North Bay Business Journal

Wednesday, January 27, 2010, 3:46 pm

Imports help overall wine sales; end of ’09 better; slow recovery seen


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    SACRAMENTO — Large scale importation of bulk and bottled wine helped boost total U.S. shipments by an estimated 2.1 percent last year, but wineries heavily impacted by shifting consumer demand may have to wait until 2011 for significant market improvement, an expert said at a major industry symposium here this morning.

    Despite signs of improved sales for higher-end wines in the waning months of 2009, some winery representatives listening to Jon Fredrikson’s analysis at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium are preparing for a longer recovery.

    California wine shipments for the first 11 months of 2009 decreased 3.9 million cases, or 1.6 percent, according to Mr. Fredrikson of Woodside-based Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates.

    “It’s the first time in 16 years California shipments declined,” he said.

    U.S. shipments decreased 1.4 percent, or by 3 million cases last year to a total of 323 million.

    When shipments of imported wine are considered, total shipments increased 6.5 million cases, or 2.1 percent.

    He pointed to a survey of five large wine warehouses in Napa and Sonoma counties that suggested small growth in late 2009 after a decline of 20 percent for first half of last year.

    The Nielsen Company estimated that store sales of wine for the year increased 4 percent from the year before, with food store sales increasing and liquor store sales weakening.

    Also, table wine sales between summer of 2008 and fall 2009 were hot for wines retailing below $9 a bottle.

    In the last few months of last year, the $9 to $12 category started showing signs of increased sales, according to Mr. Fredrikson.

    “It could indicate that prices are moving back up,” he said.

    Boding well for the start of recovery in wine sales in 2010 is critical acclaim for the 2007 vintage for red wines now being released.

    Ted Lehr, manager of grower relations in Sonoma County and the Central Valley for Jackson Family Wines, said he thinks recovery for the business will take longer for brands to regain past price points.

    “We do not think it will get better until 2012 to 2013 after a year of seeing private-sector hiring,” he said following the presentation by panel experts.

    Robert LaVine, director of California sourcing for Brown-Forman Corp., which produces Fetzer and Sonoma Cutrer wines, said he wants to believe recovery in 2011 is a given.

    “Wine is an affordable luxury and adds to quality of life, so people will return to it,” he said.

    However, global competition for U.S. consumers who may or may not carry their new-found frugality into the future may force California wine operations, including those in fine wine regions, to adjust to a new reality of global sourcing, according to another panelist at the symposium today.

    More wine companies will act like consumer packaged goods companies, with a focus on price, margin and consumer acceptance, said Glenn Proctor of Ciatti Co. in San Rafael.

    “As the price point moves out of their comfort level, they will source from other areas of the world and may not come back when California plants more vines,” he said.

    He pointed to a large inflow of chardonnay wine from glutted Australia last year, which affected sales of such grapes from Napa and Sonoma counties for premium tier programs.

    “California wine is not going away,” he said.

    However, to be competitive, California wine grape growers should look at global markets as a future source for increasing quality, lower priced wine, he said.

    High costs of farming may call for more mechanization of viticulture and higher North Coast yields per acre, he added.

    “The premium market is going to be difficult for the next 12 to 18 months,” Mr. Proctor said.

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    1. January 28, 2010, 11:17 am

      by G. Ray Ankton

      The American palate has matured a great deal. Unfortunately, their pockets have not. This has create a “Blue Ocean” for well made South American wines like the Malbec from Argentina and the Tempranillo from Rioja Spain..I truely believe the trend will continue, South…..

      Director of Operations

    2. January 29, 2010, 2:25 pm

      by Wine Country PR

      If this is true, I think it’s going to require a shift in sales strategies for many small and mid-sized wineries.

      I think we’ll be seeing more small wineries focusing on their direct-to-consumer sales to keep margins while selling in the under-$15 price range.

      The ones that don’t–that have to keep selling to retailers and cutting into their own profits–will start suffering. I think we’re going to see a Walmart effect in big wineries that are able to bear this period, but I hope that local craft-wines can keep their overhead down and survive.

    3. February 25, 2010, 4:00 pm

      by Robert Golff and Associates

      The importation of foreign bulk wine as a substitute for California harvested grapes is a race to the bottom. Which by the way is no place to position yourself. The Wine Group of Ripon has already won that niche. email me if you’d like to know why a foreign mediocre Chardonnay from down under sold millions of cases of “Yellowtail” right before Napa and Sonoma Valleys very eyes. Once market share is lost, its hard to get back. I thought California’s fine wine growing districts had smart marketing and sales people working for them.

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