Tag Archives: wine tariffs

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.

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.