Cooper’s Hawk Winery Leverages Its Unique Business Model

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It is time to circle back to check in on one of America’s most innovative wine companies: Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant.  Cooper’s Hawk has carved out an unexpected market segment (it is too big to be called a niche) and built a loyal following. Can its unique business model continue to thrive in today’s challenging wine business environment?

Cooper’s Hawk by the Numbers

The numbers are impressive. The big winery in Woodridge, Illinois produced 675,000 cases of wine in 2019, according to Wine Business Monthly data, making it the 29th largest wine company in the U.S. — just behind Hess Family Wine Estates and ahead of Wente Vineyards in the U.S league table. Grapes come from the main U.S. vineyard regions and select international sources.

The wines are sold exclusively through a 43-location restaurant/tasting room network that supports what might be the largest wine club in the world with nearly 450,000 members. That takes my breath away.

I first wrote about Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in a 2018 Wine Economist column. I was impressed with the vision — bringing wine country (and wine!) to consumers located far away from California vineyards. Customers enter through a “Napa-style” tasting room that includes a gourmet foods market space. The upscale casual restaurant features Cooper’s Hawk wines by the bottle, glass, or flight, with carefully-chosen pairings suggested for each menu item.  Wine club members can pick up their “wine of the month” at the tasting room, giving them an opportunity to sample other wines and to dine in the restaurant.

The thing that excited me about Cooper’s Hawk Winery back in 2018 was the fact that they were successfully engaging consumers in a new way and obviously building interest in wine in general while expanding their own customer base. Bringing a taste of wine country to the local mall or other nearby location might not work for everyone, but it obviously resonates with a lot of folks who can’t get to wine country themselves but still want a bit of that experience.

Epic fail: Sue and I have so far failed in our resolution to experience a Cooper’s Hawk restaurant first hand, but that makes sense in a way when you think about it. We spend a lot of our time in wine country, which is exactly where Cooper’s Hawk is not. So we were excited when we received an invitation to attend a celebratory virtual tasting of Cooper’s Hawk and other wines.

Go Big in Chicago

The occasion for the celebration was the announcement that Cooper’s Hawk’s new flagship location Esquire Chicago received a 2020 Best of Award of Excellence recognition from Wine Spectator magazine.  The 23,000 square foot facility features a 50-foot high wine tower and offers guests 1200 different wine selections. The list includes the Cooper’s Hawk wines, of course, but also hundreds of other wines from wine producers around the globe, which is a first for Cooper’s Hawk.

I suppose you could say that Esquire Chicago and the tall wine tower is at least in part a reaction to some of the key wine market trends of the last few years. Consumers have shown a willingness to broaden their comfort zone of wine styles and, via premiumization, to stretch the budget a bit, too. If the goal of the Cooper’s Hawk organization is to unlock consumer passion for wine by simplifying choice and controlling quality and value, Esquire Chicago aims to provide opportunities to turn the flame up a notch or two. Accordingly, the wines we tasted  in the virtual seminar included two wines from Bordeaux and two Cooper’s Hawk California blends.

Thankfully there was no attempt to create a “Judgement of Paris” result. The purpose wasn’t to probe whether Cooper’s Hawk wines are better than those from Bordeaux, but simply to taste and enjoy different wines of similar general types much as an Esquire Chicago guest might do in a tasting flight.  Perfect. So we sampled a left-bank Bordeaux, Chateau La Tonnelle, alongside a Cabernet-forward Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage blend made from Mendocino-sourced grapes. Then we tried Chateau Coutet from the right bank along with a Merlot-forward Cooper’s Hawk Napa/Sonoma blend called Camille Proud, a special creation of CHW’s Master Sommelier Emily Wines made to honor powerful women role models.

The wines were all very good and, because they were still pretty young, even better when we returned to them over the next two days. If these are representative of the kinds of experiences that Emily Wines and Esquire Chicago sommelier Jordyn Sotelo create, then I think their guests are in good hands.

How important is the Wine Spectator restaurant award? Those who attain it are obviously proud, but there are doubters, too. There was even a case of a hoax a few years ago when someone faked an application for the award and fooled the Wine Spectator staff. My opinion is this. There are wine enthusiasts (like you, perhaps) who seek out restaurants that take wine seriously and offer interesting wine choices. A Wine Spectator award is a way for the restaurant to signal consumers of their interest in and commitment to wine.  In a world of asymmetric information (the famous “market for lemons”) such signals can be very valuable.

Navigating Uncharted Waters

Any advantage is worthwhile in the current market environment. Although we did not talk about it during the celebration tasting, the shadow of the conoravirus pandemic is hard to avoid.  This is a difficult time to be in the restaurant business and not the best time for in-person tasting room sales, either. And, of course, Cooper’s Hawk has uniquely combined these two now-problematic areas to define its business model. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it?

But that doesn’t take into account the huge wine club, which seems to be proving itself even more important than before. With almost 450,000 members, the possibilities for engagement though virtual tastings (like ours, but scaled up considerably) are pretty much endless.  And curbside pick up of wine club shipments and to-go restaurant meals, too, where allowed,  ought to cushion somewhat the economic impacts while fostering relationships with sheltered club members.

So triple congratulations to Cooper’s Hawk: for their flagship Esquire Chicago restaurant, for the Wine Spectator recognition, and for their remarkable achievement in keeping so many club members engaged with wine during this difficult period.

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Thanks to Cooper’s Hawk for inviting us to the virtual tasting and to Emily Wines and Jordyn Sotelo for leading the discussion. Fingers crossed that readers everywhere will be able to safely visit CHW and enjoy their hospitality in person before too many more weeks have passed.

Wine & Coronavirus Recession: Three Questions

51ufhc3glvl._sx361_bo1204203200_This is the Age of Uncertainty (to reference the title of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous book) both in general and with respect to the wine industry. Everyone’s looking  for answers as they confront a murky future. But most answers right now (especially including my own) are at best informed speculation, subject to frequent revision.

If we can’t have solid answers, maybe the next best thing is to try to refine the questions. Herewith my attempt to pin down three important questions about the near- and intermediate-term wine market and environment.

Please use the comments section below to raise other questions that need attention now

Q1: Recession Uncertainties

It is clear that the conoravirus pandemic and its health and economic effects have  produced a global recession of historic proportions.  Income and wealth have declined and unemployment increased. There is no way that wine cannot be affected by such an economic downturn. Many questions about the recession beg for answers. How deep?  How long? The Great Depression made a indelible mark on the people who lived through it. Will the coronoavirus recession do the same?

There are pluses and minus to consider. Monetary and fiscal stimulus packages have been huge by historical standards — much larger than during the Great Recession of a dozen years ago.  And we’ve seen some bright spots in the data. The May employment numbers in the U.S. surprised nearly everyone with a strong net increase in jobs and decrease in unemployment. A short, sharp V-shaped recession, while still unlikely, may not be as impossible as most of us believed.

But there are problems starting with the jobs report figures themselves, which may result in under-estimates of unemployment by several percentage points because of unusual data collection and classification problems created in part by the deep churning of the labor market.  I am also very concerned about changes in state-local government employment. Budget deficits in the second half of the year may lead to big lay-offs in local governments just as economic re-opening brings others back to the workplace. Programs to stabilize employment have so far focused on private sector jobs and left public sector employment pretty much alone. This will be a problem, but how big is unclear.

Bottom Line: I think it is all going to come down to the question of consumer spending.  Governments have already gone all-in — they may not have much more to contribute to a recovery. Business investment — the real kind, not the stock market — will probably lag consumers, not lead them. And trade has fallen taking potential net export gains down, too. It’s going to be up to consumers to get the economy moving.

Consumers have surprised many analysts by saving an amazingly high proportion (about 30%) of their incomes in recent weeks, which may be good for their individual financial security but unhelpful in terms of  increasing aggregate demand. It is easy to say that they didn’t spend because the shops were closed, but there is more going on. It is that age of uncertainty thing.

Consumers will continue to hold back on spending so long as they lack confidence in economic recovery. Until that confidence switch is flipped, economic growth is uncertain and consumers are right to be cautious. Is that a Catch 22 problem? Yes.

Q2: Wine’s New Normal?

Consumers are also at the center of questions about how the wine market will look when the recession and pandemic fogs start to clear. In the short run, the situation is a bit like the person who was swept over a waterfall. Half-way down things seem to be going just fine, but there’s a big splash ahead and it is hard to know who’s going to sink or swim away.

As noted in recent Wine Economist columns, there has been much turbulence in the wine market so far this year. Wine sales volumes are up overall but revenues not so much as high-margin restaurant sales have been replaced by lower-margin retail. On-line sales have risen dramatically, albeit from a relatively small base.  Wine hasn’t done as well as spirits, which seem to fly off the shelves, but better than beer.

As Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv noted in a recent Ciatti market update webcast, the wine industry is going to need to rethink the route to market and how on-trade, off-trade, on-line, cellar door, phone sales (!), and other strategies fit together and what products work best in each channel. Consumers are changing their buying behavior for other products and wine shouldn’t think it is different in this regard. On-premise sales, in particular, are likely to be slow to recover as bars and restaurants struggle to both safely and profitably serve customers.

Bottom Line:  They say that generals are always preparing to fight the last war and so are often unprepared for new battle lines when they emerge. The same might be said for many wine businesses. The lesson that many small and medium-sized wineries learned in the last war (the Great Recession) was the importance of direct-to-consumer cellar door sales.

This strategy is problematic in a socially-distanced world. Shifting on-line now seems like the obvious reaction, but does that change the nature of consumer relationships and perhaps the nature of wine itself? Remember that Jeff Bezos picked books for his Amazon.com start up because they could easily be commodified. If that’s where wine is going, there will be implications. Fortunately (see last week’s Wine Economist column), many wineries are finding ways to keep wine personal even in the virtual space. How is wine going to evolve to succeed in an increasingly on-line market place?

Q3: Global Wine Market Threats

The global wine market environment is most directly defined by the big exporting wine economies. Italy, Spain, and France are the Big Three that together producer more than half the world’s wine. Argentina, Chile, and Australia are much smaller, but very important. New Zealand is tiny but punches above its weight. China, like the U.S. is currently most important in terms of global dynamics as an importer.

Wine sector conditions are unfavorable in all the largest wine-exporting countries. On-trade sales are much more important in Europe than the U.S., accounting for more than half of wine purchases. The closures of bars and restaurants during the pandemic lock down period has therefore produced a huge unsold inventory of wine. Some of this will disappear through emergency distillation schemes, which promise to dispose of between 750 million and one billion liters of excess wine. The rest will be looking for export market sales.

The bad old days of the EU wine lake depended on distillation to eliminate subsidized unmarketable wine. The policy changed several years ago to focus subsidies on modernization and marketing to encourage producers to make wines that the market would absorb. But no amount of marketing euro is going to help this year, so surplus wine will head off to the distillery. Maybe it will end up as hand sanitizer?

A billion liters is a lot of wine taken off the market. But I don’t think it will be enough to prevent a short term worldwide wine glut, especially when you consider the troubles that Southern Hemisphere producers are experiencing (despite short harvests in many regions). Australia and Chile depend on China to buy much of their wine and China’s growth has slowed dramatically. New Zealand looks especially to the UK and US markets, which are in recession. Argentina and South Africa have large domestic markets, but there are complicated economic and political problems in both countries that have affected sales.

Bottom line: A lot of wine is going to be looking for a home in the next year. Who in the world is going to buy it?

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Galbraith’s Age of Uncertainty was both a book and a 1977 television series. Here is the first episode.

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.

Unravelling Global Politics & the Vineyard Mechanization Imperative

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Vineyard mechanization was a featured topic at the 2017 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento this year and it was a very timely choice. In case you haven’t noticed, the political framework of globalization is unraveling just now, with strong push-back against international movements of goods, services, capital, people and even information.

Restrictions on trade and immigration are much in the news in the U.S, U.K., parts of Europe, Australia and other regions. Many industries are impacted, including especially agriculture. Closing down the flow of workers means fewer resources, higher costs and greater risk.

Strategic Response?

What’s the best business strategy in the face of anti-globalization policies like immigration restrictions? The right response varies by time, place and industry. Tech giant Microsoft, for example, has responded to international worker restrictions in a number of ways including setting up a research center  in Vancouver BC in order to have freer access to the international talent it needs to stay competitive. Canada remains proud of its identity as a nation of immigrants and that’s a selling point in the technology business.

Sometimes you can shift the jobs to where the workers are as in the Microsoft case, but this harder when it comes to agriculture. As farming labor becomes both scarcer in the U.S. and less secure in terms of availability, there is a natural movement towards alternatives, including mechanization as well as shifting to foreign-sourced product.

Look, Ma. No Hands!

We usually think of mechanization as a response to higher labor costs, but in this uncertain environment the imperative is also driven by concerns about availability and security.The Unified Symposium program combined with the massive trade show provided an opportunity to get up to speed on mechanization by attending sessions and touring the show floor asking questions.

For example, Gallo’s Keith Striegler moderated a session titled “Vineyard Mechanization: Moving to the ‘No Touch’ Vineyard” that surveyed state-of-the-art practices that go beyond mechanical harvesting. As the session program explains,

The labor situation in vineyards is reaching a critical stage. Growers are faced with reduced availability of labor while regulations and costs are increasing. The economic viability of sectors of the grape industry has become more challenging. Innovative growers and manufacturers are developing equipment and cultural practices to increase efficiency while maintaining or improving yield and fruit/wine composition. An important component of these efforts is to manage as many operations as possible in mature vineyards using equipment to reduce the number of “Touches” required by labor.

In other sessions Francisco Araujo moderated a Spanish language program  on advanced technology in winegrowing and wine making and Steve Mcintyre and Cecilia Aguero led  technical exhibit floor tours to help participants connect theory and practice.

The French Connection

Vineyard mechanization technology has improved steadily over the years from the early make-shift grape-sucking contraptions to today’s efficient machines. Most people in the industry recognize mechanization as a choice involving trade-offs and labor issues are increasingly pushing producers towards the machine.

My consumer friends sometimes seem to be shocked with the idea of machine harvest comes up — I guess it doesn’t align with their image of the noble vigneron carefully tending his row of grapes. Machines — it must be a New World thing, they tell me. They would never do it in France!

That comment is a bit ironic. A 2013 Economist article (“Bacchus to the Future“) about mechanization in French vineyards noted that …

France is the undisputed global leader in wine technology … the country has a greater demand for mechanisation than America because its agricultural wages are higher. And France’s reputation means that its elite winemakers, unlike those in other countries, do not have to worry about criticism from elite French winemakers.

Some of the cutting edge technology Sue and I saw at the trade show was made by European manufacturers, which makes sense since France, Italy and Spain together produce more than half the world’s wine (and so are a big equipment market) and, as we just saw, economic incentives to mechanize there can be strong. It would be ironic if “America First” protectionist migration policies pushed US winegrowers to purchase more foreign equipment!

Lodi Night Harvest

Sue and I had an opportunity to see the big machines at work back in 2015 when Fred and Joey Franzia invited us to observe a night harvest at one of Bronco’s Lodi vineyards. Sue took the photo at the top of this column on that visit.

Cold, dark and kinda loud — it wasn’t exactly a romantic “Sideways” vineyard harvest scene. But it sure was effective.We were impressed with the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were harvested.

You can bet that the grapes that go into inexpensive wines like Barefoot and Two Buck Chuck are machine harvested and mechanization employed in other vineyard activities, too. But the technology has improved to the extent that it is used to for wines that sell for a good deal more.

Invasion of the Vineyard Machines?

Are the machines coming to a vineyard near  you? No, they are probably  already there and, as vineyards — even those in iconic regions — are replanted or renewed, you can be sure that one factor that will be considered is the potential to maximize technological compatibility.

Hand work in the vineyards is not going to disappear and many wineries will continue to rely upon  their teams of highly-skilled vineyard workers for years to come. But what we are seeing is that the business model associated with vineyard labor is changing rapidly. Technology, economics and anti-globalization politics are all part of the dynamic.

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It was great to see everyone at the Unified Symposium. Great sessions and an incredible trade show plus all the top people in U.S. wine. Here is a photo of me speaking at the State of the Industry session.

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The “Demolition Man” Syndrome: A Vision of the Future of Wine in America?

 

I’ve been catching up on my wine industry reading and one report that grabbed by attention is Rabobank’s May 2016 Industry Note,  “The Premiumization Conundrum”.

The gist of the analysis is that the premiumization trend in the U.S. wine market isn’t simply a case of what Paul Krugman calls “up and down economics” — in this case demand for $10+ wine is up, demand for cheaper wines is down –but rather it needs to be understood in the context of a broader set of wine market changes.

Not Just Up and Down

The Rabobank report examines five important tensions that are part of the premiumization syndrome:

  1. Demand for premium vs. basic wine grapes
  2. Securing long-term premium grape supply vs. managing return on capital
  3. Wholesaler consolidation and retail “chainification” of wine vs. premiumization
  4. Traditional retail vs. DTC vs. NIMBY
  5. Domestic wine vs. imports

As I was reading the Rabobank report I began to wonder how these trends might unfold if continued at their present rates  well into the future. In other words I was doing exactly what economists are trained not to do, which is engage in straight line projection. The future is out there somewhere, but it is almost never on a straight line that connects the last few dots on your time-series chart and then continues on out to infinity … and beyond.

But humor me with a little thought experiment. What might the future look like under the admittedly unlikely “straight-line trend projection” circumstances? Take today’s trends as Rabobank reports and fly them straight out to wherever they take you.

Pondering this thought, I unexpectedly found myself channeling a 1993 Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock film called Demolition ManStallone plays a police officer named John Spartan who was put into suspended animation only to be awakened 36 years into the future in 2032 in order to catch Wesley Snipe’s bad guy character.

All Taco Bell Now

Stallone’s updated Rip Van Winkle encounters a lot that surprises or shocks him including, as in the film scene above, the inconvenient truth about retail consolidation run amuck. Invited to dinner and dancing at a Taco Bell, he can’t help but think, Taco Bell? Really?

But it really is, as Bullock’s character explains. Taco Bell was the only chain to survive the franchise wars and now all restaurants are Taco Bells. “No way!” Way!

Rabobank’s report notes a number of important trends that, if taken to a ridiculous Taco Bell kind of extreme, might produce something that Demolition Man would recognize. Here are three that I can’t help pondering.

All MoVin Now

The fictional John Spartan goes shopping for wine in 2032 San Angeles and the first place he sees is a big box MoVin store, bigger than the biggest wine-beer-spirits stores of the past, but recognizably the same concept. He continues on in search for a small, specialist shop, but soon runs across another MoVin. And then another and another and slowly it comes to him that just as all restaurants are Taco Bell, all wine is now retailed by MoVin.1353026500232-577831165

How did this happen? Well, as the Rabobank report notes, all of the growth in off-premises retail sales of wine in the U.S. in the last couple of  years has come through retail chains, not independent shops and stores. Take away BevMo, Total Wine, Costco and other multiple retailers (I assume Kroger fits here, too) and Rabobank’s data show off-premises wine sales would be flat.

Follow that trend to its illogical extreme, with the chains seizing market share each year, add logical pressure to consolidate and — hey, presto! — you have a retail wine monopoly.

How did MoVin win this fictional competition over other chains? Because, in this made-up universe, they drew upon the growing consolidation in distribution channels (another Rabobank finding).

Yes, all wine is sold by MoVin in 2032 because they are a wholly-owned subsidiary of NSEW (North-South-East-West),  the only company to survive the vicious distributor wars of 2021.

All Kiwi White Now

There are lots of different super-premium brands on offer at the big box wine store of the future, but the vast array of colorful labels and fictional names actually disguises a certain sameness. Much of the wine comes from the same few large producers, the ones who were able to able to secure reliable quality grape supplies in the grape wars back before 2022, when the last independent North Coast vineyard was swallowed up.

The imperative to lock up vineyard resources is another of the trends that Rabobank spotlights and it is natural to wonder where it will all end. But that isn’t the only source of concern.affiche2

When John Spartan looks closely at the super-premium white wines that he favors (because they pair so well with his favorite Taco Bell fish tacos), he slowly realizes that they are all made by a few large multinational firms in New Zealand. Just as Taco Bell conquered food, the Kiwis were the victors of the white wine wars.

The one constant of U.S. wine import statistics in recent years has been that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc imports will grow, often faster than any other import category. I keep waiting for the run to end (and I know Kiwi producers who hold their breath and cross their fingers because they are worried, too). But nothing has stopped or even seriously slowed down New Zealand wine imports so far. And you know where that can lead!

You Want Grapes with that Wine?

What about inexpensive wine? Glad  you asked because that’s where John Spartan had his harshest shock — it made him want to give up wine altogether. It seems that as grape supply became less and less secure and falling prices pushed basic grape producers to other crops like almonds and pistachios, wineries were forced to weaken links to particular regions and then to grapes themselves.

Appellations and geographic designations generally are an expensive luxury if you’re not sure if you can buy the grapes you need to maintain a region-specific brand, so they had to go. And then wine companies gave up specific grape variety designations for the wines for essentially the same reason. All inexpensive wines in 2032 are now proprietary blends. No one knows what might be in the bottle, box or can or where it might have come from. Not many seem to care.

Absent place of origin and clearly-identified grape variety components, inexpensive wines evolved into branded alcoholic beverages and, once consumers accepted that, there wasn’t any reason why they had to be made out of grapes any more. The laws were re-written to allow inexpensive wine-like products to be made and marketed and people lapped them up. Wine for the masses endured, but in an ersatz Taco Bell kind of way.

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Or at least that’s where bad economic analysis (and not enough sleep) takes you if you follow recent trends to ridiculous extremes, which I have done here just for fun, but the Rabobank report definitely avoids.

The future? Taco Bell? No Way! That’ll never happen. Don’t worry. Go back to sleep. G’night!

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Thanks to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who indirectly inspired this column. He told the story of the “Demolition Man” Taco Bell scene in his best-selling 2000 book about globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

 

Premiumization: Is This the Wine Market’s New “New Normal?”

Is the current U.S. wine market the new “new normal” — can the recent upmarket shift in wine sales be sustained into the future? Two recent Wine Economist columns have detailed the surprising bifurcation of the U.S. wine market and tried to understand what forces are behind it. Wine sales below about $9 are stagnant or falling while upmarket sales revenues are increasing, with the largest percentage rise in the $20+ segment.

This is a surprising state of things, I argued two weeks ago, because the conventional wisdom once held that the Great Recession had created a “new normal” that centered on trading down behavior and discounting strategies. Not many people argued that we’d be “trading up” in the post-recession world.

And, as I noted in last week’s column, it is not clear that it is a simple return to previous behavior. I analyzed several theories for the change and concluded that none of them told the entire story, but together they explain the situation fairly well. So now we have to ask if those trends will continue — if the new market structure is the new “new normal” — or if the upmarket movement is unsustainable.

My answer — typical of an economist — is that it depends. It is really too soon to tell what will happen in the long run because there are so many unpredictable factors to consider. But since I asked this question I feel I ought to give more of an answer, so here’s my attempt at crystal ball gazing.

It’s too soon to tell about the U.S. market in the long run, but the current pattern is likely to be sustained for the medium term, although not necessarily due to the same factors that created it in the first place. Here’s my reasoning.

Decline and Fall of Down-market Wine

Inexpensive wines are not going away, but it seems unlikely that they will soon return to solid growth. This might be because of the alleged “bad wine” effect that I talked about last week, but it is more likely due to supply-side effects.

With water issues rising to the surface almost everywhere and higher irrigation costs in many places, the economic sustainability of low-cost wine grapes is in serious doubt at current prices. Jeff Bitter’s presentation at this year’s Unified Symposium in Sacramento included photos of acres of healthy Central Valley grapes left to rot on the vine because they were not worth the cost of harvest this year and probably not worth irrigation costs next year.

What is the future of these vines? Thousands of acres of vines have been grubbed up in California in recent years to make way for other crops with higher potential value — almonds and pistachios are the most frequently cited crop alternatives, but I’m sure there are others.  Imported bulk wines can easily fill in the gap left by falling California production in the short run, but sustainability issues (both economic and environmental) are a global phenomenon.

Low-cost wine grapes (and the wines they produce) are not going away, but there is limited incentive to invest here and so the focus is upmarket, where margins are better and business sustainability is more feasible.

Up the Down Staircase?

The upmarket movement in wine sales is likely to be sustained at least for some time because it is driven by factors affecting both demand and supply that are not specific to the U.S. but part of strong global trends. The supply-side element is easy to understand. Intense competition has cut margins on basic wines to the bone (and even deeper than that in some markets). Follow the money, Deep Throat said, and wine producers are listening to that advice now more than ever.

Once again, that doesn’t mean that basic wines and the bulk wine trade that has evolved around them are going away. It is simply that this is not the market segment that will get investment in future. Producers are likely to focus even more on the premium, super-premium and ultra-premium segments in the future. Every wine producer I have talked with around the world is focusing on moving up the up staircase and plotting effective distribution and marketing strategies.

On the demand  side I would point to the increasing importance of retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and their many upscale local market competitors that attract customers by providing them with a sense of authenticity and affordable luxury in the quotidian consumption experience.

Products of origin and artisan creations with sustainability credentials — these are the hallmarks of the new retail environment and upscale supermarkets and a growing number of their customers seek out wines that fit that profile. Even hard-discount Aldi is playing along on the wine aisle, providing unexpectedly premium wines in their U.K. stores.

Bronco Busting

Don’t believe that the shift is important? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been wrong, but I think you will find evidence all around you if you look for it. Let me give you just one data point to get you thinking.

Consider the Bronco Wine Company, the famous maker of Two Buck Chuck and many other inexpensive wines. Bronco chief Fred Franzia once said that no wine should cost more than $10 and he built the 4th largest wine company in the U.S. by making those wines both for his own labels and, under contract, for other firms.

Where is Bronco headed today? Well, Two Buck Chuck is still in the picture and I think it is probably still selling about 5 million cases a year as it was the last time I wrote about it. But Bronco is busting out of that market segment via a variety of new products that, while they don’t aim for Screaming Eagle or DRC cult status still fit the profiles I’ve outline here. Several of Bronco’s wines illustrate the upmarket trends that I see for the future, including Garnet and Green Truck.

Garnet Vineyards are maybe not what you’d expect from the maker of Two Buck Chuck. They are all about cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Monterey and more cool climate Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. The highly-regarded Alison Crowe (author of the popular blog The Girl and the Grape)  makes the wines . The Garnet Rogers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ticks the boxes key to buyers seeking authenticity and sells for $29.99 on Amazon.com, about ten times the price of a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

(Editor’s note: Bronco is the sales agent for Garnet but does not make this wine — see Alison Crowe’s comment below, which clarifies the relationship. Thanks to Alison for her correction.)

The long list of wines that Bronco produces and/or distributes includes six different organic wine brands plus a number that are vegan-friendly. Green Truck wine from Mendocino County is a good example. The wines are made from organic grapes and when I searched to see the nearest retailer to me there was Whole Foods near the top of the list.

Buckle Up!

Wine is looking up! The new normal will focus on wines that tell as good a story as other contemporary market products, such as craft beers and spirits and locally-sourced food products. It’s a great opportunity for wine producers, but the market is very competitive and will only get more so.

Buckle up!  It’s going to be a wild ride.

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I thought you might enjoy this 2007  video of  wine critic Oz Clarke and “Top Gear” presenter James May meeting Bronco’s Fred Franzia. Their reaction to Two Buck Chuck may surprise you. Cheers!

Trading Up? The New Conventional Wisdom About the U.S. Wine Market

Last week I wrote about the unexpected state of the U.S. wine market today, where sales of wines above about $9 are strong and growing while the below $9 segments are stagnant or in decline. Thinking back to the dismal state of the wine market a few years ago, with trading down and heavy discounting, the current situation comes as a big surprise.

What accounts for the transformation of the U.S. wine market? And is this the “new normal” that we should expect for future years? Let’s look at the emerging conventional wisdom on these questions.

Trading Up?

I don’t know many people who think that the shift toward more expensive wines is a simple reversal of the recession years’ trading down, although that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Consumers seem as price sensitive as ever, which is why store shelves are still papered with “shelf talkers” like the one shown here that beckon buyers with discounted prices.

Yes, discounting is still going on, although perhaps not quite at the same level as during the Great Recession. The best argument for trading up is that consumers who had an opportunity to sample better wines during the deep discount days and  liked them now are feeling more economically secure and are continuing to buy them at higher prices. I’m sure that this is happening to a certain extent, but I don’t think it is the whole story.  Consumers are simply too focused on price to have suddenly changed.

Price resistance means that most consumers aren’t willing to pay more for the same or similar wine, but they are willing to spend more for something different. Who is doing this?

The Millennial Theory

One theory holds that the changing shape of the wine market is driven by younger wine drinkers — we often call them the millennials here in the U.S. but I have also seen the term “echo boomers” used and Constellation’s latest Project Genome study calls them “engaged newcomers.” As a group they tend to buy wine less frequently than some other groups (they also drink spirits, craft beers and so on) but spend more per bottle. This is the opposite of my behavior as a young wine drinker and probably a good thing.

If what we think we know about millennials is true, then they can account for some of the trend towards higher price wine sales, but they are certainly  not the whole story.  They don’t explain the shift away from lower-priced wines because they were never the driving force there. And they cannot account for all of the upmarket shift because at this point they don’t buy enough wine to move the whole market this way. Millennials are part of the story, but not the whole answer. What else?

The Bad Wine Theory

One very interesting theory is that the relative quality of wine below about $9 has fallen, driving customers away in search of something better to drink. They have found it, too, in craft beers, ciders and spirits.

W. Blake Gray recently made this point in a column titled “Wine under $10 sucks. Should we care?”  Tim Atkin made a similar point about wine in the UK market.  It’s very difficult to find decent wine below £5, he says, which is a change from the past.

A recent article on Bibendum’s website tells the sad UK story, which this graphic illustrates. If you want to get value in wine in the UK, it seems you have to move upmarket. The actual cost of the wine is more than a third of the total cost of a £20 bottle, but less than 10% of the cost of a £5 wine. Shocking!

This deteriorating value of inexpensive wines, if true, is a surprising situation. Only a few years ago we experienced something of a revolution when the character of commercial quality wine improved  quite dramatically (I called it the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck in my book Wine Wars). A structural surplus of decent wine and grapes on the U.S. and world markets made it possible for winemakers to assemble products at low price points that rivaled some brands in higher price segments. The unexpected value they provided drew millions of consumers into the wine markets Is poor quality and value pushing them away?

Well, poor value is certainly part of the answer in the U.K., where high wine duties have distorted the market and undone much of the miracle of the past. And I have some friends in California who complain that cheaper and lower quality bulk wine imports are now filling bottles of California-brand wine. The brand is associated with California (like Barefoot, for example) but the wines themselves come from many places (and are so-designated on the packaging).

Have quality and value suffered? I’m an economist not a wine critic, so I will leave it up to you to decide, but some of my California friends think that’s what’s happened. If this is true, then where is the better California wine going? Some of it is sitting in tanks, which are pretty full after a couple of generous vintages in a row. The rest? Some of it, I think, fills the bottles of wine brands specially created for the new market environment.

The Branded Age

This supply-side theory holds that smart wine executives have noticed that many consumers are willing to pay more for something different (and are put off by the commodity wines) and they have responded by creating new brands to fill specific upscale market niches. This helps explain the great proliferation of wine brands and even virtual wineries on the scene.

Each year I enjoy Jon Fredriksen’s talk about the state of the U.S. wine market at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, but recently I have noticed that his list of the hottest wine brands is full of unfamiliar (to me) names. These aren’t new wineries, simply new brands created by innovative existing large- and medium-sized wine firms.

Jon’s data suggest to me that these are some of the wines that are attracting buyer interest and pulling the market along. An example? Take The Wine Group, which is the second largest wine producer in the U.S. with 57.5 million case sales according to Wine Business Monthly. A few years ago I thought of them in terms of brands like Almaden and Franzia wines, which are  in that lower market tier that is stagnating today.

Now when I think of The Wine Group I think of Cupcake Vineyards, which at 3 million cases is small compared to Franzia’s 26 million, but perfectly fits that upmarket profile and is often priced right at or just above key $9-$10 threshold along with Apothic, 14 Hands and other hot brands.

Which Theory? The New New Normal?

No single theory explains what has happened and the market is full of special cases. Take Argentinian wines, for example. Customers are buying more expensive products from Argentina now in part because the cheaper labels have disappeared. With inflation still soaring and the exchange rate stuck, many Argentinean firms cannot afford to export cheaper Malbecs to the U.S., which shifts the center of gravity upmarket.

All these ideas (and others, too) are part of the explanation of today’s transformed market. It’s a perfect story of effects (or a train wreck, depending which end of the market you are in). Is this the new “new normal” and, if so, how long will it last? That’s a question for next week.

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Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s columns — great ideas! Keep them coming.

The Surprising Rebound & Unexpected Bifurcation of the U.S. Wine Market

Let’s climb in my time machine and go back a few years to 2008-2009, when the impact of the global financial crisis was beginning to be felt in the wine markets. It was a pretty gloomy time and there was a lot of talk about the need to reset our expectations to the “new normal.”

Gone were the days of great expectations as everyone scrambled to cope with the changing economic and consumer environment. What did we imagine the future would hold? Well, opinions varied, of course, but the “conventional wisdom” generally revolved around a few dire trends.

Trading Down and Trading Over

One of the most-cited trends was trading down. It sure looked like wine consumers were pulling away from wines at higher price points and shifting to less expensive products — or even moving away from wine altogether. Here’s a video that captures the moment fairly well (it was the first time I was ever interviewed by an animated character)

Trading down seemed like an unstoppable force at the time, although I suggested that it was more complicated. I noticed the strength of the Barefoot wine brand and proposed that it wasn’t just the price of the wine that made it so appealing to recession-battered wine drinkers, it was also the casual image that it offered with its surfer dude footprint in the sand style.

No one wants to admit to themselves that they are trading down, I wrote. Not good for self-esteem. But we can all embrace the idea of trading over — over to a more relaxed, less serious (and incidentally also maybe less expensive) idea of wine. Relax (there is even a brand of Riesling called “Relax”) and just enjoy wine. That’s what I thought I saw in the marketplace.

The $20+ Dead Zone

Whether it was trading down or trading over, the result was the same: the $20 and up segment of the wine market was declared a “dead zone” where nothing moved.  People still drank more expensive wines, then just didn’t buy them. They “drank up” from their cellars rather than “trading down” at the wine shop.

Wineries found that many wine club members were pulling back from scheduled shipments. Restaurant wine sales took a very big hit, too, as consumers dined out less frequently and economized on wine purchases when they did. Restaurants coped by trading down themselves, putting more pressure on wineries.

Dumping, Discounting and Flash Sales

Some wineries held their prices and absorbed inventory accumulations rather than discount or dumped excess wine on the bulk market (where Cameron Hughes and others found some outstanding bargains for their customers). They saw price cuts as a one-way street. You can lower prices, but can you raise them back up again when good times return?  Some wineries split the difference by bringing out second labels to sell for less — chateau cash flow wines — while holding the price line on prestige brands.  Lots of mistakes were made along the way and some wineries fell out of the market.

Many discounting strategies were rolled out. Safeway stores began running promotions where $20+ wines could be purchased for 30% off the regular price (or 40% off with a 6-bottle purchase) — a clear attempt to reduce inventories in the “dead zone” category. A number of “flash sale” wine websites appeared that allowed wineries to sell off surplus stock quickly and outside of the usual sales vectors.

Sometimes wineries found themselves caught in competition with their own wines as buyers (wine club members, restaurants, a few distributors) dumped their stock back on the market, under-cutting carefully calculated producer pricing strategies.

There were some great bargains for buyers who recognized them (and had the credit card headroom to take advantage), but there were not very many true winners among wine producers, especially those in the higher price ranges. The frankly defensive strategy of generating cash flow while protecting key price points was the best that many wineries could hope for.divide

Up the Down Staircase

Would consumers shift back when the recession was over? Not many people held out hope for a reset of the reset. So the current state of the U.S. wine market, which Jon Fredrikson has called “A Tale of Two Markets” comes as something of a surprise.

The U.S. wine market has split in two as the table above shows. (The table shows recent data for off-premises wine sales as measured through the particular retail channels monitored by the Nielsen Company. These data are indicative of what’s going on in the broad market.)

While the market is expanding at a moderate +3.4% pace (at least it is growing, unlike wine markets in some Old World regions), there is a clear division between wines selling at prices below $9 and those that sell for more. Although the cheaper wines make up the majority of the market by volume, they are shrinking in dollar sales value, especially the $6.00 to $8.99 segment.

The New Conventional Wisdom?

More expensive wines, on the other hand, represent a rising market segment. All price segments over $9 are growing as per these data, with the fastest growth at the highest price point — $20 and above!

This is truly a dramatic turnaround for U.S. wine. What is behind this unexpected change?  I’ll survey the new conventional wisdom in my next column.

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BTW that’s a really old picture of me in the video — I hope that  I’ve improved with age since 2008. The Costco reference is a bit off in that interview, too. Costco sells wine at a low mark-up, but they don’t try to compete at the very bottom of the market as the video images suggest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen boxes of Franzia at a Costco, for example.