U.S. Wine Sales: Five Surprising Facts

wbm_cover_2018-9-1The September 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly is out and as usual it is full of interesting articles and useful information. As a wine economist, I have to admit that the first thing I look at with each new issue is the Retail Sales Analysis page, which presents recent U.S. wine market data as reported by Nielsen.

I suspect that many readers skip over this section, seeing it as a big table full of dreary gray numbers. How boring! But not to me. I thought you might be interested in five surprising facts I found as I combed through this issue.

But first a quick disclaimer. My old boss when I worked at a presidential commission in Washington DC used to say that there were three kinds of data: out-of-date, incomplete, and forthcoming. In other words, data is never as perfect as you want. I would add a fourth characteristic: expensive. The Nielsen data in Wine Business Monthly isn’t as complete or timely as you might like (data are for the 52 weeks ending May 19, 2018), but they are free, which I appreciate, and tell an important story. OK, here are the five facts.

#1 America’s Wine?

Europeans think of wine in terms of regions, according to conventional wisdom, but many Americans focus on grape variety. So which varietal wine is #1: Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon?

The answer is … both! Or rather, the varietal that tops the table depends on which table you look at. If you are interested in volume sales, Chardonnay is still number one, and by a large margin — 30.6 million cases in the 52 weeks of the survey for Chardonnay versus 24.6 million cases for Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Gris/Grigio comes in third with 17.1 million cases.

But if dollar value of sales is your focus, Cabernet narrowly edges out Chardonnay with about $2.56 billion in sales for Cab versus $2.54 billion for Chard. This result reflects Cabernet’s higher average bottle-equivalent price of $8.66 versus Chardonnay’s average price of $6.91.

#2 Most Expensive Varietal Wine?

Cabernet’s average price is higher than Chardonnay, but it isn’t the highest price that Nielsen reports. What varietal wine is #1 in terms of average bottle price? You might think Pinot Noir and you would be almost right. The average bottle-equivalent retail price of Pinot for the survey period was $10.43.

That’s a good average price, but not as high as #1 Zinfandel’s $11.19! Zinfandel? This really caught me by surprise because Zinfandel’s sales are relatively low. Pinot Noir’s sales by volume are more than four times Zinfandel’s.  But obviously not all the Pinot sales are in the $20+ range and the lower-priced products bring the average down.  I trust the data, but I am still surprised. More research needed here.

#3 France Strikes Back

I might have written “The Empire Strikes Back” because France is the empire of wine in terms of history and reputation. But French wines struggled to compete in the last dozen years and have fallen below Italy, Australia and New Zealand when measured by total sales value and below Australia, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand when measured by volume.

But France is surging back into contention, with 17.3% value growth and 14.4 % volume growth in the 52 weeks reported here. France’s average bottle price is $12.85, higher even than New Zealand’s $11.52.

Some of France’s exports to the U.S. market are quite expensive — Champagne in particular and high-end Burgundy and Bordeaux. But the French sales surge is largely powered by Rosé, which is the fastest growing wine category, up 54% by value and 32.7% by volume. Cowabunga — France is riding the Great Pink Wave back into the U.S. marketplace!

#4 Australia’s Real Challenge

Australian wine imports are a puzzle. Australia is the #2 import behind Italy measured by sales value and #1 ahead of Italy in the Nielsen data when measured by volume (12 million cases versus 10 million cases). But both value and volume fell during the 52 weeks measured here, continuing a trend we’ve seen in recent years. Aussie wine got a bad reputation a few years ago, the usual story goes. Buttery Chardonnay, sweet Shiraz. Australian wines went out of fashion.

My Australian industry friends now have the U.S. market in their sights once again, having successfully penetrated the Chinese market. Australian sales to China now outpace their exports to the U.S. and the U.K. markets.

I expect that the new sales effort will yield results, but the Nielsen data suggest to me that selling more wine in the U.S. market is not the real issue. Australia already sells lots of wine here. The problem is price. The average bottle price of Australian wine reported here is just $4.97, which is the lowest average bottle price of any of the countries that appear in the report. Price, not volume, should be the target and raising price is never very easy.

#5 Washington is Like a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that I am a big fan of Washington State’s wine industry, which doesn’t always get the respect that it deserves. It’s that #2 thing. Washington State lives in the shadow of its big wine neighbor, California. California’s 114 million case sale dwarf’s Washington’s 5 million cases in the Nielsen data.

Washington is small compared to California, but it doesn’t seem too tiny if we switch the frame of reference a bit. If we think of Washington as a foreign country, then the perception of its size changes a bit. At 5 million cases sold, Washington’s impact on the U.S. market is less than Australia and Italy, of course, but it is larger than Argentina (4 million cases in the U.S.), Chile (3.9 million cases) or New Zealand (3.1 million cases), and even bigger than Spain and France put together in terms of their U.S. sales volume.

Washington’s importance is also apparent if we look at sales value rather than case volume. With $602 million in annual sales, Washington’s U.S. sales are larger than all import countries except Italy and Australia. Looking just at U.S. sales spins the data to magnify Washington’s impact, of course, but comparing it just with California spins it the opposite way.

What’s the right way to think of Washington’s wine industry? Maybe we should compare it to New Zealand. Both regions have developed vibrant wine industries in just a few decades. Both punch above their weight with average bottle prices ($11.52 for New Zealand and $9.92 for Washington) well above the U.S. average of $7.21 or the California average of $6.85. And both, of course, are important competitors in the U.S. market.

>><<<

The Wine Economist will take a short break so that Sue and I can attend an important wine celebration in Italy. We’ll give you a full report when we return.

Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

>><<<

The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

The Cabernet Boom and Its Discontents

Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.

>>><<<

What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.

hqdefault

But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.

Cabernet is #1

According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table.  Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.

Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.

The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.

Premium Prices

Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.

And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons.  The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.

No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.

The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.

Cab Pipeline is Full

If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.

Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.

Zin was thought to  make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret”  in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!claret

Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.

The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.

No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.

Stein’s Law

Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle.  People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!

The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.

Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.

>>><<<

The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).

 

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.

>>><<<

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.

>>><<<

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.

vinovip2

New “Wine by Numbers” + Analysis of Global & US Wine Market Dynamics

 

wbnA new edition of Wine by Numbers was released a few days ago and it is required reading for anyone interested in global wine market dynamics. Wine by Numbers presents current data about global wine exports, imports and patterns of trade. It is a free resource provided by the Unione Italiani Vini, the Italian wine association.

Who Buys? Who Sells?

This special edition provides more data and deeper analysis, including essays by leading figures in the Italian wine industry about some of the most important export and import markets. Carlo Flamini of the Corriere Vinicola, which publishes Wine by Numbers, asked me to write an introductory essay for the “Who Buys” issue.

My essay presents a “Big and Hot” analysis of global wine market dynamics based upon the Wine by Numbers data. I invite you to download the pdf and check it out along with the rest of this valuable publication.

Writing the Wine by Numbers essay got me to thinking that it might be time to update my “Big and Hot” analysis of the U.S. market, so today’s column is part of an occasional series here at the Wine Economist where we analyze recent U.S. retail sales data looking for interesting and important trends. The data this week comes from Nielsen reports on U.S. off-premise table wine sales for the 52 weeks ending on April 22, 2017 as reported in the July 2017 issue of Wine Business Monthly.

wbm_cover_2017-7-1

Here’s how “Big & Hot” analysis works. The idea is to look at which parts of the market are big (in terms of total sales) and which are hot (or not) based upon rates of growth, both over the 52 week period and in the most recent 4 weeks covered by the data.

Sometimes as we see below, big and hot are the same, but sometimes they are very different. There is often something to be learned in either case.

Big and Hot Price Points

The overall U.S. off-premise market for table wines as measured by Nielsen grew by 3.5 percent in the 52 weeks of this study, but grew at a faster 6.1 rate in the final four weeks, showing some welcome acceleration that might be related to  Easter and Passover holiday wine sales.

This growth was not distributed uniformly over all price segments. This WBM Nielsen report aggregates price data by three dollar increments ($0-$2.99, $3-$5.99, etc.) up to $14.99 and then $15-$19.99 and $20 and above. The Big price segment measured by total expenditure is $3-$5.99 followed by $9-$11.99. The data suggest that the market is increasingly bifurcated  — the $6-$8.99 price segment between the two Bigs is actually shrinking. A tale of two markets?

Value wines are still Big and probably always will be, but they are not especially Hot. The fastest growing price segment is $15-$19.99, where total expenditures increased by more than 10 percent for the 52 week period. Wines priced $20 and above were “Hot Hot.” Sales shot up by 17.6% in the final four weeks of the reporting period. Amazing!

Big and Hot Imports

The Nielsen retail data reported here show that domestic table wines account for about 72 percent of total off-premise sales. Imports are somewhat stronger in restaurants and in the sparkling wine category, too, and if these sales were included the split would be more like 70% domestic and 30% import.

Italy is far and away the largest import wine source in these data (and growing faster than the overall market)  followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. France, which is only #5 by total sales, leads the hot parade, however, with 15% growth for the year and more than 25% 4-week growth. New Zealand, which normally is top of the Hot table, grew almost as fast followed by up-and-coming Portugal.

While Australian sales were essentially flat (an improvement over their dismal performance in recent years), Argentina, Chile, Germany, and South Africa had falling import sales in the Nielsen data.

Big and Hot Varietals

Conventional wisdom has it that American consumer reach for wine based upon brand, price, and grape variety. Chardonnay is the Big grape variety, accounting for 18% of all wine sales in the Nielsen table. Growth in Chardonnay sales rose slightly less than the overall market in this period. Cabernet Sauvignon, however, is only a little behind Chardonnay after a Hot surge and will soon take over the top place.

Sauvignon Blanc is the hottest grape variety, with 10.8% growth. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris/Grigio are also growing while many varietal wine types (Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Riesling, Zinfandel) have flat or falling sales.

Where is the growth going if not to these classic varietal wines? Look to the next category, which I call the Wild Card wines.

Big and Hot: The Wild Cards144318l

The Hottest categories in today’s market are those wines that defy the conventional wisdom. Consumers are supposed to be drawn to the security of varietal wines, so it is a bit of a surprise that the “Red Blend” category is so Hot, growing at more than twice the rate of the overall market during these 52 weeks. “Sweet Red Blends” are even Hotter, with sales rise at more than triple the overall market growth rate.

The conventional wisdom also holds that pink wines are a pretty narrow category and that is true in part. Sales of White Zinfandel, once a really Hot pink wine ticket, fell by 5% in this period.

So the Rosé wine boom comes as a bit of surprise. Sales of  Rosé table wine selling at $8 and above per 750ml rose at a startling 61.7% for the year and 84.2% for the final four weeks of the survey period.

That last number (84.2%) is especially interesting and not just because it is so big. Remember that these Nielsen data cover the period that ended on April 22, 2017, so the final 4-week period included parts of March and April.  Rosé wine was long thought to be “summer wine,” but these surging sales came in early Spring. Maybe Rosé is a Thing now, and not just a summer Thing?

Economists like numbers like these, but what’s the story behind them? Come back next week and I will try to tease out some broader implications.

No Sale: Liv-Ex Report on Low Interest Rates & Bordeaux’s Dismal New Normal

bigstock-no-sale-280I have sometimes made fun of my wine collector and investor friends, saying that they are engaged in what Thorstein Veblen might have called “Conspicuous Non-Consumption.” They buy some fine wines for the purpose of not enjoying them in the glass, or so it seems at times.

Owning the wines and visiting these great wines in their climate-climate-controlled secure storage lockers is pleasure enough. Drink them? Horror! Then they’d be gone! OK, I know it is more complicated than this, but  you get the idea of the joke.

Not For Sale

Now a fascinating report from liv-ex.com, the fine wine market trading platform and research center, suggests that non-drinking of great Bordeaux wines must be considered along with another phenomenon that would make even Veblen scratch his head: producers who make a business of not selling their wines. Or not selling very much of what they produce.

livex“Final Thoughts on Bordeaux 2015” is the title of a Liv-ex report that tries to make sense of the recently concluded Bordeaux en-primeur campaign. This year’s market for 2015 wines was unusually complicated, the report indicates. Vintage quality varied greatly by sub-region, for example. And while critics gave the wines high markets overall, they didn’t do so consistently, which is important since the speculative value of a 97 score (Suckling’s overall rating of the vintage) is very much greater than 94 points (Wine Spectator‘s evaluation).

Add to this exchange rate changes in the run up to the Brexit vote and you have a recipe for confusion. But all of this doesn’t really explain the fact that seller prices were well above what the market expected and so not much wine changed hands (at least compared with a few years ago). The opportunity to re-set the market, which the Liv-ex analysts had anticipated, was apparently wasted.

High Taxes, Low Interest Rates

This wasn’t a universal situation, the report makes clear. 2015 was the best vintage ever for some producers and the market accepted the higher prices. And some producers offered necessary discounts to move their stocks. But many raised prices and seemed content with meager sales and big retained stocks. Why?

The answer, according to Liv-ex, is complicated and begins with today’s historically low interest rates, which make the cost of carrying inventory low. Fine, but don’t they need to sell wine to pay costs? Yes, Liv-ex explains, but the margins on the grand vins are very high and so most costs can be covered quickly with an initial tranche of sales. Second- and third-wines provide additional cash flow.

France’s high tax rates are also mentioned — postponing revenue is also postponing taxation (possibly until a more business-friendly administration takes office).

A Different Economic Model?

But perhaps the biggest factor, which contributes to the “new normal” that Liv-ex sees, is a change in the economic structure of the business. Profits from making and selling wine are now less important than maintaining and advancing the capital value of the chateau itself. Selling wine at a lower but very profitable market price is old news. Raising price to enhance reputation and capital value is the new strategy.

The Liv-ex study notes that

“Priorities have shifted from making sales and generating cash flow to trying to maximise prices (of the grand vin in particular) and by extension the capital value of their properties. Indeed, …  the motivation to generate profits is dwarfed by that of keeping land values high. … Owners have achieved this by releasing smaller quantities onto the market and spreading their production across a second and sometimes a third label.  … Many commentators ascribe this trend to deep pockets. It is true that most top chateaux these days are owned by billionaires and insurance companies, but this has always been the case. The main motivation for the strategy is exceptionally low interest rates.”

The combination of the factors described here combined with similar incentives for the negoçiants results in prices generally above what consumers are willing to pay, the Liv-ex study concludes. The 2015 Bordeaux market was an improvement over 2014, but this is a “low bar,” the study says. “Moreover, for as long as the current environment — distorted by low interest rates — persists, there will continue to be a standoff … ” between supply and demand.

Hotelling’s Rule Alternative

The Liv-Ex researchers study Bordeaux closely, so their theory is probably correct, but as I read the report I couldn’t help thinking of one of the most famous microeconomics theories of the first half of the 20th Century: Hotelling’s Rule, named for Harold Hotelling. Hotelling was interested in the rate at which a firm exploits a finite resource that it owned, assuming the usual (for economic theory) perfectly competitive market environment.

To over-simply, the objective is to maximize the present value of the finite resource and so the short-run production decision depends on whether market price is expected to rise faster or slower than the rate of interest. If price is expected to rise faster than the rate of interest, it paid to hold back production for the future. If price is expected to rise more slowly than the rate of interest, then selling now and investing the returns makes more sense.

Under theoretical conditions, the equilibrium occurs when market price rises at an exponential compound interest rate.

A given vintage of a particular wine is indeed a finite resource to be sold today or sold tomorrow. Interest rates today are extremely low and so only very modest expected price increases are necessary to induce a winery to hold back stocks. At zero interest, prices need only remain steady to make stock-building a viable strategy.

The incentive to retain inventory is stronger than this, in fact, because the Bordeaux fine wine market is not perfectly competitive and restricting supply of a particular classified wine raises its current price. So in fact withholding stock may allow a wine firm to have its revenue “cake” today (scarcity premium for the wine that is sold) and eat it tomorrow, too (in the form of future sales of the retained inventory at prices above the low compound interest bar).

All else being equal, when market interest rates inevitably rise, this will shift the calculation towards current sales. But in the meantime, No Sale is the name of the game.

Logical Extreme: No Sale

I don’t think this application of Hotelling’s Rule is a better explanation than the Liv-Ex analysis or inconsistent with it, but it does open up a different way of thinking — looking at the situation in terms of the present value of the income stream.

It is possible to take this way of thinking too far, however, which is what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni hilariously did earlier this year when he wrote an “April Fools” column about college admissions. He announced that Stanford University had taken selective admissions to its logical extreme … and admitted zero percent of its applicants!

Because it was now totally unattainable, Bruni reported, Stanford was even more ardently desired than before and admission applications and strategic financial donations poured in. In Bruni’s fictional world, zero admission “sales” maximized Stanford’s reputation and revenue stream. Wow!

I wonder if that would work with wine? Whatever you do, don’t let the folks at Lafite, Latour and Margaux read Bruni’s column.

Anatomy of Wine Profit and (Mainly) Loss: South Africa versus Australia

Australia and South Africa are rivals on the rugby field, where they compete at the highest levels, and on your store’s wine shelves, too, where they fight for shelf space and consumer attention.

It is a good idea to study your opponent to see similarities and differences and that is just what Christo Conradie did earlier this year at the  Vinpro Information Day meetings in the Cape Winelands in a talk called “Producer and Winery Realities.” Conradie revealed the results of a study of profitability within South Africa’s wine industry and the data were sobering. (You can download a pdf of the presentation here.)rsa

Profit and Loss

Overall, only about 15% of South African producers are making strong profits while 49% have what might be unsustainably low profitability and 6% are breaking even. Fully 30% of producers reported losses. That’s a lot of red ink.

That news got my attention, but Conradie’s comparison with Australia really made me sit up. Breaking profitability down by region, the data for Australia show what you might expect. Profitability is best in some of the premium wine areas — Barossa, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra — where a majority of producers are profitable. But in Riverland and even in Mudgee the red ink flows and flows. Almost no one reported a profit in 2014 in these two regions.

Lots of reason for red ink. Weather, exchange rates, market momentum, problems in China and so on. Margins are the key to profitability and the premium prices that Barossa and Coonawarra producers are able to earn are certainly an important factor in their success.oz

The Premium Premium Problem

Now turn to an analysis of South Africa’s regions and a somewhat different picture emerges. Stellebosch is a premium wine production zone but also a high cost area. The price premium that  Stellebosch wines receive in the market does not appear to be enough to offset higher per bottle costs, eating into margins. Only 8% of Stellenbosch producers reported strong profits while 56% indicated loss.

The South Africa regions with the best profitability were generally those where higher yields were possible, which brings down cost, although Conradie made a point to show that the problem is not as simple as getting higher yields. A balance of many factors is needed to produce sustainable profit levels.

Supermarket Empiricism

Sue and I last visited South Africa in 2014 (I was a VinPro Information Day speaker) and we were surprised by the wine prices we saw. Converted into dollars, the inexpensive wines (including a South Africa-sourced Gallo Barefoot that we spotted in one supermarket) were about where we expected them to be. But premium RSA wines, many of them world-class, seemed  under-priced, especially when converted to U.S. dollar amounts.

In other words, it seems that the quality price premium for South African wines is relatively low and I think this is true in the export market as well as for domestic sales. Higher quality South African wines get higher prices, but not always to the same extent as producers in other countries. Or at least that our unscientific observation.

This is not news to the South African winemakers, who seem divided about whether to focus on the profitable higher-yield sector of the industry or to invest in reputation  and regional identity to differentiate products and raise the premium premium (if you know what I mean). Selling more is important in the short term, but earning higher prices is key in the long term.