My take on opportunities and challenges for the Australian wine industry (if anyone cares.)

20 Aug

A lot of you know Aussie wines were my first loves, so this subject is near to my liver, oops, heart. The Guild of Sommeliers held a essay competition for members for an Australian educational enrichment program. I didn’t get the trip, but hey, I got a blog post!
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The past few years have not been easy for the Australian wine industry in general. The success of mass-produced wine and status of Yellowtail as the number one imported wine in the US have given rise to a perception solely based on cheap, over-engineered bulk wine that even the recent years of drought cannot entirely erase—-or export in toto with success.

The Australian dollar’s parity with the U.S. dollar now negates Australia’s price-to-quality advantage even on higher-prestige names. The challenge lies in negotiating a middle path that keeps both extremes of the industry—-both small vineyards and large brands—-producing and profitable. By shifting the public’s awareness from $10 and under wines to higher $15 to $45 ranges, Americans will eventually realize that there is greater variety—-and reward—-to Brand Australia.

In addition, Australia’s flagship wines—-easy drinking yet bold Shiraz, heavily oaked Chardonnay—-are out of favor currently with American palates. Being able to point to a specific region can also lessen the challenge to educate consumers about the flavor profiles and nuances of critical but misunderstood or lower-profile wines such as Riesling and Semillon. The latter may be an easier sell then the former, given the unfortunate mark that budget European Riesling has left on American tastes over the decades.

It could be argued that Australia’s current perception problem has deeper roots than simply agricultural ones, stemming back to Australia’s worldwide pop culture juggernaut in the 1980s fueled by entertainment exports such as Men at Work, Air Supply, The Thorn Birds, and of course, Crocodile Dundee. Boomers and Gen Xers have indelible, iconic–and erroneous– ideas of Australia as a casual, beach-going, laid-back, bushwhacking, Foster’s Beer-swilling, Vegemite-snacking society where both the men and the women are tough and proficient in knife-throwing.

Millennial consumers have less need for “retraining” than their parents and grandparents. They have fewer touchstones and perceptions of larger-than-life Australian culture and personalities to set aside. And given this generation’s propensity to forge their own paths earlier in life and take more risks, the ability for the Australian wine industry to present them with images of younger winemaking stars such as Ben Glaetzer and Anna Pooley could resound very deeply.

Given that Americans are now more concerned than ever with where their food products come from, there may be potential for the Australian wine industry to position its wine as a complement to the locavore movement. Affluent consumers who are inclined to pay more for organic apples from New Zealand at Whole Foods Market, or shares of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, are more willing to pay premium prices for goods of higher perceived quality and benefits, as well as experiment and try both new varietals and wine regions. This may especially be effective in areas where local wine is sub-par or the viticulture industry nascent.

The strategy to demarcate regionally-specific wines can also assuage Americans’ aversion for surprise. The similarities between the two nations as former British colonies establish an instant kinship. Australia is on the other side of the world, but in many ways, it is as close as Canada. That Australia is also the most significant English-speaking wine producing nation after the U.S. would instill a level of high level of comfort in consumers who avoid the French wine sections of their purveyors because they confuse Cotes du Rhone with Cote de Beaune or think Chablis is an actual grape variety. This is where education engenders loyal consumers. When consumers feel empowered enough to confidently make purchases themselves based on regions they have begun to trust and appreciate, they will often stick to what they know and venture out slowly.

Those who tell stories for a living know the advice that “if you want to write about or depict the universal, you must be specific.” Put in other words, consumers will find something identifiable in organic or market-driven narratives if they themselves can recognize something in them about themselves.

Americans have a soft spot for underdogs. And Australia is home to some of the harshest, most difficult winemaking conditions on Earth. The story of winemaking there is an epic one of surviving and thriving against the immutable forces of nature and carving out beauty and bounty. The end of the story—the bottled, finished product—are in their own ways miraculous, poetically mad things: manifestations of devotion, sheer determination to succeed in harmony with (and often despite) nature.

For the American wine-consuming public, there are still epic stories for Australia to tell.

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