Category:Wine trends

Land, Kendall Jackson, land: The biggest factor in California wine prices

California wine prices

Jackson Family Estates doesn’t want to make $10 wine, but there it is.

Real estate, not foreign tariffs, determines California wine prices

Consider two wines: Both white Rhone-style blends, both from respected wineries, both speaking to varietal character and terroir, both well-made and enjoyable. One costs $24; the other costs $12. So what’s the difference?

Vineyard land prices in California. The $24 wine is Eberle’s Cotes de Robles Blanc from Paso Robles, where land goes for $30,000 to $35,000 an acre. The $12 wine is McPherson’s Les Copains White from Texas’ High Plains, where land goes for less than $5,000 an acre. Otherwise, save for a fancier screwcap on the Eberle, the wines are the same – mostly the same grapes, the same style, and the same flavors (some lime and stone fruit, very clean and crisp).

We’ve spent a lot of time on the blog over the past couple of weeks discussing the Jackson Family Estates proposal to raise a tariff wall to keep cheap imports out of the U.S. What we haven’t discussed is the role that the cost of California land plays in all of this.

More than anything, that’s why California wine prices are as high as they are. The land – even in the less famous regions like Paso Robles – can be some of the most expensive in the world. Equally as important, a lot of vineyard land in Europe — even quality land — was paid for decades ago, so the price of a bottle may not include the cost of the loan to buy the land. In some parts of California, the cost of the mortgage is the difference between a $50 and $60 bottle of wine.

And the more demand for California wine that there is, the more money people will pay for California vineyards. And higher land prices in California mean more expensive grapes and more expensive grapes mean more expensive wine. It’s that simple.

That’s because all else is mostly equal: The cost of labor, the cost of the bottle, the cost of shipping, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Texas, California, or France. In fact, California might have a slight edge in some production costs, since it’s the center of the U.S. wine business. So, in the end, the price of the land in determines California wine prices.

Jackson Family, like other big California producers, likes high land prices. High prices make the company more valuable. So when it says it can’t afford to make $10 wine, it’s being honest – but it’s also crying crocodile tears. It has decided premiumization is the future of wine, and it doesn’t want to make $10 wine. Smaller producers, faced with the same land price constraints, aren’t nearly as sanguine. Many have told me they see their wines being squeezed out of the market by companies like Jackson Family, who can work on smaller profit margins on an $18 bottle and undercut the smaller producers.

The irony? There’s plenty of cheap land in California to make $10 wine, which is where Barefoot, Two-buck Chuck, and much of the state’s cheap wine comes from. It’s in the Central Valley, where a ton of grapes can cost as little as $300, one-sixteenth of the price in Napa. And, in another irony, premiumization has made this land even cheaper – so cheap, in fact, that some farmers are replacing grape vines with almonds, which offer higher profits.

In other words, Jackson Family Estates could do what E&J Gallo (Barefoot), The Wine Group (Franzia), and Bronco (Two-buck Chuck) do – use Central Valley grapes to make $10 wine. But it’s easier to ask for a tariff wall and punish U.S. wine drinkers. Which should demonstrate exactly where Jackson’s interests lie, and it’s not with the wine drinkers.

Rose celebration 2019 begins on Tuesday

rose celebration 2019Win four Luminarc wine glasses during the blog’s rose celebration 2019

The blog’s 12th annual rose extravaganza begins on Tuesday — rose celebration 2019. This is the third consecutive year we’ll devote most of the week to celebrate rose, perhaps the last bastion of great cheap wine.

Plus, of course, a giveaway — four Luminarc wine glasses on Thursday when I list the the best roses available this season. Plus, two more days of rose reviews, as well as rose news on Tuesday.

Follow-up: The foolishness of taxing European wine

taxing european wine

“Who needs this stuff? Let’s buy more expensive California wine, because that’s what the Americans say we should do.”

Taxing European wine, and the economic fallacy behind the Jackson Family Wines proposal

Know two things about the proposal by the man who runs Jackson Family Wines to put up a tariff wall to keep cheap European imports out of the U.S.:

First, Barbara Banke, the chairwoman of Jackson Family Wines, told Wine Business Monthly in February: The wine business “seems tougher this year and it probably will be tougher next year. It doesn’t seem like it’s as easy as it was.”

Second, the suggested retail price for the company’s flagship product, Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, is about $17. But you can find it for $10 or $12 without too much trouble, which no doubt causes much consternation at company headquarters.

Is a pattern emerging here?

The Jackson Family proposal for taxing European wine has nothing to do with free trade, the so-called “level playing field,” or any other political rhetoric. It has to do with profit – Jackson doesn’t want to sell $10 wine, so it doesn’t want anyone else to sell it, either.

Which I completely understand. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. So why hide the company’s true intentions behind complaints about unfair trade? Because who would agree to tax $10 European wine to protect one company’s profits? Hardly anyone who doesn’t work for that company.

Which brings us to the Wine Curmudgeon’s wine supply and demand primer. California’s role in the world wine market is important certainly, accounting for about 280 million cases a year. But it’s not as important as Californians like to think.  The French, Spanish, and Italians combine for almost 1.8 billion cases a year, while the total production of Chile plus Argentina is some 11 percent higher than California’s.

So what makes anyone think that the so-called “level playing field” would change anything? The rest of the world already has plenty of wine of equal quality and that will probably still cost less, even without the offending tariffs and subsidies. Why would a European buy €15 or €20 California wine (assuming anyone in California could sell it for that little, given California’s pricing structure) when they could still buy €8 or €10 European wine in the supermarket?

And this assumes that California can somehow produce enough wine to export. Which, as I mentioned in the first post, it doesn’t. We drink almost all the wine made in the U.S. in the U.S., and that doesn’t look to change anytime soon. They’re pulling out vines in California, not planting new ones to sell cabernet sauvignon to France and sauvignon blanc to Chile.

So there may not be much demand in the rest of the world for California wine, even if there was enough supply to export it, tariffs or no. The Jackson Family proposal ignores those basics, because it doesn’t help their argument.

Fortunately for those of us who care about wine and not wine company profits, I’m here to make sure those basics aren’t ignored.

Photo of “IMAG0970”by thirstforwine is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Top U.S. wine executive: Let’s make wine so expensive no one will be able to afford it

tax wine

“Buy California wine — or else!”

No, that’s not a Wine Curmudgeon joke – it’s a proposal by the man whose company makes Kendall Jackson chardonnay

No, this isn’t a Wine Curmudgeon April Fool’s post. It’s as true as it is unbelievable: A top U.S. wine executive wants to tax wine so that most of us can’t afford to buy it.

Rick Tigner, the CEO of Jackson Family Wines (home to  the legendary Kendall Jackson chardonnay), told a wine industry meeting last week that California can no longer afford to produce cheap wine. Hence, the federal government should tax wine imports because “we need a better, higher pricing structure.” In other words, $10 European, Australian, New Zealand, and South American wine should cost as much as California wine — because, of course, California wine.

Yes, that was my reaction, too. Wine consumption is flat and young people don’t seem particularly interested in it. So the man who runs one of the most important wine companies in the country wants to make wine even more expensive? That makes tremendous economic sense, doesn’t it? Let’s price wine out of the reach of most consumers, and our business will be even more successful.

The story was so incredulous that I almost called the reporter who wrote it to ask him if something had happened during Tigner’s speech. Was Tigner struck by a bolt of lighting? Was there an invasion of body snatchers? Does he have one of those evil soap opera twins?

I wasn’t the only one who was dumbfounded. A European wine analyst told me she was surprised a leading wine company official would say something like that. A Napa wine marketer said it was just one more example of California arrogance — because, of course, California.

Tigner overlooked two things (besides the most basic laws of supply and demand):

First, 95 percent of U.S. consumers won’t pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine – perhaps my favorite wine statistic, courtesy of the Wine Market Council. So who is going to buy all the expensive wine that tariffs will give us?

Second, Tigner can complain that other countries tax California wine unfairly as much as he wants, but that’s irrelevant. U.S. wine exports measured by cases (mostly from California) are insignificant – barely more than 10 percent of what we produce each year. That’s because we drink almost all the wine made here, so there isn’t much left to sell to the French (assuming they would want it). In fact, U.S. wine exports are so trivial that two of our biggest markets are Nigeria and the Dominican Republic, countries not usually associated with wine culture.

So, no, taxing my $10 Gascon white blends, Spanish cava, and Italian red blends won’t save the California wine industry from itself. The only ones who can do that are part of the California wine industry, which tells us everything we need to know about how that will turn out.

Cheap wine fans rejoice: Domaine Tariquet returns to the U.S.

domaine tariquet

Who cares about the missing “du?” We’re just glad the Domaine Tariquet is back.

Top importer Wildman picks up Domaine Tariquet, and it should be available in most of the country

Our too long cheap wine nightmare is over: Domaine Tariquet, one of the best cheap wine producers ever, has a new U.S. importer and its products could be on store shelves by late spring or early summer. Even better, the importer, Frederick Wildman & Sons, is big enough so that it works with the largest distributors in the country. Hence, the wines should be available almost everywhere in the U.S.

Tariquet, located in Gascony in France, disappeared last July, when its then importer dropped the brand. No one was talking about what happened, even off the record, but the result was that we’ve gone without the label’s flagship Tariquet Classic for almost a year – a painful loss at any time, but especially painful in these days of overpriced and underperforming cheap wine.

The Tariquet Classic, a white blend made with ugni blanc and colombard, is everything great cheap wine should be – fresh, fruity, dry, crisp, and low in alcohol. Its success here paved the way for a host of Gascon wines to shine in the U.S. The Classic, plus four other Tariquet wines (including a very nice rose) is in the Wildman warehouse in New York and listed on the Wildman website. Wildman’s John Little said orders are already coming in from across the country.

Even better news: There won’t be a price increase, which had been talked about last summer if and when the wine returned. That means the Classic should still cost $10 to $12.

Finally, the Grassa family, which owns Tariquet, shortened the brand’s name. This version is Domaine Tariquet; it was Domaine du Tariquet under the previous importer.

Is “pay to play” wrecking wine criticism?

pay to play

Teeter: Pay to play is the scourge of beverage journalism.

VinePair podcast says wine criticism, as well as beer and spirits, needs more transparency and fewer free trips

We need more transparency among wine writers and wine critics – and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“It’s something we’ve always been talking about, among the staff,” says Adam Teeter, the co-founder of the on-line wine, beer, and spirits magazine VinePair. “And we thought it was time to start talking about it again.”

Hence a recent VinePair podcast discussing what Teeter calls “pay to play journalism,” where wine, beer, and spirits and writers take samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else – and then write exactly what will make the producer happy. Because they want to keep getting the free samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else.

“We call it book report journalism,” says Teeter, who also teaches at Columbia University’s prestigious journalism school. “It’s like when you wrote a book report as a kid, and you just rewrote what was in the book. The writers just rewrite what they’re told on the trip.”

I called Teeter to talk about this because transparency has always been a problem in the wine writing business. Yes, there has been progress, like most sites and reviewers acknowledging when they’re reviewing samples. That’s something that didn’t happen when I started the blog. But as technology has evolved, so has marketing, and the problem may be worse than ever. On one of the last trips I took, I was told what I could write – something no one had ever done before (and which I ignored). But many others are happy to write what they’re told, and that’s probably why I don’t get invited on trips any more.

As Teeter noted on the VinePair site: “Well, there’s a scourge in the beverage journalism world, and it’s called ‘pay to play.’ Whether it’s brands getting guaranteed coverage or even inflated scores by taking wine critics on elaborate trips, or just a spot on someone’s [Instagram] story through sending them some sample bottles, it’s an ugly side to this industry that rarely gets talked about.”

So the podcast talks about it, in detail. “The amount of free stuff out there is insane,” Teeter told me, and he used the word insane three times during our brief conversation to describe a world where producers see an Instagram post as marketing nirvana. It costs nothing, save for the sample, and it makes the person posting the Instagram feel like a big deal. In other words, it’s infinitely more brand friendly than dealing with a cranky ex-newspaperman like me.

The good news for wine drinkers is that beer, which has almost no history of criticism, is probably the worst for pay to play. We may harp on the biases of the Wine Magazines, but it’s not like beer, where a beer company subsidiary owns a leading beer ratings website.

So the next time you see a surprisingly favorable wine review, don’t be surprised – it may have been pay to play.

Photo courtesy of VinePair, using a Creative Commons license

Amazon Wine 3.0: Is the on-line retail giant getting back in the wine business?

Has Amazon figured out how to make wine work after two e-commerce flops?

Amazon has twice given up selling wine over the past decade, perhaps the two most notable flops in the e-commerce giant’s history. But it looks like the company may be getting ready to try again – call it Amazon wine 3.0.

The evidence comes from two places: First, a Washington, D.C.-area job posting for a “manager of alcohol public policy” – someone to “create, execute, and manage key public policy issues related to alcohol procurement and sales.” In other words, someone to navigate the three-tier system for the company, which it wouldn’t need unless it was getting ready to launch a major booze initiative. (A tip o’ the WC’s fedora to blog reader Tony Caffrey, who spotted the ad.)

Second, rumblings in the trade press that Amazon might buy or lease abandoned Kmart and Sears locations (and even Pier 1?) to open more Whole Foods; to set up some sort of warehouse/retail operation; to build more Amazon Go pop-up stores; or for something that no one but Amazon knows yet.

Amazon didn’t respond to an email request for an interview. But I talked to several supermarket analysts, and they agreed something may well be going on.

“Amazon doesn’t really get all that wrapped up in failure,” says Bill Bishop, the co-flounder of the well-respected Bricks Meets Clicks consultancy in Chicago. “It’s very much a learning organization. Wine in particular, and alcohol in general, is very attractive for an organization like Amazon.”

What makes Amazon think this effort will succeed when the first two failed? In 2009, it killed a test project called AmazonWine, in which it would have sold wine just like it sells books, computers, and garden hose, because the company couldn’t make it work given the complications of U.S. liquor laws. In 2017, it closed AmazonWine 2.0, in which it didn’t sell wine but sent buyers to winery websites to make the purchases – again, because of the complications of U.S. liquor laws.

It does sell wine on-line through Whole Foods, but the orders must be made using your local store’s website and you’re limited to the inventory at that store. Plus, you have to deal with a third-party delivery service and a potential delivery fee. Which is hardly the same as Amazon’s seemingly unlimited inventory and free Prime shipping.

The sense from the analysts is that the company figured out how to work within the three-tier system for what it’s going to try next, in much the same way that alcohol delivery apps like Drizly and Internet retailer Wine.com have figured it out. But don’t expect delivery, although that’s possible, as much as a variation on the current Whole Foods setup.

Amazon Wine 3.0

One possibility:

• You order wine from the Amazon website, which sends the order to a company distribution center in your state in one of those empty Sears stores. In this case, your choice could well be every wine available from your state’s distributors, based on the Drizly model.

• The Amazon retail/warehouse in the old Sears would have a standing inventory of the most commonly ordered wines, while special wines could be shipped from the distributor to the warehouse.

• You pick your order up at the old Sears store, in much the same way you can drop off Amazon returns at some Whole Foods stores.

The advantages here are obvious: Amazon has the booze supply chain infrastructure in each state where it operates Whole Foods, plus the leverage of existing Whole Foods liquor licenses. And, since you pay for the wine on the Amazon website, there’s less legal hassle about underage drinking. All you have to do is show an ID at the old Sears store when you pick up the wine.

In addition, says Bishop, advances in robotics may make it possible to run the retail/warehouse in the old Sears with a minimum of employees, trimming costs and allowing Amazon to undercut traditional wine retailers. Think of R2-D2s scurrying around the building, picking and sorting orders. The only humans needed would be to check IDs.

Will this happen tomorrow? Probably not. Will it happen in exactly this way? If I knew that, I’d be living in Burgundy. But I talked to some very smart people, and their consensus was that something like this makes sense, and it especially makes sense given Amazon’s seeming obsession with wine.