Meteor Vineyard
Barry Schuler
September 3, 2009 | News, Wine Business | Barry Schuler

What is really happening in the (Napa) wine business?

One year after the economic meltdown or the “Great Deep-cession” business sectors are taking stock of where things are. With all of the focus on the bail-outs of the financial industry, and the desperate circumstances of US Auto manufacturing, it comes as no surprise that there aren’t many tears being spilled over the current state of the Wine biz.  While there has been solid coverage by Sonoma’s Press Democrat of the local businesses, here in Napa Valley, there is much more of a stiff upper lip.
The fact is, there is quite a bit of turmoil around America’s (perhaps the world’s) leading wine region and considering the state of the economy, this should come as no surprise.
Before delving in, it’s worth a bit of a sidebar to note that the domestic wine industry is quite stratified into distinct market segments.  The high volume, $20 and under category represents the big dollars and is really part of the broader beverage industry selling beer, soda, and other various bottled/canned consumables.  As we venture up the chain above $25 we enter the premium wine category and a broad variation of products.  Circa 2008 well crafted wines up to $75 might have been considered value wines.  Over the last decade, the above $100 “A-list” of Napa fine wines has become increasingly populated . This list ranges from worldwide brands such as Duckhorn and Stags Leap to the boutique micro wineries. From there we go into pricing stratosphere.  Everything from very select bottlings of names like Dominus, and Staglin to the highly inaccessible Shafer Hillside Select, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle.  These, along with others have (prior to last year’s meltdown) have been rapidly pushing into the price zone of Bordeaux’s venerable first growths. $400- $800 and beyond on release.  Note these very same brands were hovering around $250 per bottle about five years ago, so we have clearly experienced accelerated pricing expansion in the short period between the busts (post 2001-pre 2009) in the ultra-premium or so called cult wines.
But here we are in October of 2009 harvesting another crop while Napa is in the middle of real bottle shock. While the dust is settling and the economic fog starts to clear, there are two schools of thought about the lasting impact of this current meltdown:
1. Glass Half Empty:  This is a forever re-calibration of the fine wine business.  It will be a long long time, maybe never before we see high volumes of California wine selling at $100-200 price points.
2. Glass Half Full:  This is a normal part of the boom bust cycle, once the bust is over, the survivors (note those who survive) will pick up right where they left off.
Know one knows which theory is correct but there are a few clues and certainly historical patterns to follow.  We have seen a great expansion of the wine drinking population in the last 20 years. This has been great for the industry.  The very highly priced wines’ success is always closely associated with wealth and particularly the creation of new wealth.  Our current financial crisis has hit people’s net worths very hard.  It has smashed the Wall Street crowd and all but eliminated the NY power lunches replete with $1000 bottles of something Napa-licious.  Yes there is still plenty of wealth around and love of great wine but ostentatious displays of excessive lifestyle are definitely not vogue at the moment.  So I guess the bottles of Harlan are being opened in the pantry at Per Se.
The positive effect in the midst of all of this is that wine fans have turned their attention down-market and are discovering that there are indeed many many wonderful wines for $50 (and less) and there can be great joy in their discovery.  After all, it doesn’t take much skill to buy the most expensive bottle on a wine list.  Industry numbers are reflecting that the economic downturn has indeed been a boon to producers of lower priced wines.  Two Buck Chuck a visionary indeed.
So how does all of this shake out? My own point of view is this crisis has always been a cyclic downturn.  A deep and bad one, but a necessary release of hyper-growth. I am old enough to have lived through three of these and in each one the naysayers were predicting apocalypse and citing all the reasons why this particular crisis was different than all of the others.   When you have a deep recession like this, Darwinian theory holds true: the strong survive.  How do you define strong?  Companies with products and services that have loyal customers who value them (no matter what the price).  And Companies that have a solid enough financial foundation to tough it out.  Those who were rapidly expanding and growing their expenses with the expectation of ever growing sales and those who are highly leveraged or require credit to sustain cash flow are having hard times.  Newer brands that have not yet established a customer base and also are highly leveraged are the most vulnerable.  There is plenty of inventory around and that will lead to lower production.  Lower production and the growers get hammered.
And what of California wines rising to $200 and $400 and in some cases $700/bottle and beyond? Was that a simple blip, a short aberration or will they find a lasting sustainable customer base.  If you turn to France and the history of the fabled First Growths you would conclude that if the wine is spectacular and gets even better over time, there will be an audience appreciates it and is willing to pay the price. Yes there will be ups and downs, but the great wines of France have survived world wars, recessions, depressions and phylloxera for centuries and have proven to be wines for the ages.  Now we’ll see if Napa can as well. There clearly is plenty of pain going around, but long term my money is where my palate is, right here in Napa.


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