Tag Archives: wine premiumization

Five things the Wine Curmudgeon learned from last week’s wine premiumization post

wine premiumizationMost importantly: Consumers dislike wine premiumization, no matter what the wine business wants us to believe

Last week’s wine premiumization analysis kicked up more than a little dust in the cyber-ether – it was the most visited post on the blog in almost 2 ½ years. The comments and emails covered the spectrum, from people blaming me for wine’s problems (and that there wouldn’t be any if not for people like me) to those who offered their take on premiumization (pro and con) to those who thought I was spot on.

In all of this, I learned five things after writing the wine premiumization post:

1. Consumers dislike premiumization, no matter how much the industry insists otherwise. I wasn’t sure about this until I saw the reaction to the post, since all the data suggests we’re paying more for wine. So if we’re paying more, then we’re happy, right? But since fewer of us are buying wine, and those of us who still buy wine are buying less, how happy can we be?

2. Talking about wine prices is even more taboo today than it was when I started writing about wine in the late 1990s. There was a sense then that pricing was not to be questioned. Because, wine. I’ve never understood this, and my emphasis on cost vs. value has always annoyed people in the wine business. It annoys them even more today – and some are way past annoyance.

3. The economics of the post-modern wine business stink for almost everyone who isn’t Big Wine. I sympathize with those producers, and have agonized over their plight many times. But overpriced wine is overpriced wine, regardless of the reason why. Is any bottle of wine really worth $80 or $100? Or, as hard as it is to believe, thousands of dollars?

4. I taste thousands of wines a year, at all prices and from all over the world. My friends also taste thousands of wines a year, and we talk about what we taste. So how am I not qualified to say that wine quality is not what it was before the recession? One friend, a well-known wine judge and critic, will start his pinot noir rant without one nudge from me. Yes, technically the wines are OK — not oxidized, not tainted with VA and so forth — but are they interesting to drink? Are they fun to drink? Unfortunately, not nearly as many of them as in the past.

5. Wine writing, even in the second decade of the 21st century, is still expected to be positive and to sell wine. I had hoped the Internet would change that. I was wrong.

Photo courtesy of IWA wine blog using a Creative Commons license

Wine premiumization, wine prices, and quality

Wine premiumization
The Wine Curmudgeon Wine Sample Index and the wine slowdown

Wine premiumization: Prices keep going up, quality keeps going down, and fewer people are drinking wine. Am I the only one who thinks that’s not a coincidence?

This is how deeply premiumization has upended the wine business: A reader emailed me to say I shouldn’t use the prices I paid for wine in my reviews. Instead, I should use the prices on an industry website, which are typically more than what I pay.

What twisted wine universe do we now live in? Is premiumization so deeply ingrained in the system that cheap wine should not exist, even if it actually does?

Premiumization is the idea that consumers are trading up, that we’re willing to pay more money for a better quality bottle. In theory, this makes perfect sense. Of course I will pay $15 for wine if I know it’s going to be appreciably better than a $10 bottle.

But theory, to paraphrase the economist John Maynard Keynes, is for dead people. The wine business, in its dedication to short-term profit at the expense of long-term growth, is selling us more expensive wine that isn’t appreciably better. It just costs more money, and we’re supposed to accept that as the natural order of things.

I got a sample of an Italian white wine this summer, which came in a flowery bottle with an even more flowery name. My tasting note? “Very nicely done $10 blend (chardonnay, pinot bianco) with a little lemon, minerality, and crispness. For some reason, the suggested retail price is $20, making it one of the most overpriced wines I have ever tasted.”

It’s not just me

A friend of mine, who has been selling quality wine at Dallas’ best retailer for more than 30 years, told me he no longer understands how wine is priced. He cited two examples: Spanish albarino, once $10 and $12 and delicious, is now $18 and $20 and not very albarino-like, while French picpoul, “which should cost $8, costs $16.” These are wines that people in Spain and France drink daily; in the U.S., they’re priced for special occasions.

Or, as a review of a $24 wine on Wine Industry Insight put it recently: “Thin, acidic, and lacking fruit.” How far has wine fallen when $24, which used to be enough to buy something fabulous, now only pays for thin and acidic?

I write all of this in the shadow of the end of the wine boom: Flat sales, more young people who see wine as something for their parents and grandparents, and experts who say drinking will kill us as surely as cigarettes. It’s what Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank calls the new normal – that wine consumption won’t return to what the industry wants. Instead, he writes, “don’t be surprised if young consumers drink less alcohol tomorrow, and those who do drink continue to embrace craft spirits and beer instead of wine.”

Given all of this, shouldn’t it be time for the industry to put an end to the premiumization that gives us $8 worth of wine for $15? If wine is in a fight for its future, shouldn’t it focus on selling well-made and affordable products in response to the competition from craft beer and spirits?

That makes perfect sense

But I long ago stopped expecting that sort of wisdom from wine. In this, I thought I saw the end to wine premiumization several times over the past couple of years, and I’m not the only one who did. But just when you think it has run its course and this foolishness can’t go on forever, it does a Freddy Kreuger. How else to explain when the man who runs Jackson Family Wines wants the federal government to eliminate his competition with a tariff wall?

All of which leads me to wonder how far we are from something that wine economist Mike Veseth has predicted for several years: That wine will become like opera, which was once mass entertainment but is now reserved for a wealthy elite.

That’s a new normal that won’t make anyone happy.

Photo “tokyoWeek1 047” by nate_uri is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

More about wine premiumization:
“Reasonably priced at $40:” Wine premiumization is out of control
The premiumization backlash
Has premiumization damaged wine’s popularity?

“Reasonably priced at $40:” Wine premiumization is out of control

wine premiumizationWine premiumization may be working for producers, but the loser remains the wine drinker

The following arrived in a news release the other day: These “wines are reasonably priced between $15-$40 — ensuring excellent price-quality ratio.”

Where do I begin to parse the failure of the post-modern wine business, as demonstrated in that sentence? Am I the only one who sees that most wine drinkers don’t consider wine costing more than $15 as either reasonably priced or having an excellent price-quality ratio?

The wine business has fallen all over itself in the past 18 months throwing as much crappy $20 wine on the market as possible, because one very smart man noticed some of us were willing to pay more for wine. He called the trend premiumization, and his point made sense: If you have more money, you’re willing to spend more money.

Which is what happened in the U.S. when the recession ended. Sales of higher priced wines increased significantly, and the average price of a bottle of wine in the U.S. rose to almost $10, the highest in history.

Welcome to the promised land

The wine business, particularly in California, saw premiumization as the promised land – a way to raise prices without necessarily increasing quality. Hence higher profits, which had been squeezed during the recession, as well as the need to sell less wine to make the same amount of money. If I make $10 wine, I need to sell 10 bottles to make $100; if I make $25 wine, I only need to sell four. And if I sell five, I’m better off than selling 10 bottles of $10 wine. Who wouldn’t want that?

The result, according to a study from Internet retailer Wine.com, has been flat U.S. wine consumption. “This means for every headline about a brand growing 10-20%, another one is shrinking by a similar amount,” says the report. “With little to no organic industry growth, it’s all about battling competitors for market share.”

In other words, the pie isn’t any bigger, but there are more producers charging more for us to eat it. So we’re the losers, as the quote at the beginning of the post shows.

Forgotten facts

Here’s what the wine business overlooked in its haste to embrace premiumization:

• 95 percent of the entire U.S. population – not just wine drinkers – will never buy a $20 bottle of wine. That’s from the Wine Market Council, which studies these things for the wine business. So premiumization excludes 9 ½ out of 10 U.S. adults – hardly a way to make wine more popular.

• Let’s say I buy two $40 bottles of wine a week, which the Wine Market Council says “a high frequency wine drinker” might do. That’s $320 a month – or about as much as it costs to lease an Audi A3 Cabriolet. I love wine, but I know what I would do with that money.

• The rise in sales of more expensive wine, given that overall wine sales are flat, means people are buying less cheap wine. The assumption has been that consumers are trading up from their $4 and $5 bottles to $20 bottles, which only a winery could believe. What’s more likely is that older wine drinkers, who bought much of the very cheap wine, aren’t drinking as much. They’re either dead or have cut back as they got older. The same thing has happened in beer and Big Beer is in a panic. This would raise the average price of wine without actually increasing the number of people who drink it.

So we’re stuck with reasonably priced $40 bottles of wine. Whatever that means. Hopefully, we won’t be stuck much longer — since I don’t need any more reasons to worry about the future of the wine business.

More on premiumization:
The premiumization backlash
Premiumization, crappy wine, and we drink
Premiumization: Prices in the real world

Four premiumized wines worth buying

premiumized wine

Wow, the Wine Curmudgeon is right. These wines are worth the extra money.

These four premiumized wines are worth the $17 to $22 that they cost

Premiumization and premiumized wine gets a nasty rap on the blog, and why not? Who wants to pay $15 for wine that’s worth half of that? But the Wine Curmudgeon is nothing if not open minded, which is one of the keys to quality criticism.

Hence, reviews of four wines worth buying that cost between $15 and $20 or so, the so-called sweet spot for premiumization:

Chateau d’Epire Savennieres 2014 ($22, purchased, 13%): I love Savennieres, chenin blanc from France’s Loire Valley, but quality Savennieres isn’t $10 anymore and even the pricey stuff is difficult to find or overpriced. But the d’Epire was everything I hoped it would be – fresh lemon fruit instead of the Sweet Tart style you find in so many less well made wines, plus the traditional steely minerality. Highly recommended, even for $22. It should age a little, too, showing less fruit and more minerality as it gets older.

Donati Family Vineyards Claret 2013 ($20, sample, 13.8%): This California red blend was an astounding value, full of quality red fruit (cherry and strawberry?) and an almost Italian-style freshness. Yes, grilled sausages and red sauce, but also a long dinner with good conversation. I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and not just for the value; it’s that so many other California wines at this price taste like fruit punch spiked with alcohol.

Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Cuvée Alouettes ($17, purchased, 12%): This red from France’s Loire (made with cabernet franc) is not for everyone, and especially if you prefer a New World, fruit forward style. But if you want to try an impeccably made wine, with berry fruit, a little graphite and spice, and wonderful length, give it a try. Highly recommended, and just the thing for steak frites.

St. Urbans-Hof Alte Reben Riesling 2015 ($18, sample, 10.5%): Quality German riesling, like Savennieres, has been mostly priced out of what most of us are willing to pay for wine. That’s what made the Alte Reben so enjoyable – it’s more or less worth what it costs. Look for a slightly honeyish sweetness with riesling’s telltale petrol aroma and bright lemon acidity. Very tasty, and just the thing as spring arrives.

Premiumization follow-up: Wine prices in the real world

wine pricesHas the average price for a bottle of California wine hit almost $18?

One of the difficulties with tracking the effect of premiumization on wine prices is the lack of data. There are Nielsen sales statistics, which I used in yesterday’s premiumization post, but most of the best numbers are proprietary and unavailable for analysis. Hence, this study from a European company that rents RVs – an odd source, certainly, but one with what seems like a solid methodology and interesting results.

The report, the 2016 SHAREaCAMPER Wine Price Index, compares local and imported wine prices from 65 countries in an attempt to give an idea of what the same wine would cost depending where you are. In this, it offers a glimpse at U.S. wine prices and how they compare worldwide based on prices in hundreds of hotel chains, restaurants, and supermarkets. Click here to see a full-sized version of the chart.

In other words, wine prices from places where people buy wine and taking into account restaurant markups. The goal, says study spokesman Pablo Martinez, was to compare apples to apples – the price of the wine you buy at home with the price for the same wine in another country.

And the average U.S. price? Almost $15 a bottle, ranking 35th out of 65 countries in the survey. The cheapest wine in the world? Paraguay, at about $8, while the United Arab Emirates, which is mostly dry and doesn’t have a local wine industry, was last at $39.02 a bottle.

The $15.02 average bottle price is almost twice that given in the Nielsen data in yesterday’s premiumization post; the difference comes from including restaurants and their onerous markup, as wll as the difference in price between local and imported wine. In the U.S., the study found that imported wine costs almost one-third less than California wine – $12.85 vs. $17.61.

The meaning of all this?

• California is focusing more on more expensive wine than ever before, something that we’ve noted many times on the blog. That this study found premiumization when it didn’t go looking for it speaks volumes about what is going on.

• If you want value in the U.S., even at restaurants, your best bet is imported wine. Again, not news to anyone who visits the blog regularly, but it’s something that seems to be common among countries with large domestic wine industries. Imported wine prices in France, for example, are $12.05 a bottle vs. $15.06 for local.

• U.S. per capita consumption, which has stalled and even declined by other measures, is higher in this study than elsewhere, about one bottle a year more than the Wine Institute’s generally accepted figure of about one bottle per person a month. Still, it’s probably not enough to signal a change in per capita consumption trends, and the U.S. still drinks one-fourth as much wine per person as the French.

Four bottles of wine, and nothing to drink

four bottles of winePremiumization and internationalization have made wine more expensive and less enjoyable, as last week’s four bottles of wine and nothing to drink fiasco demonstrates

Have premiumization and internationalization become so common that finding a bottle of wine to drink for dinner is too difficult to bother with? That seems to be the case after last week’s four bottles of wine and nothing to drink fiasco.

I wanted a bottle to have with my version of the muffaletta, the New Orleans olive relish sandwich. I had four wine samples – three reds, none less than $15, and one white, $15, and they were from Italy, southern France, and Washington state. What did I drink with dinner? A $5 bottle of Vino Fuerte from Aldi.

How did this happen? How did I open four bottles of wine from different parts of the world, made with different grapes, and find none of them worth drinking? Call it focus group winemaking, in which each of the wines was made to taste a certain way in an attempt to please the so-called American palate while also meeting the “requirements” for a 90-point wine:

• Lots and lots of sweet fruit, no tannins worth noticing, and barely any acid for the red wines. The white was a bland, gloppy, fruity mess.

• The producers took every bit of terroir out of the Italian wine, a sangiovese from Tuscany.

• The $35 wine, a syrah from Washington state, had none of the power and earthiness it was supposed to have.

• The less said the better about the two French wines from the Languedoc, which were the biggest disappointment. If this is the sort of cynical winemaking the French have in store for us, there’s no reason to buy French wine we’re not familiar with.

So how do we find wine to drink for dinner? Shop at a retailer who recommends wine that you’ll enjoy and not what they think you should drink. Don’t be swayed by scores, cutesy names, or foolish back label adjectives. And, most importantly, trust your palate. If you don’t like something, no matter what the scores or critical acclaim, it’s probably a crappy wine.

Finally, if you’re wondering why I’m not naming these wines, it’s because they don’t even deserve the publicity that goes with this review. The idea that any publicity is good publicity is never more true than in the Internet Age, when Google gives us what we search for without any distinction about quality. And the only quality in these wines is in the producers’ imagination.

The wine premiumization stranglehold gets tighter

wine premiumizationA $28 rose sample arrived the other day, which says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the speed and ferocity of wine premiumization’s takeover of the wine business. The world needs a $28 rose like we need more terrorism, pestilence, and famine, but since the wise guys and their numbers say we want to drink more expensive wine, we’ve got one.

In addition, California grape prices continue to rise, despite what seems like a plentiful supply of grapes. That’s because the best quality grapes, which are used in more expensive wines, aren’t as plentiful, and their prices have increased by as much as 50 percent over the last couple of years. In fact, speakers at a recent trade seminar said that as prices continue to go up, wineries may have to use cheaper and lesser quality grapes to maintain their profit margins. In other words, $15 wine as the new $8 wine.

This embrace of wine premiumization also explains many of the dozens of high-dollar winery acquisitions over the past couple of years. Big Wine’s thinking (and even that at some not so big wine companies) is that it’s more efficient to buy an existing winery, which already has customers and a brand (as well as grapes), than it is to start from scratch. So if you have to overpay, so be it.

In this, quality seems to be the one thing left behind. I wrote in January that the push to premiumization has resulted in some of the worst winemaking I’ve seen since I started the blog, and things have only gotten worse. The $28 rose was not exceptional in any way, and that was one of the least offensive wines I’ve tasted this spring. A four-year-old California pinot noir not only had too much fake oak, but tasted purposely oxidized. I mentioned this decline in quality to a colleague the other day, not nearly as cranky, and he agreed with my assessment, and especially for wine from California and wine that costs as much as $20 a bottle.

That’s the difference between now and the bad old days before the recession, when it seemed like everyone was racing to charge $100 a bottle. Those wines were overpriced, but at least you could drink some of them. Increasingly, more and more premiumized wines are barely fit for the drain in the kitchen sink.

So until things change, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll just have to pour and bear it.

More about wine premiumization:
Premiumization: Are wine drinkers really trading up?
Is the U.S. wine boom over?
Wine prices up, wine quality down in 2016?