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The middle’s getting squeezed

October 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Wine

When I was in Napa yesterday, I was talking to a guy who’s pretty tuned into the valley’s wine culture. Our conversation ranged over a variety of topics, not just wine, but the economy, politics, Occupy Wall Street, etc., and obviously we got onto the issue of the declining middle class, which seems to be the big domestic story in the country.

At one point, we were driving down Highway 29, through Oakville and Rutherford, looking at all those famous wineries, and I said that I often wonder how they’re all doing in this recession. I said I can’t believe they’re not hurting. My friend had actually read my post from a few days ago on “Why more wineries aren’t failing” and he agreed that the banks probably are holding back from doing more foreclosures; but he agreed also that even if the wineries aren’t going bankrupt or having to sell themselves, many of them are probably deep in debt and struggling, especially those whose retail prices are in the medium tier (hard to define, but let’s say $20-$60). The extremely low-priced wines, such as those produced by Bronco, some Gallos, Bogle, some of Don Sebastiani’s stuff like Smoking Loon, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Red Truck and Big House are probably doing pretty well, because they make sound wines at around $10 a bottle, and that’s the sweet spot for consumers these days. But the middle class isn’t going to buy a middle-priced bottle these days, the way they used to, because they either don’t have the money, or are afraid to spend it.

“If you think about it,” my friend said, “the middle-priced wines are kind of like the Middle Class Americans. They’re both being squeezed out of existence.”

Middle class Americans are indeed under pressure, a fact that Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between can agree on (although solutions to the problem appear to be intractable). The problem with the mid-priced wines is that they’ve pretty much targeted themselves to Middle Class consumers. High end drinkers won’t buy them (I don’t want to get into naming specific brands, but think of the stretch of wineries from, say, just south of the Oakville General Store to Calistoga along 29. You can choose just about any one you want). High end wine drinkers want Harlan, Hundred Acre, Futo. On the other hand, the financially strapped consumer (student, blue collar worker, housewife on a budget, retiree) can’t afford $20 and up for their regular house wine, and so they turn to the cheapies. As a result, the more the Middle Class in America is pinched, the less wine the mid-priced wineries are able to sell to them.

It’s a vicious cycle, but I think my friend got it exactly right. These wineries have got to be hurting, but the banks are going light on them, for now. Things won’t recover for the mid-priced wineries until the economy recovers, employment starts rising, and consumers feel like they have some discretionary money to spend again.

I do want to comment on some remarks that Rob McMillan, who I think is a banker with Silicon Valley Bank, made on my “Why more wineries aren’t failing” post. Rob said “Only 7% of wineries describe themselves as being significantly weak,” which is a statement that needs examining. First of all, self-professed status reports, in any poll, are notoriously misleading, so I suspect that the percentage of wineries that are actually “significantly weak” is considerably higher than seven. Secondly, you’d have to define “significantly weak,” as opposed to merely “weak,” to understand this number precisely. Perhaps 67% described themselves as “weak,” but not “significantly weak.” These surveys all depend on how you ask the question.

Secondly, Rob wrote “grape prices are going up.” I suppose this could be true, especially after this vintage, which is going to be very low-yielding, by every account. However, the 2010 crop was a large one, the third biggest of the decade, and according to the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, grape crush prices, measured as dollars per ton, were down considerably in 2010 from their 2009 highs.

Even if grape prices go up in 2011, such is the law of supply and demand that, if demand remains low for high end wines, it won’t matter. Soft demand will balance out high prices, which will put an additional squeeze on those $20-$60 wines. It’s all tied together: restore the Middle Class to fiscal health, and the mid-priced winery tier will recover.

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