Tag Archives: wine business

The end of the wine business as we know it?

wine businessThe one consistency about the wine business, as we celebrate the blog’s eighth birthday, is that the big get bigger, and that there isn’t any room for the small. Or, as a distributor friend of mine put it the other day, “It’s all about consolidating or dying in this world of global megacorps.”

Gone are dozens of companies that made wine that I enjoyed — producers that were bought or folded or absorbed by other companies, many of which are also gone. Remember Hogue, which made a quality $10 sauvignon blanc in the 1990s? It was purchased by the Canadian Vincor, which was soon gobbled up by Constellation. That entire process, three complicated financial transactions worth tens of millions of dollars, took place in just five years.

The difference these days is that the big are bigger than ever, and today’s small companies used to be considered big. The 10 biggest wineries in the U.S. account for about 71 percent of all the wine sold, based on figures from 2014 from Wine Business Monthly, and this amalgamation is happening on the distributor side, too, with the 10 biggest wholesalers controlling two-thirds of the market.

Throw in consolidation among retailers, and Big Wine will soon be selling to Big Retail through Big Distributor, and a handful of companies will control what we drink — the prices, the quality, even what it’s supposed to taste like. It will be the end of the wine business as we know it.

In this, there will be two markets for wine, what economists call bifurcation (and which is happening elsewhere in the U.S. economy). In the first, called the mass market, Big Wine will make as many as four out of every five bottles sold in the U.S — competent though often overpriced grocery store plonk with little varietal character and designed to appeal to specific demographics, the way laundry detergent and yogurt are. In other words, “smooth” wine.

In the second, called the luxury market, what’s left of the traditional wine business, both producer and distributor, will sell wine costing more than $20 to people who can afford to buy it, and whose spending will keep the dwindling number of traditional retailers and small distributors in business.

The idea that wine quality has anything to do with price will be as quaint as getting a letter in the mail. Instead, we’ll buy wine because the name speaks to our lifestyle or the label pops or any of the hundreds of other marketing techniques that Big Wine uses. And why not, since merlot will taste like zinfandel which will taste like pinot noir. For $15 at the grocery store, we’ll get fruity red wine with soft tannins and chocolately oak, and the Winestream Media will give these wines 88 points and gush at the value. The wine on the luxury side may remain varietally driven; what’s the point of paying $300 for white Burgundy that tastes like vanilla extract? But since it will be too expensive for all but a few of us, we’ll never know.

Sound too depressing to be true? Just another Wine Curmudgeon rant? Maybe, but there’s evidence it’s already happening in Great Britain: “A two-class wine market is emerging in the UK as some wine drinkers splash out and others are increasingly drawn to hard discounters,” and where the amount of wine sold is decreasing, but its value is increasing. Which, not coincidentally, almost happened in the U.S. this year.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year trying to decide whether to keep writing the blog, given the way things are going. I’ve always been an anachronism, a wine writer who writes about wine for people who don’t know much about it, but these changes threaten to make me as useless as a typewriter. What’s the point of writing about quality cheap wine when there may not be any?

But I’m also stubborn. If all this happens, someone has to remind the wine business that they’re turning what we love into an alcoholic version of soft drinks, and that some of us want more than Mr. Pibb and Dr Pepper. So I’ll hold on for as long as I can, keyboard in hand, rants at the ready, my Gascon whites and my Sicilian reds and my crisp roses nearby, and I’ll keep repeating: “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Comet Lovejoy wine phenomenon

comet lovejoy wine

But how do they get a bottling line up there?

Astronomers were surprised to find that some comets produce alcohol, as well as sugar, as they travel around the solar system. “We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity,” said Nicolas Biver of the Paris Observatory in France.

This is huge news, given that one theory supposes that comets crashing into the the Earth 3.8 billion years brought with them the carbon-based organic molecules, like alcohol and sugar, that may have jump-started life on our planet. Which is all well and good, but comet Lovejoy wine raises equally important questions for those of us who worry about those things:

? Do the comets know about the three-tier system? Lovejoy was producing the equivalent of 150,000 cases an hour, and we all know that the country’s distributors aren’t going to let that happen without them. They’ve paid entirely too much money to state legislators to let a comet ruin things. And I can only imagine the horror if Lovejoy passed anywhere near Pennsylvania, with its state store system.

? Will E&J Gallo, the Big Wine producer that has made hundreds of millions of dollars of acquisitions this year, buy the comet to add to its portfolio? A sweet Lovejoy red, since the comet threw off sugar, would slide in nicely next to Gallo brands like Apothic and Barefoot on grocery store shelves. And how could a back label that said “Comet Lovejoy wine — out of this world” miss?

? Can the Winestream Media adapt its tasting notes to comet-produced wine? Toasty and oaky, given how cold it is in space, just aren’t going to work. Maybe something like “hints of vacuum linger on the finish”? And how do you a score a comet wine? Does it get 92 points just because it’s from a comet? Or do you take points off for that, since outer space is not Napa Valley?

Photo courtesy of Adam Block Photos, using a Creative Commons license

Why Big Wine will keep getting bigger

Big WineThink this year’s wave of Big Wine buyouts was impressive? Just wait. Big Wine is only getting started.

The wine industry is going through unprecedented consolidation, and even I’m surprised — and I’m the one who predicted it. That’s because three things have made this the perfect time for companies like E&J Gallo, Constellation, and The Wine Group to snap up smaller producers the same way a small child attacks Chicken McNuggets. This is a mixed blessing for the consumer, who will get increased access to well-made wine, but at the cost of much of the wine tasting the same regardless of where it’s from and who made it:

? Cheap money. Interest rates are not just at historical lows, but have been there for almost 10 years. That makes the cost of borrowing to buy a winery so low that even those of us who aren’t M&A geniuses understand how much sense it makes. Plus, rumors of an interest rate hike this fall may have spurred this summer’s wave of buying, so that Big Wine could lock in all that cheap money.

? The biggest wine companies are preparing for a world where we buy most of our wine at grocery stores, warehouse stores like Costco, and large chains like Total Wine. This will happen sooner rather than later (if it hasn’t already), and anyone who doesn’t understand how important this is is missing the biggest change in the wine business since the end of Prohibition. Big Wine wants product to fill all those store shelves, and the easiest way to do that is to buy another winery. Could the local wine shop, with someone who waits on you, become as quaint as the corner drug store and gas stations with attendants who clean your windshield?

? The end of the family winery era in California, which started in the 1980s and did much to make California wine some of the best in the world. But wine is not immune to the laws of family business, which say that any family business that lasts past the first generation is the exception. And most of the family wineries that have been sold in the past couple of years are first- and second-generation companies. As one banker told me, there are more wineries that want to sell than anyone can imagine.

The other thing about all these buyouts? That wine, despite what so many think, is no different from any other industry, and the same kind of consolidation that has transformed U.S. business since the beginning of the century — Heinz buying Kraft, for example — will transform wine. This is a change many don’t like and even more don’t understand, but it seems inevitable.

Update: Sweet red wine is taking over the U.S.

sweet red wineThe surprising thing about this month’s sweet red wine post is how muted the reaction was. Hardly anyone seemed surprised. Dismayed maybe, or irritated, but not especially surprised. That’s because the people who follow these things had an idea it was going on, and those who don’t — like most of the Winestream Media — don’t consider it important enough to be surprised.

And the wine drinkers buying all that sweet red? They weren’t surprised, dismayed, or irritated. They’re just happy someone is making wine they enjoy. Or, as a 30-something woman told me about her favorite sweet red, Cupcake’s Red Velvet: “It’s really good, and it’s really about the only red wine I like.”

The one thing most everyone agreed on? That the numbers, though imprecise, offered a real sense of how big sweet red has become — the fifth biggest category in U.S. wine sales, behind chardonnay, cabernet sauvignion, pinot noir, and merlot. Given its momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sweet red pass merlot for fourth in the next couple of years.

So it’s not a coincidence that red blends accounted for 40 percent of all new wines over the past two years, compared to just 18 percent for chardonnay and cabernet combined, according to Beverage Media magazine. Yes, not all red blends are sweet, but sweet reds are at least two-thirds of red blends, based on data in the first post. This is another sign of how important sweet red has become.

How sweet is sweet? About 1.0 or 1.2 percent residual sugar, compared to less than .08 residual sugar for dry red wines. Other highlights in the wake of the first story, combined with additional reporting that I did:

• Consumers don’t necessarily see sweet red as sweet, says Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, who has probably studied this subject more than anyone in the country. ” ‘Sweet’ is not an attribute that large numbers of regular consumers use with regards to these wines,” he said. “They are more apt to regard them as flavorful or smooth or interesting. Many consumers jump back and forth between dryer and sweeter versions of these wines.”

• The wine industry remains uneasy about calling a sweet wine sweet, says Miller. “It’s possible that some of these companies have tested adding the word sweet to the label or description, and found it harmful. On the other hand, based on my experience in the wine industry, the number of decisions based on gut instinct, trade notions, or small unrepresentative samples is surprisingly high, even among large MBA-ish companies.”

• Since sweet red doesn’t depend on appellation or specific grapes, it can be made with fruit from anywhere in California, Or, as wine economist and author Mike Vesteth told me, sweet red can be made with all the merlot and syrah that wouldn’t be sold otherwise, and which costs less to use. Hence higher profit margins than more traditional wines.

Finally, no one — not even anyone at E&J Gallo, whose Apothic started all of this — expected sweet red to do this well. Gallo, I have been told, developed Apothic to appeal to Millennials, to compete with the Menage a Trois red, and to earn supermarket shelf space. That it might change U.S. wine never really occurred to anyone.

For more about sweet red wine:
The ultimate Internet guide to sweet red wine
What’s next for sweet red wine?
Wine terms: Sweet vs. fruity

 

Winebits 393: Meiomi sale, wine retailers, restaurant wine

Meiomi sale ? Winery consolidation continues: The wine cyber-ether was full of pontificating and prognosticating last week after Constellation Brands, third on the U.S. Big Wine list, bought pinot noir maker Meiomi Wines for $351 million. Most of the commentators were baffled by the sale price, which seemed like a lot of money for the winery, especially since it didn’t include any vineyard land. Still, it wasn’t that surprising, given that Constellation paid $160 million for Mark West, the $10 pinot noir, in 2012, in a deal that also didn’t include vineyards. Meiomi is on track to sell three-quarters of a million cases in 2015, making it the $20 version of Mark West (marked down to $17.99), and as such seems like a perfect fit for the strategy that most Big Wine companies are following. They’ll sell you an entry level product, and then they’ll sell you the next wine when you trade up, and they’ll make sure you will be able to buy both wines in a grocery store. In this, it’s no different than E&J Gallo buying J and The Wine Group buying Benziger — business as usual for Big Wine in the 21st century.

? Retailers and grocers: This otherwise run-of-the-mill post about a Florida liquor chain adding a couple of stores explained the expansion thusly: “[I]n a bid to keep the ever-expanding grocery store channel at bay.” Which means the owners behind Florida’s ABC Fine Wine & Spirits understand what’s going on, even if most wine writers don’t. Interestingly the chain is up to 140 stores, which is still 60 less than it had 15 years ago, and speaks to the power supermarkets have today in selling wine. One national wine retailer told me that grocers thrive on competition, which explains much of their success, and aren’t scared of it the way so many regional and local liquor chains are.

? Restaurant price gouging: One would not expect the New York Post, home to the legendary Page Six gossip extravaganza and headlines like “Four sex scandals rock one hanky-panky high school” to commiserate with anyone who buys restaurant wine. But reviewer Steve Cuozzo, in a story headlined “Restaurants overprice wine because they know you have no idea the pain” spared no punches. Restaurant prices “… can drive you to drink ? anything but wine, that is.” He does an excellent job of explaining the contradictions and discrepancies in restaurant prices, and you can almost hear a bit of sympathy. Almost, of course, because the piece ends with a restaurant charging $100 for a very ordinary $25 retail Bordeaux.

Big Wine strikes again

Big Wine

“Who do we want to buy next?”

That E&J Gallo bought J Vineyards, the highly-regarded California sparkling wine producer, last month was shocking, but it did make business sense. Gallo, for all its vastness, doesn’t make high-end bubbly and doesn’t have many successful restaurant wine brands, and J does and is. Plus, J owned 90 acres of prime Sonoma vineyards, making the deal even sweeter for Gallo.

So how to explain this week’s news that The Wine Group, second-biggest to Gallo among U.S. producers and with even less of a critical reputation, bought the fiercely independent and much beloved Benzinger Family Winery? The Wine Group has never shown any desire to make wine not sold in grocery stores, and its two biggest brands are Franzia and Almaden, the five-liter box cash cows.

Call it one more step in the Big Wine-ing of America:

? The increasing consolidation in the U.S. wine business, something I wrote about at the beginning of the year. It is getting harder and harder for wineries that make less than one-half million cases to find distributors and space on store shelves. Benziger makes less than 200,000 cases a year, which wouldn’t even make it the biggest producer in Texas, and J sells only about one-third of that. Said the owner of a leading California independent: “My guess is that a winery really needs to be above 200,000 cases to really get the attention of a distributor. But maybe 500,000 is the new 200,000?” A distributor told me: “There are too many labels fighting for too few spots on the shelf or wine list. It ?s crazy.”

? Family and independence, two hallmarks of the California wine business since the 1980s, aren’t enough anymore. These are just the latest sales involving long-time family wineries, which saw an opportunity to cash out to avoid succession problems, solve family disputes over winery operations, or to take advantage of Big Wine’s deep pockets. Sale prices weren’t disclosed, but one report said the J deal may have been worth as much as $90 million, which would make the Benziger price well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even of the sale price was half of that for each, which is probably more accurate, that’s a winning payout.

? It’s all about the land. Benziger, with sales of less than $10 million, is so small compared to the multi-billion dollar Wine Group that there is almost no way it could affect the parent’s financial performance. This makes the deal even more baffling, unless it was for the 200 or so acres of quality Sonoma vineyards that were part of the sale.

Will Big Wine run their new companies successfully? Certainly, if success is defined by profit. Otherwise, expect the new owners to do what new owners always do, despite best intentions and protests to the contrary — cut costs, eliminate unnecessary products (so say good bye to J’s lovely pinot gris), and “rationalize” operations. Gallo and The Wine Group won’t ruin J and Benziger the way Sears destroyed mail-order clothing retailer Lands’ End, but they won’t be the same wineries they were before the sale. That’s something we’ll have to learn to live with, because consolidation is going to be with us for a very long time.

More about Big Wine:
? How to buy wine at the grocery store
? Downton Abbey claret ? wine merchandising for dummies
? Big wine tightened its grip on the U.S. wine market in 2013