California export boosters aim for 37% more wine abroad by 2030

As California vintners eye slowing sales growth in the U.S., they might find opportunity knocking more loudly in markets abroad, even though it’s tumultuous time for the industry around the world, according to experts in foreign markets at a wine export conference in Napa on Feb. 18.

Factors outside the control of California wineries have created “unprecedented volatility in the wine market,” said Honore Comfort, vice president of international marketing for Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based industry advocacy group with about 1,000 vintner and other members. She was speaking at the organization’s first California wine global export conference, held at The CIA at Copia.

The group announced plans to ramp up export marketing of California wine by the end of this decade. Exports of wine from the state increased 60% by value in the decade ending in 2018, reaching $1.46 billion. Through education programs for the trade and consumers in the top 25 foreign markets, the goal is to increase that export volume to $2 billion a year by 2030, with California making up 95% of sales.

By comparison, sales of wines directly to U.S. consumers reached $3.2 billion last year, up 7.4% by value from 2018, according to Sovos ShipCompliant and Wines Vines Analytics. Total U.S. wine sales were $48.8 billion in the 12 months ending in January, up over 4%, according to Santa Rosa-based market research firm bw166.

This spring, the institute plans to release details of that program, including multiyear goals, which will build on three decades of previous efforts from the group and lessons learned in foreign markets, Comfort told the Business Journal. A focus will be on getting more “middle market” wines from around California abroad. What that means in bottle prices depends on what the effective shelf price would be in the target market, after any tariffs and markups by intermediaries or retailers, she said.

One of the key messages California wineries can use to get more attention from trade accounts in increasingly more export markets is sustainability, according to conference keynote speaker Jancis Robinson, MW, one of the world’s most influential wine critics and authorities.

“One place in the world that can - and perhaps, is - look at sustainability in a holistic sense, I would think it’s California, because you are now very, very aware of the labor force and the need to look after your vineyard workers, in particular,” she said during an interview with American wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown, a contributor to Robinson’s online compendium of reviews.

But there also a high level of skepticism about the value of sustainability programs, Brown said.

“People are thinking that, ‘Oh, if you use the word “sustainable” you’re actually greenwashing,’” she said.

That’s why wine critics, sommeliers and wine buyers around the world want more transparency to such claims, especially an outside audit, Robinson said.

One such audit she pointed to was Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines’ carbon emissions audit done last year in conjunction with Familia Torres of Spain’s Catalonia region, an effort they’re calling the International Wineries for Climate Action. The group’s goal is to reduce wine industry emissions globally and individually offset winery energy consumption via renewable sources.

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