The Wine Economist World Tour is back on the virtual road in 2021. We hope for the return of in-person events before too long, but until that’s possible virtual events will do very well. Here are the first three stops for the new year.
The Unified: State of the Industry
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium (January 26-29, 2021) is going virtual this year, including both the seminars and the amazing trade show. It will be quite an experience.
The program addresses a host of important issues, with special attention to wildfire threats and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Several sessions analyze changing wine market conditions including the State of the Industry session on Wednesday, January 27. Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Jeff Bitter, and Jon Moramarco join me on the virtual panel.
Idaho Wine Commission: State of the Industry
The Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting goes virtual this year, too, with half-day sessions on February 22-23, 2021. This is the third time I’ve spoken at this event and I am sad that I won’t be able to visit Boise in person to refresh friendships, exchange insights, sample great Idaho wine, and enjoy Boise’s amazing Basque food scene.
I will anchor the first day’s program with a special take on the State of the Industry. Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, will speak the following day. Economic change, climate change. Food for thought for Idaho’s dynamic wine industry.
Wine Future 2021: Challenges & Solutions
WineFuture 2021, an incredibly ambitious international event, will happen on February 23-26, 2021. This big international conference boasts an all-star cast. I will lead a panel on the economics of the crisis on February 23.
The folks behind Wine Future 2021 think big. The theme of the first day is the four crisis challenges facing wine (and the world): climate, economy, pandemic, and inequality. Day 2 focuses on solutions and sources of inspiration. The final two days look to the future from many different points of view.
Wine Future 2021 has been hosting a pre-conference webinar series since November to get ideas in the air and discussion flowing. You can view previous webinars (including one I did with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv) and register for upcoming broadcasts on the Wine Future 2021 Webinar home page.
January is just around the corner and that means Dry January, the month when many people pause to assess their alcohol consumption. If a lot of people have been indulging as much during the covid pandemic as their social media feeds suggest, Dry January could be particularly traumatic this time around.
Not Just January Any More
But it is a mistake to think of the interest in low- and no-alcohol beverages as being strictly seasonal. The marketing gurus at Heineken beer haven’t invested a fortune promoting Heineken 0.0 because they are looking for a short-term January sales bump. There are lots of reasons for consumers to seek out alcohol-free alternatives and the beer industry, always on the lookout for growing market niches in a fairly stagnant category, has responded with gusto.
If you don’t believe this, take a trip to the beer aisle of your local upscale supermarket. You might be surprised by the number of low/no abv products you find there and the range of styles. When I first explored this question in a Wine Economist column earlier this year I was impressed by a number of German products that had real beer flavor without the abv that usually goes with it.
My favorite among the half-dozen products I tried was Dry Hopped Clausthaler. It ticked the boxes for me: single serving container, affordable price, and it tasted so authentic that I didn’t miss the alcohol. Very impressive. I’ve got some in the fridge now.
Another appealing product that I stumbled upon is All Out non-alcoholic stoutby Athletic Brewing Company. It’s an oatmeal stout and it tastes like an oatmeal stout — very satisfying. Because it is non-alcoholic, the usual nutritional information is provided on the can. Ingredients: Water, malt, oats, wheat, hops, yeast. 90 calories per can. If you like oatmeal stout, you’ll like this, too.
Beer makers have an advantage over wine producers in that they can produce many different batches of beer over the course of the year. Winemakers generally have one shot and that’s it. So seasonal beer products are available and for the winter months Clausthauler made a non-alcoholic holiday beer, Santa Clausthaler (Santa Claus-thaler — get it?) shown above dressed in miniature Santa hats. It is a 50-50 blend of their non-alcoholic beer with a cranberry cinnamon drink. Interesting! Kinda reminds me of mulled wine.
Fear of Missing Out
My earlier column on Dry January worried that wine was missing out on the low/no abv beverage trend. I know there are good wine products out there, but I don’t see the same investment in this category that the beer industry has made. Every bar or restaurant that I visited (when such visits were possible) had a non-alcoholic beer option available. None had non-alcoholic wine.
So what I am looking for? Single serving container is important. Affordability is important, too. And a non-alcoholic wine needs to remind me of wine as much as the best of these non-alcoholic beers remind me of beer.
A new product that seems like a step in the right direction is called H2/Heart Sonoma Soft Seltzer, which comes in Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Rosé flavors. Although the target is non-alcoholic seltzer, not wine, these carbonated drinks contain de-alcoholized wine and grape juice, too.
Sue and I received samples of the sparkling Pinot and Rosé flavors. Sue thought that the Pinot tasted like Black Cherry soda and didn’t see it as a wine substitute at all. The Rosé tasted like sparkling raspberry lemonade to me and, while I can’t say it especially reminded me of Rosé wine, I think I would be happy with this sparkler in my glass at some future post-covid holiday party. Festive, refreshing, enjoyable.
So clearly some people are hard at work bringing wine to the low/no abv party and that’s a good thing because I think this market niche is only going to grow. I’d like to think that wine can play in this arena because I suspect there are many people like me who sometimes want a high-quality low/no abv option, but would like to stick with wine.
That’s it for 2020. The Wine Economist will be back in 2021. Happy Holidays to all.
Exports of wines from Georgia (the country — the cradle of wine — not the U.S. state — the cradle of Coca Cola) have surged in recently years, a fact that is both well-deserved and timely. Georgia deserves the increased recognition of its wine sector both because it really is the cradle of wine, with literally thousands of years of history, and because the wine industry and government have invested heavily in recently years to raise standards and promote products in key markets.
Ticking All the Boxes
Georgia wine’s success in 2020 is especially timely because travel and tourism — another important Georgian industry — has been hard hit by the global coronavirus pandemic. Ideally the wine and the tourism industries work together to generate needed income, especially in rural areas. Georgia is sort of running on one cylinder this year, so wine’s boost is especially appreciated.
Sue and I visited Georgia in 2016 and we were impressed by the friendly people. beautiful scenery, striking crafts and culture, delicious food, and excellent wine. We recently re-immersed ourselves in virtual experiences of Georgia through the third annual Ghvino Forum and a “Georgian Wines 101” trade tasting of six Georgian wines expertly led by Taylor Parsons with special guest winemaker Iago Bitarishvili of the iconic Iago’s Wines.
My particular focus for the Ghvino Forum was a presentation by Tornike Kodrzaia, Head of Research at TBC Capital on the economics of Georgian wine. Wine is important culturally in Georgia (a fact that a recent film Our Blood is Wine makes very clear), but it is also a key element of the economy.
A Complicated Situation
Kodrzaia presented data that showed the Georgian wine sector to be a complex mosaic. A survey of large- to medium-size wineries, for example, revealed high financial returns — about twice the average for Georgian businesses in general, he said. That is incredible. It would be interesting to dive deeper here, to see if the same is true about smaller wineries and if the returns to growers are also positive.
Georgian wine is not a single thing, so it is important to understand its components. Home production was very high during the Soviet era and is still large, especially compared to other countries we have visited. The foundation of Georgia’s high per capita wine consumption is wine made at home or by friends or family, although Kodrzaia noted that commercial wine sales have increased in the domestic market.
Georgian’s prefer white wine — and it is easy to see why if you sample a fine Chinuri, for example. But traditional export markets prefer red wine, so that is a production focus. Russia and the CIS markets demand semi-sweet red wines, which Georgia produces in abundance. Uncertain political relations, however, are behind a movement to diversity export markets and reduce dependence on Russia.
China has emerged as an important market for Georgian wines, but the Chinese prefer dry red wines over the semi-sweet products. Chinese consumers are drawn to the story of Georgian wine — its long history and Silk Road associations– as well as its quality. Many Georgian Wine Houses have opened in Chinese cities to tell the cultural story and promote the wines.
Rising Tide in the U.S. Market
The United States export market is growing quickly from a small base, with above-average prices. Over 800,000 bottles were exported to the U.S. through October 2020, for example, a substantial increase from 678,000 in 2019 and less than 200,000 in 2014, when the current surge began. The average ex-cellar price of exports to the U.S. was $5.11, according to Georgian statistics, more than double the export price for China and CIS countries. So you can see why the U.S. market is a focus.
Georgian wine is exceptionally diverse, so it will be interesting to see which of its many facets shines brightest in the U.S. market. Natural wine is a growing market niche and many Georgian products can fly that flag proudly. But many of the traditional producers are quite small, so critical mass is an issue. Iago Bitarishvili is an immensely important producer, for example, but only 5000 bottles of his amber Chinuri were made in 2019 according to the data we received.
Georgia is home to literally hundreds of native grape varieties, which creates a kaleidoscope of interesting choices for some consumers and a confusing blur to others. (Sue suggests an initial focus on red Saperavi and perhaps also white Chinuri — excellent wines that buyers will not be afraid to try to pronounce.) Many of the wines are hand-sells, however, which makes Covid closures of restaurants and wine bars in many areas an additional challenge. The six wines that were included in the Georgian Wine 101 tasting were made from these grape varieties: Tsitska-Tsolikouri, Kisi, Chinuri, Tsolikouri-Otskhanuri, Tavkveri, and Saperavi.
But Georgia, Georgians, and Georgian wine have survived these thousands of years because of their determination, commitment, and resilience, so they are unlikely to be defeated by these temporary challenges. We look forward to learning more and Georgia and its wines and to witnessing their continued export growth.
Georgia’s Lost Eden
Just as I was putting the final touches on this column a friend wrote to tell me about a new Georgian wine he sampled over Thanksgiving and really enjoyed. The project is called Lost Eden Red Blend and it ticks many of the boxes needed to break through in the crowded marketplace. It is a blend of 100% Saperavi from several vineyards — I’m guessing the marketing folks thought “red blend” would be more approachable that Saperavi. The wine is made by an 11th-generation (!) winemaker. The packaging is unique, don’t you think? You will remember this wine if you try it and like it.
The wine is “semi-dry” with 15.4 g/l residual sugar and 13% alcohol. 4500 cases made. Suggested retail $18.99. It is a type of wine we tasted and enjoyed in Georgia and that is popular here in the U.S. where many consumers talk dry and drink sweeter. The wine is modern in style, according to on-line documents, but pays its respects to tradition by blending in a portion of wine made in the traditional qvevri method of clay vessels buried in the ground.
Some of my friends will be disappointed that a wine like Lost Eden gets attention. They would like Georgia to be known in the U.S. exclusively for its traditional qvervi wines. But Georgia is a small country that punches above its weight in the wine world by leveraging all of its many advantages, including some high quality sweeter red wines.
We haven’t tasted the wine, but we have sampled the story told on the website, which draws on the people and country, their culture and history, and of course the food, too, including the iconic supra feast. Georgian wine is complicated, as noted above. This is only one side of Georgian wine, but one that seems likely to spark greater interest in the wine and the country in general.
Georgian wine is on the move. Let’s see where it goes next!
The wine trade has always been as global as transportation technology and political economy have allowed. So it is no surprise that the economist David Ricardo sought to make his theory of international trade based on comparative advantage clear and obvious by choosing an example that all his readers would appreciate — Portuguese wine exchanged for British wool.
A World of Wine
If you want to get a sense of wine’s global reach today I suggest you visit your local upscale supermarket or wine shop and survey the landscape there. I had my university students do this back in 2011 and reported the results in a Wine Economist column. The local Safeway store carried about 750 wines from a dozen different countries back them, which caught the students by surprise. The store has expanded its wine wall since then, with even more offerings, and the supermarket across the street has an even larger set of wine choices. Globalization delivers a world of wine to your doorstep!
Global trade in wine, both bottled and shipped in bulk, is incredibly important to wine producing countries. The largest producers — France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa — could not possibly sell all the wine they produce in their domestic markets. The collapse of global wine trade would be a global wine catastrophe.
And the trade in wine isn’t the whole story. Global markets exist for corks, capsules, winemaking services (think “flying winemakers”), and bottles, too. We’ve visited wineries in South Africa, for example, that import glass bottles from Europe and then export the finished wine to the UK, China, and the US. That’s globalization! Chinese glass has an even broader global reach.
Peak Wine Globalization?
By some measures globalization generally — taking into account goods, services, and people — reached a peak about the time of the global financial crisis and has since shrunk as a percentage of global GDP. Global wine resisted the de-globalization trend, however, but perhaps now is catching up.
Some of the macroeconomic drivers of wine imports and exports such as rising disposable incomes and stable exchange rates have been impacted by the Covid recession. And of course Covid restrictions and behavioral changes have negatively affected both on-premise wine sales and travel and tourism vectors, too.
There are attractive pockets and niche markets for wine sales all around the world and smart producers have sought them out. But the three big wine targets in recent years have been the UK, US, and China and each of these has become more challenging.
The UK issue is Brexit and it is shocking that there is so much uncertainty about the nature of future trade arrangements with just a few weeks to go before the exit from the EU is final. Britain’s unsuccessful attempt to navigate the twists and turns of Covid have pushed the country into a recession that is likely to grow worse before it gets better — a bad thing for income- and price-sensitive wine demand. Add to this the possibility of a botched Brexit and you might see Britain’s status in world wine trade diminish substantially.
Tit for Tat
The US market is suffering from Covid and recession problems as well and its own set of trade issues. The Trump trade wars have increased tariffs on wine imports from the EU, for example, but also generated retaliatory tariffs on US exports to China.
Wine has been caught in the crossfire in the Boeing-Airbus trade dispute, as The Wine Curmudgeon recently reported. The WTO has ruled that the US can impose tariffs on EU products in response to Airbus subsidies and that the EU can put tariffs on US products because of subsidies to Boeing. Wine figured prominently on the US tariff list, but the EU plans to focus on US spirits instead of wine, with new duties on vodka, rum, etc. on top of previous tariffs on U.S. bourbon.
How did the US wine industry dodge the tariff bullet in this case? Trade policy is sometimes very personal when you think about it. EU tariffs on US wine would fall heaviest on California producers — think for a moment important politicians from California. (Does the name Nancy come to mind?) Not necessarily someone the EU wants to upset.
Tariffs on US spirits fall heavily on Kentucky bourbon producers. Can you think of an important political leader from Kentucky that EU officials might enjoy roughing up a bit? Maybe some guy named Mitch? Just thinking out loud …
China vs Oz
And then there’s China. Down in Australia there is more than a bit of concern about wine trade with China. China has grown to be Australia’s largest wine export market, so rumors that the Chinese government might impose tariffs on or even ban imports of Aussie wine entirely are serious concerns. It is not clear that the US and UK, the other big export markets, could easily absorb the resulting flood of unsold wine.
Since tariffs are as political as they are economic, there is hope that, with a changing US administration, the troops in the wine trade wars might stand down and a truce be agreed. This could start with both sides backing down over the Boeing-Airbus duties. That would certainly be a good outcome and I don’t think it is impossible.
No Easy Fixes
But tariffs aren’t the only factor preventing a return to the previous era of wine globalization as noted above, so don’t expect a quick fix. International producers seeking to penetrate the US market in particular need to be aware of how much the on-trade to off-trade shift has changed which wines American consumers buy, where they buy them, and how much they are willing to pay.
The process of restoring wine’s global reach seems likely to be a process and probably a slow one, with some firms and regions more successful than others. The faster the global economy returns to health, the faster the clouds will clear for global wine.
Last week’s Wine Economist column was a thought experiment. What if the Covid recession was a game changer like the oil crisis of the 1970s? Both crises undermined fundamental economic assumptions and generated long-lasting impacts. In particular, drawing upon the work of MIT economist Lester Thurow, the oil crisis changed the nature of the game from positive-sum growth to zero-sum competition for shares of the pie.
Maybe the parallel is off base and maybe the game hasn’t really changed. But let’s think about the future the wine industry in the sort of slow growth, low inflation, high debt economic environment that many see on the horizon, with a focus on gaining market share in a stagnant economy.
Wine’s Zero-Sum Dilemma
Zero-sum market environments are nothing new for wine. As this OIV graph of wine demand volume shows, growth in the global wine market pie was once quite strong. Imagine a trend line for 2000-2007 and you’ll see what I mean.
Now draw a trend line for 2008- 2019. It’s pretty much a flat line, isn’t it? The picture improves if we look at value and not volume because of the premiumization trend, but the the weight of stagnant volumes is still heavy.
So the focus is on gaining market share or raising margins rather than taking advantage of a growing overall market and this creates winners and losers. New Zealand has been a victor for many years. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc sales have increased year after year, a trend that has continued in the Covid crisis environment. Imports from other countries have struggled here in the U.S. market with even powerhouse Italy under pressure. But the Kiwi wine wave rolls on.
Trading Spaces: On and Off
Perhaps the most obvious example of Covid’s zero-sum impact on the wine market is in the shift from on-premise to off-premise sales. Bars and restaurants have suffered both because of government restrictions on opening and also because concerned consumers have avoided crowded places in general even when not officially restricted. Wine consumption overall has not changed very much, but where consumption takes place and where products are purchased has shifted significantly.
The shift to off-premise consumption has many impacts, especially for wine companies that have worked very hard to place products on restaurant wine lists and for emerging brands that use on-premise sales to get a foot in the door. Shifting your restaurant sales to shops and supermarkets is not as simple as throwing a switch. Supermarkets especially favor big brands and broad product lines and there is some evidence that consumption patterns have moved in this direction, too.
One important impact of this shift, as I explained in an April 2020 Wine Economist column, is consolidation throughout the supply chain. Consolidation is a trend that extends far beyond the wine sector, of course. In an increasingly zero-sum market environment, large firms want to get even larger both in order to reduce margin-sapping competition and also to be able to negotiate better terms and lower costs. It’s not exactly wine-opoly — more vin0-ligopoly (insider joke for economics majors who remember the difference between monopoly and oligopoly, which is competition among a few big players).
Wine Wars / Price Wars
Econ 101 teaches us that one way that firms try to gain an advantage in a zero-sum game scenario is by cutting prices. This can quickly degenerate into a price war, of course, which is the ultimate negative-sum game for sellers (and a bonanza for consumers), especially if overall demand is price inelastic.
Are we seeing price wars on the wine aisle? As I explained in a May 2020 Wine Economist column, wine prices may be falling and rising at the same time, making it tricky to pick out net effects. If you are like me, your email inbox or Facebook news feed usually contains at least one discount offer from a winery or wine club — sometimes at incredibly low prices.
Looking narrowly at off-premise data, it appears that price premiumization continues. Sales of $25+ wines surged early in the pandemic period, for example. But, as I noted in May, these high price sales replace even higher-priced on-premise purchases at least in part. Those consumers were actually trading down as they shifted from restaurant meals and wine to home consumption. This is not a price war because it is cross-channel consumer behavior, but it will have that feel for wineries that cannot easily shift sales from on- to off-premise markets.
It isn’t easy to win if you think of the market in zero-sum terms (although not everyone agrees on this — President Trump famously proclaimed that trade wars were easy to win). Although there are many different strategies to consider, three stand out in my mind.
The first strategy is to analyze changes in market conditions and focus closely on growth segments. There is no single wine market, so a stagnant environment can a bit like a duck on a lake — quiet on the surface, but turbulent underneath. I wrote about Precept Wine in 2019, for example, highlighting their “Willie Sutton” strategy of putting resources into growth segments.
The second is simple: accept that the game is zero-sum and play hard to win on those terms. This means being very aggressive in terms of cost and price and making sure you are on the winning side was consolidation unfolds. Being big doesn’t guarantee success (small can be beautiful in a profitable niche), but there is no great advantage to being middle-sized.
The final strategy is to try to change the game. If wine vs wine is zero sum, try to shift the game to one with better odds. Don’t sell wine, sell a lifestyle. Don’t sell wine, sell community, culture, celebrity, or culinary connections. Ship the wine, sell the dream. Hitch your wine to a horse that can carry it to new market niches. Product differentiation — that’s what it’s all about.
What’s new about this? Nothing. The most popular wine magazines, for example, have long featured food, travel, and lifestyle as hooks for their wine stories.
In fact, using product differentiation to create and protect a profitable market niche is standard “monopolistic competition” theory. But now might be a great time to think about what makes your wine’s offer distinctive and what you can do to protect yourself from head-to-head zero-sum competition.
Last week’s Wine Economist column presented a “Guide for the Overwhelmed” that analyzed the current crisis in terms of its perfect storm of component parts. This week begins a short series of articles that try to put the pieces back together in order to better see the outlines of the future of global wine in the post-Covid era.
Zero Sum Economics
MIT economist Lester Thurow’s 1980 book on The Zero-Sum Society argued that America and the world had reached a turning point. An era of growth, where an expanding social and economic pie made it possible for many to gain without corresponding losses for others, was coming to an end, Thurow argued. This change in the economic environment would have broad and lasting consequences.
Example? Under the right circumstances (which can be tricky), open trade is a recipe for positive-sum growth while protectionist trade wars are zero-sum at best and negative-sum at worst. The 1980s proved to be a fertile decade for trade barriers, competitive currency devaluations, and other protectionist policies.
What caused the sudden shift from positive-sum growth with rising overall living standards to zero-sum stagnation? It was complicated, of course. But the 1980 answer in a single word was oil or rather the oil crises of the 1970s and the higher costs and restricted supplies that resulted.
The world, it seems, had organized itself around the assumption of cheap, plentiful petroleum. Scarcity and higher costs shocked the system in ways that few even imagined and helped set the stage for a generation of stalled living standards and frustrated expectations.
The focus of the zero-sum society, Thurow argued, would shift from equity and growth to distribution and conflict. Everyone would struggle for an increased share of the stagnant or shrinking pie and some would succeed better than others, increasing inequality. I recall that Thurow grew up in Montana and he must have imagined his Big Sky world of open opportunity closing down around him.
Covid Crisis / Oil Crisis
It is easy to see in retrospect that the 21st century B.C. (Before Covid) world was organized around the assumption that people could safely gather together and cheaply move about. Spending on travel and tourism, for example, increased dramatically as a proportion of total expenditure in the past two decades. Wine tourism and cellar door sales were important sources of growth in our industry. The post-Covid world will be different indeed, although just how different and for how long remains to be determined.
Is it reasonable to compare the Covid-19’s world economic shock with the oil crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath? Everyone knows the oil crisis was a game changer. The Covid crisis is different in many ways, so it is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. From a macroeconomic standpoint, the oil shock was a supply-side event that produced stagflation. The Covid shock is more of a demand side disruption that risks a deflationary cycle. It is obviously too soon to know what the final picture will look like, but I would argue that Covid could prove in the end to be the bigger crisis in the long term.
The New Zero-Sum
Even if you accept that the Covid crisis shock is as serious now as the oil crisis shock was in its today, you might still disagree with the idea that the new world that it is creating will be more zero-sum than in the past, with a greater focus on how the pie is divided than in its growth. Why is the future likely to be a zero-sum environment?
One argument is that many parts of the economy are already zero-sum and that Covid simply magnifies and accelerates existing trends. The recovery from the initial Covid recession in the U.S., for example, wasn’t the V-shape that many hoped for but more of a K-shape. Some parts of the economy (especially the financial sector) recovered very quickly. Other sectors continue to struggle, a situation made worse by the lack sustained economic stimulus. The rising tide did not lift all boats and the financial pages are full of multi-billion dollar M&A deals as businesses bulk up to grab market share.
If you saw the strong Q3 U.S. GDP figures that were released last week, you might think that the economy has rebounded and will resume previous growth quickly. But those numbers are the result of literally trillions of dollars of stimulus (and debt), which are unlikely to be sustained. And they don’t take into account the Covid second wave tsunami, which seems to be sweeping across the globe.
The second argument for stagnant economic growth can be found in the financial news, where the yield curve hugs the zero axis for at least a five year time-frame and monetary policymakers have pledged their support for the foreseeable future even if fiscal actors hesitate to renew stimulus measures. The overall economy is on life support and monetary authorities who lack the power to shock it back into life are determined to at least prevent flat-lining.
The likely result, according to the most recent Q4 2020 global forecast by the Economic Intelligence Unit, is the “zombification” of the global economy characterized by slow growth, low inflation, and high levels of debt. Does this sound like a zero-sum environment?
Wine and the Zero-Sum Economy
It goes without saying that the economic environment I’ve just described is not favorable to the growth of the global wine industry. This is especially true because of the importance of on-premise wine sales, which are most directly affected by the Covid pandemic.
Is the global wine market now zero-sum? And what are the implications if it is? Come back next week for thoughts and speculations.
The Wine Economist has published a steady stream of columns on wine, coronavirus, and recession in recent months. I thought it would be useful to assemble them into a kind of guide so that readers can more easily find analysis on different topics and also see how the crisis has evolved.
Although there was concern about the pandemic early in the year (there were hand sanitizer stations everywhere at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in early February, for example), it took a few weeks for the real magnitude of the crisis to become clear.
The first Wine Economist column on the crisis appeared on March 10, 2020 and I remember being worried that my analysis was too dark and my projections too pessimistic. It took just a few weeks for the clouds to clear enough for me to realize that I had been much too optimistic instead!
Since then I have tried to analyze the situation from different angles and report and interpret economic news that might otherwise be overlooked within the wine industry.
Brought to You by the Letter K
A column in early April examined prospects for economic recovery. What shape would the recession take. V — a short, sharp shock and quick recover? Or W — double dip? U shapes are typical, but these aren’t typical times. The greatest fear was an L-shape, the macroeconomic equivalent of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Each shape presents different problems for the wine industry, so there is much at stake in this alphabet soup.
Recent articles in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times suggest that another shape will affect at least some business sectors: the K-shaped recession. The initial sharp economic decline isn’t followed either a rising tide that raises all boats or an ebb tide that leaves them stranded on the beach . Both rise and fall take place in the K-scenario, just in different parts of the economy and in different ways.
It is easy to see the K-shaped scenario in recent business reports. Some parts of the economy have recovered very quickly. The S&P 500 stock market index, for example, soared to new highs. But large scale corporate bankruptcies are soaring, too. Winners are winning big time and losers are drowning in a sea of red ink. That’s how a K-shape recession works. In fact the bull market rally is really K-shaped — look closely and you’ll find both highs and lows.
Some retailers like Walmart have reported higher revenues and earnings — they are part of the K’s upward stroke. But other important sectors such as travel and hospitality slope down. I know of one integrated hospitality company that is experiencing both parts of the K. Their city-based conference and convention operations are suffering, but their rural properties are doing well as families flee to the countryside.
K Sera Sera?
The K shows up in income distribution, too, as higher incomes are cushioned by investment returns while many lower income workers are more vulnerable to joblessness and lower pay. The current Congressional stalemate regarding supplemental unemployment benefits promises to exacerbate this divide.
I think you can see how the K effect applies to the wine industry. There has been a stark division between booming off-premise sales and a bust in on-premise accounts. It makes a big difference which market segment you are swimming in and, of course, many have feet in both ponds.
And while there is evidence of trading up — the Nielsen figures show that off-premise sales growth is high in the $20+ price segments — the impact of falling incomes and rising unemployment among some wine drinkers is impossible to ignore. Sources suggest that buyers for spot grape and bulk wine are concentrating on the value end of the market and that prices reflect this, with some coastal lots selling at California appellation prices.
One of the many important questions this analysis raises is how does the K-recovery (which is only a recovery for some sectors) resolve itself? What is the bottom line going to be? I am not yet ready to hazard a guess. Please use the comments section below for your thoughts and predictions.
A Guide to Wine Economist columns
Here are links to Wine Economist columns on wine, coronavirus, and recession. The most recent columns appear first. I hope you find the analysis helpful as you navigate these turbulent waters.
What is going to happen to the value of the U.S. dollar as the coronavirus crisis unfolds? That was the question that a couple of wine economists (I was one of them) were asked in a zoom meeting back in May.
The dollar’s going to stay strong, we both said. That’s what happens in a crisis. Investors rush to the safety and security of the dollar whenever there is uncertainty and risk. Ironically, the dollar sometimes rises even when the U.S. is the source of the uncertainty, but that’s another story.
Up and Down Economics
Zoom ahead a few weeks to the start of August. The dollar’s value unexpectedly fell dramatically in July as this chart from x-rates.com shows — the largest monthly drop in a decade. The sudden exchange rate change will affect the economy directly and indirectly in many ways — some even believe that it has contributed to the somewhat puzzling situation in the stock market, where values have risen recently despite bad economic and pandemic news. The cheaper dollar makes dollar-denominated financial assets cheaper for foreign buyers, who look for capital gains when the currency eventual rebounds.
What happened? Why? And why does it matter for the wine industry?
Some people believe that a strong dollar is good and a weak dollar is bad, but the truth is that exchange rate shifts create many positive and negative forces and the net effect depends on the economic environment at the given point in time and your particular circumstances. The strong dollar of the last few years, for example, made wine imports cheaper in dollar terms and discouraged wine exports — both big negatives for U.S. growers and producers.
But the strong dollar also tended to reduce the cost of equipment and supplies used in U.S. wine production including vineyard and cellar machinery, bottles, capsules, corks, and so on. The strong dollar also indirectly benefited the U.S. companies that import and distribute foreign wine and the on- and off-premise firms that sell it. Wine has a long supply chain and so there are complex exchange rate effects.
The falling dollar tends to reverse all this by increasing the cost of imported wine and wine production supplies and making U.S. exports relatively cheaper abroad. If you run a vineyard in California, the reduced competition from imports is good news. If you run a distributor that specializes in imports this is more bad news in a year with lots of bad news to digest.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Although the falling dollar caught me by surprise because I focused on the crisis effect, others who watched exchange rate fundamentals might have seen it coming. That’s because there were indications that the U.S. dollar was over-valued and ripe for a fall at some point.
When we say that a currency is over-valued, we mean that the exchange value is such that the currency purchases more abroad than it does at home. If you travel to Europe, for example, and your euro purchases seem cheap in terms of their dollar equivalent, it is an indication that the dollar is over-valued (and the euro under-valued).
The Economist newspaper keeps track of how much currencies are over- or under-valued using their famous Big Mac index. As this graph shows, as of June 2020 the Economist index suggested that U.S. dollar was over-valued compared to all but three (Sweden, Lebanon, and Switzerland) of the currencies that the newspaper tracks.
The British pound was 25% under-valued relative to the dollar. Other wine country currencies: Canadian dollar (-11%), Euro (-16%), Australia (-19%), New Zealand (-23%), Argentina (-38%), Chile (-39%), and South Africa (-67%). Logically, the U.S. dollar would need to fall quite a lot to restore equilibrium between the currency’s internal and external purchasing power.
In my experience, the Big Mac index is a reasonably good predictor of long-run exchange rate tendencies, but there are many other factors that impact the exchange rate in the short term. In particular, the flight to safety that many of us expected seemed very likely to overwhelm the trade-based adjustments that the Big Max index is based on.
None of the Above
But an article in last weekend’s Financial Times suggests that there is more going on than adjustment based on “burgernomics.” Faith in the U.S. as a safe harbor in the storm has weakened, according to the article, because of what is seen as a very poor response to the pandemic. The coronavirus continues to spread, the economy remains very weak, the Federal Reserve is running short of tools, and Congress is gridlocked. And have you heard that there is an election coming up? The eurozone looks like a calmer, safer haven by comparison.
Safer yet, in some eyes, is gold, which isn’t tied to any particular country. Buying gold is a way to vote “none of the above” regarding major currencies. (There’s also Bitcoin, but that’s another story;)
The price of gold hit a record high of $1983 per troy ounce last week. The high price is the result of some investors looking for safety and others making speculative purchases. Demand for gold for use in jewelry and so forth is down because of the pandemic’s impact on sales of the finished products.
Looking ahead, it is difficult to know where the dollar will go next. Financial markets tend to over-shoot — to zoom too high when they are rising and over-state declines. So it will take a while to know whether July’s dollar decline will persist or if the currency will bounce back quickly.
So pay attention to the risks that exchange rate variability produces. Many wineries will find their exposure to exchange rate risk is small and difficult to identify. But if you have substantial foreign currency costs or revenue streams, you might think about hedging strategies to insure to some degree against unfavorable movements. And everyone ought to consider counter-party risk: are the people who owe you money exposed to increased risk? Will it affect their ability to fulfill their obligations?
It is time to circle back to check in on one of America’s most innovative wine companies: Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. Cooper’s Hawk has carved out an unexpected market segment (it is too big to be called a niche) and built a loyal following. Can its unique business model continue to thrive in today’s challenging wine business environment?
Cooper’s Hawk by the Numbers
The numbers are impressive. The big winery in Woodridge, Illinois produced 675,000 cases of wine in 2019, according to Wine Business Monthly data, making it the 29th largest wine company in the U.S. — just behind Hess Family Wine Estates and ahead of Wente Vineyards in the U.S league table. Grapes come from the main U.S. vineyard regions and select international sources.
The wines are sold exclusively through a 43-location restaurant/tasting room network that supports what might be the largest wine club in the world with nearly 450,000 members. That takes my breath away.
I first wrote about Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in a 2018 Wine Economist column. I was impressed with the vision — bringing wine country (and wine!) to consumers located far away from California vineyards. Customers enter through a “Napa-style” tasting room that includes a gourmet foods market space. The upscale casual restaurant features Cooper’s Hawk wines by the bottle, glass, or flight, with carefully-chosen pairings suggested for each menu item. Wine club members can pick up their “wine of the month” at the tasting room, giving them an opportunity to sample other wines and to dine in the restaurant.
The thing that excited me about Cooper’s Hawk Winery back in 2018 was the fact that they were successfully engaging consumers in a new way and obviously building interest in wine in general while expanding their own customer base. Bringing a taste of wine country to the local mall or other nearby location might not work for everyone, but it obviously resonates with a lot of folks who can’t get to wine country themselves but still want a bit of that experience.
Epic fail: Sue and I have so far failed in our resolution to experience a Cooper’s Hawk restaurant first hand, but that makes sense in a way when you think about it. We spend a lot of our time in wine country, which is exactly where Cooper’s Hawk is not. So we were excited when we received an invitation to attend a celebratory virtual tasting of Cooper’s Hawk and other wines.
Go Big in Chicago
The occasion for the celebration was the announcement that Cooper’s Hawk’s new flagship location Esquire Chicago received a 2020 Best of Award of Excellence recognition from Wine Spectator magazine. The 23,000 square foot facility features a 50-foot high wine tower and offers guests 1200 different wine selections. The list includes the Cooper’s Hawk wines, of course, but also hundreds of other wines from wine producers around the globe, which is a first for Cooper’s Hawk.
I suppose you could say that Esquire Chicago and the tall wine tower is at least in part a reaction to some of the key wine market trends of the last few years. Consumers have shown a willingness to broaden their comfort zone of wine styles and, via premiumization, to stretch the budget a bit, too. If the goal of the Cooper’s Hawk organization is to unlock consumer passion for wine by simplifying choice and controlling quality and value, Esquire Chicago aims to provide opportunities to turn the flame up a notch or two. Accordingly, the wines we tasted in the virtual seminar included two wines from Bordeaux and two Cooper’s Hawk California blends.
Thankfully there was no attempt to create a “Judgement of Paris” result. The purpose wasn’t to probe whether Cooper’s Hawk wines are better than those from Bordeaux, but simply to taste and enjoy different wines of similar general types much as an Esquire Chicago guest might do in a tasting flight. Perfect. So we sampled a left-bank Bordeaux, Chateau La Tonnelle, alongside a Cabernet-forward Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage blend made from Mendocino-sourced grapes. Then we tried Chateau Coutet from the right bank along with a Merlot-forward Cooper’s Hawk Napa/Sonoma blend called Camille Proud, a special creation of CHW’s Master Sommelier Emily Wines made to honor powerful women role models.
The wines were all very good and, because they were still pretty young, even better when we returned to them over the next two days. If these are representative of the kinds of experiences that Emily Wines and Esquire Chicago sommelier Jordyn Sotelo create, then I think their guests are in good hands.
How important is the Wine Spectator restaurant award? Those who attain it are obviously proud, but there are doubters, too. There was even a case of a hoax a few years ago when someone faked an application for the award and fooled the Wine Spectator staff. My opinion is this. There are wine enthusiasts (like you, perhaps) who seek out restaurants that take wine seriously and offer interesting wine choices. A Wine Spectator award is a way for the restaurant to signal consumers of their interest in and commitment to wine. In a world of asymmetric information (the famous “market for lemons”) such signals can be very valuable.
Navigating Uncharted Waters
Any advantage is worthwhile in the current market environment. Although we did not talk about it during the celebration tasting, the shadow of the conoravirus pandemic is hard to avoid. This is a difficult time to be in the restaurant business and not the best time for in-person tasting room sales, either. And, of course, Cooper’s Hawk has uniquely combined these two now-problematic areas to define its business model. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it?
But that doesn’t take into account the huge wine club, which seems to be proving itself even more important than before. With almost 450,000 members, the possibilities for engagement though virtual tastings (like ours, but scaled up considerably) are pretty much endless. And curbside pick up of wine club shipments and to-go restaurant meals, too, where allowed, ought to cushion somewhat the economic impacts while fostering relationships with sheltered club members.
So triple congratulations to Cooper’s Hawk: for their flagship Esquire Chicago restaurant, for the Wine Spectator recognition, and for their remarkable achievement in keeping so many club members engaged with wine during this difficult period.
Thanks to Cooper’s Hawk for inviting us to the virtual tasting and to Emily Wines and Jordyn Sotelo for leading the discussion. Fingers crossed that readers everywhere will be able to safely visit CHW and enjoy their hospitality in person before too many more weeks have passed.
How long will it take for the economy to get back to normal? That’s the question I am asked most often these days, where “back to normal” is code for conditions at the start of 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic and the recession it has produced.
The answer to this question depends on how you look at it. If you are thinking about a world without concern for virus contagion, face masks, and social distancing, the answer might well be “never,” but only time will tell.
Economists often distinguish between “monetary” and “real” economic factors. If you think in monetary terms — stock market valuations, for example — we are already most of the way back. Our modest Wine Economist retirement account is pretty much back to its January 1, 2020 level thanks in part to a few trillion dollars of Federal Reserve and federal government stimulus, which has done a lot to prop up valuations.
But if you are looking at the “real” economy, where output, jobs, and incomes are what count, then the scene is not so serene. A recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit is titled “A Q3 recovery, what Q3 recovery?” and it warns that the hoped-for big economic bounce in the third quarter of the year is no longer likely. Other business news reports that appeared over the weekend tell a similar story. Here is a link to a summary of the EIU report.
Down the Drain?
The EIU projects that when all the dust settles the U.S. economy will shrink by about 5% in 2020 compared with the previous year. That performance is roughly on par with forecasts for Japan, Canada, and Germany, The other G7 nations will envy a mere 5% decline. The EIU projects that growth rates in the UK and France will be closer to minus 10%, with Italy’s situation a bit worse.
How long will it take for these countries, which are all important wine markets, to return to their pre-pandemic levels of economic activity? The EIU projects that the U.S. will get there first, but not until Q3 of 2022 — about two years from now. Japan, Canada, and France will be next, hitting the pre-pandemic level in Q4 2022. Full recovery for the UK will wait until Q4 2023 followed by Italy (Q3 2024) and Japan (Q4 2024). Long road. Slow progress.
In general, the EIU reports, output in the G7 countries in Q3 2020 will be about the same as it was in 2016. Four years of growth down the drain.
Economic forecasting is an inexact science, or maybe a black art, so you cannot bank on these specific numbers. This is especially true right now given the unknown unknowns about global public health, economic policies, and potential election surprises. But the fact that conservative estimates now suggest a long, slow economic recovery is something we need to digest.
Wine’s Particular Challenges
There are special concerns for the wine industry. An economy isn’t like a train, where all the cars are connected and move at the same speed. Different sectors adjust at different speeds and sometimes move in different directions. While wine is influenced to a great degree by overall economic trends, some particular paths to market are especially influenced by the coronavirus pandemic.
On-trade sales and DtC sales via tasting room visits will likely be slower to recover than retail sales, which we can see now as California has closed down indoor dining and cellar door operations for the second time. And this isn’t the feared “second wave” of infections — that isn’t expected until fall. This is just the echo of the first wave.
It is also important to remember that our 2019 “normal” wasn’t a terrific situation for wine. American wine was challenged by slow growth of demand, supply that was so abundant that vines needed to be pulled, and growing competition from other countries as well as other beverage alcohol categories. Curse you White Claw! U.S. wine producers need to do more than recover volumes, they need to adapt to evolving reality, too.
So it is important and even inspiring to see how active many in the wine industry are in adjusting to what they think the new normal will be. Joana Pais, director of communications and public relations for Sogrape, the important Portuguese producer, told me in an email about the wine tourism situation in Porto and the challenges she and her colleagues face.
Travel to Portugal was booming before the pandemic and wine tourism in Porto and the Douro benefited. These travel flows collapsed during the spring and are only slowly rebuilding. “It is true that tourism is scary slow,” she writes, “but let’s face it as an opportunity to rethink the purpose of hospitality and work on developing truly incredible experiences, enjoying the simple pleasures of life!”
She’s right about that and more. As I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines, wine’s great gift is its ability to give us pleasure. So long was we keep that front and center wine’s future is secure. But the challenges we face on the road to the future are daunting. The next two to four years will test our collective resilience, but I hope they also excite our imaginations.
I am already starting to think about what wine market situation will be in January 2021 when the next Unified Wine and Grape Symposium takes place. The conference and trade show will be virtual this time around, reflecting the reality of the pandemic and the uncertainty that must necessarily cloud plans for large gatherings. It will be different, that’s for sure, but there are opportunities, too.