Australia: Back to Square One

I’ve written a lot about Australia’s wine crisis and for a long time I felt like Chicken Little. The sky is falling, I’d say, but Australia seemed somehow to muddle through.

There is a strong sense now, however that Australia’s crisis has arrived. (I was going to write something about Australia’s Chicken Littles coming home to roost, but it was too awful even for me.)

Sales of Australian wine are down here in the U.S., dragging down sales of Syrah/Shiraz from all places with it. It’s worse in Great Britain, Australia’s number one export market, I’m told.

Charles Gent’s article “The Writing on the Wall,” posted today on Inside Story, provides an excellent overview of the situation and is required reading for anyone interested in Australia’s wine future.

I find a number of parallels between the Australian wine crisis as explained in Gent’s article and the global financial crisis that I wrote about in my recent book Globaloney 2.0.

First, this isn’t the first wine crisis in Australia’s history. Gent writes that

Visiting an ageing Hunter Valley winery in the late 1950s, wine aficionado Max Lake was struck by a faded notice on the door, apparently dating from the Great Depression. Beneath the forbidding heading “Warning to Growers,” it read: “Owing to the dangerous position arising from Overproduction, Growers are warned against any further planting of Wine Grapes.” Beneath the text was the name of Herbert Kay, chairman of the Australian Wine Board.

Two months ago, the Wine Board’s modern equivalents slapped a similar notice on Australia’s wine producers. Issued jointly by the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Wine Grape Growers’ Australia, the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation and the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, the statement is more wordy than the 1930s edict, but equally blunt in its message. It states that Australia is producing twenty to forty million more cases of wine than it can sell each year, and that the current surplus stockpile, calculated at more than 100 million cases, will double in two years if current levels of production and demand persist.

A second feature is that the wine bubble (because that is what it was) had all the main features of a financial bubble including the fact that anyone who looked at it objectively would have recognized it as such. But these Chicken Littles could not compete with those with an interest in keeping the bubble growing.

The massive plantings were seen by many industry figures as a desirable and necessary corollary of the soaring offshore demand, and traditional grape growers who expressed misgivings about the rate of expansion got short shrift. As president of the Winemakers’ Federation in 1999, Brian Croser described their concerns as a “Luddite viewpoint” and called the tax scheme plantings “a great resource.”

Finally, to keep this post reasonably brief, it isn’t enough to just pull out a few vines and go back to business as usual. More fundamental reform is needed.

To go forward, it seems the industry first has to take a step backward. In other words, says Strahan, “We have to get rid of the oversupply as quickly as possible to start bringing some margin back into the business, and to start getting a connection with the consumer that is not defined by price.”

That’s not quite back to square one, but it’s close.

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Update 1/5/2010.

Decanter.com reports that Constellation Brands has cancelled 300 grower contracts in South Australia, another sign of the rapid consolidation of the wine industry down under. Decanter reports that …

Australia’s biggest buyer of wine grapes advised growers just before the New Year that they would see their contracts end after the 2012 vintage.

The company had previously given three years’ notice to more than 200 other contracted growers in December 2008.

The decision has come at a time when growers in the region are facing plummeting wine grape prices.

In some cases growers are being offered up to 50 per cent less for their grapes than in 2008, according to figures released by Constellation and other major wineries in December.

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