Battle of the bottles: Australia's wine offensive

Faced with increased global competition, Australia's high-quality wines have struggled for prominence. Winemakers need to create powerful brand narratives for their product.

Australia just hasn’t been itself of late. Its blend of ocker charm, camaraderie and candour once bowled the wine world over. But somewhere along the line the stories got lost, the characters went missing. And the wine – though better than ever – started to go unnoticed.

“You’ve become a brand.” That was the damning verdict from New York restaurant wine buyer Carla Rzeszewski. For many, that brand’s taken on a whiff of cheap, over-oaked chardonnay and jammy shiraz. Australia has to win over the Rzeszewskis of this world. With a host of winemakers complaining to Business Spectator about getting screwed by Coles and Woolworths — yet afraid to speak out about it — it’s essential to find margin elsewhere.

That’s why they so desperately needed Savour Australia 2013, the biggest ever forum dedicated to the nation’s wine industry, and the first major international event on home soil for seven years.

The three-day event in Adelaide was part rallying cry, part charm offensive. Made possible by a $2.1 million grant to Wine Australia and Tourism Australia, it sought to unite 460 members of the domestic wine trade behind the new Restaurant Australia campaign, which promotes this as a world-beating food and wine destination.

Graph for Battle of the bottles: Australia's wine offensive

It also flew in almost 300 people from overseas, chiefly from China, the US and UK, to enjoy the warm hospitality they’d been missing – and thereby rekindle the flame for Australian wine.

That fire once burned bright. Between 1991 and 2007, the industry more than tripled in size from less than 400 million litres to 1.2 billion. The value of exports increased from $212 million to $3 billion on a growing reputation for well-made, good-value wine.

Success swelled production and pride, possibly to the point of hubris. “A certain amount of success based on wine quality might have led to a certain amount of arrogance, particularly in the US where our wines were given 98, 99, 100 points by wine writers,” James Gosper of Wine Australia told Business Spectator. “It became about the wine in the bottle and the soul might have been slightly lost as to who put it there and where it came from.”

Since 2007, numerous factors have conspired to prick that vanity. Three successive bumper vintages from 2004 to 2006 led to a period of chronic oversupply. The strong dollar has shrunk export returns and retailers have squeezed domestic margins.

The competitive landscape has changed beyond recognition; new-world rivals such as New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa have got their act together, while sleeping giants from the old world have woken up.

And then there’s the emergence of Asia. Since 2007, exports to China have risen 333 per cent on a value basis to $241 million. But it’s still just 6 per cent of total export volume. The opportunity is huge.

Australia won’t get left on the shelf by being faceless or forgettable. It won’t get on the shelf in the first place. And anecdotal evidence from Savour Australia suggested the perception gap has widened more than imagined, as though the big brands — ubiquitous Jacob’s Creek and Yellow Tail at one end, Penfolds Grange at the other — had left a gaping hole between consistent quaffers and show-off icons. That’s a worrying sign for an industry comprising more than 2,400 producers and contributing $40 billion to the economy.

A key theme was the need for more engaging and individual storytelling. As Rzeszewski put it: “You have to humanise the wines and not be afraid to put your heart on the table.” The Restaurant Australia branding banner needn’t distort regional and personal narratives. Producers could learn a great deal from Tourism Australia’s phenomenal success with social media, and wine – sociable and endlessly varied – lends itself perfectly to digital technology.

According to Nielsen’s Michael Walton, the messages that most strongly resonate with consumers are humorous, while authenticity and family values also score highly. Humour, authenticity, family — that’s the wine industry in a nutshell.

Messages are one thing; getting the product out there is another. Finding a distributor that can tell your story and shift your wine is as crucial as it is difficult in markets like the US and China. And people need to taste the wine and meet the maker, face to face and a lot more often. With far-flung markets, tight budgets and wine to make, that’s a tall order. Gosper says in-market “mini-Savours” and the A Australian wine education program will help.

Fittingly, Savour’s most excruciating session tackled the uneasy relationship between wineries and supermarkets. This is a country where two chains, Coles and Woolworths, account for an estimated 77 per cent of off-premise sales (up from about 60 per cent in 2007). Panellists from Woolworths and UK giant Tesco framed the terms of the 'trade partnership'. But the imperative to please customers and shareholders is unforgiving on producers who bear agricultural risk and the burden of crafting wines that tick boxes on style, soul, quality, price and positioning. It’s a partnership, sure, but one where the supermarket wears the pants, controls the purse strings, dictates the menu and isn’t inclined towards romance.

Graph for Battle of the bottles: Australia's wine offensive

Wine Australia had to get this event right, and it did. Most talks were effective, the agenda apposite. Fantastic food and wine were plentiful. It also nailed the evening celebrations. The host producers fed off the buzz as much as their guests.

We’re told consumers want diversity, personality, regionality, quality and value. Australia has these in spades. It produces world-class, distinctive expressions of the world’s great varieties – shiraz, cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling et al – and Savour’s masterclasses left an indelible imprint on the palate. Likewise, the final day’s grand tasting showcased Australia’s trademark flair with new styles and lesser-known grapes.

Savour Australia could be a bright new beginning – but only the beginning. The challenges for this industry won’t get any easier. A rousing and durable encore is needed, regaling audiences with stories that resonate on a personal level.

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