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.


Decanter’s Wine Power List

Decanter, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Wine Magazine,” takes its rankings very seriously. Wine rankings, of course,  and, in the July 2009 issue, Power rankings. Who are the most powerful people in the world of wine and what does the power list tell us? Let’s see if we can find the message in this bottle.

The Power List

The names on the power list are very interesting but the story that they tell about wine today is perhaps more important. Here are the first ten (top ten) people on the list.

  1. Richard Sands, USA, Chairman, Constellation Brands
  2. Robert Parker, USA, wine critic
  3. Mariann Fischer Boel, Denmark, EU Commissioner for Agriculture
  4. Mel Dick, USA, Southern Wine & Spirits (wine distributor)
  5. Annette Alvarez-Peters, USA, Costco wine director
  6. Dan Jago, UK, Tesco wine director
  7. Jean-Christophe Deslarzes, Canada, President of Alcan Packaging
  8. Jancis Robinson, UK, wine critic, author and journalist
  9. Nicolas Sarkozy, France, President of France
  10. Pierre Pringuet, France, Pernod Ricard

Since Decanter is a British magazine with very small US distribution you might be surprised that three of the top ten positions (and both of the top spots) are held my Americans, but don’t be. Constellation Brands is the largest wine company in the world and accounts for one out of eight bottles of wine sold in the UK. And Robert Parker is best known for his ratings of French wine, not Napa bottlings, which is important to British buyers and merchants. The presence of Sands and Parker at the top of the list does not reflect any sort of US-centrism, just the realities of the global marketplace. It really is a global list. Or at least, like those famous New Yorker cover illustrations, the globe as seen from London.

I won’t list the second ten names (out of 50 in total), but the I think they illustrate the global reach of the wine market today: America, China, Chile, Australia, Spain and so on. Even India, an emerging wine market, makes the top 50 ranking.

The list is complete and up-to-date (Gary Vaynerchuck, the US internet wine guru, shows up at number #40), but there are some interesting gaps. Fred Franzia, the godfather of Two Buck Chuck, is nowhere to be found, for example, despite his obvious influence on the US market, while Judy Leissner of Grace Vineyard in China, who perhaps represents the future of Chinese fine wine, makes the “Ones to Watch” list.

No wine economists make the list, alas. Greg Jones, the respected Southern Oregon University wine climatologist, is the only professor (#33). Maybe next year …

The Story

It is fun to see who makes the list and who doesn’t (why Jancis and not Oz?), but the ranking is more interesting if you strip out the personalities and consider what market forces they represent. Herewith my version of this  story.

The world of wine is very unsettled. Although wine is one of the most fragmented global industries (much less concentrated than beer or spirits, for example), size matters more and more as consolidation continues. [Hence the power of Constellation Brands, Pernod Ricard and Southern Wine & Spirits.] Reputation matters, of course [Parker and Robinson], but the world is changing and everything is up for grabs from how and where wine is sold [Costco and Tesco] to how the bottle is sealed [Alcan].

Although change is generally associated with New World wine, this is no longer the case. The biggest threats to “business as usual” for Old World wine come from inside the European Union itself. On one hand, the new EU wine regime [Mariann Fischer Boel] will pressure Old World wine to compete with the New World head-on and without continuing EU support. On the other hand we have an unexpected prohibitionist movement [symbolized by Sarkozy] that seeks to regulate wine like the Americans do (even as some parts of America are changing) — as a dangerous controlled substance. It is thus imperative for Old World wine to master the tricks of the New World industry — tricks that Constellation and Southern and Costco symbolize.

These changes take place, of course  within the context of the expanding global market, global climate change and a continuing global economic crisis (that’s where a wine economist would have been a useful inclusion).

I won’t pretend that the Decanter Power List is a scientific ranking (Decanter doesn’t claim this in any case), but it is an interesting peek into how wine insiders view their industry. I’ll be curious to see how the names and the story lines change when the next Power List appears.

Crisis and Change in the Wine World

When the economic crisis began to unfold last year many people said that it wouldn’t affect the world of wine — people will still want to drink, they said, even more so when they are worried or depressed.  Recession is good for wine, they assured us.

Well, we all know now that that line of reasoning was misguided.  The crisis is hitting almost every shelf on the Wine Wall as consumers cut back and trade down (only a few value brands like Barefoot Cellars seem to be benefiting).  The most recent issues of Wine Spectator and Decanter feature cover stories that are designed to appeal to recession-shocked bargain-hunting wine enthusiasts. (See note below.) Wine industry publications are packed full of stories about how producers, retailers and restaurants are coping with declining demand.

Cycle or Shift?

Now that we know that economic crisis is having a real impact on wine, it is time to think more seriously about what form that impact is taking. Most people that I have talked to are thinking in terms of boom-bust cycles. The current downturn will be very difficult — and a shake out will take place across the industry — but, they say, the wine economy will bounce back again once the economy itself starts to recover.  This is probably the correct way to think about the future of wine markets, but it isn’t the only way.

A second possibility is that the crisis will produce a long term structural change in the wine market.  The market won’t bounce back from its low, but rather will reset itself and proceed along a new and possibly unpredictable future path. Economists who study other sectors (finance, automobiles, agriculture) and taking the possibility of structural shifts seriously.  Could it be happening in the world of wine?

I have given a lot of thought to question of cycles and shifts over the years.  My best known work in this regard is a comparative economic history of public debt in advanced economies called Mountains of Debt: Crisis and Change in Renaissance Florence, Victorian Britain and Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 1990).  (Mountains went out of print in the Clinton years when the US deficit went away, but George W. Bush and the current crisis convinced the publisher to bring it back).

One point of the book is that some crises are more significant than others.  Sometimes a crisis is a tremor that shakes things up for a while but leaves the landscape pretty much unchanged.  Other crises are major earthquakes, with more lasting long term implications.  Maybe this is a “Big One,” at least in terms of wine. I’m going to use the next few blog posts to think through this important question.

The Market Center Shifts

One early indicator of structural change comes from London, the center of the wine world.  Great Britain, as I’ve said before, is the most important wine market in the world. The British don’t drink the most wine in the world or produce the most, either, but they buy a lot of wine from other countries, making them the largest import market and therefore the focus of international competition (Germany and the United States along with Britain form the Big Three import markets).

But this may be changing.  Britain’s economy is being badly battered by the economic crisis, as an article in yesterday’s Financial Times makes clear.

As the UK economy contracts at its fastest rate since the second world war, the … Industry Watch report predicts that more company casualties will follow in 2010. It says 39,000 businesses, or one in 50, are likely to fail next year.

Britain’s banking sector is in bad shape, perhaps even worse than the US industry, and its government budget deficit is also spiraling into the red.  This has general wine market effects similar to those in the US (cutting back, trading down, switching over), but some different ones, as well, the most important of which is due to the exchange rate.

As Britain’s economy has imploded the pound has collapsed as well. The pound has fallen by about 25% against both the dollar and the Euro. It took about $2 (or €1.30) to buy a pound a year ago, now it is selling for $1.45 (or €1.06) today.  This means that imported wine (which in Britain is, well, wine) costs much more because of the exchange rate at the same time that the slumping economy (and lowered expectations) are undermining demand. The US dollar, on the other hand, has appreciated relative to most currencies apart from the yen, promising wine buyers lower prices to match their reduced economic circumstances.  So the recession is affecting wine in Britain more than the US wine market.  A shift is taking place — is it temporary or will it be permanent?

Although it is too soon to know for sure, I think it is possible that these factors could cause London to lose its preeminent position in the world wine market.  I see indicators in the decline of the Australian industry (complicated by other factors, I know — but the collapse of the British market is part of it) and the recent global focus on Argentina and its excellent wine values (both Wine Spectator and Decanter make this point).

Although Argentinean producers are looking to export wherever they can get a foot in the door, my strong sense is that they see their future in the U.S. market more than Great Britain.  Perhaps they are at the head of the pack as the world wine market resets and proceeds on a different path.

[Note: Wine Spectator includes 18 tips on stretching your wine dollar. My favorite is tip #7: buy by the case and get a discount (page 55 of the April 30, 2009 issue).  Sound advice, although the particular example cited may miss the point: “A 10 percent discount on a $300 case translates into a saving of $2.50 per bottle. That adds up fast.”  The problem, of course, is that the people who used to buy those $300 cases are cutting back the hardest and I’m not sure that $2.50 a bottle  is going to turn them around.]

Wine Critics and their Discontents

The Principal-Agent Problem

You might think that the job of wine critic would be heavenly – traveling the world, tasting wines and talking and writing about them.  What could be better?  But there are downsides and trade-offs to the job.  One is that your credibility depends upon objectivity – if your ratings are thought to be biased, your advice is correspondingly discounted.  But, on the other hand, you need income to work as a critic or to publish magazines and websites and the most obvious source of income is the wine industry itself.  How can we trust wine critics when the potential conflicts of interest are so obvious?

This situation is not at all unlike that faced by candidates for political office, who receive money from “special interests” but still need to serve (and appear to serve) the general interest. It isn’t impossible to walk this tightrope, but it isn’t always easy either.  You probably can think of many politicians who have done it successfully and a few who fell off.

In economics we see this as an example of the principal-agent problem.  You understand the principal-agent problem if you’ve ever wondered if the cab driver was really taking the shortest route back to the hotel.  Although cab driver and rider have entered into a mutually advantageous contract, interests are not fully aligned and the fact of asymmetric information means you may not be sure that you are getting a fair deal.

Wine enthusiasts (the principals) hire critics (the agents) to give us objective advice, but we know that the critics may have their own interests as well as ours in mind.  How can we trust them to place our interests above their own?

It seems to me that all the wine critics I have surveyed confront this problem openly and honestly, although they arrive at different strategies to deal with the problem.  All the examples I will cite below are effective, in my view,  so I have come away from this little study well satisfied, but the fact that they are so different can create some confusion for wine enthusiasts who fail to read the fine print.

Parker and Vaynerchuck

Robert Parker’s solution to the problem of potential economic conflict of interest at the Wine Advocate is simply to refuse all advertising and to charge his principals fees for web access, hard copy subscriptions, books and so forth.  Who does Parker work for?  He works for us.  It is pretty hard to criticize this model, although interestingly he is probably the most criticized wine critic.  People don’t complain about economic conflict of interest, however, but rather that Parker’s particular idea of wine favors particular styles of wine and particular producers.

Gary Vaynerchuck at Wine Library TV takes a different approach.  His family owns a major wine retailer in New Jersey, so in fact he has a very direct financial interest in the sales of some of the wine he reviews.  Rather than trying to build a firewall between the wine critic business and the wine retailer business, however, he tries to be completely transparent about it and to accentuate his personal credibility as an objective reviewer.  Unexpectedly, this seems to work.  Reputation matters. Accepting the conflict of interest and being open about it is a risky strategy, but Gary pulls it off.

There was one case of a potential conflict of interest a few months ago that shows that he is not unaware of the risks.  The top wine in a particular tasting turned out to be a proprietary label of Gary’s store.  Apparently Gary didn’t know this when the tasting was recorded and when he found out he immediately took the video down from the internet so that he could not gain financially from his honest appraisal of the wines. We only know about it now because of his online apology and explanation.  I think this case shows just how very important it is to wine critics to maintain their reputations as honest objective agents.


Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been studying how wine magazines handle reviews and the images that sometimes appear with them because it seems to me that a review that is shown along with a photo of the bottle or label is a lot more memorable than the plain text, so the choice of which wines to favor with an image is important..  Some of the magazines use these images to generate advertising revenue, others do not.  This is potentially confusing for readers who may mix up editorial content (the review) with paid advertising (the label image).

Britain’s Decanter magazine keeps its paid advertising and editorial wine ratings reasonably separated.  The top rated four- and five-star wines are featured with bottle photographs while the rest (three stars and below) have simple text listings. It is clear that the photos reflect editorial evaluation. Advertising pages bookend each set of ratings, but they are labeled “Decanter Promotion” so it is pretty clear that the wineries have paid for the space.

Wine & Spirits magazine has a different system (clearly explained in each issue).  After it has rated a group of wines it invites the wineries to purchase feature space in the form of wine label images that are included with the relevant reviews.  You might assume that the editors picked the wines to receive more attention this way, but you are wrong — stop assuming!  The label images are product placements and I appreciate Wine & Spirits’ honesty in revealing it.

Wine Enthusiast has a similar policy according to the explanation I found on page 182 of the September 2008 issue.  All the rated wines appear in long unadorned columns of reviews, but some wines also show up along with label images in the colorful pages that precede the main review text.  Some of these are top-rated wines, but others are not.  Like Wine & Spirits, producers are invited to buy image space in this section of the magazine, but only after the wines have been rated so that it is clear that they are buying the image space not the review — a good policy.

Wine Spectator doesn’t sell image space.  There are highlighted pages of wine reviews with labels at the front of the ratings sections, but these are editorial endorsements rather than paid placements.  Otherwise all the listings get equal treatment in the magazine.

Mixed Messages

If you see a bottle or label image alongside a review in Wine Spectator or Decanter, it means that the editors recommend the wine.  Label/review combinations in Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits are product placements. Each publication is very clear about this to protect its reputation – and I believe them when they say that their reviews are not influenced by advertising.  But the fact that there is more than one system means that readers of Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits and other magazines with similar practices may sometimes confuse paid product placement with editorial endorsement.

Solution?  I think all the critics cited above are honest agents and they have the right to choose different strategies to protect their reputations while generating needed revenues.  The burden falls on us, the wine buying “principals,” to understand what sort of “contract” we have with our critic “agents” so that we know when we are viewing paid product placements.

Screwed not Corked

“The rumors of my death” Mark Twain wrote, “are exaggerated.”  I wonder if the same is true about wine bottles and the corks that seal them?

Screwed!

Fine wine comes in a bottle and is sealed with a cork – this long been a given of the world of wine, but things are changing very rapidly.  I wonder what the Wine Wall at your supermarket will look like in ten or fifteen years? Will there still be bottles and corks?  Or is the death of wine tradition over-stated.

Corks seem headed for the endangered species list for all but the most precious age-worthy wines.  Non-cork closures including screwcaps were nearly invisible just 10 years ago (with perhaps 1 percent of the bottled wine market), but this is changing quickly.  A report in Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly suggests that about 35 percent of wine bottles–  over 2.5 billion units — had non-cork closures in 2007, including about 90 percent of New Zealand’s wine production.

Screwcaps have long been associated with inexpensive wine, but this too is changing.  The August 2008 issue of Decanter magazine features an article titled “50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps.”  Ten wine critics including Steven Spurrier and Linda Murphy recommend wines for summer drinking and comment on both the products and their screw tops.  “The screwcap closure is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime,” according to Spurrier (the organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting.

“Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or a cork, I’d choose the screwcap every time,” writes Joanna Simon, The Sunday Times wine writer. It’s a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, especially coming from Decanter. Economics is behind the move away from cork. Screwcaps are not remarkably cheaper than cork, but they avoid the loss of good wine to cork taint, generally estimated to affect about three percent of cork-closed wines. That’s a cost that winemakers would like to avoid.  But it can get much worse than three percent in individual cases George Taber wrote about a much worse situation in his great book To Cork or Not to Cork. A shipment of tainted cork almost ruined the David Bruce winery some years ago and destroyed forever the reputation of its Chardonnay wines. It had to rebuild (successfully) as a Pinot Noir maker.

Big Bag, Big Box

Don’t throw away your corkscrews yet – bottle and cork won’t disappear over night.  But the screwcap is replacing cork and the familiar glass bottle, well it’s under attack, too. As much as 30 percent of the 20 billion liters of wine sold this year will come in a non-bottle package – a bag-in-box “cask,” TetraPak “juice box” or something else. Economics is driving this change, as well.

Bag-in-box casks are cheap and efficient, and so we have come to expect very inexpesive wines to be sold this way, in 3-liter or 5-liter containers.  Think Franzia and Peter Vella.  The bag-in-box system is even used in international wine trade, but on a bigger scale.  Bulk wine shipments increasingly arrive in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 24,000 liters of wine in a single seamless bladder called a Flexitank. Wow, that’s really bag in box!

But it’s not just the cost of the container itself that is at work here.  Bottles are heavy to ship and costly to recycle. Rising transportation costs and increasing concern about carbon footprint are pushing the industry to look very closely at alternative packaging systems.

A French company is leading the way on this front, and I am not sure whether to be surprised or not. France is generally associated with resistance to innovation and change – picture the rebel José Bové torching a McDonalds in protest of its encroachment on French life and cuisine. On the other hand the France is home to many of the most dynamic multinational corporations – including two of the world’s five largest wine companies – and the country has a huge interest in the wine business, given that it is still the largest producer. So perhaps it just makes sense that they are innovators in this field.

What’s French for Entrepreneur?

The producer I’m talking about is Boisset Family Estates, which makes fine wines such as Louis Bernard in France and DeLoach here in the United States. Boisset seems to be pushing the envelope, selling a €150 screwcapped Chambertin as well as affordable TetraPak French Rabbit wines.  I wrote about French Rabbit in my earlier post, Red, White and Green All Over.

I think we will be seeing more and more wine in non-traditional packages — screwcaps, casks, plastic bottles and so forth.  Cost, quality and environmental concerns are all pointing in the same direction for  wines that are sold for everyday consumption.  Hmmm.  Maybe the days of the wine cork really are numbered.  Great — my cork collection may finally be worth something!

Breaking In

I’ve written before about the British wine market, the most important marketplace in the world of wine.  Everyone wants a place on Britain’s Wine Wall, but breaking in isn’t easy to do, as a recent Decanter article and a conversation with one of my former students makes clear.

Decanter Discovers Washington Wine.

Many Washington winemakers are keen to try to get their feet in the door of European markets.  They figure that the time is right: the dollar is cheap and their wines are excellent. They cannot help but be pleased, therefore, with the July 2008 issue of Decanter magazine, which features an article about Washington wine by regional wine critic Paul Gregutt.  Three pages of text, maps, photos and wine reviews – it’s a nice package.  Several of the wineries mentioned even backed up the effort with two pages of advertising.  A really good display for Washington wines in the world’s most influential wine magazine.

But there’s a problem. British buyers know about these great wines now (more than ten wineries are mentioned including Columbia Crest, Seven Hills, L’Ecole 41 and Reininger), but only one (Columbia Crest) has current British distribution.  Want one of the other nine?  Call the winery in Washington State, the Decanter listing says. You’ve got to wonder how many buyers will do this and how many will just turn the page to the next New World wine – one that is actually available in Britain. You need publicity to get distribution, I know, but publicity without distribution doesn’t make the cash register ring.

On a different note, I have to wonder about the quoted price for the Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay.  Wine Spectator gives it 91 points and lists the price at $15.  The British price is apparently £19.53 or about two and a half times as much in dollar terms.!  It’s not going to be easy to break into European markets under these circumstances,

When Gallo Went to Europe

Gallo today is a classic American integrated wine multinational.  Although it is based in Modesto, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, and the bulk of its business is U.S. market, Gallo has complex international linkages.  Gallo sources wine from Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and sells wine in Europe, Japan, and Latin America.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Gallo’s was drawn into the global marketplace in the 1980s, attracted by the markets in Britain and Germany.

I asked my former student Steve Emery to tell me what happened when these American wines (and American wine ideas) invaded Europe.  Steve is CEO of Earth2O, an Oregon company that bottles and distributes water from pristine Opal Springs near scenic Bend, but in the late 1980s he was Director of Sales for Gallo’s program to establish its varietal wines in England, Ireland and Germany.  His experiences say a lot about the nature of global wine then and now and the problems of breaking into new markets.

Getting Gallo into Europe was difficult, Steve told me, although ultimately successful.  Even though Gallo is a huge presence at home, it was an unknown quantity abroad.  I remember seeing Gallo wines on the shelf of my local wine shop when I taught in England in 1989 and I was surprised at the price point.  Gallo wines seemed expensive to me, about the same price as the most popular French and Italian wines on the shelves.  I expected Gallo to be a cheaper brand like it was at home.  But the advantage of lower price wasn’t really possible in the British market, given such obvious barriers as transportation costs and not-so-obvious hurdles such as the British wine tariff.

Many countries tax wine imports, whether to collect revenue, protect domestic winemakers, or try to shift consumption to other commodities such as local beers and spirits.  Britain is not unusual in this regard.  What makes Britain different is that the tax is relatively high and levied on a per-bottle basis (and only on non-EU wines, of course).  Britain collects more than $2 on each bottle of imported. (£1.29 according to a recent Rabobank report).  The flat per-bottle tax has a way of shifting the demand for wine towards more expensive products.  A $2 tax on a $2 wine represents a 100 percent tax. For a $4 wine, a $2 tax increases the price to $6, a 50 percent rise.  For a $10 wine, the tax raises the price to $12, only a 20% increase.  So the tariff falls heaviest on lower price goods and shifts the market upscale towards better or at least more expensive bottles and wines produced in the EU, not the New World. The cost advantage that Gallo enjoyed  in the United States was partially offset by the British tariff regime.

But that wasn’t the main problem, Steve told me.  The British supermarkets were savvy retailers – some of the wine buyers were highly trained Masters of Wine – the highest designation in wine education.  But they were organized to purchase and market wines based on geographic region rather than brand or type of wine.  As Steve says, they didn’t think in terms of brands (apart from the obvious fact of their own store brands).  This is true even today.  If you go into a Marks and Spencer store in Britain, you will find a world of wine available, but the wine is mainly organized and labeled according its place of origin rather than a US-style brand.  The wine’s “pedigree” (Friuli D.O.C. Grave Merlot, for example, or Macon Rouge, appellation Macon Rouge contrôlée) is listed in big letters, but the maker’s name and the brand – custom bottled for Marks and Spencer – are tiny by comparison.  The wines that Gallo sent to Europe were California wines, a useful geographic designation, but Gallo was the brand that defined the wine, not California.

British wine marketing was also different in other ways.  Steve told me that the British weren’t applying the basic Wine 101 lessons he learned with Gallo in the U.S. – lessons about where to put the most profitable wine (right at eye level on the shelf), where to position your target products in a wine cooler (on the right, where most people will look and reach first) and the many strategies of point-of-sale merchandising. They also introduced print advertising to the wine market successfully.

Gallo had to adapt, Steve said, to be successful in the foreign environment, even replacing the practical screw caps on its least expensive wines with more traditional cork closures (creating a shortage of corks in the process).

The German Problem

Germany was even more difficult, Steve said.  That’s easy to understand given the focus on bargain basement wines.  It doesn’t seem like most German buyers are interested in paying for a brand.  Low price seems to be the main factor and cheaper wines were readily available, Steve said, from Germany, Italy and France.  The supermarket wine buyers didn’t want to talk to him, Steve said, so Gallo resorted to guerrilla  marketing.  They got into the stores through the meat department, using a technique called cross-merchandising.  They sold the wine as the perfect accompaniment to beef, chicken and fish rather than wine alone.  Every meat purchase was therefore a potential wine sale as well.  You are probably familiar with cross-merchandising yourself, even if you’ve never heard the work before.  It is the process that has placed small displays of wine all over your supermarket, so that you never miss an opportunity to pair up wine with whatever you actually came to buy.  The Germans seem to understand cross-marketing very well now.  I visited my local Trader Joe’s this morning and found wine everywhere. I think there was probably more wine spread throughout the store than in the wine section itself.

The wine business is very competitive and Gallo found that the “rules of the game” were much different in Europe.  Wine is regulated as an alcoholic beverage in the U.S., so every aspect of its sales is subject to federal or state regulation.  In Europe, however, Steve said, wine is just another product and the competition is much freer.  That’s why he was able to bargain with the meat department managers in Germany rather than go through the wine buyer department.

Gallo was very successful in Britain and in Europe and many other American wine companies have followed them, but that hasn’t eliminated the challenge of breaking into new markets.  I wish our Washington winemakers good luck in their well-timed assault on the Old World markets. It’s not going to be easy.