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Winebits 363: CDC, lawsuits, Big Wine

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CDC excessive drinkingSaving us from ourselves: The Centers of Disease Control is at it again, reassuring those of us who drink too much that there is hope. Says the head of the health agency’s alcohol program: “Many people tend to equate excessive drinking with alcohol dependence. We need to think about other strategies to address these people who are drinking too much but who are not addicted to alcohol.” This strikes me like being sort of pregnant, but what really matters is that the CDC’s definition of excessive drinking is wine with dinner, and this fact doesn’t appear in the story. For which the Wine Curmudgeon must call out Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times for repeating that assertion. Which, as near as I can tell after doing the reporting, is scientifically unfounded.

When is Champagne not Champagne? When it’s the name of a wine writer, reports Decanter, the British wine magazine. Hence the lawsuit filed by France’s Champagne trade association against Australian Rachel Jayne Powell, who goes by Champagne Jayne. Since Powell also writes about other sparkling wine, the Champagne group says her name violates European Union rules. Their logic? That Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, so a writer who uses Champagne as a name can only write about Champagne. The case is scheduled to go to trial next week in Melbourne, believe it or not, and Decanter reports that it could set precedents. The Wine Curmudgeon, whose aversion to silly lawsuits like this is well known, has a suggestion: Settle by letting Powell call herself champagne Jayne with a small C, since every wine geek knows Champagne only comes from Champagne with a capital C.

Yet another million case producer: One of my goals with the blog is to help consumers understand that most of the wine we drink doesn’t come from artisanal producers, but from Big Wine — the multi-million case producers who dominate the business. That’s why this two-part interview with someone I’ve barely heard of is worthwhile. In it, Vintage Point’s David Biggar talks about his company’s 17 brands, the best known of which is Layer Cake. In this, what the wines taste like barely comes up, though there is plenty of discussion about pricing, distribution and the three-tier system, and margins. Which is what the wine business really is, and not all that foolishness that the Winestream Media would have you believe.

Winebits 356: Big Wine edition

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wine news big wineBecause it’s always worth knowing what the six companies that control 60 percent of the U.S. wine business, plus their biggest competitors, are up to:

The biggest producer you’ve never heard of: Delicato Family Vineyards makes 5 million cases of wine a year, almost all of it Great Wall of Grocery store stuff, and almost all of it in anonymity. You might have heard of some of its brands, like Bota Box and Gnarly Head, but the winery itself is perfectly happy to be little known. That’s why this two-part interview (here and here) with Delicato president and CEO Chris Indelicato, conducted by the Shanken News Service is worthwhile. Indelicato talked about wine prices and that another big harvest in California this year will mean lower margins for producers, if not lower prices for consumers; that we’ll see more cheap pinot noir that doesn’t exactly taste like pinot noir because consumers want it; and that consumers are smarter than they used to be. Which doesn’t exactly jibe with doing Bota Box pinot noir and what Indelicato calls the consumer’s demand for soft — i.e., sweet — red, but who am I to argue with a 5 million case producer?

• Big companies, big results: Each year, the Impact trade magazine names its Blue Chip Brands, which have to meet growth and profit targets. Not surprisingly (at least for those of us paying attention), one of the Big Six, Constellation Brands, and Diageo, in the top 15, account for nearly one-third of the 2014  of Blue Chip Brands for beer, spirits, and wine. Constellation’s wines included Woodbridge, Black Box, Estancia, Ruffino, Kim Crawford, and Simi, though Diageo’s brands were all beer and spirits. I’d also mention that all but one of the Constellation wines cost $10 or less, but that would probably be preaching to the choir.

Big and getting bigger: The news release itself is close to useless, full of jargon and terms most of us don’t understand. But the gist is what matters: That Chile’s Concha y Toro, the biggest Latin American wine producer with $950 million in sales, is growing at a rate of 18 percent a year. That makes it one of the 15 biggest wine companies in the U.S. market, with more market share here than Diageo.  Again, this is a company that most wine drinkers don’t know (though they have likely heard of Fetzer, which Concha bought in 2011). In this, it’s another example of how the biggest companies continue to tighten their grip on the market.

Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S. market in 2013

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Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S. market

So how many smaller wine companies should we buy this year?

Big Wine tightened its grip on the U.S market in 2013, with new figures showing that three companies accounted for more than half of all the wine produced during those 12 months. E&J Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Wines totalled some 187.5 million cases of the 370 million produced.

Throw in the next three biggest companies — Bronco, home of Two-buck Chuck; Trinchero Family Estates; and Treasury — and that total rises to 241.4 million cases — about two-thirds of the wine made in the U.S. The top 30 by themselves account for some 90 percent; in other words, all the wine that those of us who write about wine love to write about? Hardly anyone drinks it. No wonder availability is such an issue.

The report, Wine Business Monthly’s annual ranking of the 30 biggest U.S. wine companies (requires free subscription), follows up on last year’s Michigan State study that found that Big Wine controlled about 60 percent of the U.S market. The two studies didn’t use the same methodology (Wine Business Monthly doesn’t include imports like Yellow Tail, but apparently does include foreign brands owned by U.S companies), but the trend is obvious. The big are getting bigger.

A few thoughts about the results:

 • There is big, and then there is really big. No. 1 Gallo, with 80 million cases, sold more wine than the bottom 26 companies combined. That’s a staggering statistic, and speaks to Gallo’s understanding of the post-modern wine business — marketing, certainly, but also how to leverage the three-tier system and how to develop products, like sweet red wine, that elude other wine companies.

• Adding brands. “One of the things that surprised me was the number of big wineries that are not introducing new brands,” said Wine Business News editor Cyril Penn. “It’s mostly just the Gallo’s and Constellations of the world are doing a lot of that this year.” These so-called line extensions are another sign that the biggest companies see wine the same way Proctor & Gamble sees cleaning supplies and Campbell’s sees soup.

• Consolidation is all. Wine Business Monthly included its 2003 top 30 list, and 12 companies on that list are gone, sold or merged into bigger companies. In addition, five companies are on the 2014 list because they bought other companies to get big enough to make the list.

• Big isn’t as big as it used to be. One million cases used to be the hallmark of a big wine company. These days, it will only get you 18th on the list.

Is all this bigness good? For prices, almost certainly. The biggest companies can afford to sell wine for less and make up the difference on volume (to say nothing of their lower costs of production, thanks to economies of scale). Wine quality, at least technically, should also benefit, so now flawed or unripe wine. What’s less clear is what bigness means for value. Big Wine focuses on price and technical quality, and whether the wine is interesting is an afterthought. Hence all those $10 California merlots that taste the same.

The fear for those of us who love cheap wine is that, as the big get bigger, it will be more difficult to find interesting cheap wine. I’m seeing some of that this year, with producers sacrificing interest in favor of cheaper grapes to keep prices down. The last thing any of us want is for wine to turn into beer, where cheap means Budweiser and Miller Lite, and where it’s almost impossible to find the $10 values that exist in wine.

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