Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in  February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting  “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.

The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my book Extreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.

Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

State of the Art? Aussie Wine Tourism Invests in Asia & Digital Strategies

unwtoWine tourism is an increasingly important element of wine marketing and sales as both authenticity and identity grow as ways to differentiate products in today’s incredibly crowded and competitive global market. Nothing like the personal experience that wine visitors often receive to turn customers into ambassadors.

Of course wine tourism does more than sell wine because tourists spend time and money on food, lodging, local crafts, and more. With proper planning and broad local participation (which doesn’t always happen), wine tourism can be an engine of sustainable rural development. Or at least that’s the idea behind the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) global wine tourism conference, which will be held this September in Chisinau, Moldova.

So wine tourism is on my mind and I was therefore excited when I received an email from Wine Australia about $7.4 million in grants to support 21 regional wine tourism initiatives. That’s a lot of seed money — what do they hope to grow? And how?

The grants range from the relatively small and focused projects ($20,000 to digitalize the Canberra district’s wine map and translate it into additional languages) to the fairly large and ambitious initiatives (grants of $250,000 each to McLaren Vale, Adeliade Hills, Swan Valley, and Barossa Valley wine growers associations).

The Swan Valley project caught my attention because it appears to be the sort of focused multi-level, partnership-driven approach to regional development through wine tourism that I think often works best. Here is a summary of the grant:

Singapore Visitors to Swan Valley: establish a consortium of industry, government and academia to work collaboratively on: an audit of existing services/products, up-skilling of tourism operators and development of tourism products, with a strong focus on the Singapore market.

There are two themes that run through the Australian projects chosen to receive these wine tourism grants. The first is a focus on Asian tourists and especially Chinese tourists, with Hong Kong and Singapore also in the frame.  The Geelong Winegrowers Association recognizes (as do many others) that a successful program for Chinese wine tourists means more than opening the cellar door. Here is the description of their grant project:

China ready – developing regional and operator capabilities to attract international tourism and increase average spend: development of regional digital and promotional assets; dedicated content for the Chinese visitor to be used across the digital platforms (including WeChat and website) and China-ready workshops encourage collaboration between wineries and tourism operators.

Getting “China Ready” is an important goal for many international wine destinations. When I checked in a few years ago there were only a small handful of Chinese language speaking  winery guides in Napa Valley — most wineries were far from “China Ready” then.

0zChinese visitors are especially important for Australia. Proximity is one factor, of course, but wine market strategy is another. China is now Australia’s #1 wine export market, surpassing both the U.S. and the U.K.

The second theme I see in the Australian grants is an emphasis on digital technology. No surprise there: people spend more and more time fiddling with their smart phones. It seems like screen time is replacing face time everywhere. If you want to get on wine tourists radar, you need to get on their screens first.

There are a number of interesting initiatives on the grant list ranging from simple websites (in multiple languages, of course!) to augmented reality and virtual reality tours. Riverland Wine’s project, seeks to use technology to stir interest in a region that is less famous than the Barossa or Hunter Valleys.

Riverland on the verge: international market research and development of virtual reality (VR) content to give international visitors virtual tours of Riverland wine attractions from local wine centres.

Most of the grants will support marketing projects, as you might expect. I am particularly interested in the ones that also seek to shape what visitors do once they arrive and how those activities can support sustainable rural development projects like those we will discuss in September at the UNWTO conference in Moldova!

Congratulations to Wine Australia on its 21 wine tourism initiatives. I look forward to learning more as the programs unfold.

 

Exchange Rate Lessons from Australia’s Wine Boom and Bust

Kym Anderson (with the assistance of Nanda Aryal), Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry: A Statistical Compendium 1843-2013). University of Adelaide Press, 2015. (Available as a free pdf download — follow the link above.)

ozKym Anderson’s new book on the five major boom-bust cycles of the Australian wine industry is a landmark wine economics study. Like all of Anderson’s work, it is data-driven and provides both the casual reader and focused student with a wealth of information.  A detailed Executive Summary is followed by 73 pages of analysis (and ten more of references), 86 revealing charts and more than 450 pages of tables.

Answers and Questions

I’m not sure I have ever seen such a detailed account of what happened to a wine industry, when, where and how. The data span the decades, regions, grape varieties, international regimes and economic cycles.  Such a wealth of information is valuable both for its ability to answer questions and for the way that it provokes them.

I won’t attempt to summarize Anderson’s big volume here (Andrew Jefford did a great job of this in his Decanter column) but I thought I might illustrate the sort of focused analysis that the book makes not just possible but convenient.  We are always looking for lessons from history and I think Australia’s wine business cycles are useful in this regard, especially the fifth cycle, which began in 1986 and continues today.

Exchange Rate Effects?

Anderson describes the recent collapse of the Australian wine industry as the result of a “perfect storm of shocks” including drought and rising irrigation water prices, the global financial crisis, the rise of the Australian dollar (driven by mineral exports to China), increased competition from other wine-exporting countries, and China’s austerity policies (which have reduced demand for luxury wine products). He could have added vineyard  heat spikes, wildfires and the gradual but significant effects of global climate change to the list of challenges. Perfect storm, indeed!aud

Since we are currently experiencing a period of major exchange rate realignment, with the U.S. dollar on the rise and the Euro seemingly in free fall, I thought it would be useful to tease out the many ways that the Aussie dollar impacted its wine industry in recent years.  According to news reports currency instability was the hot topic at the ProWein wine fair this year, so analysis of the possible effects is timely. Here are some brief points taken from the Executive Summary.

  • The 1986 boom began, Anderson tells us, as a response to the historically low value of the Australian dollar (hereafter abbreviated AUD), which encouraged exports by reducing their price to foreign buyers. The AUD’s low value was due to falling prices for mineral exports.
  • Wine exports boomed, rising to 2.3% of all Australian exports by 2004.
  • Wine prices increased, stimulating vine plantings, higher production and more exports but higher prices also  limited domestic wine market growth making Australian producers more dependent on export markets.
  • Rising exports increased the incentive for investment in developing overseas markets for Australian wine, both through generic marketing and private brand promotion. Meanwhile, other countries also began to expand wine exports, too, contesting key market spaces.
  • The AUD began to rise in 2001 (driven by Chinese mineral demand). Competition in export markets made it difficult to pass through rising foreign exchange costs to export customers, so much of the burden was passed back in the form of lower AUD export receipts and, in due course, lower wine grape prices.
  • Meanwhile, the strength of the AUD made imports cheaper, including wine imports, which increased dramatically. Especially affected were Sauvignon Blanc imports from New Zealand and Champagne imports from France.
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc became the best-selling white wine in Australia. Not the best-selling imported white wine. The best selling-white wine, period!
  • Wine grape prices collapsed and the value of vineyard land fell, in some cases to the same low value as unimproved farm land. This is the bust that the Australian industry is still recovering from.

Lessons for the U.S. Today?

The exchange rate isn’t the whole story of Australia’s fifth wine cycle by any means, but you can see that it had important effects. The long term instability in the exchange rate translated into booms and busts in wine exports, imports, wine prices, grape prices, land prices and so on.

Anyone who thinks the current rise of the U.S. dollar won’t impact the U.S. wine industry or have global repercussions should take a look at Anderson’s study of Australia. The U.S.story will be different, and the impacts less just because our domestic market is so much larger, but there will be significant impacts.

This is just one of the analytical threads in Kym Anderson’s important new book. I invite you to dig and see what questions his work raises and what lessons you can learn.

Important New Book: Growth & Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry

The University of Adelaide Press has just released an important new book, Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry: A Statistical Compendium 1843-2013 by Kym Anderson (with the assistance of Nanda Aryal). The pdf version of the 610 page book is available as a free download.

I’ll post a full review of this book on The Wine Economist in the near future, but the subject is so important and the analysis so timely that I wanted to get the word out as soon as possible. Hence this brief announcement.

Sustainable growth is the goal for most wine regions, but boom-bust cycles seem inevitable. Anderson analyzes Australia’s attempt to chart a course around the five major cycles of its wine economics history, ending of course with the current cycle that started in 1986 and is still unfolding.

The goal here is, first, to better understand the Australian experience through a clear and detailed examination of the evidence. Then it is possible to ask what lessons history offers for Australian wine and for the global wine industry more generally? The text, charts and tables provide much food for thought. Click on that link and get to work!

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Kangaroos in the vineyard? I don’t know if they are a common sight but we saw a pair much like these when we visited Hahndorf Hill Winery in the Adelaide Hills in 2013.

 

Extreme Wine Experience: The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm

Winery dogs are a ubiquitous presence. You see them everywhere. There are even photo-filled coffee-table books and colorful calendars devoted to them. Decanter, the self-declared “world’s best wine magazine” used to profile a winery dog on each issue’s final page. Always dogs — almost never cats (I once met a winery cat called “Muscat”). Go figure

Exception to the Rule

It comes as a bit of a surprise therefore that The Stray Mongrel of Hentley Farm is a wine, not a four-legged cellar companion. A blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Zinfandel (!), it received the 2013 Rob Schubert Trophy for the most outstanding red wine at the annual Barossa Wine Show Awards. The Stray Dog has a gnarly name, but it is really quite an elegant beast — it would have to be to win such a prize — and it represents the elegant spirit of  Hentley Farm very well.

We had the good fortune to visit Hentley Farm the day after the big prize was announced and Keith Hentschke, the proprietor, was glowing with pride. Recognition is always welcome — who can complain about good scores or reviews? — but this was something special and the warmth that filled the room was only partly the result of the fireplace’s glowing embers.

We came to Hentley Farms because we wanted to see what Hentschke and his team had created in terms of an extreme wine experience. Hentley Farm was started in 1997 and has evolved to align with very definite ideas of what it should be from the vineyard to the cellar to the marketplace.

This 360-degree vision of the supply chain and wine experience is something that Hentschke acquired over the years, starting at age 15 when he began to manage the family vineyard on through agriculture training, an MBA and work at Orlando, Nepenthe and other wine businesses. All this helped prepare him to launch Hentley Farm and to produce wines as distinctive — and unexpected — as The Stray Mongrel.

First Class from the Ground Up

The initial strategy at Hentley Farm was to focus on exports, but then the global financial crisis turned things around a bit and now the Australian market itself is the priority and the cellar door experience the key. The idea, as I understand it, was to create first class wine and a first class wine experience from the ground up with as much attention to the business side of things as to enology and viticulture. Hentschke warmed to the opportunity to talk about markets, marketing and so on, so we learned a great deal about his carefully calculated approach.

There are many interesting aspects to the Hentley Farm approach. The wine club, called simply the Loyalty Program on the webstie, impressed me by offering a choice of progressive levels of expenditure and engagement. It reminded me very much of museum memberships and symphony and opera donor clubs, with very clear expectations about financial commitments and benefit levels.

Restaurant Australia Realized

Sue and I came to Hentley Farm having spent a week at Savour Australia and it seems to me that Hentschke’s winery is the very model of the branding approach — called “Restaurant Australia” — that was launched at that meeting. The idea behind Restaurant Australia, as I have written before, is to appeal to upscale tourists through their interest in food and wine. Come for elevated cuisine, enjoy the great wine then go home and tell your friends about an idea of Australia that is little in common like the “shrimp on the barbie” Yellow Tail tales of the past.

Hentschke and team seem to have realized the power of this relationship well before the current campaign launch, so Hentley Farm’s visitor center pairs a warm cellar door facility with The Restaurant, which features multi-course tasting menus paired with the estate wines. (The Restaurant was named South Australia’s restaurant of the year for 2013.) It brings in the patrons, who seem delighted to find a destination restaurant in this surprisingly quiet valley. The wine hook, because there should be one, was clear and successful. Hentley Farm wines with the meal, of course, and then also a credit to be applied against Hentley Farm wine purchased that day at the cellar door.

One of the challenges of designing a wine tourism experience is to get the target audience to “stick” — to stay around long enough too be engaged and for a strong impression to be formed. The restaurant, with its elaborate (and not inexpensive) tasting menus asks  visitors to make a significant time commitment. Perfect if you want to communicate the sense of the place.

Chance and Circumstance

We ran into some new friends we had met in Adelaide at the Barossa Valley farmer’s market in nearby Angaston and asked about Hentley Farm. The Restaurant? Fantastic! Did you use the credit to buy the wine next door? Of course! Would you go back? Can’t wait! It was really an enthusiastic response from a sophisticated wine industry couple and provided a bit of unscientific evidence that the Hentley Farm strategy does its job.

The wine, the food, the experience. Hentley Farm brings it all together and provides a model for others in the wine business who seek to design an experience to capture the imagination of sophisticated wine enthusiasts.

I think there is a real winery dog at Hentley Farm and maybe he is a mongrel — I don’t really know. But if a mongrel is the product of chance and circumstance, Hentley Farm itself is just the opposite — a well-conceived and designed wine destination.

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Thanks to Keith Hentschke for finding time to meet with us.

Extreme Wine Experience: Bottled History at Seppeltsfield

P1060537Wine can be many things — geography, geology, culture, even poetry (according to Robert Lewis Stevenson). So it is no surprise that wine experiences — the real time, real life phenomena that leave such indelible impressions — can take many forms, too.

History in a Bottle

Wine is or can be bottled history, for example, and connect us not just with each other but with people and events from the past.  Sometimes this is purposeful as in collecting wines from particular years to commemorate marriages, births and other special events. But sometimes the historical narrative goes deeper. Wine as bottled history is what we sought when we visited Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa valley and we found that and a good deal more.

The Seppeltsfield winery was founded in 1851, very early in the Australia’s wine history. The Seppelts were Silesian immigrants with ambitious plans to develop the region’s economy. Wine grapes and then a winery and a village and so on. A visit to Seppeltsfield today is an opportunity to experience this history in several ways.

Seppeltsfield wears its history proudly. The wooded picnic area by the car parks feels like it has been there for a long time, a sense that is reinforced as you walk into the winery complex, with old buildings decorated with elaborate ironwork grills that reminded Sue of New Orleans.

A Cascade of Wine

You can visit Seppeltsfield and just taste wines at the cellar door bar and the people we saw doing that were certainly having fun, but the programmed tours and tastings seem to be the way to go here. The Heritage Tour, for example, takes you through the restored family home where the Seppelts lived (tight quarters by modern standards, despite their wealth). A short walk across a creek-spanning bridge leads to old vineyards, warehouses (including one where a Master Chef episode was filmed) and — my favorite part of the trip — the old winery itself.

Built in 1888, the “gravity flow” winery cascades down a steep hillside. The grapes were delivered up top and the finished wine surged out the bottom with labor-saving gravity performing much of the hard work in between. Gravity flow wineries are always interesting but it is the scale of the this facility that got my attention — 120 big open top fermentation tanks reached from the bottom of the hill to the summit, connected by all manner of pipes and valves. At the time of its construction it was one of the world’s largest and most modern wineries! Now, over 125 years later, it remains an incredible sight.

The winery remained in use for a century (imagine that) until finally time and perhaps also deferred maintenance caused it to be shuttered. Restored and improved (the tanks are now lined with stainless steel) under the current ownership, the big wine plant is back in use, producing both the small quantity of Seppeltsfield still wines that are for sale at the winery and larger quantities of wine made under contract for other wineries. If the vineyard is the soul of a winery, the production facility is its heart and this heart is back at work pumping out both wine to fill the bottles and also revenues to finance the expensive plans to restore Seppeltsfield’s historical facilities.

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A Taste of History

The Heritage Tour let me see history, then we were offered a chance to taste it, too. Who could resist? Up the stairs we went to the second level where a barrel of fortified wine was kept for every year of the winery’s history since the 1880s. Many people don’t realize the quality and importance of Australia’s great fortified wines and this room with its deep aromas stressed the long history.

Would we like to have a tiny taste of wine from our birth years? Yes — who could resist — but Sue and I were born in the same year so we proposed to share a taste of our vintage and then to honor Sue’s father  back in Virginia by sampling his year — 1921. It was kinda of a scam to allow us to taste two vintages, I know, but it worked and we loved it. Wines this old are very different creatures as you might expect, but the taste of history was dark, rich, profound, moving. Quite an experience.

Seppeltsfield h0nors its own history by each year releasing a small amount of 100 year old fortified wine. We tasted 1913 (significant to economists like me as the year the Federal Reserve System was founded in the U.S.) and considered how much has changed and yet remained the same.  (Note: The Seppeltsfield website offers for sale a small quantity of 100 ml bottles of fortified wines dating  back to 1880. Not cheap, but probably priceless to the right person.)

We didn’t have time to sample all the experiences that Seppeltsfield offers. A tasting that features small plates paired with various styles of fortified wines was certainly tempting. And I’d love to return in the summer to enjoy the outdoor areas and the crowds that are drawn to them. But it is the history (and those great fortified wines) that I will always remember.

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Thanks to Chad Elson for showing us around Seppeltsfield during our visit and providing the historical context for all that we saw and tasted. Thanks to Kym Anderson for sending us to Seppeltsfield to learn about Australian wine history first hand.

Extreme Wine Experience: Barossa’s Rockford Wines

rockfordWine is about stories and relationships and the experience that wineries provide their clients — buyers, visitors and wine club members — is very important. Wine tourists, for example, provide direct economic benefits in the form of hotel occupancy, restaurant business and of course cellar door and wine club sales.

More than the sum

But wine tourists and club members are more than the sum of their direct sale parts. They can ideally also become brand ambassadors for individual wineries and their regional associations.

One of wine’s major advantages over other fashionable beverages is its ability to capture a real sense of time and place and to connect people, product and producer in personal ways. You can add the wine experience to the list of strategies that successful wineries actively manage.

One of the great aspects of my job is that it allows me to survey different approaches to wine experience in many countries (Sue and I are in South Africa this month, for example, being wine tourists for a while  before I speak at a conference here). Today’s column is the first in a short series on Extreme Wine Experiences based on fieldwork we did in Australia a few months ago.

The Rockford Experience

Our first stop is Rockford Wines on Krondorf Road near Tanunda in the Borossa Valley. The wines we tasted were extremely good (including the iconic Basket Press Shiraz, of course, and the much admired sparkling Black Shiraz), but that’s not what made this an extreme wine experience.

The winery itself has a sense of place, with the shady trees, rustic stonework, corrugated steel roofs and very much still in use pioneer-era vintage equipment in the shed and cellar. Very atmospheric both outside and in, where fireplaces were lit to take off the chill. There’s a comfortable personality to the place that reflects the personality of the founder and winemaker, Robert O’Callaghan, who was nice enough to spend some time with us.

The Stonewallers

The members of the Rockford wine club are called Stonewallers and the name is significant on several levels. The winery has plenty of rustic stone walls, which I suppose is the obvious reference. But the Stonewallers are more than parts of the scenery — they are meant to be and seem to feel themselves to be a part of a family or perhaps the solid foundation of the operation.

Membership is limited as it often is in such cases, and wines are allocated. But, as O’Callaghan explained to us, the point of the club is to reward long-time supporters of the winery and to cultivate a long term relationship rather than to cash in on short term sales. You need to purchase from the winery for a number of  years before you might be invited into the club and then it is the persistence of your commitment rather than the size of the transaction that is rewarded.

An Inherited Trait?

Some folks of relatively  modest means are members, for example. We were told of families who saved up a little at a time over the year so that they might splurge at Christmas on their allocated half-dozen bottles of festive sparkling Black Shiraz.  The club stood by members having temporary fiscal troubles. And, yes, there had been some talk about whether Stonewallers could bequeath their memberships to favored heirs.

We happened to visit on the afternoon of one of the regular Stonewaller lunches, where members are invited to dine (at their own expense) in the winery and to enjoy the wines, the food and the company of fellow members. Back at our vineyard bed and breakfast (Blickinstal, on Rifle Range Road in Bethany) that evening we found that the other guests had come some distance in the middle of the week for the specific purpose of attending that luncheon.  There was a very strong sense of belonging among these folks, with one couple — the newest Stonewaller initiates — still almost giddy at their good fortune.

You can just imagine what ambassadors they must be, with their insider tales and first person accounts, and how well they must represent the wines and the winery to others. The atmosphere thus created seems to extend to wines not on the allocation-only list.

The O’Callaghans seem to have created a destination winery in an unlikely location half way up a dusty road a few kilometers outside of Tanunda. The thing that makes it extreme is that everything — the place, the values, the commitment to long term relationships — is at once so perfectly calculated and so completely authentic.

This is a place that knows what it is and seems to draw together people who wish to share — through wine and fellowship — those characteristics. So that’s extreme wine experience lesson one: wine and family. What’s next? A history lesson.

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Thanks to the O’Callaghans for spending time with us. Thanks to Diana Phibbs for steering us to this fascinating experience.

Extreme Wines of the Year

Rebecca Gibb, my editor at Wine-Searcher.com, asked a few of us to nominate our “wines of the year” for 2013 and I was happy to add my voice to the chorus. My selection — the 2012 first vintage of Eroica Gold Riesling from the Columbia Valley, Washington — was complicated.

As you know, I don’t review individual wines or assign scores so, while sensory factors clearly matter, I decided to base my final choice on a wine’s potential to shape or shift the market, or at least a particular segment of it, as well as the obvious taste, aroma and texture aspects. (You can read all the Wine-Searcher selection here.)

A New Gold Standard?

That’s where Eroica Gold stands out for me. It is different from most of the other American Rieslings that are produced in sufficient volume to enjoy wide distribution and so represents a potential step forward in this rising marketplace.

Eroica Gold is made in the style of a German Gold Capsule Auslese Riesling. About a third of the grapes were Botrytis infected. Sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced and the orange marmalade aromas and luscious texture are memorable. This is Riesling for adults, that’s for sure, and my hope is that this joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen will open up a new market segment for Rieslings of this style.

Eroica Gold surprised me and working on the Wine-Searcher project got me thinking about other surprising or Extreme Wines (to engage in a bit of shameless self promotion for my new book of the same name). Herewith a quick accounting of some of the other wines that got my attention, focusing on Australia, which we visited back in September.

Head for the [Adelaide} Hills

The Adelaide Hills get less attention than some other Australian regions, but it provided three wines that made me stop and think. Two of them were made by Larry Jacobs at his Hahndorf Hills Winery. A medical doctor by training, Jacobs immigrated to Australia from South Africa where he founded Mulderbosch. He seems to think outside the box when it comes to wine — how else can you explain the Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch (or Lemberger) that we tasted?

You might think that it was a simple typographic error (easy for auto-correct to mix up Austria and Australia), but it was obviously a carefully calculated move. The 2012 Gruner was in fact named the best wine of its type from outside Austria! Quite a distinction.

I love Rieslings and Pinot Noir and the Adelaide Hills boasts many fine examples of these wines (we especially enjoyed the wines of Ashton Hills). But it was an Adelaide Hills Shiraz that we tasted at Charles Melton in Barossa that made me stop and think. “Voice of Angels” it is called and it comes from a vineyard at Mt Pleasant.

A very cool site and a very distinctive wine made, I was told, by co-fermenting the Shiraz grapes with a bit of Riesling from the same vineyard.  Did I really hear that? Shiraz and Viognier, yes. Shiraz and Riesling? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but in any case this was a wine to remember!

Big in Barossa

P1060519Sue and I were fortunate to be able to taste three of Australia’s most iconic Shiraz wines: Torbreck, Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. They were all memorable, but in different ways.

Our favorite Torbreck wine was a cool climate Eden Valley Shiraz called The Gask — just stunning — but I was stunned again by a sight not a taste when we toured the winery. There, hidden away, was a bin containing giant 18- and 27-liter bottles of The Laird (which sells for about $900 for 750 ml).

The idea of a 27 liter bottle of this wine — called a “Primat” according to one source and equivalent to 3 standard cases — floored me.  I think I was told that the glass bottle alone cost about $2000 and that once filled it might be worth as much as $40,000 to a collector. Quite a trophy! I’ve inserted Sue’s photo of the whale-sized bottles below.

Grange and Hill of Grace are particularly interesting to me because they are in some ways the ying and yang of top flight Australian Shiraz. Hill of Grace is a single vineyard wine and Grange is a multi-vineyard, multi-district blend. Year after year Hill of Grace comes from the same vines in the same valley (not a hill — the vineyard’s named for the church across the road) while Grange mixes things up a bit each vintage in the search for a particular style. Two different approaches to extreme wine-making.

Taste the Terroir

Listening to Stephen and Prue Henschke talk about their wine made me understand that while the Hill of Grace is a single vineyard in the way that we define these things, it is in fact a very complicated and varied site. The old vines there seem to be able to draw out the variations and the complex and distinctive blend results.

Both Grange and Hill of Grace were memorable, but I must admit to a preference for Hill of Grace. Maybe it is because I tasted more different vintages of this wine or perhaps it is because it comes from Eden Valley, a cool climate area.  Or maybe its the site and the power of those old vines. Can Australia produce terroir wines? No doubt about it!

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If I may permitted one more extreme wine for this column, I think it must be the Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coal River Valley in Tasmania that we tasted with winemaker Peter Althaus on a drizzly foggy day. Tasmania is one Australian region that doesn’t have to worry about having a cool climate (at least for now). Althaus scoured the world for a chilly and distinctive site for his vineyard and moved here from Switzerland once he found it. Each of his wines breaks a barrier of some sort — the Pinot Noir perhaps most of all — and the Cabernet is quite an achievement. Another extreme and memorable experience! Can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store!

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Thanks to Kym and Bron Anderson for our tour of the Adelaide Hills. Thanks to Savour Australia for giving us the chance to taste so many vintages of so many extreme wines. Thanks to Dr Loosen and Chateau Ste Michelle for introducing us to Eroica Gold at Riesling Rendezvous. Thanks to Scott McDonald for the tasting and tour at Torbreck. Special thanks to Stephen and Prue Henschke for their hospitality in Adelaide.

Telling Australia’s Wine Story the Old School Way

“Restaurant Australia” (the subject of two recent columns) was not the only attempt to re-brand Australian wine that we experienced at Savour Australia 2013. Other groups are busy getting the message out in their own ways using both high tech and “old school” approaches.

We encountered two memorable statements that deepened our understanding and appreciation of Australia and its wines. One had wine-making families tell their stories up close and personal. The other let the wine itself do the talking. Together with the Restaurant Australia campaign they made a compelling case. Here are the details.

First Families 

Sue and I were fortunate to be invited to a dinner hosted by Australian First Families of Wine and it was an eye-opening experience. The First Families are principals in twelve family-owned Australian wineries that together span the continent’s history, wine regions, and styles.

The member wineries are: Brown Brothers (based in Victoria, founded in 1885), Campbells Wines (Rutherglen, 1870), d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, 1912), de Bortoli Wines (Victoria and New South Wales, 1928), Henschke (Eden  Valley and Adelaide Hills, 1868), Howard Park Wines (Western Australia, 1986), Jim Barry Wines (Clare Valley and Coonawarra, 1959), McWilliam’s Wines (several regions, 1877), Tahbilk (Victoria, 1860), Taylor’s Wines (Clare Valley, 1969), Tyrrell’s Wines (Hunter Valley and other regions, 1858), Yalumba (Barossa and Eden Valley, 1849 — oldest of them all!).

Founded in 2009 (dark days for Brand Australia) this is an exclusive club, as Graeme Lofts explains in his history of these wineries, Heart & Soul: Australia’s First Families of Wine. What do they have in common? Australia, of course, and family ownership plus the longevity to be able to offer a vertical tasting of at least 20 vintages. Some are very large and others relatively small, but they are all top quality producers with a multi-generation point of view.

AFFW

They are all export focused, too, and so naturally worry about how their wines in particular and Australian wines more generally are viewed by global consumers, especially those in China and other growing markets. James Halliday writes in the book’s foreword that “The underlying rationale for the formation of Australia’s First Families of Wine was the realization that export markets had either lost sight of or had no way of knowing about Australia’s rich history, its diverse regional and wine styles, and the fierce personal commitment of the best winemakers to the production of high-quality wines true to their variety and geographical origin.”

Medium and Message

The idea was to provide counterpoint to the stereotype of Australian wines abroad, according to Halliday. “The wines have none of the corporate or industrial aroma attached (no matter how unjustly) to the brands produced by the largest Australian producers.”

So how do the First Families make their case? Not by relying on flash websites and streaming video, as effective as they can be. If the medium is the message, those media might send the wrong message about these fine wines.

No, in fact, they do it the hard way, the old school way. The families (all of them, or at least representatives of each and every one) travel to key markets and host dinners and events like the one we attended. There is real wine in real glasses, real people tell their stories and make their case. These are family wineries, you see, and family is always personal. So the message is personal and the medium must be the same.

I was impressed by the commitment. There were no empty First Family places at our dinner despite the group’s recent return from a grueling round of more than a dozen events in East Asia. The show must go on, as they say in the theater, and they seemed to draw energy from their audience, their mission, and each other. Quite an experience!

Yalumba Museum Tasting

The second effort to define Australian wine was necessarily even smaller and more focused, but the impact may still be substantial. Yalumba’s proprietor Robert Hill Smith (who was also at the First Families dinner) invited a few of us to The Old Lion Cellar & Tunnels  in Adelaide to take part in a special tasting of museum wines.

Our meeting was only the 24th in a series that began in 1977. Initially the focus was internal, I’m told, to let Australia’s young winemakers taste some of the very best wines across both time and space and be informed and inspired by them. A sure cure for “cellar palate” complacency!

P1060465Gradually the focus has evolved and it was clear that our tasting was meant for export — to leave a strong impression on Savour Australia 2013’s international delegates. And it (plus Robert Hill Smith’s engaging personality and a bit of excellent cuisine) certainly did the trick. Scroll down to see the list of wines we sampled.

Australia Three Ways

Restaurant Australia aims to use the power of modern media to cast a spell on consumers that will entice them to experience Australian food, Australian wine and … Australia! It targets the big global stage and seems well suited to its role.

Australia’s First Family of Wines is a more  personal experience that lets a dozen families speak for the nation’s fine wine. It’s a different stage (an intimate theater versus a huge IMAX screen) and a different audience, but powerfully effective because of that.

The Yalumba tasting, for those of us lucky to experience it, is the ultimate personal experience — a conversation where the wines literally speak for themselves, telling stores of the past and present with implications for the future.

Taken together, these efforts make a strong statement about Australian wines! Here — because I can’t resist sharing them — are the wines of the Yalumba tasting. Enjoy!

Riesling

  • Pewsey Vale “The Contours” Eden Valley Riesling 2002
  • Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 1973
  • Yalumba Riesling 1938

Viognier

  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2010
  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2007
  • Yalumba “The Virgilius” Eden Valley Viognier 2003

Chardonnay

  • Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
  • Vasse Felix Heytesbury Margaret River  Chardonnay 2008
  • Heggies Vineyard Reserve Eden Valley Chardonnay 2006

Shiraz — Eden Valley

  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2006
  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2004
  • Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz 2002

Shiraz – Clare Valley

  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 2006
  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1994
  • Jim Barry “The Armagh” Shiraz Clare Valley 1989

Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
  • Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2001

Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz

  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – The 3 Amigos 2004
  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A. “Eddy” Waechter 1992
  • Yalumba “The Signature” Barossa Cabernet Shiraz – A Harold Yates 1966

Fortified

  • Yalumba Shiraz Port No. 9 1922

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Special thanks to Robert Hill Smith for including us in the museum tasting. Thanks as well to the First Families, especially Victor De Bortoli, Prue and Stephen Henschke, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg and Tom Barry.

Anatomy of Australia’s New Wine Strategy

Click on the image to view one of the Restaurant Australia videos.

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In my last column I talked about Australian wine’s plans to re-brand itself on the global market through an integrated food-wine-tourism campaign called “Restaurant Australia.”  Delegates to Savour Australia were treated to four specially produced videos  (click on the image above to see one of them) that introduced the concept and, not coincidentally, also introduced the chefs and purveyors who would be providing some of our (delicious) meals over the next few days.

Beyond Sensory Overload

The audience seemed to pause, slightly stunned, after each video. At first I thought that it was just sensory overload. And it was. The stunning images presented on the big screen with rich surround sound was an intense experience, to be sure. The fact that we experienced it all again later, meeting the chefs, tasting the produce– that was intense too.

But now that I am back home and reflecting on the experience, I think that perhaps we also paused for a different reason. The whole purpose of our gathering was wine. We had journeyed long miles to Adelaide to see and hear Australia tell its wine story. But where’s the wine?

Yes, wine and a winemaker appeared in each video, but they seemed a bit of an add-on rather than the featured element of the message. What would happen if you left out the wine ? Nothing much else would change. Is that the way we want people to think about Australian wine — an afterthought in the grand “Restaurant Australia” concept?

Now There’s Your Problem

Obviously not — and it would be a mistake to judge the marketing campaign by a few introductory videos. But, as I thought about it, I began to recognize that it was related to a bigger problem.

One of the chapters in Extreme Wine is about wine and modern media — I call it Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies — and it concludes in part that wine’s inherent sensuousness seems to be difficult to translate to video. Yes, wine famously unlocks all the physical senses and a few of the mental ones, too. But it is an experience good. Like fly fishing and some other things you might be able to think of, its more fun to do than to watch someone else do.

That’s why there are surprisingly few films where wine plays a really central role. There are a few excellent ones (Sideways fans please put down your pitchforks!) but you’d really expect there to be far more than I found in my research. Food, on the other hand, seems to be something that video can capture very well. Does watching someone drink wine in a movie make you thirsty? Maybe. Does watching a celebrity chef eat a delicious dish make you hungry? You bet it does!

Hungry?

No doubt about it. Wine’s magic is difficult to capture on the silver screen (or that little screen on your tablet or smartphone). That’s why we have Master Chef but not Master Enologist.  There are rock stars in wine, but they don’t generally transcend the wine category the way the foodie celebrities increasingly do.

Wine Porn versus Food Porn

My foodie friends are always taking X-rated “food porn” photos of the the plates they are served at fancy restaurants. But my wino buddies generally don’t bother to snap “wine porn” images of their glasses (although I admit to some G-rated bottle/label shots myself).

Assume that I’m correct about this for a moment (or, better yet, grab a copy of Extreme Wine and read a more detailed account, which uses Sideways to show why really powerful wine films are so rare). Given video’s undeniable importance in communications today, what is wine to do? Well, one answer is to do what Australia wine seems to be doing, which is use what works (the foodie side of the campaign) to drive the message.  They call it “Restaurant Australia,” but I have a better name.

Strongest Brand in the World?

I call it The Italian Way. What region has the strongest generic wine brand? Well, here in the United States I would say that it is Italy (although France can make a claim because of Champagne’s powerful brand). Americans love everything about Italy — the food, the people, the art, the scenery, the food again, and now with the new Fiat 500, even the cars.

Americans love Italian (or sometimes Italian-style) coffee. And they love Italian wine. Just the fact that it’s from Italy gives it an automatic advantage at supermarkets, restaurants and wine shops.

It seems to me that “Restaurant Australia” aims to get Americans to love warm, friendly Australia in the same way that they have always loved warm, friendly Italy. A good idea? Yes. But not easy to do. If it was easy to achieve Italy’s reputation, everyone would do it. But it is worth trying. Australia has authenticity in its favor — it really is warm and friendly and the food and wine you can find there really are great– and that’s worth a lot.

Is it the only way to re-brand Australian wine? No — tune in next week for my report on another approach to this problem.