What’s Up with Italian Wine in the U.S. Market?

docItalian wine has a lot going for it in the U.S. market. Wines from Italy are by far the largest category of imported wines. Recent Nielsen figures (reported in Wine Business Monthly) show almost $1.2 billion in 52-week sales of Italian wines in the channels that Nielsen surveys — that is almost a third of all spending on wine imports and far more than #2 Australia ($720 million) and #3 New Zealand  ($496 million). France is #4 at $462 million.

Tariffs? Que Bello? Pazzo!

Italy has benefited from the hot market for sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular. And it gained an unexpected advantage over its European neighbors due to the peculiarities of the recently-imposed U.S. tariffs on European wines. Imports of many wines from France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K. are subject to a 25% tax.  What’s the tax on Italian wine imports? Zero. Zippo. Niente. Que bello!

(See Suzanne Mustacich’s excellent Wine Spectator article on the wine trade war for more details.)

How did Italy dodge the tariff bullet? I don’t think there is an official explanation or obvious economic rationale.  Pazzo! Must be politics, don’t you think? Maybe it has something to do with the high-level Trump administration officials with Italian-sounding names? Or maybe Italy’s not so closely associated with subsidies to Airbus, which provoked the WTO rulings and subsequent tariffs. Strange, but good for Italian producers trying to get their foot in the U.S. door (or working to open the door a little wider).

It would be a mistake to take these advantages for granted and the Italians are working hard to consolidate their market base and move forward. Or at least that’s what we think after attending the Seattle stop on the “Simply Italian Great Wines US Tour 2019.” We spent the day attending seminars sponsored by the European Union and wine region groups and meeting producers (many of whom were seeking local distribution) at a walk-around tasting.

[Two favorites from the walk-around tasting were Societa Agricola Sturm from Collio — fantastic Ribolla Gialla — and Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardina’s Cantina Giampietro Puggioni.]

Out of the Shadow

The Seattle event reminded us of how much we love the wines of Italy. But it also highlighted some of the challenges that Italy faces.

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. Although an amazing array of Italian wines can be found in the U.S. market, there are a few names that dominate the conversation: Chianti, for example, and Prosecco. It is easy for other wines from other regions to be over-shadowed. Sue and I saw the shadow effect when we stopped at a nearby Total Wine, which has a big selection of Italian wines. We were looking for wines from Friuli and we found just a hand-full  — mainly Pinot Grigio. The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves.

This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Italians love to drink sparkling wines and they make some terrific ones. And although my friends in Conegliano hate to hear me say it, it is a shame that the only Italian sparkler that most Americans can name is Prosecco.

I wish they’d give more attention to Francicorta DOCG, which faces a similar challenge to Vino Nobile. Franciacorta is often said to be the “Champagne” of Italy. It is made using the classic method from mainly but not exclusively the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes . The comparison to Champagne is understandable and the wines stand up well compared to their French cousins.

But it is not always helpful to think of Franciacorta this way because if you want Champagne you want Champagne and not necessarily something else. Franciacorta needs to more clearly develop a distinctly Italian identity that positions it apart from French wines and also Prosecco. The two Franciacorta DOCG wines were tasted were delicious — and I don’t think the skilled presenter ever called them Italy’s Champagne. I know producers are working hard to build their market category because the current interest in sparkling wines presents a great opportunity.

A Grape or a Region?

One of the sessions focused on DOC Pinot Grigo delle Venezie. Pinot Grigio is one of white wine’s big success stories in the U.S. market. Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is the second largest selling white wine category in the U.S. market, according to Nielsen figures, far behind #1 Chardonnay but well ahead of #3 Sauvignon Blanc.

Some of the Italians I have met like to imagine that all the Pinot Grigio sold in the U.S. comes from Italy — and Italy might have dominated this category a few years ago — but now Pinot Grigio is grown just about everywhere. I made risotto a few nights ago with a nice little Pinot Grigio from Washington state. That is the problem with the “signature wine grape variety” strategy. The category may start associated with a particular place, but often the place fades and it is just about the grape and then it is anyone’s game.

Italian producers hope to stake a territorial claim to the Pinot Grigio market with DOC Pinot Grigio delle Venezie — Pinot Grigio from a specific region subject to DOC rules and regulations. The consorzio logo above is meant to establish the identity. Italy first — can you miss the green-white-red stripes? And then Venice and Venezie as symbolized by the stylized prow of a Venetian gondola. Italy, Venice, Gondolas. Get it? That’s Pinot Grigio.

It is easy to be a little skeptical about the effort to re-brand Pinot Grigio this way since Americans generally know little about DOC and DOCG designations, but in this case there is reason for cautious optimism because many of the DOC Pinot Grigio wines have big marketing and distribution muscle behind them. The list of wines that were tasted in Seattle, for example, includes DOC wines from Lumina by Ruffino (Constellation Brands), Prophecy by Cantine di Mezzacorona (Gallo), Montresor (Total Wine & More), and Cupcake (The Wine Group).

Pinot Grigio won’t stop being a grape variety that could come from anywhere, but with some effort it can  also be a regional wine of Italy once again.

Italian wine makers are luckier than most. They face challenges, some of which are the product of their own success, but there is a tremendous reservoir of good will and affection for Italy and its wines.  The struggle for market attention is therefore not easy but still possible.  The Seattle event has inspired us to look more closely at the Italian wine mosaic and to try to appreciate a bit more its many shapes, colors, and styles.

Pocos, Locos, y Mal Unidos: The Paradox of Sardinian Wine

cervoPocos, locos y mal unidos. This description of Sardinia and its people (often wrongly attributed to Charles V) is a useful way to think about Sardinia’s wine sector and the headwinds it faces today.

Sardinian wine is a relatively small (pocos) player in Italian wine with perhaps 20,000 hectares of vines out of Italy’s vast 750,000 hectare total. The winemakers are crazy (locos), but that’s a given and not meant as an insult. I think we all agree that you’ve got to be at least a little crazy to try to make a living growing grapes or  making wine.

Small (and Crazy) can be Beautiful

Being small and a little crazy is not an insurmountable disadvantage in global wine. In fact, it can be a good place to begin. Take New Zealand as an example.

New Zealand’s wine sector is big in terms of its global reach and reputation, but pocos in other ways. There are more than 35,000 hectares of vines today (data from the Oxford Companion to Wine), but that’s after a couple of decades of rapid growth. Flash back twenty years and Sardinia had more grape vines than New Zealand and produced more wine.

I think the first Kiwi producers to take their wines to international markets (people like Ernie Hunter, who I wrote about in Wine Wars) must have been more than a little nuts to think that wine from a tiny faraway island could ever make an impact. But they brought their distinctive wines first to the UK and then the world and they found a ready audience. Now New Zealand is a wine export machine with market growth every year at premium price points. Being small and crazy worked for the Kiwis.

Is Sardinian Vermentino the next Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Well, as I suggested last week, the wines are excellent and distinctive, too. They deserve to be better known than they are. The next New Zealand? No, that’s too big an ask if only because times have changed and that gap in the market has been filled. But there is certainly potential for Sardinia to grow.

surrauVigne Surrau Case Study

Sue and I learned first hand about Sardinia’s potential when we visited Vigne Surrau, an ambitious 400,000 bottle producer located just outside of Porto Cervo in northeast Sardinia.

Surrau’s first vintage was 2004-2005 and it has been part of the recent move from quantity to quality in Sardinian wine. Growth has been so fast they they are now operating in their second-generation winery and tasting facility with room to grow to perhaps 700,000 bottles in the future. Sardinia itself (60%) and the rest of Italy (20%) are the biggest markets, with 20% exported. Demand is strong and export sales are carefully allocated so that the home market can be accommodated.

Wine tourism is a significant focus at Surrau with about 12,000 visitors per year. The beautiful tasting area, which looks out over the vineyards and the mountains beyond, has room for seated tastings, with food pairing if you wish, as well space for local food and crafts and an art gallery. A small conference center provides space for corporate events. Very well designed. Nothing remotely locos about it.

Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, elegant and complex, accounts for 65% of production. Red wines, especially Cannonou but also some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, fill out the line.  Tasting the Branu (Vertmetino di Gallura DOCG), Sciala (Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore from a different terroir than Branu) and Sciala VT (late harvest, but not a sweet wine with only 4 grams per liter of residual sugar) was a delightful introduction to the potential of Vermentino in this part of Sardinia.

Surrau highlighted the positive qualities we found in many of the best wines we tasted in Sardinia. Focus and commitment to quality on the business side. Balance, finesse, and distinction in the glass. They may be small and crazy, but there is great potential here. What could hold them back?

The Mal Unidos Syndrome

That’s where Mal Unidos comes in.  Almost everyone we talked with bemoaned the lack of unity and teamwork in Sardinia. Sue and I were skeptical. Disfunctional wine sectors are not that unusual. We see them all the time in our wine  travels.

No, you don’t understand, people told us. It is much worse here. It’s not just wine. It’s everything. Factions. Dialects. Everything. We have met the enemy and it is us. It is a real problem.  Regional consortio organizations are weak, they say, which is unfortunate since they are one way that reputation is built and sustained, and cooperation of all sorts is limited.

Small and crazy — that’s not necessarily a problem in wine. But discord and fragmentation can be barrier to greater success. Sardinia might not be able to match New Zealand’s tremendous growth, but it has unrealized potential that it would be great to see unlocked.

The new world of quality Sardinian wine has yet to be discovered in many markets. I hope the people who complained to us about the lack of cooperation are either exaggerating the situation or will find a way to work together to solve this problem and raise both regional reputation and the quality standard even higher.

In the meantime, put Sardinia and its wines on your personal radar. You would be locos to pass them by.

VinoVip al Forte: Money, Taste, & the Future of the Italian Wine Industry

What’s holding back the Italian wine industry and how can it change to be more successful in the hyper-competitive global market environment? These questions brought us to a Tuscan seaside resort last month. Read on to see what we discovered.

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vinovip1The icons of Italian wine gather in Cortina D’Ampezzo for a few days every other summer to spend some time thinking, talking (and, inevitably, eating and drinking) in contemplation and celebration of their wines. The event, VinoVIP Cortina,  has always focused on taste, wine, and the inspirations and sacrifices that winemaking entails.

What Do We Talk About?

This year the event moved to the Tuscan coast, the famous resort town of Forte dei Marmi. The focus of VinoVIP al Forte shifted, too, from taste and wine to money and wine. We always talk about taste, someone told me, now we need to discuss the business side of wine with equal passion, candor, and serious purpose.

Alessandro Torcoli, editor of Civiltà del Bere, which organizes VinoVIP, invited me to lead off the program, inspired (or maybe provoked) by my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I was honored to be on the roster, which included Angelo Gaja, Prof. Attilio Scienza, Allegra Antinori, and Piero Mastroberardino and other notables.  Quite a line up!

My presentation analyzed key trends in the global wine markets and one of the points I made concerned brands. Brands are a powerful tool for wine marketing, I argued, because consumers find them so useful. It can be easier for a consumer to understand (and remember) a brand in a crowded retail setting. Trustworthy brands encourage consumers to open their wallets and pull more corks. If you approach the topic of money and wine from the consumer’s point of view, it is impossible to ignore the importance the brand.

Branded Wine and Its Discontents

But there is a risk. Branding can go too far in making wine user-friendly, I argued, citing what I have called Einstein’s Theory of Brands (Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler — can you see how this could apply to wine?). Brands are back as a key wine marketing element, I said, although they are evolving along with wine buying consumers.

Italian wine features some iconic brands, including Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino, of course. But the single most powerful Italian wine brand based upon volume of sales in the U.S. market is actually Riunite Lambrusco, a sweetish sparkling red wine made by a cooperative winery in Emilia Romagna and imported into the U.S. market by marketing powerhouse Banfi. It is the best-selling imported wine in U.S. history.

Brands and their power were on the minds of other speakers as well and formed one interesting theme of the conference.

Italian Wines at French Prices

gajaAngelo Gaja is famous for the high prices he asked for wines early in his career. People thought he was crazy and some, he told the audience, were even angry with him for asking French prices for his Italian wines. French  wines benefited from a reputation for higher quality. Italian wines, even excellent ones like Gaja made, were thought to be in a different, lower class.

No one is shocked by Gaja prices now — he has proved his wines to be worth what he asks — but, he said,  the same status upgrade cannot be said about Italian wine more generally.

Gaja stressed the importance of raising average bottle price of Italian wine exports and building stronger brands is part of that process. Cooperative wineries, he proposed as an example, should focus less on producing anonymous private label wines for foreign retailers and invest more in building their own brands so as to increase average bottle price and raise margins.

This was the first time that I have heard Angelo Gaja speak and I can report that he is a powerful orator who is not shy about stating his opinions. He presented a to-do list of things that the Italian wine industry needs to change, and quickly. Quite an experience!

Beyond “Small is Beautiful”

Piero Mastroberardino’s brief concluding presentation was much different in style from Gaja’s (much more professorial — in a good way), but no less of a challenge to the status quo. Mastroberardino’s topic was the Italian wine system — the industrial organization of the wine sector– which is made up primarily of cooperatives and small family firms. Indeed, it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the family vineyard or cellar is the fundamental economic unit of the wine industry.

Family ownership presents a trade-off, Mastroberardino noted. As I discussed in Around the World in Eighty Wines, family wine firms have many advantages over corporate structures, which is why the wine sector generally has more family firms (some of them quite large — think Gallo) than other global industries.

But there are disadvantages, too, which was Mastroberardino’s point here. Scale can be limited and the strength of the brand affected by the fact that it is so closely associated with the founding family. In a world where scale and strong brands are important, family firm limitations sometimes get in the way. It is time, Mastroberardino said, to move beyond the “small is beautiful” idea of the Italian wine sector.

Mastroberardino called for more attention to building scale and strengthening brands to increase the competitiveness of the Italian wine sector and there was some evidence during the conference that others appreciate this point. Allegra Antinori, for example, spoke about how the Antinori family have adopted a new ownership structure in order to strengthen the firm’s long-term financial sustainability. A trust locks up ownership for a 90 year period, giving the firm stability and accumulating resources for future needs.

Theory & Practice

Sue and I spoke with Gianluca Bisol about Bisol’s partnership with Lunelli, which was initiated in 2014 in order in part to give family-owned Bisol the leverage it needed to expand forcefully into global markets. Bisol’s Prosecco and Lunelli-owned Ferrari Trento’s sparkling wines may sometimes compete with each other for shelf space, but they mainly work strategically to open market doors. It’s the sort of initiative the Mastroberardino’s analysis suggests is a necessary next step.

Gianluca expressed great satisfaction with the partnership and early indications are that the winery’s recent rebranding efforts, which stress history and terroir, are enjoying success.

The conference ended with a grand tasting at La Capannina di Franceschi, a famous disco located right on the beach. What a blast! Based on this sample of Italian wines, which featured many white and sparkling wines because of the summer seaside location, the Italian wine sector has no trouble with taste and wine. It is important that they now give more attention to money and wine and we are glad to have made a small contribution to the emerging conversation.

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Thanks to Alessandro Torcoli and everyone at VinoVIP for their hospitality during the conference. Special thanks to Sylvia Conti and Maria Gilli of the Italian Trade Agency for their help and support. Sue and I clearly enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot from everyone we met! Here’s a photo of the two of us taken by Megumi Nishida at the post-conference lunch.

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Navigating the Headwinds for French Wine Exports to the U.S. Market

vintageSue and I recently returned from a press tour to three French wine regions — Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley —  that are benefiting from the current surge in demand for French wines in the U.S. market. As I noted last week, France is back on consumer radar, especially with buyers thirsty for  Rosé and sparkling wines.

A  Lighter Shade of Pale?

I think there is smooth sailing ahead for Rosé, Blanquette, and Cremant producers from these regions at least in the short run, although Elizabeth Gabay MW argued in a rather brilliant masterclass that we attended at the Chateau de Blois that some Rosé producers are sacrificing potential quality in a quest to make their wines fashionably pale, pale pink. This practice might come back to bite them in the future depending upon how the export markets develop.

The conventional wisdom is that Rosé buyers prefer pale rather than robust pink color in their Rosé wines — the lighter the better — and so producers make the near clear wines they think will sell best, even if they aren’t necessarily the best wines they could make. It is the flip side of the over-extracted red wines that so many wineries produce. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom about pale pink holds here on the Pacific Coast of North America, where California not Provence is the reference point for Rosé, but that’s another column.

Pink and sparkling wines from France are selling really well. The makers of other wines, both red and white, face some headwinds and how they navigate around or through them will determine whether they will share the market boom.

Challenging Stereotypes in Languedoc

France is an Old World wine region and this means many things, including especially that most of its regions inherit in one way to another the practices and reputations of the past. Sometimes this is beneficial, but not always. Languedoc and Roussillon have to overcome undesirable stereotypes of their wines in many markets.

The image that Languedoc conjures up for wine drinkers of a certain age is of cheap, strong, tannic red wines meant to fill jugs and bottles at low prices. Languedoc became the cheap French wine lake initially when the railroads connected the South to the industrial and population centers further north and then again when cheap wine imports from Algeria dried up after it gained independence. Quantity not quality defined Languedoc — a reputation that still haunts it.

serresNow I am not going to say that cheap wine production has disappeared, but the momentum has decidedly shifted to better wines made with more marketable grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, and Mourverde along with standbys like Carignan.

We enjoyed a delicious AOP Malepere red from Chateau de Serres at lunch one day in Carcassonne. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon that displays a Languedoc stereotype myth-busting elegance. Fantastic!

Some producers we spoke with admitted that they tried to downplay their Languedoc roots in order to sidestep the reputation problem in export markets, hoping that the wines will simply speak for themselves.  They hope, too, that younger consumers who have no memory of the old days will have an open mind to trying the wines.

Cheap and Sweet? Not Interested!

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean that stereotypes don’t exist in Roussillon. A colleague asked where we were headed one afternoon and when told we were going to Rivesaltes he turned up his nose — “Too bad! I’am not interested in cheap sweet wines.”

romaniWhen we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

We tasted sweet wines at the end of the meal, but these were not the cheap sweet wines of our friend’s memory. They were wonderful, especially the Domaine de Besombes 1949 shown at the top of the page, which has special meaning for us — that’s our vintage, too!

We were fortunate to be invited to a rather special banquet where all the wines were sweet and from this region. I will paste the menu with pairings below. It was a memorable experience. I think my favorite combination was the sea bass with lemon, nuts, and popcorn with the 1990 Maison Cazes Rivesaltes Ambré.

Everyone Loves the Loire

Wine producers in the Loire Valley have a different problem from those in Languedoc. Everyone loves the Loire, which is why it is a hugely popular tourist destination.  The beautiful scenery, historic chateaux, rich food, and fine wines are hard to beat.

But it is not always easy to translate the tourist impression into wine export market sales because the Loire isn’t one thing when it comes to wine, it is many, and it is easy to get lost in this complexity. The Loire is Muscadet, for example, which can be a simple delicious wine and also, as we learned a wine of great character and complexity with extended lees-aging.

The Loire is dry Rosé de Loire and also sweetish Rosé d’Anjou. It is the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Cabernet Franc from Samur, and much more. Altogether the Loire comprises 50 appellations and demarcations, creating a jigsaw puzzle that can be difficult to navigate. Famous appellations stand out, less prominent ones that live in their shadows have trouble getting attention.

One of my favorite discoveries of this trip, for example, were the Sauvignon Blanc wines of Chenonceau, a fairly young appellation in Touraine. Chenoncau is more famous for the chateau of the same name than the wines. Too bad — because the wines can be spectacular. I suspect there is a lot more to discover here among the regions and producers who lack name recognition.

Will these headwinds hold French wine back from advancing in the hyper-competitive U.S. market? The competition is intense, so there are no guarantees, but we found many excellent wines and committed wine makers, too, so a broader French wine boom could be coming.

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Unlocking the Market Potential of Languedoc, Roussillon, & the Loire Valley

pink1What do you think of when you think of French wine? If you are like most people, your thoughts probably stray to the iconic regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. These regions and their wines are fundamental to the way we understand U.S. French wine and wine generally.

The Rhone and Alsace are probably on your radar, too, as they should be given their wonderful wines. Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley likely show up further down the list. Important wine regions, but not quite in the same league as the others in terms of reputation and market presence.

But the wines Sue and I found during a recent press tour of these regions are so well matched to current market trends that I think this situation is going to change. No, Languedoc isn’t going to replace Bordeaux in anyone’s wine investment portfolio, but I do think these regions are positioned to gain both respect and market share, especially here in the United States. I will use the next several columns to explain how and why and also to explore some issues we discovered along the way and headwinds that could slow progress.

Growth in the overall U.S. wine market has slowed in the last year, but there are two categories that continue to boom: sparkling wines and Rosé wines. Here’s how the wines of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire fit in.

Blanquette and Cremant

Sparking wine is booming in the U.S. market and while Prosecco is the driving force, wines from other regions are benefiting from the surge. Cava from Spain, for example, is getting more attention in part because of its great affordability. And French sparkling wines from places other than Champagne are in the mix.

The Languedoc’s Blanquette de Limoux is both delicious and historic — it lays claim to being the first sparkling wine made using the classic method. It was Champagne before Champagne. Some say that Dom Perignon, the famous priest given credit for inventing Champagne, actually learned the special method when he worked in Limoux.  Impossible to prove, but fascinating to consider.

The United States in Blanquette de Limoux’s most important export market, accounting for 32% of export sales. No surprise considering the sparkling wine boom and Blanquette’s excellent quality/price offer.

Seven regions of France produce sparkling wines called Cremant, including the Loire Valley and we really enjoyed these wines. One reason might be that Cremant de Loire’s menu of grape variety possibilities include Chenin Blanc, which does so well here and is so delicious in its sparkling form.

The Bubble Boom is much more than Prosecco and Champagne and Languedoc and the Loire are well-positioned to benefit from increased attention to these wines.

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Pretty in Pink

Pink seems to be the new black when it comes to wine sales. Rosè wine sales in the U.S. have increased by more than 66% in the last year according to recent Nielsen figures and the surge isn’t limited to North America. I’ve heard that French supermarkets now sell more pink wines than white wines. Incroyable!

Although many consumers think Provence when they consider French Rosè wines, we tasted delicious versions in the Languedoc and Roussillon. A quick survey of the pink wine section of our local upscale supermarket revealed a good selection of Rosè from these regions at attractive prices. Our standby Gérard Bertrand Languedoc “Cote des Roses” (made from Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah) was abundantly available at Costco on a recent visit.

In fact Languedoc pink wine exports to the U.S. are booming, up 100% in the last year according to one authority we spoke with. Pink Power! The Paul Mas Prima Perla Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé shown in Sue’s photo at the top of this column, which we enjoyed at a dinner at Chateau de Pennautier near Carcassone in the Languedoc region, is perhaps the perfect wine for this moment. It is pink and sparkling … and delicious!

The Loire produces fantastic Rosè wines, but it is important to pay attention to appellation. Rosè de Loire is always dry while Rosè d’Anjou is always slightly sweet. These are just two of this region’s noteworthy pink wines.

Beyond Bubble and Pink

Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire produce a host of different wines — the list goes far beyond the bubbles and pinks I have referenced here — but these particular wines are key as export emphasis increases to compensate for sagging French domestic wine sales. One reason these wines succeed where other wines from these regions get less attention is that the geography of the typical wine shop display wall favors these wines over the regions’ other products. Here’s why.

If you are looking for red or white wines from these regions, you will probably find them in a “France” section of the wine wall, where they are likely to be tucked away in a corner to make room for wines from better known French regions. Hard to stand out in this crowd, given the importance of reputation in the maketplace. They will be there, but not always in a featured position, and their closest competition will be other, often very different, wines of France, not wines of the same kind from other countries.

Pink and sparkling wines are different. They form their own categories and are increasingly placed altogether in one spot on the wine wall. Rosé wines from around the world sit together on one shelf and bubbles on another, fostering head-to-head comparison and competition that benefits wines from Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire and those consumers who are curious enough to try them.

Will success in sparkling and Rosé wines transfer over to the other fine wines that these regions produce? The positive impressions that these wines make on consumers will certainly have benefits. But there are challenges — headwinds, I like to call them — that must be overcome. That’s what I will talk about next week.

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Sue and I participated in the media programs of Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and in Roussillon from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25 as guests of the regional producer associations. Thanks very much to the Langedoc, Roussillon, and Loire groups who hosted us and to everyone we met along the way. This is the first of a series of columns examining what we learned at these events.

How Will Brexit Impact World Wine Markets? A Dismal New Forecast

brexitMy remarks at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium‘s “State of the Industry” session earlier this year focused on the uncertainty surrounding Brexit (Britain’s choice to exit the European Union) and the great potential it has to damage wine markets in both the UK and other countries.

I called Brexit a “known unknown” because we know (or should realize) that we really don’t know what Brexit will look like when the two-year exit process concludes or what its impact will be when the dust finally clears.

The exit negotiations will begin in earnest after the June 8 elections in the UK, which Prime Minister Theresa May and her Tory party are expected to win although perhaps not by as big a margin as originally conceived.

An Inconvenient Truth

One particular problem for the wine industry is that wine isn’t very important to the overall British economy (so don’t expect it to get much special attention in the trade negotiations), but the British market is extremely important to the global wine industry, both as a major importer and a bottling and distribution center.  The UK market is a top target for many wine exporters, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and even the United States.

Kym Anderson (University of Adelaide) and Glyn Wittwer (Victoria University, Melbourne) have taken a first stab at understanding what is at stake in a study that they released earlier this month titled “Will Brexit Harm UK and Global Wine Markets? (pdf). Anderson and Wittwer ran three Brexit scenarios through their econometric model of the global wine market and reported the results.  I encourage you to take the time to study their research.

Major Impact on Wine

Anderson and Wittwer’s conclusion, to cut to the chase, are that there would be substantial Brexit impact on UK wine imports:

In our ‘large’ Brexit scenario, as compared with the initial baseline scenario, the consumer price of wine in 2025 would be 22% higher in the UK in local currency terms (20% because of real depreciation of the pound, 4% because of the new tariffs on EU, Chilean and South African wines, and -2% because of slower UK income growth). The volume of UK wine consumption would be 28% lower (16% because of slower UK economic growth, 7% because of real depreciation of the pound, and 5% because of the new tariffs). Super-premium still wine sales would be the most affected, dropping by two-fifths, while sparkling and commercial wines would drop by a little less than a quarter.

The authors examine three Brexit scenarios, judging that the most likely general outcome (the “large” Brexit model) is that the UK would adopt the same tariff barriers as the EU27 in the short run and then work eventually to restore free trade arrangements with Chile and South Africa. This makes sense to me if for no other reason than that Britain lacks the time and staff necessary to negotiate Brexit and to work out its own detailed tariff regime and also to negotiate detailed free trade agreements to replace those that will be lost.

Losers and Winners?

Brexit will obviously have high costs for UK wine consumers and retailers and for the bottling and distribution industries as well. Who will suffer the most among countries that export wine to the UK?

Australia, New Zealand, and the US will have to deal with the negative income growth rate effects of Brexit and the exchange rate impacts, too, but won’t see an increase in tariff rates under the “large” Brexit scenario, since their exports to the UK are already subject to EU rates. They will gain a little form a more level playing field with respect to European wine producers in the UK market.

Chile and South Africa are more vulnerable to Brexit woes because they currently have preferential access to the EU (and thus British) market. Their wine exports to the UK will be subject to tariff at least until they can reach new free trade agreements.

European wine exports (France, Italy, Spain and others) previously had tariff-free access to the UK market and so will face new barriers to trade. But, as Anderson and Wittwer note, the likely tariff rate of 13 pence per liter is dwarfed by Britain’s domestic excise tax of nearly £3 per liter and 20% VAT.

No Rising Tide

Does anyone win in this analysis of Brexit? Well you would think that the small but growing UK wine industry would gain from the various hurdles that imported wine faces — and they will. But Brexit is also likely to make imported winemaking and vineyard equipment and supplies more expensive and restrict or increase the cost of migrant seasonal labor, so it is unclear if Brexit will be truly beneficial.

And of course the declining overall wine market is bad news — the opposite of the idea that a rising tide raises all ships, if you see what I mean.

The devil is in the details of scenario forecasts like this and we won’t really know what to expect until the May government announces its intentions (and even then we might not know because the government has developed a recent habit of reversing itself on economic policies and, of course, the final outcome depends on the EU negotiating stance, too). Until then, however, this forecast is a very good place to start your thinking.

This column is just a summary of the new research with a few thoughts of my own. I encourage you to read the Anderson-Wittwer paper and note your own thoughts and reactions in the Comments section below.

What’s the Big Deal about Supermarket Wine Sales in British Columbia?

vqa-surrey-save-on-foodsWhat’s the big deal about British Columbia supermarket wine sales? It is a very big deal in some circles because the stakes are higher than they might seem. Here’s my analysis of the situation.

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Supermarkets are an important wine sales vector in the United Kingdom and most but not all U.S. states, so many consumers take it for granted that they can walk into their  local Safeway, Kroger-affiliate, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s store and be greeted by a world of wine choices.

Oh, Canada!

Things are a bit different in Canada. Provincial alcoholic beverage control regimes  apply somewhat in the spirit of Sweden’s Systembolaget monopoly, which was at one time the world’s largest wine retailer — a title that I think passed to the Ontario Liquor Control Board store system before being taken up by Tesco, the British supermarket giant.

British Columbia is moving towards expanded supermarket wine sales after some preliminary trials. The process is a bit awkward because there are many stakeholders with vested interests in the old control system of wine sales. Moving to supermarket sales may increase total wine sales, but the “trade creation” will be accompanied by a certain amount of  “trade diversion” from other retailers, who are understandably unhappy. There is lots of push back as you would expect.

The political economy of B.C. supermarket wine sales is both domestic (more supermarket sales at the expense of existing wine sales license holders) and also international. Incredibly, the B.C. regulations exclude non-B.C. wines from regular supermarket shelves (imported wine may theoretically be sold in a separate and costly and somewhat inconvenient “store within a store”). This has produced an international dust up as the United States has brought charges at the World Trade Organization over the discriminatory practice, an action that the European Union and New Zealand have also supported. The list of wine exporting countries lined up against the B.C. supermarket regime continues to grow. Argentina recently joined the US in this action and Australia quickly followed suit..

The Weak and the Strong

What is the problem? Can’t British Columbia to what it wants regarding wine retail regulations? Maybe not, because Canada (along with most of the world’s nations) is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is bound by its rules.

The World Trade Organization is actually a fairly weak international institution. It has spent the last couple of decades trying and failing to reach a global agreement on trade liberalization. But the WTO (through its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or GATT) was founded on two very strong principles: Most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment and non-discrimination.

Most-favored nation treatment prohibits a country from discriminating at the border against the goods of one WTO-member trading partner relative to others in terms of tariffs and so forth. Every country gets the deal that the most-favored country gets. You cannot single out one country for better treatment or — the real fear — impose sanctions against another except in well-defined circumstances. This was one reason why China worked so hard to get into the WTO — to limit the threat of a trade war against its products.

The MFN rule has been diluted somewhat in recent years as bi-lateral and multi-lateral preferential trade agreements like NAFTA have become more important. (The rise of preferential agreements is often seen as a reaction to the inability of the WTO to produce agreements on broader, global trade regimes) These agreements allow a certain amount of systematic positive discrimination in favor of fellow trade block members. The MFN rule still controls negative “trade war” discrimination.

The second rule, the non-discrimination principle, holds that once a product enters a country, paying whatever legal tariffs are levied at the border, it cannot suffer internal discrimination because of its import status. It must be treated from a regulatory standpoint just as domestic products are treated. That’s a powerful principle.

I am an economist, not a lawyer, but it seems to be that allowing domestic B.C. wines to be sold in supermarkets while prevented equal access to legally-imported California, France, New Zealand or Australia wines would seem to be a violation of the non-discrimination principle and actionable under WTO rules.

Principle and Interest

I was aware of some discussion of possible US action through the WTO as the BC supermarket protocols were being developed, but the US threat was taken lightly by some north of the border. The BC market is relatively small (we are not talking Ontario here) and there are substantial costs to initiating a WTO action, which can take years to resolve and burn up a lot of attorney fees in the process. Not worth the trouble! So some people in BC were surprised when the US finally acted.

But I was not surprised. While BC market losses might be relatively small for international wines, they establish a precedent that could be important if the local-product-only supermarket sales idea spreads — to Ontario, for example. And there might be other discriminatory practices that apply in Canada and its provinces that need to be studied — the supermarket rule might have been the tipping point to take action.

Finally, there is a more global concern. We seem to be living through a period when protectionist rhetoric is in the air and actions that challenge or violate the rules of fair trade are seriously proposed.

In this environment, it is in the interest of global industries like wine to resist the protectionist tide wherever possible on the grounds of both principle and interest (self-interest, that is).