The pandemic has turned the the US wine market on its head as consumers embrace new buying habits.
While US wine sales overall are up, 57 percent of US wineries who responded to an executive survey say their own sales are down.
How is this possible? Big wineries are taking more market share at the expense of small wineries. This was one of many nuggets of information from the Wine Industry Financial Symposium, held online this week.
The executive survey conducted by Sonoma State University is an annual highlight of the symposium as it gives a snapshot of what individual wineries are facing, which cannot always be gleaned by looking at overall numbers.
For example, let's talk about prices, with help from Danny Brager, who now runs an independent consulting business after a long career at Nielsen. Consumers in retail stores are paying more for wine: the average price is $11.38 compared to $10.68. Moreover, the fastest-growing categories in retail stores are above $15, with wines between $20 and $25 particularly hot.
In wines ordered direct from wineries, however, the opposite is true: consumers are ordering a lot more wines this way, but they're ordering cheaper wines. In Napa Valley, the average price of a bottle ordered direct in the last five months is about $56, $10 less than a year ago, Brager said. And direct sales of wines over $150 have plummeted.
Moreover, the smallest wineries, fewer than 5000 cases, have struggled the most in selling wines directly to consumers, though these are the wineries that tend to be most reliant on doing so.
Despite, or because of, being surrounded by wines, Californians order fully 28 percent of all wine shipped directly from wineries. But since the pandemic started, the fastest growth of online wine ordering has been from three East Coast states: Maryland, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
A relevant topic with the uncertainty of the 2020 harvest is how much juice wineries have in inventory. The good news is that 35 percent of wineries in the executive survey said they are "long" on wine; i.e., they have more in stock than they can currently sell.
Brager said that the hottest varieties in terms of sales growth are Sauvignon Blanc, red blends (in the US, this generally means sweetish concoctions, not field blends), Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and rosé. The growth in red blends isn't the sign of a pandemic sweet tooth that it might seem, however, because sales of Moscato and Riesling, which rose in the early days of the pandemic, have since fallen. Brager also said that while New Zealand dominated Sauvignon Blanc sales growth before the pandemic, California Sauvignon Blancs have done just as well during it.
Sparkling wine remains hot, and not just Prosecco.
"Champagne is having a great day in the (retail stores)," Brager said. "Domestic sparkling is growing quite strongly too. And people aren't shying away from higher-priced wines right now. People can't spend on trips, can't spend on sporting events, can't spend on entertainment. For insulated consumers who still have a job, they do have money to spend, and they do want to celebrate, albeit in a different way."
Wineries have noticed, as 28 percent said in the executive survey that they will be "betting resources" on sparkling wines in the next year, above any other category; intriguingly, 6.5 percent said cannabis.
Americans go big
In fact, Americans on average have actually had more disposable income during the pandemic, according to Kaumil Gajrawala, an equities analyst at Credit Suisse. Gajrawala said the early stimulus checks and additional unemployment insurance payments helped, and pointed out that sales of luxury home goods like Peloton cycles and $10,000 couches from Restoration Hardware are way up.
Gajrawala said a lot of big brands in beer and spirits that were losing market share before the pandemic have reversed that. Don Julio Tequila, for example, has more than doubled its sales, despite a large sales base to start with and a fairly high price point.
However, as restaurants reopen, they may not be able to take advantage of the large markups on wine they once used to balance the books.
"After months of buying wines at retail, consumers are more educated about prices than ever before," said Mel Dick, president of the wine division of Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, the largest wine distributor in the US. Dick called 2020 a "buyer's market" for wine.
Dick also said that wineries that own their own vineyards are in the best position if they need to reduce prices because they can create a second, cheaper, label using the same grapes without damaging their flagship brand.
The symposium concluded with Ben Dollard, president for the Americas of Treasury Wine Estates, introducing some of Treasury's plans for its wine business. Dollard played a video by Snoop Dogg, who is helping promote the 19 Crimes brand that is popular with younger men.
Dollard also revealed that Treasury will be releasing in China a BV wine from Bordeaux, because its BV wines have been selling well there.
BV stands for Beaulieu Vineyard, which is an actual vineyard in Rutherford in Napa Valley. So a Napa Valley brand, owned since 2016 by an Australian publicly traded company, will buy bulk grapes from Bordeaux to sell French wine in China.
Let me tell you something from my experiences judging at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition – by volume, there is more horrible, undrinkable wine made in Bordeaux than anywhere else in the world. Yes, there's plenty of great wine in Bordeaux, but if you tasted the worst of Bordeaux as many wine professionals have, you would be extremely grateful for the gatekeepers (sommeliers and retail wine buyers) who don't bring these wines into the US market.
I asked Dollard where and how Treasury will get the grapes for its Australian Napan Bordeaux for China. He didn't answer with specifics but said: "The critical thing is that it hits the quality standard."
That shouldn't be hard, as no matter what goes into it, it will immediately be the best Australian Napan Bordeaux on the Chinese market, and quite possibly anywhere in the world.