The Democratization of Wine

As a known “Wagnerian” sympathizer,  I am naturally in favor of the “democratization” of wine. Power to the People is good, Wine to the People is even better (and sometimes equally difficult to manage). Recently I’ve run into a couple of stories that suggest that good wine may be trickling down to the masses in interesting ways.

Le Froglet Wine

The first story comes from Britain, where “wine by the glass” now has a new meaning. I’m talking about Le Froglet wine, which comes in ready-to-drink stemmed plastic cups. The special “glass” is sealed by a patent-applied-for process that replaces oxygen with inert gas before a peel-away airtight foil seal is applied, thus keeping the wine fresh (in the short term) in its unlikely container

The 187 ml serving of French Shiraz (really?), Chardonnay or Rose wine sells for £2.25 at Marks & Spencer stores.  This is wine that you can take anywhere and consume as you please, even if you only want a single glass. It is sort of a wine juice box in functional terms, if you know what I mean, but classier, with a stemmed plastic glass in place of the cardboard box and sippy-straw. I have seen Le Froglet here in the U.S. selling in the $3.50-$4 range.

Expert Opinion?

Le Froglet is noteworthy for several reasons, First, it seems to be very popular in Britain, where it has created a new market category. That doesn’t happen very often.

It has succeeded despite highly publicized expert opinion that the idea of takeaway “cuppa wine” is totally lame. James Nash, the inventor of the packaging and process, appeared on the popular BBC television show Dragons’ Den where supersmart investors took his product and business plan apart brick by brick, leaving him standing in a pile of rubble. Fuggetaboutit, they told him in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly, the people at retailer Marks & Spencer saw the same idea and came to a different conclusion.  They viewed the single-serving glass as a perfect place to put their line of Le Froglet French wines. I suppose with a name like Le Froglet they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Why not wine by the glass to go? Why not indeed? And so they gave it a try. They seem to be pleased with the results.

An M&S spokesman said: ‘The glasses are merchandised in our ‘Food on the Move’ section, which is obviously the aisle people on the go head to – particularly office workers. ‘We think that they are proving popular with people who want to perhaps enjoy the summer with a glass of wine in the park as part of an impromptu picnic – either after work or for a relaxing lunch.

‘They are also popular with commuters who want to enjoy a drink on the train home from work to wind down. We have found that they are very popular in locations popular with tourists.’  The M&S winemaker, Belinda Kleinig, said:  ‘This is a really exciting step for M&S – our research has shown that our customers really like the greater convenience of lighter weight bottles so we thought we’d take it one step further with great quality wine ready to drink from a glass.’

The Benefit of Low Expectations

I think one key to Le Froglet’s success is that it exceeds everyone’s expectations (except perhaps the grumpy Dragons’ Den gurus). You don’t really expect the packaging to work, for example. You expect the seal to leak or the plastic glass to break. But apparently it works pretty well. Surprise!

And then there’s the wine itself. You logically expect it to be crap since it comes in such a goofy container. Who’d put good wine in something like this? But apparently the wine is surprisingly good. In fact, Decanter magazine recently announced that Le Froglet Shiraz has won a hard-to-get  Gold Medal in its 2010 global wine competition.  The award is actually for the bottled version of the wine, which sells for £5.49.   Decanter’s editor reported that

‘The bottle is a great value find. It’s fragrant and complex, with lots of dark fruit and savoury chocolate. The plastic glass version is a great idea, but given that the bottled version has a screwcap, won a gold medal and works out cheaper per serve, I’d probably buy a bottle and find my own glasses.’

One element of the democratization of wine is making it more convenient and Le Froglet certainly does that. Of course this convenience comes at a price. One £5.49 bottle of Le Froglet holds four £2.25 single-serving glasses, making the bottled product the  better buy. But that glass-bottle price ratio is about what you find in most restaurants, where the rule of thumb is that the retail price of a glass of wine is equal to the wholesale cost of the whole bottle.

Good, cheap and convenient seem to form a trilemma with wine — difficult to get all three at once.  Cheers to Le Froglet for making decent wine more convenient, even if it isn’t really cheap.

Burger, Fries and Syrah?

What could be more democratic than fast food wine? Sounds perfect, but it is hard to imagine a fast food restaurant that could find a way to serve wine here in the U.S. with our Byzantine regulatory system.

So you can appreciate my pleasant surprise when I was able to order wine with my dine-in meal at the Burgerville fast food outlet near Vancouver, Washington. Burgerville is a popular Oregon-based fast food chain that specializes in fresh, local and sustainable products.

Burgerville is designed to exceed your expectations about what a fast food meal can be and if you pay a bit more for the food you probably get more, too. The restaurants have always been very busy when I have visited, so people must think they are a good value. I certainly do.

Here is the sales receipt from our meal at the Salmon Creek Burgerville (the only store in the chain to offer wine by the glass so far). I passed on the upscale burger / fries / shake part of the menu this time to take advantage of seasonal offerings: a mound of Walla Walla Sweet Onion Rings (yum!) and two Full Sail Amber Ale Battered Albacore fillets with a side of Oregon cranberry-studded summer slaw. My beverage of choice, a $5.95 glass of flavorful and refreshing A to Z Wine Works Oregon Pinot Gris. Heaven! Fast food taken to a new level.

Burgerville offers three red wines and three white wines by the glass at this location priced at $5.95 and $6.95. I think I’ll have a glass of the Syrah with a bacon cheeseburger on my next visit!

Small Steps [in the Right Direction]

The wines sell pretty well, I was told, which is of course what I hoped to hear. The Salmon Creek store is testing the concept of what you might call premium fast food wine. This store was apparently chosen because it has a large and well organized dine-in area that made it possible to meet regulatory requirements.  (Don’t look for wine at the drive through window just yet, although with Le Froglet I suppose it isn’t completely out of the question!).

The democratization of wine?  We’re not there yet — wine is still more difficult to buy, sell and consume than it needs to be — but Le Froglet and Burgerville show what we are headed in the right direction. Wagnerians, rejoice!

Secrets of Argentina’s Export Success

#1 Wine

Argentina’s wines are hot here in the United States. Recent Nielsen Scantrak off-premises  data show a 38.7 percent dollar value rise in sales of Argentinian wines for the 52 weeks ending April 3, 2010. That’s an enormous percentage increase, much greater than the total market (up 3.5 percent) and a good deal above the next biggest gainer (New Zealand with a 17.2 percent rise).

What’s Argentina’s secret?

The secret? As usual, there is no one simple answer. There are important factors on both the supply side and the demand side: good products, the right products at the right time and favorable economic policies.

Argentina produces excellent wines. Decanter magazine recently (June 2010 issue)  published a report on Argentinian Malbec that featured the largest tasting in their history — a record 255 wines. Four of them received  five stars, the highest designation. The Achaval Ferrer Mendoza 2008, which often sells for less than $20 here in the U.S., led the pack with 19/20 points.

Argentina is fortunate to be producing wines for the times. Many Argentinian wines are good values at a time when consumers are careful with their money and they represent good choices for ABC (anything but Chardonnay) and ABS (anything but Shiraz) buyers.

International Influences

#1 Export Brand

Argentina’s economic policies are another consideration. The favorable dollar/peso exchange rate contributes to Argentina’s competitiveness on the export market. And although I don’t know very much about them, I think that barriers to foreign investment in the wine industry must not be very high because so many important producers have international connections.

Bodega Colome is owned by Donald Hess of Switzerland, for example, who also owns The Hess Collection in the United States. Achaval Ferrer is a joint venture with a Montalcino winemaking family. Bordeaux wine investors are players in Diamandes and Clos de los Siete. O Fournier’s owner is Spanish. Cheval des Andes is a joint venture of Moët Hennessy’s Terrazas de los Andes and St-Emilion’s Cheval Blanc. Bodega Norton is owned by the Swarovski family of Austria (famous for their crystal.) Dig deeper and you’ll find even more international money and talent at work.

Top Export Brands

These are good reasons for Argentina’s recent success, but a recent article on WineSur.com titled “The Top 5 Export Brands” got me thinking that there might be other factors at work. I was particularly intrigued by the table showing the top bottled wine export brands to different markets. I’ve pasted the table below so that you can analyze it along with me. Click on the table to read the full article and view a larger image of the data.The first thing I noticed is how heavily weighted Argentina’s recent exports are toward the North American market. Britain, still the most important wine market in the world, has much lower export volumes as shown here. I suspect that one reason for this, however, is that these data are for exports of bottled wines (including bag-in-box and Tetra-Paks) and I’ll bet that Tesco and some of the big supermarket chains import their Argentinian value wines in bulk and bottle them in the U.K as house brands. Those export sales don’t show up here.

The second thing that caught my eye was the wide range of export prices. Alamos, the U.S. leader, sells for $30.57 per case export price, about the same as #2 Don Miguel Gascon. Marcus James, the top export wine in volume but only #3 in value, sells for just $12.54 per case.  Catena, the #4 brand, exported just 39,000 cases in the time period under consideration, but received an average of $64.97 for each one. Argentina’s exports to the U.S. (and the other markets shown here) span the price spectrum — another advantage.

Location, Location, Location?

Finally, I became interested in the particular brands that topped the export market tables and I think I discovered another secret weapon: distribution. It’s a cliche that in business the three most important things are location, location, location. Location is important in wine, too (ask any terroirist), but efficient distribution sure makes a difference and Argentinian producers have been wise in making good use of the most efficient distribution networks in each country.

Alamos has the highest export earnings by a good margin — why? Well Alamos is made by big gun Bodega Catena Zapata. It is a value line and is imported and distributed by the Gallo company. I suspect that Gallo’s large and efficient distribution network and its marketing prowess are reasons for Alamos’s great success. Significantly, Gallo also handles Don Miguel Gascon, the #2 export brand.

Marcus James, the #3 export brand, is a Constellation Brands product and is also backed by substantial marketing and distribution power. I was actually surprised to see Marcus James on this list because I didn’t realize they sold Argentinian wine. Guess I need to pay closer attention.  They used to source their wine from … Brazil!

Fuzion (a Shiraz-Malbec blend, I understand) is the best seller in Canada. It is made by Familia Zuccardi and distribution is one of its advantages, too. In Canada government wine and liquor shops are key sales vectors. The support of Ontario’s Liquor Control Board (in addition to successful viral marketing) seems to have made Fuzion a hit in a market that is otherwise very difficult to penetrate.  (At one time the Ontario Liquor Control Board was the world’s largest retailer of wine. I think Tesco is #1 today.) Distribution is key and both Alamos and Fuzion seem to have it.

Which Wine Magazine?

Wine enthusiasts spend a lot of time and money on magazines and guidebooks and I guess they are never sure if they’re getting the best advice. One of this blog’s most common referring links is the Google search query “world’s best wine magazine?” Want to know the answer? Read on.

If you were going to read just one wine magazine, which one would it be? I decided to use my university students to try to find out. They are plenty smart and know a lot about wine, but they don’t (yet) spend much of their time reading these publications.  Perfect subjects for a little media analysis experiment.

Three Ideas of Wine

I passed out copies of perhaps the three most influential wine magazines on the planet and asked my students to analyze them in terms of point of view, intended audience and, of course, which one they would want to read.

The three magazines are Wine Spectator, Decanter and Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator has the highest circulation of any wine magazine in the United States and probably the world. Decanter, a British publication, sells fewer copies, especially here in the U.S., but has global reach.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is a subscription-only publication; most people don’t actually read the Wine Advocate, they just see the rating numbers and blurbs on Wine Wall shelf talkers promoting particular bottles. It’s very influential despite its limited distribution.

The magazines are different in almost every way. They certainly represent three different ideas of wine. Which is best? Well, that depends.

Wine Spectator

My students quickly labeled Wine Spectator a “lifestyle” magazine and this isn’t just because it has non-wine or tangentially-related-to-wine  “lifestyle” articles about food, travel, celebrities and so forth. The advertisements were the giveaway to them. While many wine companies advertise in WS, so do the producers of many luxury and designer products.

(Most wine mags are lifestyle publications, they just have differing ratio and proportion of wine, wine-related and pure lifestyle editorial content. It would be interesting in give the students Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and, say, Wine & Spirits to analyze regarding wine versus lifestyle emphasis. Maybe next term.)

Taken together, the editorial content and the advertising (plus the “coffee table” large format) gave my students a strong sense of a plush lifestyle publication. Wine is part of that world, they said, but not the only part of it. Some were attracted to this lifestyle image and other repulsed. They all found it fascinating.

Decanter

Decanter’s cover boldly proclaims that it is “The World’s Best Wine Magazine.” Is it?

Decanter is a lifestyle magazine, too, but that’s not what struck my students. Compared to Wine Spectator they noted a more specific wine focus and talked about finding deeper analysis of wine regions and issues.  I’m not sure if this is really true or if it reflects Wine Spectator’s high advertisement page  count, which might make it seem like there is less wine content.

But for whatever reason Decanter seemed more seriously interested in wine as opposed to lifestyle, according to my students.

Decanter has a different approach to wine ratings, too. Whereas Wine Spectator has many wine reviews in the back covering new releases from the U.S. and many international regions, Decanter typically features in-depth review articles on just two regions. You get more breadth of coverage with Wine Spectator and more depth with Decanter.

Wine Spectator made good  browsing, one student said, and sometimes that’s just what you want, but Decanter would be better to read.

Wine Advocate

My students were shocked by Wine Advocate. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for a “just the facts, ma’am” wine publication. Black type on tan paper. No photos. No ads. Page after page of winery and wine reviews, focusing on three or four regions in each issue.

Not for browsing. Not for reading. You have to study Wine Advocate to get anything out of it they said.

Who reads Wine Advocate? No one would read it for pleasure, according to the students. (I disagree — geeky baseball fans read columns of statistics on their favorite sport. I think there is a similar wine reader.) You would read it for business — because you are a wine retailer, distributor, investor or maybe own a restaurant.  This, they said, was a magazine for readers with a serious professional purpose.

The World’s Best Wine Magazine?

So which one is the best?  I know my answer. If I could only read one it would be Decanter because I think  it is more focused on the supply and demand issues I write about. It’s a wine magazine written by and maybe for “Masters of Wine” who care a lot about commercial concerns.

Unfortunately, Decanter’s specific consumer wine advice is mainly irrelevant to me since the British market it covers is so different from my Wine Wall here in the United States. Very few U.S. wines (apart from the big multinationals) successfully break into the British market, for example, and so we get little space in Decanter compared to wines from Europe and Australia. The market here is just the reverse.

My students weren’t willing to choose a “world’s best wine magazine.” They could see strengths and weaknesses in all three.  One student said it boiled down to a trade-off between accessibility (Wine Spectator) and authenticity (the more detailed analysis of terroir you find in publications like Wine Advocate) and there’s no perfect balance between them.

In wine, as in many other areas of life, we want both accessibility and authenticity and I guess my students have already become both surprisingly self-aware of their position in this struggle and skilled at negotiating the complex space it  creates. Interesting.

World’s best wine magazine? No such thing. It depends on who you are, what you are looking for and your particular idea of wine.

Cracking the Coffee-Wine Paradox

My last post, Starbucks and and Coffee-Wine Paradox, raised questions about the relative price of wine. We think of coffee as being expensive, especially coffee drinks at Starbucks and other gourmet espresso bars. But compared to wine they seem like a bargain.

You can get an excellent coffee drink for less than the cheapest glass of on-premises wine. And the price difference between generic coffee and the best (a factor of 16 according to a Decanter article) looks great compared to wine, where the cheapest bottle costs a couple of bucks and there’s almost no upside limit.

Coffee and wine are both simple quotidian pleasures (or should be). Why are their relative prices so different? Several readers and colleagues offered answers to this question.

Cost Plus Wine

Suggestions (click on the article link above and scroll down to the comments section) focused on cost differences . Coffee is cheaper to ship and store, for example, and as Rob Boyd pointed out coffee isn’t typically aged for years like red wine, which increases cost.

Wine is typically bottled at the source, so to speak, which also contributes to the cost difference. Weight gets added relatively early in the wine supply chain whereas coffee gains weight at the point where it is combined with water, brewed and served — a real advantage. “If coffee was brewed in Colombia and then shipped to Starbucks around the world,” Steve DeLong wrote, “the price would be astronomical.” (See note below.)

Steve also had the insight that, while Starbucks-style coffee products are pretty labor intensive to make, this cost also comes at the final stage of production, whereas wine’s high labor costs come much earlier and are magnified by multiple mark-ups in the distribution system. An additional  dollar of labor in the cellar translates to maybe $2 higher retail price for wine here in the US with our three-tier distribution system. An extra dollar of barista wage cost at the end of the coffee product chain has less of an impact on price.

Cost and Price

The comments I’ve received go a long way toward unraveling the paradox. As I expected, however, most people try to solve the puzzle on the cost side — focusing on why wine costs are relatively higher than coffee costs. These are good answers, but it is important to consider the demand side, too. Everyone knows that some prices are determined by production cost, but others are dictated by what people are willing to pay.

Cost rules in highly competitive markets, where products are undifferentiated and good information is readily available. Willingness to pay is more important in imperfectly competitive markets with highly differentiated products and asymmetric information.  The markets for generic coffee and wine fall into the first category, fine wines and specialty coffees into the other.

What Will You Pay?

Why do highly-rated wines cost so much to buy? Production cost is a factor, particularly for generic coffee and wine, but it alone doesn’t explain the big price gap between the bottom shelf and the top. Fine wine and gourmet coffee cost so much because people are willing to pay these prices — and they lack the confidence to pay less in some cases because they associate lower price with lower quality (or maybe lower status).

So I think Steve Kirchner is on to something when he points to differences in marketing between coffee and wine. Gourmet coffee, Steve argues, is a relatively new phenomenon and it is certainly true that the range of choices is still limited compared to wine.

Closing the Coffee-Wine Gap

How many different coffees does your grocery store sell? Probably a few dozen at two or three price points. How many wines? Probably one or two thousand at many more price points!

Fine wine is more complicated than fine coffee and there is more uncertainty surrounding it. This makes the market more “imperfect” in the jargon of economics, and price and cost are more likely to deviate.

Will coffee producers ever catch up to their wine-making cousins? Not soon, I suspect, but I think they will close the gap!

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Note: Steve’s comment about brewing coffee and then shipping it reminds me of a story I picked up back when I did tax policy economics.

When coffee was first introduced in Great Britain, it was subject to high excise taxes intended for luxury goods. Coffee shops reacted by adding non-coffee ingredients to the brew to stretch their precious grounds. Adulterated coffee. Ugh.

The tax authorities, seeing a revenue shortfall,  responded by ordering all coffee to be brewed in designated central canteens, then transported full-strength to the shops and reheated there. Twice cooked coffee. Ugh again! More expensive, of course, and adulteration was still possible, but at least the tax was paid.

Thus did high taxation ruin Britain’s taste for coffee, which has only recently recovered thanks in part to market entry by quality sellers like Starbucks.

Starbucks and the Coffee-Wine Paradox

The Water-Diamond paradox is a classic problem in economics. Water is essential to life, but it is relatively cheap in most situations. Diamonds, on the other hand, are non-essential luxuries in most uses, yet they cost the earth compared to water. How is this possible? How can market price deviate so clearly from practical value? A tough problem. John Law, John  Locke, Copernicus and Adam Smith all tried to provide sensible answers.

In Vino Paradox

Starbucks (the Seattle-based company that sells coffee with a side of lifestyle) presents us with a similar puzzle today. I call it the coffee-wine paradox in honor of the original problem.

Starbucks has started selling wine. Not at branded Starbucks stores, but at three experimental “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” shops in Seattle.  As near as I can tell they have not yet begun to market a Starbucks wine (the image here, courtesy of Google Image Search, is apparently bogus), but who knows what will happen in the future?

I know a number of coffee bars here in the Pacific Northwest that double as wine bars and authentic espresso bars in Italy nearly always serve alcoholic beverages including wine. Starbucks knows how to sell branded goods. Connect the dots. Maybe there is Starbucks Pinot Grigio in your future?

So what is the paradox? Well, the joke is that Starbucks coffee products are very expensive. You know what I mean — the mythical four dollar caffè latte? But when you compare Starbucks coffee to wine, it looks like coffee is unbelievable cheap. Thinking in terms of absolute price both wine and coffee cost a lot but, as in the water-diamond problem, their relative prices seem totally out of line. Why is wine so expensive compared to coffee and why is coffee so darn cheap?

Pulling the Supply Chain

Coffee cheap? Well, consider what a diagram of the global supply chain for a Starbucks latte would look like. The high tech espresso machine is usually Italian-made. The milk is probably a local product and the labor likewise, but the coffee and flavorings such as chocolate and vanilla come from all over the world and pass through many processes and middleman hands on their way to you.

Wine, by contrast, is the simplest of products. It practically makes itself. Even with the notorious three-tier distribution system here in the US, it is a whole lot easier to get wine into your glass than coffee into your 20-ounce cardboard takeaway cup.

And think about the wine bar versus espresso bar experience. Servers at the wine bar retrieve the bottle and pour some in your glass.  Pretty simple. At the espresso bar, by contrast, your coffee made to order with sometimes extravagant special requests (a tall half-caff soy vanilla latte with caramel?). No doubt about it, in terms of both global sourcing and labor-intensive local production,  Starbucks coffee seems like it would be a lot more expensive to produce and serve than my mythical Starbucks wine.

So here’s the paradox. $4 for a cup of coffee (or espresso-favored coffee drink) seems impossibly expensive. Ridiculous. A joke. But $4 is impossibly cheap for a glass of decent wine these days when you are dining out. What do you think Starbucks would charge for a glass of wine? If they conform to the industry rule of thumb (and I don’t know if the 15th Avenue shops do) the price for each glass would equal the wholesale cost for the bottle. So you’d expect to pay $6 and up for fine wine (wine poured from a bottle in this context) or less if it is drawn from a bag-in-box hidden somewhere in the back room.

Generic industrial wine sells for more than a premium custom-brewed coffee product. No question about it. Wine costs too much and coffee is too cheap. Why? That’s the first part of the coffee-wine paradox.

A Factor of Sixteen

A second aspect of the coffee-wine paradox is revealed in the November 2009 issue of Decanter magazine in a short but very interesting article on coffee. It seems that coffee, like wine, comes in all sorts of variations from cheap bulk product to the equivalent of vineyard-designated grand cru coffee cuvées (if that isn’t stacking the adjectives a bit too high).

Coffee connoisseurs will pay enormous sums to get the finest, rarest coffees. Decanter quotes the price of the winning coffee from a recent international competition at £13 per 250 grams of roasted beans or roughly 40 U.S. dollars per pound. On a per-cup basis, according to the article, the top coffee sells for about sixteen times the most humble Cup of Joe. That’s a pretty high premium to have the best instead of the simply pretty good.

Consider the corresponding wine ratio. If we take Two Buck Chuck as our Nescafé equivalent, the most expensive wine on the market would cost $32 in California (where Two Buck Chuck really costs $1.99) and $48 dollars per bottle nearly everywhere else in America. But this is ridiculous. The most expensive wines cost much more than this. If you read the wine magazines you frequently encounter prices of hundreds and even thousands of dollars for the finest, rarest wines. The coffee factor is sixteen from bottom to top. The wine factor, by comparison, is fifty, sixty, a hundred, even more.

What is the solution to the coffee-wine paradox? Why does wine seem to cost so much more than coffee despite the factors that would seem to raise coffee’s cost? And why do the best wines cost so much more, in relative terms, than the best coffees? What’s your answer? Watch this space for mine!

Stein’s Law and New Zealand Wine

Stein’s Law, named for presidential economic advisor Herb Stein who coined it, holds that if something cannot go on forever it will eventually end.

If that sounds like an obvious conclusion remember that, Freakonomics aside, most of what economists do is point out the obvious to people who somehow fail to see it.

Think about everyone who was surprised that the housing bubble imploded and that credit crashed. Everyone knew that rising housing prices and expanding mortgage debt couldn’t go on forever, but many acted like it would never end. If only they had remembered Stein’s Law!

I wonder if this is a Stein’s Law moment for the New Zealand wine industry?

Objectively the New Zealand wine industry has all of the classic characteristics of a bubble (and I’m not talking about sparkling wine here). The industry has expanded at a break-neck pace in recent years, fueled by foreign investment. The home market is quite small, so increasing output has been pushed into export markets, especially Australia, the U.S. and Great Britain. New Zealand wines are best sellers in each of these markets.

Incredibly, New Zealand has been able to continually expand export sales while maintaining its historically high export price. (No country has received a higher average price for its table wine exports in recent years.) The high prices, of course, draw in more investment, so production continues to grow and the cycle repeats.

Chateau Ponzi

If I told you a story like this about a financial investment of some sort you’d probably tell me that it sounds like a Ponzi scheme — no way this can go on forever. Pretty soon the market will be saturated and prices will have to fall. This is what worried the New Zealand winemakers I talked with when I visited there a few years ago: the moment when exports at a premium price would become unsustainable. They worried that their fine wines would become commodities, sold in bulk at permanently lower price points.

Any luxury good retailer will tell you that it is hard to push prices back up once buyers come to expect discounts.

Yesterday’s Marlborough Express suggests that the tipping point may have been reached. The article reports that

New Zealand Winegrowers’ annual report released yesterday shows exports surged 24 per cent to $992 million and the industry is on track to reach the $1 billion mark this year, a year ahead of expectations.

This was largely driven by bulk exports, which Mr Smith said were a concern to the industry. Historically, bulk wine exports have accounted for less than 5 per cent of total export volume; in the past year this quadrupled to nearly 20 per cent as producers looked to shift excess inventories.

Bulk exports might relieve pressure on wineries in the short term, but in the long term they could damage the market positioning and the reputation of New Zealand wine, Mr Smith warned.

The fact of falling prices due to bulk sales is hard to dispute.  I have not seen big discounts on New Zealand wine here in the U.S., but the Marlborough Express reports that

A surplus of Marlborough sauvignon blanc is driving down wine prices, says a Nelson wine producer. Brightwater Vineyards’ owner, Gary Neale, says his company is up against an oversupply of discounted Marlborough sauvignon blanc exports.

Mr Neale sells his wine for 10.50 (NZ$25.80) in Britain, but British consumers are being offered three bottles of Marlborough sauvignon blanc for 10 , or 3.99 for one bottle. An email from his Sydney agent tells of New Zealand wine being sold at A$4 a bottle, and Marlborough sauvignon blanc is selling there for as little as A$2.75 when buying six bottles.

“In the past, Australia has been a very easy and a profitable market, but Australia is absolutely flooded with cheap Marlborough sauvignon blanc,” says Mr Neale.

Two Buck Kiwi Wine

With the Australian dollar trading at about 83 U.S. cents this morning, that makes makes the Marlborough six-pack price a little over $2.25 US per bottle — Two Buck Chuck (TBC) range.

An article posted today on Decanter.com reports low prices in the U.K. market, too, although not so low as in Australia, and sounds an optimistic note.

The sale of £3.99 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a short-term ‘blip’, according to the European head of New Zealand Winegrowers.

Following the record 2008 and 2009 vintages, increased production created an oversupply problem, giving rise to the first-ever £3.99 New Zealand wines as producers tried to clear tank space.

But David Cox, European director for New Zealand Winegrowers told decanter.com: ‘We are going to see the odd £3.99 New Zealand wine but not very often. I don’t think the consumer will ever get to the stage where they think they can get New Zealand wines for under £4.’

£3.99 translates to about $6.50 US — well clear of the TBC price, but frighteningly low for New Zealand wines in the UK market. Let’s put this price in context.

New Zealand producers received an average price of $6.00 for their exports in 2001-2005. Retail prices in the export markets were necessarily much higher to reflect transportation and distribution costs, tariffs and retail mark-ups. No wonder so many Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs have been priced in the $15-$20 range in the past.

If NZ wines are retailing for the equivalent of $6.50 in London then, working backwards, this suggests that net producer prices have plunged to less than $3, at least for the bulk wine product. That’s a huge drop and it is hard to see how production is sustainable at this price point.

All Black?

So is this it? Has the bubble burst? Is the future of New Zealand wine all black? No. The reputation of New Zealand wine is very strong and it may well be that consumers will be able to differentiate the bulk product at bulk price from the premium product higher up on the shelf as they do for products from France and California. The danger is that the whole national brand is devalued. That would be a devastating blow.

It would be a mistake to over-react to this news, but it would also be a mistake not to react at all.

Stein’s Law holds here as it does in so many cases and the surpluses will go away one way or another — either because the growers act to control them or else because the market collapses and they get sold off at bulk wine prices.

Will the EU Wine Reforms Work?

The September 2009 issue of Decanter arrived today and it features three articles about the European Union wine reform regime that went into force last week (on August 1).  I wonder if the reforms will work and dry up the EU’s wine lake by making this important economic sector more competitive?

The EU wine regime is part of the larger Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is not so much an agricultural policy as an incomes policy — a set of regulations and subsidies designed to support the incomes of European farmers. The CAP payments have provided income security and, in some areas, social stability, for regions where winegrowing is a marginal economic activity, but where there are few viable alternatives.

Bottle Shock

The subsidies have also served to delay what we now see as inevitable structural adjustment to a declining EU domestic wine market. The new reforms are meant to pull out the props and force adjustment. It’s not exactly shock therapy, but it will have some of the same effects.

You can see the problem if you just look at some of the vineyards in Spain and the South of France where the surplus wine originates. Many of the wines that are produced are poor products, without much market potential, which flow the into EU wine lake and end up in crisis distillation. These winegrowers need to get into a different business. Structural adjustment in this circumstance doesn’t mean changing from grapes to olives or some other crop, however, it probably means selling out, packing up and moving to other regions, a very expensive and disruptive process for both the individuals and their communities.

It’s like an economic Dust Bowl; if you have read  The Grapes of Wrath you know what I am talking about. No wonder there is so much opposition and foot-dragging.

The current economic crisis both compounds and confuses the problem. Solving the long term problem demands that crisis distillation disappear, for example, but the short term crisis makes a case for keeping the price supports just a little bit longer. With the Cash for Clunkers program so popular right now it is hard to rule out Cash for Carignan on principle alone. It is difficult to know how these political and economic forces will shake out in the future.

Label Laws

The first evidence of the new EU regime will show up on the labels of some European wines quite soon.  AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée) is being replace by AOP (Appelation d’Origine Protegée) on French wine labels, for example, and Vin de Pays wines will now be labeled Indication Geographique Protegée as EU standard terminology in introduced.These changes will confuse some buyers, I think, but the damage shouldn’t be too severe.

The Decanter story uses the English versions of these new classifications: PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication). The PIG wine acronym is thankfully avoided.

More useful is the fact that wine producers will be able to list grape varietals on their labels, bringing them into line with New World market practice. Since Old World wine consumption continues to fall (and imports of New World wine now crowd European supermarket shelves) leveling the playing field this way makes good sense, even if it is not a perfect solution.

The new label and designation rules are just one part of the EU reform package (other elements including payments for grubbing up and support for export marketing programs), but you have to ask if they go far enough. While labels will be streamlined and made a bit more market friendly fears that hundreds of geographical designations would be eliminated have proved groundless. The confusing thicket of EU wine regions remains and will act as a barrier to supermarket sales, which is where this war will ultimately be fought.

Get Smart

An industry group in the UK that includes Tesco and Bibendum and 23 other retailers and importers want European winemakers to go beyond the EU reform template. They have produced Plan B, which calls for France’s regional wine authorities to set aside their seperate interests and differences and unite to collectively market their wines. The idea is that the French regions don’t compete against each other so much today as they compete with the rest of the world. A united front is needed and regional bickering only gets in the way.

The proponents of Plan B admit that it is unlikely that French producers will give up their local designations and controls and pull together, but they think it is the only way to reverse that country’s continuing decline in the British market. Plan B, whatever you might think of its merits, is about as likely to succeed as any of the “Plan B” schemes in the old Get Smart television series.

The EU is convinced that European winemakers can compete and will compete with New World makers under the new regime. I suspect that are right but, for now, it is too soon to tell.

The wine market has a way of surprising even the most hardened sceptic. Who would have thought 50 years ago that France would be considered a basket case in the wine business? Who would have thought 10 years ago that Australian wine would be considered passé?

I have great respect for innovators in the Languedoc and other threatened EU wine regions. But even with the recent reforms, things could still go either way.