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!

Bicycles, Locomotives, and Wine Market Growth

Growth is the big question mark for the global economy and for the US wine market. The International Monetary Fund released their report on global growth last week, for example, and it was one of those situations where  you wonder if your glass is half empty or half full.

The forecast for global growth was in the range of earlier estimates — about 6% economic growth for 2021 — but this solid expected performance was a combination of higher growth for the U.S. (7% growth) and some other developed countries with downgraded growth forecasts for less developed countries (LDCs), many of which continue to struggle with the covid pandemic.

The Global South is experiencing unexpected headwinds. Although many LDCs are projected to grow faster than the richer countries, as the table at the bottom of this column shows, the LDC growth rates shown here are lower than previous projections.

A two-speed global economy, where rich regions accelerate and poorer countries slow down, inevitably exposes fault lines that no one wants to see break open.

Planet Wine Concerns

Here on Planet Wine we are concerned about growth, too. 2020 was a good, bad, and ugly year for wine. Some brands did very well pivoting to new sales channels, others struggled to hold their own, and some really suffered. Many analysts believed that as the economy opened up from pandemic restrictions in 2021 we’d see a surge of wine spending, a rising tide of wine sales to raise all boats and solve a lot of problems.

That does not seem to have happened yet and so there is much concern. Why hasn’t broad wine market growth returned along with rising economic activity in general? Has the wine market changed in some fundamental way while we were pre-occupied with other things? Did the pandemic accelerate a market decline that was already under way?

The Bicycle Theory of Growth

As a recovering economics professor, I can’t think about questions of growth without picturing bicycles and locomotives because, unlikely as it may seem, these are useful ideas when analyzing growth.

The Bicycle Theory of Growth was originally invented to describe the dynamics of the European Union. The idea was that the EU is like a bicycle. It is safe and stable so long as it keeps moving ahead. But, like a bicycle, it becomes unstable once it stops and can easily tip over. The Bicycle Theory has many applications — I think the situation in China is a good example. Every important institution contains a variety of tensions and conflict, and pushing ahead — growth — is a way to deal with them. Once growth comes to a halt, inherent  instability takes over.

The wine market is much the same. The wine business has many structural problems, but strong growth can patch up some of the weaknesses. Every week my email inbox is filled with press releases that stress growth. New AVAs. new wine brands, new wine products. Everyone is trying to grow their patch of the wine business and that can work OK if the whole market is growing, too.  But that growth was already slowing down before the pandemic and now things look even worse.

Houston, do we have a bicycle problem?

The Locomotive Theory of Growth

How do you keep your bicycle moving ahead? In global economics we also talk about the Locomotive Theory of Growth. All the countries are like freight cars. They may have different ultimate destinations, but right now they are linked together in a train and heading in the same direction. It would be great if several  cars helped push the train forward — and sometimes that actually happens — but all that’s really necessary is that one or two big countries or regions have enough growth to pull the rest along. Like a locomotive, get it?

The U.S. is the global locomotive in 2021 according to the IMF analysis, with fast growth powered by huge fiscal deficits and $120 billion per month of Federal Reserve quantitative easing asset purchases.  Even with these massive injections, however, the U.S. economy only recovered to its pre-pandemic level in the 2nd quarter of 2021, so there were about 15 months of lost potential growth — a bit less aggregate impact than earlier forecasts projected, but still a substantial hit.

The global economy overall has also recovered to 2019 output levels, but this is mainly because of growth in the US and China. You might think that China’s amazingly quick recovery would pull the world ahead, but the Chinese economy has taken an inward turn that limits its international impact.

So all eyes are on whether the U.S. economy can keep up the head of steam it has developed and sustain it through the end of some of the stimulus payments and the Federal Reserve’s quickly-approaching asset-purchase “tapering.”  It’s a big deal because if the U.S. locomotive slows, what country or region take its place? There is also the problem of how tightly the train is liked together, which why the IMF is so concerned about the two speed growth finding.

How does the Locomotive Theory apply to wine? Well, maybe it doesn’t! But even before the pandemic the US was losing steam as the global wine market locomotive. Many hoped that Chinese wine buyers would pick up the growing slack, but the most recent OIV statistics suggest that hasn’t happened.

Why has US wine consumption lost momentum? Maybe the US problem is this: not so long ago the wine market was dominated large mid-market segments that sort of pulled the whole industry along with them. I don’t want to push this too far, but it was sometimes almost possible to talk about the wine market as a whole and it would mean something because the segments were linked together to a certain extent.

Now — and I do think the pandemic has magnified this — the market segments are not so well connected. The locomotive in 2020 was wine in the segments that NielsenIQ calls Luxury and Super Luxury. It is hard to see how  this strong growth helped pull the rest of the market along.

So I have the same concerns about the wine economy that the IMF seems to have about the global economy. Can the locomotive effect endure? And what happens if the train it is pulling falls apart?

 

Here is a summary table from the IMF report with the most recent growth projections updates. See the full report for details.

The New Wine Wars

We are celebrating  the tenth anniversary of the publication on my book Wine Wars here at Wine Economist world headquarters and I want to use this opportunity to reflect on how the wine world has changed since 2011. As I explained in last week’s column, Wine Wars is organized around a trio of strong forces that together (along with other factors, of course) shape the wine sector and many other industries, t00.  In very simple terms …

Globalization drives change. Commodification is a commercial response to these disruptive forces. Together globalization and commodification provoke grass-roots reactions that I call “the revenge of the terroirists.”  I think the framework still applies. But things have indeed changed. Here are some notes.

Wine and Globalization

Globalization continues to be a driving force in the world wine sector. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that more different wines from more different places are now available to more different consumers than at any point in history. World wine is truly an embarrassment of riches! Wherever we have travelled in the world of wine we’ve met producers anxiously seeking new opportunities.

But while the globalization pulse remains strong, there have been important qualitative and quantitative shifts. The first is that the fundamental nature of the market has changed from positive-sum to something much closer to zero-sum. As I was writing Wine Wars the world wine market had just come to the end of an era of expanding global wine consumption. I am not sure any of us where really aware of this sea change at the time. It was easy to blame the down-tick in consumption on the global financial crisis. But the recovery up-tick didn’t follow.

As this OIV graph shows, in place of rising year-on-year global wine consumption, we  entered what I have called global wine’s lost decade. (The most recent OIV data, which will be released later today, show dramatic further consumption decline in 2019 and 2020.) Global wine consumption reached a high plateau and flat-lined. Demand bumped up and down a bit from year to year, but that rising trend line that was so powerful before had vanished.

This doesn’t mean that wine demand was flat everywhere, of course. Among the major markets, structural demand declines in the old world — Spain, France, and Italy — was offset by rising demand in some new world markets, especially China (from a low base) and the United States (slow growth, but still growth).  I profiled what were then the three most important wine markets in Wine Wars: the UK, Germany, and the United States. Today you would need to add China to that list. In Wine Wars I speculated about what the rise of China might mean and some readers wondered why I even asked the question. There are still plenty of questions about China and wine, especially since recently sharp declines in both production and consumption in China ,but no one seriously doubts its importance any more.

Caught in the Crossfire

Global wine has changed in another important respect. Globalization in pre-Wine Wars was all about expanding international trade. Free trade agreements were the order of the day and the more of them that a country could negotiate the better. Chile was a big winner in this competition and its wine industry benefited enormously from easy access to the most important markets.

Now wine is caught in the crossfire of tariffs and trade barriers. The U.S. has imposed tariffs on some European wines, for example, and China has raised  trade restrictions on wine from both the U.S. and Australia. U.S. wine sales in China were relatively small, so the economic loss was limited, but China was Australia’s #1 export market and the pain is hard to over-state. In the meantime, the British withdrawal from the European Union — a.k.a. “Brexit is Brexit” — has thrown sand in the wheels of what was once a very efficient set of trading arrangements.

What is interesting about the new political economy of wine tariffs and trade is that it isn’t really about wine at all. Wine is simply caught in the cross-fire in other disputes. Why pick on poor innocent wine? Probably because wine has a clear identity and national association. Sanctions on wine from a particular place send a clear message. And of course with so many wines available from other places, the harm to consumers who are willing to accept substitute products is pretty limited.

Globalization is built on many complex structures including especially global communications networks, so it is easy to forget about supply chains and logistics until they break down — and that’s the most recent challenge that wine and other global goods confront. Global supply chains have recently shown themselves to be less reliable and most costly than many supposed when plans were made just a few years ago. The benefits of global reach must always be weighed against the security of local linkages. How much this trade-off has changed and to what extent it will impact the global wine sector is still to be determined.

Wine and Commodification

Commodity wine is only one side of the industry, but it has been an area of growth in the decade since Wine Wars first appeared. One way to appreciate this is to look at wine branding trends. There are many different types of brands, of course. Champagne is a brand, for example, and the producers are diligent in protecting their brand’s intellectual property. More broadly, there are collective brands (appellations, AVAs, etc.) and private brands (Mouton Cadet, Barefoot, etc.). Brands are successful when they encourage demand by providing an indicator of consistent value and quality.

As the market has become more congested, brands have become more important and evolved in interesting ways. One of the most important trends, which Wine Wars anticipated, is the rise of private label wines (which some call “exclusive label” wines in a nice bit of marketing). The maker’s brand is generally replaced or supplanted by the seller’s brand.  British supermarkets like Tesco made private label wine an important category and now it is everywhere. Here in the U.S. Costco, Walmart, and Target have their own wine brands, for example. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to large-multiple sellers. The upscale supermarket down the street (which appeared prominently in Chapter 3 of Wine Wars) is part of a small local  chain (nothing like Kroger’s vast network), but it has its own private label Champagne.

As the wine market has stagnated over all in many regions, the demand for private label wine has grown. Buyers look for value, retailers see higher margins. Growers and producers get the business they need even if they don’t control branding.  Some of these wines are very high quality. Others, of course, are drawn from lots of generic bulk wine from sources that vary from year to year and lot to lot depending upon price among other factors.

Take It To the Limit

What happens if the trend towards generic wines is taken to its logical extreme? In Wine Wars I joked (sort of) that we’d be left with Bud Red and Bud White — a threat that is more potent today with wine-in-cans gaining popularity. But I could never have imagined that we’d be staring at the specter of hard seltzer!

Wine today competes for a share of the stagnant overall beverage alcohol market. That means the growth in total wine sales need to come from other alcohol categories. And the toughest competitor in this space — the one that has been eating market share for lunch — is hard seltzer, a.k.a. flavored alcoholic fizzy water. I may be wrong, but this seems to me to be the real least common denominator threat to the idea of wine that most readers of this page likely share. Yes, I know that we’ve always had products like wine coolers, which may have served as a first step on the wine ladder. But if hard seltzer is the first step, I’m not sure what the second step might be!

Ultimately Wine Wars counted on what I called “the revenge of the terroirists” to keep wine from jumping the branded goods shark. How has that worked out? Come back next week for my thoughts.

Anatomy of WineFuture 2021: Think Big

WineFuture 2021, an ambitious virtual wine conference, is just two weeks away and I am excited to be part of the program. The wine industry has embraced the necessary pivot from in-person events to on-line programs, so there are lots of virtual conferences these days. What makes WineFuture 2021 different?

Thinking Big

One distinguishing factor is the expansive vision of the organizers. This program thinks big, with global reach and broad societal focus.  The gist of the program is this: the world is facing not one, not two, but at least four crises and the future — of wine, but not just wine — depends on what we do to address these challenges. The four crises are these.

  • Coronavirus Pandemic Crisis. The global health crisis comes first if only because it is an inescapable fact of daily life today that is likely to cast a long shadow into the future.
  • Global Economic Crisis. The pandemic and policies to address it have pushed the global economy into crisis, which some regions suffer more than others. China seems to be recovering pretty well, for example, while Europe looks likely to slip into another recession in 2021.
  • Inequality and Social Justice Crisis. The health and economy crises have accentuated many serious underlying issues. Inequality and social justice problems are not new, but they, along with the political reactions and social responses to them, have captured our attention.
  • Climate Change Crisis. Climate change is an existential threat and no serious attempt to address other problems can afford to ignore it.

Each of these crises demands our attention. And although there is a natural desire to prioritize the crises and tackle them one at a time, it is important to consider that they are interdependent and can’t really be unstirred, to use a phrase from Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” It is a dauntingly complicated situation. But that’s not a reason to ignore complications and uncertainties. It is a reason to try to unravel the threads to increase understanding so that effective action is possible. That’s what WineFuture 2021 is about.

Beyond Davos Man

Looking through the many sessions and keynote talks it occurs to me that this is the sort of ambitious agenda that I normally associate with the World Economic Forum, that insanely expensive gathering of the global elite that takes place every winter in Davos, Switzerland (except this year, of course, because of the pandemic). What’s different about WineFuture 2021 is that it focuses on the wine industry, of course, and is open to a much broader audience and pressing practical concerns. “Davos Man” has become a derogatory synonym for a certain insulated attitude toward the world and its problems. I don’t see much evidence of Davos Man at WineFuture 2021 … and that’s a good thing.

So what is it about wine that provokes ambitious projects like this? I pondered this question a couple of years ago at the equally ambitious Porto Climate Change Leadership Conference. Maybe it is because wine is an agriculture product, and so rooted in nature in a way that finance capital and some manufactured goods are not? Maybe it is because so many of the largest and most important wine firms are family businesses, which bring a generational perspective to their thinking. Maybe it is wine’s special ability to bring people together — especially thoughtful people like Adrian Bridge, who was instrumental to the Porto project, and Pancho Campo and David Furer, who are the organizing forces for WineFuture 2021.

And then there’s this. WineFuture 2021 will benefit three non-profit initiatives, with funds from the program plus an auction of items donated by speakers going to the charitable causes. The non-profits are SOS Cape Town, which works to address water issues in South Africa, The Porto Protocol, which promotes sustainability in wine, and North Bay Jobs with Justice, which supports initiatives to improve worker conditions in California.

Unfolding Wine’s Future

The four day conference begins with analysis of the challenges, then dives deep into particular areas of concern, focusing on workable solutions, before gazing ahead to the future. Here is how the first day unfolds.

Francis Ford Coppola opens the show — and with his experience in film I know he will do this in dramatic fashion. Coppola is famous for his cinema work, of course, but also for his important efforts in wine and for the values that guide his many and varied efforts. The first formal panel, moderated by the wine industry’s most famous MD — Laura Catena — will address the inescapable topic of the health crisis.

The second panel examines at the economic crisis. I’m speaker and moderator and am delighted to have Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv, South Africa’s Carina Gous, and Professor Eugenio Pomarici of the University of Padova join me for this discussion.  Together we plan to break down the economic impacts and reactions in ways that generate useful insights. We are followed by important panels on reviewing and reversing discrimination, how to deal with the unexpected, and then a keynote by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.

The program on days 2, 3, and 4 follow with more important programing by global leaders and wine industry luminaries including keynote talks by Pancho Campo, UNWTO Executive Director Manuel Butler, and OIV Director General Pau Roca. Click here for a list of all the speakers and here for the complete program.

WineFuture 2021 is kind of a big deal. It thinks big, acts big, and seeks to set a high standard for the wine industry as we move  into the future. I am proud of the wine industry for its support of and commitment to big ideas and big initiatives like this one.