Wine, Stagflation, and the Strong Dollar Syndrome

The U.S. dollar has surged in value on foreign exchange markets in the last year and especially the last few weeks, as this graph of the dollar versus the euro makes clear. It once took about $1.30 to purchase a euro, but some analysts believe that USD-EUR parity — a dollar per euro — is on the cards for later this year.

The story differs country-by-country, but the overall trend is clear. Just as in the 1980s, when the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy to fight inflation, the dollar has soared on foreign exchange markets. Exchange rate movements are not generally either good or bad, they create winners and losers like any other change in price. But a sustained spike in the U.S. dollar can be a global problem. The strong dollar of the early 1980s created a global crisis that came to an end through the Plaza Accord, an international agreement to re-align exchange rates.

I don’t think the strong dollar syndrome will go away soon because, as I explain below, it is very useful to U.S. policymakers just now. It is too soon to know how this strong dollar episode will end, but not too soon to think about the implications in light of the 1980s experience, with special emphasis on the wine industry. Herewith three factors to consider.

Trade, the Dollar, and Wine

The conventional wisdom is that a strong currency encourages a country to import and discourages exports because each dollar (in this case) buys more foreign currency, and it takes more euro (for example) to buy a dollar. So it would seem like the super-strong dollar, by encouraging imports and discouraging exports,  would be counter-productive if you are interested in jump-starting growth. But there are other factors to consider (see next point below) and these are unusual circumstances.

International trade is all fouled up with logistics costs and bottlenecks, for one thing, and the pattern of trade in many commodities is distorted by covid closures in China and commodity trading shifts due to the Russia-Ukraine war. In other words, a strong dollar may have less impact on trade today than in other situations.

This is true in the wine trade as well. The strong dollar may push wine import prices down, but logistics issues and the impact of some protectionism policies pushes in the other direct. The exchange rate still matters a lot in the international wine trade, but other factors are more important right now. The dollar’s impact will be felt, however, if the strong dollar can be sustained (as it was in the 1980s).

Inflation, the Dollar, and Wine

The reason why the strong dollar is suddenly a stealth national economic policy is inflation. By making imports cheaper, a strong dollar puts a limit on the ability of domestic firms to raise prices. It is harder to raise the price for generic California wine if the price of imports is stable or declining. This is one factor (not the only one) that has kept U.S. wine prices from rising along with the overall inflation rate.

The strong dollar also makes imported production inputs cheaper for U.S. firms, a significant advantage in the global product chain.

For the Federal Reserve, a strong dollar means that they can be less aggressive in their domestic contractionary policies designed to squeeze inflation out of the economy. The dollar, by putting a limit on price increases through foreign competition, will do some of the dirty work for them.

Unintended Consequences

But not everyone will be happy with this situation. Our trading partners will be justified in their belief that the U.S. is exporting some of its inflation to them though higher prices for imports from the U.S. and other commodities that are priced in dollars rather than local currency. Their domestic firms will find it easier rather than harder to raise prices with the cost of imports rising, too.

There are also international debt issues to consider since many countries borrow (and must repay) in dollars. An increase in the dollar’s value can have more impact on debt servicing costs than a rise in interest rates, for example.

As a result of these unintended consequences there is now talk of a sort of inverted currency war. Usually currencies wars take the form of competitive devaluations, as everyone tries to have the cheapest currency to encourage exports.

Now, however, several factors but especially inflation is causing policy-makers to re-think this strategy and consider a sort of arms race to increase currency values. The instability that results from such a situation can be serious and lead to conflict, which is what produced the Plaza Accord in 1985.

And in the Long Run …

So the direct effects of the strong dollar syndrome are worth your consideration, but the indirect effects — the inflation lid, the international currency war, a potential debt crisis, etc. — are perhaps even more important.

In the long run, however, the impact on the U.S. wine industry is likely to be more severe both through the direct effects on input and domestic labor cost factors and through the classic Econ 101 impacts once the logistics issues have time to settle out.

But there is one more long term factor to take into account. As the Plaza Accord demonstrated, a very strong dollar is not sustainable from a global financial standpoint. When the market turns it is likely to be sudden. A soft landing can change abruptly. Buckle up.

Wine & Stagflation: What Will Happen When Wine Prices Rise?

The conventional wisdom is that we are likely entering the first significant period of stagflation — inflation + stagnant economic growth — in several decades.  We have experienced recessions in the recent past, but not rising inflation, and not the two of them at once.

Inflation is in the headlines every day, but unemployment is very low — so why worry about slow growth or a recession? The answer is that while Federal Reserve policies will try to finesse the situation and bring inflation down to a “soft landing,” most observers think that a sharp contraction will be necessary to bring inflationary expectations down. Growth will fall while inflation still runs high, at least for a while.

So, these are uncharted waters for business and government leaders, especially since it comes on the heels of the covid crisis, which has shaken so many economic and social structures. It is, as I have argued here, uncharted territory for the wine business, too.

So far, as I suggest in last week’s Wine Economist newsletter, wine prices overall have not risen to the degree you might expect given the many cost pressures the industry confronts. Average wine prices seem to have actually fallen in real terms so far according to the data I have surveyed.

It may be premature to begin worrying about how wine consumers will react to higher prices in the stagflation context if and when they arrive.  Or — and this is my point — it might be strategic to consider possible scenarios in order to prepare for the eventuality. Because this is uncharted territory — and because, as Jon Fredrikson says, there are no one-liners in wine — it makes sense to consider the range of consumers responses rather than to look for a single silver bullet answer.

Herewith, therefore, a brief and incomplete list of possible consumer responses to rising wine prices in the context of stagflation.

Econ 101: substitution, income, and wealth effects. 

We begin with Econ 101 basics. An increase in the relative price of wine would create a substitution effect to some extent. It might be to substitute other beverage alcohol products for wine or — the trading down effect — to substitute less expensive types of wine for previous purchases.  How this plays out depends on a number of factors. Younger drinkers, for example, are known to be less loyal to wine and more prone to dividing their purchases among many beverage types, so the substitution effect may be stronger for them than for boomers, for example.

Of these three effects the substitution effect is the most interesting to me because we don’t have much recent experience of supply-driven price increases in wine (versus demand-driven “premiumization”.

The income effect, driven by both higher wine prices and higher prices in general, points towards lower consumption of wine overall. Wine is already more expensive than most beer and spirits on a per-serving basis, and so vulnerable to income-driven consumption adjustments.

There is also likely to be a wealth effect, with wine consumption falling as consumers (mainly but not exclusively boomers) re-assessing buying decisions in light of changing net worth. Rising interest rates implemented to fight the inflation tend to reduce the value of bond holdings directly and equity values indirectly through their impact of the present value of corporate cash flows. Substantial interest rate rises are likely to affect portfolio balances and 401k holdings. If you have been watching the way that equity markets have reacted to the Federal Reserve’s initial 1/2 percent interest rate increase you know what I am talking about.

Stalking the Illusive Wine Bargain

In a perfectly competitive market the “Law of One Price” rules, but the wine market has many quirks and peculiarities, so similar products can sell for very different prices. Rising wine prices are likely to push price-sensitive buyers to even more aggressive bargain hunting efforts. Expect your local Grocery Outlet store to do even more wine business.

But bargain hunting doesn’t necessarily mean searching for rock bottom prices. We recently received samples of two wines that represent good value in their respective categories. The pitch that came with the wines was that these are inflation-fighters. The first wine was Villa Maria Marlborough Pinot Noir Private Bin, which retails for about $19.00. It is an excellent wine that sells for less that many comparable products from, say, Oregon or France.

The second wine was Le Volte dell’Ornellaia, a “Super-Tuscan” from the Bolgheri region that, at around $29, represents a way for many consumers to raise a glass in high style without breaking the bank. How do you find inflation-fighter wines like these? Start by asking whoever sells you wine to solve a puzzle — I’d like a wine like this, but I want to pay something more like that. A good wine seller will appreciate the challenge.

Risk Management

Buying wine is not easy because it is what economists call an “experience good.” You won’t really know if you will like a particular bottle of wine until you buy it and pour yourself a glass.  Reviews and so forth help, of course, but the taste of wine is ultimately very subjective and the risk of disappointment almost inevitable.

As inflation pushes wine prices higher, the disappointment risk becomes more of an issue. One strategy that consumers are likely to adopt in this circumstance is to concentrate their purchases on a few tried-and-true brands or grape varieties that they trust to consistently please. Trying new wines from different regions and brands made from different grape varieties is great fun, but the high reward when you find an exceptionally pleasing wine comes with high risk of disappointment.

So don’t be surprised if consumers — and the stores and shops who sell them wine — react to wine inflation by doubling down on tried-and-true wines. This reinforces a trend that emerged during the pandemic wine surge.

But don’t forget that all this is predicated on wine prices finally rising as fast or faster than the general inflation rates. This hasn’t happened yet … and it might not happen at all. Stay tuned.

Wine and Inflation: Will the Rising Tide Lift Wine’s Boat?

The U.S. is experiencing the highest inflation rates since the 1980s and cost-of-living increases are on everyone’s mind here and around the world. The Federal Reserve has signaled that it will speed up monetary tightening to try to reverse rising inflationary expectations — too little and too late, according to   the Economist newspaper (The Federal Reserve Has Made a Historic Mistake on Inflation).

I am very concerned about how higher inflation will impact the wine industry, especially when combined with a stagnant overall economy (GDP actually fell in the US in Q1/2022).

The Big Squeeze

Costs are increasing, some dramatically, throughout the wine and grape commodity chains and rising interest rate expenses will add to cost woes. The list of cost factors is long and includes energy, fertilizer, transportation, glass and other inputs, and especially labor, which remains in short supply.

Will growers and wineries be able to hold on to their margins by passing higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? A lot of people I talk to think so. Surveys suggest that many wineries plan to raise prices in 2022 and there is an attitude that consumers might not push back too much, given that the price of everything else is rising, too.

So I am a little bit surprised that some of the data suggests that wine prices have not risen along with the prices of other goods — at least not yet.  Wine Business Monthly, for example, cites NielsenIQ data on average bottle prices. The May 2022 issue reported an average price of $8.52 for the most recent 4 week survey period, up from $8.18 reported in the May 2021 issue — an increase of 4.1  percent. Average domestic bottle price rose  from $8.12 to $8.46 and average import bottle prices rose from $8.35 to $8.69.

The Booze Bust

Prices are rising, according to these figures, but at about half the current rate of overall inflation. NielsenIQ doesn’t measure all sales channels, of course, and there is a lag in the data, so maybe prices are really rising faster than these numbers suggest and wine industry margins will hold.

But the IRI data shown above, taken from a recent Rabobank report about inflation and the beer market suggest that wine in particular and beverage alcohol in general is struggling to increase prices in line with rising costs. Take a close look at the top half of this table, which shows that some non-alcohol beverage categories have been able to boost price much faster than the roughly 8% general inflation rate for the U.S. economy — topped by sports drinks with an incredible 17%+ annual rate price increase. Wow!

Beer, wine, and spirits have all increased average prices, but much less than, say, coffee, and substantially below the overall inflation rates. In other words, the real price of wine, on average, has actually fallen in the last year and the relative price of wine with respect to some other beverage categories has fallen, too. Averages hide a lot, of course, and some strong brands have successfully pushed prices higher while others have not. But beverage alcohol generally, according to the Rabobank figures, has fallen behind in terms of price.

Why haven’t wine prices increases faster.? Here are a few of the many possible explanations.

  1. Radar’s Rule. Wine prices will increase — “wait for it,” as Radar used to say on M.A.S.H. — it just takes time for price changes to work their way through the system.  It is hard to refute this because it is impossible to know the future. Maybe there is something about wine’s annual production cycle that causes price changes to come more slowly. But then why do beer and spirits, which are in continuous production, also lag behind the inflation rankings?
  2. The Wall. Consumer pushback is too strong in the wine category for large price increases to take hold. Yes, I agree that wine buyers are very price sensitive, but prices do rise when they are driven by short supply. And of course there is the whole premiumization phenomenon, where consumers pay more for what they see as better products while resisting price rises on products they already buy.
  3. The Hidden Price Increase Trick. Candy bar makers sometimes try to disguise price increases by simply shrinking the size of the product. Wine makers can do something a bit like that by shifting grape sources from coastal to inland vineyards and in some cases by blending in wines from earlier vintages. Consumers may not notice (just as they might not immediately realize their candy snack has shrunk a little).  Wineries can also increase their average revenue by reducing production of lower-tier wines, shifting the grapes up the ladder.
  4. Three-tier Blues. It’s the three-tier system, where producers sell to distributors who sell to retailers who sell to consumers. On one hand this system means that there are three margins at stake and to each tier has an interest in raising the price at which it sells wine. But each tier also has an incentive to resist increases in its cost of goods. So distributors push back on producers who want to raise price, retailers push back on distributors, and consumers push back on retailers.  The three-tier effect may explain why the lowest average price increases in the Rabobank table above are for beer, wine, and spirits.

More Questions Than Answers

There are other theories and explanations about inflation and the wine category, but perhaps the most important thing to say is that, with the most recently experience of significant U.S. inflation so far back int he rearview mirror, we are left with more questions than answers.

All the basics — the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the wine market have changed very dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s.

Will wine prices rise in line with inflation? If so, when? And how will consumers react? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Thanks to Steve Fredricks at Turrentine Brokerage for stimulating my thinking on this topic.

Flashback: Global Rosé Market Q&A

Spring is here and summer is just around the corner, so it is time to Think Pink. Here is a Flashback column from 2019 that is still relevant today. We tend to assume that we know how the Rosé market breaks down, but the details might still surprise you.

One thing has changed: Rosé sales are not growing at the double-digit rates of three years ago, but then overall wine sales growth has been stalled in recent months. Keep an eye on store shelves in the coming weeks — I think you’ll see pretty pink bottles everywhere.

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(Originally published March 12, 2019) Interest in Rosé wine is on the rise. The most recent Nielsen numbers (as reported in Wine Business Monthly) show that sales of Rosé wine in the U.S. market is growing by more than 40% per year — the fastest growth rate of any category.

Producers want to better understand the Rosé phenomenon, which explains why both the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and the Washington Winegrowers convention featured specialized Rosé seminars this  year.

This column aims to add to the discussion by bringing together what Sue and I have learned at the Unified and during recent visits to France, Spain, and Italy, some insights from Elizabeth Gabay‘s recent book, Rosé: understanding the pink revolution, and a 2015 report on the global Rosé market produced by the OIV and the Provence Wine Council (CIVP). Here is a pdf of the OIV/CIVP report.

Who Makes the Most Rosé Wine?

Rosé is made pretty much wherever wine is made and sometimes accounts for a remarkable share of a region’s production (think about how important Mateus and Lancer’s Rosé were for Portugal during their peak years).

France is the largest producer by far today followed by Spain, the United States, and Italy. Production has increased dramatically in Australia, Chile, and South Africa, according to the OIV/CIVP report.

Who Buys It?

Let me answer this question three ways using three different figures from the OIV/CIVP report. The data are from 2014, so current data will differ, but the patterns are still relevant.

oiv1

Rosé wine sales are significant just about everywhere wine is consumed, but France is the market leader. Rosé accounted for 30% of all wine sold in France in 2014 according to the study, consistent with other reports that Rosé outsells white wine in French supermarkets, which feature large sections devoted solely to the pink stuff.

Although France is the largest Rosé producer in the world, it actually imports Rosé from Spain, which is the largest Rosé exporter. I think there is a pattern of inexpensive Spanish imports, which fill supermarket shelves with box wine, although that is only part of the story.oiv2

Is Rosé a wine for women? I have heard this said many times and never really believed it. The OIV/CIVP study casts doubt on this stereotype. Although women drink significantly more Rosé than men in some markets such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, there doesn’t seem to be a strong gender bias in other markets. especially in France but also in the U.S., Russia,  and Canada. Men drink more Rosé than women in Brazil, according to the study.

oiv3

Finally, consider the distribution of sales by age group. Winemakers today are very interested in breaking into the millennial market. So it is significant that the OIV/CIVP study finds a strong youth bias in Rosé consumption.  Young people in every country surveyed here have a higher Rosé consumption than older people. France is noteworthy because all age groups consume Rosé in substantial quantities, even if the younger ones drink a bit more.

Bottom line: the market for Rosé seems to be both broad and deep. No wonder everyone is so interested.

How Much Does Color Matter? Is Rosé Just a Summer Wine?

Wait — that’s two questions. I wrote about color in an earlier column, so I will make that answer short. The conventional wisdom is that pale Rosé sells better than darker Rosé wines. But the fact is that Rosé from around the world comes in many different hues (as Sue’s photo above from a tasting in the Loire Valley shows).

I agree with Elizabeth Gabay that the color issue is exaggerated, but I don’t expect to convince anyone. If someone makes a darker Rosé and it doesn’t sell, I am sure that the color (not other factors) will be blamed.  They used to say that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment and no one’s going to get a pink slip for making too pale a Rosé wine.

The summer wine question is quite interesting and can be answered in two ways. Yes, Rosé is a summer wine in the sense that there is a strong seasonal component in sales. Consumers drink more Rosé in warmer months. But Rosé is not just a summer wine as sales are now significant throughout the year.

Is There Easy Money in Rosé?

The answer to this question is related to the seasonality question above. It is easy to imagine that Rosé is a Chateau Cash Flow kind of wine. You pick the grapes, make the wine, ship the wine, cash the check — all in just a few months. The money pours in on a timeline only a little longer than Beaujolais Nouveau, which is the ultimate cash flow wine.

But there’s a hitch in the easy money Rosé game — you have to sell out to make it work. The residual seasonality of Rosé sales means that moving your product in February is more difficult than in July or August. And although I have had some Rosé that has benefited from a few years of bottle age, the conventional wisdom is that last year’s Rosé is over the hill — Rosé passé!

The consumer preference for fresher Rosé (which is also true for some other wines, such as Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc) creates a problem for producers. If you don’t sell out, then last year’s slow-selling wine is likely to clog up the supply chain, discouraging orders for this year’s wine.  Reliable supply is important to developing customer loyalty, so you want to have enough, but excess supply is hard to get rid of. Rosé producers must navigate complicated currents!

Here Be Dragons: Wine and the Economy Enter Uncharted Waters

The International Monetary Fund is expected to announce today revised global economic forecasts –– slower growth, higher inflation, and increased uncertainty due to war in Ukraine plus (although I don’t know if it will feature in the IMF report) massive  covid lockdowns in China. Here be Dragons, indeed!

As much as we all would like to think that economic conditions and the global wine market will soon return to what we used to call “normal,” I think it is important to realize that we have actually entered what are in some ways uncharted waters. Old maps and rules of thumb do not necessarily apply and the ability to pivot quickly as conditions change is even more important than in the past.

Flashback to the 1980s

Sometimes I get to thinking that I’ve passed this point in life one time before. (That’s actually a line from a John Hartford song.) Way back in 1981 I wrote a college economics textbook because I couldn’t find a text that could help my university students understand what was happening to the economy.

The uncharted territory back them was stagflation — high inflation and high unemployment at the same time. The standard textbook analysis used Keynesian analysis to understand unemployment and the Phillips Curve to plot the trade-off between unemployment and inflation. Higher unemployment meant lower inflation. But we had both high inflation and high unemployment — how did that happen? And what could be done about it?

The problem (in very simple terms) was that inflation was caused by cost-push not demand-pull factors and had unleashed sustained self-fulfilling inflationary expectations.  The Volker solution was highly restrictive monetary policy that pushed unemployment even higher until the expectations broke. Harsh medicine for a vicious disease.

Zoom Ahead to 2022

Zoom ahead to 2002. After years of relatively stable or even falling price levels, inflation is here again at rates that haven’t been seen in the U.S. since the 1980s. The problem this time is a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors. Higher energy, food, and transportation costs plus persistent shortages of key commodities push prices higher while the huge fiscal and monetary stimuli of the pandemic and post-financial crisis era have pulled inflation higher, too.

This is not a repeat of the 1980s, by any means, but also not like anything we’ve seen at this level in a very long time. I can’t remember seeing such a combination of broad forces aligned to boost demand and constrain supply.

The war in Ukraine adds to the inflationary pressure, especially with respect to energy and food prices, and it is hard to see these forces disappearing any time soon. Even if a truce were declared today, the energy and food price effects would continue for some time. The Chinese covid lockdowns are squeezing production of many manufactured goods at the same time.

Disruptions in global trade and finance are another factor to take into account. For a long time the “China Price Syndrome” kept a lid on prices of manufactured goods. If a company was tempted to raise price, the ready availability of cheaper alternatives from Asia and especially China acted as a constraint. The “China Price” served as a price anchor then, but much less so now because of unraveling trade relations.

Getting from QE to QT

Taken together this is a situation we haven’t really seen before, but the thing that really makes people like me nervous is monetary policy, The Federal Reserve will be responsible for squeezing inflation out of the economic system (just as it was in the 1980s), but financial conditions are different now. We have had very low interest rates for a long time now and wave after wave of quantitative easing (QE — Fed purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities that pump liquidity into the markets). The markets have kind of become addicted to the constant monetary boost.

Raising interests from this very low level can be expected to disrupt financial markets if only because of the mathematical impact on present value calculations. Exchange rates will shift, too, with disproportionate impact of development market currencies.

But the real “uncharted waters” factor is the transition from QE to QT, quantitative tightening. This will initially take place as the Fed’s bond holdings mature and are not rolled over, which takes liquidity out of the market. It will start slow (which still means billions of dollars a month) and could pick up speed if necessary.

The question is how financial markets will deal with this change after having a liquidity drip line month after month for this long? There is nervous talk of another sharp liquidity crisis, but maybe bigger than the last one, which the Fed addressed quickly and well. If key credit markets freeze up and contagion takes place, the Fed will have little choice but to reverse course, opening the door to even higher inflation.

The alternative is a very hard landing as the impact of the financial crisis spreads through the economy. How hard a hard landing? It depends on what it would take to shift inflationary expectations. So you can see the concern — we may be perched on a narrow ledge with higher inflation on one side and financial crisis on the other.

What About Wine?

The wine economy operates by its own rules, but it can’t fully escape the forces shaping the economy in general. To repurpose something that is said about the pandemic economic, we aren’t all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.

Wine has also experienced a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors, but not uniformly for various categories. Demand-pull, for example, seems focused on more expensive wines. Cost-push is everywhere, however, which means that the crunch is felt particularly in the middle- and lower-price tiers.

Honestly, I cannot remember a time when cost pressures have been so broad and deep. To what extent will price-sensitive consumers push back on price increases? Or will the consumer inflation expectations in general soften attitudes towards rising wine prices? Given that these are uncharted waters, the map holds more questions than answers.

Charting Chile & Argentina Wine Strategy for the U.S. Market

These are challenging times for the U.S. wine market. NielsenIQ data reported in the April 2022 issues of Wine Business Monthly shows the wine market declining overall in value and volume terms. The picture isn’t perfectly clear, of course, because NielsenIQ numbers miss some sales vectors and it is hard to know what base to pay attention to given covid sales channel distortions. But there is plenty of cause for concern about U.S. wine market growth.

The situation is even worse for wine imports, because they face most of the headwinds of domestic producers but also have to deal with unfavorable international logistics issues and significant exchange rate and trade policy uncertainty.

But cloudy skies over the U.S. wine market landscape contain some welcome sun breaks — market segments where growth opportunities can be found — even for imported wines. Sue and I recently sampled wines from Chile and Argentina that illustrate this strategy.

Sauvignon Blanc to the Rescue

Where you search for growth depends on how you look at the market. In terms of grape varieties, for example, the clear target these days is Sauvignon Blanc. Sales of both domestic and imported Sauvignon Blanc have done very well in the last year.

For a long time Sauvignon Blanc has been all about New Zealand, which has sold out of this wine year after year. The rising SB tide seems to be raising all ships these days, which is good news for growers in California and elsewhere.

Chile has a long history of Sauvignon Blanc production with quality rising year after year. Sauvignon Blanc is the second most-planted grape variety and Chile is the world’s third largest SB producer. But the marketing focus has often been on that other Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon. Until now. Concha y Toro sent us three wines that will compete very well in this dynamic market segment.

  • 2021 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc | D.O. Litueche, Colchagua Valley | $15 | 100% Sauvignon Blanc | 12.5% ABV | 1.5 g/L RS.  Sourced from our estate Ucúquer Vineyard, located in the arid hillsides of the Rapel River in Colchagua Valley, 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
  • 2021 Cono Sur Organico Sauvignon Blanc | Chile | $11 | 100% Sauvignon Blanc | 12.5% ABV | 3.1 g/L RS | Made with organic grapes | Vegan.  Fruit from coastal San Antonio DO’s Campo Lindo Estate and Bío Bío provide an ideal mixture of sand and red clay for this Sauvignon Blanc expression.
  • 2020 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Reserva Sauvignon Blanc | Chile | $12 | 100% Sauvignon Blanc | 12.9% ABV | 2.44 g/L RS.  Fruit from Aconcagua—which stretches inland from the coast above San Antonio—Valle Central, and Región de Coquimbo compose the final blend.

As you can see from these wine profiles, the three wines present three distinctively different representations of Sauvignon Blanc from different Chilean wine regions. What they have in common — beyond grape variety — is their remarkably good value-for-money proposition.  This is especially true for the Gran Riserva. It is not often that you can find a wine like this for such a reasonable price. Distinctive and intense, you won’t mistake it for France, New Zealand, or California. Definitely worthy trying.

Raising the Bar for Malbec and More

Wines of Argentina sent us a little “mystery box” to sample and I wondered what would be in it? What message would they want to broadcast? How would they attempt to navigate the swirling U.S. wine market currents? The answers to these questions were clear as soon as we opened the package.

Message #`1: Argentina is Malbec, as everyone knows, but not just Malbec (just as Chile is not just Cabernet Sauvignon). Our mystery case included both a cool climate Wapisa Pinot Noir from Patagonia and a Trapiche Broquel selected barrel Cabernet Sauvignon, hand-picked from 30-year old vines.

Sue and I learned about the great diversity of Argentina wine on our first visit there in 2011. Our friend Andrés Rosberg arranged a tasting menu that featured wonderful wines not named Malbec until, at the very end, when a Rutini Vino Dulce Encabezado de Malbec 2007 appeared with dessert. Argentina is more than Malbec. Message received!

Message #2: Argentina makes wines that can compete successfully in the key growth segment of the U.S. wine market when we analyze it by price point — the ultra-premium $20-$25 range. A Salentein Reserve Malbec from high elevation vineyards in the Uco Valley and Luigi Bosca “De Sangre” limited edition Malbec from select vineyard parcels in the Altamira district.  I understand the average vine age is 90 years — remarkable!

During the Malbec boom of a few years ago Argentina became stereotyped as the source of simple Malbec wines at bargain prices.  Slowly — and now more quickly — Argentine producers have worked to show that they have more to offer and distinctive wines of higher quality, too, for those who are willing to reach up to a higher shelf on the wine wall.

Follow the Money

Follow the money. That’s what Deep Throat famously advised and it is something to consider in today’s U.S. wine market. If you break down market trends you’ll find a number of categories where growth opportunities exist. These Chilean and Argentinian producers demonstrate the strategy of focusing on key categories with wines of quality and value. Good lessons for us all to consider.

Wine Book Review: Britain, Imperialism, and the Wine World They Created

Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, Imperial Wine: How the British Empire Made Wine’s New World. University of California Press, 2022.

Imperial Wine is a serious academic study of how imperial economic, political, and social relations between Great Britain and three of its colonies — South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — shaped their wine industries and New World wine more generally from the time of the first plantings through to today.

This is an argument that I am glad to see examined in depth. In my books Wine Wars and the forthcoming Wine Wars II I nominate Great Britain as the center of the wine universe, so powerful, I think, is its influence on wine and the wine trade.

Australia and New Zealand were British colonies that developed wine industries that were shaped to a great extent by the ebb and flow of trade with the United Kingdom. Although South Africa and its wine industry have roots in Dutch colonial trade, the decades under British rule had powerful effects.

It is a fascinating study, but I admit that I struggled at times because I really wanted this to be a book about wine first and foremost and the author is really focused on imperialism, with wine used as a lens. I think that authors earn the right to define their works, so I cannot really complain. This is a story that can be told several ways.

Most people will be surprised at the poor reputation of Australian wines in the UK market in the early post WWII period, for example, given how popular they are today. There are many ways to demonstrate this, but the author highlights a lame Monty Python joke that compares and aroma of Aussie wine to the smell of an Aborigine’s armpit, which invites a discussion of imperial racist attitudes in the post-colonial era.

“Some wine lovers might protest that colonialism is a distant historical footnote to the history of wine, and that dredging up colonial history is a buzzkill, a weary intrusion on our enjoyment of wine,” the author writes in the concluding chapter, suggesting that she’s run into people like me before. “Can’t we just enjoy a glass of wine without someone introducing controversy?  Is colonial history designed to make wine lovers feel guilty?” Imperial Wine, the author argues, makes the case that ignoring the history of wine distorts our understanding of both it and the complicated processes that have shaped it.

Fair point. Understanding the forces that conditioned what is in your wine glass, how it is made, and who it is made for deepens the wine experience, don’t you think? And that includes the forces of empire and the long shadow that they cast.

The author’s deep dives into historical documents drew me in again and again. During World War II, for example, Old World wine pretty much disappeared from store shelves, replaced for the most part by “colonial wines” from South Africa, Australia, and Algeria (not a British colony, but a colony nonetheless).  The author traces changing wartime wine patterns though a study of the detailed records of the King’s College off-license store, called the buttery, which provided wine for fellows and sold it to students. Algerian red wine and South African sherry sold well to penny-pinching students, who would turn their backs on colonial wine after the war in favor of the French wines returned to the market.

Imperial Wine teaches wine enthusiasts about the role of empire in shaping the wine world of the past, present, and probably the future, too. And it teaches students of imperialism that the influence of those forces continues even in something as seemingly simple as a glass of wine.

Interesting. Well-written. Thought-provoking. I learned a lot. Did Imperial Wine change the way I think about wine? Yes, at least a bit. Well worth your consideration.

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Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is one of my favorite books about cultural globalization. Imperialism is a strong force in this account (which includes historical recipes at the end of each chapter). I was reminded of Curry when I noticed that Collingham wrote one of the cover blurbs for Imperial Wine. 

Wine on the Nile: Wine Goes to the Movies (and TV)

One of my pet peeves is wine’s lack of impact in popular culture. Celebrity chefs get lots of traction — even fictional cartoon rodent chefs (have you seen the Disney film Ratatouille?). Celebrity winemakers? Not so much.

Wine shouldn’t try to simply imitate food, of course, Watching Michel Rolland micro-oxygenate a tank of Merlot will never be as much fun as watching Julia Child throw together a pot of Boeuf Bourguignon.  If we want to reach potential newbie wine drinkers, I think wine needs to go where they are and to connect in as many ways as possible.

Wine is so often an afterthought. I bemoaned the fact that wine had no particular pride of place in Stanley Tucci’s hit television series Searching for Italy, for example. A wasted opportunity for sure!

Bordeaux on the Nile?

So I am pleased to see the efforts that Bordeaux producer Chateau Malartic-Lagravière, which is working very hard to position its fine wine where it can be seen and appreciated by a diverse audience.  The white wine, for example, appears in the second season of the Netflix series Emily in Paris.  And the red wine is featured in the recently released big-budget 20th Century Studio version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

Why Death on the Nile? A press release suggests that the Bonnie family that owns the Chateau connects with the film’s chief protagonist, fellow Belgian countryman Hercule Poirot. Perhaps. But I have to think the luxury setting in which the film’s action unfolds is an appealing frame for a luxury Bordeaux wine.

Consumers need a nudge to put wine on their minds and I congratulate Chateau Malartic-Lagravière for taking the initiative.  Product placement, however, is just one element of a potential initiative to connect wine culture with the interests and lifestyles of today’s consumers.

Wine First, Please!

Sue and I have been impressed for the early efforts of a group producing a public television series called Wine First, for example. The idea, I think, is that when most people go to a restaurant they pick their meals first and then choose a wine. But when YOU dine out, I’ll bet, at least some of you study the wine list first, choose the wine you want, and they pick food to go with it. Wine First.

The series format takes a wine first approach. The hosts visit a wine region (the Mosel, for example), stopping at three wineries to choose wines that captures the essence of each place — plus a regional food ingredient. A local restaurant chef is then challenged to prepare dishes that will highlight the wines — the wines are the star. The local wine producers evaluate the imaginative pairings that result and render a wine first verdict. Sue and I really enjoyed the programs and hope the multinational series comes back for a second season.

So far so good. But there is a lot more work to be done to get wine more clearly on the radar of the next consumer generation. In the meantime, remember that it is not telling the world how wine tastes (or is made) that will be the key to future growth. What’s important is how it makes you feel.

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I thought you might enjoy viewing the trailer for Death on the Nile.

Wine Book Review: Rethinking Wine Market Perspectives

Giacomo Negro and Michael T Hannan with Susan Olzak, Wine Markets: Genres & Identities. Columbia University Press, 2022.

What would you think if you stumbled upon a tasting note for a familiar wine that was written by someone from a very different culture, using different terms and concepts, and set in a different frame of reference? Think of an extreme version of the Chinese wine tasting notes described in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article.

At first you might just be puzzled and scratch your head (being careful not to spill any wine), but then — if the tasting note is a good one — you’d find yourself thinking, questioning what you thought you knew about the wine, and maybe considering it in a whole new way. That was my experience in reading Wine Markets: Genres & Identities.

I come from Planet Economics, so for me a book about wine markets is a book that is rooted in supply and demand. Producers, consumers, price and quantity — these are the fundamental building blocks.

The authors of Wine Markets come from Planet Sociology, so they think about the people and their relationships as much as — or maybe more than — the wine itself. Hence the book’s subtitle: Genres & Identities. A tasting note from Planet Sociology contemplates the same reality but analyzes it in very different ways.

Chapters at the beginning and end of the book lay out the theoretical elements and the terms that go with them. Different readers will react to this material in different ways. The core of the book is a set of three case studies that all readers will agree are interesting both for their stories and for the conflicts they reveal.

The first case study is Barolo, where modernist producers confront those who follow traditional practices, creating two genres within the one appellation. One element of tension is the use of small oak barriques versus large neutral botti grandi, although it a distortion to oversimplify in this way because some noteworthy producers — including iconic modernist Angelo Gaja — use both to good effect.

Brunello is the second case study, where tension arises between those who follow tradition in using 100% Sangiovese grapes and those who favor “super Tuscan” blends that include international varieties. Finally, the authors visit Alsace, where producer identities are at least in part defined along a biodynamic – organic – sustainable – conventional viticulture spectrum. The research proceeds mainly through interviews with the producers, although there is also statistical analysis of some issues.

The stories are told in terms of wine genres, producer identities, solidarity (or lack thereof), the audiences (consumers, critics), and the markets where they all come together. A different way of thinking about wine markets indeed.

For me the Barolo case study, which was the most detailed, was also the most interesting. The Alsace case confused me — which is not necessarily a bad thing — because the authors argue in part that biodynamic producers there are driven by the desire to achieve market differentiation. My experience is very limited, of course, but I have never met a biodynamic grower who struck me as doing it for the money.

Much of the research for the book was completed several years ago and I wish that more of it had been updated. I also wish there was room for case studies from the New World, where appellations are more geographic indicators than prescriptive wine genres. I wonder how the social dynamic analysis would be different from Barolo and Brunello?

Finally, I appreciate this book because it has given me some new ways to think about the natural wine movement, a genre of wine where identity is both strong and hotly contested at times. I am not ready to move from Planet Economics to Planet Sociology in terms of wine market analysis, but I think we can all benefit from ideas that challenge and stimulate as this book does.

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Gillian Tett, an anthropologist by training who reports on the world of global finance, is chair of the editorial board of the Financial Times and an advocate of the sort of cross-silo thinking discussed in this book review. You might be interested in her recent book Anthro-vision: a new way to see business and life.

Build Wine Back Better: “Got Wine?” meets “License to Steal”

“WineRamp” is an important new initiative to try to overcome obstacles to the continued growth in the U.S. wine market. The idea, in simple terms, is that younger consumers aren’t finding the on-ramp to wine that the baby-boom generation discovered back in the day. What’s the problem? Well, it is complicated, of course, and there are many factors at work here.

Got Your Moo-Stache?

But one issue is simple. There are literally thousands of wine brands on U.S. shelves and each one promotes its own products. But no one is telling the story of Brand Wine. WineRamp hopes to fill in that gap.

It is still early days and impossible to know what WineRamp might look like if it gains the necessary industry support. Some people think of it as a “Got Milk?” program for wine. “Got Milk?”, you may recall, was a very popular generic promotion campaign for dairy milk, with television, print, and more components. You might remember the photos of celebrity endorsers with their white “moo-staches.”

“Got Milk?” was successful in raising awareness, but as I wrote on The Wine Economist a few years ago, it could not prevent the slowly evolving collapse of milk consumption in the United States as consumers opted for other products, especially plant-based non-dairy milks. Got Milk? Yes, but increasingly it is made from almonds or oats.

Grass Roots Initiatives

Generic marketing campaigns are inherently top-down projects, but that’s not the only possible strategy. Mobilizing forces at the grass roots level is another option. Neither approach is easy or guaranteed to work. What would a grass roots wine project look like?

“License to Steal” (aka LTS) is the name of the national wine marketing conference, which will be held this year on March 22-24, 2022 in association with the Eastern Winery Exposition in Syracuse, New York. License to Steal? Well, the idea is that everyone brings their best ideas about how to reach consumers and promote wine in a sort of open-source environment where sharing and stealing go hand-in-hand.

I started thinking about License to Steal when Donniella Winchell, the driving force behind the 15-year old initiative, asked me to recommend someone to record a brief “Crypto 101” video for the program. I’ll do it, I said. It will give me a good excuse to do some research and get up-to-speed on blockchain, crypto-currencies, NFTs, and so forth.

Gulliver in Lilliput?

The LTS program includes presentations and discussions that are relevant to all wineries, but especially the ones that I think of as “grass roots” American wine. Some U.S. wineries are huge (Gallo produces an estimated 100 million cases a year) and sell in broad national and even global markets. Gallo towers over the U.S. wine industry like Gulliver in Lilliput.

But most of the 11.300 US and 872 Canadian wineries are smaller — much smaller — producing 10,000 or 5000 or even fewer than 1000 cases of wine each year. These wineries succeed or fail depending upon how well they connect with local communities, forging wine-based relationships one happy consumer at a time.

Each of these Lilliputian wineries is small by itself, but there are so many of them that they can make a difference. That’s how grass roots connections work and it would be a mistake to underestimate their current and potential aggregate impact on wine in American society.

While we are thinking about top-down wine promotion, I think it is important keep the grass roots in mind, too.  LTS is a powerful tool and the dozens of regional and local wine associations and their members. Can they be persuaded to sing a song of wine (with local variations, of course) to win the ear of hesitant consumers? E pluribus unum is a worthy goal.