What’s Ahead for U.S. Wine? Searching for a Crystal Ball

We are starting to gear up for the State of the Industry session at the 2023 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and it looks like we will have a lot to talk about. The challenges the wine industry faces are significant and this year’s expert panel (Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Dr. Liz Thach MW, Jeff Bitter) is well-prepared to help us navigate the wine-dark seas.

Everyone wants to know what’s in the future — what will the U.S. wine market look like a a year? Five years? Ten years? Prediction is difficult for a variety of reasons, however, not least because the wine economy is embedded in the national and global economies, which are themselves full of uncertainty these days.

Looking for a Crystal Ball

Back in the days when I was writing university-level economics textbooks I told students looking for clues about the future to consult what are called leading economic indicators. The idea is that there are a lot of economic statistics available. Some tell you what has already happened (these are the lagging indicators), some give you an idea of what’s going on right now (coincident indicators), and a few offer a glimpse of possible future trends (leading indicators).

The number of new building permits and housing starts are leading indicators, for example. Once a permit is issued or construction begun, that sets in motion a chain reaction of economic activity that extends out into the future.

Durable goods orders are another leading indicator of economic activity in general, but they speak to attitudes and expectations. Durable goods, by definition, are long-lasting and need not be re-purchased every week or month. If consumers and business increase durable goods purchases, then it suggests that they are optimistic about the future and willing to make an investment now rather than wait for the future.

One economist, famous for his mastery of esoteric details, used to focus in particular on sales of new brooms on the theory that an old broom will always do if you are concerned about future finances. Buying a new broom is therefore a clear statement of economic optimism. That makes sense when you think about brooms as a gateway durable good.

It is maybe a little bit disturbing to learn that Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chair, once identified sales of men’s underwear as an important leading indicator. Really? Apparently, underwear sales are pretty steady, so any blip one way or another says something significant about consumer expectations. If you want to start an interesting conversation, try asking your male friends how long it has been since they re-stocked their underwear drawer. “Why are you asking?”  People are so suspicious!

Where is Wine Headed?

There are many other recognized leading indicators for the overall economy — the yield curve, for example — but there isn’t room here today to talk about them because I’m interested in the wine industry and I wonder what statistics might be particular useful in forecasting the future of wine sales?

One approach is to use the chain-reaction theory. Where does the decision to buy more or less wine begin? What early indicator can we monitor today that will reveal something about how much wine, what kind of wine, and at what price consumers will choose in the future? Corkscrews? Well, I suppose that’s a wine-specific durable good, but I don’t think tracking corkscrew or even wine glass sales is going to help much.

Recently I stumbled upon news that I think is relevant to the “wine leading indicator” search, even if the data is not exactly what I am looking for. The news? Costco has decided not to raise its membership fees this year. Here’s why I think the Costco news could be important.

The Costco Effect

Lots of people enjoy wine and it is sold in lots of ways and places. But, as we all know, the core wine market is surprisingly narrow. When you take away the U.S. consumers who don’t consume any alcohol (about 35% according to a Wine Market Council study a few years ago) and then those who use alcohol but not wine (21%), the residual is surprisingly narrow.

While 29% of consumers buy wine a few times and month or year, the industry actually relies on a relatively small number (15%) of high frequency wine drinkers who pull corks or unscrew caps pretty much every week. The demographics of this group — and especially the high-end buyer subset — is key to the future of American wine.

If you want to know what these consumers look like, I think a good place to start is by going to your closest Costco warehouse store. I am not saying that the Costco demographic matches up perfectly with wine demand or that purchases in other sales channels are unimportant. It is just that the relatively affluent user base at Costco, the people who are willing and able to pay the $60 to $120 annual membership fee here in the United States, are a group worth watching closely. They buy lots of stuff at Costco, including a surprisingly large amount of wine given the limited number of stores.

Now you might think that tracking Costco wine sales would be good economic indicator, but it doesn’t serve our purpose here because it would be a lagging or maybe coincident economic indicator and not the forward-looking insight needed. But there is one bit of Costco data that I think it useful — and it is flashing yellow (but not yet red) right now: the annual membership fee.

Hot Dogs and Rotisserie Chickens?

Most prices at Costco rise and fall with market forces (the costs of rotisserie chickens and the hot dog meal are notable exceptions having been fixed for years). The membership fee is a critical factor at Costco. The fees themselves account for a substantial amount of the company’s net profit and the renewal rate is high — over 90 percent. Costco typically adjusts its membership fee about once every five years, according to news reports, and the last time they did was in 2017. So no one would have been surprised if a rise was announced in 2022.

But this time around the Costco gurus looked hard at their customer base … and blinked. They decided to pass on a fee increase, which could mean a lot of things but might mean that they believe even their affluent member base is feeling the economic heat. And that’s not good news for wine, since these are the customers driving the U.S. market these days.

Is this the leading indicator for wine sales I was looking for? No, it isn’t, so I am still looking. Ideas? Please let me know. In the meantime, while as a Costco member I am glad that the annual fee is frozen this time around, it will be good news for the wine trade when Costco decides that their affluent, wine-drinking patrons are secure enough to tolerate a rise in rates.

Storm Clouds Ahead for Global Wine Trade

Storm clouds are on the horizon for the global wine trade and I am worried because I can’t really say how things are going to develop in the short and medium terms.

The problem is that the disruptions are both broad and deep. They are widespread throughout the commodity chain and impact both the supply- and demand-sides of the market. It’s a lot to take in. Herewith a brief sketch of the situation as I see it today.

Storms on the Supply Side

Some of the storms on the supply side are literally storms — wind, hail, freezing temperatures in the main winegrowing regions of Europe plus drought and wildfire smoke taint elsewhere, especially California.

The increasing extreme weather impacts are unlikely to diminish and inject elements of risk and uncertainty into the supply side of the market. Some of this risk is inherent to agriculture, of course, but it seems like the factors that punctuate equilibrium are both larger and more frequent. Increasingly hard to predict what’s coming over the horizon.

Storms on the Demand Side

From a global perspective, as I explain in my recent book Wine Wars II, a small number of countries and regions (France, Italy, Spain, California) shape supply conditions and an equally small number (USA, UK, Germany, China) are key forces on the demand side.

Each of these countries if facing its own economic crisis and taken together they suggest major impacts on both global wine imports and, according to a recent IMF report, the prospects for a global recession. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is predicting a US recession within six to nine months.

The storm clouds are somewhat different in each country but the fact that they have come together at the same time raises concerns. Inflation is both high and persistent in the US, for example, causing the Federal Reserve to double down on interest rate increases. The hope is a “soft landing” that would slow the economy enough to reduce wage growth without actually increasing joblessness and tipping the economy into recession.

This is a tough target, especially because monetary policies are subject to what are called “variable lags.” You roughly understand what will happen, but not when. Imagine driving a car with variable lags on the brakes, accelerator, and steering! In theory you might be fine but in practice you will probably end up in the ditch.

The recent declines in equity prices and widespread cooling of the housing market is another concern. A recent Rabobank report suggests that sales of super-premium wines, which seem to persist even when income takes a hit, are not immune to changes in net worth.

So it is entirely possible, following Dimon’s lead, that the US will spend 2023 with both falling income and rising prices. Some wine market niches might be little affected by this combination, but the broad market will certainly suffer.

German and UK Problems

Germany is known for its bulk wine imports, and these are likely to be squeezed by rising energy prices and falling output in its energy-dependent manufacturing sector.

What will German consumers choose: shivering in the cold while they drink their usual ration of wine? Or staying warmer but cutting back on price or quantity? I will leave the answer to you.

The UK market, which is in some ways the wine trade’s most important, will suffer higher energy bills this year and next, too. But its problems go deeper. Already more economically fragile than the other countries discussed here, it must now confront the fact that its new government seems to be both economically reckless and politically tone-deaf (an unusual combination — it is usually one or the other). So the Bank of England has had to raise interest rates even faster than expected and invoke emergency measures to prevent fire-sale losses among pension funds.

To invoke the car example once again, the UK’s drivers are stomping down on both the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time. Not a very safe situation according to most driving instructors. Jeremy Hunt, the newly appointed chancellor, signaled a big U-turn in economic policy yesterday, but much damage has already been done and fundamental problems remain. Watch for more shoes to drop.

Although there was some good wine business news in the original “mini-budget (scheduled duty increases had been postponed), the alcohol tax increases have been restored and the outlook for the wine trade is grim. Will UK consumers spend their inflation-reduced purchasing power on the higher mortgage bills that are coming soon due to rising interest rates … or will they buy wine? Once again, the answer’s up to you.

China’s Economic Bicycle

A few years ago we would have looked to China for a ray of sunlight in the global storm, both in terms of the wine trade and more generally. But not today. The Chinese economy is fragile right now, with many risks to consider, especially in the possibility that the property bubble might burst or deflate.

I have argued that the Bicycle Theory of Economic Growth applies to China. A bicycle is only really stable as long as it keeps moving forward. Once it stopes, staying upright is a real balancing act. I think China is much the same — it has to move ahead rapidly to keep its inherent contradictions from tipping it over. The property market crisis is a clear example of this. As growth has slowed, consumers are now refusing to pay their mortgage bills for housing still under construction.

Five years ago, China would have been the engine we counted upon to pull the global wine trade and, indeed, the global economy, out of its storm. Now its weakness on both fronts (covid lockdowns prevent a return to normal wine market conditions, for example) stand in the way of recover.

What Next?

What next? That’s the question on the cover of last week’s Economist newspaper. The Economist speculates that we are entering a new era of global economic policy. Hard to know where that path will lead.

What’s next for the global wine trade? The combination of demand- and supply-side storms I have outlined here make it hard to know. What next? Too soon to tell, I think. Stay tuned.

Wine and the No-Recession Recession

Are we headed for a recession here in the United States? Or are we already there? What about the future — the second half of 2022 and 2023?

If you follow economic news reports you have encountered all sorts of answers to these questions. And you can be forgiven for being a little confused and maybe quite a lot frustrated that the answers to these important questions are not clearer.  Herewith a brief guide for the perplexed with implications for the wine sector.

The Recession Question

The “rule-of-thumb” definition of a recession is when there are two consecutive quarters of falling gross domestic product (GDP). The U.S. economy is in a recession now by this definition because GDP fell in both the first and second quarters of 2022 (second quarter data subject to revision). By this measure, many of the world’s most important economies are either in recession, too, or teetering on the brink.

The two-quarter rule is very useful, but it is not the final world. The National Bureau on Economic Research (NBER) more formally defines a recession in a way that stresses depth, diffusion, and duration:  a recession is a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.

The NBER’s more nuanced definition is better than the two-quarter rule, but it has some downsides. How significant is significant, for example? And how widely spread need the decline be? There is also the problem, unavoidable with lagged economic indicators, that a recession can only be declared well after it has started and will probably be over before the conclusion is called.

So we might be in a recession now — one that started months ago in fact — or we might not. We will only know for sure later on — perhaps when the recession (if there is one) is already over. Argggh!

Up, Down, Twist

If you follow business and finance news you will find evidence to back up any hypothesis you may have about a recession. Prices in some sectors are rising quickly (have you bought a airline ticket recently?) and plunging steeply in other areas.

There are plenty of stories of firms with squeezed profits, declining sales, and employee lay-offs. But there are also stories about rising sales and profits and, of course, the labor market puzzle, where the number of unfilled positions is about twice the number of people who say they are looking for work (but apparently cannot find it).

Last week’s job report was unexpectedly strong — the unemployment rate is only 3.5% and total employment is back to the pre-pandemic level — suggesting that the U.S. is not currently in recession, despite what the GDP figures say. Ironically, some analysts speculate that this good jobs news actually increases the odds of bad news in the near future. The reasoning is that the Federal Reserve will be forced to raise interest rates even higher now in order to slow control demand-driven inflationary pressures.

What’s the story? Is the economy up or down? The correct answer (which applies to wine, too) is … yes. If you are looking for a generalized answer to the recession question you won’t find it. Maybe it is best to say that the economy is twisting. The devil is in the details here and the answer you get depends upon where you look and how.

The Price is Right?

There are several reasons for this complicated picture. One of them is that the economy — like the wine market — is never all one way or another. Like the climate, it is always running hotter in some areas and colder elsewhere.

But another, particular to this moment, is the fact of rapid inflation because an inflationary economy works by different rules. In an economic system with stable prices, consumers cut back purchases when employment falls or when there is fear of unemployment. In an inflationary economy, the pressure to cut back spending affects a much broader set of consumers who find their budget squeezed by rising prices of necessities. Higher energy and housing prices (although moderating somewhat in recent weeks) have put the squeeze on millions of households regardless of job market status.

And so that’s what we are seeing now. So maybe the recession question isn’t the right one to be asking.

The Squeeze: A Tale of Two Worlds?

The conventional wisdom is that wine is recession-proof. Maybe. But an inflationary squeeze and the twist it creates is different and I don’t see how wine sales can escape unscathed.

Under these circumstances it is more important than ever to know your customers and the product chain that connects them with your business. Based on recent quarterly reports, for example, it looks like selling wine into mass market Walmart World’s part of the retail spectrum, where both the retailer and its clients seem to be really feeling the squeeze — is much different from selling wine into high income Costco World, where the squeeze is still on but the impact seems more moderate. So far.

Wine & Stagflation: What Will Happen When Wine Prices Rise?

The conventional wisdom is that we are likely entering the first significant period of stagflation — inflation + stagnant economic growth — in several decades.  We have experienced recessions in the recent past, but not rising inflation, and not the two of them at once.

Inflation is in the headlines every day, but unemployment is very low — so why worry about slow growth or a recession? The answer is that while Federal Reserve policies will try to finesse the situation and bring inflation down to a “soft landing,” most observers think that a sharp contraction will be necessary to bring inflationary expectations down. Growth will fall while inflation still runs high, at least for a while.

So, these are uncharted waters for business and government leaders, especially since it comes on the heels of the covid crisis, which has shaken so many economic and social structures. It is, as I have argued here, uncharted territory for the wine business, too.

So far, as I suggest in last week’s Wine Economist newsletter, wine prices overall have not risen to the degree you might expect given the many cost pressures the industry confronts. Average wine prices seem to have actually fallen in real terms so far according to the data I have surveyed.

It may be premature to begin worrying about how wine consumers will react to higher prices in the stagflation context if and when they arrive.  Or — and this is my point — it might be strategic to consider possible scenarios in order to prepare for the eventuality. Because this is uncharted territory — and because, as Jon Fredrikson says, there are no one-liners in wine — it makes sense to consider the range of consumers responses rather than to look for a single silver bullet answer.

Herewith, therefore, a brief and incomplete list of possible consumer responses to rising wine prices in the context of stagflation.

Econ 101: substitution, income, and wealth effects. 

We begin with Econ 101 basics. An increase in the relative price of wine would create a substitution effect to some extent. It might be to substitute other beverage alcohol products for wine or — the trading down effect — to substitute less expensive types of wine for previous purchases.  How this plays out depends on a number of factors. Younger drinkers, for example, are known to be less loyal to wine and more prone to dividing their purchases among many beverage types, so the substitution effect may be stronger for them than for boomers, for example.

Of these three effects the substitution effect is the most interesting to me because we don’t have much recent experience of supply-driven price increases in wine (versus demand-driven “premiumization”.

The income effect, driven by both higher wine prices and higher prices in general, points towards lower consumption of wine overall. Wine is already more expensive than most beer and spirits on a per-serving basis, and so vulnerable to income-driven consumption adjustments.

There is also likely to be a wealth effect, with wine consumption falling as consumers (mainly but not exclusively boomers) re-assessing buying decisions in light of changing net worth. Rising interest rates implemented to fight the inflation tend to reduce the value of bond holdings directly and equity values indirectly through their impact of the present value of corporate cash flows. Substantial interest rate rises are likely to affect portfolio balances and 401k holdings. If you have been watching the way that equity markets have reacted to the Federal Reserve’s initial 1/2 percent interest rate increase you know what I am talking about.

Stalking the Illusive Wine Bargain

In a perfectly competitive market the “Law of One Price” rules, but the wine market has many quirks and peculiarities, so similar products can sell for very different prices. Rising wine prices are likely to push price-sensitive buyers to even more aggressive bargain hunting efforts. Expect your local Grocery Outlet store to do even more wine business.

But bargain hunting doesn’t necessarily mean searching for rock bottom prices. We recently received samples of two wines that represent good value in their respective categories. The pitch that came with the wines was that these are inflation-fighters. The first wine was Villa Maria Marlborough Pinot Noir Private Bin, which retails for about $19.00. It is an excellent wine that sells for less that many comparable products from, say, Oregon or France.

The second wine was Le Volte dell’Ornellaia, a “Super-Tuscan” from the Bolgheri region that, at around $29, represents a way for many consumers to raise a glass in high style without breaking the bank. How do you find inflation-fighter wines like these? Start by asking whoever sells you wine to solve a puzzle — I’d like a wine like this, but I want to pay something more like that. A good wine seller will appreciate the challenge.

Risk Management

Buying wine is not easy because it is what economists call an “experience good.” You won’t really know if you will like a particular bottle of wine until you buy it and pour yourself a glass.  Reviews and so forth help, of course, but the taste of wine is ultimately very subjective and the risk of disappointment almost inevitable.

As inflation pushes wine prices higher, the disappointment risk becomes more of an issue. One strategy that consumers are likely to adopt in this circumstance is to concentrate their purchases on a few tried-and-true brands or grape varieties that they trust to consistently please. Trying new wines from different regions and brands made from different grape varieties is great fun, but the high reward when you find an exceptionally pleasing wine comes with high risk of disappointment.

So don’t be surprised if consumers — and the stores and shops who sell them wine — react to wine inflation by doubling down on tried-and-true wines. This reinforces a trend that emerged during the pandemic wine surge.

But don’t forget that all this is predicated on wine prices finally rising as fast or faster than the general inflation rates. This hasn’t happened yet … and it might not happen at all. Stay tuned.

Wine and Inflation: Will the Rising Tide Lift Wine’s Boat?

The U.S. is experiencing the highest inflation rates since the 1980s and cost-of-living increases are on everyone’s mind here and around the world. The Federal Reserve has signaled that it will speed up monetary tightening to try to reverse rising inflationary expectations — too little and too late, according to   the Economist newspaper (The Federal Reserve Has Made a Historic Mistake on Inflation).

I am very concerned about how higher inflation will impact the wine industry, especially when combined with a stagnant overall economy (GDP actually fell in the US in Q1/2022).

The Big Squeeze

Costs are increasing, some dramatically, throughout the wine and grape commodity chains and rising interest rate expenses will add to cost woes. The list of cost factors is long and includes energy, fertilizer, transportation, glass and other inputs, and especially labor, which remains in short supply.

Will growers and wineries be able to hold on to their margins by passing higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? A lot of people I talk to think so. Surveys suggest that many wineries plan to raise prices in 2022 and there is an attitude that consumers might not push back too much, given that the price of everything else is rising, too.

So I am a little bit surprised that some of the data suggests that wine prices have not risen along with the prices of other goods — at least not yet.  Wine Business Monthly, for example, cites NielsenIQ data on average bottle prices. The May 2022 issue reported an average price of $8.52 for the most recent 4 week survey period, up from $8.18 reported in the May 2021 issue — an increase of 4.1  percent. Average domestic bottle price rose  from $8.12 to $8.46 and average import bottle prices rose from $8.35 to $8.69.

The Booze Bust

Prices are rising, according to these figures, but at about half the current rate of overall inflation. NielsenIQ doesn’t measure all sales channels, of course, and there is a lag in the data, so maybe prices are really rising faster than these numbers suggest and wine industry margins will hold.

But the IRI data shown above, taken from a recent Rabobank report about inflation and the beer market suggest that wine in particular and beverage alcohol in general is struggling to increase prices in line with rising costs. Take a close look at the top half of this table, which shows that some non-alcohol beverage categories have been able to boost price much faster than the roughly 8% general inflation rate for the U.S. economy — topped by sports drinks with an incredible 17%+ annual rate price increase. Wow!

Beer, wine, and spirits have all increased average prices, but much less than, say, coffee, and substantially below the overall inflation rates. In other words, the real price of wine, on average, has actually fallen in the last year and the relative price of wine with respect to some other beverage categories has fallen, too. Averages hide a lot, of course, and some strong brands have successfully pushed prices higher while others have not. But beverage alcohol generally, according to the Rabobank figures, has fallen behind in terms of price.

Why haven’t wine prices increases faster.? Here are a few of the many possible explanations.

  1. Radar’s Rule. Wine prices will increase — “wait for it,” as Radar used to say on M.A.S.H. — it just takes time for price changes to work their way through the system.  It is hard to refute this because it is impossible to know the future. Maybe there is something about wine’s annual production cycle that causes price changes to come more slowly. But then why do beer and spirits, which are in continuous production, also lag behind the inflation rankings?
  2. The Wall. Consumer pushback is too strong in the wine category for large price increases to take hold. Yes, I agree that wine buyers are very price sensitive, but prices do rise when they are driven by short supply. And of course there is the whole premiumization phenomenon, where consumers pay more for what they see as better products while resisting price rises on products they already buy.
  3. The Hidden Price Increase Trick. Candy bar makers sometimes try to disguise price increases by simply shrinking the size of the product. Wine makers can do something a bit like that by shifting grape sources from coastal to inland vineyards and in some cases by blending in wines from earlier vintages. Consumers may not notice (just as they might not immediately realize their candy snack has shrunk a little).  Wineries can also increase their average revenue by reducing production of lower-tier wines, shifting the grapes up the ladder.
  4. Three-tier Blues. It’s the three-tier system, where producers sell to distributors who sell to retailers who sell to consumers. On one hand this system means that there are three margins at stake and to each tier has an interest in raising the price at which it sells wine. But each tier also has an incentive to resist increases in its cost of goods. So distributors push back on producers who want to raise price, retailers push back on distributors, and consumers push back on retailers.  The three-tier effect may explain why the lowest average price increases in the Rabobank table above are for beer, wine, and spirits.

More Questions Than Answers

There are other theories and explanations about inflation and the wine category, but perhaps the most important thing to say is that, with the most recently experience of significant U.S. inflation so far back int he rearview mirror, we are left with more questions than answers.

All the basics — the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the wine market have changed very dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s.

Will wine prices rise in line with inflation? If so, when? And how will consumers react? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Thanks to Steve Fredricks at Turrentine Brokerage for stimulating my thinking on this topic.

Here Be Dragons: Wine and the Economy Enter Uncharted Waters

The International Monetary Fund is expected to announce today revised global economic forecasts –– slower growth, higher inflation, and increased uncertainty due to war in Ukraine plus (although I don’t know if it will feature in the IMF report) massive  covid lockdowns in China. Here be Dragons, indeed!

As much as we all would like to think that economic conditions and the global wine market will soon return to what we used to call “normal,” I think it is important to realize that we have actually entered what are in some ways uncharted waters. Old maps and rules of thumb do not necessarily apply and the ability to pivot quickly as conditions change is even more important than in the past.

Flashback to the 1980s

Sometimes I get to thinking that I’ve passed this point in life one time before. (That’s actually a line from a John Hartford song.) Way back in 1981 I wrote a college economics textbook because I couldn’t find a text that could help my university students understand what was happening to the economy.

The uncharted territory back them was stagflation — high inflation and high unemployment at the same time. The standard textbook analysis used Keynesian analysis to understand unemployment and the Phillips Curve to plot the trade-off between unemployment and inflation. Higher unemployment meant lower inflation. But we had both high inflation and high unemployment — how did that happen? And what could be done about it?

The problem (in very simple terms) was that inflation was caused by cost-push not demand-pull factors and had unleashed sustained self-fulfilling inflationary expectations.  The Volker solution was highly restrictive monetary policy that pushed unemployment even higher until the expectations broke. Harsh medicine for a vicious disease.

Zoom Ahead to 2022

Zoom ahead to 2002. After years of relatively stable or even falling price levels, inflation is here again at rates that haven’t been seen in the U.S. since the 1980s. The problem this time is a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors. Higher energy, food, and transportation costs plus persistent shortages of key commodities push prices higher while the huge fiscal and monetary stimuli of the pandemic and post-financial crisis era have pulled inflation higher, too.

This is not a repeat of the 1980s, by any means, but also not like anything we’ve seen at this level in a very long time. I can’t remember seeing such a combination of broad forces aligned to boost demand and constrain supply.

The war in Ukraine adds to the inflationary pressure, especially with respect to energy and food prices, and it is hard to see these forces disappearing any time soon. Even if a truce were declared today, the energy and food price effects would continue for some time. The Chinese covid lockdowns are squeezing production of many manufactured goods at the same time.

Disruptions in global trade and finance are another factor to take into account. For a long time the “China Price Syndrome” kept a lid on prices of manufactured goods. If a company was tempted to raise price, the ready availability of cheaper alternatives from Asia and especially China acted as a constraint. The “China Price” served as a price anchor then, but much less so now because of unraveling trade relations.

Getting from QE to QT

Taken together this is a situation we haven’t really seen before, but the thing that really makes people like me nervous is monetary policy, The Federal Reserve will be responsible for squeezing inflation out of the economic system (just as it was in the 1980s), but financial conditions are different now. We have had very low interest rates for a long time now and wave after wave of quantitative easing (QE — Fed purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities that pump liquidity into the markets). The markets have kind of become addicted to the constant monetary boost.

Raising interests from this very low level can be expected to disrupt financial markets if only because of the mathematical impact on present value calculations. Exchange rates will shift, too, with disproportionate impact of development market currencies.

But the real “uncharted waters” factor is the transition from QE to QT, quantitative tightening. This will initially take place as the Fed’s bond holdings mature and are not rolled over, which takes liquidity out of the market. It will start slow (which still means billions of dollars a month) and could pick up speed if necessary.

The question is how financial markets will deal with this change after having a liquidity drip line month after month for this long? There is nervous talk of another sharp liquidity crisis, but maybe bigger than the last one, which the Fed addressed quickly and well. If key credit markets freeze up and contagion takes place, the Fed will have little choice but to reverse course, opening the door to even higher inflation.

The alternative is a very hard landing as the impact of the financial crisis spreads through the economy. How hard a hard landing? It depends on what it would take to shift inflationary expectations. So you can see the concern — we may be perched on a narrow ledge with higher inflation on one side and financial crisis on the other.

What About Wine?

The wine economy operates by its own rules, but it can’t fully escape the forces shaping the economy in general. To repurpose something that is said about the pandemic economic, we aren’t all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.

Wine has also experienced a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors, but not uniformly for various categories. Demand-pull, for example, seems focused on more expensive wines. Cost-push is everywhere, however, which means that the crunch is felt particularly in the middle- and lower-price tiers.

Honestly, I cannot remember a time when cost pressures have been so broad and deep. To what extent will price-sensitive consumers push back on price increases? Or will the consumer inflation expectations in general soften attitudes towards rising wine prices? Given that these are uncharted waters, the map holds more questions than answers.

Lessons from Catena & the Argentina Wine Miracle

The press release begins this way:

MENDOZA, Argentina – February 8, 2022 – Dr. Nicolás Catena Zapata of Catena Zapata winery received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 22nd Annual Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards held last night at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami. This prestigious industry event recognizes individuals and companies for their exceptional contributions to the success of the wine and beverage alcohol industry.

Dr. Catena’s life in wine is indeed worth celebrating. He was a leading protagonist in what I call the Argentina wine miracle. An economist by training, Dr. Catena was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s when he was inspired by what he saw happening in California. These were the exciting days that followed the 1976 Judgement of Paris, so there was energy and confidence in the air.

California Lessons in Argentina

Catena took this vision back to Argentina, where he exchanged academic tweeds for vineyard and winery clothes. The family firm, Bodega Catena Zapata, and Argentina’s wine industry in general, faced a dire crisis.

Sue and I visited the Catena Zapa “Pyramid” winery a few years ago and, because I am an economist like Dr. Catena, we were ushered into his personal library. I recognized many of the books because they were the same ones that I was studying in the 1970s and 1980s, when stagflation was a global problem, and the debt crisis was on everyone’s minds.

These were more than academic issues for the wine business in Argentina at the time. Having evolved in the “old world” style to make inexpensive commodity wine for the domestic market, Argentina wineries were caught in a squeeze when inflation pumped up costs at the same time that domestic recession caused demand to slump. Could the surplus wine be diverted to export? Not likely, because the quality of much of the wine was below international standards. Argentina’s economic crisis was a wine crisis, too.

That Argentina wine found the energy and confidence to turn the corner, to make wines of constantly rising quality in the face of daunting headwinds, is noteworthy indeed and Dr. Catena more than deserves his lifetime achievement award for his role in making Argentina a world-class wine producing nation. A miracle? I don’t think it is wrong to apply this term to Argentina’s dramatic transformation.

I think it is important to keep these past achievements in our minds today because the challenges that wine faces, while different from the past, are not so different that important lessons cannot be gleaned. History may not repeat itself but sometimes, as Mark Twain observed, it rhymes.

Dividends from the Argentina Wine Miracle

Argentina is experiencing economic crisis again today, overwhelmed by external debt and internal inflation. Perhaps the single best indicator of the depth of the crisis is this graph of the Argentina peso against the US dollar for the decade 2011 to 2021. Fewer than 5 pesos were needed to purchase a dollar in 2011. The rate was about 15 pesos per dollar when we visited five years later in 2016 — that’s a very substantial decrease in the currency’s value in such a short period of time.

But the exchange rate today is much worse — it takes more than 100 pesos to buy a dollar now. And that’s the official exchange rate. I’m guessing that the peso is much cheaper on the unofficial market. This is what an (official) inflation rate of over 50% a year (even higher than inflation in Turkey!) will do.

Although Argentina’s economy is bouncing back from its covid-induced decline, domestic economic conditions are very challenging — not as bad as in the 1980s perhaps, but difficult indeed.  The uncertainty about what policies will be result from continuing debt negotiations with the IMF cloud the horizon. Argentina wine is not immune to these problems, but it is much better positioned today to ride out the storm. Exports were up in 2021. The miracle continues to pay dividends.

Lessons for the U.S. and Beyond

But the lessons don’t end there. I think it is important for wine business leaders in the United States and elsewhere to study Argentina’s wine history and remember that sometimes it is necessary to radically re-think arrangements to adapt to changing circumstances. “They say that time changes things,” according to one of my favorite maxims, “but sometimes you have to change them yourself.”

In the US, for example, inflation has returned as an economic concern and, for the wine industry, the fact of stagnant demand cannot be ignored. There is no debt crisis at present, but with gross debt levels at record highs and rising interest rates on the horizon, it is foolish to think that cracks in debt markets will not eventually appear. Small increases in interest rates can translate into trillions of dollars of additional interest obligation very quickly with so much public and private debt in play at high levels of risk.

Foreign debt is especially vulnerable because so much of it is denominated in dollars and the dollar is likely to appreciate as U.S. interest rates rise. That’s double jeopardy.

For the wine industry, stagnant demand is a problem that is on the minds of many, just as it was in Argentina four decades ago. The Argentina miracle was to shift from low- to high-quality to escape a race-to-the-bottom scenario. For the U.S., the challenge may well be to produce good quality but more affordable wines to appeal to potential consumers who are put off by wine’s relatively high price compared with other beverages.

I note without comment that Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague’s recent column on good $10 wines did not include any U.S. product recommendation. “Sadly,” Teague writes, “I couldn’t find any wines made in the U.S. that fit all my criteria.” That’s pretty much the flip side of Argentina back in the day.

I believe in miracles and in wine’s ability to transform itself without losing its soul. And so I offer a toast to Dr. Nicolás Catena Zapata, the economics professor who became a transformational winemaker and whose miracle offers lessons that are relevant today.

What’s Ahead for the Wine Business? Wine Industry Leadership Conference Next Week

The Wine Industry Leadership Conference, a free group of webinars produced by the Wine Industry Network, is set for next Wednesday (February 9, 2022) at 9 am Pacific time.  Follow this link for more information and to register.

The program is divided into three parts that are relevant to just about everyone in the wine industry.

Session 1: Economic Forecast – What to Expect in 2022 will fill the hour between 9 and 10 with critical analysis of U.S. economic conditions from Sonoma State University Professor Robert Eyler follow by my analysis of some of the implications for the wine industry. I am calling my presentation “Wine and the Big Squeeze,” which may give you some idea of what I see ahead.

The ten o-clock hour is devoted to Session 2: Talent Retention – Keeping A Strong Team Intact featuring commentary by Sandra Hess, Founder / DTC Wine Workshops; Joel A. Miller, Owner & Principal / Chateau HR Consulting; and Karen Alary, Managing Partner / The Personnel Perspective.

Session 3: Successfully Transitioning Your Winery to New Leadership follows from 11 to 12 am and features Greg Brewer, Founder & Winemaker / Brewer-Clifton; Peter Mondavi Jr, Co-Proprietor / Charles Krug Winer; and Mario Zepponi, Principal / Zepponi & Company.

Moderators for the three sessions are George Christie, President & CEO / Wine Industry Network; Stacy Briscoe, Managing Editor / Wine Industry Network; and Kim Badenfort, Director of Marketing Services / Wine Industry Network.

The presentations are being pre-recorded so that the speakers can respond to questions and comments in real time during each session, which promises to make this a more interactive experience than the typical Zoom webinar.

I appreciate the Wine Industry Leadership Conference’s focus on practical business issues facing the industry today and the impressive lineup of speakers. Hope to see you there.

Frogs, Tides, and Wine: the Adventure Capitalism Boom

How is the changing investment landscape affecting the wine industry? Some thoughts on adventure capitalism and wine (and frogs and tides at the very end).

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The cover story on the November 27 issue of the Economist newspaper was “Adventure capitalism: startup finance goes global.” It wasn’t, as this illustration might suggest, a story about Bezos and Branson and how their billions were powering rocket adventure tourism in near space. That’s interesting, but it’s another story.

VC become Ad-Venture Capital

The article traces how venture capital (VC) has gone from a niche investment space to something that seems to be much broader and more pervasive. VC is usually thought of as early-stage private investment in privately-held tech and science firms. The old world of VC was mainly focused on the US and just a few sectors — think Silicon Valley start-ups. The idea was to invest early on in what in the best-case scenario might turn out to be a unicorn firm — one that would achieve a billion-dollar valuation while still in private hands and then go public in a big way. Ka-Ching!

High risk is one reason the Economist calls this Adventure (rather than Venture) capitalism.  VC is inherently risky. The investments are by their nature illiquid and you need to hit the target with some very successful investments to offset the inevitable disappointments. I suppose it is a little bit like the old joke about the wine business — the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one. But of course some investors do very well indeed.

The Economist argues that VC is changing — being disrupted just as it has disrupted in the past. The VC world has broadened beyond the narrow set of sectors of the past and beyond the US. It has also changed as huge amounts of money have poured into VC firms. The fact that there are more investors taking risks doesn’t make the system less risky.

The Problem of Return-Free Risk

There are a number of factors powering the rise of adventure capitalism, but perhaps the most important is the scarcity of positive real returns in some traditional sectors and the consequent logic of assuming higher risk to achieve higher return. Necessity as much as entrepreneurship drives the trend.

It used to be said that US Treasury bonds were “risk-free return,” for example, and so good foundational investments for a variety of individuals and institutions. Now, an investment advisor I know says, Treasuries are “return-free risk.” The interest return is negative in real terms (below the prevailing rate of inflation) and prices are volatile. This fact forces investors to explore all the nooks and crannies of the financial world to meet their needs.

The VC boom isn’t the only example of their trend. You might not have heard of SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) before this year, but they are now a big enough market niche to be going through their own boom-bust cycles. Some call them “blank check funds,” which suggests something about the times when high net-worth investors decide it is a good idea to hand a financial advisor (sometimes paired with a sports star or celebrity of some sort) a blank check to buy a private company.

There are also NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that sometimes trade for high amounts. I suppose there could be a SPAC that invests in funds that acquire NFTs — what could be better? And I understand there are active markets in virtual assets on metaverse platforms.

This Changes Everything?

If you want to consider how far investors will go to get a return, consider that huge amounts that some recording artists have received for their back catalogues of songs. A steady flow of fees from music streaming services apparently looks really good when the alternative is something like return-free risk.

The list of investors who are plunging into the world of adventure capitalism investing is amazing, including billionaires and speculators, of course, but also what we might usually think of as very conservative institutions such as university endowment funds and public sector pension funds. (I recently reviewed the endowment report of a major mid-west university that had 22% of its assets invested in private equity and venture capital.)

These institutional investors, who once focused on blue-chip investments, now find themselves pulled into higher risk illiquid investments by the gravity created by their need to achieve certain rate of return targets. Most institutions that I monitor aim to increase their private equity and VC profile in the future.

One important question is this: what happens to all of these investments when the economic environment changes, as it looks like it is doing now, with higher inflation pushing interest returns up and the big quantitative easing flows tapering off at least here in the United States?

Wine Investment Booms

So how is this a wine story? The Economist is right that investments in risky and illiquid assets is no longer limited to traditional venture capital firms and Silicon Valley sectors. It is hard to follow the wine business in 2021 without noting all of the investment activity. Acquisitions (Sycamore’s purchase of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, for example), SPACs, and big moves by some institutional investors, too. Lots of money searching for returns in winery and vineyard investments.

Everyone seems to want to get on the NFT bandwagon, for example. Even Penfolds, the iconic Australian brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates is piling in. According to one report,

Australia’s most celebrated wine-maker is going digital with the announcement that Penfolds is teaming up with non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace BlockBar for an innovative new project. The partnership will see a limited edition NFT tied to the impossibly rare Penfolds Magill Cellar 3 barrel made from vintage 2021. According to the iconic Australian brand, only 300 will be made available, for the cool sum of USD$130,000 (AUD$180,00).

And Penfolds isn’t the only producer to exploit interest in NFTs. Barossa winemaker Dave Powell is offering the entire 2021 vintage of his wine through sale of NFTs. Is the wine’s value greater when linked to a NFT? Many apparently think so in the same way that some firms are trying to raise their profile by linking to blockchain (Square, the payments company, is now Block).

Better than Birkin?

Fine wine has done very well as an “alternative” investment in this environment and I have received several emails promoting funds to invest in fine wine assets. According to a recent article in Forbes, fine wines topped the list of alternative investments over the last decade, a list that includes blue chip art and furniture, classic autos, and colored diamonds. Wine’s rise to the top of the pile was noteworthy because it has now outperformed the previous leader … handbags! Gosh those Hermès Birkin bags did really well — I assume you have a bunch of them in your retirement portfolio, yes? Nah — me neither.

I think it is clear that wine is part of the adventure capitalism story — how could it escape such a broad, powerful trend? So the questions I asked above apply to wine, too. What happens when the economic environment changes, as it seems to be doing now? Which of these investment strategies will endure and which will fade away?

Frogs and Tides

Many, including the Economist, seem to be enthusiastic about the adventure capitalism trend and all that goes with it, but it makes me nervous. It seems to me that this is a process that normalizes risk without actually reducing it. Having taught university classes on financial crises and written a couple of books on this topic, I take risk very seriously (and I don’t think I am alone).

The current investment environment in wine and more generally reminds me of the parable of the frog in the pot on the stove. The water heats up slowly, so you kind of get used to it. Once you realize that things have started to boil up it is too late.

I will therefore be watching closely as the monetary life-support system tapers off and interest rates rise. As Warren Buffet is supposed to have said, you never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out!

Gearing Up for the 2022 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is North America’s largest wine industry gathering — a vast trade show and ambitious collection of seminars and presentations with something new and useful for every wine professional.

The 2020 Unified was the last in-person wine conference that Sue and I attended before the pandemic closures and protocols hit. So we are looking forward with more than the usual amount of excitement to the 2022 Unified, which is scheduled for January 25-27 in Sacramento.

Trade Show by the Numbers

Last year’s Unified was a virtual event and a very good one, but wine is a people business and nothing can fully replace the in-person experience. The two-day trade show will take place in the newly renovated SAFE Credit Union Convention Center on January 26 and 27. Covid protocols will be followed, of course.

You will find 760 booths and 40 large vineyard and winery machinery areas filled with just about everything anyone might need to grow grapes and make and sell wine. If you want to know what’s new, this is the place to find out.

If you haven’t been to the Unified before, you might enjoy reading New York Times wine expert Eric Asimov’s report on his visit to the trade show in 2017. It is interesting to see the event through Asimov’s critical eyes.

Problems and Opportunities

The 2022 conference program features an expanded three full days of meetings January 25-27. The typically ambitious agenda is organized around wine industry problems and opportunities as the Daily Schedule makes clear. There is a strong emphasis on positive take-aways — practical approaches to dealing with wine industry issues and information to help us all make sense of our changing world.

The wine world has changed dramatically in just a short period of time and the themes of this year’s program take this into account, with sessions on environmental shifts, smoke taint problems, new marketing directions, and attracting and retaining essential talent. Two sessions are in Spanish.

State of the Wine Industry

Once again this year I will be fronting the Wednesday morning “State of the Industry” session. I’ll set the stage by analyzing the changing wine market from a global perspective then the all-star line-up takes over: Danny Brager (changing consumer trends), Steve Fredricks (the supply side of the wine market), Mario Zepponi (investment trends, M&A activity), and Jeff Bitter (grower trends and issues).

Danny Brager returns to the podium at the session’s end to recognize wineries that were particularly successful navigating the wine dark seas in 2021. Lots of information and analysis packed into a 2-1/2 hour session.

I don’t have to tell you that 2021 has not been the easiest year for those of us in the wine industry, so look forward to honest, straightforward analysis with a focus on practical strategies as we move ahead into the uncertain future.

The Unified is back. See you there!