Three Things I Learned at the Unified Symposium’s “State of the Industry”

I’m the luckiest person I know and one aspect of my good fortune is that I have had the opportunity to moderate and/or speak at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium‘s “State of the Industry” session each year since 2012. Last week’s program was therefore my tenth appearance on the “State of the Industry” panel. How time flies!

Each year’s session brings together leading wine industry experts to talk about key trends and opportunities, recognize unresolved problems, and celebrate success. No wonder the big room (see photo above from a few years ago) is packed  with industry leaders from around the world each year — until 2021, of course, when the pandemic moved us on-line.

I get a ringside seat for both the formal presentations and the backstage banter and discussions. I always come away with fresh ideas and a better understanding of the wine industry. Herewith a few observations from the 2021 program.

#1 Elusive Market Balance 

A year ago one of the biggest concerns in California and Washington state was the structural surplus of wine grapes and bulk wine. With new vineyard acreage coming on-line,= a couple of big harvests already in the tank, and demand hitting a plateau, growers were encouraged to take a realistic look at their options and proactively manage supply until demand had time to catch up.

The market is much closer to balance as we enter 2021 and the big bulk wine hang-over seems to have receded. The 2020 harvest was short in California and Washington, too. The market hasn’t flipped, but  things have tightened up constructively.

But that structural surplus is still there. The short term balance is more about a short crop and smoke taint issues more than long term strategies. And price is a factor, too, with coastal fruit selling for California appellation prices in many cases. That’s supply and demand, of course, but it only works in the long term if costs adjust to the new price realities.

#2 The Mandela Rule

“They say that time changes things, but sometimes you have to change them yourself.”

I first encountered this saying when I was on a speaking tour in South Africa. I heard it attributed to Nelson Mandela, which pleased me, although the interweb thinks that Andy Warhol said it first. Either way, it seems to apply to today’s wine industry.

Jeff Bitter of Allied Grape Growers advocates a proactive approach to the supply side of the market, for example. Last year he called for growers to take a hard look at their vineyards and pull out marginal vines sooner rather than later. Better to turn the page than to leave fruit unpicked when prices drop too low or demand dries up.

Cost can be addressed, too, at least in some market segments. Higher yields don’t necessarily mean lower quality any more. The same is true for machine harvesting, which addresses both cost and labor availability issues.

There is still a lot of work to do, but it has been inspiring to see the industry rise to the occasion of all the challenges that we face in these “perfect storm” times of pandemic and recession.

#3 Pathways to Success

The “State of the Industry” panel concludes with a brief presentation by market guru Danny Brager where he spotlights “best of the best” wine firms that have been especially successful in the previous  year. The awards are modeled on the Olympic games awards, with bronze, silver and gold medals. It is always fun to try to guess who will get the prize.

The specific criteria for the gold medal means that it generally goes to big firms that have achieve high levels of both absolute and relative sales growth. This years winners were  Riboli Family, Delicato Family, Deutsch Family wineries. If you are familiar with these firms you know that they are very different in terms of their product lines and marketing strategies. Their success proves what Jon Fredrikson always told us when he was on the State of the Industry panel: there are no one-liners in wine.

This point is even clearer if you look at the wineries that received silver medal recognition this year.  Regional, national, and international wineries. Iconic brands alongside firms that fill private label needs.

What do they all have in common? Wine, of course, but it is obviously more than just fermented grape juice that connects this diverse list of successful wineries. Let me make this a discussion question. Give this some thought and leave a comment below with your ideas.

I don’t want to discount the hardships that many wine businesses have faced. I know a number of wineries, distributors, and sellers that have been forced to close their doors or dramatically reduce operations. I wish there was more support available for these businesses and that counter-productive policies like the U.S. wine tariffs could be reversed quickly. But Danny Brager’s lists of most successful wineries suggests there are still good opportunities for growth if you are in the right place and the right time with the right products and strategy.

#4 Bonus insights

Bait-and-switch alert: there were a lot more than three key points presented at the State of the Industry session last week. Herewith a few of them in quick-fire bullet format.

  • Cab Bubble Deflates? One of my concerns in recent years is that Cabernet Sauvignon has been over-planted and that the bubble would eventually pop. Well, it looks like the Cab bubble is losing pressure, at least in California (I’m not sure about Washington state) as some vines are being replaced with other grape varieties.  But …
  • Pinot Noir Over-Inflated? All the attention to Cabernet may have hidden irrational exuberance in Pinot Noir plantings. Is this a bubble ready to burst?
  • Sauvignon Blanc the Next Big Thing? Sauvignon Blanc sales have been growing steadily for many years. Initially this phenomenon was associated with New Zealand wine imports, but now it seems to be a broader trend. Will growers move out of over-supplied Cab and Pinot and away from Pinot Grigio to Sauvignon Blanc?
  • It’s a War Out There. Both Danny Brager and Jon Moramarco made an important point about the nature of competition strategy. Wine, beer, and spirits are all segments within the broader beverage alcohol category. It is typical to think about competition within each segment: wine vs wine, beer vs beer, etc. It makes sense that you would target customers of close substitutes for incremental sales. But really the bigger war is between and among the segments: wine vs beer (wine does well here) and wine vs spirits (a tougher battleground). Overall beverage alcohol sales have been and likely will be flat, it is a battle for market share.
  • And the Winner is …  Hard seltzer! Hard seltzer sales have boomed in recent years and continued to rise during the pandemic, the fastest-growing slice of the beverage alcohol category. What’s the appeal? Single serving size. Low calorie, low alcohol. Maybe even a healthy image (because they have low alcohol, hard seltzers feature nutritional labels that most wine brands don’t have).  The low alcohol sweetish wine segment has done very well — Stella Rosa sales have boomed, for example, and Indiana-based Oliver wines have thrived here as well.

That’s all for now. Looking forward to 2022 when (fingers crossed) we will be able to meet in person in Sacramento in the new and improved convention center.

Wine Future 2021, Idaho Wine, The Unified: Wine Economist World Tour

The Wine Economist World Tour is back on the virtual road in 2021. We hope for the return of in-person events before too long, but until that’s possible virtual events will do very well. Here are the first three stops for the new year.

The Unified: State of the Industry

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium (January 26-29, 2021) is going virtual this year, including both the seminars and the amazing trade show.  It will be quite an experience.

The program addresses a host of important issues, with special attention to wildfire threats and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Several sessions analyze changing wine market conditions including the State of the Industry session on Wednesday, January 27.  Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Jeff Bitter, and Jon Moramarco join me on the virtual panel.

Idaho Wine Commission: State of the Industry

The Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting goes virtual this year, too, with half-day sessions on February 22-23, 2021. This is the third time I’ve spoken at this event and I am sad that I won’t be able to visit Boise in person to refresh friendships, exchange insights, sample great Idaho wine, and enjoy Boise’s amazing Basque food scene.

I will anchor the first day’s program with a special take on the State of the Industry. Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, will speak the following day. Economic change, climate change. Food for thought for Idaho’s dynamic wine industry.

Wine Future 2021: Challenges & Solutions

WineFuture 2021, an incredibly ambitious international event, will happen on February 23-26, 2021. This big international conference boasts an all-star cast. I will lead a panel on the economics of the crisis on February 23.

The folks behind Wine Future 2021 think big. The theme of the first day is the four crisis challenges facing wine (and the world): climate, economy, pandemic, and inequality. Day 2 focuses on solutions and sources of inspiration. The final two days look to the future from many different points of view.

Wine Future 2021 has been hosting a pre-conference webinar series since November to get ideas in the air and discussion flowing. You can view previous webinars (including one I did with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv) and register for upcoming broadcasts on the Wine Future 2021 Webinar home page.

Save the Dates: Wine2Wine 2020, WineFuture 2021, Unified Symposium 2021

The Wine Economist’s World Tour will be back on the (virtual) road in the next few months. Here are preliminary details about upcoming events that might be of interest to readers of this newsletter.

Wine2Wine 2020

The 7th edition of Wine2Wine, Focus 2020, will take place November 23-24, 2020. Usually held in beautiful Verona, this year’s program will be virtual.  The wine business in the post-COVID-19 era is the over-arching theme.

Focus 2020 features a quite fantastic group of speakers and topics. The program is wide-ranging and of course economic topics are accorded due attention. I will be talking about the problem of unstable exchange rates in the new normal economic environment, for example, and another session will analyze the prospects of peace in the US-EU trade war, where wine is caught in the crossfire.

WineFuture 2021

WineFuture 2021 is an ambitious event designed to help wine industry actors make sense of the perfect storm caused by simultaneous economic recession, COVID-19 pandemic, and global climate crisis. The event is scheduled for February 23-25, 2021.  I’ll be speaking about economic challenges and opportunities. The list of speakers is a who’s who of the wine world, so I’m flattered to be invited to participate.

Although the official event is a few months away, the important issues that need to be discussed won’t wait, so WineFuture is organizing a pre-conference series of free weekly webinars on key topics. Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv and I will analyze some of the key economic issues in the first webinar on November 4, 2020.

Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is North America’s largest wine industry gathering. Both the conference and trade show, scheduled for January 26-29, will be on-line in 2021. The program, still in development, will be released in a few weeks and I get the impression that it will be even more ambitious than in previous years if that’s possible.

I will once again be moderating the State of the Industry session and making brief comments about the global wine economy. I wish we could all meet up in person in Sacramento, but that’s not really an option this year. So I look forward to seeing everyone on-line.

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Use the links above to learn more about these events and check back frequently to get updated information.

It’s Going to be Huge: 2020 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

 

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is just a few weeks away (February 4-6 in Sacramento) and I am already excited. The Unified is North America’s largest wine industry event with about 14,000 in attendance for the trade show and seminars.

Bursting at the Seams

The 2020 Unified promises to be bigger and maybe even betterthan ever before. The event has been moved out to the Cal Expo fairgrounds for 2020 while the Sacramento Convention Center is expanded and remodeled — the Unified  simply outgrew the old facilities. The one-year move means even more room than in the past for trade show exhibitors, including outdoor space for big machines and equipment. It’s going to be huge — literally!

And the program organizers have gone to some trouble to expand seminar offerings, too, with 110 speakers divided among about 30 sessions. Something for every need and interest with programs for growers and winemakers, marketing and business management. As has been the case for several years, some of the technical sessions are offered in both English and Spanish.

Labor cost and availability is an important issue in the wine business, so I am interested in one session that examines mechanization in the vineyard and includes a wine tasting. I’m guessing that the audience will be offered the opportunity to see if they can taste the difference between wines made with machine-harvested versus hand-picked grapes. Should be interesting.

State of the Industry

I’ll be moderating and speaking at the “State of the Industry   general session on Wednesday morning. Danny Brager (Nielsen), Steve Fredricks (Turrentine Brokerage), Jean-Marie Cardebot (University of Bordeaux), and Jeff Bitter (Allied Grape Growers) will be joining me on the big stage. A great team with deep understanding of the wine market.

Jeff O’Neill of O’Neill Vintners and Distillers is giving the Tuesday luncheon keynote speech this year and I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say. These are uncertain times for wine in the United States and it is easy to be pessimistic about the future. O’Neill’s company has been remarkably successful in navigating the treacherous seas, taking advantage of favorable winds. Everyone will be looking for lessons and insights they can take back to their businesses.

This is important because one cloud hanging over the meetings is a structural surplus of grapes and wine in some categories. U.S. wine demand is plateauing, which is better than some countries where demand has been falling for years. Overall wine expenditures are still rising even if overall volumes have declined.

The surplus creates a problem that may take years to correct through a combination of rising sales in old markets, development of new markets, and adjusting production capacity. Heidi Scheid is leading a session that will address the issues directly titled Strategies for Managing Through Over-Supply. Should be a standing room crowd.

Trade Wars Shrink the Pie

Trade wars are another concern. President Trump has said that trade wars are good and they are easy to win, but the wine industry has found little to celebrate about being in the center of the battlefield. Having invested years of effort and lots of dollars opening up Chinese markets, for example, many wineries have watched hoped-for opportunities disappear with retaliatory Chinese tariffs on U.S. wines.

It looks like French wine producers have dodged a bullet, avoiding sky-high U.S. tariffs that were threatened as retaliation for France’s digital tax scheme. You might have expected U.S. wine producers to celebrate tariffs on wine imports because some buyers are likely to shift from imports to domestic wines. But this substitution effect is not the only impact the tariffs have.

Prohibitive tariffs on imported wine are more likely to shrink the wine market pie at every stage of the product chain. It is hard to see how retailers or distributors can justify investment in the wine category when overall sales fall and uncertainty about future conditions is high. The uncertainty effect looms especially large, despite the recent wine tariff trade truce. If wine was caught in the trade war cross-fire before, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen again. And truces are by their nature temporary and fragile.

When tariffs work to protect an industry they tend to do so only temporarily and at high cost (struggling Harley-Davidson is a good example of this). But they more often backfire. The recent tariffs meant to protect manufacturing jobs in the U.S., for example, seem to have only accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector generally because of the complex international interweaving of manufacturing chains and other factors.

Food (and Drink) for Thought

There a lot to think about as the wine industry moves into 2020, so I encourage readers to check out the Unified’s seminar programs and start working on a strategy for the trade show.

I’ve been to a lot of wine meetings both here and abroad, but there’s nothing like the Unified. Hope to see you there.