Restaurant Wine Lists: Are Restaurants Leaving Money on the Table?

wine-list-waiterLast week I wrote about the concept of the Overton Window and speculated about what it might be able to tell us about the constantly evolving wine market. This week I follow up with an interesting study that finds a kind of “Overton” effect in restaurant wine programs and suggests that many restaurants may be leaving money on the table by the way they bind themselves to a particular narrow wine “window.”

The Backstory

Briefly, the Overton Window is a concept taken from the world of political analysis. It refers to the range of public policy options that are deemed generally acceptable at any particular moment. Political success, according to this theory, is all about either embracing the window to gain public support or finding ways to shift it in the direction you favor.

Financial Times columnist Tim Hayward applied the Overton Window concept to restaurant food. He noted that many creative chefs find themselves constrained by the customer Overton Window and the need to have “safety food” options like hamburgers, simple fish and chicken dishes, etc. so that customers feel comfortable coming to the restaurant.

If you choose to ignore the window conventions, you risk losing customers and ultimately your job. Hayward speculated that the most successful chefs stick to the window, but work on the edges to express creativity without leaving their customers behind.

I had more to say about this, of course,  including some comments about giant hairballs, so you might want to read last week’s column if you haven’t already done so.wine_beer

Wine Versus Beer and Spirits

The Overton Window is a new concept for me, but learning about it instantly reminded me of research that my friend James Davis did for his Master of Wine thesis, “Understanding consumer attitudes to large wine-brands as a purchasing cue in the United Kingdom (UK) multiple on-trade: a comparison of value and premium multiple outlets.”

The thesis is suitably complicated and probes many questions. I am going to simply (and probably over-simplify) and focus on just a couple of the results.

Davis wanted to understand the difference between wine programs in value restaurant chains (such  as Wetherspoon’s and Harvester  in the UK) and premium restaurant chains (such as Wagamama and Carluccio’s) and while he did not use the concept of the Overton Window, I think you will probably see why I think it applies.

Davis noted that when it comes to popular brands of beer and spirits, consumers expect to find them in both value and premium restaurants. The beer and spirits lists of the two types of restaurants aren’t identical by any means, but popular brands that are available in the shops are likely to be found in both types of establishments. This is consistent with the concept of staying within the consumer comfort and acceptance window.

Davis noted that the conventional wisdom is that wine is different from beer and spirits when it comes to popular brands. Widely-distributed wines like Hardy’s and Jacob’s Creek are likely to be found in the value outlets, but are not typically found in the premium segment. In other words, the restaurant wine windows are assumed to be much different. His research of the chains’ wine lists generally confirmed this finding, indicating that the restaurants treated wine a bit different from beer and spirits in terms of the types and range of brands on offer.

So, if you are following me so far, it seems that restaurants may be using their wine lists to communicate their identities (as value versus premium) more than they do with beer and spirits. Interesting, but is wine really so different from beer, spirits and food? Are the value and premium wine windows so very different?survey-says

And the Survey Says …

Davis then surveyed consumers and he found that many of them would have ordered wine at the premium restaurants if there had been a popular brand on the list. In other words, the windows in the two types of establishments may not be so distinct as conventional wisdom suggest.

Perhaps restaurant wine should be a little more like restaurant beer and spirits  and not try to create its own special window?  To quote from Davis’s thesis: “Premium outlets that do not list any large wine-brands are missing out on sales according to the findings of the consumer survey and also the wine-list review.”

This seems to me to be consistent with Tim Hayward’s hypothesis about restaurant food. Consumers want those safety options and you ignore them at your peril. Given that a widely available “safety wines” might be pretty popular (think Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or Mondavi Napa Fume Blanc) I am not sure about the logic of avoiding them entirely, even if you want to construct a list that probes the creative boundaries or defines an image.

How Different is Wine?

As I said before, Davis explores more topics and provides more analysis, but this is where I will stop. My purpose is simple: maybe we should re-examine what we think we know about what works best for restaurant wine.

I’m not recommending that fine dining establishments limit their wine lists to what a consumer can find a Kroger’s or Tesco, just suggesting that broadening the list to include more popular (and probably cheaper) wines that fall squarely within the generally accepted wine window might improve wine sales while making customers happy, too.

If a restaurant is willing to offer a gourmet hamburger to give nervous customers something to hold on to, maybe there should be more similar wine choices available. Many do this, of course, but sometimes it seems like all the attention is on other parts of the wine list.

I have written many case studies of different industries over the years and one thing I have found is that each sector confidently  believes that it is different from the rest. And of course important differences do exist. But it is wise not to ignore potential lessons from other product categories, especially when consumers see them as part of the same experience as they are likely to consider restaurant food and beverage choices.


A quick note about limitations. Davis’s study is obviously limited to those value and premium dining multiples that he studied in the UK and the consumers he surveyed there. Use caution in generalizing to other countries and other types of dining establishments.

Also please note (as if it isn’t obvious) that my concern here is increasing wine sales and the restaurants may be more interested in other things. Perhaps there is more profit (or faster table turnover) with beer or cocktail sales.

Hamburgers, Hairballs & Cabernet (Oh My!): Opening Wine’s Overton Window

windowI started thinking about the Overton Window for wine after reading Tim Hayward’s “Food for Thought” column in the Financial Times a few weeks ago (“The steak-and-chips straitjacket” March 26, 2016). Hayward was talking about food but I can’t help thinking about wine.

The Overton Window is a political concept named for think-tank guru Joseph P. Overton (it is also apparently the title of a 2010 political novel by Glenn Beck).

The idea is that at any given time there are policies that the general public finds acceptable and politicians and policy-makers who work within this window will find more success than those on the outside. The window shifts over time as conditions and attitudes change either on their own or in response to the work of political philosophers or entrepreneurs.

Creative Tension

Hayward clearly likes the analytical framework that the Overton Window provides (once you first learn about it, he says, it’s hard to stop thinking in these terms) and his FT column attempts to apply it to the restaurant scene.  Many fine dining restaurants like to define themselves by their creativity, he writes, but they risk straying outside their customers’ Overton Window. It’s a difficult situation.

Add a fancy hamburger or steak-and-chips to the menu, he says, and you’ll make your customers very happy because they will know that they can always find something to eat. But will you lose your identity in the process and become just another place with good steak and chips? But, on the other hand,  can you afford to ignore the economic benefits of providing widely popular “safety” options?

Hayward knows the British restaurant scene very well and he argues that the Overton Window has broadened quite a lot over the years, which has made it possible for creative chefs to provide a wider range of interesting foods. A good thing!

But he reminds us that the window’s “straitjacket” still holds. Wander too far outside its constraints (without that hamburger or other “safety dishes” to anchor you) and you risk being a critical success but a market failure. The most successful chefs, he argues, don’t think “outside the box” (to mix metaphors, but you get the idea), but rather work at the edges of what is generally acceptable, keeping creativity alive if contained.


Like a Giant Hairball?

Hayward’s analysis reminds we of one of my favorite management books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. For MacKenzie, corporate bureaucracy, which defines acceptable policy, is a giant hairball and if you don’t fight against its gravitational pull you will be sucked into mediocrity.

But you need that pull to anchor you. Without the hairball and the discipline it imposes, creative people fly off into the cold reaches of outer space (and chefs, I suppose, fly off to bankruptcy court).

The trick, MacKenzie concludes, it to strike just the right balance and to orbit the hairball rather than zooming off into space or crashing into the hairball’s oily net. I think we all know people who suffered the two sad polar fates as well as some lucky ones who got the orbit balance just right, which I guess is equivalent to working happily and profitably around the edges of the window.

Windows and Hairballs in Action

My purpose in talking about windows and hairballs is to try to apply these flexible concepts to wine much as Tim Hayward has done for food. But before I go there it is necessary to circle back to base a bit. The Overton Window was conceived as a political idea and MacKenzie’s hairball was all about business in particular and organizations generally. Before we apply these concepts to wine, we should ask if they still apply on their home turf?

The political climate here in the United States is chaotic, with challenges from the left (Bernie Sanders), the right (Ted Cruz) and … well, where exactly is Donald Trump coming from? Has the Overton Window of acceptable ideas expanded (as Hayward suggests at one point in his column) to include all of this, which amounts to nearly everything? That’s not a window, it’s more like an amphitheater!

Or maybe the problem is that the population has fragmented and there is no single window any more, but rather a mosaic of windows that don’t really connect. Switching frameworks, has the hairball just lost some mass, so that the orbits are wider and more eratic? Or has it collapsed leaving us lost in space?

Isn’t This Supposed to Be About Wine?

Hayward is interested in how and why the restaurant menu Overton Window has expanded and why some previously exotic items are now clearly in the frame (think sushi, kimchi and kale) while others remain locked out (he cites cerviche, for example). We could ask the same sort of questions about wine. I know that Riesling fans always wonder when a broader audience will discover their favorite wine and move it more toward the center of the window.

Another application would be to look at the choices that wine shops and supermarket wine managers make when they decide which wines to stock and which to leave off the shelves. Some store selections are very conservative, sticking to the most widely purchased SKUs from the best-known makers, while others push the edges a bit.

Perhaps wine stores that go bust are, like Hayward’s über-creative chefs, guilty of pushing too far outside of the window, leaving their customers with an inadequate supply of “safety wines?”

But, inspired by Hayward’s analysis of create chefs and their steak-and-chips dilemma, I am particularly interested in thinking about restaurant wine and the choices restaurants make in compiling their wine menus. Come back next week for some interesting analysis.


I couldn’t find a cool image of an Overton Window for wine, so I used this photo of the Berry Brothers & Rudd window in London when it was decorated with giant corks.This is a memorable image and a reminder that Berry Brothers must understand wine’s Overton Window very well to have stayed in business in their iconic shop at 3 St James’s Street since 1698.

The “Big & Hot” Guide to Best-selling U.S. Wine Brands

wv082015The August 2015 issue of Wines & Vines magazine is full of interesting and useful information as usual. One article that caught my eye provides IRI off-premise wine sales data for the top 20 U.S. wine brands. What are the best-selling off-premise brands? What’s hot (and what’s not)?

Bigfoot Barefoot?

The best-selling brand in the IRI league table is Gallo’s Barefoot, which accounted for an incredible $622 million in sales in the 52 weeks ending on June 14, 2015. That’s 5% more than the previous year in value terms and a 7% increase in volume. Congratulations to Gallo on their great success with this popular-priced ($5.64 average) wine. It is commonplace to say today that the sub-$9 wine category is in a slump, but Barefoot is the obvious exception to the rule

Sutter Home from Trinchero Family Estates is #2, but a long way back at $356 million sales. The rule does apply here — value is down 2% on the year and volume is down 3%. The Wine Group’s Franzia Box is just behind with $325 million in sales on the year, flat in value terms and down 5% in volume.  Franzia’s average price per 750 ml equivalent is up 11 cents to $2.17 compared with Sutter Home’s $5.25.

Who are the other big players? Here are the remaining members of the top ten listed in  order: #4 Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi (Constellation), #5 Yellow Tail, #6 Kendall Jackson, #7 Beringer (Treasury), #8  Chateau Ste Michelle, #9 Cupcake (The Wine Group), and #10 Mènage à Trois (Trinchero).

The next ten largest brands includes four Gallo product lines (Gallo Family Vineyards, Apothic, Carlo Rossi and Livingston Cellars), four from Constellation Brands (Black Box, Clos Du Bois, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Rex Goliath) plus 14 Hands from Ste Michelle and Bogle Vineyards.

Clearly the Big Three companies (Gallo, Constellation and The Wine Group) dominate the list, but note how Trinchero and Ste Michelle punch above their weight. Kudos to Bogle for their success, too.

Hot N Cold Brands

The biggest wine brands are not always the hottest brands and the IRI data reported in Wines & Vines bears this out. As noted above, many of the top brands are experiencing slower sales in value terms including Sutter Home (-2%), Yellow Tail (-5%), Gallo Family Vineyards (-2%), Carlo Rossi (-3%), Clos Du Bois (-2%), Mondavi Private Selection (-4%), Livingston Cellars (-5%) and Rex Goliath (-4%).

These declines are matched by some spectacular gains elsewhere on the wine wall, often at much higher price points. Mènage à Trois tops the Hot List with 24% growth in value and 23% increase in volume, continuing its incredible market run. Black Box is right behind with 23% value growth. Gallo’s Apothic is next 21% value growth.

Continuing down the Hot List (among the 20 largest brands) is 14 Hands (+17%), Bogle (+15%) and Chateau Ste Michelle (12% value growth).

When you’re hot you’re hot, I guess. While Beringer and Clos Du Bois  have experienced falling average prices according to IRI (-11 cents per bottle equivalent for Beringer and -27 cents for Clos Du Bois), Mènage à Trois has seen its average price rise by 10 cents while Apothic’s average price holds steady at $9.58.

Remember that these are data for off-premise sales only and all data sources have limitations, so draw conclusions cautiously. Thanks to Wines & Vines for publishing this interesting snapshot of the U.S. wine market in transition. What will the final picture look like? Stay tuned to find out.

Speaking of Hot N Cold …

The Curse of Corporate Wine-Think?

When I wrote about the global financial crisis in my 2010 book Globaloney 2.0: The Crash of 2008 and the Future of Globalization, I focused on three forces that I saw as both key to the crisis and limits on global finance: misperceptions of risk, the excessive use of leverage and the resulting moral hazard, which produced the boom and then the bust.

Now, as I think about the reasons why corporations are not more dominant in the wine industry, I find myself returning to those same themes. Is this an important insight, or am I just a broken record? You be the judge!

Note: This is the final column in the current series on family wine businesses. This column is more speculative than the earlier ones — as many questions as answers! — reflecting the fact that it is difficult to generalize about either corporate wineries or family and private wine firms.


Asking the Right Questions

Last week’s column ended by questioning the question of the curious success of family wine business. There are good explanations for the success of family-owned wine businesses, I wrote,  but sometimes they feel a bit ad hoc, tailored to explain a particular case and less capable of generalization.  And they often fail to fully account for the fact that many family wine businesses  either fail or, like the Taylor family, end going over to the dark corporate side.

The question of why family wine businesses are successful isn’t easily answered. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue isn’t why family-owned wine businesses are surprisingly robust and instead why corporate owned wine businesses are sometimes ineffective? Is there something about wine that turns smart corporate brains to mush (not all of them, but a few)?

Protecting Assets versus Leveraging Them

One difference that I have noticed about family wine businesses versus some of the corporations regards the role of key assets such as brand and reputation.  Many family wineries that come to mind seems to see their role as protecting brand and reputation so that they will continue to provide benefits well into the future. Some corporations that come to mind, on the other hand, seem to focus on leveraging brand and reputation in order to increase short run returns.

What’s the problem with leveraging a brand? Leverage has the potential to increase returns in any business, but it also increases risk. And one risk is that the integrity of key assets can be undermined by the leverage process itself.

An example? Well, I hate to pick on Treasury Wine Estates because they have seen enough bad news in the last few years, but one of my readers emailed me in dismay when a news story appeared about Treasury’s latest market strategy. I’ll use this as an example, but Treasury isn’t the only wine corporation that I could pick on and maybe not even the best example

One element of Treasury’s plan is to develop brands for the “masstige” market segment, which means taking a prestige brand and levergaing it by introducing a cheaper mass market product that rides on the iconic brand’s reputation. 

Masstige? Sounds like something from a Dilbert cartoon, which means of course that it is a totally authentic contemporary business term. Prestige fashion house Versace, for example, seems to have developed a masstige product line for mass market retailer H&M. The line was launched in 2011 and I’m not sure where it stands today. Maybe it was a big success? If  masstige  worked for shoes and dresses, how could it be a bad idea for wine?

I’m sure a prestige association helps sell the cheaper mass market products, but I can think of some examples in the wine business (Paul Masson? Beringer?  Mondavi?) where it might have undermined the iconic brand itself a little or a lot, which seems self-defeating. I know that has happened in the fashion field (think about how the Pierre Cardin brand was diluted by cheap logo products) so I imagine it could be a factor in wine, too.

Think Global, Source Global

Here’s another example. Regional identity is more important in wine than in some other industries and Treasury owns some famous “wine of origin” brands — wines associated with particular regions, which are valuable assets.  But my worried reader was concerned about Treasury’s plan to source globally to expand the scale of some of these regional brands.

“Building scale via sourcing breadth is one of the most critical platforms necessary for the globalization of wine brands,” according to the report. Gosh, that even sounds like corp-speak, doesn’t it? Logical, I suppose, but maybe locally-defined brands need to be locally sourced to maintain authenticity? Maybe consumers would be suspicious of a Stags Leap wine, to make up an example, that is sourced from Australia or some other distant place as a way of leveraging its brand power? I wonder just how flexible these terroir-based brand concepts are in the real world where consumers are the ones who decide what is authentic and what is bogus.

Cupcake Vineyards, a Wine Group brand, is an example of a multi-regional strategy that has been astonishingly successful, so it is clearly possible to build a globally sourced brand and perhaps this is Treasury’s model. But I’m suspicious of the idea of leveraging a place-specific brand through global sourcing. Does it make sense to try to turn icon Penfolds, for example, into a Cupcake look-alike? Maybe! But I worry that you’d lose what’s important about Penfolds in the process.

Treasury has no doubt studied this thoroughly and they are probably right about their strategies and I am probably wrong, but it seems problematic to me. I wonder if family firms are more likely to resist corporate wine-think and  try to protect key assets like a prestige brand or a regional identification while corporations are driven instead to try to leverage these assets to expand their market share? I am sure there are counter-examples to this theory and I can think of a few myself. I’d appreciate hearing from readers in the comments section below.

Global Market Moral Hazard

What about moral hazard? Some big wine corporations that have had troubles in recent years seem to have made the mistake of thinking that big global markets will soak up all that they (and the other big firms) can produce. It’s a matter of global-think. The global markets are huge. There’s always a market for another dozen containers somewhere in the big world of wine, or so it might seem, and so the risk of failure is misunderestimated, to use a GW Bushism.

In finance we would say that the false sense that the global market is always there to bail you out  leads to moral hazard and this is probably true in wine, too.  Moral hazard encourages excessive investment and promotes booms and the busts that often follow. What seems to be true for an individual company is not necessarily true for an industry and misunderstanding this sort of risk is downright dangerous in an industry like wine, which is by its nature subject to cycles and booms and busts.

If private- and family-firms avoid the tendency to think global when their markets are local and thus avoid misunderestimating risk and if they really do work to preserve rather than leverage key assets it might help explain their lasting power and influence. Lots of “ifs” there, but its a theory. What do you think?


Thanks to everyone who has followed this series. Next up: what wine can learn from the analysis of the language of restaurant menus.

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.


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

Wine Vision Takeaway Messages

Click on the image above to view my interview with editor Ben Bouckley at Wine Vision 2014.

I’m back from Wine Vision 2014 and reviewing my notes in search of the most important takeaway messages. Not an easy task in this case, because the content stream was so rich and varied. Not sure whether the best ideas came from the formal program or casual conversations. That’s a sign that the organizers did their job of assembling a critical mass of thinkers and doers from inside and outside the global wine trade.

Many of the points that participants found particularly useful focused on new or emerging trends. Lots of discussion of new consumers (millennials, for example), new marketing opportunities (direct-to-consumer both generally and via in-home “meet the winemaker” type events), and new competitors within the alcoholic beverage category, some of which are so “innovative” that they seem poised to “jump the shark” into oblivion.

We were informed and entertained by presentations on what to do and — more critically — what not to do in social media relations (lots of cringing at the dumb things that smart people can do on Twitter and Facebook). And we were introduced to packaging and label innovations, including my first experience with Amorim’s new “twist off” Helix cork stopper/bottle package. Something for everyone at this conference.

 Big Bang Theory

My presentation probed four powerful forces that have shaped the wine world of today — the “big bang” of global wine production that has redrawn the world wine map, the new “lingual franca” of wine, which now defines the competitive landscape, the forces of disintermediation that have changed the game from monopoly to monopsony, and the “new wine wars”realignment of interests within the wine business.

Reading through press coverage and Twitter comments, I find that different people focused on different elements of my presentation, which is probably as it should be. In the video above, for example, editor Ben Bouckley drills in on the importance of authenticity and the new wine wars and, in response to a question, I highlight LVMH wine chief Jean-Guillaume Prats‘ comments about sustainability. Lots of interesting ideas in the air.

UK Wine Trade at the Crossroads?

Wine Vision disappointed me in only one respect — not what was said but what wasn’t. In the run-up to the event I suggested that this was the perfect time and place for an open discussion of power dynamics in UK supplier-retailer relations. The Tescogate financial scandal seems to have nothing to do with the wine trade, I wrote, but it has created an opening where a discussion of power in the UK wine world might be usefully and openly engaged. As a recovering liberal arts college professor, open discussion is in my blood, so naturally I wanted to see it happen here.

But it didn’t happen and perhaps it never will. I tried to open the door in my presentation, drawing a parallel between UK wine retailers and in terms of power dynamics. But no one really jumped at the opportunity and in any case I was whisked off the stage before anyone could comment or ask a question. Time was up, I guess.

Pernod Ricard UK chief Denis O’Flynn attempted to suggest that supplier-retailer relations were at a “crossroads,” but without any more success than I had.  A panel on supplier-retailer relations managed to almost entirely avoid the topic. Interesting! It felt like a “Voldemort” moment (“he who must not be named,” for those of you who are not Harry Potter fans).

Race to the Bottom?

Maybe, as a friend suggests, it was just British politeness — must not say anything that might make someone uncomfortable. Or maybe it was, as the wise Adrian Bridge suggested, simply that nothing was going to change. Might be better to invest energy in areas where progress is possible. He’s probably right and I’m probably wrong.

But I really think that something has to change.  Retailers cut price to increase market share (in the process training consumers to think of wine as just another 3-for-£10 commodity). Then they push suppliers for lower costs to restore margins before another round of price cuts kicks in. The fact that the UK Treasury’s excise tax share of the transaction has increased so much only makes matters worse, eroding margins and accelerating the downward spiral spin.

The UK wine business is caught in a dangerous race-to-the-bottom cycle and it isn’t going to turn around unless and until something changes. Is it impolite to talk about this? Denial, as I like to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

I’m on the “State of the Industry” panel again in January at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Look for further commentary there.


The issue of supplier-retailer relations isn’t just about Tesco, but the fact of Tescogate puts that firm, the world’s largest wine retailer — in the spotlight. Dan Jago, the head of Tesco’s wine department, was originally scheduled to speak at Wine Vision, but withdrew when he, along with other department heads, was suspended pending the investigation. (It is now rumored that Jago will leave the company.) Laura Jewel MW, the head of Tesco’s wine development program, stepped in to replace him but  a week after the conference she seem poised to leave Tesco to take a position as UK and Europe director of Wine Australia. As Jancis Robinson said on Twitter, “Who’s left at Tesco?” Good question. Maybe some of the UK insiders at the conference knew about these upcoming changes and so avoided any situation where they might have to comment? Pure speculation.


Thanks to Wine Vision for inviting me to speak! It’s a  well-organized and very successful event — worth the long flight from Seattle to London. Thanks to participants and fellow speakers for making this such an interesting and worthwhile conference.

A Field Guide to Prosecco’s Many Faces

P1090234Prosecco sales here in the U.S. are surging — up 34% in the first half of 2014 according to one report. At 1.27 million cases, the U.S. is now the #3 export market for Prosecco trailing only the UK and Germany.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is often something else entirely. Last week’s column talked about Prosecco’s upmarket move and the premiumization pyramid that lies at the heart of the strategy.  Is premium Prosecco real or just a marketing gimmick?

Mionetto’s Impressive Line-up

We tasted the wines from three producers during our quick business trip to the Veneto and if there is truth in wine, then premium Prosecco is real.

Our first stop was at Mionetto, a large producer that is the U.S. market leader with their popularly priced, crown capped “IL” Prosecco line of wines. “IL” is great fun and has attractive packaging — we like it a lot — but it doesn’t especially strive for upmarket status. But wait, there is more …

We tasted through several Mionetto wines that showed the true potential for premium Prosecco wines. We started with Prosecco made from organic grapes — the idea came from the growers not the marketing department — that was perhaps the most effective presentation of an organic wine that I have seen. This wine should appeal both to enthusiasts seeking something different and to dedicated green wine fans. The wine, the messaging, the packaging — they all come together in a very impressive way.

Opulence and a German Bet

We then moved up the pyramid to a single vineyard “Rive di Santo Stefano” DOCG Prosecco and into the “Luxury” series of wines, then reaching the summit with the Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG. The luxury wines really were opulent both in the glass and to the eye. Very impressive. Will wines like this some day challenge Champagne? No future tense needed — I think they already do so, providing that memorable feeling (isn’t that what Champagne is really all about for most people?) at a more attractive price point. Here is a list of the Mionetto wines we tasted with links to more information about them.

An interesting sidebar to the Mionetto story is that the Italian firm was purchased a few years ago by Henkell, the German sparking wine producer, and everyone worried that the usual layoffs and cost-cutting measures were in store. Instead the new parent company kept all hands on board and hired more workers while investing in plant modernization and expansion. They are betting on the premium future of Prosecco and based on the “cards” we tasted it seems they have a winning hand.


A Different Prosecco: Sorelle Bronca

Sorelle Bronca is a very different enterprise that illustrates Prosecco’s many dimensions. A small firm run by two sisters, all its wines are organic. Total production is much smaller than Mionetto, but the wines are perhaps equally diverse in the experiences they present the curious wine enthusiast.

We tasted through several excellent organic DOCG Proseccos and some still wines, too, including a white blend featuring the Manzoni Bianco grape and a Colli di Conegliano DOCG Riserva “Ser Bele” red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux grape varieties have long been planted in the Veneto) that received Gambero Rosso’s  top “3 glasses” rating. Red wine from Prosecco-ville? Maybe. Really great red wine?  Apparently yes. I didn’t see that coming.

The “normal” Proseccos we tasted here were delicious as was the Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Particella 68  made from grapes from a specific vineyard bloc. But the hit of the tasting was Sorrele Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG “Difetto Perfetto” Sur Lie. Difetto Perfetto? Defective and perfect at the same time? Well, yes. This cloudy wine (see photo) had its secondary fermentation in the bottle not the pressurized tank as is typical for Prosecco. Then it was left on the lees for a period and then not disgourged, so the lees were still there.

Cloudy, a bit like a hefeweizen beer. I think “foggy” is the best word — look at the photo. Unfiltered, but not Difetto in my opinion. The first taste was just the wine, taking care not to disturb the lees at the bottom of the bottle. Good! Then we shook up the bottle and tasted it all together. Wow! Even better, Sue and I agreed.  Champagne-like but still clearly Prosecco without the strong leesy taste you might expect because the sur lie period was so short.  And quite an interesting mouth-feel. A Prosecco to surprise and delight. What fun!P1090311

A Bisol Mosaic at Venissa

We spent the night in Venice and set out the next day to visit Venissa, the ambitious vineyard project of the Bisol family that is located on an island in the Venetian Lagoon (see next week’s column for a full report). The Bisol Prosecco house is behind Venissa and as part of our visit Matteo Bisol arranged for us to taste several of his family’s wines along with dinner at the restaurant.

Usually, Matteo said, he would serve just one Bisol wine as part of a multi-course / multi-wine tasting menu, but he decided to use the opportunity to show us many difference faces of Bisol and Prosecco. It was quite an experience.

We started with the classic Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.  Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

The Dry and the Sweet

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 — Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG –– from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita — dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either. Matteo wanted to show us the variety of Prosecco expressions and he certainly succeeded.


Final thoughts? The Prosecco mosaic caught me by surprise — Prosecco is not one thing, but many things and hopefully consumers who start with cheerful wines like the Mionetto “IL” bottlings can be persuaded to move up the Prosecco Pyramid to the DOCG and Rive wines and perhaps even summit with Cartizze and beyond to some of the truly unique wines we were fortunate to be able to sample. Thanks to the everyone who hosted us and to the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consortium for arranging the winery visits. Next time: the story of Venissa.