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business of wine, Social Media

10 Dynamic Forces Impacting the Consumer #Wine World

As a child, I recall asking my parents what it was like to come of age during the counterculture revolution of the late 60s. Their response was simple: “It didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time.”  Ditto their response regarding disco in the 70s.

As I wax philosophic with my own era of the early 90s and the revived nostalgia of grunge music, it’s evident that history has a way of placing cultural trends into a framework of relevance that is bigger in hindsight than when we lived through it the first time.

And, so it goes with wine, I believe.  Today is a Golden Age for wine and the consumer.  Twenty years from now we will look upon this period of time in the domestic wine world as the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter.

With that in mind, in the first of two parts, here are the forces of change that are re-shaping our wine world before our eyes, no hindsight required.

Wine Market Forces 1 – 5

Wine Consumption Growth

It doesn’t matter whose numbers you look at, wine has and will continue to grow in the U.S.  According toImpact Databank research,American wine-consumption recorded its 17th consecutive annual increase and domestic consumers spent more than $40 billion on wine last year, another all-time high.

In addition, Nielsen research presented in April 2011 indicates that wine was the number one product in unit growth at mass market outlets for the 52 weeks ending January 22, 2011.

The bottom line: Long an ancillary beverage behind beer and spirits, the U.S. is becoming, first and foremost, a wine consuming country.

Generation Y

A research term used by the Wine Market Council(WMC), an industry research group, identifies wine drinkers who drink wine at least once a week as a, “Core” drinker.  Core drinkers represent 91% of all wine consumption.

Typically wine drinkers move along an interest and adoption curve before graduating into a “Core” wine drinker.  It should come as no surprise then that when research shows that over 50% of Generation Y, a generation larger in size than Baby Boomers, are onboarding into wine as a “Core”drinker the wine business is palpably excited.

The bottom line: young adults in their twenties have vigorously taken to wine.  Their interest in wine, their technological adeptness and their global sensibility is driving growth and impacting all levels of wine marketing.

The Global Wine Village

While Generation Y has shown an affinity for imported wines at higher prices, the still nascent aspect of globalization in wine is U.S. exporting.  2010 was a record year for US exports reported at $1.14 billion, but The Wine Institute, the California wine industry’s influential trade association, sees much more potential on the world stage and has initiated a global branding strategy.

With the European Union funding wine marketing in the states and wine regions emerging in far-flung places like the Eastern Bloc coupled with meteoric growth of wine interest in Asia, the borders of the global wine village are expanding … rapidly.

The bottom line: Just like a Honda Accord can be made in Alabama and Budweiser is owned by a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate, wine is also bending our conventional understanding of where and with whom quality wine and affinity resides.

Drink Local

No large trend is complete unless there’s a head-scratching counter trend.  The antithesis of the global wine trend is the localized wine trend.  American’s understanding of the domestic wine world through the lens of west coast hegemony is seriously being threatened by regions that are pacing in years what has taken California, Oregon and Washington decades.

Nielsen research presented in conjunction with the WMC in January of this year showed a 27% growth in sales volume for Michigan wines, for example.

The bottom line: Michigan Pinot Noir, Finger Lakes Riesling, Virginia Viognier, Niagara ice wine – these are all world class examples that a ready audience is viewing wine with an open gullet and an open wallet.

Technology Changes Everything

Wine is an inherently social drink and apparently there’s something going on in the internet space called “Social Media.”  These two factors coupled with Gen. Y’s digital adeptness are creating one of most dynamic online ecosystems in any niche.  Need proof?  Limited time only sales are the Internet buzz du jour, but that’s a business model that’s been in place with wine since at least 2006.  More proof?  If you have an iPhone search for “wine app” and wade through your options.  Oh, and a brash wine retailer in Jersey is using social media on his way towards becoming a household name, too.

The bottom line: Not only is wine connecting wine lovers into a nationally cross-stitched network, the end doesn’t appear to be in sight for the dynamic ways that technologically driven communication and the good grape can and will remake the wine marketing landscape.

We are living in a “Golden Age” of wine.  Twenty years from now we will look upon this period of time in the domestic wine world as the end of a simpler era and the beginning of a new chapter of complexity for the most global of drinks.

In part two of this two-part series (part one can be found here), we pick up where we left off and examine the seismic forces #6 – 10 that are re-shaping how we celebrate the good grape.

1) Wine consumption growth

2) Generation Y

3) The global wine village

4) Drink local

5) Technology changes everything

Brand versus Land

While the wine industry is notoriously bereft of hard data analysis, it is accepted wisdom that 90% of wine consumed in the U.S. comes from a handful of large, corporate wine companies who – principally — emphasize branding, stylistically consistent winemaking and distribution ubiquity.

The remaining 10% of consumption is divided amongst thousands of small, domestic wineries and imports who emphasize wine as an agricultural product evocative of where it comes from, with finite production and subject to vintage variation.

If you examine this “Brand versus Land” reality, coupled with the challenges in distribution that befall small wineries, you begin to see the financial and opportunistic delta between the big and the small that equates to an uneven playing field similar to a BCS college football program competing against a slate of outmanned Division III opponents.

The bottom line: In the wine world, David doesn’t slay Goliath.  In order to meet increasing consumption growth (and the common denominator), large wine companies will fuel industry growth and continue to default to agricultural mechanization, wine manipulation and stylistic homogeneity instead of creating wine that is evocative of the dirt it was grown in.  In the battle between brand versus the land, brand wins.  Purists lose.

Alternative Packaging

Wine is one of the most hidebound consumer packaged goods.  High-quality wine comes in a 750 ml glass bottle, in a few shapes (depending on the wine varietal), is finished with a cork, and has a label that is traditionally styled, right?

Wrong.

Rapidly, wine packaging is undergoing a revolution in form and function.

Just several years into a trend that shows no sign of slowing down before a complete perception makeover is complete, wine can now be purchased in kegs on tap at restaurants, in canteens, in a pouch with a spigot, and a myriad of bag-in-a-box styles that challenge the long-held belief that boxed wine deservedly belongs on the bottom shelf of the wine aisle.

The bottom line: Fueled by the fragility, expense and carbon footprint of shipping wine in glass, along with a prevailing consumer-oriented environmental awareness, now is a good time to forsake your perceptions of how wine packaging relates to wine quality because the future of wine packaging looks like alternative styles will become the norm.

Residual Sugar

Not only is brand-oriented winemaking and wine packaging changing so too is the traditional definition of what constitutes premium-priced wine.  For years, local wineries everywhere but California, Oregon and Washington have been making wines with residual sugar for a wine-interested audience that find dry wines a bit daunting for the palate.

And, these wines have sold … and sold … and sold.  Evidenced by recent Nielsen data from 2010 that shows Indiana wines had a year-over-year 13.1% increase in sales value and 11.2% growth in volume while North Carolina had 9.7% growth in sales value and a 12.6% increase in volume, you can draw a direct deduction of what kind of wines are driving this growth.

However, on the national stage, wines with residual sugar have always been a quiet secret or relegated to the rot gut section of the wine aisle with a social stigma attached.  No longer.

The bottom line: With Bronco Wine Company producing a sweet red with their Crane Lake label, Gallo doing the same with their Barefoot label, and Constellation indicating they are getting into the segment, varietal wines are finding their inner sweet tooth.  This should expand the comfort level of the wine-interested, but it will ultimately change the spectrum of understanding for the domestic wine world, as well.

Wine and Health

20-years ago, a 60 Minutes segment on, “The French Paradox” kicked off the, “Wine and health” conversation when they suggested that red wine, as a part of a healthy diet, could positively impact cardiac health.

Since then, medical researchers have preliminarily linked Resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant found in the skin of red wine grapes, to a laundry list of health benefits – everything from cancer to diabetes, fat fighting and longevity.

The benefits of Resveratrol is still very much in the research phase of medicine, yet that hasn’t stopped nutrition companies from coming to market with Resveratrol  supplements, a necessity because daily massive consumption of red wine would be necessary to gain the otherwise healthy benefits.

The bottom line: Still nascent in the medical community, Resveratrol has shown positivity in a wide enough number of human health areas that the next decade is likely to produce a medical breakthrough linked to the compound found principally in red wine grapes, further fueling far-ranging research into the compound as a miracle health aid.

Politics and the Law

Wine shipping might not normally make this top 10 list, but it must be discussed within the same conversation as the ongoing consolidation in wine distribution.

With large distributors aligning with large wine companies and becoming more sophisticated with large retailers, distribution is increasingly losing viability for small to medium-sized wineries, leaving them to their tasting room, wine club and ecommerce for sustainability and growth.

However, because of ongoing legal battles over wine shipping rights, the stakes are raised in importance because enhanced restrictions in winery shipping coupled with an unwieldy and unfriendly distribution channel could mean the death knell for an entire classification of wineries.

The bottom line: In 2010, a bill (H.R. 5034) was introduced in the House of Representatives that was a thinly veiled piece of lobbyist action from distributors that intended to give states full control over wine and interstate commerce.  Quickly scuttled, this bill reappeared earlier this year as H.R. 1161 with the same potential stifling effect for wineries and their ability to ship wine out of state.   If you’re the sort that likes wines a little more precious than what you can find in your grocery store, then you should pay heed to this development and consider putting your consumer advocate hat on because the ramifications could be long-lived and consequential.

Honorable mention (if there was a number 11 and 12):

  • Natural / Organic / Biodynamic wine
  • Global warming

Jeff Lefevere

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