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Monday, September 20, 2010, 3:10 am

Some optimism returns for annual two-day wine industry symposium

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    NAPA – Optimism among top wine industry executives about the prospects for profitability and sales growth are higher than they were this time last year, bouncing back to levels before financial markets crashed in September 2008, according to survey results to be released at a major conference in Napa this week.

    Robert Smiley, professor emeritus and director of wine studies in U.C. Davis’ Graduate School of Management, has been presenting the prognostications of industry executives for years at the Wine Industry Financial Symposium, to be held today and Tuesday in Napa. The financial outlook for the business brightened this year from the respondents’ perspectives.

    David Freed

    “2009 was the most bearish response to profitability and sales growth for the industry going forward,” said David Freed, chairman of Napa-based investor UCC Vineyard Group and one of the founders of the symposium 19 years ago.

    Dr. Smiley gauges these perceptions of industry confidence based on a poll as well as in-depth interviews.

    Reasons given for that optimism were led by the feeling that the economy is improving and consumers are returning to restaurants where fine wine is poured.

    “It remains to be seen whether that is optimism or a forecast,” Mr. Freed said. Yet history has shown that the industry tends to “bounce around the bottom” of an economic cycle before experiencing rapid growth.

    Survey respondents, as they did last year, noted top sources of concern for wine sales improvement are the persistent weak economy, “trading down” purchasing behavior among consumers and more meals eaten at home.

    “Consumers are much more value-oriented with a shelf full of offerings and the best price trumping brand or appellation,” Mr. Freed said.

    The symposium features eight workshops on Monday, covering direct-to-consumer sales, vineyard valuation, financial management, capital markets, wine pricing, social media dos and don’ts and cash-flow improvement.

    “One of the bankers on my panel said that a lot of the difficult situations for wineries in 2008 and 2009 are ending, from a banking perspective,” said Mr. Freed, moderator of the workshop panel on access to capital.

    Members of the panel are set to be Charles Day, North Bay regional manager for Rabobank; David Meddaugh, senior vice president and market manager for Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and Bill Silva, senior vice president and group manager for Comerica Bank.

    They told Mr. Freed their institutions have money to lend, given that outstanding balances in their portfolios are 15 percent to 20 percent below pre-crash levels. Yet banks are being more cautious about the financial strength of their borrowers, and a number of wineries are emerging from up to 18 months of aggressive measures to reduce inventory and debt.

    “It’s a divide of the haves and have nots,” he said, “customers banks want to lend to are not sure they want to borrow, and those that are struggling and want to borrow but have difficulties.”

    That situation has been exacerbated at the community banking level, at which a number of those smaller institutions are scrambling to assemble government-guaranteed loan programs as regulators pressure them to recapitalize, according to Robert Hower of Vintage Capital in Sonoma. The firm is now working with about a dozen Northern California community banks to launch such programs.

    The Tuesday symposium program includes Dr. Smiley’s report on survey and executive interview results, a keynote talk on mobile marketing and baby boomer consumers by Hahn Family Wines President Bill Leigon, a report on the bulk-wine market by Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage, panel discussion on industry consolidation, a report on wine sales by Brian Lechner of The Nielsen Co. and an update on direct-to-consumer laws by Jason Eckenroth of ShipCompliant.

    Consolidation among wine wholesalers and retailers has been progressing for years, but the tiny brands now are even in a more desperate situation among industry-wide inventory reductions because of the economy, according to Robert Nicholson, president of marketing and transaction advisory International Wine Associates of Healdsburg.

    He’s moderating the panel on consolidation and competition, made up of Adam Beak, senior vice president of Bank of the West; Peter Mondavi Jr., talking about succession planning at the large private company C. Mondavi & Sons; Rick Magnuson, executive managing director of GI Partners, which has a majority stake in Duckhorn Wine Co.; and Ray Chadwick, executive vice president of large wholesaler Young’s Market Co.

    “The top 10 wholesalers control more than 50 percent of the business in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s making things even more difficult for small producers.”

    That might lead to greater use of direct sales alternatives such as California or regional brokers.

    “It’s a challenging time,” Mr. Nicholson said. “Yet this is the biggest wine market in the world with 310 million cases sold last year and 70 million baby boomers. There’s a lot of upside to this industry.”

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