Has U.S. Wine Industry Consolidation Gone Too Far?

Is the U.S. wine industry becoming too concentrated, with just a few big firms dominating the marketplace? That, more or less, was one of the questions we were asked at the press conference that followed the annual “State of the Industry” session at last month’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California.  How would you answer this question?

The query was prompted in part by Mario Zepponi’s excellent presentation about merger and acquisition activity in the wine industry in 2021. Mario is principal at Zepponi & Company, a firm that advises winery and vineyard M&A clients and was very busy indeed last year, when a number of large (for the wine industry) deals were concluded.

How concentrated has the U.S. wine industry become? How competitive is the wine marketplace? The answer you get depends in part on how you look at the data. Wine Business Monthly (which sponsored the State of the Industry session again this year) publishes a report on the U.S. wine industry early in each new year which is required reading. This year’s report appears in the current March 2022 edition, which can be accessed online.

U.S. Wine By the Numbers

Judging by the number of firms competing for retail shelf and restaurant wine list space, the U.S. market is very competitive indeed. For perspective, consider that the WBM report for 2014 found 8,287 U.S. wine producers in total, 3913 in California, 734 in Washington State, 632 in Oregon and the rest distributed across the country. Mississippi was at the bottom of the league table with just two wineries.

Zoom ahead to the just-published WBM report for 2021 and the numbers have jumped.  The U.S. winery count rose by 36% in the intervening years, with 11,300 wine producers in total. California again leads the way with 4804 wineries, Oregon comes second with 877, followed by Washington with 875. Mississippi’s winery count increased to six. The Other Washington — Washington DC — is last with two wine producers.

Looking at the data this way, the U.S. wine industry is very competitive, with amazing growth in number of wine producers for such a brief period of time. The increase in winery count in 2021 was slower than in 2020, WBM reports, but that’s not a surprise given the covid and economic conditions we have experienced.

The U.S. market is actually more competitive than these numbers suggest because imports account for about a third of U.S. wine sales, so thousands of international brands are also vying for buyer attention.

Top of the Table Concentration

But number of competitors is not the only factor to consider when assessing industry competition. Market power matters a great deal and the U.S. wine industry features a number of very large players. WBM reported on the top 30 companies in 2014 and the top 50 companies in 2021 along with the lineup from the first report in 2003 and the lists make interesting reading.

The top five producers, ranked by volume of sales, in the very first WBM report in 2003 were as follows: E&J Gallo Winery, Constellation Brands, The Wine Group, Beringer-Blass Wine Estates (now Treasury Wine Estates), and Bronco Wine Company (followed by Mondavi — now part of Constellation — and Trinchero Family Estates).

The 2014 report produced this list: E&J Gallo Winery, The Wine Group, Constellation Brands, Bronco Wine Company, and Trinchero  (followed by Treasury and Ste Michelle Wine Estates). The current (2021) line-up is: E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, Trinchero, Delicato Family Wines, and Constellation Brands (followed by Treasury and Bronco).

I think you would have to conclude that the top of the U.S. wine table has been very stable, with a good deal of the movement due to transactions within the industry such as Constellation’s acquisition of Mondavi and more recently its sale of many brands to Gallo and The Wine Group. The steady rise of Trinchero (think Sutter Home, Menage a Trois among other brands) and Delicato (Bota Box, of course, and now also the Francis Ford Coppola Winery) is noteworthy.

The 50 largest wine companies (out of the 11,000 total) account the vast majority of sales volume for domestic wines (not counting the imports) and it is easy to see why because firm size is very large. JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery is #50 in the 2021 table but still produces a very substantial 339,000 cases of wine each year. Gallo is at the top of table with a WBM-estimated 100 million case annual wine output. That’s 1.2 billion bottles. Incredible!

It is interesting to look at how production measured by volume of the top three largest wineries has evolved over the years reported here. In 2014, for example, the big 3 totaled over 187 million cases (not bottles) of wine (Gallo 80 million, The Wine Group 57.5 million, Constellation 50 million).  The Big 3 total for 2021 is actually bit less: Gallo 100 million + The Wine Group 51 million + Trinchero 20 million = 171 million total. That is less than in 2014, which could be due to a number of factors including, as I have heard some insider’s comment, a lack of investment in some of the brands involved in the Constellation-Gallo transaction during the long regulatory approval process.

If we assume that the total U.S. wine market was about 450 million cases in 2021, then the Big 3 accounted for about 38% of sales by volume. If imports accounted for a third of total sales, then the Big 3 alone were responsible for 57% of domestic-produced wine sales by volume.

The biggest wine companies are really, really big, but some of the market power has shifted down the line. The 30th largest wine company in 2014 (out of the 30 listed), for example, was Purple Wine Company, which produced 415,000 cases. Number 30 in 2021 is Firstleaf at 700,000 cases. Firstleaf is a direct-to-consumer operation founded in 2016 with more than 75 brands in its portfolio.

What’s Driving Consolidation?

Big is in for U.S. wine and a lot of the bulking-up is taking place in the tiers below the Big 3. What’s driving it? Mario Zepponi presented an interesting perspective in our State of the Industry session. He argued that you have to put wine production in the context of its linkages in the product chain.

A lot of wine is sold in grocery stores, for example, and the top 5 U.S. grocery companies account for about half of total revenues in that sector. Big store chains, with their thousands of assorted SKUs, tend to prefer to work with a small number of distributors in each product segment if possible. So maybe it is no surprise that the top 3 wine distributors account for about 65% of revenues according to Zepponi’s data. Connect the dots here and it is easy to see why distributors might favor large wine companies with broad portfolios.

Big favors big, which favors big. Evolutionary forces point towards increased concentration, even in an industry as fragmented in some ways as wine.

To a certain extent, then, wine consolidation is the result of a process (accelerated by the covid channel shifts) that is affecting retail more generally. Consolidation, in this view, starts at the retail level and works its way backwards.

So has U.S. wine industry consolidation gone too far? It depends upon how you look at it and where you are positioned within the industry — in the Big 3 tier, the broader top 50, or further down the pyramid. And maybe the question should start higher up the food chain with consolidation at the retail and distributor levels. The market sure is competitive even if market power is concentrated at several points.

It is, I am afraid, one of those annoying “on the one hand …” situations that provoked President Harry Truman to ask for someone to send him a one-handed economist.

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Thanks to Cyril Penn and his Wine Business Monthly team for the 2022 edition of their wine industry report. A very valuable resource for anyone interested in U.S. wine market dynamics.

Unified Symposium: Wine and the New Now

These are fast times. I used to think about “getting back to normal” and then I started talking about what the “new normal” would look like. Now I don’t really know what normal is — it’s a “new now” every day.

Crossing the River, Feeling the Stones

Planning for the future in the “new now” era reminds me of the Chinese saying about crossing a river by feeling the stones with your feet. Know where you are going but be sure to take each step one at a time.

I am struck by the degree that the program for the Unified Symposium this year reflects the “new now” of the global economy. The environment has long been a concern, for example, but now there is a timely immediacy that spans the global to the local. The Unified examines the issues starting with Dr. Steven Ostoja’s Tuesday luncheon presentation on “Changing Climate, Extreme Weather and Water Scarcity: What It All Means for the Future of Farming” and extending into sessions on vineyard adaptation, living with climate change, and wild fire smoke issues.

Labor has long been a critical issue in the wine industry, but we often focused on vineyard labor and sometimes, as in Napa, the problem of attracting and retaining cellar staff in a region with sky-high living costs. The labor problem in the “new now,” however, extends throughout the organization, so human resource issues are front and center.

These are just two of the important “new now” issues the Unified will examine this year. Check out the complete program to see what else is on tap. And don’t miss the trade show, which is where new ideas are put into practice.

State of the Industry Now

I will be hosting the State of the Industry session on Wednesday morning and I think you can expect a lot of “new now” thinking from the all-star speaker lineup: Jeff Bitter (Allied Grape Browers), Danny Brager (Brager Beverage Alcohol Consulting), Steve Fredricks (Turrentine Brokerage), and Mario Zepponi (Zepponi & Company). Their collective expertise spans the issues — demand, supply, markets, and investment.

The State of the Industry session looks back at 2021 and ahead to 2022 and beyond but a “new now” problem is understanding exactly where we are at today given the big swings in wine demand, sales channels, and grape harvests that we have seen. It can be hard see through the thicket of short-term events to pick out the real longer-term trends. Prediction is difficult, they say — especially about the future when the present in unclear. But I guarantee that the team will have revealing insights to share.

New Now Sacramento

If you want to get a sense of “new now” maybe the best example of change and adaptation is the Unified itself. It starts with the newly remodeled SAFE Credit Union Convention Center. I haven’t seen it yet but I am told it is state of the art — bigger and better — and safer — than before. I am really looking forward to the new trade show and session spaces.

And then there is the health and safety element of the “new now.” Bringing together thousands of wine industry people during this pandemic and doing so responsibly requires organization, cooperation, and critical analysis.

As Cyril Penn reported recently on WineBusiness.com, the organizers have retained a health data analytics firm to model the Unified from a covid safety standpoint.

Epistemix develops simulations that approximate risk based on venue, audience and anticipated virus levels with proprietary software developed by a team from the University of Pittsburg School of Public Health. The firm partnered with the Exhibitions and Conferences Alliance a year ago and has worked on risk assessments for conferences and conventions in twenty cities. Reiser said Epistemix has been 95 percent accurate in making event projections thus far.

The models take into account the number of attendees and their vaccine and testing status, the prevalence of the covid variants, the mitigation protocols, the varieties of activities that the convention entails, and the various ways that the groups are likely to mix.

The modeling indicates Unified’s masking and vaccination/testing policy at the newly-remodeled Sacramento Convention Center will create a controlled environment with an expected case rate of one in ten-thousand, according to Lindsey Solden Reiser, PhD, Managing Director of Professional Services for Epistemix, Inc. That modeling assumes 12,000 people attend Unified.

If the projections are correct, the convention will have a much lower expected case rate than Sacramento itself, which has a projected rate of eight cases per ten-thousand persons.

Wine and the New Now

The point is that the new now of trade shows and conventions is very different from the old normal, where people like me mainly worried about mundane things like whether the slide-advance “clicker” would work for the PowerPoint presentation.  I am sure I never gave a moment’s thought to the idea that data modeling of pandemic spread would be needed or desired. But here we are now.

And I think the wine business is in the same situation. We need to analyze the new now and to try to understand it, but without assuming that it will somehow revert to the old normal or remain fixed in place as the new normal, either.

Better take off your shoes and socks. Time to get your feet wet.

Frogs, Tides, and Wine: the Adventure Capitalism Boom

How is the changing investment landscape affecting the wine industry? Some thoughts on adventure capitalism and wine (and frogs and tides at the very end).

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The cover story on the November 27 issue of the Economist newspaper was “Adventure capitalism: startup finance goes global.” It wasn’t, as this illustration might suggest, a story about Bezos and Branson and how their billions were powering rocket adventure tourism in near space. That’s interesting, but it’s another story.

VC become Ad-Venture Capital

The article traces how venture capital (VC) has gone from a niche investment space to something that seems to be much broader and more pervasive. VC is usually thought of as early-stage private investment in privately-held tech and science firms. The old world of VC was mainly focused on the US and just a few sectors — think Silicon Valley start-ups. The idea was to invest early on in what in the best-case scenario might turn out to be a unicorn firm — one that would achieve a billion-dollar valuation while still in private hands and then go public in a big way. Ka-Ching!

High risk is one reason the Economist calls this Adventure (rather than Venture) capitalism.  VC is inherently risky. The investments are by their nature illiquid and you need to hit the target with some very successful investments to offset the inevitable disappointments. I suppose it is a little bit like the old joke about the wine business — the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one. But of course some investors do very well indeed.

The Economist argues that VC is changing — being disrupted just as it has disrupted in the past. The VC world has broadened beyond the narrow set of sectors of the past and beyond the US. It has also changed as huge amounts of money have poured into VC firms. The fact that there are more investors taking risks doesn’t make the system less risky.

The Problem of Return-Free Risk

There are a number of factors powering the rise of adventure capitalism, but perhaps the most important is the scarcity of positive real returns in some traditional sectors and the consequent logic of assuming higher risk to achieve higher return. Necessity as much as entrepreneurship drives the trend.

It used to be said that US Treasury bonds were “risk-free return,” for example, and so good foundational investments for a variety of individuals and institutions. Now, an investment advisor I know says, Treasuries are “return-free risk.” The interest return is negative in real terms (below the prevailing rate of inflation) and prices are volatile. This fact forces investors to explore all the nooks and crannies of the financial world to meet their needs.

The VC boom isn’t the only example of their trend. You might not have heard of SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) before this year, but they are now a big enough market niche to be going through their own boom-bust cycles. Some call them “blank check funds,” which suggests something about the times when high net-worth investors decide it is a good idea to hand a financial advisor (sometimes paired with a sports star or celebrity of some sort) a blank check to buy a private company.

There are also NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that sometimes trade for high amounts. I suppose there could be a SPAC that invests in funds that acquire NFTs — what could be better? And I understand there are active markets in virtual assets on metaverse platforms.

This Changes Everything?

If you want to consider how far investors will go to get a return, consider that huge amounts that some recording artists have received for their back catalogues of songs. A steady flow of fees from music streaming services apparently looks really good when the alternative is something like return-free risk.

The list of investors who are plunging into the world of adventure capitalism investing is amazing, including billionaires and speculators, of course, but also what we might usually think of as very conservative institutions such as university endowment funds and public sector pension funds. (I recently reviewed the endowment report of a major mid-west university that had 22% of its assets invested in private equity and venture capital.)

These institutional investors, who once focused on blue-chip investments, now find themselves pulled into higher risk illiquid investments by the gravity created by their need to achieve certain rate of return targets. Most institutions that I monitor aim to increase their private equity and VC profile in the future.

One important question is this: what happens to all of these investments when the economic environment changes, as it looks like it is doing now, with higher inflation pushing interest returns up and the big quantitative easing flows tapering off at least here in the United States?

Wine Investment Booms

So how is this a wine story? The Economist is right that investments in risky and illiquid assets is no longer limited to traditional venture capital firms and Silicon Valley sectors. It is hard to follow the wine business in 2021 without noting all of the investment activity. Acquisitions (Sycamore’s purchase of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, for example), SPACs, and big moves by some institutional investors, too. Lots of money searching for returns in winery and vineyard investments.

Everyone seems to want to get on the NFT bandwagon, for example. Even Penfolds, the iconic Australian brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates is piling in. According to one report,

Australia’s most celebrated wine-maker is going digital with the announcement that Penfolds is teaming up with non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace BlockBar for an innovative new project. The partnership will see a limited edition NFT tied to the impossibly rare Penfolds Magill Cellar 3 barrel made from vintage 2021. According to the iconic Australian brand, only 300 will be made available, for the cool sum of USD$130,000 (AUD$180,00).

And Penfolds isn’t the only producer to exploit interest in NFTs. Barossa winemaker Dave Powell is offering the entire 2021 vintage of his wine through sale of NFTs. Is the wine’s value greater when linked to a NFT? Many apparently think so in the same way that some firms are trying to raise their profile by linking to blockchain (Square, the payments company, is now Block).

Better than Birkin?

Fine wine has done very well as an “alternative” investment in this environment and I have received several emails promoting funds to invest in fine wine assets. According to a recent article in Forbes, fine wines topped the list of alternative investments over the last decade, a list that includes blue chip art and furniture, classic autos, and colored diamonds. Wine’s rise to the top of the pile was noteworthy because it has now outperformed the previous leader … handbags! Gosh those Hermès Birkin bags did really well — I assume you have a bunch of them in your retirement portfolio, yes? Nah — me neither.

I think it is clear that wine is part of the adventure capitalism story — how could it escape such a broad, powerful trend? So the questions I asked above apply to wine, too. What happens when the economic environment changes, as it seems to be doing now? Which of these investment strategies will endure and which will fade away?

Frogs and Tides

Many, including the Economist, seem to be enthusiastic about the adventure capitalism trend and all that goes with it, but it makes me nervous. It seems to me that this is a process that normalizes risk without actually reducing it. Having taught university classes on financial crises and written a couple of books on this topic, I take risk very seriously (and I don’t think I am alone).

The current investment environment in wine and more generally reminds me of the parable of the frog in the pot on the stove. The water heats up slowly, so you kind of get used to it. Once you realize that things have started to boil up it is too late.

I will therefore be watching closely as the monetary life-support system tapers off and interest rates rise. As Warren Buffet is supposed to have said, you never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out!

Gearing Up for the 2022 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is North America’s largest wine industry gathering — a vast trade show and ambitious collection of seminars and presentations with something new and useful for every wine professional.

The 2020 Unified was the last in-person wine conference that Sue and I attended before the pandemic closures and protocols hit. So we are looking forward with more than the usual amount of excitement to the 2022 Unified, which is scheduled for January 25-27 in Sacramento.

Trade Show by the Numbers

Last year’s Unified was a virtual event and a very good one, but wine is a people business and nothing can fully replace the in-person experience. The two-day trade show will take place in the newly renovated SAFE Credit Union Convention Center on January 26 and 27. Covid protocols will be followed, of course.

You will find 760 booths and 40 large vineyard and winery machinery areas filled with just about everything anyone might need to grow grapes and make and sell wine. If you want to know what’s new, this is the place to find out.

If you haven’t been to the Unified before, you might enjoy reading New York Times wine expert Eric Asimov’s report on his visit to the trade show in 2017. It is interesting to see the event through Asimov’s critical eyes.

Problems and Opportunities

The 2022 conference program features an expanded three full days of meetings January 25-27. The typically ambitious agenda is organized around wine industry problems and opportunities as the Daily Schedule makes clear. There is a strong emphasis on positive take-aways — practical approaches to dealing with wine industry issues and information to help us all make sense of our changing world.

The wine world has changed dramatically in just a short period of time and the themes of this year’s program take this into account, with sessions on environmental shifts, smoke taint problems, new marketing directions, and attracting and retaining essential talent. Two sessions are in Spanish.

State of the Wine Industry

Once again this year I will be fronting the Wednesday morning “State of the Industry” session. I’ll set the stage by analyzing the changing wine market from a global perspective then the all-star line-up takes over: Danny Brager (changing consumer trends), Steve Fredricks (the supply side of the wine market), Mario Zepponi (investment trends, M&A activity), and Jeff Bitter (grower trends and issues).

Danny Brager returns to the podium at the session’s end to recognize wineries that were particularly successful navigating the wine dark seas in 2021. Lots of information and analysis packed into a 2-1/2 hour session.

I don’t have to tell you that 2021 has not been the easiest year for those of us in the wine industry, so look forward to honest, straightforward analysis with a focus on practical strategies as we move ahead into the uncertain future.

The Unified is back. See you there!

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.