One way that wine differs from beer is that whereas beer can be produced pretty much continuously throughout the year, there is only one opportunity to make wine. A crisis that comes at harvest time is therefore especially disruptive and unwelcome. And that”s exactly what happened to wine producers in the Southern Hemisphere this year.
The International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) recently organized an important webinar on the experience of Southern Hemisphere wine producers harvesting their 2020 vintage just as the coronavirus pandemic threat became clear and lock down policies initiated. View a recording of the webinar by clicking on the image above.
Presenters (see list below) from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina each highlighted the particular problems that they faced and how they managed these challenges. The stories are very different with many lessons to learn and puzzles to ponder.
After the five presentations (at about 1:11 on the video) moderator António Graça asks each presenter to summarize the most important lessons in the form of a tweet. The discussion that follows focuses on practical problems and the search for solutions. The analysis of successes and failures is worth your attention.
One of the clear lessons cited by several speakers is that communications must be clear, transparent, and omni-directional. Everyone needs to be on the same page. One of the failures cited by two speakers was the inability to convince government regulators of the importance of the wine sector in the national economy and therefore the need for more favorable treatment and accommodating protocols. In part it’s that “we only get one chance” thing — at some point harvest delayed is harvest wasted.
The webinar is required viewing for winery businesses and organizations everywhere — in the Northern Hemisphere because we should learn from our colleagues south of the equator and for Southern Hemisphere producers because this may not be the last time such a crisis is experienced.
Tony Battaglene, Australia / Chief Executive of Australian Grape and Wine Incorporated
Jeffrey Clarke, New Zealand / General Manager Advocacy & General Counsel of New Zealand Winegrowers
Yvette Van Der Merwe, South Africa / Executive Manager, South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS)
Aurelio Montes, Chile / President, Wines of Chile
Daniel Rada, Argentina / Director, Argentine Wine Observatory / Professor of International Economics, National University of Cuyo, Argentina
António Graça, Head of Research and Development at Sogrape Vinhos SA, Secretary of Sustainable Development and Climate Change experts group – OIV
The OIV released their annual “State of the World” wine sector report last week (via social-distancing video conference, of course) and it is noteworthy both for its view of the recent past and its tentative analysis of present conditions and future trends. (Here are links to the report summary, the press release in pdf, and the presentation in pdf, and the report in pdf.)
Under normal circumstances, my focus here would be on the annual report itself and the recently-released special study of the sparkling wine boom, both of which are packed full of data and sound analysis. But, as OIV Director General Pau Roca would note, these are rear-view mirror reports that document a world that does not exist in the same way anymore. They are useful for sure (see below), but don’t directly address today’s most pressing questions about the future of the global wine sector.
So we must move from quantitative measure to qualitative assessments and informed speculation, and that’s what Pau Roca provided in the press conference and resultant video report (see YouTube video below). Herewith some of the OIV highlights with my commentary.
An Inconvenient Truth
It is an inconvenient truth that the countries that rank highest for total wine consumption (the United States, UK, Spain, Italy, France, etc.) are also the countries that have experienced the most severe impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. And they will likely to be among the hardest hit by the recession. The global impact on the wine sector will thus be much more serious than if any one or two of these markets were affected.
Globally, we are looking at two important changes: a shift in sales channels and a fall in demand, immediately in some regions and eventually in others (see below). Wine sales via bars, restaurants, and travel and tourism-related vectors (think cruise ships and duty free shops) have collapsed and it is unclear how quickly these market will recover even when the green light is given to re-open.
Supermarket and e-commerce sales have risen. In some regions there is a net gain in sales at least in the short run, but this is not true everywhere. In the U.S., for example, off-premise sales have surged enough recently to produce a net gain in wine revenues in the short run.
Net decreases in both volumes and sales values are projected for parts of Europe where bar and restaurant sales are especially important and travel and tourism are big factors, however, with a resultant rising surplus of wine. Crisis distillation, which we think of as an artifact of the bad old days of the EU wine lake, seems likely to return, and in a big way, in order to stabilize wine producer and grower incomes. Maybe the industrial alcohol that will result can be used for hand sanitizer?
The shift to e-commerce will be welcomed by many small and medium-sized producers who have lost on-trade accounts and cannot compete effectively for high-volume supermarket sales. The crisis is an accelerant in this regard, speeding up an existing trend. Taken together, these impacts present many challenges and some opportunities, creating losers and some winners.
The emerging economic crisis has been compared with the Great Depression here in the U.S. and with the severe economic dislocations following World War II in Europe, but in truth we don’t yet know how deep the decline will be or how long it will last. That will only be clear somewhere down the road when the rear-view mirror image comes into focus.
But the mirror can reveal trends to look for on the road ahead. Here are OIV charts for global sparkling wine consumption. The top chart shows volume and value trends indexed to 2002 = 100. The lower chart shows average bottle price. Focus on the the shift in sparkling wine volumes before and after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis to see how an economic crisis can alter consumption trends.
In terms of volume of sales, sparkling wine took a big dip in 2008-2009 and then returned to its rising trend, but from the lower base. It never caught up to where it would have been without the crisis. That recession dip resulted in a persistently lower volumes against the previous trend.
And — and this is an important point — this is true even though the later years included the global Prosecco boom, which raised sparkling wine volumes even as it lowered average bottle price. Without the Prosecco boom (and the lower average sparkling wine prices it produced), the sustained recessionary impact would be even more pronounced.
Now sparkling wine isn’t all wine and the past isn’t necessarily the future — your mileage may vary, as they say — but this figure shows that recessions can have enduring impacts on global wine markets.
How Not to Waste a Crisis
They say that it is important not to waste a crisis because sometimes important changes can happen in turbulent times that would otherwise be impossible. As suggested above, many wine firms are taking the crisis as an opportunity to shift to e-commerce channels or to diversify their revenue streams. They might never have gotten around to this without the crisis. Now there is little choice.
There are good uses of this crisis, as Pau Roca noted in his comments. This global public health emergency, for example, shows us the importance of scientific expertise and collective action when faced with a global issue. It would be good if coronavirus caused us to think and act more seriously in this way about other global threats, especially the global climate change emergency, which will not go away when the coronavirus crisis is resolved.
On the other hand, Pau Roca notes, it is a wrong use of the crisis to either cynically promote alcohol consumption at this time or to do the opposite, to take this as an opportunity to advance a prohibitionist agenda. It is easy for wine to get caught in the crossfire in this crisis, as in South Africa where, for several weeks, it was forbidden to sell wine in the domestic market (because of concerns about alcohol abuse) and illegal to export it either, because of a ban on non-essential transport. Yikes!
Thanks to Pau Roca and the OIV for their work on these issues. Here’s a video of Pau’s report.
Most of the G-20 economies around the world have effectively entered (or soon will do) the red zone of recession, violently pushed there by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent Wine Economist columns (click here) have accordingly focused on the direct economic impacts of this crisis on the wine industry.
I hope you have found the analysis helpful in thinking through the current situation. Events have moved so fast that it is difficult (impossible?) to keep up!
Today’s column steps back and looks at important side-effects — economic contagion — that need to be considered. Here are brief surveys of the wine impacts of three forces: exchange rates, online activity, and travel and tourism.
The Greenback Also Rises
The shock of the coronavirus’s worldwide spread produced a rush to safety — or anything that remotely resembles safety — in the financial markets. As in past crises, this means a demand for U.S. dollars and dollar-denominated assets driven by a combination of confidence in the U.S. economy and policies, a lack of confidence in other economic actors, or a simple desire for maximum liquidity. The liquidity factor is huge right now.
The dollar’s value therefore has risen dramatically. The Federal Reserve’s wise decision to expand dollar swap line operations with foreign central banks has helped reduce the dollar shortage and increase liquidity, but the fundamental problem remains.
A strong dollar makes imports cheaper for buyers here in the United States and this fact will become important if the exchange value persists. Imported wine will be relatively more cost competitive once the smoke clears. That’s good news for consumers, but cold comfort for domestic growers and producers. And U.S. wine exports — which have become even more important because of the domestic wine surplus — will become a harder sell due to the strong dollar.
Bulk wine from Argentina is incredibly cheap for U.S. buyers and the strong dollar is part of the story. The Argentina peso was trading at over 64 pesos per dollar late last week, for example, compared with about 42 pesos one year earlier, which is a dramatic change. Several factors besides the coronavirus, which accounted for perhaps 25% of the currency depreciation, are at work here.
The rising dollar has eroded the exchange value of the Euro and British Pound, but its biggest impacts have been on emerging market currencies. This is especially important because these countries borrow in U.S. dollars, so the local currency cost of foreign debt is magnified when the dollar strengthens.
Fragile is the word I would use to describe the emerging markets today. Mexico, for example, faces a potential health crisis, an economic crisis because they rely upon petroleum exports, which have fallen in value dramatically, and possible issues with both domestic and international debt because of the strong dollar. Argentina faces the same problems, minus the issue of oil exports, but at heightened levels.
Even if the developed countries are able to stabilize their economies, as they are trying to do with truly heroic monetary and fiscal policies, the fragile nature of the emerging markets represents a risk to the global economic stability.
The textbook says that a rising dollar isn’t bad or good … it is a package of economic benefits and costs, opportunities and risks. The risks get my special attention these days, because we have all the economic risk we can use right now!
Is There an App for That?
I call it the Magnification Effect. When we look back on the coronavirus crisis in a few years I suspect that one thing that we will notice is that, while new trends emerged in business and society, the biggest effect was to magnify and accelerate certain patterns that were already there.
Screens and online interactions were already an important factor, especially with younger people who can’t remember a world without them. The further substitution of online for in-person experiences has been strongly encouraged by coronavirus isolation practices.
Will film viewers go back to crowded theaters in the same numbers when the clouds clear? Or will they decide, even more than in the past, that small screens are just fine? I suspect that everyone in the sports and entertainment industries will be watching closely to see what happens next.
Many consumers will have placed their very first online grocery or take-away meal delivery orders during the coronavirus period. Some will never do it again, but others will decide that it is a worthwhile convenience and continue these expenditures.
Do supermarket shoppers buy the same amount of wine when they shop in person versus online ordering? I haven’t seen statistics on this question, but I suspect that the online share is lower. Regulatory issues are to blame in some areas. And the difficulty of bringing the “wine wall experience” online is another.
What happens to wine when a served restaurant meal moves to home delivery? The diner may still drink wine, but it is likely to be a different wine and probably a less expensive one. Maybe its a glass from the box in the fridge? Some wineries depend a great deal on restaurant sales and this will be a particular problem for them and of course the restaurants face lost margins and sales.
No one is surprised that Amazon.com home delivery sales have surged during the coronavirus period. If the Magnification Effect hypothesis is correct, that’s just the tip of the iceberg and wine sales will be affected.
[Not] On the Road Again
Some of the most serious economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis have been on the travel and hospitality sectors. At least one international airline has already been pushed to bankruptcy and no one will be surprised if there are more business failures. The situation grows even darker when you consider the supply chain: grounded flights, canceled aircraft orders, parts and equipment suppliers both big and small squeezed tight, and so on. The impacts will be broad and deep.
Restaurants and hotels are shuttered or just barely keeping the lights on and of course this sector also has supply chain effects that start with direct employees and extend down into all the businesses (including wine, of course) that supply the goods and services that they need to run successfully.
And then there is the cruise ship industry.
What will happen to the planes, trains, ships, hotels, resorts, restaurants, convention centers, and so on once the health crisis has passed and the recession run its course? Certainly the pipeline will refill, but will it be the same? Or will people decide that they don’t really need to move around so much and so far and spend a lot of time exposed to large crowds.
How strong will the movement be to go local instead of global and online versus in person? Those practices were already here, albeit unevenly adopted in different sectors.
Viewing the situation from my perch as a recovering university professor, I sense that this may be a critical moment in some sectors. Many colleges and university, for example, have substituted online classes for in-person teaching for the rest of the current academic year. It is supposed to be a temporary shift — just until the coronavirus crisis has ended. Then it’s back to normal.
But if the online classroom works reasonably well, will it be possible to completely return to the old practices? Or will the nature of higher education change? Many graduate degree programs I’ve seen had significant online components before coronavirus struck. More will embrace the technology now and it is likely to spread throughout the higher education environment.
This Changes Everything?
Wine may not be the most important sector that will be impacted by local/online trends, but it will need to adjust to them. Wine tourism has emerged as an important industry, especially in the decade since the start of the Great Recession. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) sponsors annual global wine tourism meetings (the 2020 meeting is scheduled for Alentejo, Portugal later this year) that focuses on wine tourism as an economic development tool as well as a profitable business area.
How much will wine tourism and associated industries be affected if global/in-person is replaced significantly by local/online? Too soon to tell, like most things about this crisis. But important to monitor.
I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.
The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.
I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.
And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.
Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.
In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region. They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.
More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.
Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.
And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.
There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?
Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.
So here’s my tasting note: Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China, travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.
Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.
What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.
But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.
Cabernet is #1
According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table. Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.
Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.
The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.
Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.
And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons. The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.
No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.
The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.
Cab Pipeline is Full
If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.
Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.
Zin was thought to make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret” in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!
Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.
The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.
No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.
Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle. People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!
The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.
That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.
Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.
The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).
I tell my friends that the wine business is a people business and it is really true. Relationships matter a lot in wine. One of the reasons that Sue and I so enjoy our work is the opportunity to meet and get to know so many wonderful people.
People are the wine industry’s strength, but they are also its Achilles heel and finding ways to adapt to a world with changing labor market conditions is perhaps wine’s greatest current challenge. We saw several aspects of the evolving labor crisis during a recent visit to the Napa Valley where I spoke at the California Association of Winegrape Growers’ (CAWG) summer conference.
Trouble in the Vineyards
We talked with a number of winegrowers who were understandably focused on their vineyards — how to get the hard work of winegrape farming done and the crop harvested efficiently in the current farm labor environment. Migrant labor policies are the main issue here and the impacts extend beyond winegrapes to virtually all California agriculture.
Farm labor generally means migrant labor, including a substantial proportion of undocumented workers. Current federal policy is decided unfavorable to the needs of farm employers and the progress is very slow to craft useful reforms.
Large-scale grape farming depends upon these workers, which is very risky because their work status and the policies that affect them are so uncertain. Mechanization — mechanical harvesting and also increasingly mechanical pruning — is the most direct response, which reduces labor uncertainty exposure even if it doesn’t eliminate the problem.
Matt Parker, the President of Silverado Investment Management Group, which farms 20,000 acres, told the CAWG audience about the strong mechanization dynamic driven by cost, uncertainty, and technical change. Mechanically-harvested grapes can be as good as hand-harvest grapes and are sometimes even better because an entire vineyard can be harvested quickly (and sometimes at night as in the photo above) with machines, whereas hand-harvest may take many days and grape quality can deteriorate.
Everyone we spoke with wanted to see the migrant worker situation resolved so that the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over their businesses and the lives of the workers might be lifted. But I didn’t hear many optimistic voices. Stay tuned.
Beyond the Vineyards
Harvest and vineyard workers are not the only labor market issue we found in Napa. A friend with talked with runs a business that is a major supplier of packaging products to the wine industry, with a large warehouse and light manufacturing facility south of the city. Labor was on his mind as he showed us around his operation.
Labor constraints limited the efficiency of the business, which was running one shift instead of the two or three that it could handle. Rising wages were a concern, of course, but availability was a bigger long term issue. Housing shortages and cost, transportation bottlenecks, and immigration policy all contributed to the uncertain availability of workers.
His solution was automation and his company is making major technology investments both to increase production flexibility and efficiency and to reduce exposure to labor cost and availability risk.
Truckloads of Trouble
One of the CAWG conference’s most interesting speakers was Yvonne Sams of G3 Trucking, a company that many vineyards and wineries rely upon to get grapes to the cellar quickly and at affordable cost during harvest.
“Do the math,” people say, and here is the stunning winegrape trucking math. California produces about 4 million tons of grapes in a typical year (if there is such a thing). That is equivalent to 170,000 truck loads of grapes over the harvest season, according to Sams, with about 2000 truck loads on peak harvest days. The typical load travels about 40 miles. That is a lot of trucks, highway miles, and driver shifts.
Everything about this process is closely monitored and some elements, such as driver cab-time and break periods, is tightly regulated. Driver regulation is about to get more strict, with the result that each driver will be able to manage fewer loads than in the past. Thus the current driver shortage will likely increase. Sams reported that one trucking company now advertises on television specifically targeting women, who are under-represented in the industry, in the hopes of expanding the potential driver pool.
What’s the solution? No one wants to see their grapes rotting in bins waiting for a truck and driver to appear! Sams reported a number of initiatives. More trailers, for example, could increase efficiency by reducing the time that drivers spend waiting to load and unload. Ideally the truck and driver would appear just as the trailer is filled and then drop it off at the other end, picking up a new load while the trailed waits to be unloaded.
We also heard the basic outline of what you might think of as an Uber for truckers, which would allow truckers with available time to more efficiently match up with waiting loads.
Finally there is Elon Musk’s favorite strategy — autonomous trucks (Musk’s would be electric, of course) that need no driver but do require pretty sophisticated software and, as we heard from a representative of Verizon, would benefit by the roll-out of 5G cellular systems.
Napa at the Forefront
Many U.S. industries are struggling to cope with labor issues today. Agriculture, including wine grapes, struggles a bit more because of the traditional labor-intensive model and the relatively short half-life of freshly-harvested goods compared with manufactured products.
Napa, because of its high housing costs and transportation bottlenecks, is particularly affected. Napa’s wealth insulates it a bit, I suppose, but also provides resources for technological labor-replacing systems. As these case studies show, there is no escaping the wine industry labor crisis because it is not one problem, but many, that all negatively impact production, cost, and profitability.
Are the machines coming to a vineyard near you? No, they are probably already there and, as vineyards — even those in iconic regions — are replanted or renewed, you can be sure that one factor that will be considered is the potential to maximize technological compatibility.
Hand work in the vineyards is not going to disappear and many wineries will continue to rely upon their teams of highly-skilled vineyard workers for years to come. But what we are seeing is that the business model associated with vineyard labor is changing rapidly. Technology, economics and anti-globalization politics are all part of the dynamic.
Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photo of workers and machines at a night harvest in Lodi.
Silicon Valley Bank recently released their 2018 State of the Industry report on the U.S. wine market and if you haven’t read it you should. It is well researched, written, and argued. Most important, it will challenge your ideas about the U.S. wine industry and make you think.
Most of the media reaction to the report has focused on two “boom and bust” elements: the predictions that (1) the 20-year wine market expansion is coming to an end and (2) that the relentless rise in grape prices and vineyard valuations in Napa Valley will pause or plateau.
Both of these predictions are significant although, as the report notes, calling a “turn” in the market is inherently problematic and will be difficult to assess until a few years down the road. In the short term, for example, the report notes that the U.S. wine market should continue to grow in 2018, although at a slower pace. Value will grow faster than volume due to the “two track” U.S. market with growth in premium wine sales offsetting declining lower-shelf demand.
This Changes Everything?
Boom and bust make headlines, but there are two important points that the SVB report makes that I think should get more attention. The first is the fact that we are witnessing fundamental changes in the retail market environment. Not just retail wine market, retail everything (or just about). Who buys, when, where, and how, who consumes, when, where, why, and how. Even the way people pay is changing. Amazon is one driving force in this environmental transformation, but only part of it.
This fact was driven home to me a few weeks ago when I read that the Swiss luxury group Richemont (controlled by South Africa’s Rupert family), announced plans to buy out Yoox Net-a-Porter, an Italy-based luxury “etailer.” Richemont’s brands include Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC Schaffhausen, Panerai and Montblanc. High end stuff.
You might think that consumers would be willing to buy books and t-shirts online but that they would hesitate to throw down $5000 or more for jewelry or a watch without holding it in their hands. But you would be wrong, or so the Richemont folks believe. The idea kind of takes my breath away.
It’s a new world for wine as for other things, the SVB report suggests. And the patterns and practices that were successful in years gone by, including but not limited to bricks-and-mortar versus online sales, are not guaranteed to work in the future. Time to question and rethink.
Talking ‘Bout the Generations
A second interesting but possibly under-appreciated point that the SVB report raises concerns generational analysis of the wine market. Most of what you read about wine today frames the changing market demographics in terms of baby boomers versus millennials. But, as this figure from Statista.com suggests, there is a “missing middle” to this analysis. The figure shows 2016 median household income by age of householder.
Lost in the focus on rising younger, poorer millennials versus declining older, richer boomers is the Gen-X generation who are in their 40s now (more or less) and reaching their peak earning (and consuming) years. They are, SVB argues, an important but sometimes underappreciated market for wine. And, as a recent Wine Access study reveals, although Gen-X is a smaller cohort than boomers or millennials, they are willing and able to spend proportionately more on wine.
I think these are very useful insights, although I’m always a bit cautious regarding generational analysis. My years as a university professor taught me that the differences between generations are sometimes less important than diversity within them. Sometimes it is appropriate to generalize about a generation, but not always.
Take boomers, for example. The conventional wisdom is that baby boomers have driven the wine market growth — and this is true — but remember that most boomers don’t drink wine regularly and many don’t drink it (or any alcohol) at all.
The boomer wine boom is driven by a relatively small segment of this generational group. In a way, the boomer wine phenomenon is about a subgroup that is at least somewhat atypical of its cohort — and that difference is key.
The SVB report goes well beyond boom and bust to include these significant insights and many others, too. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the American wine industry today and where it is headed.
Congratulations to Rob McMillan and his team for a thought-provoking report.
When David Ricardo wanted to make the logic of his famous Theory of Comparative Advantage crystal clear he knew what example to choose: wine. It was obvious that Britain should import wine from Portugal in exchange for cloth rather than trying for vinous self-sufficiency. Any fool could see that!
Make Great Britain Great?
But wine wasn’t really the point of his example. He was more concerned about the Corn Laws, a set of trade barriers designed to choke off agricultural imports and promote higher prices for domestic grain (lining the pockets of rural landowners in the process). If Britain should trade cloth for wine, then why not trade cloth for wheat and other grains as well?
The wine story was good enough to convince Ricardo’s economist colleagues, but not so much those in parliament. The Corn Laws lasted from 1815 until 1846. Economic logic triumphed over vested interests in the long run, but the human cost of the trade barriers to urban workers and their families in terms of higher food costs and lower living standards was very high.
Britain really didn’t fulfill the promise of its Industrial Revolution until the Corn Laws were repealed. It is fair to speculate that Parliament could have acted to Make Great Britain Great much sooner if they had been guided by the economic logic of wine trade.
Wine is perhaps a good guide to British political economy today, too. Brexit, which was promoted as a way to Make Great Britain Great Again, seems to have instead made British families poorer even though the change in trade policies has not yet been enacted or even agreed. Rising import prices and stagnant wages have squeezed consumer budgets for wine as for many other items (sound familiar?). Tesco, the upscale supermarket giant, is reportedly planning a discount chain of its own to compete with increasingly popular “hard discount” Aldi and Lidl stores.
Glenn Proctor of The Ciatti Company presented a very interesting survey of global wine market conditions. There are only two big wine markets that are growing in terms of total consumption, Proctor said: China and the United States. The Chinese market is particularly attractive because of the large rising middle class and potential for further growth. French wines are top of the import table in China, followed by Australia and Chile — two countries that have benefited from free trade agreements with China.
Indeed, China is now the #1 export market for Australian wine, accounting for 33 per cent of exports, ahead of the US (18%), UK (14%), Canada (7%), and Hong Kong (5%). The Chinese market has powered Australia’s resurgence as a global wine power and the free trade agreement is an important part of the story.
The United States? Well, the U.S. has no free trade agreement with China and President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations — which could have opened up Asian markets — on his first day in office. Partly as a result, I suppose, the U.S. ranks #6 on the China import list. Australia wine sales volumes are more than ten times the U.S. amount.
If recent import trends continue for a couple of years, U.S. sales to China may be surpassed by relatively tiny Georgia. Georgian wine sales to China have surged (up 45%) in part because of the Georgia-China free trade structure that went into effect at the beginning of the year. The U.S. wine industry is clearly handicapped in foreign markets where other producers have preferential access.
John Aguirre, President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, also highlighted the importance of trade agreements for the wine industry. President Trump has raised doubts about U.S. – Korea free trade (the Korean market has lots of potential for U.S. wine) and launched negotiations to revise NAFTA. Since Canada is the largest export market for U.S. wines, it is essential that NAFTA maintain open cross-border access.
The wine industry would suffer if the NAFTA negotiation somehow collapse, although the negative impacts would obviously be less than agriculture generally and the automotive industry, both of which have become dependent on efficient trans-border industrial integration in order to compete with efficient producers in other parts of the world.
I am hopeful that the NAFTA negotiations will be successful at updating the treaty since there is so much at stake. But my confidence is shaken somewhat by President Trump’s actions to block new appointments to the World Trade Organization’s appeals body — the entity charged with enforcing the rules of the trade game. This will make it more difficult for the U.S. wine industry to pursue its complaint against the British Columbia wine regulators concerning their discriminatory supermarket wine sales policy, which favors B.C. wines relative to imports in clear violation, in my view, of the WTO’s non-discrimination principle.
What’s the bottom line? If President Trump: wants to Make American Wine Even Greater, he might take a lesson from David Ricardo and re-think administration actions and policies regarding global trade agreements.
Like most of you I have been intently focused on the wildfires that have swept through the California North Coast wine region and their tragic human impact. It is difficult to accept that such loss of life and property is possible, but the fires and the winds that drive them have been relentless.
I started getting calls from reporters as soon as a wildfire emergency was declared and, like many others, I declined to comment on the economic impacts. Too soon to know, I said, and not the real story in any case. More important to tell the human story and help people come together and cope with loss.
Still Too Soon
It is still too soon to know the economic impacts. The fire danger continues and the fatality and property damage reports are still coming in. But I have started to think about the nature of the potential losses to the wine industry. As Tom Wark wrote last week, we need to think about what happens when the fires are finally out, even if that’s not the most important immediate concern.
Here is what I am thinking now. The direct impact of the wildfires on California wine will very unevenly distributed, because that’s how a wildfire works, but the indirect effects are likely to be even larger and widespread. It is important to get out the message that California wine is open for business.
Uneven Direct Impact
The North Coast region (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties) is very important in terms of the value of the wine it produces, but is dwarfed by Central Valley production in terms of volume. The huge quantities of California appellation wines that fill the nation’s retail shelves will not be much affected by the wildfires. This is important to realize since some press reports link the wildfires to the tight global wine market that has resulted from poor harvests in Europe this year, which risks giving a false impression about wine supplies in California.
While some North Coast vineyards and wineries lost everything, others suffered little or no direct damage to cellar, vineyard, or wine stocks. The floor of the Napa Valley, for example, is not much damaged so far. But that doesn’t mean that wineries without direct damage won’t suffer an economic loss.
Wine Tourism Losses
No way to put a dollar and cents figure on the direct losses until individual assessments of winery destruction, vineyard damage, loss to stored wines, possible smoke taint issues, and so forth are made. But we can already see the indirect cost in one area: tourism.
Wine tourism is incredibly important to Napa and Sonoma these days, both for the high-margin direct sales that wineries there increasingly rely upon to compensate for escalating grape costs and for the hospitality industry that has grown up to serve wine tourists. The economic impact of wine tourism is very large for the region.
On a typical day in 2016, according to the latest Napa tourism economic impact study, there were almost 17,000 tourist in the Napa Valley who spend more than $5 million. These are not typical days and the income and jobs those numbers represent are nowhere to be seen for now.
The wildfires have obviously interrupted wine tourism even for wineries that are not directly affected by the fires and it is not clear how soon anything like a normal tourist flow will return. This is complicated by a number of factors including the perception that the whole region is badly burnt and therefore closed for business, damage to transportation and hospitality infrastructure, and problems for the workers who support both the wine and hospitality industries.
It’s a People Business
Many of the workers who live in the region are dealing with personal losses or are busy helping those in need. The hundreds of workers who live outside the local area and commute to jobs in Napa face obviously obvious obstacles, too. In the short term I am told that it is actually the shortage of staff more than the direct impacts of the fires that limits winery operations in many cases.
The bottom line is that while the direct damage from the firestorm is large but unevenly distributed, the indirect costs are likely to be even bigger and affect almost everyone in the region, wine people and non-wine folks, too. It is not entirely clear what normal will look like when the smoke clears and it will take some time to find out. But, as Tom Wark writes, Napa Stands Strong (and Sonoma, too) and it is important to press ahead.
Renewal and Rebirth
The videos I have seen of the fire damage bring to mind scenes of burning Napa vineyards that appear in a wonderful 1942 book by Alice Tisdale Hobart called The Cup and the Sword(which was made into a terrible 1959 film called This Earth is Mine starring Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons and set in Napa and Sonoma).
Hobart’s novel is about the resilience of the strong women and men who built the California wine industry and the vineyard fire signifies rebirth from the ashes because, with some effort and care, the sturdy vines in the novel do come back to life. It is an image to keep in mind today when recovery, rebuilding, and rebirth are on our minds once again.
I called Brexit a “known unknown” because we know (or should realize) that we really don’t know what Brexit will look like when the two-year exit process concludes or what its impact will be when the dust finally clears.
The exit negotiations will begin in earnest after the June 8 elections in the UK, which Prime Minister Theresa May and her Tory party are expected to win although perhaps not by as big a margin as originally conceived.
An Inconvenient Truth
One particular problem for the wine industry is that wine isn’t very important to the overall British economy (so don’t expect it to get much special attention in the trade negotiations), but the British market is extremely important to the global wine industry, both as a major importer and a bottling and distribution center. The UK market is a top target for many wine exporters, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and even the United States.
Kym Anderson (University of Adelaide) and Glyn Wittwer (Victoria University, Melbourne) have taken a first stab at understanding what is at stake in a study that they released earlier this month titled “Will Brexit Harm UK and Global Wine Markets? (pdf). Anderson and Wittwer ran three Brexit scenarios through their econometric model of the global wine market and reported the results. I encourage you to take the time to study their research.
Major Impact on Wine
Anderson and Wittwer’s conclusion, to cut to the chase, are that there would be substantial Brexit impact on UK wine imports:
In our ‘large’ Brexit scenario, as compared with the initial baseline scenario, the consumer price of wine in 2025 would be 22% higher in the UK in local currency terms (20% because of real depreciation of the pound, 4% because of the new tariffs on EU, Chilean and South African wines, and -2% because of slower UK income growth). The volume of UK wine consumption would be 28% lower (16% because of slower UK economic growth, 7% because of real depreciation of the pound, and 5% because of the new tariffs). Super-premium still wine sales would be the most affected, dropping by two-fifths, while sparkling and commercial wines would drop by a little less than a quarter.
The authors examine three Brexit scenarios, judging that the most likely general outcome (the “large” Brexit model) is that the UK would adopt the same tariff barriers as the EU27 in the short run and then work eventually to restore free trade arrangements with Chile and South Africa. This makes sense to me if for no other reason than that Britain lacks the time and staff necessary to negotiate Brexit and to work out its own detailed tariff regime and also to negotiate detailed free trade agreements to replace those that will be lost.
Losers and Winners?
Brexit will obviously have high costs for UK wine consumers and retailers and for the bottling and distribution industries as well. Who will suffer the most among countries that export wine to the UK?
Australia, New Zealand, and the US will have to deal with the negative income growth rate effects of Brexit and the exchange rate impacts, too, but won’t see an increase in tariff rates under the “large” Brexit scenario, since their exports to the UK are already subject to EU rates. They will gain a little form a more level playing field with respect to European wine producers in the UK market.
Chile and South Africa are more vulnerable to Brexit woes because they currently have preferential access to the EU (and thus British) market. Their wine exports to the UK will be subject to tariff at least until they can reach new free trade agreements.
European wine exports (France, Italy, Spain and others) previously had tariff-free access to the UK market and so will face new barriers to trade. But, as Anderson and Wittwer note, the likely tariff rate of 13 pence per liter is dwarfed by Britain’s domestic excise tax of nearly £3 per liter and 20% VAT.
No Rising Tide
Does anyone win in this analysis of Brexit? Well you would think that the small but growing UK wine industry would gain from the various hurdles that imported wine faces — and they will. But Brexit is also likely to make imported winemaking and vineyard equipment and supplies more expensive and restrict or increase the cost of migrant seasonal labor, so it is unclear if Brexit will be truly beneficial.
And of course the declining overall wine market is bad news — the opposite of the idea that a rising tide raises all ships, if you see what I mean.
The devil is in the details of scenario forecasts like this and we won’t really know what to expect until the May government announces its intentions (and even then we might not know because the government has developed a recent habit of reversing itself on economic policies and, of course, the final outcome depends on the EU negotiating stance, too). Until then, however, this forecast is a very good place to start your thinking.
This column is just a summary of the new research with a few thoughts of my own. I encourage you to read the Anderson-Wittwer paper and note your own thoughts and reactions in the Comments section below.