Can Sherry Be the Next Big Thing?

tioCan Sherry be the “Next Big Thing” in wine? I know what you are thinking. Sherry? C’mon! That’ll never catch fire in a big way. And you may be right, but give me a chance to make my case before you close the door on the Sherry cabinet.

One of the things that Sue and I wanted to do during our recent visit to Spain was learn more about Sherry. But the itinerary seemed to work against that. No time to jet south to Jerez de la Frontera in Andaluca, Sherry’s home. We would have to piece together our education in other wine regions. With a little luck and some helpful friends, we managed quite well.

Stumbling on Sherry in Madrid

Madrid is a long way from Jerez, but we found Sherry all around us, suggesting just how much it is a part of Spanish culture. Walking the aisles of the historic San Miguel market near the Plaza Mayor, for example, we stumbled upon a market stall called The Sherry Corner where dozens of different wines were offered by the glass at bargain prices. We had fun trying new Sherry wines and revisiting old favorites.

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The Sherry Corner offers a fun self-guided audio tour of Sherry wines. For €30 you get six glasses of different Sherries in a special carrier, coupons for six matching tapas from various market stalls, and an audio program available in six languages. It is quite a bargain when you do the math and it lets you both get to know the wines, experiment with pairings, and take advantage of the amazing tapas on offer at the market.

We found a completely different experience at the restaurant Zahara de Osborne in the Plaza Santa Ana, which was close by our hotel. The restaurant is owned by the Osborne wine group that is famous for its Sherry wines (you can see the Osborne bull staring down from hilltops all around Spain).

The idea of the restaurant was to bring the food and culture of Andaluca to Madrid. We challenged our waiter to create that experience for us and he did a great job choosing the dishes and helping us with pairings. Gosh, the Fino was delicious with a delicately fried whole fish!

Indigenous Sherry Culture

Not that Madrid does not have its own indigenous Sherry culture. There are Sherry bars in several parts of the city. Friends guided us to one called La Venencia, where the Sherry is served en rama, fresh and unfiltered, right from the barrel, which is a style I like a lot. My university colleague Harry uses La Venencia as his office when he is in Madrid (which is a lot) and he made introductions to José and Gabriel who worked the bar that day.

La Venencia has as much depth and character as the wines that are served there.  If you have any pre-conceptions, you must check them at the door and accept the bar for what it is, which is true of Sherry wines, too. And then, well, it is a complete pleasure. Sherry really isn’t like anything else you will ever drink and La Venencia is just the same.

I have seldom been anywhere that was so totally itself and I will always associate that strong impression with the dry Manzanilla Sherry wines we enjoyed at La Venecia.osborne

A Little Help from our Friends

We got a little help from friends at Osborne and Gonzalez Byass wineries in our quest to learn more about Sherry. Santiago Salinas arranged for a tasting of Rare Old Sherries when we visited Osborne’s Montecilla winery in Rioja. These were wines for philosophers and poets. It is stunning to discover what great Sherries can become with time. We were inspired by Santiago’s passion for the wines and, of course, by the wines themselves.

Our visit to Finca Constancia near Toledo was organized around a rather extravagant seminar and tasting of Gonzalez Byass wines ranging from their signature Fino, Tio Pepe, on to a special Tio Pepe en rama bottling, and then carefully and thoroughly all the way through the line-up to the sweet, concentrated Pedro Xeménez.

Marina Garcia, our guide on this Sherry tour, was not afraid to draw out the complexities of the wines, which is great. As I told my audience at the General Assembly, sometimes complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. Our favorite? We discovered the Palo Cortado Sherry style and it made us think. I love it when a wine does that.

Sherry doesn’t have to complicated … or sweet either, for that matter, although many people put the wines in that category. A chilled bottle of very dry fino or Manzanilla is pretty pure pleasure and will change many minds. But you’ve got to try it yourself to be persuaded and that’s a  challenge.constancia

Sherry’s Moment?

If you look at the fundamentals, it is easy to conclude that this could be Sherry’s moment. The wines are great and well-priced. They come in a range of styles that variously make great aperitifs, pair well with food, or help unleash that inner poet. Apparently Sherry works really well as a cocktail base, too. Gotta check that out.

Tourism in Spain is on the rise and Spain’s tapas culture cuisine, which matches up so well with dry Sherry, is increasingly popular. Sherry, as much as any wine I know, is a product of time and place, and wears its authenticity proudly.  Authentic, affordable, food-friendly. Aren’t these the things that wine drinkers are looking for today?

Sherry’s burden is its reputation as that sweet old wine that grandma drinks. There is so much more to Sherry for those who pull the cork. If enough curious wine drinkers pull enough corks, perhaps Sherry’s “Next Big Thing” potential can be realized!

Is Sherry going to be the next big thing? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be. It is a timeless wine waiting to be re-discovered by a new generation of wine drinkers.

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Thanks to everyone who helped us with our Sherry research. Special thanks to Susana, Mauricio, Marina, Santiago, George, Cesar, Greg, Harry, Jensen, Gabriel, and José. Thanks to Sue for these photos of the big Tio Pepe sign in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the menu at The Sherry Corner, the rare old Osborne Sherries, and the many hues of the Gonzalez Byass Sherry wines.

Questioning the Conventional Wisdom About the Spanish Wine Industry

riscalThe conventional wisdom is that Spain is an Old World wine country (along with France, Italy, Portugal, etc.) and it is easy to see why. First there is geography. Old World = Europe. QED. End of discussion.

Old World Wine

Then there is the matter of wine culture. One of the characteristics of Old World wine countries is that their per capita consumption levels, once very high, have been falling for decades. Spain’s per capita consumption today is less than 20 liters per person, for example, but was more than 100 liters a head in the 1890s and more than 60 liters per capita as recently as the 1980s.

Finally there is the obvious factor of age. Wine has been made in Spain for a very long time. It was hard not to think “Old World” when we were in the Toro region, for example, to visit Pagos del Rey winery. Gnarly goblet-trained Tinto de Toro vines (the local Tempranillo variety) looked as old as centuries and some of them really were since phylloxera never invaded these vineyards. At the winery we were served “young wines” made with grapes from”only” 70 year old vines. Vines as old as 130+ years provided grapes for the senior wines. Amazing.

Confusing the Issue

John Kenneth Galbraith famously argued that the conventional wisdom is always wrong and there is something to be said for that in this case if we think of Spain in terms of its wine industry instead of its location, wine culture or aged vines.

One of most interesting stops on our recent tour of Spanish wine regions, for example, was at Marqués de Riscal in Elciego.  This is one of the oldest wineries in the Rioja region, although you might not realize it as you approach town, your eyes distracted by the post-modern Frank Gehry-designed winery hotel that sits on the hill above the historic cellars. Fantastic.

The winery was founded in 1858, which makes it old, but not much older than the “New World” Charles Krug winery in Napa Valley, which dates from 1861. Wine is much older in Spain than California, but the wine industry perhaps not as much.

Pagos del Rey, for example, is part of the prominent Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine producers. Their inspiring true story of how a mom and pop wine operation grew to grand dimensions reminded me of the Gallo family in the United States. But Gallo is actually older — starting out in the post-prohibition 1930s — while Felix Solis’ roots date to the 1950s.

It’s a New World After All

The modern Spanish wine industry is relatively young (much  younger than those Toro grape vines). Some might argue it was re-born in 1986, when Spain entered what is now the European Union, and began to compete head-on with wine from France and Italy. Competitive pressures, plus EU wine market reforms and adjustment aid, helped Spain’s wine industry reinvent itself for the 21st century.

The result is in some respects a New World wine industry in the Old World.  Spain is not unique in this, but it is a very good example of the successful transformation of the wine sector.  Bodega Finca Constancia in Otero is a perfect illustration of where this path has led. Founded in 2001 by the Gonzalez Byass group, it features beautiful vineyards (including several experimental blocks developed along with a university research team) and a state of the art winery that hugs the ridge line, blending into the landscape.

The wines at Finca Constacia are impressive, deftly balancing tradition and transformation. We saw several examples of this fusion during our time in Spain.  Bodegas y Viñedos Viña MayorGrupo MatarromeraBodegas Manzanos, Torres, and Campo Viejo were particularly striking, each in its own way. And the wines in all these cases display that special quality that we often call “authenticity” today, although I prefer “integrity.” (Why? Long story — I will save it for another time and place.)

Conventional Wisdom Risks

The conventional wisdom sees the adoption of international styles and techniques as the way forward, or at least one important path, and I think this is correct, which is one reason I am so optimistic about Spain’s wine fortunes. But I think it is possible to go too far in pursuit of wines that will seem familiar to global market consumers — so I urge due caution.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a seminar on Spanish wines in the U.S. It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but there was one rather shocking thing that happened that is relevant here. At the end of the first day some of the local sommeliers went out to dinner with our seminar leader and a six pack of Spanish wines from various regions and varieties, all made in an international style (stainless steel, a bit of new oak, etc.)

They returned the next morning and were more than a little subdued. It seems that they had played that “blind tasting” guessing game with the wines and, well, they really couldn’t tell them apart, even with a little cheating. The producer of the wines, it seems, had sacrificed integrity for marketability through international style.

They were nice wines — you  wouldn’t hesitate to drink them —  but it was hard to see why you would choose them over other wines on the market. It is important to make wines for today’s consumer, but not to forget the old world qualities that make them special.1982

Old World Revisited

Santiago Salinas made the argument in a different way when we visited him at Bodegas Montecillo, which is part of the Osborne wine group.  Santiago had arranged a tasting of his Gran Reserva Seleción Especial wines from the 1975, 1982, 1999, and 2001 vintages (1982 was a stellar year in Rioja and we tasted it from a magnum, so this was a treat).

He wanted us to see Rioja’s history by tasting wines made when blending of grape varieties was more important than it is at some houses today and before the impact of climate change was so strong. The wines were more subtle and elegant when, after some years in barrel and bottle, they were finally released, Santiago suggested.

The old wines were wonderful the way that old Burgundy can be wonderful and Santiago’s point was clearly made. Hopefully today’s wines will taste this good when they are thirty or forty years old, but maybe they won’t. Maybe we will find that something has been lost along the way and so perhaps we should be working hard to prevent that.

I am not one who thinks the the most important quality of a wine is its ability to age well, but a tasting like this provides valuable context and a warning not to push the conventional wisdom further than is wise.

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Special thanks to Santiago Salinas and Marina Garcia for their hospitality.

Sketches of Spain: Spanish Wine Industry Challenges and Opportunities

davissketc_0809_1_1204852187Sketches of Spain is the title of the 1960 Miles Davis/Gil Evans album that deftly walks the line between classical and jazz genres, with Davis’s virtuosity shining throughout. Scroll down to the bottom of this column if you’ve never heard this great recording.

Sue and I have recently returned from a visit to Spain, where I spoke at the General Assembly of the Spanish Wine Federation (Federación Española del Vino or FEV), so Spain and Spanish wine are on my mind and I have been puzzling over how to write about our experiences and all that we learned. Such a big country! So many impressions! The Miles Davis album solved the puzzle.

Davis and Evans gave us a few powerful sketches of Spain and its music, not a detailed musical portrait, which would be impossible in the context of a ’60s-era 33-rpm vinyl recording. A perfect choice! In this and the next several weekly columns I will try to provide sketches of the Spanish wine industry, which I hope you will find useful, leaving a more detailed portrait for another time and place.

Sketch 1: The Spanish Wine Supertanker

They say that it is not easy to turn around a big ship because of all the momentum it has to continue on its path and this might be a good metaphor for Spain. Spain is certain big when it comes to wine. Spain has the largest area of vineyards of any country in the world and is the third largest wine-producing nation (after Italy and France). Spain produces nearly 70 percent more wine by volume than the United States, which is number four in the global wine table.

The Spanish wine industry has devoted enormous effort to changing wine market direction, investing in more productive vineyards planted to grape varieties like Tempranillo that are more attractive to global wine buyers, and in new or updated production facilities.

The wineries we visited have made the transition and are now sailing in the right direction. As I said to the General Assembly audience, it seems to me that Spain has all the pieces in place to succeed in the new global wine market environment that has emerged, where value matters much more than sheer volume. I am an optimist about Spanish wine. But I am also a realist …

Sketch 2: Breaking the Glass CeilingFEV2

Improving Spanish wine is one thing (a good thing!), but achieving greater success in the global market is another because of reputational momentum.  Spain’s wine reputation has not caught up with its reality in many markets. Citing data from a Nielsen Company survey of U.S. on-premises wine drinkers (thanks to Danny Brager for his help), I noted that Spain was stuck under a “glass ceiling” in terms of consumer perception.

Italy and France — these are the countries that American diners think of first when they consider imported wines. Spain, despite its status as the third largest producer, ranks far below with perception roughly on a par with Australia, Argentina, and Chile and only a bit above tiny New Zealand, which is number 14 on the world wine production table, lodged between Romania and Hungary.

Spanish producers would love to break through the glass ceiling to achieve market status of Italy and France, but — let’s face it — everyone wants to do that.

A more interesting question for Spain, I proposed, is why it does not rank higher above Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand. Do they make more wine than Spain? Better wine? Do they have better generic market promotion programs? The answer is no in each case. What do these much smaller countries have that Spain does not that allows them to punch so far above their weight? This got my audience thinking, which is always my intent.

Sketch 3: Spain at the Crossroads

Hard thinking is necessary because Spain’s wine industry is at a cross roads of sorts. A graph of domestic vs export sales of Spanish wine shows that an important line has been crossed. Domestic wine consumption continues to fall in Spain as in other Old World producer countries. The opponent is not so much France and Italy as spirits and beer and changing consumer habits generally.

Wine exports are rising and now exceed domestic sales. This is important since the industry would be in crisis if exports did not replace lost domestic purchases, but that doesn’t mean that slowly losing your most biggest market is not a cause for concern. It was rare for us to meet a wine producer in Spain who had as much as 50 percent domestic sales.

Global markets are congested and competition for high value sales will only increase when Brexit’s full impacts are finally felt.  Reversing the decline of the domestic wine market is Spain’s next big challenge.

Fortunately, I think there is an realistic opportunity for domestic wine sales growth. Spain was hit very hard by global financial crisis and the austerity policies that followed in Europe. Only now, ten years after the crisis, is Spain’s gross domestic product approaching its pre-crisis level. A lost decade! No wonder exports have been the focus.

But growth has picked up in the Spanish economy and optimism is in the air, something Sue and I could feel on the streets of big cities and small towns alike. Beer is a tough opponent, but perhaps this is Spanish wine’s moment at home as well as abroad! More to follow in the weeks ahead.

Thank You Notes

Sue and I would like to send out big “thank you” notes to Pau, Susana, José Luis and Eduardo and everyone else at FEV and to all the people we met at the General Assembly in Valladolid.

FEV organized a series of winery visits for us in the two weeks following the General Assembly (I will report on this fieldwork in future columns) and we would like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with us and share their stories. Here is a list of the wineries we visited:

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The Wine Economist will pause next week so that we can travel to Cyprus where I am giving a seminar on regional wine reputation and we are visiting wineries, and attending the annual Cyprus wine competition. Come back in two weeks for more sketches of the Spanish wine industry. In the mean time, here’s the original recording of Sketches of Spain. Enjoy!

Refreshing On-Premise Wine Market Strategies (without Jumping the Shark)

shark-week-000How does a traditional craft product innovate to be competitive and relevant in today’s marketplace, but do so without losing its soul? I think about this a lot both in my job as an economist studying the wine industry and, in my other life, as the trustee of a liberal arts college.  Both wine and college need to change with the times while staying firmly rooted to those timeless qualities that make them so valuable. Not an easy task!

Sharking Jumping Risk

Sometimes I am jealous of those folks over in the beer space. They seem to find ways to innovate without “jumping the shark” with ridiculous over-the-top ideas too often. (See shark jumping video below.) Lots of new products and variations on classic brews.

The rapid proliferation of craft breweries and brew pubs here in the United States and around the world means that while beer is clearly a global industry, it often has an intensely local feel and flavor.

I can’t even count the number of on-premise craft beer operations here in Western Washington, each different to fit into a specific neighborhood niche. When a German-themed craft beer hall opened recently in Tacoma it literally had lines out the door. It might be just good beer, but I believe that it is the total experience and that strong beer sales are as much affect as cause.

Wouldn’t it be great if wine could innovate like that, I have sometimes thought, somehow connecting global and local, tradition and new, casual and elegant. I’ve recently learned about two very promising but completely different innovative initiatives tat give a sense of what might be possible without “jumping the shark.”

An Urban Winery in La Jolla

There actually are sharks in South Africa — the Great Whites that you see on TV during the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. I first met Lowell Jooste in South Africa — his family owned the historic Klein Constantia winery for twenty years before moving to La Jolla, California in 2012.

Jooste’s wine is made up north in Napa and Sonoma, but as the video above shows, he trucks the barrels down south to beautiful La Jolla where he operates L.J. Crafted Wine, a kind of cross between a brew pub and an urban winery. The wines are drawn straight from the barrels and tanks using a propriety technology that keeps them fresh and clean. Customers can drink hand crafted single-vineyard wine by the glass, fill the elegant wine “growlers” or take away cork-sealed bottles.

Barrel tasting on La Jolla Avenue. Who could resist the opportunity to drink fine wine in an elegant yet casual atmosphere like this? Add in cheese and meat platters and finish off with a glass of 2009 Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia (of course). Perfect.

Lowell Jooste’s La Jolla winery raises the wine bar bar, if you know what I mean, giving wine consumers the sort of intimate experience that beer lovers sometimes find at their favorite local brew pubs. The concept and design are innovative and so is the clever barrel thief device that makes it all work. Tests show that the last glass from a barrel is as fresh as the first, which is quite an achievement.

If the goal is to draw upon wine traditions to make meeting with friends for a glass of wine as appealing as hanging out at a brew pub, this is might be an answer. It is certainly going to be on my itinerary the next time we are in La Jolla!

And Now for Something Completely Different

London’s Pall Mall is pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from La Jolla Avenue. This is an area you might associate with stuffy private clubs — the sort of places that are the home to what I have called (with apologies to Thorstein Veblen) “conspicuous non-consumption.” The wines here are the very best, but they exist to be collected, not enjoyed in the glass. Drinking them — that would be revolutionary! I overstate the case, but you know what I mean.

I was delighted, therefore, when my globe-trotting friend Ken sent a report about a private club called 67 Pall Mall. This club looks as elegant as I imagine the others are — and the sample menus make it sound like a nice place to dine. But the point of the club isn’t to eat or to, well, club. The point is to actually drink great wine, choosing from a quite large number offered by the glass and many more by the bottle.
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Ken gave his visit to the club with a member friend high marks. Richard Hemming MW‘s account of his drinking experience at 67 Pall Mall makes thirsty reading:
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None of it is cheap, with 125 ml glasses starting at around £7, but this is precisely the point of the place. The most expensive glass is £426 for Screaming Eagle (I missed the vintage), then £425 for Ch Latour 1961. We drank a glass each of Condrieu, Montlouis, Réné Rostaing Côte Blonde 2003 Côte Rôtie, Mountford Hommage à l’Alsace 2011 Waipara, a 1991 Vin Santo from Santorini and Quinta do Noval 2007 port. All excellent, and cost a total of £98. For an illustration of value, the Rostaing is currently being retailed for £110 a bottle, making 125 ml worth £18; at 67PM this was £23.
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 Both these innovative initiatives change the wine experience in a good way for their clients, I think. Different as they are both have at their core technological innovations that allow these wines to be served and preserved.

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Here is the “jumping the shark” scene from Happy Days. Enjoy.

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).

South Africa Wine Industry: Serious Problems, Lofty Goals, Progress Update

rsa1I’ve been to South African twice in recent years and each visit has been eye-opening. The quality and value that the best wines provide is really world class. Wine sales have struggled to gain traction in the crowded, fragmented U.S. market, but I believe that hard work plus high quality equals a bright future for South African wines.

How is the wine industry doing in South Africa? I tune in about this time each year to hear what is being said at the Nedbank  VinPro Information Day meeting, which is the RSA equivalent of the “State of the Industry” session that I chair at our Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.

This year’s conference included an analysis of vineyard trends, a roundtable discussion by industry leaders and a enlightening long-term perspective on RSA wine industry dynamics by my wine economist colleague from the University of Stellenbosch, Nick Vink.

I was especially interested in Rico Basson’s presentation on South Africa’s progress toward the Wine Industry Strategic Exercise (WISE) goals for 2025 because it seems to me that it represents an unusually clear set of objective and  analysis. Each of the eight goals was given a green, yellow or red light rating. The discussion below is based on Basson’s presentation as reported by Jana Loots.

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Making wine in South Africa is much easier than making a living making wine.I know from my visits to RSA that while the wine can be great, the wine industry’s profitability is a serious problem. Only producers that can sustain very high yields can consistently profit from bulk wine sales. And bottled wine producers face great difficulties getting the price premium that their high quality deserves.

The WISE goal is to increase industry average profitability to a sustainable 5% real rate of return on investment and — red light! — there is a long way to go on this front. The 2016 return was less than 1%, which is even lower than 2015. VinPro data indicate that “only 13% of the 3 300 producers farm at sustainable income levels, 44% are operating at break-even and 40% are making a loss.” Yikes!

There are many regions in other parts of the world where profitability is as problematic as in South Africa. I give the RSA industry leaders credit for owning their problem and working to resolve it. Objective analysis and serious discussion, although not always easy or popular, are the necessary foundation for effective action.

Not all the signs are “red light.” There is some good news on the inventory front, for example. The overall RSA wine sector swung from surplus in 2015 to tight conditions in 2016. Elusive equilibrium is the 2025 target. It is obviously difficult to raise price or even sustain it in a surplus market, so this progress is significant.

But it will always be difficult to balance the market both because wine is an agricultural product, subject to natural output variations, and also because of market cycles. Bulk wine equilibrium is especially difficult to achieve because of large yearly swings in global production.

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The local RSA wine market provides a second optimistic green light. The domestic wine market grew more than 14% by volume over two years ending December 2016. That is very good news, but 80% of local wines are sold for less than 26 Rand (about $2) per liter.Less than 5% of wine is sold are more than 65 Rand (about $5) per liter. Early days, but moving in the right direction. Low domestic prices put added pressure on export markets for profitability.

The fourth goal is to transform the industry by increasing black ownership of wine businesses to 20% by 2025. That is a worthy and ambitious goal and certainly in line with the priorities of the South African producers Sue and I met.  The 2016 ownership level is only 2% but Basson reported that progress is being made to lay the institutional foundations for transformation. Check back in future years to see how this develops.

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Bulk versus Bottled: there is always tension between these two parts of the wine industry in any country. The WISE goals envision moving the industry from 60/40 bulk to 60/40 packaged goods. The rating is yellow here — cautious optimism due to higher export values and a new EU wine export agreement.Much remains to be done, however, both to develop new markets (see below) and to improve margins on export sales.

I think wine tourism is a key to South Africa’s future because the wine tourism opportunities are fantastic and visitors are often your best brand ambassadors. There is good progress to report in this area for many reasons. When I asked about the biggest barrier to wine tourism on my first visit to RSA I was told that there needed to be more direct flights to Cape Town. International landings increased by 22% last year. Green light.

rsa4Basson’s report ends on two positive notes. Good progress has been made in expanding both export volumes and values in the target markets of the U.S., China, and Africa (Africa represents a very solid wine opportunity today and in the future).

There has also been success in getting more producers to gain ethical accreditation for their wines. The goal of 100% ethical certification by 2025 is ambitious, but it would be both a great achievement  in itself and could be an important distinguishing element of “Brand South Africa.”

So, is South Africa’s glass half full or half empty?  Both, I think. It is critical to make progress on profitability because economic sustainability is a necessary condition for success in other areas. It is going to be difficult to achieve all these goals in less than a decade, but nothing happens unless you try. And keeping a public scorecard as Rico Basson has done here is one way to keep the RSA industry both honest and focused.

Beyond Malbec: Looking for Signs of an Argentina Wine Export Revival

catenaAbout this time last year I wrote a pair of columns about prospects for a revival of growth in Argentina wine exports to the United States. Argentina was once the fastest growing imported red wine source (New Zealand has that distinction for white wines), but sales plateaued for a variety of reasons that I analyzed.

Feelin’ Groovy?

Can Argentina get its groove back? My 2016 columns were optimistic, focusing on changing politics and economics in Argentina, but, I warned, the U.S. market has changed, too, and Argentina will need to bring different products and strategies to the game to be successful.

Argentina cannot hope to simply ride the inexpensive Malbec “signature varietal” horse to renewed export success. The U.S. market is now filled with easy-drinking  “Red Blend” wines that compete in the space that Malbec once dominated.

Argentina needs to think of itself “like a normal country,” I said, which in this case means emphasizing  wines at higher price points where the market growth is today, focusing on terroir and other elements of product differentiation and moving beyond Malbec without in any way abandoning that grape variety.

Early Evidence?

The December 2016 issue of Market Watch magazine includes an article by Angel Antin titled “Argentina Comes of Age” that provides a cautiously optimistic update analysis. No significant change in direction is shown in the data for 2010 – 2015, but lots of anecdotal evidence of new ideas and new directions is presented.

Data for Argentina’s wine exports in the first nine months of 2016 provided by Wine by Numbers shows stable total exports over this period, with lower U.S. and Canada shipments offset by rising sales to the U.K. market.

The recent success in the U.K. market is obviously welcome for Argentina wine producers, but there is great uncertainly about the future due to Brexit. It would be better to see a broader pattern of export growth. On the whole, it is still too soon to draw any firm conclusions  about the impact of the Macri policies on wine exports. Stay tuned.

Redefining Argentina Wine

A personal note: my optimism was encouraged recently when I surveyed the “South America” shelf of the neighborhood Metropolitan Market and found just the sort of wine that I called for in my analysis last year. It was a Catena Appellation San Carlos Cabernet Franc 2014 selling in the $20-$25 price range.

This wine is an example of how Argentina can add layers to its identity to expand market appeal. It is Cabernet France not Malbec and the packaging stresses terroir. The wine is from a single high-mountain vineyard (El Cepillo is at 3900 feet) in the San Carlos region. The regional element is highlighted by the label’s antique map (although the image is of Argentina generally and not the specific San Juan area).

The idea is clearly to differentiate this wine in ways that appeal to wine drinkers who are seeking both authenticity and a different experience. The Cab Franc is part of an appellation series of Catena wines that also features two region-specific Malbecs, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay.

Catena is certainly not alone in thinking about their wines and marketing them in this way. (We recently enjoyed a less expensive but well made and nicely packaged Santa Julia Reserva “Mountain Blend” Malbec-Cab Franc from the Uco Valley.) That’s a good thing because no single wine or producer is going to redefine and expand the market. The potential is certainly there. Hopefully we will see positive results in the data before too long.