). That’s the law here in the United States, where we still think of wine as a controlled substance.
There are only limited opportunities for producers to skip a step. I understand that Bronco Wines, for example, can sell its Charles Shaw brand directly to Trader Joe’s in California because of a legal loophole there, but has to use an independent distributor in other states. That’s why Two Buck Chuck costs $1.99 in L.A. but $2.99 here in Washington State. That extra buck is the cost of the extra distribution layer.
The Big Squeeze
Now we get to the big squeeze. These 7000 brands get funneled through about 550 major distributors according to SVB (obviously this does not count many smaller Mom-and-Pop and specialized distributors that I am familiar with), which is about half as many as a few years back. Hopefully you can appreciate the bottleneck — 7000 brands worth $30 billion in retail sales have to squeeze through 550 distributors in 50 states on their way to 76 million wine consumers. Any blockage in the distributor tier backs up the whole industry.
And the problem gets worse because the distributors are obviously getting squeezed themselves by the economy — falling sales, trading down, shrinking margins, credit limits and counter-party risk. Expect distributors to consolidate in some cases and pull back to reduce cost and risk in others.
The net effect is clear — distributors are reducing their SKUs (stock keeping units to non-economists) and focusing a smaller number of reliably profitable products lines. This means that it is harder and harder for new and niche wineries to get on the warehouse pallet.
The Missing Middle
I’m not sure exactly how this all will shake out, but I suspect the problem will be worse in the middle market. Very small wineries can often successful self-distribute. Very large ones will probably get distribution because of the volumes they can generate. The middle falls awkwardly in between — too big to sell it all yourself, too small to be worth a major distributor’s time. The fact that the distribution system is fragmented into 50 (plus DC) pieces just makes the situation worse.
In the same way, SVB data suggest that lower priced fine wines ($35 and less on their scale — remember that a lot of SVB’s customers are in Napa Valley) are still selling pretty well and very expensive icon wines apparently are doing OK, too. The mid-range is in trouble. SVB calls $35-$50 a “gray area” and $50-$125 a “dead zone.” Ouch.
I would hate to be a new 3000-5000 case winery trying to sell wine made to be priced in the dead zone. Unfortunately, I think there may be a lot of new wineries coming on line now who planned to do just that back when economic conditions were sunnier. It will take exceptional effort (or truly exceptional wine) to make this business model work in the current economic environment. I recently talked with one middle-sized premium winemaker who has already figured this out and pulled back — lower output, lower prices — to get clear of the dead zone.
This is the “missing middle” effect that economists are familiar with in other contexts (small family operations and huge corporate businesses survive, the middle simply disappears). The distribution bottleneck isn’t necessarily the cause of the coming missing middle effect in the wine industry, but it will certainly make it worse.
What does the sub-prime mortgage crisis have to in common with the market for wine today? More than you might think! Read on …
Here’s a simplified version of the sub-prime mortgage crisis narrative. A housing bubble masked the inherent risk of the mortgaged-backed securities that financed the bubble itself. Investors were unable to fully assess risk because the complicated financial vehicles were not very “transparent” and the rating agencies did not prove to be trustworthy guides.
When the crisis came, liquidity dried up and the market deflated (crashing in some cases). The solution to the problem, many think, is to increase transparency — to make it easier to figure what is in a mortgage-backed security and how to assess its risk and return.
Some wine buyers will find it easy to relate to elements of this story, according to the Project Genome study recently released by Constellation Brands (I have written about Project Genome in my post “What are wine enthusiasts looking for?”).
According to this study, the largest single group of wine consumers are”overwhelmed” by the choices confronting them and cannot adequately assess the risk they face when staring down a crowded supermarket wine aisle or endless restaurant wine list. Their “liquidity crisis” is a real one — they are afraid to invest in complicated wine products due to a lack of confidence in their knowledge and lack of transparency regarding what’s really in the bottle. Intimidated, they buy a lot less wine than other groups. They lose and winemakers lose, too.
Project Genome estimates that overwhelmed consumers represent 23% of wine buyers, but make just 13% of all wine purchases. They are the “bottom of the pyramid” of wine and many industry people figure that a fortune awaits anyone who taps this market.
Making Wine More Transparent
So what’s the best way to make the wine buying process more transparent and end the overwhelmed consumer’s liquidity crisis? Better information is one approach. Wine critics are the bond rating agencies of the wine market. Their scores give many wine buyers the confidence they need to make what really is a risky purchase. At their best, wine critics serve a useful function of reducing uncertainty about what’s in that bottle and whether it is worth the price.
But there are dozens of wine critics and their ratings, using different scales and ranking protocols, do not always agree and are not always a clear guide. How many disappointing wines have you bought because of the “89-point” rating on the shelf tag? It only takes a few highly-rated losers to discourage an overwhelmed buyer from taking a chance.
Wine critics are part of the answer, but they are also part of the problem. What other options are available? The May 15, 2008 Wall Street Journal included an interesting article by Charles Passy (the “Cranky Consumer” columnist) that examined how some wine retailers are trying to demystify wine. “For Novice Shoppers, a Little Wine 101” describes four retailers, WineStyles, Total Wine & More, The Grape and Costco, and their different marketing strategies (I wrote about Costco’s system in an earlier post, “Costco and Global Wine“).
I’ve been to a WineStyles store so I can give a personal report. The store is arranged according to wine style profiles (crisp, silky, rich, etc.) rather than varietal type, production region or retail price. So if you know you like a crisp wine, you go to that wine rack and you find wines such as Washington Riesling, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and South African Chenin Blanc. You are directed to the style you like and hopefully encouraged to try unfamiliar types of wine. If consumers can actually figure out what they like about wine and if they develop confidence in the style categories, this system helps them make better and more self-assured choices.
Food and wine writer Cynthia Nims reports on another strategy on her blog, Mon Appétit. Cynthia discovered a line of branded wines called “Wine that Loves” that are intended to simplify the wine-food pairing choice. Are you looking for something to serve with roast chicken? Pick up “Wine that Loves Roast Chicken.” Fish tonight? Look for “Wine that Loves Grilled Salmon.”
The chicken wine is “Predominantly Garnacha” according to the label — not a wine that an overwhelmed consumer would probably risk as a varietal choice, but might try and like in this format. The salmon wine is a Pinot Grigio/Garganega/Chardonnay blend. I like this concept because it links wine to food, which is very important, and encourages experimentation. It will be interesting to see if buyers embrace it or if it is just a novelty that soon fades.
The British System of House Brands
Great Britian is the most important wine market in the world in part because British retailers have developed a number of successful strategies to increase wine buyer confidence. Supermarkets are the big players in the U.K, and house brands are key to their wine strategies. Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer all have their own brands of wine (sourced from around the world). Buyers are willing to try an unfamiliar wine because their confidence in the supermarket chain transfers over the the wine.
(It doesn’t hurt that at least some of the house brand wines are very good, of course. A M&S house brand wine is one of the highest-rated New World Sauvignon Blancs in the current Decanter ratings, for example.)
Trader Joe’s uses this strategy here in the U.S. (I have written about this in 300 Million Bottles of Two Buck Chuck). Trader Joe’s sells vast quantities of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) wine each year and the key is reputation. Not the wine’s reputation — the store’s. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for value and quality, which lends credibility to their house brand wine. As I have said before, the miracle of Two Buck Chuck isn’t that you can sell a wine for $1.99, it is that you can get anyone to buy it. The $1.99 price point just screams “rotgut.” But people happily buy wine at Trader Joe’s at price points they would never think of considering at Safeway or Kroger because they have confidence in the TJ brand.
My local upscale grocer, Metropolitan Market, is trying the house brand route, apparently with success. For the last year or so they have occasionally stocked limited-release house brand wine specials such as the 2007 Columbia Valley “White Selection #1” shown here. The wines go for $8 per bottle or $88 per case and they are stacked in big displays that remind me of, well, Trader Joe’s.
These house brand wines are kind of interesting. The first release of the year was a Rosé — hardly an easy sale given upmarket consumer resistance to pink wines (too close to White Zin!) and the chilly spring we have had — and now a white that turns out on close inspection to be an oak-free Semillon blend. I like Semillon quite a bit, but I don’t think you could sell it by the case at a neighborhood grocery store with a traditional brand name and varietal label. But “Met Market White #1” and the Rosé are products that buyers seem to embrace as safe bets and good values because of the store’s reputation for quality.
They fly out the door, according to the satisfied customers in line with me last week. You might have trouble selling them as ordinary branded varietals, but they go down easy as trusted house brand wines. The British know the wine game really well. We are smart to learn from them.
Everyone is trying to solve the overwhelmed consumers’ liquidity problem. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have consumer friendly labels like House Wine (produced by the Magnificent Wine Company) and Wine By Joe, an Oregon brand. Like the Met Market generics, these are good quality upmarket answers to the question, what should I buy to drink tonight? The reputations these brands have developed for value and quality makes buying their wines a comfortable experience for many consumers. (My Costco sells the House Wines brands by the case.)
Take a close look at your supermarket wine aisle and I think you will see a lot of products designed to make wine easier to understand and buy. With so much creative energy at work here, I am confident that the needs of overwhelmed wine buyer market are being well served. Maybe they’ll stop being overwhelmed and their liquidity crisis will end. I wish I had the same confidence about the financial markets!
Two Buck Chuck (a.k.a. Charles Shaw wine) celebrated its fifth birthday recently, so this is a good excuse to for a new initial thoughts about what the success of this bargain wine says about the wine market today.
Charles Shaw is the brand of very inexpensive wines that Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine company makes for exclusive distribution through the Trader Joe’s chain. The wines sell for $1.99 in California ($2.99 here in Washington state), which accounts for the “two buck” nickname. Total sales over five years: 300 million bottles.
Two Buck Chuck (TBC) is made possible by the current worldwide glut of wine — something that I will write more about later. There is a lot more wine made today than people will buy and so bulk prices have fallen, creating a profitable opportunity for someone, like Fred Franzia and the Trader Joe’s people, who know how to distribute and market it efficiently. Franzia is part of this glut of course, with perhaps 40,000 acres of vines. TBC aimed to find a big demand for a big supply, and it did it.
Some of my friends buy TBC and they are always amazed by the relative value: it may not be great wine, but it’s lot better than a $2 or $3 wine, they say. I think that’s true, but I wonder how they know — have they drunk a lot of $3 wine? I doubt it! Most supermarket wine buyers judge a wine by its price, or at least that is what the research says. They don’t know for sure what is in the bottle and so they are guided by price more than any other factor. I know some $8 wine buyers, for example, who probably wouldn’t buy a $5 wine under normal circumstances, because they assume that it is lower quality. And they probably wouldn’t buy a $12 wine, either, assuming that it wouldn’t be worth the extra cost. So they stick to that $6-$8 wine shelf (you know where it’s at in the grocery store), not looking higher up and not looking much lower on the rack either. They know what they like, and it costs about eight bucks.
So the trick isn’t making an inexpensive wine — that’s doable in this market environment — it’s getting people to buy it. Once you have made a decent wine that you can sell for less, the hard part is to get buyers to look down from their accustomed price points and try it — and to serve it to their friends without humiliation. If you put a TBC clone in Safeway, for example, it’s entirely possible that no one would buy it because they would assume low quality based upon the low price. That’s where Trade Joe’s comes in. Trader Joe’s has a reputation for selling upscale products for a bit less — for providing relative value. Only Nixon could go to China and only Trader Joe’s could sell Two Buck Chuck — for two bucks.
In fact, if you look around, you will actually see a lot of TBC clones in your grocery store, but they sell for more than two bucks. I am talking about the generic “critter wines” (more about this in future posts). They are also a product of the global wine glut and they provide good relative value. But no one would buy them for $2 — how could they be any good? So they sell for a bit more.
By the way, the Charles Shaw brand is actually a good deal older than the five year birthday suggests. The Charles Shaw winery was founded in the Napa Valley in 1974 by Charles F. Shaw for the purpose of making Beaujolais-style wines. Fred Franzia bought the brand from Shaw in 1991 in order to take advantage of its solid reputation. But that’s history — no one pulling a TBC cork today remembers that original Napa winery, they are only thinking about the bargain price.