Vino-ligopoly: Zero-Sum Wine Game Strategies

Last week’s Wine Economist column was a thought experiment. What if the Covid recession was a game changer like the oil crisis of the 1970s? Both crises undermined fundamental economic assumptions and generated long-lasting impacts. In particular, drawing upon the work of MIT economist Lester Thurow, the oil crisis changed the nature of the game from positive-sum growth to zero-sum competition for shares of the pie.

Maybe the parallel is off base and maybe the game hasn’t really changed. But let’s think about the future the wine industry in the sort of slow growth, low inflation, high debt economic environment that many see on the horizon, with a focus on gaining market share in a stagnant economy.

Wine’s Zero-Sum Dilemma

Zero-sum market environments are nothing new for wine. As this OIV graph of wine demand volume shows, growth in the global wine market pie was once quite strong. Imagine a trend line for 2000-2007 and you’ll see what I mean.

Now draw a trend line for 2008- 2019. It’s pretty much a flat line, isn’t it?  The picture improves if we look at value and not volume because of the premiumization trend, but the the weight of stagnant volumes is still heavy.

So the focus is on gaining market share or raising margins rather than taking advantage of a growing overall market and this creates winners and losers. New Zealand has been a victor for many years. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc sales have increased year after year, a trend that has continued in the Covid crisis environment. Imports from other countries have struggled here in the U.S. market with even powerhouse Italy under pressure. But the Kiwi wine wave rolls on.

Trading Spaces: On and Off

Perhaps the most obvious example of Covid’s zero-sum impact on the wine market is in the shift from on-premise to off-premise sales. Bars and restaurants have suffered both because of government restrictions on opening and also because concerned consumers have avoided crowded places in general even when not officially restricted. Wine consumption overall has not changed very much, but where consumption takes place and where products are purchased has shifted significantly.

The shift to off-premise consumption has many impacts, especially for wine companies that have worked very hard to place products on restaurant wine lists and for emerging brands that use on-premise sales to get a foot in the door. Shifting your restaurant sales to shops and supermarkets is not as simple as throwing a switch. Supermarkets especially favor big brands and broad product lines and there is some evidence that consumption patterns have moved in this direction, too.

One important impact of this shift, as I explained in an April 2020 Wine Economist column, is consolidation throughout the supply chain. Consolidation is a trend that extends far beyond the wine sector, of course. In an increasingly zero-sum market environment, large firms want to get even larger both in order to reduce margin-sapping competition and also to be able to negotiate better terms and lower costs. It’s not exactly wine-opoly — more vin0-ligopoly (insider joke for economics majors who remember the difference between monopoly and oligopoly, which is competition among a few big players).

Wine Wars / Price Wars

Econ 101 teaches us that one way that firms try to gain an advantage in a zero-sum game scenario is by cutting prices. This can quickly degenerate into a price war, of course, which is the ultimate negative-sum game for sellers (and a bonanza for consumers), especially if overall demand is price inelastic.

Are we seeing price wars on the wine aisle? As I explained in a May 2020 Wine Economist column, wine prices may be falling and rising at the same time, making it tricky to pick out net effects. If you are like me, your email inbox or Facebook news feed usually contains at least one discount offer from a winery or wine club — sometimes at incredibly low prices.

Looking narrowly at off-premise data, it appears that price premiumization continues. Sales of $25+ wines surged early in the pandemic period, for example. But, as I noted in May, these high price sales replace even higher-priced on-premise purchases at least in part. Those consumers were actually trading down as they shifted from restaurant meals and wine to home consumption. This is not a price war because it is cross-channel consumer behavior, but it will have that feel for wineries that cannot easily shift sales from on- to off-premise markets.

Game Changers

It isn’t easy to win if you think of the market in zero-sum terms (although not everyone agrees on this — President Trump famously proclaimed that trade wars were easy to win). Although there are many different strategies to consider, three stand out in my mind.

The first strategy is to analyze changes in market conditions and focus closely on growth segments. There is no single wine market, so a stagnant environment can a bit like a duck on a lake — quiet on the surface, but turbulent underneath. I wrote about Precept Wine in 2019, for example, highlighting their “Willie Sutton” strategy of putting resources into growth segments.

The second is simple: accept that the game is zero-sum and play hard to win on those terms. This means being very aggressive in terms of cost and price and making sure you are on the winning side was consolidation unfolds. Being big doesn’t guarantee success (small can be beautiful in a profitable niche), but there is no great advantage to being middle-sized.

The final strategy is to try to change the game. If wine vs wine is zero sum, try to shift the game to one with better odds. Don’t sell wine, sell a lifestyle. Don’t sell wine, sell community, culture, celebrity, or culinary connections. Ship the wine, sell the dream. Hitch your wine to a horse that can carry it to new market niches. Product differentiation — that’s what it’s all about.

What’s new about this? Nothing. The most popular wine magazines, for example, have long featured food, travel, and lifestyle as hooks for their wine stories.

In fact, using product differentiation to create and protect a profitable market niche is standard “monopolistic competition” theory.  But now might be a great time to think about what makes your wine’s offer distinctive and what you can do to protect yourself from head-to-head zero-sum competition.

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

gi_157779_newsimage_vcsprasset_1603936_157779_a1e0438a-e7e6-4421-b354-a406a5fa9579_0Jim Clarke, The Wines of South Africa (The Classic Wine Library) Infinite Ideas, 2020.

Conventional wisdom holds that books with titles that begin “The Wines of …” are organized around what I call the “Three Ps” of wine: the people and their history, the places (geography, climate, terroir), and the plants (most important grape varieties). Good wine books provide interesting and informative accounts of each “P,” but the best ones find a way to rise above orthodoxy to give readers a taste of what really makes a particular region special.

Jim Clarke’s book on South Africa’s wine industry does just that and it is why I recommend it to you. Clarke is U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa and that puts him in an excellent position to analyze South Africa’s wine sector. It is an important book and I encourage anyone interested in South Africa or global wine to read it, but it is not (and does not try to be) definitive for two reasons. First, Clarke wisely chooses to highlight selected wineries in each region rather than trying to cover them all. Balance is key — breadth can be the enemy of depth in this as in so many things. So you will want to have a recent edition of the Platter’s Guide for maps and comprehensive coverage of working wine cellars.

The pace of change is the second limitation. History is moving at warp speed these days — have you noticed? — and it is impossible for books to keep up, even if like this one they are hot off the presses.  Clarke tells the people story though his account of the twists and turns of South Africa’s wine history, which is necessarily intertwined with the country’s history more generally. One inevitable theme here is the importance of turning points — people and events that caused conditions to suddenly change, with effects that sometimes take years to fully unfold.

Balancing Act

2020 looks to be a year of turning points for South African wine. South Africa’s wine sector has for some time been balancing uncomfortably on an economic knife’s edge.
Some producers who go for high yields are able to coax out profits in most years despite low prices in bulk wine markets. Those who restrict yields and aim for higher quality achieve it — the best of the wines are simply spectacular — but often fail to earn prices high enough to produce profits. For at least part of South African wine, quantity pays better than quality. And many wine growers in both camps fail to earn sustainable returns.

Clarks explains this situation very well and the reader can sense his optimism going into 2020. Maybe this is a turning point moment when the country’s wines will finally achieve the widespread recognition (and higher prices) they need and deserve. I am optimistic about this, too.

But 2020 has turned out not to be that kind of turning point year. Instead it has been a year of disasters — the coronavirus pandemic, the global recession, and South Africa’s harsh national policies that have twice shut down domestic wine sales and once stopped export shipments, too. Wineries on the economic margins, many still recovering from severe drought, have been hard hit. A shake-out seems  likely and some wineries that went into 2020’s recession in weak condition will have trouble coming out the other side.

Follow the Money

The problem remains profitability more than wine quality and the collapse of global tourism flows adds one more woe to the pile. South Africa is a wine tourist dream, as Clarke suggests in a brief chapter on this topic, but it will take some time for wine tourists to return to the Cape Winelands in large numbers.

Who is going to lead South Africa’s wine sector out of the perfect storm it is caught in? As Clarke’s analysis makes clear, there is no shortage of institutions and organizations that aim to lead the industry in one way or another. A lot of people  — including a new group called Save SA Wine — are working very hard to limit the current damage and build a stronger foundation for the future.

I am not an insider, so probably I am wrong, but from my outside perspective I’ve always thought that the key must be Distell, the country’s largest private wine producer. Cooperatives, which are enormously important producers in volume terms, are unlikely to be able to lead the charge to boost prices in export markets, but Distell’s interests and those of the high quality wine sector in general are more closely aligned.

If Distell with its great scale and scope doesn’t do it, I don’t know who can or will. But I keep waiting for Distell to execute a sustained and ambitious strategy and make its big move. So far I’ve been disappointed.

Time Has Come Today

Time moves quickly in a crisis. The unfortunate facts of 2020 do not diminish this book’s relevance. In fact it is even more important now for us to understand South Africa wine’s underlying strengths amid significant challenges. And it is important to understand the stories of people and history that Clarke tells so well. South Africa has experienced turning points before and moved through them, drawing upon deep wells of strength and resilience.

Clarke captures South African wine’s bright promise, which we hope will shine through the current storm clouds. Excellent book. Very readable. Highly recommended.

Wine Goes Up the Down Staircase (Coronavirus Recession Edition)

41f8v8blzal._sx301_bo1204203200_Wine consumers today seem to be going “up the down staircase” (to evoke the clever title of Bel Kafuman’s best-selling 1964 book). They are buying more expensive wine at lower prices. That sounds crazy! Read on for analysis and a look back to what happened in 2009.

The COVID-19 Wine Boom

Recent consumer trend  data from Nielsen and Wines & Vines Analytics present a complicated picture of off-premise wine consumer behavior for March and April 2020. Wine sales at supermarkets and other retail outlets have boomed, as you know. The initial pantry stocking frenzy was followed by a growth plateau, but high growth rates have returned in recent weeks.

The dollar value of off-premise wine sales in the Nielsen-measured channels has risen at a 30% rate since the COVID-19 crisis began compared to the same period last year. Wine sales in the week ending March 21 surged to 66% more than the previous, year which is amazing.

The rise in off-premise sales is partially offset by the collapse of the on-premise (bars,  restaurants) channel. Net sales are up, but not by as much as you might imagine. Nielsen estimates that off-premise sales need to rise by roughly 22% (by volume) to offset the falling on-premise sales. Wine volumes are up 27.7% since March 7, so that’s a 5% net volume gain.

Less is More? Or is More Less?

Since sales volume is up 27% and sales value has risen 30%, it is clear that unit sale price has increased and this is true because of the distribution of purchases in different price points.. While sales have increased in all price categories, the fastest growth is for wines $11 and higher. Interestingly, the highest percent growth rate is in the $20 to $24.99 price category.

Some speculate that this rise is driven in part by consumers who are substituting retail wines for the ones they would otherwise have purchased at a restaurant. A $25 wine purchased at retail and consumed at home (perhaps with a home-delivery restaurant meal) might seem like a bargain compared to a similar wine with a higher mark-up on a restaurant wine list. Bottom line: consumers are moving up the wine wall, but paying less at the same time.

Online wine purchases are booming, too, but the reported pattern is different according to shipment numbers for April 2020 from Nielsen’s partnership with Wines Vines Analytics in collaboration with Sovos ShipCompliant. Sales volume increased by 45% compared to the previous  year. But sales value rose by only 15%, which means that average unit price has fallen. 

Indeed, the average bottle price in this sales channel fell from $42 to $33. Some of this might be due to changes in the commodity composition on online purchases, but readers of this column probably guess that discounting also plays a part. Here at Wine Economist world headquarters our email inbox is filled with sales offers that start with free shipping and continue with increasing levels of discounts.

Napa Discounts 

Significantly, according to the Nielsen data, Napa Valley wines, which are the Big Dog in the DtC market, had the largest average price reduction. Our friend Allan found a Napa winery in obvious financial difficulty that offered full cases of their California- and Napa-appellation wines for the price of one or two bottles.  Some of the deals like this are shared with club members, but some are kept quiet indeed to avoid reputation erosion.

So it is up the down staircase. DtC buyers are snapping up expensive wines at discount prices. Many thanks to Nielsen’s Danny Brager, Senior Vine President Beverage Alcohol Practice, for sharing data and insights.

Up and Down in 2009

Consumers also looked for ways to go up the down staircase during the global financial crisis a few years ago. Here are two Wine Economist columns from 2009, when internet sales were less of a factor, that examine how wine consumers were shifting their buying strategies during the global financial crisis: Wine, Recessaion, and the Aldi Effect and Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream.

Significantly the bargain-seeking changes we saw then didn’t really disappear when the economy improved. Wine buyers continued to search out bargains, at both low and high price points even as “premiumization” swept through the market. Hey, that’s up the down staircase again!wine_awards_factsheet_thumb_9.13.17

Wine , Recession and the Aldi Effect

January 13, 2009

Aldi stores are about to expand in the United States, drawn here by the recession according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal “Aldi Looks to US for Growth” ).  I wonder how this will affect the wine market?

A Tough Nut to Crack

Aldi is a German “hard discount” store chain.  A “hard discounter” sells a limited selection of house-brand goods at very low prices in small, bare-bones outlets.

Hard discounters are a niche, albeit a growing one, in the U.S.  Wal-Mart is a successful discounter, of course, but not a hard discounter because it still features many mainstream branded products, its prices are higher and its stores a bit more plush.  Aldi and other hard discount stores drove Wal-Mart out of Germany, according to the WSJ article, but the U.S. market has been a tough nut for the hard discounters to crack. American consumers are primed to buy brand-named products and they like lots of choice, marketing experts say, and so tend to resist the house brands that hard discounters feature, which has limited their penetration here.

Germans are more willing to sacrifice brand names for low prices, apparently.  Aldi and other hard discounters are dominant powers in German retailing. The WSJ reports that 90% of German households shop at Aldi stores and 40% of all grocery purchases are made in hard discount outlets.

Divide and Conquer

Interestingly, there are actually two Aldi store chains in Germany.  Aldi is short for Albrecht DIscount. The Albrecht brothers  who founded the company after World War II fell out over the issue of tobacco sales in their stores.  They divided the German market between them (Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd) and then, eventually, split up the world market too.  Here are links to Aldi USA and Aldi International websites if you want to learn more about this retailer’s local presence and international reach.

Wine is an important product in Aldi’s German stores, as you can see from the wine selections featured on their website.  I believe that Aldi is the largest single retailer of wine in Germany.

Since Germans are rich and Germany makes great wines, you would think that Aldi must sell mainly fine wines, but you would be wrong.  Aldi’s median  German wine sale is red not white, imported from a low cost producer, sold  under a house-brand name, packaged in a box or TetraPak and priced at around one euro per liter.

You could say that it is Two Buck Chuck (TBC) wine, but in fact TBC is more expensive.  TBC is to Aldi wine as Wal-mart is to Aldi itself. (Note: Wal-Mart now has its own brand of two dollar wine, which makes this comparison even more appropriate. It is called Oak Leaf Vineyards and is made for Wal-Mart by The Wine Group.)

The Aldi Effect

Aldi figures that the recession is its moment to press more vigorously for U.S. market share.  Data indicate that consumers are much more cautious now, so perhaps they won’t be so picky about brand names and will, like their German cousins, be willing to trade down for a lower price. The Financial Times reports that Aldi sales in Great Britain are up 25 percent! Aldi plans to speed up store openings in the U.S. and to expand into New York City. New York!  If you can make it there … well, you know.

The good news here is that Aldi’s U.S. push may also help drive wine deeper into the U.S. consumer mainstream.  You can say all you like about the quality of Two Buck Chuck but it sure did help expand the wine culture in the U.S. and some (but not all) my TBC-drinking friends have moved upmarket for at least some of their purchases. The wine may not be to everyone’s taste, but its market impact has not been all bad.

Will Aldi Succeed?

Will Aldi’s drive be successful?  There is reason to think it will be. They seem committed to tailoring their hard discount operations to local market conditions, which is important because markets have terroir as much as wine.

But there is a more important reason.  Both German Aldi chains are present in the U.S. now, although you are probably not aware of them.  Aldi Süd operates on under the Aldi name, of course, with the same logo as in Germany.  The owners of Aldi Nord invested years ago in a different chain, based in California and intentionally tailored for thrifty but upwardly mobile U.S. consumers. It’s an upscale Aldi Nord and it has been very successful here.

Perhaps you’ve heard of them.  They have limited selection, smaller stores, lots of house brands, and low prices.  They even sell a lot of wine.  The name?

Oh, yes.  Trader Joe’s!

Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream

November 1, 2009

groc_receiptOur friend Jerry doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would go digging around in the closeout bin or shopping for wine at Aldi — too classy for that — but there he was at Joyce and Barry’s house on Friday showing off his latest finds: cheap wine from a Grocery Outlet store.

The wine wasn’t so much good or bad as simply intriguing — is it really possible for a sophisticated wine enthusiast like Jerry to be satisfied shopping for wine at an “extreme value” store? Only one way to find out, so we got in the car the next day and headed for the strip mall.

Searching for Extreme Values

Headquartered in low-rent Berkeley, California, Grocery Outlet bargain market is America’s largest extreme value grocery chain with more than 130 independently owned stores in six western states. It has been in business since 1946. Prices are low, low, low.

Grocery Outlet stores here in the Pacific Northwest are supermarket sized spaces filled with off brand and closeout products along with a wide enough selection of fresh goods to allow families to do all their grocery shopping in one place. They are nice if not especially fancy stores. I can see why budget-minded families shop there.

Mystery Wine

The wine corner at the nearest store was large and well-stocked. Most of the brands were mysteries (one was even named “Mystery” as in “Mystery Creek” or something like that), although a few third and fourth tier products from recognized mass-market makers were available. Mainly, I think, these were leftover wines closed out by distributors to raise cash or make room for incoming shipments along with no-name brands “dumped” under a bogus label.

The wines came from all over — California, naturally, Australia, France, Italy, Chile. There was even a $3.99 “Champagne” from Argentina. Honest — it said “Champagne.”

Prices were suitably low — most of the wines sold for $2.99 to $5.99. It isn’t hard to make money selling extreme value wine when you can buy up surplus bulk wine for just pennies a liter and package it up for quick sale.  Extreme value retailers are the perfect distribution channel for wines like these.

As you can see from my receipt, I walked out with three bottles of wine for a total of $13.97 plus tax. “By shopping with us you saved $28.00.”  That would mean an average of 67% off the retail price.

Unexplained Tales from Down Under

I wasn’t really surprised at what I saw as I surveyed the wine wall. Then, slowly, a different kind of wine mystery began to unfold.

Sue must have sharp eyes because she picked out the first surprise. Sam’s Creek Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 for $3.99.  That’s awfully cheap for a New Zealand wine here in the U.S. I’ve read about heavily discounted NZ wines in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. — until now.

New Zealand is a high cost wine producer that has succeeded in charging a premium price for its wine. Indeed, NZ earns the highest average export price of any country in the world despite surging production that threatens to create unmarketable surpluses. Everyone worries that one day the export limit will be hit and prices will start to tumble from $12-$20 down to, well, $3.99. Is that what this Sam’s Creek wine really means? The end of NZ wine’s premium price?

Frighteningly, Sam’s Creek isn’t a no-name closeout wine. The label says that it is made and bottled by Babich, one of the famous names in New Zealand wine, and the internet tells me that Waitrose sells it for about $10  in Britain. I wonder if the unsold British inventory has somehow made its way here?

Prestige Wine at Extreme Value Prices

Two more bottles raised more questions about New Zealand wines. I paid a whopping $5.99 for a 2008 Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  I almost overlooked it, but the label caught my eye. Isabel Estate is one of the most famous Marlborough quality producers, exceedingly well-known in Great Britain where this wine sells for about £10, but not so widely distributed here in the U.S., I think.

How did it get here and who among the Grocery Outlet clientele would recognize its quality sitting there surrounded by cheap and cheerful closeouts?

The third wine makes the puzzle more complicated. It is a 2004 Te Awa Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay. Te Awa Farm is another famous NZ producer and, while this wine — a estate product from a distinguished producer in a famous region — may be slightly past its prime and therefore a typical closeout risk, it is still very surprising to see it sold at a place like Grocery Outlet for $3.99 rather than the $16-$20 retail price.

These three New Zealand wines may be random surplus wines found in the sort of place where random wines go to be sold. Or they may be indicators of important changes in the world of wine. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Wine markets are all about supply and demand. It is pretty clear that a supply of interesting wines has appeared along with the rock-bottom remainders at extreme value stores like Grocery Outlet, pushed along, no doubt, by the slump in fine wine sales.

What about demand? And what does Grocery Outlet tell us about the wine market more generally?

Wine Economist 10 Under $10 Challenge: Nominations Open

redblendLast week New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov published a list of “15 Wines under $15: Inexpensive Bottles for Stay-at-Home Drinking.”  It’s always fun and interesting to go through Asimov’s price-constrained wine lists (he often features 20 under $20 wines) and this one got me thinking about wine and coronavirus recession drinking.

Fifteen dollars is a good limit to consider — some wine critics have suggested that $15-$20 is the current “sweet spot” for everyday wines. But, in the spirit of hard times, why not step down just a little more in price and see what we can find?

Good Wines at Good Prices

And so I am soliciting nominations (use the comments section below) for a list of 10 wines under $10. Do you have a favorite wine in this price range? If so, tell us what it is, how much it costs, where you bought it, and why you like it. Sue and I will use some of our shelter-in-place time to vet the list to be published in an upcoming column. Nominations (one per reader) close at the end of April, so you have a couple of weeks to work on this. Drink up!

There are only two rules. First, the wine must be generally available here in the US market, which means basically we are looking at supermarket wines or their equivalent.  And, second, the regular price needs to be $9.99 or less. Close-out prices are sweet, but that’s a different story. Unfortunately, I think this rules out Grocery Outlet purchases from the final list, although I don’t object to hearing from you if you have a close-out favorite you’d like to share.

A Tuesday Night Wine

Just to get the ball rolling, I will nominate  Red Blend Portugal by Casa Santos Lima, which we bought at Costco for $5.99 a bottle. It is a juicy red blend that’s dry with just enough tannin. We drank up a case of it lightly chilled with barbecue over the summer  last year and we recently had it again during lock down with hearty ham and bean soup from the freezer.  It is a simple wine meant to drink, not something to philosophize over or lay down for the future — an example of what Sue calls a Tuesday night wine.

data

There’s another reason to think seriously about less expensive wines right now. As recent Wine Economist columns have explained, the global economy has slipped into a recession that is likely to be more severe than the global financial crisis of a dozen years ago. Short term growth forecasts (see table) released last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit paint a dismal picture of global economic conditions through the middle of 2020.

Income and wealth have already fallen dramatically in many parts of the world and unemployment has surged. More than 17 million ex-workers have applied for unemployment benefits in the U.S. in the last three weeks alone. Trading down to good wine at a lower price is not a ridiculous thing to consider in these circumstances.

We will be interested to see your nominations and perhaps to compare them with Asimov’s slightly more upmarket list. There’s a big difference between $10 and $15 in today’s wine market. Sales of wines in the $12 – $15 price range have been growing strong over the last couple of years (and not just during the recent stock-up surge) while sales of bottled wines in every segment below $10 have been falling.

The Big Squeeze

Why are cheaper wines in a slump? There are lots of explanations, but some of my industry friends privately tell me they think  that quality is a factor. Production costs keep increasing, they say, but consumers resist attempts to raise price. Something has to give in the cost-price squeeze and, in some cases corners are cut to preserve margins.

I don’t know how generally this is true, but the 10 under $10 challenge is an opportunity to see how much quality there is at this price point. And it will be kinda fun to see what wines people suggest.

Thanks in advance for nominating wines for the Wine Economist 10 under $10 challenge. Stay well. Be safe.

Is Sustainable Winegrowing Sustainable?

Is sustainable winegrowing sustainable? Yes. But there are headwinds and challenges to overcome before this expanding movement will achieve its full potential. Here’s my report.

sonoma

Sustainability is a powerful movement in northeast Italy where Sue and I participated in a program sponsored by the Consorzio Collio. I spoke on a roundtable panel on sustainable winegrowing’s many sides. One of the other speakers had recently converted his family vineyards to organic viticulture and he talked about the experience and his commitment to sustainable winegrowing.

A hand went up. Now that you are spending less on chemicals and so forth, a journalist asked, will be you passing along the cost savings to consumers?

Wow — I didn’t see that question coming. Implicit in the query was the assumption that organic or sustainable wines should be cheaper than other wines, not simply better for the environment. Most winegrowers, however, hope that sustainable practices will be rewarded in the market place — that consumers will be willing to pay higher prices for sustainably-produced wines, not demand a discount. Environmental sustainability needs to be economically sustainable to survive.

Survey Says …

I would like to say that wines that are certified as sustainable or organic or biodynamic do command a price premium, but I don’t have the data to support this broad conclusion. Wine is a complicated product category and it isn’t easy to compare sustainably-produced wines with similar wines made using conventional practices in order to extract the existence and size of a general price differential (more about this below).

Much of the research on this subject, therefore, has involved surveys that ask consumers how much they hypothetically would be willing to pay for sustainablly-produced wines compared to others.

pay-more-for-eco-certified-wines

A good example of this research is a study that Sonoma State Professor Liz Thach MW reported in 2017, which is the source of the graph above. The survey sample of 301 wine consumers, which was weighted towards women (74%) and Millennials (65%), found a generally strong willingness to pay more for wines with sustainable certifications.

payup

Recently Lullie Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, presented the results of a larger study of U.S. wine drinkers that both reinforced a strong willingness to pay and uncovered significant generational diversity among Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boom consumers. Millennials in the study, for example, were more than twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say they would be willing to pay a $5+ sustainability premium while 43 percent of Boomers said they wouldn’t pay any extra at all.

The study suggests that consumers would be willing to pay about $3 more per bottle for a sustainably-produced wine. What do you think? How much more would you be willing to pay?

Walking it Back to the Vineyard

Since it is hard to determine if sustainable wine actually receives a price premium in the market, I decided to work backwards. If sustainable wine sells for an average $3 premium, then sustainably-grown grapes should sell for a premium, too. How much? The Law of 100 holds that in general if grapes cost $1000 per ton more, then the wine has to sell for at least $10 more per bottle ($1000/100) to pay the bills. It’s a back of the envelope sort of calculation — a long way from rocket science, but useful here.

Working backwards, the Law of 100 rule of thumb suggests that a $3 higher bottle price should translate into a maximum of $300 per ton grape price premium. That could be a substantial incentive for winegrowers to farm sustainably depending on the region.

What is the sustainable premium for wine grapes? Once again it is hard to generalize because there are all sorts of special cases in grape contracts. But I consulted two well-connected California colleagues and the answers they provided were very consistent. In general, sustainably-farmed wine grapes receive a premium of $15-$25 (average of about $20) per ton. That’s a lot less than I was expecting. It implies a very small potential bottle price premium — nothing like the $3 survey result.

Some contracts provide a premium up to 7.5 percent, I’m told, which can be valuable depending on the underlying grape price and yield. In many cases, however, the premium is exactly zero. Grape buyers specify sustainably-farmed fruit, but are not willing to pay extra for it. Bottom line: growers generally farm sustainably because these are sound practices, not (yet) for the money.

Why is the Sustainability Premium So Low?

Why is the sustainable grape premium so low? One answer is that premiums are low because it is a buyers’ market for some grape categories these days. With surplus grape supplies and wine in tanks from previous vintages, buyers don’t pay more because they don’t have to. That is bad news for growers in the short run but better news in the long run because the supply-demand imbalance is likely to adjust over time and perhaps improved prices will follow.

A second answer is that the grape premium is low because the premium for sustainable wines is low — much lower than the $3 per bottle estimate. How can this be? Are the survey-takers fibbing? Well, sometimes people do give “aspirational” answers to survey questions. But there’s another answer. Consumers may be willing to pay more for sustainable wines, but they can’t tell for sure which ones they are.

Organic and biodynamic are very clearly defined wine terms (although consumers may not fully understand them — especially biodynamic), but sustainable does not have a single meaning or certification standard. Most of the regions we visit have their own sustainability certification programs, each tailored to local conditions. So the term sustainable shows up a lot and doesn’t always mean the same thing. This is one reason why it is hard to calculate the price premium for sustainable wines.

My colleague Danny Brager tells me that his team at the Nielsen Company tries to track sustainable wines (by their measure they account for about 2.1 percent of the table wine market by value, growing at a fast 8.1 percent rate), but the lack of a clear definition means that anything that has “sustainable” on the label gets counted. That’s probably as good as most consumers can do because they don’t fully understand the difference between certified and non-certified wines or the variations among certification programs themselves. But it makes deeper analysis difficult.

Why Can’t Wine Be More Like Fish?fish2

The term sustainable is popular in part because of this ambiguity. I found one wine that boasted “Sustainably Dry Farmed” on the front label. On the back label I learned that this meant that the vines were actually irrigated (which seems like the opposite of dry farming to me) … but only as necessary to sustain the vines themselves. The fluid nature of the term “sustainable” makes all the difference.

Does that mean a one-size-fits-all certification program? No. I actually think that the fact that there are many regional sustainability programs is a good thing, even if it confuses consumers a bit, because it increases the proportion of the industry that adopts sustainable practices.

Sue points out that consumers support sustainable practices in other sectors when they understand them and appreciate their importance. Sustainable fisheries are important, for example, and many retailers and restaurants make a point of featuring sustainably-harvested seafood. The existence of different certification programs doesn’t seem to diminish the impact.

What? How? Why?

We meed to make sustainable wine as transparent and appealing as sustainable fish. Perhaps the key is to focus less on the what and how — what we are doing (certification) and how it is done — and more on the why. The why is pretty clear when it comes to sustainable fisheries. Maybe we can make the why of sustainable wine clearer, too.

Sustainability would be more sustainable from an economic standpoint if we could communicate better with wine buyers so that the sustainability premium is greater and trickles down to growers better than it does today. Sustainable sustainability? That’s a goal worth pursuing.

Wine Economist Top 5 of 2018

251626This week’s Wine Economist looks back at the five columns first published in 2018 that captured the most interest among the wine industry audience that frequents this page.

Sometimes it is difficult to find a common thread among the top columns, but not this year. Readers were concerned about U.S. wine sales and they focused on analysis that they hoped might give them insights into the changing market place and especially how to deal with the changing wine consumer base. Take a look at the Top 5 and see if you agree.

#5 U.S. Wine Sales: Five Surprising Facts

Concerns about wine sales were obviously on readers’ minds when this September 2018 column appeared. The premise of the piece was simple: we are all pretty familiar with the conventional wisdom about the wine market but the conventional wisdom doesn’t always hold in a changing world. Sometimes you need to look more closely at the data (Nielsen data in this case) to see what’s actually going on.

There were plenty of surprises to be found (five of them, as the title indicates), including Zinfandel’s high average price (higher than Pinot or Cab), Cabernet’s move past Chardonnay in total sales, the resurgence of French wine (think pink), Australia’s real sales challenge (price, not quantity), and Washington wine’s unexpected prominence when you shift the frame of reference a bit.

#4 Beyond Boom & Bust: Taking a Closer Look at the SVB Report

The Silicon Valley Bank‘s annual wine industry report always gets a lot of attention and with good reason. Timely analysis + innovative thinking + clear presentation = required reading.  But the complexity of the study is sometimes lost in the rush to report the headline conclusions. So I decided to take a deeper dive and shine a light on some of the aspects that weren’t getting the attention they deserved, especially with respect to the generational transition in the wine market.

This also gave me an opportunity to make a point of my own: sometimes the differences within generational cohorts are as important as the difference between them.

#3 Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

shaw1Organic food has moved from a niche to an important market segment. A lot of us have been waiting for wine to catch up. Bronco Wine, the makers of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck), apparently got tired of waiting and, working with Trader Joe’s stores, introduced Shaw Organic, a line of affordable wines made with organic grapes.

Bronco is the largest vineyard owner in the U.S. (40,000 acres at last count) and has quietly become the largest grower of organic grapes as well. Is Shaw Organic the breakout wine — the wine that will create a critical mass of consumers who look for organic wine the same way that Two Buck Chuck democratized the wine market more generally? Too soon to tell, but it is a trend to watch.

#2 The Changing Face of Wine in America: The Cooper’s Hawk Phenomenon

Direct-to-consumer wine sales are on everyone’s mind. With costs rising faster than prices in most cases, those full-margin wine club sales have become a very high priority. Some say that many Napa Valley producers couldn’t keep the lights on without their wine club sales.

So who has the largest wine club? Incredibly, it is an Illinois-based restaurant and winery business called Cooper’s Hawk, which counts about 300,000 wine club members who visit their local restaurants once a month to pick up the latest wine. What makes Cooper’s Hawk so successful (and how can wineries reach the market they’ve developed)? And can the lessons of Cooper’s Hawk be applied more generally? Timely questions. No wonder this is the #2 column of the year.

#1 Outlaw Wine: 19 Crimes Succeeds by Breaking All the Wine Marketing Rules.

Millennials. They are the wine market of the future and the future is now. But what do they want and how do you get their attention? This May 2018 column, which is top of the list, looks at an incredibly successful Treasury Wine Estates product that was specifically developed to appeal to millennial men.

It is called 19 Crimes, which is kind of a strange name for a wine, and while I am not a big fan of the wine itself (it wasn’t crafted to appeal to me), I am very impressed with the way it has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations by breaking all the wine marketing rules.

>>><<<

This is the final Wine Economist column of 2018. See you next year!

Is the Prosecco Boom Sustainable?

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Or is it a bubble that’s eventually going to pop? That’s roughly the question that an Italian journalist asked me a few weeks ago and it is easy to appreciate the concern behind it. The market for Prosecco has blossomed, especially in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, the three largest export markets, and Prosecco producers are both excited and anxious about their future prospects.

U.S. Sparkling Wine Imports January-June 2018

usimports

A quick glance at data for U.S. sparkling wine imports January-June 2018 as reported by Wine-By-Numbers (see above) shows strong growth. Italian sparking wine (mainly Prosecco) imports grew 16% by volume and 28.3% by value in the first six months of the year despite rising average dollar import price. Only the Rosé import category is growing faster than Prosecco.

Beyond Bubbles for Birthdays

I am a wine-glass half-full kind of person, so my answer to the journalist’s query was optimistic. The question isn’t so much why U.S. and U.K. consumers are drinking more sparkling wine (and especially Prosecco) now — it is why they didn’t embrace bubbles more ardently in the past? Sparkling wine has always been an attractive option, but for some reason it became associated with special occasions. Bubbles aren’t just for birthdays and New Year any more.

But booms often contain the seeds of their own demise — either in the form of bust, fizzle, plateau, or something else. Prosecco may be no different. Having just returned from a quick visit to Prosecco-ville to speak at an award ceremony in Conegliano (see next week’s column), I can report that there is concern about this possibility within the industry.

Most of the Prosecco on the market is DOC Prosecco produced by makers that range from the very large such as La Marca, which is distributed by Gallo, to the relatively small. There are economies of scale in Prosecco-making, so bigger can be better from a profit standpoint. La Marca, for example is a second level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — and its many members keep its pressurized tanks, used for the secondary fermentation, efficiently supplied with a river of base wine.

Pretty in Pink?

When quantity is the driving force, the focus can easily become one of chasing the market to increase sales, raise production, increase scale economies, and lower cost. Thus there is an incentive to look for incremental sales wherever they can be found.

This might be part of the movement to certify DOC Prosecco Rosé.  Bubbles are hot. Pink  wine is hotter. Pink bubbles should set the market on fire. The Glera grape that is used to make Prosecco is white, not red, but production rules allow the use of up to 15% of other approved grape varieties. If  those grapes are Pinot Noir, which is grown in this region,  the result is a pink sparkling wine. Pink Prosecco isn’t a thing yet, since the rules don’t allow this designation, but it might be permitted very soon.

Pink Prosecco — who could object? Well, many people, actually. The concern is that Prosecco’s identity is not well established — many consumers think Prosecco is the grape name and others are not certain exactly sure where it comes from. Prosecco’s success may come in part from the fact that consumers don’t fret about these things and simply enjoy the experience.

No One Laughed

tap

But some producers worry that by broadening the Prosecco category with a pink wine, winemakers will further dilute the brand identity to the point where it is just a generic sparkling wine, one of the ingredients in Aperol spritz, unable to command a price premium. The slope that runs down the commodity wine hill can be slippery.

At one point during our visit I joked that, since blue wines are getting some attention these days, maybe some Prosecco producers would move in that direction. Pink, Blue, White — all colors of Prosecco for all occasions. No one laughed. I guess blue Prosecco is nothing to joke about. It’s part of that slippery slope.

The concern that Prosecco’s brand may be undermined seemed particular strong in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG zone between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Supply is more limited in the DOCG zone and costs are higher because, unlike the valley vineyards where much DOC Prosecco is grown,  the hillside terraces aren’t all suitable for mechanical harvesting or as easy to maintain generally.

What a Mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore is therefore about value more than volume and maintaining product differentiation — of Prosecco versus generic sparkling wine and of DOCG Prosecco versus DOC production — is very important.  Wine marketing guru Paul Wagner, who led our small press tour, never got tired of pointing out what a challenge the DOCG producers set by branding themselves as Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG . What a mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore suggests a premium product and is probably the right brand to try to build, although Americans have little experience with the Superiore designation for wines generally. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene reference is meant to indicate that these are wines of origin — grown in a particular place, but most consumers don’t know what that place is or exactly how to pronounce the place names either.

Glass by Glass by Glass

I have done Prosecco tastings for non-profit groups and I note that consumers are often surprised when they taste the DOCG product, especially DOCG Brut. They like Prosecco a lot, but think of it generically as defined by DOC Extra Dry wines. They are surprised when they can taste a difference. (I’ve had the same reaction in tastings of Argentina Malbecs from different production zones).

Based on my very limited personal experience, it seems to me the key to differentiating Prosecco from other sparkling wines and DOCG Prosecco from the DOC wines is going to involve a lot of hard work. Consumers won’t understand the differences if you just tell them. You can’t tell people how something tastes. You have to show them, and let them experience it for themselves one glass at a time.

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Yes, I think it is, but it will take work to shore up its foundation and simply chasing market share, as tempting as that it, may not be the best long-term strategy.

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).