The news for California vintners isn't good. Nor is it a surprise. Consumers vote with their dollars, and there's been a shift in preference away from California wines to imports.
According to reports, California wine shipments dropped for the first time in 16 years, giving up ground to imported wines. This comes at a time when overall wine consumption in the U.S. is up and people are searching for greater values. The underlying message is one many of us have been concerned about for years, that is, California isn't the value leader it should be.
You can come up with many explanations. Some say the cost of land in California's best appellations makes it impossible to make lower-priced wines. Others say imported wines benefit from their own government subsidies. Still others insist that the profit margins are too narrow for wineries to focus on affordable small case-production wines.
I'll add that in our tastings of California wines, too many wines suffer from quality-control issues (and that extends to the most expensive California wines as well). Too many wines simply don't taste good irrespective of price (and it's likely that many lesser-quality imported wines aren't sold here for that very reason—someone determines the quality isn't there).
Why does this matter? In one sense, consumers shouldn't care where they get good value, whether it's from domestic or imported wines, and that seems to be part of the message in the shift in market share.
When I read about things like California losing market share to imported wines I'm reminded of the warning Robert Mondavi used to issue comparing wine with the state of affairs of the U.S. automotive industry. Detroit was losing market share to Japanese cars and wine consumption was falling in this country. His message: If California vintners didn't improve their product, they couldn't compete with foreign wines, this at a time when California was just beginning to emerge as a quality leader.
The message had less to do with market share than quality, and if American automakers didn't improve quality, their businesses would suffer, which they did.
Mondavi's message inspired many California vintners to improve their wines, and he became famous for that charge, not just in California but also around the world. Quality matters, and plenty of vintners got the message that the industry needed to pull together to make better wines, which would benefit everyone. That was more or less what happened, beginning in the 1980s, with a long run of better wines, growing consumption and winery profitability.
I don't know how the French or Italians would react if suddenly their wines lost ground in their homelands to imported wines from say South Africa or Australia.
California still produces about two of every three bottles of wine consumed in this country. But it's a shame quality across the board isn't higher, and the hidden message is really this: Here is a huge opportunity for California vintners to prove they can make the best values in the world. It's a tall order, but one worthy of a great winegrowing state.
I'm not sure today's wine leaders fully appreciate the importance of Mondavi's vision, but now would be a good time to give it some thought.
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — February 2, 2010 5:05pm ET
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — February 2, 2010 5:54pm ET
Anthony Clapcich — new york — February 2, 2010 7:06pm ET
David Tietz — Columbus, OH — February 2, 2010 8:13pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — February 3, 2010 1:01pm ET
Greg Flanagan — Bethel CT — February 3, 2010 1:02pm ET
Keir Mccartney — League City,TX — February 3, 2010 1:21pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — February 3, 2010 2:52pm ET
Sig Jensen — Edmonton, Alberta, Canada — February 4, 2010 3:06pm ET
Lennart Brose — Frankfurt, Germany — February 5, 2010 12:46pm ET
John Tallarido — royal palm beach, fl. usa — February 14, 2010 3:35pm ET
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