Three Things I Learned at the Unified Symposium’s “State of the Industry”

I’m the luckiest person I know and one aspect of my good fortune is that I have had the opportunity to moderate and/or speak at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium‘s “State of the Industry” session each year since 2012. Last week’s program was therefore my tenth appearance on the “State of the Industry” panel. How time flies!

Each year’s session brings together leading wine industry experts to talk about key trends and opportunities, recognize unresolved problems, and celebrate success. No wonder the big room (see photo above from a few years ago) is packed  with industry leaders from around the world each year — until 2021, of course, when the pandemic moved us on-line.

I get a ringside seat for both the formal presentations and the backstage banter and discussions. I always come away with fresh ideas and a better understanding of the wine industry. Herewith a few observations from the 2021 program.

#1 Elusive Market Balance 

A year ago one of the biggest concerns in California and Washington state was the structural surplus of wine grapes and bulk wine. With new vineyard acreage coming on-line,= a couple of big harvests already in the tank, and demand hitting a plateau, growers were encouraged to take a realistic look at their options and proactively manage supply until demand had time to catch up.

The market is much closer to balance as we enter 2021 and the big bulk wine hang-over seems to have receded. The 2020 harvest was short in California and Washington, too. The market hasn’t flipped, but  things have tightened up constructively.

But that structural surplus is still there. The short term balance is more about a short crop and smoke taint issues more than long term strategies. And price is a factor, too, with coastal fruit selling for California appellation prices in many cases. That’s supply and demand, of course, but it only works in the long term if costs adjust to the new price realities.

#2 The Mandela Rule

“They say that time changes things, but sometimes you have to change them yourself.”

I first encountered this saying when I was on a speaking tour in South Africa. I heard it attributed to Nelson Mandela, which pleased me, although the interweb thinks that Andy Warhol said it first. Either way, it seems to apply to today’s wine industry.

Jeff Bitter of Allied Grape Growers advocates a proactive approach to the supply side of the market, for example. Last year he called for growers to take a hard look at their vineyards and pull out marginal vines sooner rather than later. Better to turn the page than to leave fruit unpicked when prices drop too low or demand dries up.

Cost can be addressed, too, at least in some market segments. Higher yields don’t necessarily mean lower quality any more. The same is true for machine harvesting, which addresses both cost and labor availability issues.

There is still a lot of work to do, but it has been inspiring to see the industry rise to the occasion of all the challenges that we face in these “perfect storm” times of pandemic and recession.

#3 Pathways to Success

The “State of the Industry” panel concludes with a brief presentation by market guru Danny Brager where he spotlights “best of the best” wine firms that have been especially successful in the previous  year. The awards are modeled on the Olympic games awards, with bronze, silver and gold medals. It is always fun to try to guess who will get the prize.

The specific criteria for the gold medal means that it generally goes to big firms that have achieve high levels of both absolute and relative sales growth. This years winners were  Riboli Family, Delicato Family, Deutsch Family wineries. If you are familiar with these firms you know that they are very different in terms of their product lines and marketing strategies. Their success proves what Jon Fredrikson always told us when he was on the State of the Industry panel: there are no one-liners in wine.

This point is even clearer if you look at the wineries that received silver medal recognition this year.  Regional, national, and international wineries. Iconic brands alongside firms that fill private label needs.

What do they all have in common? Wine, of course, but it is obviously more than just fermented grape juice that connects this diverse list of successful wineries. Let me make this a discussion question. Give this some thought and leave a comment below with your ideas.

I don’t want to discount the hardships that many wine businesses have faced. I know a number of wineries, distributors, and sellers that have been forced to close their doors or dramatically reduce operations. I wish there was more support available for these businesses and that counter-productive policies like the U.S. wine tariffs could be reversed quickly. But Danny Brager’s lists of most successful wineries suggests there are still good opportunities for growth if you are in the right place and the right time with the right products and strategy.

#4 Bonus insights

Bait-and-switch alert: there were a lot more than three key points presented at the State of the Industry session last week. Herewith a few of them in quick-fire bullet format.

  • Cab Bubble Deflates? One of my concerns in recent years is that Cabernet Sauvignon has been over-planted and that the bubble would eventually pop. Well, it looks like the Cab bubble is losing pressure, at least in California (I’m not sure about Washington state) as some vines are being replaced with other grape varieties.  But …
  • Pinot Noir Over-Inflated? All the attention to Cabernet may have hidden irrational exuberance in Pinot Noir plantings. Is this a bubble ready to burst?
  • Sauvignon Blanc the Next Big Thing? Sauvignon Blanc sales have been growing steadily for many years. Initially this phenomenon was associated with New Zealand wine imports, but now it seems to be a broader trend. Will growers move out of over-supplied Cab and Pinot and away from Pinot Grigio to Sauvignon Blanc?
  • It’s a War Out There. Both Danny Brager and Jon Moramarco made an important point about the nature of competition strategy. Wine, beer, and spirits are all segments within the broader beverage alcohol category. It is typical to think about competition within each segment: wine vs wine, beer vs beer, etc. It makes sense that you would target customers of close substitutes for incremental sales. But really the bigger war is between and among the segments: wine vs beer (wine does well here) and wine vs spirits (a tougher battleground). Overall beverage alcohol sales have been and likely will be flat, it is a battle for market share.
  • And the Winner is …  Hard seltzer! Hard seltzer sales have boomed in recent years and continued to rise during the pandemic, the fastest-growing slice of the beverage alcohol category. What’s the appeal? Single serving size. Low calorie, low alcohol. Maybe even a healthy image (because they have low alcohol, hard seltzers feature nutritional labels that most wine brands don’t have).  The low alcohol sweetish wine segment has done very well — Stella Rosa sales have boomed, for example, and Indiana-based Oliver wines have thrived here as well.

That’s all for now. Looking forward to 2022 when (fingers crossed) we will be able to meet in person in Sacramento in the new and improved convention center.

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