Tag Archives: Wineries

Austrian Wine Scandals

The Most Horrific Wine Event of the 20th Century

I was reading a recent Meininger Wine Business Report and found this piece: https://www.wine-business-international.com/wine/news/wine-adulteration-austria.

For those that are not familiar with Austria and its history with wine, this article will familiarize you with the 1985 scandal when millions of bottles for domestic and export sales were found to have had diethylene glycol (similar to automobile antifreeze) added. This stuff can be very unhealthy. But, on the upside, it does make the wine fuller bodied and sweeter. Nice trade-off there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the result of that mess was the destruction of 36 million bottles of Austrian wine and the complete collapse of their wine industry. It would take almost 20 years and the addition of numerous laws and legal safe-guards for their wine industry to fully recover. There has finally been a huge resurgence in the popularity of Austrian wines in the last decade.

Latest Austrian Scandal

In several wine producing countries, it is illegal to add any type of glycerine to wine. Unfortunately, in the U.S., it is permitted. There is a huge difference between synthetic glycerine and vegetable glycerine. The synthetic type CAN be quite toxic. The vegetable version is very safe, but desirable as a wine additive? (discussion to follow below) 25,000 bottles were discovered and destroyed in Austria that were found to have synthetic glycerine added this year. The added substance in question was a trivalent alcohol that gives wine a higher viscosity and is harmless, but is forbidden by Austrian law. This synthetic glycerine was petroleum-based. Convictions and fines were the result. Sentences are not yet legally binding though. With Austria’s past, any chance of toxicity is serious bad form.

Wine Additives

Some of the additives listed below are illegal in certain countries, but most are permitted in the U.S. Although, we don’t get to know which are used in the wine we drink, BECAUSE WINE HAS BEEN EXEMPTED FROM USFDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS. What does this mean to you personally? Well, nothing here is outright dangerous, but don’t underestimate the impact on allergies, tolerances and such. For example, my wife has a known allergy to soy, others find they have limited tolerance to added sulfites, etc. In general, all of these can affect color, flavors, aromas and the viscosity of wine. Your reaction to this discussion might be: “but, these additives are only used in cheap wine”. You would be very wrong. This list is commonly used in all price categories.

Here is a short list of common wine additives:

  • Citric, Fumaric, Malic, Lactic and Tartaric acids – to acidify wine
  • Calcium Carbonate – to de-acidify wine
  • Oak and Oak Chips – to add tannin, flavors & aromas
  • Acetaldehyde – to stabilize color
  • Copper Sulfate – to eliminate sulfites and mercaptans (bad tastes/odors)
  • Sulfur Dioxide, Potassium Sorbate – to sterlize and preserve wine
  • Mega Purple – to add color and body
  • Tannin Powder – to add mouth-feel and make wine more ageable
  • Gum Arabic – to reduce astringency (tannin) in wine
  • Dimethyl Dicarbonate – to stabilize, sterilize and remove alcohol
  • Sugar, Saccharose, or Grape Juice Concentrate – to add sweetness also called “chaptalization”
  • Vegetable Glycerine – to add body and sweetness
  • Gelatin, Albumin (egg white), Bentonite, Casein – to remove haziness caused by free proteins
  • Water – to dilute over-concentrated wine
  • Engineered, Cultured Yeasts – to control the fermentation process (vs. wild yeasts)
  • Diammonium Phosphate – removes naturally occurring sulphur in wine
  • Protease – improves wine heat tolerance
  • Soy Flour – Feeds yeast to accelerate fermentation

Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

All of this talk of additives has to lead your mind toward interventionist vs. non-interventionist winemaking philosophies. Have you considered the issue for your own wine consumption? Personally, I believe I can taste the difference in over-manipulated wines. Napa Valley producers in the low to medium price range have been utilizing these methods more of late. This is the key reason why my personal wine cellar has been moving towards a higher percentage of French and Italian wines, especially in the low-medium price ranges. France and Italy have very stringent wine laws regarding additives and in general, have winemaking cultures of less intervention. So, if you would like to address this issue, how can you know which U.S. wines to buy? It may be time for you to read the back label of that next bottle of wine… Wine in the U.S. can be “labeled” as organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable… and can also be certified as such by a third party. Many U.S. wineries are implementing at least some of these practices. Here is what these terms mean:

  • Natural – Typically are made in a low-intervention style, fermented with native yeasts and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites. These wines are not filtered, or fined. This means they could contain particulates, or appear cloudy. Which is not necessarily a problem. These wines should have gone through the bare minimum of chemical, or winemaker intervention and are not often aged in oak. Wines produced with this approach may have limited stability and cannot be mass-produced, but are a different drinking experience, if you should choose to try them.
  • Organic – These wines fall into two categories: organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes. Certified organic wines (USDA) have stricter regulations. Vineyards must not use synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients in these wines (including yeast) must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added, although naturally occurring is permitted. These wines will display the USDA organic seal.
  • Biodynamic – Unlike organic winemaking, biodynamic does not change between countries. When originally devised, the method had each day organized by fruit days (grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days (vineyards to be untouched). Biodynamic practices are not required to follow this calendar, however. If you’ve seen biodynamic and organic wines grouped together at your wine shop, there is a reason. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices. They avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. Therefore, the majority of these wines are also organic in practice. Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA certified organic wines. So, a wine that is organic is not necessarily biodynamic, although a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
  • Sustainable – These wineries make an effort to utilize winemaking processes that protect the environment, support social responsibility, maintain economic feasibility, and are of high quality. This idea has less of a direct impact on the wine, but is an “eco-friendly” designation.

Here is a link to a page with detailed descriptions of all organic wine designations: https://organicvineyardalliance.com/organic-wine-definitions-behind-the-label/.

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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign!

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Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Waterson, Copyright – Andrews McMeel Publishing

I am not the only one seeing the changing face of the U.S. wine industry and the industry resistance to any kind of meaningful response.

Sources

Wine-Searcher just posted an article regarding a recent wine symposium where the topic of conversation has been adjusting to the changing market. See my previous article at this link: Trends Changing the Wine Industry and the Wine-Searcher article at this link: Gloomy Outlook for Small Wineries.

Can Small Wineries Survive the Changes?

Here are the data points changing the face of the wine industry with limited response by producers (the numbers across multiple sources had some variation, so the figures below are approximate):

  • 90% of all wine made in the U.S. is sold by the 320 wineries that exceed 50,000 cases of production. Of that 90%, more than half is dominated by the top FIVE: Gallo, Wine Group, Constellation, Trinchero and Delicato. The other 9,000+ wineries are bringing only 10% of all wine production to market in the U.S.**
  • With the recent on-going consolidation in wine distribution, the top FOUR by volume nationally (Southern, Republic, Breakthru & Young’s) deliver approximately 60% of all wine distributed in the U.S., but represent only 30% of the wineries.**
  • In the case of wineries producing fewer than 10,000 cases, distributors were responsible for only 33% of sales in 2016. A 6% decrease over the previous year and the trend is continuing.**

Is your head swimming with numbers yet? Suffice to say, BIG has become financially BETTER today and could very well push SMALL to the side of the road. Why? The answer is in the numbers above. How do those other 70% of under-represented wineries bring their wine to market? Winery Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) sales is only 2% of all wine sold in the U.S. currently.

Solutions

Small wineries better become experts at marketing, capturing clientele and earning their continuing loyalty… and fast! If they do not already have a developed DtC customer base, it is near too late. Those who wish to survive, should be investing now! The large distributors dominating the market already have large portfolios of wine labels and shelf-space and wine lists only have so much room.

There were two great hopes: the loosening of rules in cross-state shipping of wine allowing the emergence of online wine retailers and the advent of wine big-box retailers (think Total Wine). At one time, it was looking like these two channels buying winery-direct could represent small wineries and fill the gap. Although just like the DtC space, they are missing the expertise to deliver the volume of sales needed. Can online retailers get better at building inviting online platforms and tools to identify and explore the consumer palate? Can big-box retailers provide a better buying experience that allows thousands of labels to be properly represented? Unfortunately recently, wine commerce laws have become stricter (see recent changes in FL) and it is making it more challenging for both of these channels to grow fast enough to fill the gap.

Why Should Consumers Care?

Well, if you have favorite wines produced by wineries with under a 10K case output… supporting them with your DtC purchases will become important to their continued survival and your continuing supply. It is that simple. The survival of small wineries is in your hands…

 

**Reference sources for this article were: Various Wines & Vines articles, Grand View Research – Wine Market Trends Report, Forbes Food & Agriculture articles, L.E.K. Insights  – Trends Affecting the Wine Industry, Dr. Liz Thach MW – Blog and Statista – Alcoholic Beverage Statistics. The internet provides so much rich content, if you search!

 

 

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Trends Changing the Wine Industry

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Silicon Valley Bank has been producing state of the beverage industry reports for years. I try to make sure I read the formal report every year, but they also write a blog for the wine industry that I check-in on occasionally. The data can deliver insights that bring an interesting perspective to market trends.

Data is Predicting Changes

The U.S. wine industry has been on a steam roller building big gains in revenue and beverage market share drawing in new consumers from younger generations of social drinkers. The recent data is showing significant slowing of that growth, even in areas that have been hot in the past, such as: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Super Premium Wines, Direct-to-Consumer Sales and On-Premises (restaurant) Consumption. Unfortunately, the growth in the number of small growers and producers is not slowing to match pace. Many of these producers are being drawn to the lifestyle, not the business opportunity and the industry is reaching a tipping point for several reasons.

TRENDS

Restaurant Wine Sales is Slowing

Distribution is their own worst enemy here. In an effort to control local beverage markets, they are actually causing irreparable harm to their dealer’s ability to respond to market trends. Destructive strategies, such as:

  • Withholding well-known brands of beer and spirits, if specific high-profit wines being promoted are not purchased.
  • Extending credit limits, or terms to obtain leverage on buying decisions.

A successful restaurant wine inventory should have wines covering well-known lower priced labels, lesser-known value in the middle range and highly scored, high priced wine that garner recognition. This approach tends to satisfy a much wider range of consumer, offer a selection all can explore/enjoy/afford and provide up-sell opportunities for the staff when the occasion calls for it. Instead, distributors in many states are preventing this type of responsive approach. Read the piece at this link for additional info:  Restaurant Wine Sales

Fruit/Wine Supply Exceeding Demand

Wine travel in Europe teaches you one thing: don’t be afraid to order cheap table wine with a meal there. Even table wine in Europe can be very good. The growing over-supply issue may change the landscape in the U.S. For many years now, the $10-15/btl retail price has delivered poor quality in the U.S. I am hoping this market trend will bring more, better quality fruit and wine to the market at reduced prices, instead of vineyards dropping the excess fruit to rot in the fields. See information on this at this link:  Wine Supply

Premium Wine Sales are Flat

The continued growth in this category is coming primarily from price increases, not the volume of wine. Interestingly enough, consumption of premium craft beer has also weakened. This is very likely being caused by an aging Boomer generation drinking less wine, without Millennials filling the gap. The younger generation seems to be moving towards exploration and looking for value, rather than committing to older high-priced labels. See information on this at this link: Premium Wine Sales

Direct-to-Consumer Beverage Sales Continues to Grow

As long as State legislatures and the Supreme Court continue to keep their hands off this segment of wine/beer/spirits distribution… this will likely be the savior of the small producer… for those that get it right. With the extensive consolidation in the beverage distribution industry in the last few years, there is just not enough room on the shelf for the growing number of labels, especially for smaller producers without a sizable marketing budget. The continuing growth in the number of small producers will force an understanding of how to connect and maintain a relationship with a clientele, or fail. Wineries must continue to move towards improving the wine experience for potential customers, rather than provide a traditional tasting room as the only engagement. This is the only segment left in the wine industry that offers a solid business opportunity, but selling out each vintage will increasingly become a challenge, without the bulk purchasing distribution can offer. The trick will be how to build the DtC channel for each producer. With most small wineries being about the farming, or the winemaking… there will need to be a newly developed understanding of marketing and customer engagement. It will be a matter of survival. See information on this at this link: Small Winery Sales

Changes are Coming

The U.S. wine industry is likely to look quite different five years from now. There is a good chance, with the Millennial penchant for exploring new wines, that imported wine sales will grow faster than domestic in the future. This pressure may actually force the U.S. wine industry to get better at producing quality in that $10-15/btl range that typically does not exist today. An outcome I am looking forward to…

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Winery Profits, Vineyard Management and Winemaking

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Future of Lodi AVA

This has been an illuminating couple of days at #WBC16. I think I have an initial feel for a few of the major issues facing the Lodi AVA. First, the wine industry potential here has no limit. The terroir is capable of producing interesting enough wines to support a solid run at the premium wines category, but the local farming culture is actively impeding progress.

Multi-generational wine growing families dominate large swathes of the region, bringing a focus on farming science to the local wine industry identity. I spoke with a large sampling of wineries here and almost all ownership either originally started as growers, still have a fruit supply contract, or have a family history in farming. This is an AVA where large production wineries dominate the local economy with bulk wine and large production labels in the $10-20/btl price range. There is a clear local perception of Lodi’s current market position, but a few have a vision for the future and entry into the premium and ultra-premium categories… where double digit growth in the industry lies. The cost per ton of bulk wine grapes sold for volume production has been stagnant here, whereas the cost of quality fruit for small production labels has been rising. Some here with a head for business and a marketing sensibility, see the profit potential in a change of approach.

These factors are just the background for the Lodi discussion. The real issue is the identity crisis being caused by conflict between farming science and premium winemaking philosophies. Fruit production concerns here, not the winemakers approach, are driving the final product. Napa, Sonoma and parts of the Central Coast have already moved past this barrier. These other regions have developed production environments where the winemaker’s vision is effectively incorporated into the vineyard management strategy. This evolution has not reached Lodi yet and the battle for the identity of Lodi AVA is solidly underway.

Winemaking Strategies and Vineyard Management

I attended a short panel discussion during the conference that was focused on viticulture in the area. The ideas expressed… were hard to believe. In a world where Lodi is striving to be relevant in the premium wine category, this one discussion put the region back a decade. The panel asserted that quality wine could be produced from vineyards managed to deliver 10-12 tons of fruit per acre. One of the individuals on the panel was adamant! I wrote an article last year related to a similar topic that applies: Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine? I was referring to winemakers in the piece, but it can also apply to vineyard managers as well. I have tasted wines comparatively from fruit harvested at 2 tons, 4 tons and 6 tons/acre. There is a very noticeable difference. As a common theme across all Napa/Sonoma winemakers I have interviewed – none of these wineries sourced fruit from vineyards producing over 5 tons/acre. So, this panel is telling me Lodi vineyards can produce quality fruit at 10-12 tons/acre… AND dropping fruit does not increase concentration of flavors?

Team Commitment to Quality

In the premium and ultra-premium categories today there are many techniques in use that have an impact on vineyard management strategy. The goal is to enhance structure, balance and complexity in the final product. Here are a few:

  • Multi-Pass and Small Block Harvesting
  • Small Lot Fermentation and Blending
  • Extended COLD – Soak, Maceration and Fermentation.

I explained some of these techniques in a previous blog post at: Why Do Wines Taste So Different? These represent winemaker driven strategies and are the hallmark of an ultra-premium mindset. Very few of these techniques are in use currently in Lodi. The changes required in vineyard operations to adopt these methods is not consistent with a farming driven approach to wine growing. If winery operations teams can’t move thinking in this direction, bulk wine growing will continue to dominate the region.

Profitability and Perceptions of Success

How do Lodi wine professionals measure success in the wine industry? Does that vision conflict with profitability?

It is clear to me, many of these Lodi wine growers measure their success by their ability to produce reasonable quality at the highest yields. Profitably producing fruit under a 10 year contract with Gallo at $600-800/ton is the picture of that success. My imagination is just not captured by what it takes to be profitable producing 500,000 cases of wine. There is definitely more than one approach to running a profitable winery, but from the wine service perspective, achieving high quality and acclaim is the definition. That quality has typically come from single vineyard designate, estate wine production. I think there are many students of winery operations that could deliver quality at 3-5,000 cases… and struggle to make a profit. What is truly impressive is a 10-25,000 case winery developing demand at a premium price point and driving healthy profits! Notable success in the Wine Industry should be measured by producing highly acclaimed premium and ultra-premium wines, while delivering a serious return on investment.

Is Change Necessary in Lodi?

Is the agricultural flavor of the local area what defines Lodi? Yes. Can the local industry be profitable with offering fruit by the ton, bulk wine and $10-20/btl wines? Yes. Will the area draw attention from the wine trade around the world and move producers here into the premium and ultra-premium categories? Resoundingly – no. What is the future of Lodi wine production? I guess, we will all wait and see…

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