The Old World, EU Wine Reform and Battleground USA

In the global village, Americans like to boast that a war has never been fought on our shores; we protect our interests in other people’s backyard. Yet, there is a daily battle being waged on American turf and its combatants are vying for the hearts and minds of domestic wine consumers.  The conflict I’m talking about is marketing and advertising for the attention and –ultimately- the purchasing power of U.S. wine consumers.

Yes, the annual pat on the back we give ourselves about the U.S’ progress toward leading global wine consumption has a collateral effect. Ditto that for our annual cheerleading for wine to be the top beverage alcohol choice against beer. Because of this, other countries want their fair slice of our wine buying pie.

The most aggressive frontal marketing charge is being waged by the member states of the European Union (EU) and it affects almost all of the “Old World” wine-related communications we see in the U.S. today.

From marketing outreach with wine writers and journalists, to trade shows, PR, marketing and advertising (especially advertising), U.S. wine consumers haven’t yet seen the crest of the coming wine marketing wave all fueled by a strategic vision to reclaim what the Europeans feel is rightfully theirs –a global leadership position in prestige and sales of wine.

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They just might do it too; beating back years of floundering that was based mostly on their hubris and the status quo.

When you watch for it, you’ll begin to see the tell-tale EU flag in virtually all forms of Old World marketing here in the states– on the side of a Reunite truck doing grassroots marketing in a parking lot, in digital ads for Romanian wine, in email newsletters and, most notably, in our wine magazines – any wine magazine will suffice—including Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

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The most current example is the October 31st issue of Wine Spectator which has nearly 50% of its full-page beverage-oriented ads dominated by EU co-funded wine advertising with an additional seven EU-sponsored quarter or 1/3 page ads.

In contrast, the number of U.S. producers advertising in the same issue? Three – Rodney Strong, Louis M. Martini and a two-page spread from Diageo.

Adam Strum, Publisher of Wine Enthusiast magazine foreshadowed this trend of EU marketing dollars in his “Top Stories of 2010” article from December of last year. In his #3 top story, he noted: “The European Union followed up the market reforms it instituted in 2008 with the promised funding: over a four-year period, well over 828 million euros ($1.16 billion) to support the marketing of European wine. We’re already seeing new styles of labels, unique media concepts and new visibility. Italy is, not surprisingly, leading the charge as the number- one exporter from Europe.”

Ironically enough, or maybe not so ironic at all, the current issue of Wine Spectator is their, “Italian Wine and Food” issue and the advertisers, predominantly, are Italian.

Yet, this marketing outreach funded by the EU isn’t limited to Italy, almost all leading wine member states of the EU including Austria, Greece, France, Portugal, Spain, and Romania have used these monies to ramp up their efforts here in the states.

Interestingly, this battle shouldn’t have the element of surprise; it has been in the works dating to 2006.  Yet, when the EU Wine Reform passed in late 2007 and was enacted in August of 2008, it hardly blipped on my wine-loving radar: It was just a collection of headlines in dire need of some context. Now, we can see the ripple effects…I can see the tangible outcome.

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What follows is a primer on the EU wine reform effort that will continue to present itself to U.S. wine consumers for at least the remainder of this decade (planning is through 2019). At the conclusion, I’ve included an overview on what I think are the possible long-term implications.

EU Wine by the Numbers

The EU is the world’s largest wine producer, consumer exporter, and importer representing 45% of the world’s wine growing areas and 62% of global wine production

Amongst EU member states (EU-27) there are 2.4 million wine producers working 8,895,793 acres (about 3.7 acres per producer) producing 4.5B gallons of wine worth $21B dollars.

The U.S. remains the leading export market for EU wine receiving 24.6% of their volume representing 30.7% of EU wine value.

EU Wine Reform Vocabulary Primer

EU-27:  Phrase for the 27 members of the European Union.  Formally established in 1993, the EU is an economic and political collective of member countries principally in Europe.

CAP:  Stands for Common Agricultural Policy.  Agriculture is the only sector of the European Union (EU) where there is a common cross-countries policy.

CMO for Wine:  Stands for Common Market Organization for Wine.  The CMO regulates and strives to maintain balance of the European wine market under the umbrella of the CAP.

CMO Wine Reform:  Large-scale, EU-wide effort, led by former European Union agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.  Interchangeable with, “EU Wine Reform.”

Member States:  A reference to the 27 member countries of the EU.  If a country is a part of the EU they are a, “Member state.”

Market Intervention:  The process through which the CMO for Wine, with a fixed annual budget of $1.7B (US dollars equivalent), paid for the disposal of excess wine.  This disposal of wine accounted for over 60% of their annual budget or approximately $678M.  Prior to reform, 15% of wine production in the EU was disposed of every year.

Third Country Markets:  Generally, a country outside of the EU where export and marketing is conducted.  Examples of leading third country markets include the U.S., Canada, China and Russia.

National Envelopes:  Funding allocation from the CMO for Wine to EU member states for their support programs.  Up to 50% of the support programs funding can be used for promotion in third country markets.  The balance is used for country wine industry infrastructure support and services.  National envelopes are funded from a re-allocation of the monies in the wine reform, principally from market intervention.

Planting rights:  The ability for a wine producer to plant vines. Currently prohibited until 2015 and left to the discretion of EU member states from 2016 – 2018

Grubbing up:  The process through which farmers who aren’t economically viable from a quality or scale perspective are financially incented to remove their vines and farm another commodity.  Grubbing up, in conjunction with limitations on planting rights, is intended to balance the EU wine market.  Thereafter, producers are presumed to be planting new vines based on market viability.

The Impetus for EU Wine Reform

In the years leading up to the 2006 reform announcement, a number of large trends finally converged on the traditionally hidebound EU member states making the act of doing nothing more dangerous than changing with the times.

Over the course of the last 25 years, declining consumption in the South of Europe, coupled with an explosion in production and imports from the US, South Africa, Chile, Australia and New Zealand led to a narrowing of the gap between European exports versus imports leading to declining domestic market share.  This was exacerbated by increasing consumption in the North of Europe where consumers in many non-EU member countries took a liking to New World wines, adding insult to injury.

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Besides wanting to keep a wine trade balance (if not maintain a leading margin), The EU had fundamental industry issues to deal with.  Notably, 40% of EU wine production was classified as “table” wine and 60% was “quality” wine with regional origin.  But, overall, 15% of that total wine production was being destroyed on an annual basis because it was unsellable, including some “quality” wine.  Because there were so many EU wine producers farming just an average of 3.7 acres, the producers had become reliant on subsidies while continuing to create a product for which there wasn’t a market that required government “market intervention.”  To say the least, the fact that destroying wine represented 60% of the CMO annual budget was a palpable problem.

The EU Wine Reform Objective in a Nutshell

Align a wine program that increases the competitiveness of the EU’s wine producers, strengthens the reputation of EU wine as the best in the world, recovers legacy markets and wins new markets in the EU and worldwide.

Decrease over-production by eliminating budget expenditure on destroying wine

Re-allocate the money formerly spent on destroying wine on marketing wine to increase growth

Pull up 432K acres of vines by financially incenting vineyard owners

Place a moratorium on new plantings until the end of 2015 and give member states the ability to extend that through 2018

Align towards a systemic quality orientation with origin of place

Simplify labeling allowing for varietal designation

The Net-Net on EU Wine Reform Changes

Mission accomplished, so far.  A lot of credit needs to go to the former Agricultural Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel for having the strength of vision and constitution to get the EU reform done in the first place.  The old question of, “How do you eat an elephant?” is apropos.  EU wine reform was a process that took nearly three years from first public notice to enactment in August of 2008.

As of today, grubbing up vineyards is over-subscribed based on the 432K acre goal.  Planting rights, when re-enabled in 2016 or thereafter will allow quality-oriented producers to plant based on market demand, and, well, the third country marketing is happening apace.

Yet, the real question is:  What does this mean for U.S. wine business and consumers? 

The Implications of EU Wine Reform

Clearly, the U.S. and North America with Canada is target #1 for the EU.  We have an active wine culture that is growing unabated and the most disposable income of any country in the world.  China and Russia trail a close second as their middle-class economies and wine interest is also growing. 

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What will be interesting to watch is what happens AFTER this EU Wine Reform transition period (2008 – 2013).  In this period of time some CMO monies are being diverted to grubbing up.  However, thereafter, until 2019, some 2/3’s of the CMO for Wine budget is going to be allocated to national envelopes, adding to a marketing larder that is already embarrassingly rich. 

The monies will be allocated to member states based on vine-growing area, production and historical spends.  Therefore, expect to continue to see a barrage of marketing messages from EU wine leaders Italy, France and Spain (Spain has the most potential for becoming au courant, in my opinion).  Yet, it’s the other wine producing countries like Portugal, Greece and Hungary that have the most room for explosive growth. 

If, at the end of this decade, Portugal and Greece have significantly expanded positions of U.S. market share, some pockets of the wine cognoscenti might chalk it up to the zeitgeist, but we’ll know that the zeitgeist was nudged in a certain direction.

The EU Wine Reform is also fantastic for domestic wine marketing agencies and wine magazines – they now have self-identified prospects.  It doesn’t get any better than knowing where the money is.  Expect to see healthy balance sheets for years to come.  Online-based wine media, including bloggers, will likewise experience the positive benefits – warm bodies are needed for press trips, brand ambassadors will be fashioned and digital know-how leading to areas of marketing innovation will all have value against hard currency.  The dark side is that our current understanding of wine media ethics will probably also be immutably altered because where there is money, there is corruption.

Finally, perhaps the most damning indicator is the fact that the U.S. is moving into a period of wine supply balance at the same time the EU is finding balance.  If Australia gets their stuff together to get in balance at the same time that consumption is rising, well, there’s only one way out of that situation and its higher wine prices for consumers.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself… 

As I mentioned, there’s a battle being waged on American turf and the EU has to win the battle before they can win the war.  Will they win the war—the war for consumer interest and sales?  Who knows, but one thing is certain:  The end of this wine decade is going to look at lot different than it does today.

Author Note

1) All EU (€) dollar values and hectares have been converted to US dollars and acres, respectively. 

2) A significant amount of research went into this post in order to distill an unwieldy subject into something consumable (no pun intended).  If you have a question about source attribution, please leave a comment and I’ll direct you to the source if not already linked.