Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Pinot Puzzle

They were serving Pepperwood Grove wines at the reception at The Tacoma Club last night and I was a little bit suprised to see a Pinot Noir there, standing side-by-side with the Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot. The reason for my surprise is that Pinot is in short supply these days, so you don't really expect to find it in a competitively priced line like Pepperwood Grove, which is one of the Don Sebastiani and Sons brands. I saw the wine today at the Metropolitan Market for $5.99.

The Pepperwood Grove Pinot is part of a bigger Pinot Puzzle. People are buying (and wineries are selling) a lot more Pinot Noir in the post Sideways era, but there aren't that many more tons of Pinot Noir grapes available. Where has the extra Pinot Noir come from?

There are several possibilities. Maybe some of the Pinot that had previously been used in blends (such as generic "burgundy") is now instead being bottled on its own as a varietal. I don't know if this is a major factor, however, because I am not sure how much Pinot went into those blends in the first place.

Another possibility is that other wines are being blended with Pinot up to the legal limit to stretch it out. In Oregon a wine labeled Pinot Noir needs to be at least 90% Pinot, but other states have lower limits. I am sure that this takes place and it helps account for the fact that some recent Pinots, while they may taste good, don't always taste like Pinot. But they sell like Pinot, which is the point I guess.

A third possibility is that the wine might not be exactly what you think it is. It is not uncommon for winemakers to import foreign wines (and bottle them under their own labels) when faced with a shortage. This is fine when the label makes the unexpected provenance clear, but dishonest when the real wine source is hidden or obscured, as it is on some so-called "Chinese" wines, I am told, which contain mostly cheap Chilean bulk product blended with a small amount of China juice. More than one winemaker has got in trouble when customers discovered trickery.

The Pepperwood Grove Pinot is an honest wine. Although I associate the brand with California, the label clearly identifies this wine as Chilean. According to the website, Pepperwood Grove sells both a Chilean Pinot (113,000 cases of the most recent release) and a California Pinot (60,000 cases). That solves the Pepperwood Grove Pinot Puzzle: they imported the extra Pinot Noir to meet the demand. But there still are a lot of mysteries out there, hidden in bottles of wine.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Costco and Global Wine

Costco is the largest wine retailer in the United States and I think it is worth thinking about the Costco model and what it has to say about the globalization of wine.

Costco’s approach to selling wine is different from most other U.S. retailers, such as supermarket chains. Most supermarkets offer a surprisingly large selection of wine. The Metropolitan Market (an upscale grocery store in my neighborhood) has more than 1500 different wines on its shelves. The Tacoma Boys farm store down the road has more than 3300 different wines – an incredible selection. A typical Costco store has a rolling inventory of only about 100-120 wines at any given time. Selection is obviously much narrower at Costco, so value and quantity sales are the key. If you’ve shopped for wine at Costco, you already know that you can spend as little as about $5 for a bottle of wine and as much as … well, as much as you want, really. I have seen Dom Pérignon on the Costco rack as well as a Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as few years ago. If you go to the website you can even purchase Bordeaux futures!

One way that Costco reflects wine globalization is obvious: they bring global wines to the American market by offering products from France, Italy, Spain, Chile, South Africa, Germany, Portugal, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (those are the countries that I can remember from my last visit – I haven’t tried to make a complete accounting).

Costco distributes the wines of the world to America and America apparently snaps them up. A good example is the red wine shown above, a 2006 Kirkland Signature Central Otago (New Zealand) Pinot Noir that I found on my most recent Costco expedition. Pinot Noir is hot these days (the Sideways fad continues) and Central Otago Pinots have developed something of a cult following. So it is very interesting to find this wine in a warehouse store, where volume sales are key.

The Kirkland Signature label first appeared in 2003. The wines are relatively small lots (around 2000 cases each -- large for many wineries but small for Costco -- according to a 2006 Costco report) specially created by chosen winemakers. The wines are scattered out among the warehouse stores and when they are gone they're gone. New wine releases are staggered throughout the year so that serious (or curious) buyers have reason to check back frequently to see what's new.

I found an Oregon Pinot Noir a few years ago and went to the trouble of tracking down the maker. This isn't always necessary any more -- some Kirkland Signature wines, like the Marquis-Phillips made Shiraz we had on Monday, proudly list the winemakers. The Oregon Pinot's maker was the same company responsible for the A-to-Z brand. A-to-Z are negociants who own no vineyards. Negociants typically purchase wine from other makers and blend, age and market it. A-to-Z is know as a great value brand and so a good potential Costco supplier. Interestingly, the Costco Pinot had the same price as the A-to-Z Pinot in my local store.

Now we can begin to appreciate why Costco is so successful as a wine retailer. Their list of wines is not large compared to other retailers, but they provide a rolling selection of pretty interesting and sometimes unexpected wines (at good prices, but that goes without saying). Costco buyers suspect that it must be a good value to get on the Costco shelves and know that any particular wine might not still be there next week or next month. Better run back and buy more now if you want it. So people keep coming back.

There is another aspect to Costco’s wine story that interests me and that is its house brand, Kirkland Signature wine. Kirkland Signature wines reflect the complex nature of wine globalization in ways that you might not suspect.

There are basically three models for wine marketing in the world today that correspond to the three largest import markets for wine: the U.S., Germany and Great Britain.

The U.S. model is built around brands owned by wine companies. Winemakers big and small seek to establish a brand or reputation that will help them sell their wines to consumers who need a trustworthy indicator of value and/or quality. Building reputation is complex and brands are part of the process, but not the whole story, of course. Americans typically look to brands for quality/value information when shopping in general and so it is natural that wine brands are so important here. Because there are lots of market segments for wine and many competing brands within each segment, American retailers stock a lot of wine.

Then there is the German model, which is all about low prices. The average “bottle” of German wine is sold in a discount store, often with a house brand name, and costs about a Euro per liter. I put “bottle” in quotes because sometimes it comes in a juice-box type container. Decent quality for less is what the German market seeks and the discount chain’s reputation for value seals the deal.

Finally there is the British model. Britain is by most accounts the most important wine import market in the world and the key players there are the supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Because this market is so important to wine exporters, you can find wine from every nook and cranny of the global market in British stores. But because this huge selection can be confusing to consumers (especially French wines) and discourage them from making a purchase, the stores themselves (not the wine producers) have launched their own brands, like the Tesco’s Finest Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon or, for example. Or the Sainsbury's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc shown here, which offer a limited range of global wines under the store’s own label. The Tesco brand gives consumer confidence to try an unfamiliar foreign wine (a Central Otago Pinot?) that they might otherwise avoid. Tesco and Sainsbury’s don’t make the wine, of course. They contract with local winemakers to supply the product. The stores add value to the bottle by lending it their reputation through the store brand label. And, of course, they use their efficient distribution system to get the bottles into consumer shopping baskets.

Now a quick field guide to globalization and the U.S. wine market. You can find the American wine marketing system in your local supermarket: dozens of different brand-name wines in all the major price segments.

You can find the German wine marketing system at Trader Joe’s, where people who would never spend three dollars for a bottle of wine at Albertsons (how could it be any good?) confidently pay as little as two bucks for a bottle of Charles Shaw (how could it be bad?).

I think that Costco’s innovation is to bring the British wine market system to the United States. Costco’s wine aisle reminds me of Tesco’s in Britain. And the Kirkland Signature line reminds me of Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s house brands. Even the labels bear a family resemblance if you compare the Costco Marlborough Sauvignon shown here with the similar Sainsbury's wine above. (Interestingly, they are both priced at about $9 per bottle.)

Bottom wine. Costco is a success in the wine business because it sells global wines to Americans using the British wine market system. That's globalization!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Old World meets New World in Oregon

The debate about wine is often framed as Old World (Europe) versus New World (California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America) but I am suspicious of such simple dichotomies. I suspect that the issues don’t break cleanly along these lines, so I always find it interesting to explore the blurry edges where Old meets New to see what I can learn.

The film Mondovino examined l’affaire Mondavi – Robert Mondavi’s unsuccessful attempt to build a winery in the south of France. That's a pretty easy (is oversimplified) story to tell: Americanization, McDonaldization, Disneyfication. You know what I mean.

I’m interested in the reverse flow, Old World winemakers who invest in the New World, how and why do they do it and what are the results? Sometimes Old World firms enter into partnerships with New World winemakers. Opus One is probably the most famous such venture, a partnership between Robert Mondavi and the Rothschild family of France. Col Solare is another good example, an alliance Ste. Michelle Wine Estates of Washington and the Italian Antinori family.

Direct investment is another strategy – Old World wineries buy land, plant vineyards, build wineries, bring in their winemakers, and make wine. What kind of wine? Old World wine in the New World? New World wine? That’s a question worth exploring.

Some examples of Old World winery investment in the New World include the Domaine Chandon in California (owned by the French Champagne house), Barboursville winery in Virginia (owned by the Italian Zonin family), the St. Supery winery in Napa Valley (owned by the French Skalli family) and Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO), which is owned by the French Joseph Drouhin firm. I visited DDO recently, accompanied by my wife Sue (photo right) and our friends Michael and Nancy Morrell (photo left below), who are sailors (they have circumnavigated the globe in their Norseman 447) and aspiring wine research assistants. Here’s what we learned.

Maison Joseph Drouhin is a famous Burgundian winemaking firm. They began as negociants in the 1880s, aging, blending and marketing wine made by others and eventually acquired some exceptional vineyards of their own. Oregon appeared on their radar nearly 30 years ago when Robert Drouhin presided over a blind tasting of Old and New World Pinot Noirs in 1979, which was won, to everyone’s great surprise, by an Oregon wine from Eyrie Vineyards. What followed is a long story that involved many visits to Oregon. Robert’s daughter Véronique, who was studying winemaking at Dijon, interned at several Oregon wineries. Having learned all they could, the Drouhins took the big step, bought land, planted vines, built a winery, and began making wine. The first vintage, 1988, was made in a rented facility using purchased grapes. The gravity-flow winery (the first such in Oregon) was built in 1989. Today they have 90 acres of densely-planted vines (one meter by one meter by the look of them) on a 225 acre estate. Véronique is the winemaker and her brother Philippe manages the vineyards here as well as those in France. The wines? The classic Burgundian varieties, Pinot Noir and a little Chardonnay.

Mark Bosko, the DDO tasting room manager pictured here, spent almost two hours with us, showing us the vineyards and production facility and answering all manner of questions. The tour ended with a comparative tasting of Drouhin’s French and Oregon wines. To be specific, we compared the 2005 Maison Joseph Drouhin (MJD) Chablis Premier Cru ($27) with the 2006 DDO Chardonnay Arthur ($30) and a 2004 MJD Beaune Premier Cru ($28) with the 2005 DDO Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($45). We are not professional tasters, but we did have opinions. The group seemed to favor the Oregon Chardonnay over the French Chablis. I suspect that this is because we are more familiar with the oaked Oregon style than the more mineral classic Chablis flavor. It would be interesting to taste these two wines with consumers from France -- I am sure they would make the opposite choice! It was easy to tell Old World from New World here.

We liked the French Pinot Noir better, although I am not sure if it was a completely fair comparison. I think the French wine benefited from its additional year of aging. I would like to taste the DDO again in a year to see how it has matured.

So what kind of wines are the Drouhins making in Oregon? I would say that they have some of the style of the French wines that we tasted (a family resemblance, as Mark suggested?), but they are still quite different – and this is not a surprise. Although the grape varieties are the same as are the barrels and the vineyard manager, almost everything else is different, especially the climate and the soil. If terroir matters, the wines should not be same. And the market is different, too, which makes a difference.

How do other Oregon winemakers view DDO? On one hand, I think that DDO’s investment here has given Oregon Pinot Noir credibility that would otherwise be difficult to achieve and so it has benefited the entire industry here. I think that some of the pioneer winemakers probably worked pretty hard to encourage Robert Drouhin make this investment for exactly this reason. On the other hand, of course, DDO is big-bucks, deep pocket competition for the many smaller winemakers in the valley, so you can imagine that there is some envy and even resentment of their success. But this isn’t an attitude unique to wine when it comes to direct foreign investment.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Can Small Winemakers Survive?

Can small winemakers compete in a wine market that is increasingly dominated by large producers and experiencing rapid consolidation? This is one of the questions I was asking in my recent trip to Oregon, where I visited several wineries in the Willamette Valley. Here’s what I found out.

Economies of scale in distribution do matter and so the consolidation trend is real, even in Oregon. The Erath winery, one of Oregon’s real pioneers dating back to 1972, was purchased last year by St. Michelle Wine Estates, the Washington wine giant that produces Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest and that also now owns boutique Spring Valley vineyard in Walla Walla.

On the other hand, Oregon is still benefiting from the Sideways phenomenon, which has created a surge in demand for Pinot Noir, its signature wine. Some small high quality pinot-noir specialists sell out through their wine clubs or at the cellar door and are thus immune, for the time being, from distribution woes. The Pinot fad, if that's what it is, benefits Oregon wineries and has allowed them to expand production and raise price at the same time that other winemaking areas have been in retreat. I saw many new blocks being planted in Oregon to take advantage of high demand and rising prices. It will be interesting to see what happens in a few years, when all of these vineyards begin producing. Will demand remain high? Will the supply be too great? All bets are off for small winemakers (at least those without very deep pockets – and there are some of these in Oregon) if a Pinot glut should appear.

How can small wineries compete? Wine cooperatives are one solution, although not necessarily a good one. Wine cooperatives are big business in Europe, especially France and Italy. A number of smaller vineyard owners jointly own a winemaking facility, delivering their grapes to be blended together. I have tasted some wonderful cooperative-made wine in Alto-Adige (Northern Italy), but I think this was the exception. Cooperative wines are suspect because the members are paid on the quantity of grapes they deliver to the winery rather than the quality of fruit they produce. No one has an incentive to sacrifice quantity to improve quality and the resulting wines can be hard to drink and harder to sell. They form much of the “wine lake” that the European Union is trying to eliminate.

In economic terms, the idea of sharing expensive fixed-cost facilities is sound, but the cooperative institutional structure is problematic. The Carlton Winemakers Studio (CWS) in Carlton, Oregon (in the new Yamhill-Carlton District AVA) is an attempt to get the benefits of cooperation without the negative incentive effects. I visited CWS recently and met with Jeff Lumpkin, the general manager, who is pictured here.

CWS is a 20,000 case facility that provides services to 11 individual tenant wineries (including Lazy River, Jeff’s own label). The costs of the expensive structures and equipment are shared, but each winemaker is independent and has complete control of wine production, so each has an incentive to make excellent wine. Quality rules. You can taste all of the wines in CWS’s attractive tasting room.

We were fortunate to be able to attend a wine dinner at CWS to celebrate the release of the new J.Daan Syrah (made with Columbia Valley grapes). It is a good example of what is possible at CWS. Winemaker Justin Van Zanten (pictured here with his wife Megan) makes about 600 cases of J.Daan a year at CWS, mostly Pinot Noir. His “day job” is assistant winemaker for Andrew Rich, which is also a CWS tenant. The CWS facility has helped him get a foothold in the industry and to gain some attention for his wines (Wine Advocate rated his 2003 Pinot Noir a 90). I bought the 2005 Pinot Noir for $27, a bargain price for Oregon wine of this quality.

The CWS formula clearly has benefits for small winemakers and has been successful, as far as I could tell, in achieving its goals. Jeff Lumpkin was nice enough to guide us through a tasting of a half dozen CWS-client wines and the quality is certainly there.

Is CWS a success story? Yes, I think so. But the future of this facility and the institutional model it represents is still uncertain. For one thing, it seems to be straining and the seams to accommodate the rising production of its client winemakers – will there still be a place for the small winemakers? – and I don’t think anyone knows for sure what the market for Oregon wines will look like in five years. Will bust follow boom?

And then there is the incentive problem. Although a fee-based private property rights operation like CWS avoids the negative incentive structure of the French cooperatives, there is still a natural incentive for winemakers to try to free-ride on services and facilities if they can. With luck, market conditions and private incentives will align themselves so that CWS’s excellent winemakers will continue to prosper.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Seven Questions from Foreign Policy

I'm in Oregon interviewing winemakers this week (watch for a posting about this soon) and I received an email from Kate Palmer of Foreign Policy magazine asking if I would be willing to be interviewed about global wine market conditions for their popular "Seven Questions" series. You can find the interview at Now back to the vineyards ...