The California Wine Industry Sets Ambitious Export Goal Among Surplus Talks

Robert P. Koch and Jancis Robinson, MW, at Export 2020
Robert P. Koch and Jancis Robinson, MW/Photo by Alycia Moreno for the California Wine Institute

Hundreds of wine industry professionals gathered at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa, California, on Tuesday, February 18, for the inaugural Export 2020: California Wine Global Export Conference, a day to think about California wine in the global marketplace.

California wine exports have increased 60% by value in the last decade, accounting for around $1.5 billion in winery revenue. However, Honore Comfort, the vice president of international marketing for the Wine Institute, also outlined an ambitious long-term goal for that figure to exceed $2 billion by 2030.

California represents 95% of all exports from the U.S., with Canada the number one export market for California wine, according to Robert P. Koch, Wine Institute president and CEO.

That 2030 goal can be reached by both bringing more California wineries into export and more California wine to international markets. This is an attractive prospect considering the news of the state’s grape surplus this year, and vintners’ fears of domestic price decreases as a result.

Currently, Canada is the largest export market for California wines. In Ontario, home to 40% of the country’s population, California wines represent 15% of the market according to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), with California Cabernet Sauvignon alone accounting for $187 million per year. In Ontario, California wine is second only to Italy’s 18% market share.

LCBO president and CEO Dr. George Soleas spoke to the major trends he sees among consumers. He noted that while customers are buying less, purchasing habits are favoring higher-end wines, with a rise in sales of ultrapremium and iconic products. Refreshing, lighter wines like rosé and sparkling wine are gaining interest, as are health-conscious alternatives like low-alcohol or low-calorie bottlings. He also stressed the increased importance of sustainability and storytelling.

Wine writer and author Jancis Robinson, MW, commented on California wine’s position around the world in a Q&A session with wine writer Elaine Chukan Brown. Robinson recalled how she first came to California in 1969 and has returned annually since then.

“The early 1980s were a magical time for California wine in the U.K.,” she said. Basking in the afterglow of the 1976 Paris Tasting, Robinson observed, California winemakers would travel the world to introduce them to their bottles.

However, the author noted she was not a fan of what happened to California wines in the 1990s, an era she described as dominated by longer hang times and “richer, riper, stronger wines that didn’t chime well with the U.K. consumer.” Nor did the decade’s rising prices.

“At the moment, it’s a mass of inexpensive California wine on the bottom shelf in the U.K.,” Robinson added. “I suspect people who buy it don’t know or care where it comes from. Price is the driver.”

Decades ago, emerging regions wanted to make copies of the great wines of France, she said, and “we had agreed on ranking.”

Now, she observes that the market is much more free form.

The wine industry is in “the greatest state of flux today than ever in my 44 years,” according to Robinson. “What younger people want is breadth, they don’t want to go to the top, they want a change from the handful of international grape varieties and they’re not chasing alcohol, oak or color.”

She observed a move to lighter, fresher wines worldwide, and an explosion in interest of lesser-known grape varieties, particularly from indigenous and ancient vines. She estimates there are currently 1,500 varieties used in winemaking right now, with California containing a treasure trove of old vines yet to be utilized.

The potential for California, in Robinson’s view, is in mid-range wines from both established and emerging brands, and not bottom-shelf generics (“a commodity that’s liquid and alcoholic”) nor overly expensive offerings.

“The middle is exciting,” said Robinson. “Lots of discoveries, whether it’s old vines [or] different ways of making wine. There’s a need to re-dynamize the perception of California wine, [and] great value in older brands that have real quality.”

She also highlighted the California winemaking community as one that values cooperation and community investment, topics valued by a younger generation of wine drinkers, and touted the state as having the most quality-conscious growers and producers.

“The top California producers have taken more trouble to get every detail right than anywhere else,” said Robinson. “If one place in the world can look at sustainability holistically, it’s California.”

Published on February 24, 2020
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