Regular visitors here know that cheap wine outsells expensive wine in the U.S., and that the Winestream Media spends most of its time genuflecting about wine that most of us don’t buy. And when I say most of us, I really, really mean most of us, thanks to these two charts totaling U.S. retail wine sales — expensive and overall — from wine industry trade magazine Wines & Vines. Here are the charts — overall and and expensive.
Several caveats: The charts don’t match on dates; expensive wine covers the 52 weeks ending June 2014, while the other chart is June 2012 to June 2013. This probably helps pricey wine, since its business picked up substantially over the last year. Also, since these are retail-only numbers, expensive wines that focus on restaurants are almost certainly under-counted. Finally, since the number of cases sold for the less expensive wines isn’t on the chart, I used third-party sources in the discussion below where necessary.
Still, the numbers are stunning:
? The best-selling expensive wine (more than $20 a bottle) was Santa Margherita, with 147,925 cases and $36.5 million in sales. The best-selling wine overall was Barefoot, with $323 million and some 11 million cases. How big is that disparity? In grocery stores, it’s the difference between Kroger, a national chain, and Save Mart, a company only people in certain parts of California have heard of.
? The 15th- through 20th-ranked expensive producers all had $4 million or less in annual retail sales. It’s not so much that those totals are two-thirds of what Barefoot sells each week, but that I have a friend who owns a Dallas magazine company whose annual sales are $2 million. You’d think high-end, well-known pricey brands would be doing exponentially better than someone with a one-city media company.
? Menage a Trois, 16th on the overall list, doubled the dollar sales for Santa Margherita, and every producer on the overall list sold at least one-third more than Santa Margherita.
? Only two brands on the overall list, which tracks retail wine sales, cost more than $10 a bottle, and one of them, Kendall-Jackson, was at $12.
Hence anyone who doesn’t believe that only five percent of U.S. wine drinkers buy wine that costs $20 or more hasn’t been paying attention.
What if most cheap wine tasted mostly the same — the reds with sweet fruit and almost no tannins, and the whites a jumble of fruit and sugar, and maybe (or maybe not) a little crispness?
That prospect — terrifying as it is to those of us who care about quality wine we can afford to buy — is not as impossible as it sounds. The quality of too many of the cheap wines I’ve tasted this year, combined with a number of interviews with wine business executives, suggests the possibility of a $10 wine world dominated by just that kind of wine.
In 2013, reports Nielsen, wine priced $10 to $15 more than doubled the sales growth of wine from $6 to $10, and the average price of a bottle increased to $8. Contrast that with sales during the recession, when just the opposite happened. As Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank told me, “I see this as reflective of the economy. There are improving sales conditions compared to last year… [Wineries see] improved opportunity in future years as consumers trade up again. I know the last part won’t make you happy, but the worst segment today is right below $10.”
We’re not there yet, but here are three reasons why we could eventually face a cheap wine crisis:
? Cheap wine production is dominated by the handful of biggest wine companies, whose reason for being all but guarantees that kind of technically correct but simple wine. Just three brands — Barefoot, Two-buck Chuck, and Yellow Tail — account for 8 1/2 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S. each year. Trinchero Family Estates, whose labels include Menage a’ Trois and Sutter Home, has five percent of the U.S market, according to the 2014 Wine Business Monthly top 30 wine companies ranking. How many of us have even heard of Trinchero?
? The biggest companies, thanks to economies of scale and sales volume, can be profitable selling an $8 bottle where smaller companies can’t. Constellation Brands, after all, is a $4.9 billion company. So the smaller producers, who often make the most interesting cheap wine, have to find a more profitable price niche. Increasingly, as McMillan noted, that’s $15 and up.
? Increasing consolidation among distributors. This means fewer and bigger distributors, who prefer to work with the biggest producers. So even if a smaller company can make money with cheap wine, it may not be able to find a distributor to sell its wines to retailers. And, if it can’t find a distributor, it can’t sell its wines through retailers and restaurants because of the restrictions imposed by the three-tier system that governs U.S. wine sales.
Not encouraging news, certainly. But many people were predicting the end of quality $10 wine in 2007, and we know what happened then — the beginning of the golden age of cheap wine.
Image courtesy of The Economist’s More Intelligent Life blog, using a Creative Commons license
Trading up is one of the most basic assumptions in the wine business, fitting hand in glove with the concept of a gateway wine. The idea is that one starts drinking wine with the gateway — something cheap and probably sweet, like white zinfandel — and then moves up in price and quality, eventually buying expensive, highly-rated wine and talking like someone who writes for the Winestream Media. Talk to enough people in the wine business, and they’re convinced — or they let themselves be convinced — that this is the way the world works.
It’s much more difficult, though, to figure out whether this actually happens. More, after the jump: