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.
The impact of the evolving coronavirus recession on the wine industry is complicated. It seems like you get a slightly different story depending on when and where you look. One way to think about this situation is to analyze other industries where the impacts might be easier to discern. Fed-Ex, the package delivery giant, offers several potential insights.
Business is Booming, But …
How is Fed-Ex doing in this environment? A recent report from The Economist newspaper provides some clues. You’d think that business would be booming, since so many consumers have turned to on-line shopping and home delivery in the past few months. Of course there is competition to consider. United Parcel Service is a strong competitor. And Amazon.com has developed its own package delivery service. But there is plenty of delivery business to go around. So Fed-Ex must be doing well, right?
Well, yes and no. Home package delivery is booming, but bring those boxes to your front door is a high cost part of the business. And the costs of protecting the workers who process the packages have increased, too. So the business surge has put pressure on margins.
And the most profitable part of the business — which is bulk shipment to businesses — has actually fallen as overall consumer spending has decreased, reducing the pull-through effect. Higher margin deliveries to businesses and retailers have been only partly replaced by lower margin deliveries to you and me.
Fed-Ex announce quarterly earnings after market close on Tuesday of this week. The MarketWatch.com report noted that
Commercial volumes were down significantly due to worldwide business closures, but there were surges in residential deliveries for its FedEx Ground business and in transpacific and charter flights for FedEx Express, which required incremental costs to serve.
The company also incurred in about $125 million in increased operating costs related to personal protective equipment and medical and safety supplies for its employees, as well as additional security and cleaning services to protect them, it said.
Quarterly earnings were well below the level of a year ago, but much better than analyst expectations. The company’s stock rose in after-hours trading. It sounds like
Fed-Ex is managing the unavoidable big squeeze pretty well under the circumstances.
Lessons for the Wine Industry
Can you see how the Fed-Ex effect relates to wine? It isn’t a perfect parallel, but the surge in supermarket and on-line wine purchases is one side of the coin — like the boom in Fed-Ex home delivery — and if we focus just on that we end up drawing the wrong conclusions.
Higher operating costs and stagnant overall sales, when lost on-trade business is taken into account, are the rest of the story for wine. Depending on where your business is in wine’s market constellation, you might find yourself doing quite well or, like Fed-Ex and many other firms, caught in a squeeze.
What’s that gizmo in the photo above? Well, Amazon.com is experimenting with drone delivery. Fed-Ex has tested an autonomous delivery robot.
This is the Age of Uncertainty (to reference the title of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous book) both in general and with respect to the wine industry. Everyone’s looking for answers as they confront a murky future. But most answers right now (especially including my own) are at best informed speculation, subject to frequent revision.
If we can’t have solid answers, maybe the next best thing is to try to refine the questions. Herewith my attempt to pin down three important questions about the near- and intermediate-term wine market and environment.
Please use the comments section below to raise other questions that need attention now
Q1: Recession Uncertainties
It is clear that the conoravirus pandemic and its health and economic effects have produced a global recession of historic proportions. Income and wealth have declined and unemployment increased. There is no way that wine cannot be affected by such an economic downturn. Many questions about the recession beg for answers. How deep? How long? The Great Depression made a indelible mark on the people who lived through it. Will the coronoavirus recession do the same?
There are pluses and minus to consider. Monetary and fiscal stimulus packages have been huge by historical standards — much larger than during the Great Recession of a dozen years ago. And we’ve seen some bright spots in the data. The May employment numbers in the U.S. surprised nearly everyone with a strong net increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment. A short, sharp V-shaped recession, while still unlikely, may not be as impossible as most of us believed.
But there are problems starting with the jobs report figures themselves, which may result in under-estimates of unemployment by several percentage points because of unusual data collection and classification problems created in part by the deep churning of the labor market. I am also very concerned about changes in state-local government employment. Budget deficits in the second half of the year may lead to big lay-offs in local governments just as economic re-opening brings others back to the workplace. Programs to stabilize employment have so far focused on private sector jobs and left public sector employment pretty much alone. This will be a problem, but how big is unclear.
Bottom Line: I think it is all going to come down to the question of consumer spending. Governments have already gone all-in — they may not have much more to contribute to a recovery. Business investment — the real kind, not the stock market — will probably lag consumers, not lead them. And trade has fallen taking potential net export gains down, too. It’s going to be up to consumers to get the economy moving.
Consumers have surprised many analysts by saving an amazingly high proportion (about 30%) of their incomes in recent weeks, which may be good for their individual financial security but unhelpful in terms of increasing aggregate demand. It is easy to say that they didn’t spend because the shops were closed, but there is more going on. It is that age of uncertainty thing.
Consumers will continue to hold back on spending so long as they lack confidence in economic recovery. Until that confidence switch is flipped, economic growth is uncertain and consumers are right to be cautious. Is that a Catch 22 problem? Yes.
Q2: Wine’s New Normal?
Consumers are also at the center of questions about how the wine market will look when the recession and pandemic fogs start to clear. In the short run, the situation is a bit like the person who was swept over a waterfall. Half-way down things seem to be going just fine, but there’s a big splash ahead and it is hard to know who’s going to sink or swim away.
As noted in recent Wine Economist columns, there has been much turbulence in the wine market so far this year. Wine sales volumes are up overall but revenues not so much as high-margin restaurant sales have been replaced by lower-margin retail. On-line sales have risen dramatically, albeit from a relatively small base. Wine hasn’t done as well as spirits, which seem to fly off the shelves, but better than beer.
As Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv noted in a recent Ciatti market update webcast, the wine industry is going to need to rethink the route to market and how on-trade, off-trade, on-line, cellar door, phone sales (!), and other strategies fit together and what products work best in each channel. Consumers are changing their buying behavior for other products and wine shouldn’t think it is different in this regard. On-premise sales, in particular, are likely to be slow to recover as bars and restaurants struggle to both safely and profitably serve customers.
Bottom Line: They say that generals are always preparing to fight the last war and so are often unprepared for new battle lines when they emerge. The same might be said for many wine businesses. The lesson that many small and medium-sized wineries learned in the last war (the Great Recession) was the importance of direct-to-consumer cellar door sales.
This strategy is problematic in a socially-distanced world. Shifting on-line now seems like the obvious reaction, but does that change the nature of consumer relationships and perhaps the nature of wine itself? Remember that Jeff Bezos picked books for his Amazon.com start up because they could easily be commodified. If that’s where wine is going, there will be implications. Fortunately (see last week’s Wine Economist column), many wineries are finding ways to keep wine personal even in the virtual space. How is wine going to evolve to succeed in an increasingly on-line market place?
Q3: Global Wine Market Threats
The global wine market environment is most directly defined by the big exporting wine economies. Italy, Spain, and France are the Big Three that together producer more than half the world’s wine. Argentina, Chile, and Australia are much smaller, but very important. New Zealand is tiny but punches above its weight. China, like the U.S. is currently most important in terms of global dynamics as an importer.
Wine sector conditions are unfavorable in all the largest wine-exporting countries. On-trade sales are much more important in Europe than the U.S., accounting for more than half of wine purchases. The closures of bars and restaurants during the pandemic lock down period has therefore produced a huge unsold inventory of wine. Some of this will disappear through emergency distillation schemes, which promise to dispose of between 750 million and one billion liters of excess wine. The rest will be looking for export market sales.
The bad old days of the EU wine lake depended on distillation to eliminate subsidized unmarketable wine. The policy changed several years ago to focus subsidies on modernization and marketing to encourage producers to make wines that the market would absorb. But no amount of marketing euro is going to help this year, so surplus wine will head off to the distillery. Maybe it will end up as hand sanitizer?
A billion liters is a lot of wine taken off the market. But I don’t think it will be enough to prevent a short term worldwide wine glut, especially when you consider the troubles that Southern Hemisphere producers are experiencing (despite short harvests in many regions). Australia and Chile depend on China to buy much of their wine and China’s growth has slowed dramatically. New Zealand looks especially to the UK and US markets, which are in recession. Argentina and South Africa have large domestic markets, but there are complicated economic and political problems in both countries that have affected sales.
Bottom line: A lot of wine is going to be looking for a home in the next year. Who in the world is going to buy it?
The recent pivot to on-line and virtual programs, events, and communication presents challenges and opportunities. How well has the wine industry responded? What does the future hold? Join me on a trip down the virtual rabbit hole to find out.
Can’t Un-Ring a Bell
It has been fascinating to see how quickly we and our wine industry friends and colleagues have adapted to using technology to overcome necessary distancing and business and travel restrictions. There are costs, for sure, in terms of lost personal interactions, but gains, too. They say that you can’t un-ring a bell, and I don’t think we can (or should) completely un-do the recent pivot towards virtual communications.
So Sue and I have decided to embrace the opportunities of virtual wine for the time being and to appreciate the many creative ways that wineries are using online platforms to get their messages out and connect with customers. Herewith several examples from our personal explorations. There is still a steep learning curve, but as you will see below, lots of progress, too. Please use the comments section below to give more examples of successful virtual programs and events from your personal experience.
People, Places, Things
Let me start with an example of a simple idea well done. Promotional videos are not a new thing and, with the rapid advance of technology, they are easier to make and to distribute via the web. But they seem to be very difficult to do well. Videos are the perfect opportunity to tell first-person stories, but so many winery videos seem to forget what their story is once the camera light comes on and default to generic “four seasons in the vineyard” images.
So we celebrate when someone gets it right and tells the story of the people, the places, and the wines and how they are all connected, as the video above from Andrew Will Winery does. Andrew Will is located on Vashon Island, just a short ferry ride from our home base, sourcing grapes from some of the best sites in the Columbia Valley, including the Two Blondes estate vineyard. The wines are elegant, distinctive, delicious — we are big fans.
The video is very effective in introducing the people, Chris Camarda and his winemaker son Will, their views and values, the role of terroir, and the nature of the wines. You will know if you would like the wines after seeing the video and why they are special. And the winery is using the video effectively just now to maintain connections with customers during the current crisis.
BDX In the Rocks
The virtual space can be as interactive as you want it to be (up to a point!) so many wineries are experimenting with virtual tastings. Our friends at Reynvaan Family Vineyards in Walla Walla show one effective approach. Winemaker Matt Reynvaan went live on Instagram several Friday afternoons in April and May, talking about his work and tasting interesting pairs of Reynvann wines.
One thing that made these tastings especially appealing was that wine-list members were invited to taste along with Matt by purchasing the library wines at their original release prices, a terrific and unexpected opportunity.
We focused on the May 1 tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon and BDX blend wines from the Reynvaan’s In the Rocks vineyard. These are very special wines that surprise many people because Reynvaan and that region are best known for their outstanding Syrah. Sue and I tasted the Cab wines when we visited the Reynvaan family last year and they are really memorable. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to relive that tasting via the internet.
If you watch the video (even if you aren’t able to taste the wines) I think you will get a sense of Matt and his family and what drives and inspires them. Toward the end of the tasting Matt opened up the conversation to questions from his on-line audience, adding a small but important interactive element.
The Reynvaan tastings achieved many goals. It got scarce wines into the hands of people who enjoy them and probably replaced to some extent lost sales to restaurants. Most of all, however, it created and nurtured personal relationships, which everyone believes are at the heart of the wine business, and allowed Matt and family to tell their story in the most natural way.
Virtual Release Party
Mike and Karen Wade, the proprietors of Fielding Hills Winery in Chelan, Washington, had planned to host a big release party this spring for their new line of white wines. Mike, the founding winemaker of the family operation, is famous for his distinctive red wines, but as the winery grew and winemaker Tyler Armour joined the team, it was clear that white wines and maybe a Rosé needed to be added to the mix.
The Rosé and a Chenin Blanc from the estate Riverbend Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope came first and this year they are joined by a Chardonnay and Roussanne. It’s a big deal for the winery. But the coronavirus crisis made an in-person celebration impossible. With daughter Megan’s help they organized a Zoom-fest instead and brought together friends of Fielding Hills from across the country to taste the wines and learn about them from Mike, Karen, and Tyler.
Because of the Zoom platform’s flexibility there was the opportunity for more interaction with the audience. Tyler also gave a mini-tour of the wine-making facility and Mike used Google maps to take us to the vineyards, which Sue especially appreciated. I think everyone enjoyed the delicious wines and appreciated the opportunity to taste them together and learn about them.
Will virtual release parties like this replace in-person events after the crisis is over. I hope not! But I hope the virtual is retained because it can reach a different and broader audience in a different way, expanding the local to the regional, national, or even global.
The Virtual Tasting Room
By far the most personal virtual experience that Sue and I have had happened last Tuesday, when we Zoomed to Portland to talk wine with Stewart Boedecker and a couple of other wine friends. Stewart and Athena Pappas run Boedecker Cellars, an urban winery that sources grapes from some of Oregon’s best sites. They have been trying many initiatives to connect with customers and supply them with wine while the tasting room was shut down.
One of the clever offers was a trio of “Happiness on a Tuesday” wine packages — six-packs and cases of wine put together from small quantities of interesting products Stewart rescued from the warehouse. Sue picked out an all-Pinot six-pack for us (plus another 6 bottles of her favorite Pinot Blanc) and we will be working our way through them in June and July. Our affordable six-pack included a 2014 Pinot Noir from the famous Stoller Vineyard, so there is no chance of coming away disappointed.
We like the idea of Tuesday night wines and so we couldn’t resist Stewart’s invitation to attend a Tuesday evening virtual tasting. The group was small enough that Stewart just opened up the microphones and we all chatted and learned about the wines just as if we were sitting at the tasting room bar with the winemaker. It was great and reminded us of how much we have missed such previously normal moments during the pandemic crisis.
Virtual Trade Events
It is easy to think about virtual wine events just in terms of consumers and direct sales opportunities, but the coronavirus pandemic has done much more than just shutter cellar doors. Wine fairs and trade events around the world have been canceled or postponed, depriving many producers of the opportunity to present their wares to potential importers, distributors, restaurants, and retailers.
It isn’t the same, but virtual pitches can at least partially replace the wine fair booth and give wineries an opportunity to get their messages out. That’s what I found at the On-Wine Fair, where 45 Italian wineries were each given twenty minutes to tell stories to a virtual U.S. trade audience.
I attended the webinar of Tenuta Montemagno, a producer in Monferrato (Piemonte) that specializes in wines made from local indigenous grape varieties. The brief and well organized presentation was very effective. Place, personality, emotion. These characteristics came through clearly. This won’t replace the traditional wine fair — the opportunity to taste and talk in person is very important — but it goes a way toward filling the gap in the current crisis and expanding opportunities in the future.
Vinarium Becomes TeleVinarium
The virtual world really is a rabbit hole. One you dive down there’s no telling where you might end up. The only limit (besides bandwidth, I guess) is imagination. So when the Romanian organizers of Vinarium, the International Wine Competition Bucharest realized that it might be possible to shift on-line for their annual wine competition, they took the fateful first step. First time anyone has tried to organize a virtual wine competition, but changing conditions provoke innovation.
A typical wine competition is a coronavirus nightmare. Five jurors sit close together around a table, spitting and dumping repeatedly while sommeliers fill glasses from masked bottles in a specified secret order. There’s a certain close-quarters logistical choreography here that, when done well, would make Balanchine smile but earn a frown from Dr. Fauci today.
Virtual Vinarium aimed to get the results, but without the risk, and on-line platforms meant that jury members could be safely isolated.
The 36 international judges from 12 countries (including 4 Masters of Wine) were divided into juries of 5 or 6 persons. Getting them zoomed-up and their OIV judging software connected was probably the easy part (although I am glad I didn’t have to figure it out). Bringing the physical world along for the journey came next. That meant taking each of the 853 entered wines and decanting them into small coded sample bottles that could be shipped away to wherever the judges were. Then, of course, they needed to be tasted in the correct order and all the usual protocols followed.
I have only judged a couple of wine competitions and I’ve always been impressed with the complexity of the logistics involved. TeleVinarium went to the next level. Outrageously ambitious!
These are just a few of the hundreds of virtual events and projects. They begin as supplements to real world activities, sometimes replace them, and have the potential to transform them. Where will it all lead? Only one possible answer. Ask Alice!
One way that wine differs from beer is that whereas beer can be produced pretty much continuously throughout the year, there is only one opportunity to make wine. A crisis that comes at harvest time is therefore especially disruptive and unwelcome. And that”s exactly what happened to wine producers in the Southern Hemisphere this year.
The International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) recently organized an important webinar on the experience of Southern Hemisphere wine producers harvesting their 2020 vintage just as the coronavirus pandemic threat became clear and lock down policies initiated. View a recording of the webinar by clicking on the image above.
Presenters (see list below) from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina each highlighted the particular problems that they faced and how they managed these challenges. The stories are very different with many lessons to learn and puzzles to ponder.
After the five presentations (at about 1:11 on the video) moderator António Graça asks each presenter to summarize the most important lessons in the form of a tweet. The discussion that follows focuses on practical problems and the search for solutions. The analysis of successes and failures is worth your attention.
One of the clear lessons cited by several speakers is that communications must be clear, transparent, and omni-directional. Everyone needs to be on the same page. One of the failures cited by two speakers was the inability to convince government regulators of the importance of the wine sector in the national economy and therefore the need for more favorable treatment and accommodating protocols. In part it’s that “we only get one chance” thing — at some point harvest delayed is harvest wasted.
The webinar is required viewing for winery businesses and organizations everywhere — in the Northern Hemisphere because we should learn from our colleagues south of the equator and for Southern Hemisphere producers because this may not be the last time such a crisis is experienced.
Tony Battaglene, Australia / Chief Executive of Australian Grape and Wine Incorporated
Jeffrey Clarke, New Zealand / General Manager Advocacy & General Counsel of New Zealand Winegrowers
Yvette Van Der Merwe, South Africa / Executive Manager, South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS)
Aurelio Montes, Chile / President, Wines of Chile
Daniel Rada, Argentina / Director, Argentine Wine Observatory / Professor of International Economics, National University of Cuyo, Argentina
António Graça, Head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos SA, Secretary of Sustainable Development and Climate Change experts group – OIV
Wine consumers today seem to be going “up the down staircase” (to evoke the clever title of Bel Kafuman’s best-selling 1964 book). They are buying more expensive wine at lower prices. That sounds crazy! Read on for analysis and a look back to what happened in 2009.
The COVID-19 Wine Boom
Recent consumer trend data from Nielsen and Wines & Vines Analytics present a complicated picture of off-premise wine consumer behavior for March and April 2020. Wine sales at supermarkets and other retail outlets have boomed, as you know. The initial pantry stocking frenzy was followed by a growth plateau, but high growth rates have returned in recent weeks.
The dollar value of off-premise wine sales in the Nielsen-measured channels has risen at a 30% rate since the COVID-19 crisis began compared to the same period last year. Wine sales in the week ending March 21 surged to 66% more than the previous, year which is amazing.
The rise in off-premise sales is partially offset by the collapse of the on-premise (bars, restaurants) channel. Net sales are up, but not by as much as you might imagine. Nielsen estimates that off-premise sales need to rise by roughly 22% (by volume) to offset the falling on-premise sales. Wine volumes are up 27.7% since March 7, so that’s a 5% net volume gain.
Less is More? Or is More Less?
Since sales volume is up 27% and sales value has risen 30%, it is clear that unit sale price has increased and this is true because of the distribution of purchases in different price points.. While sales have increased in all price categories, the fastest growth is for wines $11 and higher. Interestingly, the highest percent growth rate is in the $20 to $24.99 price category.
Some speculate that this rise is driven in part by consumers who are substituting retail wines for the ones they would otherwise have purchased at a restaurant. A $25 wine purchased at retail and consumed at home (perhaps with a home-delivery restaurant meal) might seem like a bargain compared to a similar wine with a higher mark-up on a restaurant wine list. Bottom line: consumers are moving up the wine wall, but paying less at the same time.
Online wine purchases are booming, too, but the reported pattern is different according to shipment numbers for April 2020 from Nielsen’s partnership with Wines Vines Analytics in collaboration with Sovos ShipCompliant. Sales volume increased by 45% compared to the previous year. But sales value rose by only 15%, which means that average unit price has fallen.
Indeed, the average bottle price in this sales channel fell from $42 to $33. Some of this might be due to changes in the commodity composition on online purchases, but readers of this column probably guess that discounting also plays a part. Here at Wine Economist world headquarters our email inbox is filled with sales offers that start with free shipping and continue with increasing levels of discounts.
Significantly, according to the Nielsen data, Napa Valley wines, which are the Big Dog in the DtC market, had the largest average price reduction. Our friend Allan found a Napa winery in obvious financial difficulty that offered full cases of their California- and Napa-appellation wines for the price of one or two bottles. Some of the deals like this are shared with club members, but some are kept quiet indeed to avoid reputation erosion.
So it is up the down staircase. DtC buyers are snapping up expensive wines at discount prices. Many thanks to Nielsen’s Danny Brager, Senior Vine President Beverage Alcohol Practice, for sharing data and insights.
Up and Down in 2009
Consumers also looked for ways to go up the down staircase during the global financial crisis a few years ago. Here are two Wine Economist columns from 2009, when internet sales were less of a factor, that examine how wine consumers were shifting their buying strategies during the global financial crisis: Wine, Recessaion, and the Aldi Effect and Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream.
Significantly the bargain-seeking changes we saw then didn’t really disappear when the economy improved. Wine buyers continued to search out bargains, at both low and high price points even as “premiumization” swept through the market. Hey, that’s up the down staircase again!
Wine , Recession and the Aldi Effect
January 13, 2009
Aldi stores are about to expand in the United States, drawn here by the recession according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal ( “Aldi Looks to US for Growth” ). I wonder how this will affect the wine market?
A Tough Nut to Crack
Aldi is a German “hard discount” store chain. A “hard discounter” sells a limited selection of house-brand goods at very low prices in small, bare-bones outlets.
Hard discounters are a niche, albeit a growing one, in the U.S. Wal-Mart is a successful discounter, of course, but not a hard discounter because it still features many mainstream branded products, its prices are higher and its stores a bit more plush. Aldi and other hard discount stores drove Wal-Mart out of Germany, according to the WSJ article, but the U.S. market has been a tough nut for the hard discounters to crack. American consumers are primed to buy brand-named products and they like lots of choice, marketing experts say, and so tend to resist the house brands that hard discounters feature, which has limited their penetration here.
Germans are more willing to sacrifice brand names for low prices, apparently. Aldi and other hard discounters are dominant powers in German retailing. The WSJ reports that 90% of German households shop at Aldi stores and 40% of all grocery purchases are made in hard discount outlets.
Divide and Conquer
Interestingly, there are actually two Aldi store chains in Germany. Aldi is short for Albrecht DIscount. The Albrecht brothers who founded the company after World War II fell out over the issue of tobacco sales in their stores. They divided the German market between them (Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd) and then, eventually, split up the world market too. Here are links to Aldi USA and Aldi International websites if you want to learn more about this retailer’s local presence and international reach.
Wine is an important product in Aldi’s German stores, as you can see from the wine selections featured on their website. I believe that Aldi is the largest single retailer of wine in Germany.
Since Germans are rich and Germany makes great wines, you would think that Aldi must sell mainly fine wines, but you would be wrong. Aldi’s median German wine sale is red not white, imported from a low cost producer, sold under a house-brand name, packaged in a box or TetraPak and priced at around one euro per liter.
You could say that it is Two Buck Chuck (TBC) wine, but in fact TBC is more expensive. TBC is to Aldi wine as Wal-mart is to Aldi itself. (Note: Wal-Mart now has its own brand of two dollar wine, which makes this comparison even more appropriate. It is called Oak Leaf Vineyards and is made for Wal-Mart by The Wine Group.)
The Aldi Effect
Aldi figures that the recession is its moment to press more vigorously for U.S. market share. Data indicate that consumers are much more cautious now, so perhaps they won’t be so picky about brand names and will, like their German cousins, be willing to trade down for a lower price. TheFinancial Timesreports that Aldi sales in Great Britain are up 25 percent! Aldi plans to speed up store openings in the U.S. and to expand into New York City. New York! If you can make it there … well, you know.
The good news here is that Aldi’s U.S. push may also help drive wine deeper into the U.S. consumer mainstream. You can say all you like about the quality of Two Buck Chuck but it sure did help expand the wine culture in the U.S. and some (but not all) my TBC-drinking friends have moved upmarket for at least some of their purchases. The wine may not be to everyone’s taste, but its market impact has not been all bad.
Will Aldi Succeed?
Will Aldi’s drive be successful? There is reason to think it will be. They seem committed to tailoring their hard discount operations to local market conditions, which is important because markets have terroir as much as wine.
But there is a more important reason. Both German Aldi chains are present in the U.S. now, although you are probably not aware of them. Aldi Süd operates on under the Aldi name, of course, with the same logo as in Germany. The owners of Aldi Nord invested years ago in a different chain, based in California and intentionally tailored for thrifty but upwardly mobile U.S. consumers. It’s an upscale Aldi Nord and it has been very successful here.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They have limited selection, smaller stores, lots of house brands, and low prices. They even sell a lot of wine. The name?
Oh, yes. Trader Joe’s!
Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream
November 1, 2009
Our friend Jerry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would go digging around in the closeout bin or shopping for wine at Aldi — too classy for that — but there he was at Joyce and Barry’s house on Friday showing off his latest finds: cheap wine from a Grocery Outlet store.
The wine wasn’t so much good or bad as simply intriguing — is it really possible for a sophisticated wine enthusiast like Jerry to be satisfied shopping for wine at an “extreme value” store? Only one way to find out, so we got in the car the next day and headed for the strip mall.
Searching for Extreme Values
Headquartered in low-rent Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet bargain market is America’s largest extreme value grocery chain with more than 130 independently owned stores in six western states. It has been in business since 1946. Prices are low, low, low.
Grocery Outlet stores here in the Pacific Northwest are supermarket sized spaces filled with off brand and closeout products along with a wide enough selection of fresh goods to allow families to do all their grocery shopping in one place. They are nice if not especially fancy stores. I can see why budget-minded families shop there.
The wine corner at the nearest store was large and well-stocked. Most of the brands were mysteries (one was even named “Mystery” as in “Mystery Creek” or something like that), although a few third and fourth tier products from recognized mass-market makers were available. Mainly, I think, these were leftover wines closed out by distributors to raise cash or make room for incoming shipments along with no-name brands “dumped” under a bogus label.
The wines came from all over — California, naturally, Australia, France, Italy, Chile. There was even a $3.99 “Champagne” from Argentina. Honest — it said “Champagne.”
Prices were suitably low — most of the wines sold for $2.99 to $5.99. It isn’t hard to make money selling extreme value wine when you can buy up surplus bulk wine for just pennies a liter and package it up for quick sale. Extreme value retailers are the perfect distribution channel for wines like these.
As you can see from my receipt, I walked out with three bottles of wine for a total of $13.97 plus tax. “By shopping with us you saved $28.00.” That would mean an average of 67% off the retail price.
Unexplained Tales from Down Under
I wasn’t really surprised at what I saw as I surveyed the wine wall. Then, slowly, a different kind of wine mystery began to unfold.
Sue must have sharp eyes because she picked out the first surprise. Sam’s Creek Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 for $3.99. That’s awfully cheap for a New Zealand wine here in the U.S. I’ve read about heavily discounted NZ wines in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. — until now.
New Zealand is a high cost wine producer that has succeeded in charging a premium price for its wine. Indeed, NZ earns the highest average export price of any country in the world despite surging production that threatens to create unmarketable surpluses. Everyone worries that one day the export limit will be hit and prices will start to tumble from $12-$20 down to, well, $3.99. Is that what this Sam’s Creek wine really means? The end of NZ wine’s premium price?
Frighteningly, Sam’s Creek isn’t a no-name closeout wine. The label says that it is made and bottled by Babich, one of the famous names in New Zealand wine, and the internet tells me that Waitrose sells it for about $10 in Britain. I wonder if the unsold British inventory has somehow made its way here?
Prestige Wine at Extreme Value Prices
Two more bottles raised more questions about New Zealand wines. I paid a whopping $5.99 for a 2008 Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I almost overlooked it, but the label caught my eye. Isabel Estate is one of the most famous Marlborough quality producers, exceedingly well-known in Great Britain where this wine sells for about £10, but not so widely distributed here in the U.S., I think.
How did it get here and who among the Grocery Outlet clientele would recognize its quality sitting there surrounded by cheap and cheerful closeouts?
The third wine makes the puzzle more complicated. It is a 2004 Te Awa Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay. Te Awa Farm is another famous NZ producer and, while this wine — a estate product from a distinguished producer in a famous region — may be slightly past its prime and therefore a typical closeout risk, it is still very surprising to see it sold at a place like Grocery Outlet for $3.99 rather than the $16-$20 retail price.
These three New Zealand wines may be random surplus wines found in the sort of place where random wines go to be sold. Or they may be indicators of important changes in the world of wine. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Wine markets are all about supply and demand. It is pretty clear that a supply of interesting wines has appeared along with the rock-bottom remainders at extreme value stores like Grocery Outlet, pushed along, no doubt, by the slump in fine wine sales.
What about demand? And what does Grocery Outlet tell us about the wine market more generally?
Hosted by Dr. Ted O’Connell, they are required listening if you want to broaden and deepen your understanding of the coronavirus crisis. I encourage you to click on the link above and sample the growing list of podcast topics.
I was flattered to be asked to join Dr. O’Connell on April 15 to discuss how the coronavirus impacts the economy in general and the wine economy in particular. The podcast was released a few days ago. Listen here:
In this episode, Dr. Ted O’Connell and Mike Veseth discuss various economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the questions covered include:
Is the United States currently in a recession?
What can we learn about the economic effects of the virus from Italy and China?
How has the pandemic affected the economics of the wine industry?
What industries related to wine have been affected by the pandemic?
Thanks to Ted O’Connell and his associates for the opportunity to speak to the podcast audience. They are doing a great service by helping those of us outside the medical and public health professions better understand the forces that are shaping our lives. Special thanks to Pedro Fernandes for facilitating this project.
Are you listening to more podcasts and audio books while you shelter in place? I am guessing that people might especially appreciate the sound of a voice these days. I started thinking out this when I noticed the sales trends of my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. I think we expected that e-book sales would rise when everyone went into semi-isolation, but it looks like the audio book is the most popular format, followed by the hard back and then e-book. Paperback due next month.