Managing varietal diversity from a strategic perspective

The recent decline in per capita domestic wine consumption in New Zealand (not to mention other countries where this has occurred) raises the obvious question: is the reduction across the board or variety specific? As one retail commentator recently mused, are we in New Zealand becoming slightly “sauvignoned out”? It is logical given our viticultural emphasis on the variety that the retail market share of sauvignon blanc might well be higher than in most of the countries we sell sauvignon blanc to (where there will be a larger overall selection of wines since the overall percentage of other imports will typically be much higher than it is here). I am not ignoring the fact that the percentage of sauvignon blanc we export from New Zealand is much higher than the proportion of any other varieties (or to express this in the reverse, we drink a much smaller proportion of the sauvignon blanc we produce than we do of any other variety). The issue is firstly whether the domestic market for sauvignon is close to saturation and, if so, whether future market trends will provide a useful lead indicator of the impact of changing preferences globally (whether or not sauvignon blanc’s local market share has actually diminished lately, given that I opened from the standpoint of a purely anecdotal remark and it is not necessarily proven to be the case).

The launching point for this discussion is the historic reality that wine sales globally have tended to be highly fashion or trend driven, for a wide variety of reasons. Styles and varietal preferences come and go over periods of time – often 1-2 decades. Even when a variety undergoes a recovery after a period of market neglect it is usually stylistically different to how it was previously. There may be an argument that generational change is a factor, for example. Climate change may also be an influence (as seasonal climate differences have long been proven to be an influence on many beverage markets).

Nevertheless, it is probably safe ground to suggest that at some point in the foreseeable the continuing global market demand (and therefore market share) of sauvignon blanc will stop and then start to decline. Unless global demand for wine continues to grow, diminishing market share will mean diminishing actual demand for sauvignon blanc. The rate at which these trends will affect New Zealand will be affected by global competition from other sauvignon blanc producers (which, in the immediate future most likely means our main international export market competitors France, Chile and South Africa).

Will demand for sauvignon blanc subside dramatically? Probably not. The nature of the demand that drives sauvignon blanc sales globally is that it seems to be adopted as a favourite variety of a certain proportion of drinkers in each market. This means that even if global fashion changes there will probably be a solid core of demand that will remain fairly constant for a prolonged period of time. This will then deplete slowly through natural “taste attrition”. The rate at which these drinkers switch to other varieties will depend on the rate at which newly fashionable varieties or styles shift from the low but important market shares driven by early adopters to the point of mass adoption. Most fashionable varieties never make the shift to mass adoption and so it is trite to try forecasting what it will be, but the likelihood of this process happening is inevitable.

The process can also be producer/marketer-driven to a certain extent. It is quite plausible that the current wide popularity of sauvignon blanc has been accentuated by the marketing efforts of New Zealand and other producers of the variety that have helped to increase its exposure to large numbers of drinkers. This is itself poses a risk and an opportunity, because once any style or variety reaches saturation in the market of its time, the marketers of that variety or style typically have two choices: diversify choices within those styles as a means of maintaining market share (something that has already started to happen with sauvignon blanc, or to shift marketing effort to the active promotion of replacements in order to be at the “ground floor” for future opportunities. The latter happens only very rarely in practice (in most other markets as well as in wine) because most producers only realise that the market has changed too late.

When the market changes, New Zealand will likely continue to make and sell far more sauvignon blanc than anything else for a considerable period of time. The first damage will be to the marginal growers – to those who planted in anticipation of ongoing growth – or to those existing producers who will lose out to the latecomers, possibly because of disadvantageous locations. In either case there will be growing overproduction and falling prices at the grape, bulk and bottled wine levels (except, most likely, at the very top end).

One of the factors that will influence this cycle will be the fact that not every producer will experience it in the same way. Even when overall market share is flattening or falling there will always be some market participants, large and small, who are still experiencing growth. Some of these may be so focused on their own success and need for product security that they are ignorant of the degree of change in the rest of the market and are continuing to plant vineyards that will not be in full production for several more years.

The process will then become one of adjustment and there are a number of reasons why this process could be unnecessarily painful. Market adjustment is always an unequal process. Some are affected more than others. Some react much earlier than others who do not. In a wine world where growers have the choice of pulling out vines or taking short cut and grafting onto existing plants, the key to adjustment is to have the options determined and in place before the need arises.

Diversification is an obvious solution, but it is problematic and much riskier if it has not been an ongoing process. This is one of New Zealand’s great problems. New Zealand nurseries have imported a growing number of increasingly high quality varietal plant materials. There is room for more yet, but it is a start. The problem is that, with a handful of exceptions, most of the work with new varieties is being done by small wineries and growers. The significance of this has been accentuated by the changes in ownership and marketing priorities of most of the larger wine companies that dominate production today.

While 25-30 years ago the likes of Montana (now Pernod Ricard), Corbans (now Lion), Matua Valley (now Treasury) and Nobilo (now Constellation) were active importers and triallers of new varieties, this emphasis has almost completely gone. The large wine companies primarily want sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir for export markets. The corporate philosophy of most large producers eschews significant experimentation. Paradoxically these companies, which have the most at risk should the tide turn, should be the ones most advanced in trialling both the growing and winemaking development of new varieties. They are the ones doing a disservice to their shareholders because the time taken to catch up to any new trend can be as long as a decade (once the time is allowed for access to adequate quantities of buds, replanting or grafting over, getting new vines into production, learning the viticultural requirements for new varieties in different regions, sub-climates and soils, learning the individual winemaking process requirements and developing styles, not to mention trialling styles with the market).

Doing all of this from scratch after the market has changed is simply dumb strategy. (So is the arrogance of thinking you can just buy the expertise).

I do not ignore the fact that if larger producers were actively pursuing diversification experiments it could have mixed consequences for existing smaller experimenters. The positives could include increased access to more diverse sources of quality plant materials, the benefit of accelerated viticultural learning and the market exposure advantages when several producers are marketing a new variety rather than one producer doing it on their own. The negatives include the greater risk of geographical or stylistic cul de sacs being taken by small producers; or losing the uniqueness or marketing point of distinction that can be essential for small producers.

The strategy of diversification is multi-faceted. In the first instance it is about risk management but, if managed intelligently, it is also about ensuring or creating future growth options. In this respect it is an essential component of a value enhancement process. For this reason it is curious that shareholders and financiers alike fail to demand diversification programmes of some form or other from medium to large sized wine producers for whom the programmes would be a small part of existing asset and budget allocations.

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