Sunday, December 30, 2007

The End of Cheap Wine?

It is becoming increasingly clear that a golden age of sorts (for American wine drinkers) is coming to an end. Good quality wine has been amazingly affordable for the last several years and New World wine consumption has risen as a result.

This is changing (or has already changed, as Jancis Robinson writes in Saturday's Financial Times) and a quick look at the economics of the wine market explains how and why.

The demand for wine in the United States has increased for a number of reasons. Studies that show that moderate consumption of wine (especially red wine) is healthful gave consumers license to experiment with table wines. The existence of Two Buck Chuck (the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe's stores) and other value brands made this experimentation affordable.

The increasing emphasis on wine brands helped demand grow by making the wine purchase itself somewhat less mysterious. The wine aisle is the most complex choice space in any grocery store -- there are more options at more price points than anywhere else. Brands reduce uncertainty and so encourage consumption. The enormous success of [Yellow Tail] brand wine from Australia is testament to this fact. Costco, the nation's largest wine retailer, has used limited selection and its Kirkland Signature own-brand wine to achieve spectacular results.

The demand for wine has not just increased it has also evolved as many consumers have moved to higher quality (or higher price,anyway) and developed specialized wine expertise. Wine is more than a beverage, it is a lifestyle for many people who collect wines, take wine tourist vacations and subscribe to wine publications such as
Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate and read the wine columns now found in many newspapers. There is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to wine. Knowing more about wine and having more experience with it increases the pleasure that wine provides and makes further learning more efficient. In economic terms, the specific investment in wine knowledge makes the demand for wine more inelastic -- less sensitive to changes in price since buyers are less likely to switch from wine to other products or beverages where they have less expertise.

The supply of wine has also changed to create higher prices. The falling U.S. dollar has increased the cost of imported wine, which contributes to rising domestic prices both directly, as those costs are passed along to consumers, and indirectly, as higher import prices allow domestic producers to raise price, too. I don't think that we have seen the full pass-through effect of the exchange rate changes yet, so expect dollar-driven price increases to continue.

But domestic prices would have increased even without the dollar's decline. Wine buyers in recent years benefited from a global surplus of wine grapes that drove down price and pushed up quality. Faced with accumulated surpluses that sometimes amounted to a year or more of sales, winegrowers held back on expansion plans (except for hot varietals like Pinot Noir). Demand has slowly grown into the existing supply and may soon exceed it for some wine types. Falling prices due to surpluses are coming to an end and rising prices seem likely, even in Australia where drought and disease have further reduced production. The new EU wine regime, if it is effective, should further reduce wine surpluses and tighten supply.

When you combine these factors along with a few others, such as growing interest in wine in Asia, the result is a new market environment and it will be interesting to see what happens next. The latest round of wine magazines seem to take higher prices in stride.
The Wine Advocate reports that the cellar door price of California cult wine Screaming Eagle is now $500 per bottle -- if you can get some -- and a long list of wines are listed with prices above $100 or $200. Wine Spectator and the wine columnists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all seem to be struggling to keep a lid on their definition of an inexpensive or good value wine -- a $12 or $15 or even $20 ceiling no longer provides much choice! You can still buy cheap wine, but the good value bargains are disappearing.

It will be interesting to see how the American wine culture, which has been built in part on good quality at low prices, copes with this new world of wine. In the meantime, enjoy those bargains and good values when you find them, but don't count on your good fortune lasting forever.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Draining Europe's Wine Lake

Europe is afloat in a sea of bad wine and the European Union agriculture ministers agreed last week to do something about it. But is it too little and too late?

Marian Fischer Boel, the EU Agriculture Minister, proposed a number of fairly radical reforms in 2006 and these were the basis of the discussion. She wanted an immediate end to distillation subsidies and a vast program to encourage small winegrowers to pull up their vines -- one million acres -- replacing them with other crops or, in some cases, with more marketable grape varieties. Perhaps predictably, the policies agreed last week are much weaker than the original proposals. Distillation subsidies will be phased out over five years and as many as 400,000 acres of vines will be "grubbed up." Four hundred thousand acres seems like a lot, but given the size of the problem is it, as
Wine Spectator reported, just "a good start?"

Current EU policies are as useless as the old wine barrels shown above. At the top end of the market, national and EU policies tend to stifle innovation and prevent effective market adjustment (the counter argument is that they preserve tradition and prevent destructive commercialization). I have read any number of stories about high end European winemakers who have expanded abroad in part to escape regulations on what they can produce, where, and how they can market it.

In the mid-market, where current attention is focused, EU and national regulations seem to prevent winemakers from achieving the transparency that an increasing global market requires. It is hard enough to know what's in a bottle of wine without the complicated rules that government European wine labeling. French wines are typically "branded" by place of origin, not grape varietal, for example. Buyers who are not confident about their French geographical knowledge and the relationship between place, grape variety and wine style, are likely to choose New World wines with more easily understood characteristics. Australian wines sell well in France partly for this reason.

At the low end of the market, EU policies designed to support farm incomes have produced the famous "wine lake." Each year the EU spends about $2 billion to buy up unsold wines and turn them into industrial alcohol. This vast reliable market for poor quality wine keeps thousands of small scale producers in business. The distillation subsidy insulates low-end producers from market forces with the result that the vineyards remain uneconomically small, the practices favor quantity over quality, and the wine, while it may reflect local tradition, finds few buyers in the marketplace. Cheap New World wine is preferred to bad Old World plonk.

The new EU policies are designed to drain the wine lake by making the wine sector more responsive to market forces. Label laws and regulations will be reformed so that European wines can be sold by regional and grape varietal just like New World wines. The distillation subsidy will be phased out over four years, with some of the subsidy funds returned to regional groups to be used in wine marketing and promotion efforts. And up to 400,000 acres of vineyards will be included in the new "vine-pull scheme." New plantings will be allowed over time, but they will be market-driven not subsidy-driven.

The top end of the market is unlikely to be affected very much by these policies, since by definition they already have established brands and distribution channels. New label laws and subsidy reductions will have few direct effects on these producers, although they may be able to gain indirectly as vineyard consolidation takes place and Australian-style brands grow in importance. I predict that the most visible early effect of the new rules will be expansion of European brands both at home and in export markets.

The clear gainers are the mid-market producers -- the wines that sell for about $12. There is great potential profit in this part of the market, which is expanding rapidly in the New World. Freed from the constraints of tradition, European winemakers should be able to compete in this market quite well. It is, however, a hotly contested market segment. European producers will need to use their new freedom well to succeed and those who choose not to adjust may suffer as the European market realigns itself.

The real problem is at the bottom of the market. Losing the distillation subsidies will hurt many producers and I don't know how enough about the cost-benefit of the vine-pulling schemes to comment. Pulling 400,000 acres out of wine production should help stabilize the market by reducing the annual surplus, but I don't know if it is enough and I don't know if the incentives provided are strong enough.

Four hundred thousand acres -- how big is that? Huge if you are thinking New World -- Australia had just 388,000 acres of vineyards altogether in 2003 according to my
Oxford Companion. But tiny if you think Old World -- and of course this is an Old World problem. Italy and France had more than 2 million acres of vines each in 2003 and France had nearly 3 million more. (The Languedoc region in the south of France has 528,000 acres by itself.) Taking 400,000 acres out of production in Europe is like removing Moldova and Switzerland from the market. The effect on the regions where the vines are grubbed up will be large, but the impact on the global market is likely to be quite small -- reducing the global surplus, but not eliminating it. I don't know if it will be enough.

Will it work? Much of the discussion that I have read focuses on the size of the vine-pull scheme -- 400,000 acres versus the million acres that Marian Fischer Boel proposed two years ago. Although I think the size of the grubbing up program is important, I believe that the market-driven reforms and the elimination of distillation subsidies are more important. The 1988 vine-pull scheme took over a million acres out of production but, as we see today, didn't eliminate the surplus because of the difficulty of selling the good wines and the incentives to keep make bad ones.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Wine Research Gap?

If there's one thing that I have learned about wine markets it is that they are dynamic. Although there is much about wine that is classic and timeless, there is a lot of change, too, and winemakers and growers need to take account. Global wine markets are changing, the social function of wine is changing and the natural environment of winegrowing is changing, too.

How do you cope with a rapidly changing market environment? Innovation is one answer and that requires research. Is the U.S. wine industry doing enough to keep up with foreign wine producers in basic wine research? That's the cover story in the December issue of Wines & Vines magazine and their answer is No.

Wines &Vines is a wine industry trade journal; whereas Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate are aimed at consumers, collectors and enthusiasts, W&V's audience are industry insiders. It's a very good publication -- I rely on it for information about emerging trends in the industry. If you are seriously interested in wine you ought to take a look at it.

The cover story argues that there is relatively little public research on wine industry problems in the United States. "Public" research is research that is available to all winemakers and growers and is different from proprietary research that individual winemakers undertake for their own use. Australia, with a wine industry about half the size of the U.S., spends about $23 million for public research, with funds raised from levies on winemakers and growers matched by government funds. By comparison,
W&V reports about $2 million for public wine research in the U.S. (although total research levels are much higher when private R&D expenditures are included). The argument is that increased funding for applied research would strengthen the U.S. industry in an increasingly competitive global market.

What would increased research funding buy? I think I got a taste of what research can do in an electronic newsletter I received recently from the Australian Wine and Brandy Commission. The AWBC (a.k.a. Wine Australia) is the Australian government agency that was created in 1981 to support the wine industry. One of their current research projects involves the problem of rising alcohol levels in wine.

Everyone knows that alcohol levels have been going up for some years. Climate change is part of the problem -- warmer climate and longer growing seasons increases sugar levels and therefore alcohol levels. This is beneficial to wine quality up to a point, but beyond that point there are real problems both with wine balance and with consumer attitudes towards alcohol. How do you bring alcohol levels down without bringing quality levels down, too? Premature harvesting means less sugar and alcohol, but less character. De-alcoholization (usually through a reverse osmosis process -- did I get that right David?) is common in California and elsewhere but there are quality trade-offs here as well.

The AWBC reports that their alcohol reduction research is focusing on the yeasts -- trying to find yeast strains that will make wine with lower alcohol levels without sacrificing balance and character. They even mention the three little letters that I think everyone in the wine business is afraid of -- GMO. No genetically modified yeast varieties have been used in Australia (and are unlikely to be used there ever, thay say), but research into yeasts and even GMO yeasts is an example of the sort of public research that could have wide-ranging benefits for the wine industry. The Australians are out in front on this sort of research,
Wines & Vines suggests and it may be so. I know that I rely almost exclusively upon AWBC economic research on global wine market patterns.

The November issue of
W&V has an article on dry farming of vineyards that reminds me that innovation and research can take many forms. Once upon a time most quality vineyards were dry farmed (farmed without artificial irrigation), but as irrigation technology improved the focus turned to scientific irrigation practices. I guess the idea is that because technology allows a winegrower to carefully control water availability then this must be the right thing to do. The people who make Mollydooker, the big-boned Australian wines with the huge Parker numbers, attribute their success to the trade-marked Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme, for example.

But John Williams, whose Frog's Leap wines are also recognized for quality, has taken a different approach, going back to dry farming. He manages the vineyard soil (see photo above) so that it retains moisture effectively and encourages the sort of deep vine growth that gives character to the finished product. The W&V article explains ...

Williams pointed out that a vine grown on drip irrigation is essentially a potted plant sitting in the middle of a field, with moisture and nutrients delivered through the drip system. He believes that is a problem. "What kind of flavor do you get from a hydroponic-grown tomato? Very little. Same thing with a grapevine. When the winemaker comes out to taste the berry at 22° or 23° Brix, the flavor isn't there. So the decision is made to leave it on the vine a little longer, more hang time until it reaches physiological ripeness at 26° or 27° or even 28° Brix. You still aren't getting a lot of flavor, so you have to start manipulating the wine--micro-oxygenation and lots of oak--to try and get it to taste mature. And you end up with high-alcohol wines."

He added, "If we talk about when wine went from its historic place as a mealtime beverage that deeply reflects the soil and climate from whence it comes to killer, jammy monsters that advertise that they will 'melt your panties,' I think you will come to the same conclusion that we did 18 years ago: that the real wines are made by deeply connecting them to their soils and that dry farming is fundamental to that."
John Williams' statements suggests that dry farming, where it is practical, might solve the alcohol problem and yield other benefits at the same time. This suggests to me that, while research tends to focus on winemaking as a science (hence the search for high tech solutions), we need to remember that wine is made in the vineyard and the craft of winegrowing can yield answers, too.

Innovation -- doing new things -- is one answer to rapid change, but doing the old things more effectively sometimes works even better. Kinda makes you rethink the question of a wine research gap.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Message in a Bottle? The 2007 Wine Star Awards

Wine Enthusiast has announced the winners of their 2007 Wine Star Awards and I find the selections pretty interesting. Usually wine magazine awards go to famous winemakers like Robert Mondavi or Paul Draper the "philosopher/winemaker" at Ridge. But Wine Enthusiast positions itself as more of an industry publication than an enthusiast mag, so these awards are a bit different -- they honor exceptional achievement in an increasingly complex global wine market and send a message to those who pay attention about how the global market is evolving.

The top award -- Man of the Year (yes, they really call it
man of the year) -- goes to Ray Chadwick, who is not a household name unless your house is pretty deeply involved in the wine business. Chadwick has an MBA from the University of Chicago instead of a oenology degree from Davis. He runs the Chateau & Estate group of Diageo, one of the world's largest drinks companies. His achievement was to build a successful global brand portfolio of premium wines. The citation for the award says in part

Chadwick has overseen tremendous growth at DC&E, launching new brands from California, Australia, New Zealand and France, growing its wine portfolio from three brands to 21, and focusing on premium wines. DC&E’s strong California portfolio includes Beaulieu Vineyard, Sterling Vineyards, Acacia and Chalone. In the last year, it launched Newharbor (NZ), B&G Bistro (France), Beauzeaux (CA) and A by Acacia (CA). Under Ray’s leadership, DC&E began fiscal 2007 as the No. 4 premium wine company in the United States (8.7% market share), and finished the year at No. 3, with a 9% market share. With sales of 5 million cases a year, at a retail value of $1 billion, DC&E is one of the 10 biggest U.S. wine companies. But beyond the astonishing numbers, Chadwick has helped build an engaged and dedicated team. As an insightful strategist and superb administrator, he has repeatedly met and mastered an enormous challenge: to bring together different corporate cultures, successfully merging Diageo, Seagram’s, and finally Chalone, providing a collaborative and winning environment.
This says a lot about what the wine industry in the U.S. and the world. First, the award stresses the importance of marketing and distribution in today's market environment. Second, although the trend towards consolidation continues, the premium wine segment is still pretty open -- the third largest firm has just 9% of market share. Third, it stresses that fact that having a diversified international portfolio of premium wines is of growing importance. Retailers like to deal with a small number of suppliers, so successful distributors must have products that will fill a lot of different spots on the wine rack. And finally, the stress on team building reminds us that this is still a people business. Personal relationships and trust are necessary in a business where you don't always know what's in the bottle you are selling.

Several of the other awards also make interesting statements about the wine business today. The Importer of the Year is Gallo, which we all think of as company deeply rooted in California's Central Valley (and now Sonoma, too, of course). But wine is a global business and so Gallo has become global, too. The citation explains

The importing side of the business began in 1997 with Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio from Italy, a company which Gallo started from scratch. It was one of Ernest Gallo’s ideas, and a fairly radical one, considering the company’s exclusive focus up to that point on California wines. The company currently imports 15 brands from 11 wineries in nine countries: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Of these, seven were created, while the other eight represent partnerships.
Gallo is a master of brand management. Gallo's emphasis on expanding its imports (and exports, too, although that's another topic) underlines the point that a diversified portfolio of international brands is the dominant competitive strategy today.

But global markets don't necessary spell the end of regional family wine firms. They can survive and even thrive, but they have to evolve along with the market. Two other Wine Star awards recognize achievements in this vein.

DFV Wines (Delicato Family Vineyards) was named the American Winery of the Year for its successful portfolio of California brands. The citation reads
DFV Wines is a family-owned winery committed to its 80-plus-year wine heritage in California. Three generations of the Indelicato family have overseen vineyard operations and winemaking, and produce a portfolio of wine brands from their various properties. Originally a top quality supplier of grapes and bulk wine, in the 1990s they moved into bottled varietals; they currently offer 9 different brands, which appeal to a wide range of consumers. In the late 1980s, the family purchased the 12,000-acre San Bernabé Vineyard in Monterey, and in the 1990s they added Clay Station vineyard in Lodi, and North Coast vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. The Indelicato family has earned a reputation for maintaining the highest standards in farming, with an unwavering dedication to environmentally sensitive winegrowing practices and economically sustainable business practices. Individual wines that have gained recognition in recent years include Gnarly Head Zinfandel, Clay Station Viognier, Irony Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, 337 Cabernet Sauvignon and Delicato Shiraz. DFV Wines answers consumer demand for great tasting, mindfully grown, intelligently vinified wines for every occasion
The New World Winery of the Year is one of my personal favorites, Villa Maria. The citation reads
Villa Maria is one of New Zealand's leading wineries. It was founded in 1961 by its current owner and Managing Director, George Fistonich, and is 100-percent New Zealand—and family—owned. The company’s primary focus is on the vineyards themselves,to produce the highest possible grape quality, while respecting the importance of regional differences. Astute site selection is followed by superior vineyard management and then complemented by expert winemaking. Villa Maria is also known for its innovations in its native country: a tiered system of payment for grape growers based on the fruit quality and the creation of reserve and single-vineyard wines. Under Fistonich’s leadership, Villa Maria also became the first major wine company in the world to declare its wineries “cork free,” opting for screw cap closures on all of its wines. Through his ceaseless pursuit of quality, Fistonich and Villa Maria have made outstanding contributions not only to New Zealand wines, but also to the wine world in general.
Villa Maria shows that it is possible for a family-owned winery in what must still be considered an "emerging" wine region to achieve international success without a huge brand portfolio or multinational money -- through a stubborn and consistent commitment to quality. Villa Maria's success comes from a combination of good old-fashioned winegrowing (a strong focus on grapes, vineyards and growers) and an openness to innovations like the screw cap.

Congratulations to all the winners of the 2007 Wine Star Awards. And thanks to
Wine Enthusiast for using these awards to highlight important characteristics of the contemporary wine market.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The California Bill and the Birth of Washington State Wine

I am spending this cold, wet day re-reading parts of Paul Gregutt's great new book Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (University of California Press) and his chapter on the history of Washington wine got me to thinking about the origins of the industry. Is it possible to point to any one person or event that is responsible for the birth of Washington wine?

There are several possible choices. Some would say that it happened in 1937 when Washington State University horticulturalist Dr. Walter Clore, the godfather of Washington wine, began working in his research center north of Prosser. Dr. Clore and his team are responsible for many of the advances in Washington viticulture that we take for granted today. Without Clore and his colleagues, Washington winegrowers might still be planting Muller-Thurgau and Concord grapes.

Others might argue that Washington wine was born in 1967 when Andre Tchelistcheff, the famous winemaker from California's Beaulieu Vineyards, came to Washington and praised a Gewurztraminer made by Phil Church, a partner in Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery). Tchelistcheff's endorsement lent credibility to Washington wine and his encouragement helped propel the industry forward. (Tchelistcheff even encouraged his nephew Alex Golitizin to make wine in Washington -- the result is Quilceda Creek Vintners, the maker of Washington's first 100-point cabernet sauvignon.)

A third important event occurred in 1976, when the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery opened at the former Hollywood Farms location in Woodinville. The $6 million winery and headquarters complex was the largest single investment in the industry to that time and it represented a great gamble by Ste. Michelle's corporate parent, the United States Tobacco Company (the makers and Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco). CSM, which was created through a merger of pioneer wineries Pomerelle and NAWICO before being purchased by US Tobacco, is now the Colossus of Washington wine, accounting for about 70 percent of all wine production in the state.

My choice for the key event in Washington wine history, however, didn't happen in the vineyards with Dr. Clore or the tasting room with Mr. Tchelistcheff or at the grand opening of the Woodinville winery. From an economist's viewpoint, the critical act (and it really was an Act) took place in March 1969. That's when the Washington legislature passed House Bill 100, the California Wine Bill. The California Wine Bill exposed the Washington wine industry to competition from both domestic (California) and international competition and forced winemakers to improve quality or disappear.

Here's the back story. Many wineries opened or reopened in Washington when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Almost the first thing that they did was to seek protection from the state legislature from out-of-state competition. This protection was provided almost immediately in the form of the Steele Act of 1935, which set up a dual distribution system for wines. "Domestic" Washington wineries could sell directly to wholesalers, but "foreign" out-of-state wines (including wines from California) has to be distributed through the more rigid channels of the state liquor monopoly, the Washington State Liquor Board. The result was that "domestic" wines were relatively easy to purchase and widely available, but "foreign wines" including California products could only be purchased through state stores with their limited hours and strict controls. Later legislation provided for minimum prices in order to prevent competition from cheaper California wines.

The result of this protective legislation was exactly what you'd expect. With no competition to keep winemakers honest, quality suffered. The industry focused on the low end of the market, making large quantities of cheap, sweet, fortified wines like this NAWICO port. There was little incentive for winegrowers to seek quality (although some did) because good grapes and poor ones were all blended together. Although Dr. Clore was busy developing quality wine grapes in Prosser, Washington's most important grape crop for many years was the Concord grape that went into Welch's juice and Gallo's sweet sparkling Cold Duck.

Rather than thriving behind its protective wall, the Washington wine industry collapsed. There were only eight wineries in Washington in 1969 (down from 42 in 1937) and, with a few exceptions such as Associated Vintners, their wine was mediocre at best.

The paradox that protecting a wine industry actually destroys it is not unique to Washington. I have seen it time and again in my research, in New Zealand, Argentina and in France under the EU's old wine regime. The only thing that can protect a wine industry is competition, which forces winemakers to become more efficient and to raise quality.

With nothing to keep cheaper California wines out, Washington winemakers had no choice but to look upmarket. A quality wine industry emerged and has thrived -- there are now more than 500 wineries in Washington state and new ones appear every month. Washington is unusual in the wine world in that it has developed a major wine industry that is
not built upon a base of inexpensive bulk wine. Only New Zealand (which cannot compete with Australia at the bottom end of the market) and Washington can claim to have pure premium wine industries.

You can thank competition -- and the California Wine Bill of 1969 -- for Washington's status as an important producer of premium wine.