Wine Industry Consolidation & the Big “W” Recession Threat

bigw-9In 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.

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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.”

 

Wine & the Coronavirus Recession: Shaping Up the Prospects for Recovery

 

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?

20200404_cuk1280Silver 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.

Book Review: What Can Wine and Coffee Learn from Each Other?

51wdqn2bcpyl._sx324_bo1204203200_Morten Scholer, Coffee and Wine: Two Worlds Compared. Matador/Troubador, 2018.

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.

Serious Fun

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.

Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

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 book Extreme 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.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen 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.

Ecological Limits?

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.

Wine Book Review: Redrawing the World Wine Map

atlasHugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine 8th edition. Mitchell Beazley, 2019.

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.

Bottom Line

The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine is a great achievement. Highly recommended.

What’s Ahead for Romanian Wine?

cotnariSue 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

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.

Thinking Big

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.

tanksCasa 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.

Inevitable Headwinds

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?

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

usimports

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

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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.

Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

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The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

Book Review: Intriguing Variations on a Wine Globalization Theme

9781107192928Wine Globalization: A New Comparative History edited by Kym Anderson and Vicente Pinilla, Cambridge University Press, 2018. (See also The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work edited by Kym Anderson, Edward Elgar, 2004.)

The fact that wine is such a global business was one of factors that motivated me to study it seriously in the first place. My 2005 book Globaloney (named a Best Business Book of that year by Library Journal) included a chapter that examined the evolution of global wine markets and that got me hooked.

Globalization’s Terroir

Globaloney was a heart a series of case studies that together argued that  globalization is not an  unstoppable tsunami that sweeps away all before it, but rather a complex set of forces that play out differently in different industries. Fast food globalization, for example, is different from slow food globalization. And while high fashion and used clothing are both traded in global markets and acted upon by some of the same general forces, their specific patterns and impacts are very different.

Globalization reflects its terroir, I used to tell audiences at book talks, and the volume that Kym Anderson, Vincente Pinilla, and their talented team of authors have assembled take this idea one step further. The core of the book is a collection of historical case studies of how national wine industries have developed in both the old and new wine worlds in the context of global markets.

Two things struck me as I read the studies. First, I was excited by how detailed and interesting this research is. Fascinating. Irresistible. I couldn’t wait to turn the page to read more.

The second striking feature was how much wine globalization really does reflect its terroir. Although there are some common themes (the impact of phylloxera and the Great Depression, for example), the fact is that wine has developed and evolved in distinctly different ways in different parts of the wine world. Globalization has been an important factor in many cases, but not in the same way everywhere.

Argentina’s Unique History

Let me use the excellent chapter on Argentina by Steve Stein and Ana Maria Mateu as an example. Argentina’s wine history has been shaped by a series of strong internal and external forces. Let’s start with the grapes. Spanish missionaries from the Canary Islands brought high-yielding low-quality Criolla grapes with them and this set the tone for wine-making and drinking for much of the country’s history.

French wine authority Michel Aimé Pouget was lured away from his work in Chile to improve wine quality and he brought higher quality grapevines, including especially Malbec. Alas, the authors tell us, Malbec was frequently valued less for the quality of its wines than the fact that they were dark and strong and could therefore successfully be diluted with water without completely losing their identity as wine. Low standards like this defined the domestic market for decades.

British influence, in the form of the railroads that they financed and helped to build, had a profound impact on Argentina wine. Prior to the railroads that connected Mendoza and San Juan with bustling Buenos Aires, the domestic wine industry was quite small.

Mendoza and environs made wine for local consumption. Buenos Aires residents (more and more of them immigrants from Spain and Italy) filled their glasses with imported wine. Lower land transportation costs changed everything  when the train line was completed, expanding the internal market and fostering a wine boom.

Anticipating the impact of the railroads, Mendoza officials sent recruiters to Europe to bring back experienced Spanish and Italian wine-growers and wine-makers who expanded the industry. With phylloxera spreading at home and hard times all around, the difficult decision to uproot and replant families and businesses to immigrant-hungry Argentina was easy to  make.

Peso Problems

The list of international and global forces and effects in Argentina is a long one and I  only scratch the surface here. In recent decades, for example, the government’s strong-peso policy of the 1990s (the peso was linked to the U.S. dollar) made imports of wine-making equipment and technology artificially cheap and wineries were quickly upgraded. The collapse of this monetary system and the peso crisis that followed made the output of those wineries artificially cheap to foreign buyers, a factor in the country’s wine export boom.

Rapid domestic inflation combined with an unyielding exchange rate earlier this decade made the peso over-valued again and the wine export boom fizzled. Policies are changing now. Perhaps the export boom will return, albeit in a different form. Too soon to tell at this point.

Argentina’s wine history and its experience with international and global forces is fascinating and other chapters in the book are equally interesting. Wine’s story is a complicated one, with each nation developing and responding in a different way depending on many factors including history, culture, institutional structure, timing, and government policy.

This book is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding the wine world today and how we got here. The volume concludes with “Projecting Global Wine Markets to 2025” by Kym Anderson and his colleague Glyn Wittwer, a set of forecasts and analyses based upon their econometric model of global wine markets.

Economists Know the Price of Everything …

Wine Globalization has many strengths that recommend it to a broad readership and one obvious weakness that will discourage some who would otherwise benefit from studying it: the price. If you are not familiar with the academic book market, the price of this volume will take your breath away: $139.50 for the hardback and $124 for the Kindle on Amazon.com.

This is how books are often priced by academic publishers, who need to spread high fixed costs over small expected press runs.  If you have a son or daughter in college (or are in college yourself), you already know what textbooks cost these days. Incredible.

But all the news about price is not so discouraging. Kym Anderson and his colleagues at the Wine Economics Research Center at the University of Adelaide provide an enormous array of useful and interesting global wine market data (some of which informs the Wine Globalization volume) for the attractive price of … free. Free!  Here are some of the data sets you might want to explore. (You can find even more data here.)

Anderson, K., S. Nelgen and V. Pinilla, Database of Global Wine Markets: A Statistical Compendium, 1860 to 2016 (November 2017)

Anderson, K., S. Nelgen and V. Pinilla (with the assistance of A.J. Holmes), Annual Database of Global Wine Markets, 1835 to 2016 (November 2017)

Holmes, A.J. and K. Anderson (2017). Annual Database of National Beverage Consumption Volumes and Expenditures, 1950 to 2015 (July 2017)

Wine Globalization is a valuable contribution to our understanding of world wine markets. Highly recommended. And that’s not globaloney!

Around the World in Eighty Wines: Racing to the Finish Line

51ppzy7bwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_Sue and I spend so much time travelling to visit the world’s wine regions and speaking to wine industry groups that we sometimes feel a bit like Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, the characters in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days.

That feeling and the experiences that go with it are one of the inspirations for my next book, Around the World in Eighty Wines, which will be released on November 1, 2017. (You can already pre-order it on Amazon.com!).

Although our travels continue (we are off to Spain next week and then to Cyprus in May), at some point it is necessary to draw a line and declare the book itself finished. And that’s what I did today, when I finished proofing the copy-edited manuscript and sent it in to my production editor at Rowman & Littlefield right on deadline.

The Wine Economist will take a break for a few weeks while we are in Spain for the FEV General Assembly meetings and visits with winemakers there. Circle back in a few weeks to see what’s new at The Wine Economist. Cheers!

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I asked a few friends to read the manuscript and write brief “blurbs” for the book cover. Here is what we have so far. Enjoy!

This captivating book is about more than just wine—it’s about human nature, travel, and enjoyment. As the Rick Steves of the wine world, Mike’s talents as a writer and storyteller transport the reader to a new territory to explore as each of the eighty wines are opened.
Howard Soon, Master Winemaker, Sandhill Wines

Mike Veseth takes the reader on a Phileas Fogg–inspired odyssey in search of the answer to the question: why wine? The solution is a true global adventure—a mosaic of stories that illuminate wine beyond the glass to embody the enduring human spirit through controversy, love, endurance, loss, and hope. I was packing my bags to join the journey before the end of part one. A must-read for all who love wine and life.
Michelle Williams, freelance writer and author of the Rockin Red Blog

Like a master blender, Mike Veseth stimulates the mind’s appetite with a wonderful balance of illusion and substance, as complex as a fine wine.Structured with cultural nuance and imagination, this delightful book is a must-read for serious wine enthusiasts and neophytes alike. Circumnavigating the world in eighty wines should be enjoyed with a glass of your favorite origin in hand.
George Sandeman, Sogrape Vinhos, Portugal

Mike Veseth has deftly captured the magical worldwide journey of wine. This is a great rollicking educational roller coaster of a ride that the global fraternity of wine enthusiasts will embrace.
Robert Hill-Smith, vigneron, Yalumba, Australia