Silicone Valley Bank

The bankers’ view of wine

Banks are important to wine companies, as they are to other businesses. How the banks see the industry is important, for it determines how much money they will lend to those companies.

In the past few months, two major bankers to agricultural companies — including wineries — have disclosed their views.

In its 2012 Annual State of the Wine Industry Report, Silicon Valley Bank forecasts long-term steady growth in the fine wine business. It expects 7 percent to 11 percent sales growth in 2012.

Dan Aguilar, senior relationship manager for the wine division, said wine inventories are evolving into a state of shortage that will last for some time domestically. Meanwhile, prices for grapes and bulk juice are increasing as growers finally start to see recovery.

Aguilar does expect increasing plantings to feed the looming grape shortage though imports are taking larger market share in the U.S.

Bottle prices are also increasing, but he doesn’t expect a return to the price level prior to the recession. “It’s increasingly difficulty for third-party marketers that have sold with a culture of discounting,” he said; this includes competing with Internet sources that create a ‘Fifth Column’ sales channel.

He adds that so-called millennials as fine wine consumers are over-valued in their importance today.

An international banker to agricultural companies with strong ties in Napa, Rabobank reports that global wine inventories are tightening as wineries move to fill production shortfalls.

According to Stephen Rannekleiv, executive director of Rabobank’s Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory group, U.S. bulk wine imports showed sharp growth in second quarter of 2012.

The Dutch-owned Rabobank, which bought Napa Community Bank in 2010, estimates global wine inventories are at their lowest point of the past decade. Indications are that the industry has finally moved closer to balance after years of oversupply problems. This tighter inventory arrives as consumer demand continues to grow and production remains constrained.

In the U.S., the wine grape market remains tight, with little domestic bulk wine available. Prices have increased dramatically leading many wineries to sign long-term contracts with growers or buy vineyards and other wineries.

Rabobank reports that the value of U.S. wine exports declined 2 percent last year largely due to the increasing strength of the U.S. dollar.

Imports, however, increased sharply in the first four months of 2012 as wineries sought alternative supplies in the tight bulk wine market. Bulk wine imports more than doubled with the greatest growth coming from Chile, Argentina and Australia.

Fortunately for wineries, this year’s crop looks above average.

Finally, the head of French-owned Bank of the West’s wine division, Adam Beak, notes that consumers are driven by value, and that’s not the same as cost. “A $2 bottle or a $100 bottle can be a good value to a customer.”

Beak says Bank of the West is the second largest ag lender (after Wells Fargo) and works with many wineries, specially on the North Coast.

Beak said that we are recovering slowly from the recession, but he says this downturn has demonstrated one thing clearly: Some wineries have done better than others, and it’s not necessarily due to their price, location or business model. “Well-managed companies are doing well. This is not a situation where a rising tide lifts all boats.”

The leaky ones will still sink.

Wine Industry Financial Symposium

To find out more about what’s happening financially in the wine industry, the 21st annual Wine Industry Financial Symposium is the place to be Sept. 24 and 25, at the Napa Valley Marriott.

Its theme this year is Thinking Positive – A Bright New Day For The Wine Industry.

For details, visit winesymposium.com.

The Business End by Paul Franson

High End Wine Sales Fueling Napa Deals

SAN FRANCISCO – A new era for California’s priciest wine regions began Feb. 1, when PlumpJack Winery partners bought 50 acres in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap district, home to heralded vintners Shafer Vineyards, Clos du Val and Cliff Lede Vineyards.

The purchase kicked off a sales spree for premium properties across the state that’s poised to climb to $800 million by year’s end, the most since the 2007 market peak, according to Demeter Group, a San Francisco-based consumer investment bank and advisory firm.

“It’s been a complete turnaround,” said Stephen Rannekleiv, lead U.S. wine analyst in New York for Rabobank Nederland, the Utrecht, Netherlands-based bank that finances agriculture businesses. “There’s lots of interest in good California properties right now. If you’ve got vineyard acreage, it’s a hot commodity.”

Renewed dealmaking follows three years of plunging demand for high-end California wine, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. bottle sales above $20, according to data compiled by Nielsen Holdings. The recession that started in December 2007 turned luxury consumers into bargain hunters “dancing on the graves of bloated wine inventories,” Rob McMillan, wine division founder at SVB Financial Group’s Silicon Valley Bank, wrote in an April 17 industry report.

Purchases of California premium wine totaled $410 million in the 12 months through July 21, up 14 percent year-over-year and better than the 11 percent gain for all U.S. luxury producers in the period, store-scan data from New York-based Nielsen show. High-end wine sales are advancing at more than double the rate of overall wine sales, with north coast warehouse shipments up 12 percent in the first half of 2012 from a year earlier, said industry consultant John Gomberg, based in Woodside, Calif.

Credit availability is unlocking sales, as mortgage distress abates and wineries streamline operations, said Jeff Menashe, Demeter Group’s chief executive officer. Vineyard defaults plunged last year by 61 percent in Napa and 44 percent in Sonoma from the 2009 peak, when 18 properties in each county entered the first stage of foreclosure, according to DataQuick. For the first seven months of 2012, only four vineyards in Napa, 50 miles north of San Francisco, and eight in Sonoma were in default, the research firm said.

“Luxury wine has gone from having significant headwinds to meaningful tailwinds,” Menashe said. “The industry is growing at the ultra-premium end. Everyone is trying to push up.”

Distressed sales in 2011 were limited to “fringe” properties outside prime growing districts, according to a year-end summary by the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

“It’s a fairly healthy situation, with access to credit again and strategic buyers looking for really good property,” said Bill Stevens, Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division manager in St. Helena, Calif. “Wine producers got right-sized.”

The lender’s wine unit had $374 million in mortgages secured by real estate as of June 30, an 8.1 percent increase from the end of 2011, according to an Aug. 8 regulatory filing from the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. About $500 million in vineyard and winery deals in the north and central coast regions of California were completed this year through Aug. 13, Demeter Group data show.