Tag Archives: wine prices

Winebits 597: Bumble wine bar, pinotage, wine prices

bumble wine bar

Swipe right for a date at the Bumble wine bar.

This week’s wine news: On-line dating site Bumble is opening a wine bar, plus pinotage and its lack of respect and wine keeps getting more expensive

Wine for two: Internet dating site Bumble has solved your first date problems – the Bumble wine bar, called Bumble Brew. The bar will open in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo neighborhood in the fall, featuring 15 wines by the glass from $12 to $16 – not a bad price given the rents in that part of New York City. The Wine Curmudgeon wishes Bumble the best of luck, since its main users are 18- to 29-year-olds, the demographic that shows the least interest in wine. Maybe Bumble can rekindle interest in wine among younger consumers, doing something the wine business doesn’t seem to care much about.

Poor, poor pinotage: Pinotage is a red grape grown almost exclusively in South Africa, and it gets very little respect in most of the rest of the world. Greg Sherwood, writing in South Africa’s Wine Mag, says pinotage “and its rightful place at the vinous fine wine table is still subject to a lot of debate and conjecture by international wine buyers but perhaps less so now by end-consumers.” In other words, why do wine drinkers in South Africa enjoy the stuff, while most of the rest of the world goes out of its way to avoid it? Sherwood discusses the grape’s past, when pinotage wines smelled – charitably – like burnt rubber or hot road tar. He says winemakers have solved those problems, and the grape can now produce high-quality wine. The article isn’t the best written, but it’s worth reading to anyone who has ever tasted pinotage and wondered what was going on.

Pricier and pricier: Don Kavanagh, writing on Wine-Searcher.com, says expensive wine keeps getting more expensive, and that means all wine is getting more expensive. This apparently comes as a great shock to Kavanagh, even though he’s writing for the website that has helped fuel those higher prices with its gushing odes to expensive wine. Still, his point is well taken, and especially for regular visitors to the blog: “[B]ut a look at the big picture shows one incontrovertible truth about wine prices: the only way is up.”

Winebits 596: Tariffs, wine writing, wine prices

Wine pricingThis week’s wine news: The booze business has discovered it doesn’t want tariffs, either, plus wine writing’s unique demographics and expensive wine doesn’t guarantee quality

No tariffs, please: The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only one who understands that tariffs are a mug’s game. Most of the booze business’ leading trade groups, including the Wine Institute, have asked the federal government to drop plans to tax European Union products. The story, from Shanken News Daily, is a bit convoluted, but the gist is that even people who never agree about anything else agree about this: “Entry level, everyday products are going to be affected just as much as high-end imported products,” said the CEO of the group that represents wine and spirits wholesalers.

An exclusive club: Tom Natan, writing on the First Vine blog, discovers one of the wine business’ underlying truths, “the uniform racial makeup of the wine writing world. … at least the part I experience at meetings and conferences — seems to be populated almost exclusively by White people like me.” He parses some intriguing numbers, including that almost one-quarter of U.S. business owners and bosses are women, but that only 4 percent of wine and spirits businesses are owned or run by women. And only one-fifth of those 4 percent are women of color. This is in marked contrast to food writing, he writes, which is much more diverse. Natan looks for reasons why this is true, but misses something else: Does this lack of diversity explain why the wine business is so obsessed with expensive wines – the kind that are preferred by its older, wealthier demographics?

Not so fast, expensive wine: Dan Berger, writing in the Santa Rosa Pres-Democrat (in the heart of wine country, no less), warns us that “wine buyers willingly accept being fed a diet of misinformation — or no information at all. They continue to buy wines based on marketers’ fictions, accepting lies or faux facts, and believing high prices indicate high quality.” And, just to be sure we understand, Berger asks: “Can you imagine buying a car without first gaining specific details about its specifications, and without taking a test-drive? How about buying furniture off the web that doesn’t give measurements or the material from which it was made?” But, and as been mentioned here many times, wine drinkers do that regularly, because we assume that wine is different than cars or furniture.

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.

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.

Wine trends 2019

wine trends 2019Wine trends 2019: Higher prices, less choice, more plonk, and the return of sweet pink wine

Wine prices 2019

Most of the wine trends 2019 stories on the Internet describe a wine wonderland of rare vintages, exotic tastings, and unlimited opportunity. Which is probably true for the few who live in that particular wine bubble – they don’t have to worry about how much they pay and they can get their hands on any esoteric wine they want.

For the rest of us, wine trends 2019 are not particularly encouraging. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business? Here’s what to expect this year:

• An attempt to bake higher prices into the marketplace, not because prices should be higher – a grape shortage or better quality wine – but because the oligopoly that controls wine pricing wants higher prices. It’s worth noting that consolidation, which gave us the oligopoly, is no longer a trend. It’s an everyday part of the wine business.

• More three-tier reform failure. Yes, I am well aware that every smart liquor attorney and wine analyst expects the Supreme Court to kick the three-tier system in the groin in the upcoming Tennessee retailers case. And I want them to be correct. But it ain’t going to happen. This Supreme Court, which sees the 1950s as the Golden Age of American life, isn’t going to change three-tier in any way, shape, or form.

• The return of white zinfandel. It won’t be called that, of course, but will be disguised as dry rose. One example: The Seaglass rose. The 2016 vintage was made with pinot noir, “with barely ripe strawberry fruit and surprising freshness instead of the cloying, almost sweet quality that some wines have.” So what did the 2017 vintage (apparently minus the pinot noir) taste like? Cloying and almost sweet.

Bring on the recipe

• More formula wine, as producers treat wine production like a recipe at a chain restaurant. We’ve seen a lot of this already, especially in the $10 to $15 range, but it will expand to wines costing as much as $25. Who ever thought we would see wines at that price made to focus group specifications, with residual sugar, barely any acidity, and washed out tannins? One large bulk winery owner told me last week that he has to make two styles of wine now: sweeter for the U.S. market and drier for Europe.

• Top-quality brands losing distributors and importers, further reducing consumer choice. We saw this when the French Domaine du Tariquet lost its U.S. importer in 2018, and that was just the beginning of the bad news. Last year, California’s McManis Family Vineyards, which makes 300,000 cases annually, had to sign a distribution deal with The Wine Group, the fourth biggest producer in the country. McManis couldn’t find a distributor with national scope willing to carry its wines; in the age of consolidation, 300,000 cases isn’t big enough for Big Distributor. The McManis family still owns the winery, but it has to depend on another producer’s sales force to sell its product. How screwed up is that?

• Continued flat demand here and in Europe. As one California winemaker told me recently, “No one is buying wine anymore. What’s going on?” Or, as Wall Street put it: “Shares of Constellation Brands skidded as much as 11 percent Wednesday morning. … [thanks to its] disappointing wine and spirits business. …”

• The attack of previous vintages. Flat demand, combined with increased wine production, means there is lots and lots of older wine on warehouse shelves. More retailers – and even some that are usually more scrupulous about this – are mixing the older vintages in with the current stuff in hopes you won’t notice. Or, you’ll see older wines discounted, even if they’re so old they aren’t very drinkable.

Wine prices 2019

wine prices 2019Big Wine and Big Distributor will push for higher wine prices 2019, but may run into resistance from flat demand, an abundant grape supply, and a wobbly economy

Wine trends 2019

We’re at a crossroads as we approach wine prices 2019. On the one hand, the worldwide grape supply is abundant, especially in California, while demand is flat in the U.S. and continues to decline in Europe. All of this, given the law of supply and demand, should lead to lower prices.

On the other hand, the oligopoly of producers and distributors that controls pricing in this country sees higher prices as part of the natural order of things, and the three-tier system gives them more control over pricing than they would have in a less regulated marketplace.

Further complicating the issue: the U.S. economy and the stock market, which is wobbling one day and then doing something different the next. What happens if we get a recession in late spring or early summer?

Given all of those contradictions, how do we approach wine prices 2019? My guess: Big Wine and its allies will try to push prices higher, but with the understanding that significant and regular discounting by retailers will be necessary as flat demand runs into higher prices. Hence, we need to buy when we can take advantage of all that discounting.

Consider the following:

• First, tremendous discrepancies in prices – not just between retailers (more about that in the next item), but between the same product in the same store. In other words, a wine could be $10 one day and $16 the next, and there is no way to tell what’s going to happen. I’ve paid four different prices for Spy Valley sauvignon blanc at Kroger in the past 12 months, ranging from $12 to $16.

• The price differences between big and small retailers will continue to grow, as Big Wine and Big Distributor give their biggest retail customers even better deals. Part of this isn’t new, since bigger customers have always received better prices; volume discounts and all of that. What’s different now is there are more huge companies. As one small Texas retailer has told me, he has to sell a $10 wine for $13 and $14 because he can’t get the same pricing that the big chains get.

• Even more indecipherable discounting. Look for more retailers to adapt grocery store-style pricing, where the same wine could have three or four prices depending on how much you buy, whether you’re a club member, and so forth. A Dallas Whole Foods sold something called Troublemaker Red (“velvety smooth”) for $14.99, but with a 10 percent discount for six bottles and a 20 percent discount for a case. This dovetails with the idea of higher prices, but then allows for discounting to move product that is stuck on the shelf because prices are too high.

• Finally, nothing will change with restaurant wine pricing, as the restaurant business sticks with its failing pricing model. Because, of course, if restaurateurs understood what was happening, they would have fixed the problem long ago.

Winebits 571: Ed Lowe, three-tier foolishness, wine prices

ed loweThis week’s wine news: Ed Lowe, whose Dallas restaurant served Texas wine when hardly anyone knew what it was, has died. Plus, New York state three-tier foolishness and cheaper bulk wine prices

Ed Lowe: How important was Ed Lowe to the U.S. regional wine movement? He served Texas wine for 30 years at his Celebration restaurant in Dallas, and when he started doing that Texas wine was chancy at best. Lowe, 69, died before Thanksgiving during a canoe trip in the state’s Big Bend region. I knew Lowe a little, and we talked several times about local wine, his half-price Thursday night wine promotion, and quality local food. Celebration was farm-to-table long before the term was invented by some East Coast hype guru, and Lowe (who could still be seen busing tables) truly believed in the concept. The world will be a poorer place without him.

Take that, Wegman’s: The East Coast grocery store chain has been fined more than $1 million for illegally managing liquor stores by the New York state booze cops. That’s because grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell alcohol in New York, save in one location. The state liquor authority claimed Wegman’s violated any number of laws and regulations, including “illegally trafficking in wine.” That’s a delightful 21st century crime, yes? The infractions are arcane to anyone who doesn’t follow three-tier, and Wegman’s may actually have violated the law. The larger question, though, is why these laws still exist.

• “Awash with wine:” More bad news for premiumization – wine prices in the bulk market are dropping, “and in some cases, significantly,” reports a British wine trade magazine. The world is flush with wine after bountiful 2018 harvests around the world, and those interviewed in the story say prices could keep falling. Why do bulk prices matter? Because, save for the most expensive wines in the world, bulk prices influence the price of grapes everywhere. Cheaper bulk prices usually mean cheaper grape prices, and that usually means cheaper wine prices.

Illustration courtesy of Tampa Tribune using a Creative Commons license