Where next for wine in Australia?

2 04 2011


Wine is missing its golden opportunity. It’s got two tickets to the Gun Show and it’s not using them. Fact: there’s more good and great wine made in Australia today than ever before. Fact: wine is the drink of choice with good food and there are more top rating food shows, columns, books and blogs than ever before. We are obsessed with food (though I hope not Conviction Kitchen…God help us). Fact: social media has seen wine chatter levels rise to pitch never seen before.

But we’re missing something here. We are preaching to the converted. And the converted are preaching to each other. And everyone is having a grand time. But what about the unconverted and the sort-of-converted? Who’s talking to them? For most wine drinkers (and please try to be really honest with yourself here), wine is a tasty, accessible, sociable liquid, enjoyed in relaxing surrounds with friends. It’s usually refreshing and let’s face it…allows people to “unwind”. They don’t want to talk about wine on Twitter, or read a newspaper column, or pay to go to a tasting. They don’t remember long wine names and it doesn’t worry them. They buy wine for many different reasons or occasions and most don’t want to have a very involved, agonising time deciding.

What is the industry doing to make wine easier for them? Not more intellectual or more involved, but simply more welcoming. Apparently the only answer here is to make wine cheaper, have more sales and generally race to the bottom until mutual self-destruction is assured. In real terms, the average price of wine (and cars) has grown very little over the past 20 years, so why do we insist on trying to outdo each other with low prices? Price is important, but it isn’t the only thing. Drawing people into a store with cheap booze isn’t sustainable.

Don’t get me wrong…thanks to improved viticulture and winemaking, the grape glut and squished export markets, the quality of this cheap wine is pretty good. But it isn’t sustainable (there’s that word again which everyone uses, and which everyone mentally files to try to challenge manana…manana). A lot of small wineries have already given up on retail, understanding that their wine clubs, mailing lists, cellar doors and increasingly social media marketing are the only ways they will achieve the margins necessary to survive.

I’m all for social media, which has created an interactive community where wine lovers, producers, suppliers, writers, sommeliers and enthusiasts interact like never before. And sure it reaches a portion of new or less involved drinkers, but how many really? People are time poor, so are they going to research and engage with the topic via social media if it isn’t one of their primary interests? Probably not. I’m no Facebook expert, but perhaps its mass reach, superficial interactivity and accessibility offers more here. Online peer reviews are the way forward. They already dominate other categories, like travel, so use them!

But online still only accounts for a relatively small portion of wine sales. And I suspect that those highly engaged in wine social media are happily serviced by Australia’s high quality (but shrinking) independent retail sector. What I am really trying to get across here is that our wine retailers are failing the average wine drinker i.e. the majority. I’m not talking about the evil corporate side of the argument, but more the engagement side. There’s no imagination in our retail wine category, only price wars and endless aisles of hundreds of complicated labels.

Back in Boston, USA in 2005 I was so excited when I first walked into Best Cellars, a wine store that brought a small (100 max in about 8 style/taste categories), cheaper (around $15) range of wines to life. It made everyday wine cool and interesting. That’s why I was very sad to read just this week that most of the stores have been bought out and converted to something else. It wasn’t dumbing wine down, it was bringing it to life.

Wine education is important…there should always be wine open in a wine shop to try. See how The Sampler has brought interesting wine to life in London with sampling machines. But it isn’t what everyone wants. DON’T expect drinkers to want to learn more, but DO try to engage them and excite them on a wine level that they are comfortable with. This isn’t a nice-to-have, but in a retail future where something has to give, it will be a must-have.

This post was originally written for the Wine Communicators of Australia blog. You can find their blog here.


When is a gold medal not a gold medal?

11 02 2011

…when you lose the argument! I was lucky enough to enjoy a fascinating Royal Sydney Wine Show behind-the-scenes judging experience earlier this week, thanks to McWilliam’s and the WCA. First of all it was extremely good fun, though the genteel, academic way we examined 30 wines in two hours is far different to the real coalface where judges go hard from dawn til dusk, with only the odd egg sandwich to keep them upright.

I have to admit I was quite daunted before I arrived as I hadn’t done much scientific tasting in this style since those heady Adelaide uni days. You have to leave your prejudices at the door and break the wine down in quite a methodical way, at least until you get a real feel for it. After squeezing into the tighest labcoat ever we were faced with fifteen 2010 Sauvignon Blancs. We whipped through these in 30 minutes of silence, tasting each in turn, scoring and then returning to any high scoring or contentious ones at the end.

We then discussed some of the wines and the stylistic questions and decisions that come into play when the judges get together at the end of a bracket to retaste and assign golds. Nick Bulleid MW, who was leading our session (above), was also able to discuss with us the views of the real judges and what medals were awarded where. In this class of 15 I gave 1 Gold, 3 Silver and 4 Bronze, compared to the judges tally of 2 Silver, 7 Bronze. So I was slightly more generous overall, but pleased to find out that my selections roughly corresponded with the judges’ and that my top wine, was also considered the best by the judges, if not quite gold medal standard. You could spot the Marlborough wines in there quite easily and their intensity, acid and drive stood out quite clearly (hasty postscript – I thought NZ wines were allowed in show when in fact they aren’t. Oops! Only in Perth and Hobart of the capital city shows). At the start we had been told that, flavour-wise, we were really looking for a balance of green fruit/herbaceous and tropical fruit, so high marks were on offer for wines that showed true varietal definition and really fit the judging panel’s view of where Sauvignon Blanc should be heading. This is a very important point to bear in mind, as the Wine Show system in Australia sees the improvement of wine overall one of its primary goals; hence judges have to take a position on what characters point towards a Gold medal.  

With the threat of humiliation now out of the way I was able to relax a little in the second flight of fifteen Pinot Noirs. This was interesting again as I wasn’t sure whether the really dark, rich, almost Shiraz-like Pinot you find sometimes these days would fit the constraints of what the judging panel was looking for. Once again I was in agreeance with the judges on the top wine of the bracket (actually the Top Gold of the whole class), but I disagreed with them over another Gold that they awarded, which only merited a bronze for me. Many in the room agreed with this view, as did Nick, who had scored it Bronze but lost out in the debate. The main bone of contention on this wine was the use of oak, which was very apparent on both the palate and the nose. Too much for me, but not apparently for the final judging decision. It’s fascinating (but dangerous!) to think that as a judge your debating skills come into play as well, as the Gold contenders are retasted, discussed and ultimately decided upon. Have your arguments ready and make your voice heard! This is where subjectivity and taste really threatens to play a part, but also where decisions about the stylistic directions for grapes / regions etc. are formulated.

I would say as a general rule that some of the weightier Pinots scored slightly better with the judges than they did with me. Oak will always be contentious with Pinot and where I thought a couple were overdone, the judges thought they still retained elegance. I gave 1 Gold, 2 Silver and 4 Bronze. The judges went for 3 Gold and 4 Bronze. 

It was a brilliant experience and has left me wanting more. That said I really hope they get in some bigger labcoats for next year…