> The recent fires did not engulf the North Coast wine country or cause a large loss of crop. What they did do is utterly devastate the communities where the fires were focused and burnt through unchecked; including a number of wineries and (even more distressing) the homes of many winery employees. Outside northern California, most of the press coverage was on Napa and Sonoma counties; but don’t forget Mendocino and Lake County! They have fewer resources to rebuild on than their southern neighbors.There are a number of sites where you can donate funds or learn how to help: Mendocino County; Lake County; Sonoma County; Napa County; plus a fund specifically to aid winery employees – https://www.gofundme.com/vweheartofthevine/.

> Really exciting to see one of my former professors win the Nobel prize! Richard Thaler, from whom I took courses at Cornell, was awarded this year’s Nobel for Economics. One of the pioneers of behavioral economics, his work focused on how human decision-making deviates routinely and often predictably from the rational maximizers that underlie a lot of economic models. Wine industry footnote – Thaler is also a wine aficionado, and some of his experiments on context in pricing explain quite a bit about why on-premise wine prices are so high.

> Is cider at a crossroads? Many big corporate players have entered, just as the market for cheaper concentrate-based ciders seems to be slowing. Anecdotal and some scan evidence on sales for smaller high-end brands is positive, but there’s a wave of craft and micro-producers coming on line. Update – I recently judged at the California Cider Competition, a fascinating experience. Styles were all over the map, and there were some great ones (you can check them out here – Cider Competition). I think one of cider’s priorities should be to agree on a clear nomenclature for flavor, sweetness and production styles – a big help for consumers discovering the category.

> We had another great year at the UC Davis OIV Wine Marketing Course. Highly informative lectures covered topics from legal constraints and label design to managing wholesalers and retail trends. This year we were brought up to speed on some of the latest data and techniques from online advertising, PR management and channel management. In my admittedly biased opinion, this is the best short course on the “nuts and bolts” of building a brand in the United States.

> Speaking of UC Davis, I’m currently partnering with Becky Bleibaum and Janet Williams of Dragonfly SCI to develop a 2-day course showing how small and medium craft beer producers can do sensory and consumer research just like the big guys. Craft brewers and cider makers, feel free to contact me if you have any particular issues you’d like to see covered.

> California has 8 times more marijuana than the state needs – which is not a surprise to grape growers. As we’ve seen in the wine industry, high current demand, overoptimistic investors, planting lag time and limited data forecasts trouble. Add to that the much greater yields possible in a legal and open environment, and you have a recipe for massive oversupply!

> Cheese, Grommit! You don’t have to be an Aardman Animation fan to be fascinated by the world of fine cheese. The high end of the cheese business, with its artisanal producers and huge variety of flavor, is very reminiscent of the wine industry. But as we’re discovering in consumer research for the Oregon Cheese Guild, there are some tricky differences too. The whole issue of how cheese is merchandised at retail has layers of complexity that make the wine aisle seem simple, with interesting trade-offs between visibility, packaging and graphics. Not only that, but there are strange variations in perceived value whether priced by pound or piece. Based on feedback from retailers and producers, there hasn’t been much research in the gourmet cheese category. If you’re out there and curious, or know of someone else doing this, let’s talk!

> Sustainability: A few months ago, I stated that while some politicians keep booting sustainability and climate change down the road, the wine industry isn’t waiting around for them. It looks like sustainability and the environment may be back on the front burner. It was great to hear our research reflected in trade and producer insights from my fellow panel members at the Unified Symposium in January (presentations can be found here). The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and the Sonoma County Winegrowers are investing substantially in promoting sustainable growing and production in 2017, while pioneer non-profit organization LIVE is expanding its consulting and certification services in the Northwest. There’s even a new book out: The Business of Sustainable Wine. I am proud to play a small part in this movement, via research prepared for NGOs and regional organizations or presented at various conferences.


“Facts don’t come with points of view, facts don’t do what I want them to….”
–David Byrne