The Wine Economist

The Future of Italian Wine is in Good Hands

awardDeborah Gelisi wiped the tears from her face, took a deep breath, and continued with her presentation on the importance of sustainability for Italian wine producers. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Deborah’s audience was in tears, too. Her classmates and teachers at the Scuola Enologica di Conegliano.  Her winegrower parents.  Even her 12-year old brother, the fearless goalkeeper of his youth soccer team. Over at the head table the city’s  mayor was misty, the school’s director was teary, Rai Uno journalist Camilla Nata was a little choked up, and I was a pretty emotional myself. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Stories about rooms full tearful people don’t usually feature on The Wine Economist, so you probably have some questions about what was going on and how this relates to this column’s optimistic title. I’ll try to answer the questions one by one.

Who is Deborah Gelisi?

Deborah Gelisi is an 18 year old student at the Conegliano Wine School, which is Italy’s oldest enology and viticulture school and, according to our friend Paul Wagner, probably the largest wine school in the world. Founded by Antonio Carpenè in 1876, it provides education and training for young students who have chosen to work in the wine industry. The school has a long list of distinguished alumni including notable Romeo Bragato, who was instrumental in the development of wine industries in Australia and New Zealand in the 19th Century.

Deborah comes from a wine-growing family. She gets up early each day to work at Podere Gelisi Antonio, then takes the train from Pordenone to Conegliano for classes, reversing the commute in the afternoon for more work and, of course, study. I don’t know when she sleeps.

Why Was Everyone Crying? Bad news?

Deborah was being honored as the first recipient of the “Etilia Carpenè Larivera International Scholarship,“ which will provide her  with the opportunity to expand and deepen her wine knowledge through international travel  and study and jump-start her career in wine.efx-s

The scholarship was inaugurated this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Carpenè Malvolti, one of Italy’s most distinguished wine producers. Its founder, Antonio Carpenè was the inventor of the process of secondary fermentation in autoclaves that gives us Prosecco.

Carpenè Malvolti honors its past in many ways, which you will discover if you spend some time at the new visitor center in Conegliano, but as a family wine business it is all about building for future generations. That’s why the photo above shows Deborah with Rosann Carpenè Larivera, the fifth generation of the famous family, along with her daughter Etilla, the rising sixth generation, for whom the scholarship is named.

What’s the Significance of the Award?

It is good to honor students and to provide valuable educational opportunities, of course, but it is important to see this award in broader context. Deborah’s award was part of a project called Generazione DOCG, which aims to invest in the future of the region through its  young people. Everyone was crying (and then celebrating) because this isn’t an ending but a beginning, both for Deborah and for the region.

The next generation of Italian wine producers will face many challenges, as we discussed at the VinoVIP meetings in Forte dei Marmi in June. The industry is fragmented, lacking the strong brands that could build help open markets and build margins. It won’t be easy to make progress given intense competition everywhere.

But there is real hope. Rising wine professionals like Deborah Gelisi and her student colleagues can make a difference in the vineyards, cellars, and markets. If Deborah is an indication, they have the knowledge, drive, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit that will be  needed.

And they have the backing of their families, communities, and forward-looking wine firms such as Carpenè Malvolti. With this team supporting and encouraging them, it is easy to see that the future of Italian wine is in good hands.

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Congratulations to Deborah Gelisi. Special thanks to Carpenè Malvolti for inviting me to speak at this awards ceremony. It was an honor and a pleasure.

 

Is the Prosecco Boom Sustainable?

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Or is it a bubble that’s eventually going to pop? That’s roughly the question that an Italian journalist asked me a few weeks ago and it is easy to appreciate the concern behind it. The market for Prosecco has blossomed, especially in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, the three largest export markets, and Prosecco producers are both excited and anxious about their future prospects.

U.S. Sparkling Wine Imports January-June 2018

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A quick glance at data for U.S. sparkling wine imports January-June 2018 as reported by Wine-By-Numbers (see above) shows strong growth. Italian sparking wine (mainly Prosecco) imports grew 16% by volume and 28.3% by value in the first six months of the year despite rising average dollar import price. Only the Rosé import category is growing faster than Prosecco.

Beyond Bubbles for Birthdays

I am a wine-glass half-full kind of person, so my answer to the journalist’s query was optimistic. The question isn’t so much why U.S. and U.K. consumers are drinking more sparkling wine (and especially Prosecco) now — it is why they didn’t embrace bubbles more ardently in the past? Sparkling wine has always been an attractive option, but for some reason it became associated with special occasions. Bubbles aren’t just for birthdays and New Year any more.

But booms often contain the seeds of their own demise — either in the form of bust, fizzle, plateau, or something else. Prosecco may be no different. Having just returned from a quick visit to Prosecco-ville to speak at an award ceremony in Conegliano (see next week’s column), I can report that there is concern about this possibility within the industry.

Most of the Prosecco on the market is DOC Prosecco produced by makers that range from the very large such as La Marca, which is distributed by Gallo, to the relatively small. There are economies of scale in Prosecco-making, so bigger can be better from a profit standpoint. La Marca, for example is a second level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — and its many members keep its pressurized tanks, used for the secondary fermentation, efficiently supplied with a river of base wine.

Pretty in Pink?

When quantity is the driving force, the focus can easily become one of chasing the market to increase sales, raise production, increase scale economies, and lower cost. Thus there is an incentive to look for incremental sales wherever they can be found.

This might be part of the movement to certify DOC Prosecco Rosé.  Bubbles are hot. Pink  wine is hotter. Pink bubbles should set the market on fire. The Glera grape that is used to make Prosecco is white, not red, but production rules allow the use of up to 15% of other approved grape varieties. If  those grapes are Pinot Noir, which is grown in this region,  the result is a pink sparkling wine. Pink Prosecco isn’t a thing yet, since the rules don’t allow this designation, but it might be permitted very soon.

Pink Prosecco — who could object? Well, many people, actually. The concern is that Prosecco’s identity is not well established — many consumers think Prosecco is the grape name and others are not certain exactly sure where it comes from. Prosecco’s success may come in part from the fact that consumers don’t fret about these things and simply enjoy the experience.

No One Laughed

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But some producers worry that by broadening the Prosecco category with a pink wine, winemakers will further dilute the brand identity to the point where it is just a generic sparkling wine, one of the ingredients in Aperol spritz, unable to command a price premium. The slope that runs down the commodity wine hill can be slippery.

At one point during our visit I joked that, since blue wines are getting some attention these days, maybe some Prosecco producers would move in that direction. Pink, Blue, White — all colors of Prosecco for all occasions. No one laughed. I guess blue Prosecco is nothing to joke about. It’s part of that slippery slope.

The concern that Prosecco’s brand may be undermined seemed particular strong in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG zone between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Supply is more limited in the DOCG zone and costs are higher because, unlike the valley vineyards where much DOC Prosecco is grown,  the hillside terraces aren’t all suitable for mechanical harvesting or as easy to maintain generally.

What a Mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore is therefore about value more than volume and maintaining product differentiation — of Prosecco versus generic sparkling wine and of DOCG Prosecco versus DOC production — is very important.  Wine marketing guru Paul Wagner, who led our small press tour, never got tired of pointing out what a challenge the DOCG producers set by branding themselves as Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG . What a mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore suggests a premium product and is probably the right brand to try to build, although Americans have little experience with the Superiore designation for wines generally. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene reference is meant to indicate that these are wines of origin — grown in a particular place, but most consumers don’t know what that place is or exactly how to pronounce the place names either.

Glass by Glass by Glass

I have done Prosecco tastings for non-profit groups and I note that consumers are often surprised when they taste the DOCG product, especially DOCG Brut. They like Prosecco a lot, but think of it generically as defined by DOC Extra Dry wines. They are surprised when they can taste a difference. (I’ve had the same reaction in tastings of Argentina Malbecs from different production zones).

Based on my very limited personal experience, it seems to me the key to differentiating Prosecco from other sparkling wines and DOCG Prosecco from the DOC wines is going to involve a lot of hard work. Consumers won’t understand the differences if you just tell them. You can’t tell people how something tastes. You have to show them, and let them experience it for themselves one glass at a time.

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Yes, I think it is, but it will take work to shore up its foundation and simply chasing market share, as tempting as that it, may not be the best long-term strategy.

Wine Book Reviews: Colorful Rosé & Dynamic New Zealand

Elizabeth Gabay, Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018). Reviewed by Sue Veseth.

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Once upon a time, “proper” rosé was French, very pale pink, dry, served young and fresh, and not serious. Today, rosé is serious. Consumers can find rosé from all over world; from the palest pink to almost red in color; made from grape varieties that may be familiar or unfamiliar; made in a variety of styles and sweetness levels; and that range from simple to complex. How is a wine drinker supposed to navigate the world of rosé?

A good start is Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution by Elizabeth Gabay, MW. This comprehensive study of rosé will open your eyes — and your palate — to the infinite variety and pleasure of rosé. Her book covers the liberal arts of rosé: history, geography, science, political science, economics, art, and literature.

It is impossible in the wine business these days to dismiss rosé, as Gabay makes clear in the chapter of her book on the business of rosé. In the United States, rosé is the fastest growing category and is now a year-round option, not just a summer wine. And, like it or not, what happens in the U.S. wine market can affect wine production worldwide.

The issue of color permeates the book because of the traditional notion that paler is better. And, after all, the name “rosé” is all about color. Gabay’s explorations demonstrate that color does not indicate quality, but style. She goes as far to say, “I am no longer so sure that our division of wine into red, white and pink is appropriate. With some rosé wines almost red in colour and style, and others almost white, the divisions are blurred. Add in rosé made in an orange wine style, and the blurring increases. The obsession with the colour pink should perhaps start to take a back seat.”

Gabay describes her book as a journey of exploration, and she transmits this journey for both the serious wine student and the casual consumer. An early chapter on viticulture and winemaking, for example, has a lot of detail for the science-minded and is also accessible to the more casual reader. Similarly, her discussions of rosé from various parts of the world are presented in detail, with specific examples from the region. More maps would be helpful for the novice rosé drinker.

Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution is a valuable addition to the library of any wine lover who is ready for a journey of exploration.

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Rebecca Gibb,  The Wines of New Zealand (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018). Reviewed by Mike Veseth.

kiwiRebecca Gibb’s The Wines of New Zealand is “designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the New Zealand wine scene,” according to its author, “a reference for locals, international visitors and students alike.” Gibb gets it right on all counts — what a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about New Zealand and its wine industry.

The book’s 300+ pages are packed full of stories, personalities, facts, and figures. The organization is conventional: history, climate and grapes first, then a survey of the regions (10 of them, which will come as a surprise to those who only know Marlborough and its Sauvignon Blanc), then a final pair of chapters on tourism and current issues.

Gibb’s mastery of this material is easy to appreciate, but it is her contagious enthusiasm that comes through most clearly. A chapter on grape varieties could easily become mundane but not here. Each grape is an excuse to talk about history, geography, vine science, and to introduce or reprise some of the noteworthy characters who shaped Kiwi wine history.

What do I like best about this book? The sense of energy and dynamism that permeates it in both style and content. The story of New Zealand wine is a story of change, starting from the early British and French pioneers through the Dalmatian gum-diggers and on to today’s multinational corporations. Gibb sees dynamism everywhere in New Zealand wine and she doesn’t think this is likely to change.

What would I change about The Wines of New Zealand?  Well, the beginning of the book, a fantastic historical overview, is so strong that it makes the end feel a bit weak. Gibb’s final chapter does a great job informing the reader about Kiwi tourism opportunities — both wine and otherwise. But it doesn’t bring the book together the way I would like.

What I’d really like to see — and maybe it will appear in the next edition? — is a chapter that draws together the many strands and looks ahead to where New Zealand wine is headed and what might stop it from getting there. That would end the book on the same dynamic note I enjoyed throughout.

It would also make it a bit less of a reference book, which is its intended function. Maybe the best solution is to DIY — read this excellent book and then make up your mind where you think New Zealand wine is headed next! Highly recommended.

U.S. Wine Sales: Five Surprising Facts

wbm_cover_2018-9-1The September 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly is out and as usual it is full of interesting articles and useful information. As a wine economist, I have to admit that the first thing I look at with each new issue is the Retail Sales Analysis page, which presents recent U.S. wine market data as reported by Nielsen.

I suspect that many readers skip over this section, seeing it as a big table full of dreary gray numbers. How boring! But not to me. I thought you might be interested in five surprising facts I found as I combed through this issue.

But first a quick disclaimer. My old boss when I worked at a presidential commission in Washington DC used to say that there were three kinds of data: out-of-date, incomplete, and forthcoming. In other words, data is never as perfect as you want. I would add a fourth characteristic: expensive. The Nielsen data in Wine Business Monthly isn’t as complete or timely as you might like (data are for the 52 weeks ending May 19, 2018), but they are free, which I appreciate, and tell an important story. OK, here are the five facts.

#1 America’s Wine?

Europeans think of wine in terms of regions, according to conventional wisdom, but many Americans focus on grape variety. So which varietal wine is #1: Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon?

The answer is … both! Or rather, the varietal that tops the table depends on which table you look at. If you are interested in volume sales, Chardonnay is still number one, and by a large margin — 30.6 million cases in the 52 weeks of the survey for Chardonnay versus 24.6 million cases for Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Gris/Grigio comes in third with 17.1 million cases.

But if dollar value of sales is your focus, Cabernet narrowly edges out Chardonnay with about $2.56 billion in sales for Cab versus $2.54 billion for Chard. This result reflects Cabernet’s higher average bottle-equivalent price of $8.66 versus Chardonnay’s average price of $6.91.

#2 Most Expensive Varietal Wine?

Cabernet’s average price is higher than Chardonnay, but it isn’t the highest price that Nielsen reports. What varietal wine is #1 in terms of average bottle price? You might think Pinot Noir and you would be almost right. The average bottle-equivalent retail price of Pinot for the survey period was $10.43.

That’s a good average price, but not as high as #1 Zinfandel’s $11.19! Zinfandel? This really caught me by surprise because Zinfandel’s sales are relatively low. Pinot Noir’s sales by volume are more than four times Zinfandel’s.  But obviously not all the Pinot sales are in the $20+ range and the lower-priced products bring the average down.  I trust the data, but I am still surprised. More research needed here.

#3 France Strikes Back

I might have written “The Empire Strikes Back” because France is the empire of wine in terms of history and reputation. But French wines struggled to compete in the last dozen years and have fallen below Italy, Australia and New Zealand when measured by total sales value and below Australia, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand when measured by volume.

But France is surging back into contention, with 17.3% value growth and 14.4 % volume growth in the 52 weeks reported here. France’s average bottle price is $12.85, higher even than New Zealand’s $11.52.

Some of France’s exports to the U.S. market are quite expensive — Champagne in particular and high-end Burgundy and Bordeaux. But the French sales surge is largely powered by Rosé, which is the fastest growing wine category, up 54% by value and 32.7% by volume. Cowabunga — France is riding the Great Pink Wave back into the U.S. marketplace!

#4 Australia’s Real Challenge

Australian wine imports are a puzzle. Australia is the #2 import behind Italy measured by sales value and #1 ahead of Italy in the Nielsen data when measured by volume (12 million cases versus 10 million cases). But both value and volume fell during the 52 weeks measured here, continuing a trend we’ve seen in recent years. Aussie wine got a bad reputation a few years ago, the usual story goes. Buttery Chardonnay, sweet Shiraz. Australian wines went out of fashion.

My Australian industry friends now have the U.S. market in their sights once again, having successfully penetrated the Chinese market. Australian sales to China now outpace their exports to the U.S. and the U.K. markets.

I expect that the new sales effort will yield results, but the Nielsen data suggest to me that selling more wine in the U.S. market is not the real issue. Australia already sells lots of wine here. The problem is price. The average bottle price of Australian wine reported here is just $4.97, which is the lowest average bottle price of any of the countries that appear in the report. Price, not volume, should be the target and raising price is never very easy.

#5 Washington is Like a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that I am a big fan of Washington State’s wine industry, which doesn’t always get the respect that it deserves. It’s that #2 thing. Washington State lives in the shadow of its big wine neighbor, California. California’s 114 million case sale dwarf’s Washington’s 5 million cases in the Nielsen data.

Washington is small compared to California, but it doesn’t seem too tiny if we switch the frame of reference a bit. If we think of Washington as a foreign country, then the perception of its size changes a bit. At 5 million cases sold, Washington’s impact on the U.S. market is less than Australia and Italy, of course, but it is larger than Argentina (4 million cases in the U.S.), Chile (3.9 million cases) or New Zealand (3.1 million cases), and even bigger than Spain and France put together in terms of their U.S. sales volume.

Washington’s importance is also apparent if we look at sales value rather than case volume. With $602 million in annual sales, Washington’s U.S. sales are larger than all import countries except Italy and Australia. Looking just at U.S. sales spins the data to magnify Washington’s impact, of course, but comparing it just with California spins it the opposite way.

What’s the right way to think of Washington’s wine industry? Maybe we should compare it to New Zealand. Both regions have developed vibrant wine industries in just a few decades. Both punch above their weight with average bottle prices ($11.52 for New Zealand and $9.92 for Washington) well above the U.S. average of $7.21 or the California average of $6.85. And both, of course, are important competitors in the U.S. market.

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The Wine Economist will take a short break so that Sue and I can attend an important wine celebration in Italy. We’ll give you a full report when we return.

Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

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The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

Back to the Future of Napa Zinfandel

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Wouldn’t it be cool if you could travel back in time and tweak events just a little so that the past’s future (our present) would be better? That was the idea behind Steven Speilberg’s hit 1985 film “Back to the Future” and its many sequels.

Scientists are not optimistic that this time-bending strategy would work. They question whether a souped-up DeLorean sports car is the ideal time travel vehicle. And they warn of the dangers of changing history even a little. It’s dangerous to tinker with the past because of potential unintended consequences further down the road.

Tweaking the Judgement of Paris?

As I wrote in last week’s column, the present in Napa Valley is intensely focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, crowding out winegrape varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah that once dominated vineyards here. What if we could go back to 1976 and alter the famous Judgement of Paris so that Napa Cabernet wasn’t the surprise victor of that France vs California taste-off? What would Napa Zinfandel be today if Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t so completely over-shadow it?271201_97be_oct17_3820

Zinandel, once the numero uno  wine grape variety in the Napa Valley, now accounts for only about 5 percent of vineyard acreage. Petite Sirah is just half a percent. But some of the wines that are made tell a fascinating “back to the future” story of what could have been.

Sue and I met with two devoted Zinfandel producers, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores winery in the Rutherford district and Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district to learn more about Zinfandel’s present and its potential future.

The Curse of Big Zin

Julie Johnson dry farms 40+ year old Zinfandel vines in a foothill vineyard niche that is shaded from the afternoon sun. The wine is aromatic, balanced, medium-bodied, with delicious fruit and spice. Such wines are not easy to grow or make, Johnson told us, and selling them is also a bit of a problem.

Recent Nielsen data reported in the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly shows how far Zinfandel has fallen in terms of retail sales. Zinfandel is the 11th most popular varietal wine on the Nielsen list, wedged between Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz at bottom of the table. White Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel by a substantial margin. Ouch! That really hurts.

Zinfandel buyers often expect big, ripe, boozy Zin, which is not a style that’s on the Tres Sabores radar. Store shelves are peppered with California appellation Zinfandels that are dark and strong (and sometimes a little sweet, too). They are the market’s idea of Zinfandel.

Wines like this sell in part because they can fit into the popular red blend or dark red category pretty easily. But the Tres Sabores Zin is a horse of a different color and many restaurant wine programs hesitate to take on wines like this, despite their quality, because they differ so dramatically from what they think consumers expect from a Zinfandel wine. The idea of Zinfandel with finesse is fading fast.biale

All In on Zin?

And so you have to be pretty committed to go all in on Zinfandel as Robert Biale Vineyard has done. Sue and I met with Bob Biale at his beautiful winery and tasting room in the Oak Knoll district. Bob’s father Aldo and the family’s heritage as winegrowers are the inspiration for the business, which makes 15 different Zinfandel wines as well as other varietals including a surprising Greco Bianco we were served directly upon arrival.

Bob is devoted to preserving Napa’s Zinfandel DNA through many efforts, including especially his work with the Historic Vineyard Society, which seeks to identify and preserve producing vineyards that are 50 or more years old. Tegan Passalaqua, who specializes in single vineyard old vine Zinfandel at Turley,  is also active in this group.

A few of these historic vineyards provide grapes for Biale’s wines, such as the Valsecchi Vineyards Carneros Zinfandel we tasted.  There’s just an acre or so of 100-year old vines, Bob told us, and they produce just 95 cases of wine. But the wine is very special — elegant and balanced like all the Biale wines. Fantastic. Seriously, some of these old vine Zinfandel wines made me think of elegant Pinot Noir. I wonder if these wines would age like a fine Burgundy? Hmmm.

Occasionally Biale is able to persuade a grower to plant a bit of Zinfandel when it is time to renew a vineyard rather than the more certainly profitable Cabernet . Maybe the site just isn’t right for Cab. Or maybe the winegrower has been influenced by Bob’s obvious devotion to the wine and its history. Doesn’t matter — with a little luck these could be the historic vines of the future.

Back to the Future?

I don’t think I can manage the Marty McFly trick and rewrite the past, so the legacy of the Judgement of Paris is safe. Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon territory and the valley has developed around the production and sale of luxury wines. The history of the pioneers and their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is there, however, hidden in plain sight and ever-threatened by the Cab boom.

Maybe it had to be that way, but it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Zinfandel’s heritage is honored and celebrated to a greaert extent. I am glad that there are people like Julie Johnson and Bob Biale who are keeping the old vines and their memories of Napa days long past alive for us to taste today.

The Cabernet Boom and Its Discontents

Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.

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What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.

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But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.

Cabernet is #1

According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table.  Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.

Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.

The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.

Premium Prices

Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.

And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons.  The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.

No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.

The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.

Cab Pipeline is Full

If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.

Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.

Zin was thought to  make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret”  in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!claret

Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.

The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.

No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.

Stein’s Law

Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle.  People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!

The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.

Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.

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The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).