The Wine Economist World Tour is back on the virtual road in 2021. We hope for the return of in-person events before too long, but until that’s possible virtual events will do very well. Here are the first three stops for the new year.
The Unified: State of the Industry
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium (January 26-29, 2021) is going virtual this year, including both the seminars and the amazing trade show. It will be quite an experience.
The program addresses a host of important issues, with special attention to wildfire threats and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Several sessions analyze changing wine market conditions including the State of the Industry session on Wednesday, January 27. Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Jeff Bitter, and Jon Moramarco join me on the virtual panel.
Idaho Wine Commission: State of the Industry
The Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting goes virtual this year, too, with half-day sessions on February 22-23, 2021. This is the third time I’ve spoken at this event and I am sad that I won’t be able to visit Boise in person to refresh friendships, exchange insights, sample great Idaho wine, and enjoy Boise’s amazing Basque food scene.
I will anchor the first day’s program with a special take on the State of the Industry. Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, will speak the following day. Economic change, climate change. Food for thought for Idaho’s dynamic wine industry.
Wine Future 2021: Challenges & Solutions
WineFuture 2021, an incredibly ambitious international event, will happen on February 23-26, 2021. This big international conference boasts an all-star cast. I will lead a panel on the economics of the crisis on February 23.
The folks behind Wine Future 2021 think big. The theme of the first day is the four crisis challenges facing wine (and the world): climate, economy, pandemic, and inequality. Day 2 focuses on solutions and sources of inspiration. The final two days look to the future from many different points of view.
Wine Future 2021 has been hosting a pre-conference webinar series since November to get ideas in the air and discussion flowing. You can view previous webinars (including one I did with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv) and register for upcoming broadcasts on the Wine Future 2021 Webinar home page.
The wine trade has always been as global as transportation technology and political economy have allowed. So it is no surprise that the economist David Ricardo sought to make his theory of international trade based on comparative advantage clear and obvious by choosing an example that all his readers would appreciate — Portuguese wine exchanged for British wool.
A World of Wine
If you want to get a sense of wine’s global reach today I suggest you visit your local upscale supermarket or wine shop and survey the landscape there. I had my university students do this back in 2011 and reported the results in a Wine Economist column. The local Safeway store carried about 750 wines from a dozen different countries back them, which caught the students by surprise. The store has expanded its wine wall since then, with even more offerings, and the supermarket across the street has an even larger set of wine choices. Globalization delivers a world of wine to your doorstep!
Global trade in wine, both bottled and shipped in bulk, is incredibly important to wine producing countries. The largest producers — France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa — could not possibly sell all the wine they produce in their domestic markets. The collapse of global wine trade would be a global wine catastrophe.
And the trade in wine isn’t the whole story. Global markets exist for corks, capsules, winemaking services (think “flying winemakers”), and bottles, too. We’ve visited wineries in South Africa, for example, that import glass bottles from Europe and then export the finished wine to the UK, China, and the US. That’s globalization! Chinese glass has an even broader global reach.
Peak Wine Globalization?
By some measures globalization generally — taking into account goods, services, and people — reached a peak about the time of the global financial crisis and has since shrunk as a percentage of global GDP. Global wine resisted the de-globalization trend, however, but perhaps now is catching up.
Some of the macroeconomic drivers of wine imports and exports such as rising disposable incomes and stable exchange rates have been impacted by the Covid recession. And of course Covid restrictions and behavioral changes have negatively affected both on-premise wine sales and travel and tourism vectors, too.
There are attractive pockets and niche markets for wine sales all around the world and smart producers have sought them out. But the three big wine targets in recent years have been the UK, US, and China and each of these has become more challenging.
The UK issue is Brexit and it is shocking that there is so much uncertainty about the nature of future trade arrangements with just a few weeks to go before the exit from the EU is final. Britain’s unsuccessful attempt to navigate the twists and turns of Covid have pushed the country into a recession that is likely to grow worse before it gets better — a bad thing for income- and price-sensitive wine demand. Add to this the possibility of a botched Brexit and you might see Britain’s status in world wine trade diminish substantially.
Tit for Tat
The US market is suffering from Covid and recession problems as well and its own set of trade issues. The Trump trade wars have increased tariffs on wine imports from the EU, for example, but also generated retaliatory tariffs on US exports to China.
Wine has been caught in the crossfire in the Boeing-Airbus trade dispute, as The Wine Curmudgeon recently reported. The WTO has ruled that the US can impose tariffs on EU products in response to Airbus subsidies and that the EU can put tariffs on US products because of subsidies to Boeing. Wine figured prominently on the US tariff list, but the EU plans to focus on US spirits instead of wine, with new duties on vodka, rum, etc. on top of previous tariffs on U.S. bourbon.
How did the US wine industry dodge the tariff bullet in this case? Trade policy is sometimes very personal when you think about it. EU tariffs on US wine would fall heaviest on California producers — think for a moment important politicians from California. (Does the name Nancy come to mind?) Not necessarily someone the EU wants to upset.
Tariffs on US spirits fall heavily on Kentucky bourbon producers. Can you think of an important political leader from Kentucky that EU officials might enjoy roughing up a bit? Maybe some guy named Mitch? Just thinking out loud …
China vs Oz
And then there’s China. Down in Australia there is more than a bit of concern about wine trade with China. China has grown to be Australia’s largest wine export market, so rumors that the Chinese government might impose tariffs on or even ban imports of Aussie wine entirely are serious concerns. It is not clear that the US and UK, the other big export markets, could easily absorb the resulting flood of unsold wine.
Since tariffs are as political as they are economic, there is hope that, with a changing US administration, the troops in the wine trade wars might stand down and a truce be agreed. This could start with both sides backing down over the Boeing-Airbus duties. That would certainly be a good outcome and I don’t think it is impossible.
No Easy Fixes
But tariffs aren’t the only factor preventing a return to the previous era of wine globalization as noted above, so don’t expect a quick fix. International producers seeking to penetrate the US market in particular need to be aware of how much the on-trade to off-trade shift has changed which wines American consumers buy, where they buy them, and how much they are willing to pay.
The process of restoring wine’s global reach seems likely to be a process and probably a slow one, with some firms and regions more successful than others. The faster the global economy returns to health, the faster the clouds will clear for global wine.
Last week’s Wine Economist column presented a “Guide for the Overwhelmed” that analyzed the current crisis in terms of its perfect storm of component parts. This week begins a short series of articles that try to put the pieces back together in order to better see the outlines of the future of global wine in the post-Covid era.
Zero Sum Economics
MIT economist Lester Thurow’s 1980 book on The Zero-Sum Society argued that America and the world had reached a turning point. An era of growth, where an expanding social and economic pie made it possible for many to gain without corresponding losses for others, was coming to an end, Thurow argued. This change in the economic environment would have broad and lasting consequences.
Example? Under the right circumstances (which can be tricky), open trade is a recipe for positive-sum growth while protectionist trade wars are zero-sum at best and negative-sum at worst. The 1980s proved to be a fertile decade for trade barriers, competitive currency devaluations, and other protectionist policies.
What caused the sudden shift from positive-sum growth with rising overall living standards to zero-sum stagnation? It was complicated, of course. But the 1980 answer in a single word was oil or rather the oil crises of the 1970s and the higher costs and restricted supplies that resulted.
The world, it seems, had organized itself around the assumption of cheap, plentiful petroleum. Scarcity and higher costs shocked the system in ways that few even imagined and helped set the stage for a generation of stalled living standards and frustrated expectations.
The focus of the zero-sum society, Thurow argued, would shift from equity and growth to distribution and conflict. Everyone would struggle for an increased share of the stagnant or shrinking pie and some would succeed better than others, increasing inequality. I recall that Thurow grew up in Montana and he must have imagined his Big Sky world of open opportunity closing down around him.
Covid Crisis / Oil Crisis
It is easy to see in retrospect that the 21st century B.C. (Before Covid) world was organized around the assumption that people could safely gather together and cheaply move about. Spending on travel and tourism, for example, increased dramatically as a proportion of total expenditure in the past two decades. Wine tourism and cellar door sales were important sources of growth in our industry. The post-Covid world will be different indeed, although just how different and for how long remains to be determined.
Is it reasonable to compare the Covid-19’s world economic shock with the oil crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath? Everyone knows the oil crisis was a game changer. The Covid crisis is different in many ways, so it is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. From a macroeconomic standpoint, the oil shock was a supply-side event that produced stagflation. The Covid shock is more of a demand side disruption that risks a deflationary cycle. It is obviously too soon to know what the final picture will look like, but I would argue that Covid could prove in the end to be the bigger crisis in the long term.
The New Zero-Sum
Even if you accept that the Covid crisis shock is as serious now as the oil crisis shock was in its today, you might still disagree with the idea that the new world that it is creating will be more zero-sum than in the past, with a greater focus on how the pie is divided than in its growth. Why is the future likely to be a zero-sum environment?
One argument is that many parts of the economy are already zero-sum and that Covid simply magnifies and accelerates existing trends. The recovery from the initial Covid recession in the U.S., for example, wasn’t the V-shape that many hoped for but more of a K-shape. Some parts of the economy (especially the financial sector) recovered very quickly. Other sectors continue to struggle, a situation made worse by the lack sustained economic stimulus. The rising tide did not lift all boats and the financial pages are full of multi-billion dollar M&A deals as businesses bulk up to grab market share.
If you saw the strong Q3 U.S. GDP figures that were released last week, you might think that the economy has rebounded and will resume previous growth quickly. But those numbers are the result of literally trillions of dollars of stimulus (and debt), which are unlikely to be sustained. And they don’t take into account the Covid second wave tsunami, which seems to be sweeping across the globe.
The second argument for stagnant economic growth can be found in the financial news, where the yield curve hugs the zero axis for at least a five year time-frame and monetary policymakers have pledged their support for the foreseeable future even if fiscal actors hesitate to renew stimulus measures. The overall economy is on life support and monetary authorities who lack the power to shock it back into life are determined to at least prevent flat-lining.
The likely result, according to the most recent Q4 2020 global forecast by the Economic Intelligence Unit, is the “zombification” of the global economy characterized by slow growth, low inflation, and high levels of debt. Does this sound like a zero-sum environment?
Wine and the Zero-Sum Economy
It goes without saying that the economic environment I’ve just described is not favorable to the growth of the global wine industry. This is especially true because of the importance of on-premise wine sales, which are most directly affected by the Covid pandemic.
Is the global wine market now zero-sum? And what are the implications if it is? Come back next week for thoughts and speculations.
In my other life as an economics professor I studied financial crises and their implications (one of my academic books, which seems eerily relevant today, was called Mountains of Debt). One thing that I learned about the financial sector is that crises are generally followed by periods of consolidation.
Smaller, more fragile banks and investment firms fail or fall into the hands of larger firms (sometimes the big ones fail too as the Washington Mutual collapse of a few years ago reminds us). Eventually new community banks appear to fill the gaps that the bulked-up big banks leave behind.
Banks and Wine: No Joke
How are banking cycles related to the wine industry in the current coronavirus crisis? Well there is a joke that the only person crazier than a winery owner is her banker. But no one is laughing at jokes like that these days.
There is a serious connection. A recent Wine Business Monthly report suggests that the American wine industry looks a lot like the American finance industry and that a coronavirus recession shake-out is likely to lead to a wave of consolidation.
Only 56 out of the more than 10,000 U.S. wineries are really really large, producing more than 500,000 cases per year. These are the JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs of the American wine scene. Another 246 wineries are very large, producing between 50,000 and 500,000 cases annually. Taken together, this small number of wine producers accounts for most of the wine produced and consumed.
The Bottom of the Pyramid
At the other end of the scale are 2773 wineries that make between 1000 and 5000 cases a year and an incredible 6420 wineries that produce less than a thousand cases. These are the community banks of the wine world and they are the most dependent on direct sales including especially tasting room sales. They are, therefore, the most vulnerable today. About half the estimated $5.94 billion wine industry loss due to the crisis comes from lost cellar door sales.
And they are the most likely to experience severe economic distress that might result in sale or closure. Even before the crisis a surprisingly large number of wineries were quietly on the market for the right price. The recession will push that trend to the fore.
The WBM report notes that
Ninety-seven percent (97%) of all U.S. wineries produce less than 50,000 cases and are estimated to experience annual revenue losses of between 36% to 66% with smaller wineries most impacted. Projected losses increase as winery size decreases with wineries producing 1,000 to 5,000 cases expected to see lost revenue of 47.5% and wineries producing under 1,000 cases or less expected to lose 66% of revenue.
Just as some community banks manage to come out of a financial crisis in a stronger competitive position, some smaller wineries will emerge in relatively better shape, too. It is inspiring to see the effort that is going into customer relations and marketing to make up for the lack on in-person contact. I am sure that there are lessons learned now that we be valuable when the tasting rooms open again somewhere down the road.
3-Tier versus Two Speed
Some states have relaxed their direct-to-consumer shipping regulations, which benefits all wineries but will be especially important to small ones. Wine Curmudgeon speculates that this might be the start of important changes to the three tier distribution system that would open up the wine market. That would be a big benefit for the bottom of the wine pyramid.
But at the same time it seems likely that consolidation in the wine sector will be accompanied by similar trends in distribution and for the same basic reasons. Although much is lost in generalization, there is a tendency for larger distributors to focus their value chain on bigger retailers and larger wine producers. Scale matches scale matches scale. This pattern magnifies an on-going movement to a two-speed wine market with those in the middle range (both domestic and imports) squeezed in the process.
Here is a link to the Wine Economist’s coverage of the coronavirus recession. All of the most important factors affecting the wine economy remain unknown: how deep will the recession be, how long will it last, when will the economy be open, how soon (if at all) will consumers return to previous patterns? Add to the list the question of how long will it take people to drink up all that wine and spirits they piled into their shopping carts in March? Gosh, I hope they didn’t drink it all at once!
Big “W” Recession Threat
There is so much uncertainty at present that prediction is impossible, but these are some directions that seem likely given current trade winds. It appears increasingly likely, for example, that the “shape” of the coronavirus recession will be W (a very big W in this case) and not V or U (see this previous Wine Economist column about recession shapes).
Many forecasts assume a V-shaped recession, with a short sharp economic fall followed by a quick and decisive recovery. That would be the best case scenario and there are some early indications that that might be what’s happening in China.
But there is a significant threat that a second recession will strike just as the economy is recovering from the first. The second dip could come if another wave of coronavirus strikes and large parts of the economy need to be locked down again — this is the concern being expressed about China at the moment. Many experts seem to assume a second virus wave, but are uncertain about its impact.
But coronavirus 2 isn’t the only threat. Economists are increasingly concerned that the first virus recession will be followed by a financial crisis as all the missed payments and bad loans come due. There is a lot of credit risk right now, especially counter-party risk, which is the possibility that the trustworthy firm that owes you money might fail, bringing you down, because the people who owe it money can’t pay.
In wine terms, that’s what happens when your distributor can’t pay because its restaurant clients can’t pay. A credit collapse would likely speed consolidation in both the winery and distribution sectors.
Many state and local governments have played constructive roles in the current crisis, but they might unintentionally end up contributing to the W recession scenario. Many state-locals are constitutionally restricted from running budget deficits or borrowing except for capital projects like roads, bridges, and school buildings. The first recession wave will drive down their revenues, forcing them to cut back on spending and employment. That would make the second recession wave even worse.
None of this is set in stone. Truly heroic economic stimulus (helicopter money drops, fiscal bazooka blasts) has been deployed with more to come. This would be more than enough to deal with economic problems in normal times. But these times are not normal and the head of the IMF said last week that she’s concerned the global recession will be even worse than currently envisioned. Buckle up.
Do you recognize the big W in the photo above? It is the from the classic 1963 Stanley Kramer film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
As recent Wine Economist columns have reported, it’s very clear now that the world economy has fallen into a recession, with some countries and regions affected more than others. The depth of recession is hard to gauge. A few weeks ago I thought that things would be very bad here in the United States, with as many as 5 million unemployed. But by late last week almost 10 million had applied for unemployment benefits in just two weeks and the shoes are still falling. Incredible. What will things look like two weeks from now?
Silver lining predictions based on the current wine sales surge aside, it is pretty clear that the wine industry will be negatively impacted by the slowdown in spending. How much depends in part on what “shape” the recession takes, which is to say what factors dominate the decline and how long it takes to recover.
Recessions are like stomachs — they come in lots of different shapes (see the classic 1960s Alka-Seltzer tv commercial above for humorous examples). Will it be a V-shaped recession? Or will we be dealing with a W, U, or maybe an L? The shape matters for the global economy and for the wine economy, too. Herewith a brief survey of the economic landscape.
Best Case Scenario: The Deep V
Initial projections (and many current ones, too) forecast a deep V-shaped recession. The economy will shrink rapidly for two quarters and then rebound just as quickly, so that by this time next year we will be safely back to square one. The logic behind this is simple — everyone goes home to hide out from the coronavirus and, when the danger is passed, the Reset button is pressed everyone goes back to their old jobs and habits.
This scenario makes sense if you think of the coronavirus crisis as just an exaggerated version of the annual seasonal flu season with minimal permanent impacts. But not many hold that view any more from a medical standpoint and there are big doubts about it in terms of the economy. Not all the businesses that shut down as we entered the crisis will be coming back, even with historic levels of economic stimulus.
Consumers will find it hard to recover, too. A 2019 Federal Reserve survey found that about 40% of American households did not have the ready cash or credit to weather an unexpected $400 economic emergency. Those 10 million (and growing) unemployed workers are facing a lot more than $400 worth of problems. The crisis will badly undermine the foundations of their economic security.
But a deep V is not out of the question if the massive bazooka blasts of government aid and helicopter drops of interest-free money are effective. If they work and work fast, then the Reset button will engage a speedy recover. I hope that’s what happens.
I’m worried that the problems are deeper and that you can hit the Reset button until you are blue in the face, but the economy won’t spring back so quickly. If I am right, it is bad news for the wine trade, which might have hoped that consumers would stock up on wine now, drink it all up while sheltering in place, and come back for more in the fall.
Double Dip W
A second fairly optimistic theory currently making the rounds is that the economy rebounds as described above, but then a second coronavirus pandemic wave appears in the fall or early next year. The necessarily closures and quarantines would trigger a second recession, but it would be smaller and shorter because the world would be better prepared.
I don’t have a strong opinion about the double dip recession scenario except to note that (1) there is no reason to think that the current pandemic will be the last we will see and (2) I sure hope we learn from our mistakes this time around.
The double dip W complicates things for wine because it makes it even harder to predict when a sustained economic recover would power higher wine sales. Instability and uncertainty — is this the new normal?
The Classic U-Shaped Recession
The U-shaped scenario is a third possibility. The U-shape recession is longer in duration but less deep than the V or the W. Full recover might take 3 to 5 years, not a few months. This is the classic recession shape and it sometimes works this way. Demand falls for any number of reasons, so that inventory builds up and production slows down and unemployment rises (which further depresses demand). Excess inventories are eventually drawn down and new orders placed, which stimulates production creates incomes and jobs, and encourages a rebound in demand.
The U shape would be a problem for wine because several years of depressed demand would exacerbate the structural wine surpluses that plague the industry both in the U.S. and in many other wine-producing countries. Supply-side vineyard adjustments, which are already recommended in order to reduce capacity, would be critical.
There is reason to doubt the U-shape scenario, however. First, the coronavirus recession is more than just falling demand, so a demand-based theory doesn’t seem to fit all that well. And, second, it would seem like the bazookas and helicopters would shorten the cycle if this scenario holds, so the U would become a V. That’s a bit of good news, which I supply at this point because things are about to get very dark.
L is for Liquidity Trap
The worst case scenario, from a strictly economic standpoint would be an L-shaped recovery. The global economy plunges and then … does not recover for a very long time. An extended recession is of course very bad for the wine industry as it would undercut the economic foundations of wine buyers of all generations.
There are a couple of realistic scenarios that could lead to such an outcome.
The first is a financial crisis. The coronavirus recession may have started with health issues, but there is a high probability that a financial crisis will follow. Not necessarily a banking crisis this time, because banks are better capitalized than a decade ago, although banks and non-bank lenders are still vulnerable The worry focuses on weakness in and liquidity of corporate junk bond debt and emerging market debt and the contagion that collapses in these markets can cause. You might add state and local debt problems to the mix if the crisis persists for more than a year.
We have already seen several instances of financial markets freezing up, or nearly so, in a panic for liquidity. This could create the conditions for a liquidity trap, which is a situation where financial actors are so concerned about liquidity that they soak up any new funds that are injected into the financial system, not spending, investing, or lending. Monetary policy, even maybe helicopter money, is impotent because the new funds just disappear into reserves with no real economy impact.
You can call the second scenario the Zombie Economy and it goes like this. Many firms collapse during the coronavirus crisis, but are kept alive — just barely — by aggressive government support. They don’t die, but they aren’t really alive enough to actually recover either. They continue on for years soaking up trillions of dollars of (debt-financed) resources and preventing an economic shake-out that would free up resources for self-sustained growth.
Is the Zombie L-curve possible? It seems hard to believe … until you call it by its other name: post-bubble Japan.
What’s going to happen? What will the recession look like? I really don’t know, but I hope that the coronavirus health crisis and the economic dislocation it causes are both milder than seems likely at this point and that we return to health quickly. Fingers crossed that the massive economic stimulus that is being unleashed around the world is effective.
What can the coffee industry learn from wine (and vice versa)? That’s the question that Morten Scholer wanted to examine when he set out to write Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared. It is the kind of question that gets attention here at The Wine Economist, where we search for lessons about the future of wine by looking at all sorts of other products ranging from craft beer to almond milk and beyond.
Coffee and wine are an interesting pairing. Both are global consumer goods, traded around the world for centuries. But, as Scholer points out, they differ in a hundred ways. Coffee, for example, is relatively young as an international commodity — 800 years compared to maybe 8000 years for wine.
North-North versus North-South
The most important markets for both coffee and wine are in the advanced industrialized world, as you might guess, but while a lot of wine is also produced there (Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the U.S.), coffee comes mainly from the developing world. Wine trade is thus mainly north-north (with important exceptions such as Argentina and South Africa), while coffee trade tends to be north-south.
So what can wine and coffee learn from each other? Scholer probably knows, but he wants his readers to find their own answers, which is both frustrating and engaging. It is frustrating because it is natural to seek out an over-arching narrative to help organize and guide the reader through the dozens and dozens of topics covered. You won’t find that here.
Some of the comparisons are just plain fun, as in the chapter on quality and quality control when the wine aroma wheel is set alongside a coffee tasters flavor wheel. Who knew that flavors and aromas could be so complicated and that coffee and wine could have so many sensory qualities in common?
Other comparisons are seriously revealing. I found the comparative analysis of the development of sustainability movements in coffee and wine very interesting. Sustainability in coffee began as a top-down movement initially focused on assuring that growers received a fair return on their efforts, although a wider range of concerns are now addressed. Sustainability in wine, on the other hand, was a bottom-up movement based on grower concerns about environmental issues that has also broadened.
There are three main global sustainability programs for coffee, Scholer tells us, and almost half of world production meets these standards, although only about a third is marketed that way. In wine there are many different sustainability standards and programs reflecting the localized bottom-up origins of the movement. It is a complicated situation, Scholer argues, and he believes that sustainability standards for coffee are more complex than for wine in part because coffee has a long and complex value chain and meaningful sustainability must extend across the entire chain. Market structure really matters.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know?
Scholer’s eleven chapters take pretty much every aspect of wine and coffee and then breaks them down into comparative elements. Thus the reader moves from history to botany and agronomy, processing and quality control, patterns of trade, packaging and logistics, consumption patterns, sustainability issues, organizations and competitiions, cultural values, and finally a country-by-country side-by-side snapshort. An appendix briefly expands the book’s domain, adding cocoa, tea, and beer to the comparative mix.
Each section is peppered by boxes, charts and tables and illuminated with maps. If you are just looking for interesting tidbits, they are there on every page. Hard to put the book down.
Back to the Big Picture
But if you are looking for the answer to that big question about what wine and coffee have to say to each other, more effort is required. Scholer’s method is a bit like pointilist painting, where the image only becomes clear when you stand back a ways. What’s the big picture? Honestly, I am still working on it. Maybe one big macro answer doesn’t exist and that the insights are best appreciated at the micro level.
But I think it’s worth the effort to think about coffee and wine seriously. I tried to do that in a pair of Wine Economist columns back in 2009. My focus then was on the question of why the price difference between the cheapest and most expensive wines was so much greater than for the cheapest and costliest coffees. Wine does better than coffee in spanning the space from everyday commodity to luxury product. But, I wrote then, coffee will try to catch up and I think that’s happening today.
Scholer’s Coffee and Wine is an intriguing book. You can try to solve its riddle or just enjoy learning all about these two global industries. Either way, there’s food (and drink) for thought.
“The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.
The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my bookExtreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.
Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.
Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.
When I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.
Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration? The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.
Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.
Australia’s Boom and Bust
No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.
This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.
Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports
There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.
Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.
No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.
But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.
The notion that we must redraw the world wine map comes up a lot. Climate change is redrawing the map — you’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And I’ve written about how globalization is redrawing the world wine map. And money — changing consumer patterns across the globe and among generations — is changing things, too.
The Great Convergence
The idea that we must redraw the wine map is easy to talk about, but actually doing it turns out to be devilishly difficult. But that’s the task that Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and their team of expert collaborators set for themselves in the revisions that produced this 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wine. It’s quite an achievement.
Robinson discusses the challenge in her introduction to the weighty volume. A couple of decades ago it seemed like wine was on the path to global homogenization, she writes, with wine production everywhere converging on a few marketable varieties and even fewer popular styles. I think the rise of efficient international bulk wine transport put a premium on sameness — more market opportunities if your Chilean wine can seamlessly substitute for California or Australia juice.
Cool is Hot
I won’t say that the convergence has stopped, but there’s been a reaction to it that focuses on differences and highlights indigenous grape varieties and traditional wine-making styles. Climate change and scientific research have altered wine’s physical domain, pushing grapevines into unexpected places. Tasmania and England are hot, attracting lots of attention and investment, precisely because they are cool — cool-climate, that is.
It might once have been possible to think about wine in terms of old world and new world, but today’s map is more of a tapestry, with global elements interwoven with exciting local developments. How can this dynamic be captured in a wine atlas? There are a couple of obvious approaches and I think Johnson and Robinson have chosen the best and most difficult one for this book.
The Great Revision
So how do you redraw a world wine atlas? One approach I have seen to updating a big book makes heavy use of text boxes and call-outs. The bulk of the text gets a once-over-lightly revision, while the new material is patched into using the boxes. This makes the new material easy to spot and updating the book the next time is basically updating the boxes. This saves time and money, but the result is necessarily uneven if only because some topics need a lot of updating and others less so, but the editorial format often calls for equal numbers of box opportunities.
Much harder to do — so hard with a 400+ page book that it is almost crazy — is to rewrite everything taking the dynamic elements fully into account. That, of course, is what we have in this 8th edition. The changes are not always obvious because they have been seamlessly integrated, but they are there on every page.
Literally Redrawing the Map
Inevitably, this process means that the maps at the core of any atlas have to change. All 230 of them (!) have been updated as necessary and 20 new maps drawn (plus new 3-D maps and soil maps). Seven regions get their own entries for the first time: Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, British Columbia, St. Helena (Napa Valley), Brazil, and Uruguay.
You might think the challenge of a 416-page atlas is to fill the space, but the reality is just the opposite. There’s an emphasis of economy and selectivity throughout. Each entry is a delicate balance of breadth versus depth and, while those with specialized interests may be frustrated, I think on the whole it works pretty well. That said, I’d love to see even more detail about China (which was allocated an addition page in this revision), since the wine world’s center of gravity is slowly shifting in that direction.
The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine is a great achievement. Highly recommended.
Sue and I did our best to learn all we could about the Romanian wine industry during our visit to participate in the International Wine Competition Bucharest in Iasi, but inevitably we only scratched the surface. Romania is a diverse country with a complicated wine industry. Impossible to understand with confidence on the basis of just a few days.
A Wine Region in Motion
So we are operating on first impressions, not detailed analysis, but first impressions can be important. One strong impression was of dynamism. It was hard to resist the enthusiasm of the people we met and their sense that Romanian wine is on the move, reaching new and higher levels.
Indications of this ambition were all around us, but perhaps most clearly visible when the competition crew took a break to visit the Cotnari region. We got a late start getting out of Iasi because the morning’s judging session had gone into over-time (one of the juror groups — mine! — moved much slower than the rest). So the light was fading by the time our coach rolled into Cotnari.
S.C. Cotnari S.A. is one of Romania’s largest wineries and we saw its name everywhere during our visit — on the wines, of course, on banners at lunch, and as sponsor of a wine, food, and music festival in the square in front of our hotel. The big sign above the winery shined like a beacon as night fell.
Cotnari was founded in 1948, during the collective era of Romanian wine, rebuilt in 1968, and then taken private in a management buyout in 2000. Cotnari dominates the region it is named for, with 1360 heactares of vines. Several ranges of wines, focusing on native grape varieties, are produced starting with box wines and ending with library selections of Grasa de Cotnari wines called Vinoteque.
The winery was impressive for the breadth of production as well as the sheer scale (our hosts were proud of the rows of big stainless steel tanks we saw). The visitor facilities, which seem to cater to groups, caught our attention. The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived, with live traditional music and generous servings of local dishes (sarmale — yum!) to pair with the Cotnari wine.
The people at Cotnari clearly think big, which is important. But we saw more evidence of dynamism before we entered the restaurant door. Our first stop was actually another winery with a similar name: Casa de Vinuri Cotnari . The Cotnari House of Wine is much younger than its big brother — founded just a few years ago in 2011 — but represents the next generation of wine here. I say this not just because it focuses exclusively on quality native-variety wines, but also because it is a project of the next generation of the family that runs Cotnari — founded and developed with their parents’ support.
Casa de Vinuri Cotnari is a work in progress, with modern facilities build over and around an old cellar where the barrels are still stored. Walking through the construction site, the ranks of huge stainless steel tanks glimmered in the moonlight. There is scale here, too, with 350 hectares of vines, but clear focus on upscale market opportunities.
Sources of Dynamism
Sue and I were fortunate to learn about several other wineries — Domenile Averesti, Licorna Winehouse, LacertA Winery,Davino, and the exciting Mierla Alba project — that are leaders in various ways of the dynamic movement we sensed. Based on the wines we tasted and the people we met, it is hard to resist the feeling that Romanian wine is on the move.
What accounts for the dynamism? No single factor, of course. Clearly there is a sense that there are opportunities to be seized among those inside the wine bubble. But there are also important investments coming from ambitious individuals and firms outside the domestic wine scene and outside of Romania, too.
Romanians and Italians have a lot in common (you can hear it in the language) and that extends to wine. Vitis Metamorfosis, a leading Dealu Mare region premium wine producer, is an Antinori family wine project.
The European Union is also an important part of the story. We were frequently shown shiny new tanks and bottling equipment, for example, and our hosts said simply “EU” and smiled. Money from the EU, meant to help modernize the Romanian wine industry and make it more competitive, has funded a fair number of these projects.
What factors could push back the rising tide of Romanian wine? Based on first impressions, here is a briefly list of things that I would worry about. The domestic market is intensely important for Romanian producers and it is never easy to guide consumers to more premium products. The fact of high consumption of home-produced wine combined with increased imports makes the local market a tough competitive environment (no wonder Cotnari makes sure their name is everywhere!).
I am not sure how important exports are at this point because the domestic market is so large, but eventually they will be a factor and then Romanian producers will need to be even more concerned about establishing “Brand Romania” and making sure that there is a high overall level of quality since one bad bottle can ruin reputation for everyone.
I won’t open the subject of what “Brand Romania” could or should be, but it is fair to say that building it will require a good deal of cooperation and teamwork. And this is one area where there are obvious challenges. Indeed, every time we asked about teamwork among wine producers or regions we were met with a sad shaking of heads. Hasn’t happened. Not going to happen. It is a shame, they said.
Everyone knows that it is important to work together, but making it happen is still a problem, we were told. Why is cooperation so difficult? It is hard to say and I am sure it is a complicated situation that goes beyond first impressions. Some have written that the stubborn independence of Romanian wine producers is an understandable reaction to the bad old government collective days. But no one we talked with saw that as the source of the problem.
If everyone looks out only for themselves, who looks after the big picture? That’s a question still seeking an answer, but not a uniquely Romanian question. We’ve visited many wine regions where producers are still trying to figure out how to work together toward a common goal instead of arguing over what that goal might be or just turning their backs.
Sue and I are optimistic about Romania’s success. Excellent wines, smart, determined people. We raise our glasses to the future of Romanian wine!
Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Or is it a bubble that’s eventually going to pop? That’s roughly the question that an Italian journalist asked me a few weeks ago and it is easy to appreciate the concern behind it. The market for Prosecco has blossomed, especially in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, the three largest export markets, and Prosecco producers are both excited and anxious about their future prospects.
U.S. Sparkling Wine Imports January-June 2018
A quick glance at data for U.S. sparkling wine imports January-June 2018 as reported by Wine-By-Numbers (see above) shows strong growth. Italian sparking wine (mainly Prosecco) imports grew 16% by volume and 28.3% by value in the first six months of the year despite rising average dollar import price. Only the Rosé import category is growing faster than Prosecco.
Beyond Bubbles for Birthdays
I am a wine-glass half-full kind of person, so my answer to the journalist’s query was optimistic. The question isn’t so much why U.S. and U.K. consumers are drinking more sparkling wine (and especially Prosecco) now — it is why they didn’t embrace bubbles more ardently in the past? Sparkling wine has always been an attractive option, but for some reason it became associated with special occasions. Bubbles aren’t just for birthdays and New Year any more.
But booms often contain the seeds of their own demise — either in the form of bust, fizzle, plateau, or something else. Prosecco may be no different. Having just returned from a quick visit to Prosecco-ville to speak at an award ceremony in Conegliano (see next week’s column), I can report that there is concern about this possibility within the industry.
Most of the Prosecco on the market is DOC Prosecco produced by makers that range from the very large such as La Marca, which is distributed by Gallo, to the relatively small. There are economies of scale in Prosecco-making, so bigger can be better from a profit standpoint. La Marca, for example is a second level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — and its many members keep its pressurized tanks, used for the secondary fermentation, efficiently supplied with a river of base wine.
Pretty in Pink?
When quantity is the driving force, the focus can easily become one of chasing the market to increase sales, raise production, increase scale economies, and lower cost. Thus there is an incentive to look for incremental sales wherever they can be found.
This might be part of the movement to certify DOC Prosecco Rosé. Bubbles are hot. Pink wine is hotter. Pink bubbles should set the market on fire. The Glera grape that is used to make Prosecco is white, not red, but production rules allow the use of up to 15% of other approved grape varieties. If those grapes are Pinot Noir, which is grown in this region, the result is a pink sparkling wine. Pink Prosecco isn’t a thing yet, since the rules don’t allow this designation, but it might be permitted very soon.
Pink Prosecco — who could object? Well, many people, actually. The concern is that Prosecco’s identity is not well established — many consumers think Prosecco is the grape name and others are not certain exactly sure where it comes from. Prosecco’s success may come in part from the fact that consumers don’t fret about these things and simply enjoy the experience.
No One Laughed
But some producers worry that by broadening the Prosecco category with a pink wine, winemakers will further dilute the brand identity to the point where it is just a generic sparkling wine, one of the ingredients in Aperol spritz, unable to command a price premium. The slope that runs down the commodity wine hill can be slippery.
At one point during our visit I joked that, since blue wines are getting some attention these days, maybe some Prosecco producers would move in that direction. Pink, Blue, White — all colors of Prosecco for all occasions. No one laughed. I guess blue Prosecco is nothing to joke about. It’s part of that slippery slope.
The concern that Prosecco’s brand may be undermined seemed particular strong in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG zone between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Supply is more limited in the DOCG zone and costs are higher because, unlike the valley vineyards where much DOC Prosecco is grown, the hillside terraces aren’t all suitable for mechanical harvesting or as easy to maintain generally.
What a Mouthful!
Prosecco Superiore is therefore about value more than volume and maintaining product differentiation — of Prosecco versus generic sparkling wine and of DOCG Prosecco versus DOC production — is very important. Wine marketing guru Paul Wagner, who led our small press tour, never got tired of pointing out what a challenge the DOCG producers set by branding themselves as Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG . What a mouthful!
Prosecco Superiore suggests a premium product and is probably the right brand to try to build, although Americans have little experience with the Superiore designation for wines generally. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene reference is meant to indicate that these are wines of origin — grown in a particular place, but most consumers don’t know what that place is or exactly how to pronounce the place names either.
Glass by Glass by Glass
I have done Prosecco tastings for non-profit groups and I note that consumers are often surprised when they taste the DOCG product, especially DOCG Brut. They like Prosecco a lot, but think of it generically as defined by DOC Extra Dry wines. They are surprised when they can taste a difference. (I’ve had the same reaction in tastings of Argentina Malbecs from different production zones).
Based on my very limited personal experience, it seems to me the key to differentiating Prosecco from other sparkling wines and DOCG Prosecco from the DOC wines is going to involve a lot of hard work. Consumers won’t understand the differences if you just tell them. You can’t tell people how something tastes. You have to show them, and let them experience it for themselves one glass at a time.
Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Yes, I think it is, but it will take work to shore up its foundation and simply chasing market share, as tempting as that it, may not be the best long-term strategy.