Ten Years Later … The Wine Economist Celebrates its 10th Anniversary

Next week — on Memorial Day, in fact — the Wine Economist will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Ten years of regular columns about the world of wine as seen from an economist’s perspective.

The very first column, which is reproduced below, was an account of my visit to family-owned Fielding Hills winery, one of Washington’s best, to help bottle the 2005 vintage. The bottling line was a volunteer operation back then, fueled by enthusiasm and steady sips of the wine, which I compared to Adam Smith’s famous “pin factory” example of the benefits of division of labor.

A lot has changed since 2007. Fielding Hills’ reputation has grown, its lineup of wines expanded, and the cramped garage-style winery replaced with an efficient production facility and beautiful tasting room over-looking scenic Lake Chelan.

A lot has changed at the Wine Economist, too. I could never have guessed that this first column would slowly and with much effort turn into something more, spinning off four wine books, several awards (wine book of the year, best wine blog, best wine writing) and a series of lectures that has taken us around the world. Amazing!

Tenth anniversary? That calls for a celebration. I think we’ll open a bottle of Fielding Hills wine! Cheers to the Wade family and Fielding Hills for getting this column off to a good start.

>>><<<

Wine Economist Column #1:

Bottling the 2005 at Fielding Hills (May 29, 2007)

I spent the weekend after commencement in Wenatchee, Washington helping Mike and Karen Wade and their friends bottle the 2005 vintage of Fielding Hills. I got to drink some great wine, meet some wonderful people and learn more about the wine business. Here are some photos (courtesy of Dave Seago) and some observations.

The Wades are orchardists and fruit distributors in Wenatchee, which is the heart of Washington Apple country. They got the wine bug a few years ago and now run an 800 case operation from a building near their home, overlooking the Columbia River. The grapes come from vines they own near Matawa on the Wahluke Slope, further down the Columbia. They make reds — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and a blend called RiverBend red. These wines are not easy to find (remember: only 800 cases total) but they have received rave notices in the wine press: Wine Enthusiast rated them all between 91/100 and 95/100 points in its December 2006 assessment of the 2004 vintage. They are all good, the magazines and web sites say, the only question is which one is best.

I know the Wades through their daughter Robin who is one of my students at the University of Puget Sound. She knows about my interest in the wine business, so when they needed volunteer labor for the annual bottling weekend, she knew who to call.

I have taken dozens of tours of large wine-making operations, so it was interesting to see the process first-hand and on a very human scale. I hope the photos capture something of the process. We bottled the Cab, a blend featuring 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, on Friday afternoon. The first step was get the appropriate barrels of wine out of storage and to carefully pump the right proportions of the right wines into a large stainless blending tank. From there, the wine moved to the assembly line, where I worked alongside about a dozen of the Wades’ friends and neighbors.

The bottling process reminded me of Adam Smith’s famous pin factory example of the division of labor. One person (1) brought in pallets that contained cases of empty wine bottles. A second person (2) removed the bottles from the cases onto a table so that another worker (3) could invert them over a nitrogen supply, which removed any oxygen. The bottles were then (4) filled with wine on a six-bottle machine (see photo), then corked (5). A foil closure was then placed over the cork top (6) and secured firmly using a surprisingly nasty electric device (that was my job — #7). Then the bottles were wiped down (workers 8 and 9) before going through a label operation (10), being loaded back into boxes (11) that were sealed and stacked (12) and then moved out on the pallets they came in on. It took us about six hours to bottle 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon on Friday afternoon. We did 150 cases of the RiverBend Blend in four hours on Saturday morning. My reward? Wonderful family-style meals with my co-workers and one bottle of each of the wines I worked on, autographed by my fellow volunteers.

One thing that you can’t see in the photos is the fuel that kept the volunteers going: it was the wine we were bottling, drawn straight from the barrel. Good juice, in my opinion. Can’t wait to taste it when it’s had a bit of time in the bottle. (Expected release date: October 2007.)

One thing I learned from this is that although 800 cases of wine is a tiny operation by the scale of today’s wine business today, it is still a very significant investment of time and energy. I thought we would never come to the end up those 200 cases (2400 individual bottles) of Cabernet on Friday afternoon!

Because they have been so successful, both in terms of wine quality and wine economics, the Wades are planning to take the next step — to expand production from 800 cases to 2400 cases. This is a big step, since the business model changes with the higher volumes. Family labor plus volunteer help at key points works fine for wineries producing 1000 cases or less, but a bigger operation means hired help and higher fixed costs. The marketing end changes, too. The Wades prefer to sell most of their wine direct to customers rather than to discount it in order to get it into wine shops and restaurants. Given their stellar ratings, they have a good opportunity to build a “wine club” list that will automatically take most of their output, matching demand and supply very efficiently. Building a bigger winery will mean matching a bigger demand to their bigger supply.

Mike Wade told me what it takes to make good wine — it’s in the fruit, he said. The economics of wine is in the market — matching demand and supply. I would say that the Wades understand both the fruit side of their operation and the market side, too.

Economic Effects of Washington Liquor Initiatives

This is the third in a series on initiatives to liberalize Washington’s alcoholic beverage laws  (click here to read the first and second segments). How would Washington Initiatives I-1100 and I-1105 affect wine makers and wine consumers? Let’s look at wine makers first.

Wine producers in Washington are not united either in support of or opposition to the initiatives. One industry group, The Washington Wine Institute, publicly opposes both initiatives, for example, while the Family Wineries of Washington State supports I-1100 but opposes I-1105.

Winners & Losers

Both initiatives would create more avenues of competition for wineries by removing state restrictions that prevented discounted prices, negotiated payment schedules and so forth. Based on my conversations it seems that some wineries would welcome the opportunity to compete  using a fuller range of business strategies. They would like to be able to go after the business they want and to reward retailers and restaurants that carry the full range of their products or who make long term commitments.

Other wine makers are concerned that they may be disadvantaged in this new environment because they lack the resources or expertise to compete effectively. Interestingly, it is not just small wineries who want to avoid competition and not just large ones who embrace it. Obviously it is a complicated matter.

One wine maker candidly told me that it is hard to know if the gains will outweigh the losses.  This person saw obvious areas for new business expansion but realized there would be negative effects on margins and the need for more capital to accommodate extended payments. I sensed a very pragmatic attitude:  wine is a business and business people have to cope with whatever is thrown at them whether it is Mother Nature (a late harvest) or a change in state liquor laws.

My conversations reminded me of Olivier Torres’ discussion of the difference between French and American business strategy in his book The Wine Wars. American entrepreneurs, Torres says, look for new opportunities, taking risks, while the French business strategy is more about fending off threats. This is an oversimplified stereotype, of course, but it does seem to capture a bit of the wine war raging today in Washington state, where those with “French” attitudes are not necessarily from France.

Will Small Wineries Get Squeezed?

Television ads like the one I have inserted above suggest that small wineries would be especially hard hit by the new laws. A local news analysis of this ad raises some doubts about this claim (see  this King5 report). Will small local wineries get crowded off the shelf? Here’s my brief analysis.

I do think that large wine companies will have an advantage if the law is changed, but they have obvious economic advantages now, so this is nothing new. I would not be surprised to see big companies (Constellation Brands, Gallo, etc) increase their relative share of retail shelf space since they have the resources to offer discounts and incentives.

It is also possible that spirits companies and distributors will bring associated wine brands with them as they rush to fill their newly opened retail market niche if the initiatives pass, adding to the “crowding out” effect.  Retailers are trying to streamline their operations and reduced the number of suppliers they deal with, giving “drinks” companies that can supply wine, beer and spirits an advantage.

This effect will differ by type of retail account, of course, and be different for fine dining versus casual dining restaurant sales. In the supermarket segment, for example, you can already see differences in the relative incidence of the big producer portfolios in Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway stores compared with regional chains like Metropolitan Market.

Although small wineries might get somewhat less shelf space, they certainly will not disappear from wine shelves and restaurant lists. Wine enthusiasts value diversity and smart sellers fill their shelves accordingly. That’s why a typical upscale supermarket offers 1500-2500 wine choices, at least ten times the number of options in any other product category. Retail wine margins are high and sellers profit by catering to their customers’ desire for a wide range of choices.

I think the competition among smaller winemakers will be more of a factor than between the big corporations and the small family wineries. There are hundreds of small wineries in Washington state all seeking a place at the retail table. Right now it is pretty difficult for the maker of a $40 Walla Walla Syrah to get shelf space (or distributor representation) and many producers are sensibly reconfiguring their business plans to focus more on direct sales. This will remain a good strategy if the initiatives pass, but makers who want to compete for shelf space will have more tools at their disposal.

And That’s A Good Thing?

Bottom line: small wineries will get squeezed by the big boys, but other small wineries are the real competition (hence the lack of a consensus among wine makers) and the initiatives will make this competition much more intense.

Is this a good thing? Well, it will probably be good for many consumers who will benefit from lower wine prices. They will likely have more (but different) wines to choose from too. Whether the new choices will be better is bound to be a matter of taste. If, as some have suggested, big box drinks retailers Bevmo and Total Wine open outlets in Washington it will change in significant ways the market terrain.

At the Ballot Box

How am I going to vote? The issue is complicated enough that I honestly haven’t decided yet. I am unlikely to vote for I-1105, however, since it seems like a stumbling half-step towards market liberalization.

I find the wine market aspects of I-1100 appealing and, as an economist, I am programmed to believe in the benefits of competition, but I am still concerned about the liquor law changes. I don’t know how making spirits cheaper and more readily  available will help solve the public health and safety problems associated with liquor consumption. Many will disagree with this view and I respect their opinions.

I guess I’m going to have to weigh the pros and cons before I cast my ballot just like everyone else.