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Winery CEO claims his Cabernet Sauvignon sales mirror a widely-followed economic indicator

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Cabernet sauvignon

If you want insight into how the economy is faring, you might want to see how your local wine shop is doing. David Duncan, president and CEO of family-owned California winery Silver Oak Cellars, makes a case that sales of his company’s wine correspond with the Michigan consumer sentiment index, which is considered a barometer of broad economic activity and is at its highest level since June 2015.

“We have no wine to sell,” Duncan says. Silver Oak’s winery has sold out of its 2011 vintage and will be releasing its 2012 line this August. “The winery hasn’t been able to keep up with the strong consumer demand,” he says. Silver Oak, known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, is an entry level-ultra premium wine (the label’s cheapest bottle sells for $70). In other words, it’s not for high-brow wine snobs, but it’s also not for those looking for a bargain.

Duncan says he’s cautiously optimistic about the rest of this year – an election year – because “not having a clear political path forward makes people nervous and will likely tighten spending.”

There are other unofficial economic gauges tied to cultural phenomena, like the Big Mac Index: a survey done by The Economist that measures the purchasing power parity between nations using the price of a Mcdonald’s (MCD) Big Mac as the benchmark. Another popular cultural indicator is the lipstick index, used to describe increased cosmetics sales during tough economic times (the chairman of Estee Lauder (EL), Leonard Lauder, proposed that women substitute smaller-ticket beauty products for splurges like dresses and shoes).

Silver Oak is well-positioned in terms of pricing because it’s a splurge for those who might buy an $8 bottle, but a downgrade for those who typically spend hundreds of dollars on vino.

The wine industry at large, however, is not looking so robust. This year Silicon Valley Bank predicts the first drop in U.S. per capita wine consumption for the first time in 20 years, but that demand for fine wine (bottles priced $20 and above) will increase between 9% to 13%.

The millennial generation has more buying power as it’s grown up, and has now become the largest generation of wine-drinkers, consuming 42% of all wine in the U.S. last year.

“Six to eight years ago, everyone was chasing the millennials when they were barely of drinking age. Now they’re going from entry level jobs to making six figures a year and they’re seeking high quality, ultra premium wine choices,” Duncan says.

Prior to the 2008 recession established wineries went through a rough patch, with increased appetite for “teeny and impossible labels that were treasured by sommeliers and influencers,” he says. But now, having a recognizable name seems to be a good thing again. Silver Oak is in its 45th year and produces 100,000 cases of wine per year. The label is sold in all 50 states and 48 countries worldwide. Duncan was getting nervous, wondering, ‘When is old going to be cool again?’ Apparently that moment is now.