Export – it ain’t easy

Guest blogger Phil Reedman MW presents a call to arms

Phil Reedman MW: Australia’s stroke of genius was in creating consumer demand by providing countless opportunities for wine drinkers to taste the wines.

Please welcome Phil Reedman MW as my inaugural guest blogger at Vino Vitis. Phil has spent more than 25 years working in the wine industry, including nine years as Senior Wine Product Development Manager for UK retailer Tesco, covering Australia, New Zealand, the United States and South America (although I’ve never understood how that could possibly be considered one territory).

His career has covered just about every facet of wine from vine to glass: today, from his home base in Adelaide, Phil provides a wide range of services to wineries and retailers, with an emphasis on long-term sustainable business solutions. You’ll want to bookmark his entertaining and informative blog – taking special note of his recent post regarding the Chilean wine industry.

Not long ago, Phil was invited to present the keynote speech at this year’s awards luncheon convened by the Adelaide Wine Press Club. What follows is a transcript of his remarks, to which Phil has added a postscript focusing on New Zealand wine. We’re looking forward to a lively exchange in the “Comments” section.

A brief history of wine export to the UK, by Phil Reedman

My theme for today is that exporting wine has never been easy, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we think it has been; today’s travails are different to yesterday’s but the net result is much the same, you work hard, you make great wine, you find a way to overcome the obstacles and you sell it.

In 1987, I told my then employer that I was going to Australia to learn about wine. He bluntly stated: “Why? Australia won’t ever amount to anything as a wine producer.”

A few months later I arrived in the Barossa and it seemed that much of the valley believed what my erstwhile-boss had told me.

Yet just months later Australian wine was in the UK High Street and, thanks in part to the fallout from the Austrian di-ethylene glycol scandal, Jacobs Creek had at last, and I stress “at last” found a distributor in the UK.

Within a decade of my Barossa vintage everything had changed; Australia was full of self-belief, vineyards were being planted at breakneck speed to cope with growing demand and wine was on allocation. A decade further on and things had changed again; we’d overshot on vineyard plantings and there was wine in surplus but we still knew that she’d be right….. “It’s only a temporary over-supply.”

The difficulties persisted; droughts and over-allocated water-rights stressed both the vines and the industry. Yet amongst all this the stirrings of great things to come were to be found; desperate grape growers in the Riverland stopped bemoaning the hand they’d been dealt and went out and researched which of the newly imported “Mediterranean” varieties might suit a hotter, drier climate of the not too distant future. And now we’re seeing the fruits of their gamble in the bottles of some of our biggest companies.

So how did it all happen? How did it all come about that Australia, from way out of left field become the overnight success and number one supplier to the UK market?

Well of course, the overnight success that we all think about actually took ten or more years to achieve. And a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

Australian wine had to overcome more than one stereotype: famous Monty Python sketch of four Australian philosophers named "Bruce."

Think about Hazel Murphy at The Australian Wine Bureau and all the occasions when she politely sat through a buyer’s rendition of Monty Python’s Australian wine sketch. And it wasn’t just the buyers who knew two things about Australian wine in those days: wine drinkers also knew Monty Python and Chateau Rod Laver. So spare a thought for Hazel and her team at mass consumer events such as The Ideal Home Show and assorted golf tournaments around the country.

But spare a thought too for the wine producers of Europe who didn’t see this slow build as anything much to worry about.

In 1992 I began my MW studies and by then the only wines I was selling were Australian. It’s fair to say that amongst my fellow students Australian wine was a curiosity at best and a feeble joke at worst. Yes, they too had studied Monty Python.

A couple of my Budding Master of Wine friends didn’t take Monty Python too seriously though, and lo and behold the wine buyer for Fortnum and Mason, the Piccadilly Grocer to the Queen, and the buyer for Bibendum Restaurant were at least prepared to taste the wines I was importing. If either of them had realised at that stage that their interest in the wines of St Hallett would result in regular visits from Bob McLean they might have thought twice; though Bob probably wouldn’t have been deterred. It was hard work to get the sales moving to a broad audience although by that stage most of the wine writers were on board with Australia and some were visiting Coonawarra almost as often as they visited the Bordeaux. We got a lot of great press.

The foundations of Australia’s success had been built and the heavy lifting was beginning to get some structure in place. No longer was Australian wine available only in Oddbins, Ostlers and The Drunken Mouse (there’s three names to conjure with) but the supermarkets had taken notice of their Nielsen data and the requests which kept coming from in-store Customer Service departments from customers asking why they couldn’t buy that Australian wine they’d tried at the British Open Golf tournament or the Ideal Home Exhibition.

The Australian presence at the London Wine Trade Fair began to grow and the trade was taking notice. But Australia’s stroke of genius was in creating the consumer demand by providing countless opportunities for wine drinkers to taste the wines. Get the consumer on board: retailers listen to them.

Shoe leather, flesh pressing and the annual migration

And how did Australia engage with the consumer? By going to the UK en-masse. Those mid ’90s Malaysian Airlines flights from Adelaide to London in mid May make Booney’s in-flight drinking escapades look tame. It wasn’t always pretty meeting the flight at Heathrow but you knew you’d got an interesting couple of weeks ahead of you.

Ask wine drinkers in England if they’ve met a winemaker and the chances are that they have. Odds-on says that the winemaker they met is an Australian. One year it was the Barossa that descended on London, the next it was Coonawarra. Margaret River requisitioned Selfridges on Oxford Street. It was like a revolving door: no sooner had you put one winemaker on the plane at Heathrow you were back collecting the next. But boy, didn’t it work!

No importer could afford to have a list without an Australian agency, even the most conservative retailers weren’t brave enough to resist stocking at least a modest range of Australian wines and a very few forward thinking restaurants were adding Australia to the curio page at the back of their wine lists.

But it was damned hard work; it wasn’t simply a case of putting the wine into a list, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the Qantas in-flight entertainment: no, it was a lot of slog. Around about 1996 Bob McLean’s tornado arrived in London on a selling mission. One day went like this:

7am: Collect Bob from hotel and get to GLR radio studio in Marylebone High Street

8am: Radio interview with Matthew Jukes

9:30am: Training session for the front of house team at Conran Group’s  Zinc restaurant

11am: Fortnum and Mason, meeting with buyer to finalise volumes of Old Block Shiraz for the F&M Christmas hamper

1pm: Bluebird restaurant for lunch and post lunch service training session

4pm: Harvey Nicholls meeting with buyer

5pm: Training session for Harvey Nichols restaurant staff

And between all of those meetings, each time we saw a Threshers store or a Winerack store Bob insisted on going in to talk with the staff and to impress upon them the importance of them selling lots of St Hallett wines.

Bob McLean: a marketing force of nature for Brand Australia.

And that was just one day, and not a particularly exceptional one. And it wasn’t just Bob, it was a whole host of larger than life characters out there, building their brands and the brand Australia. I have an enduring memory of the late Patricia Brown, who must by then have been in her seventies, standing all day long behind the Brown Brothers stand, pouring her wines, engaging with wine drinkers and winning their hearts and minds. An adjacent, non-Australian wine stand staffed by twenty-something marketing folk had three changes of staff during the day and a rota of coffee breaks.

Australian wine became a firm fixture thanks to all that shoe leather, flesh pressing and the annual migration of winemakers to England.

By the early 2000s we’d had a decade or more of constant good press. The inevitable happened and as brands got bigger and more visible on shelf the media lost interest or worse stopped being so nice to us. We started to see words like “homogeneous” and “bland” replacing “reliable” and “fruit-laden”.

With respect to any media who might be here today, journalists writing stories is one thing, but most people don’t read the wine column of a newspaper, let alone buy Decanter Magazine and against all the better advice consumers continued to like our wines. Retailers continued to offer them and wineries were only too happy to supply. Australia even had the audacity to become the biggest supplier in the market. How dare we?  How did we…….with what competitor nations referred to as “industrial” wines which lacked any trace of “terroir”…..oh yes, that’s right; the consumers loved them.

But we, as an industry, seemed to waiver in our faith, the doubts crept in, we didn’t visit London quite so often, we rationalised that the market didn’t justify it; it was established, it was a mature market, Maryland and Parkerville were much shinier baubles and they really needed our time. Fair enough, on the last point, but they need our time “as well” rather than “instead of”.

A call to arms

Here we are, two dozen years on from the start of the current export boom and Australia is still the number one category in the UK market. Our closest competitor has only 2/3 our market share. We must be doing something right. During my nine years of working for Tesco I bought wine from other countries besides Australia and keen as I might have been to put them on gondola end the truth is that nothing worked quite like Australia. Consumers like our wines and you need to believe that.

So here’s the call to arms: on the 25th anniversary of the re-birth of Australian wine in the UK market let’s get out there again.

Let’s re-engage with the wine drinkers of the UK. Let’s re-energise the market.

Book one extra flight to London, get out there and make it count. Because you can, there is space in the market. Yes, exchange rates don’t make it easy but hey, you won’t encounter a single reference to Monty Python. There’s strong consumer demand already developed so you’re preaching to the converted and you’ve got new and exciting wines just waiting to be discovered by an eager audience. You’ve got new stories to tell, new varieties to explain; get out there and tell people about your sustainable vineyard practices, your environmentally responsible approach to winemaking and the hundred and one other stories which give richness to Australian wine.

The media has given us a hard time in recent years but I sense the tide is turning and the re-invasion of the UK should include a few drinks with journalists as well as wine drinkers and the trade.

The UK is more than the supermarkets, vital to us that they are. Consider other channels: restaurants are increasingly open to Australian wines, pubs are increasingly serving Australian wines by the bottle and by the glass and there are a host of independent merchants who can help you if you can help them. I’ve recently helped place a premium wine agency with a UK importer and in the next few weeks the winemaker is hosting a dinner at a Michelin-starred London restaurant for paying guests.

It won’t be easy. But then it never, ever was.

Postscript for New Zealand: jam tomorrow – all you can eat the next

Did New Zealand have a harder time than Australia breaking into the UK market in the 1980s? Australian wine, as noted above, was known only in reference to Monty Python while New Zealand wine was totally unknown. A sticky wicket vs. a clean sheet; it’s a hard call.

Marlborough Sauvignon blanc - it wasn't that long ago that people would willingly drive across London to purchase a single bottle.

Australia got past the Chateau Rod Laver jokes, and New Zealand created awareness of and interest in its wines. A tip of the hat must go to the pioneering sales and promotional work done by Margaret Harvey MW, an expatriate Kiwi pharmacist living in London, who took up the cudgels for numerous New Zealand wineries and, for a while, was a de facto New Zealand Wine Marketing body. At the same time, brands including Cooks, Stoneleigh and Montana began to appear in the market in a significant way; Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was a wine for which you travelled from one side of London to the other to buy one bottle of this dinner-party gold. New Zealand was a darling of the press and High Street retailer Wine Rack took a major shine to New Zealand wines.

UK drinkers fell in love with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; for a while some of them toyed with Hawkes Bay Chardonnay but Marlborough was what they wanted and were prepared to pay for. Retailers, on the one hand frustrated that in order to buy Sauvignon Blanc they had to buy Riesling, rejoiced in the cash margin of this new category. Allocation was the name of the game for New Zealand suppliers with constant promises that “next year there’ll be more wine…. and in the meantime do you want some cool climate sparkling wine and a case or two of Pinot Noir?” Promises of “jam tomorrow” abounded.

New Zealand worked hard to build its reputation beyond Sauvignon Blanc: Pinot Noir symposia, where positive feedback on the quality and marketability of the wines was welcomed from the great and good of the wine world, emboldened the industry to new levels of planting. Aromatics, Gimblett Gravels Syrah, Merlot from Hawkes Bay, Chardonnay from Gisborne; New Zealand pushed it all to convince drinkers that it was no one-trick pony. But drinkers rejoiced when the floodgates of Marlborough opened and the “jam” we’d been promised for so long actually did arrive. Consumers could get all the wine they wanted and even buy it at promotion prices. Oh happy days. For the consumer it is, but the retailers and the producers can surely hear the mournful honking of their dying Golden Goose.

Where to from here for New Zealand? Time it is to engage with consumers like never before to strengthen Brand New Zealand and to show them that there is a wealth of difference between an estate-crafted Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grown on a vineyard planted for the love of wine and a perfectly potable but ultimately uninteresting wine grown on vineyards planted for the bottom right cell on a spreadsheet. Brand New Zealand needs reinforcing because the global competition has heated up: glance across the Pacific to Chile and the valleys of Leyda, Bio-Bio and Limari whose growers are eying up the same markets with their Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Come on Marlborough, thrill us again. Give us a reason to drive across London to buy one bottle….as someone else’s strap line says, “Because you’re worth it.”


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  1. bob mclean
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    what a pleasure to read THAT, he is correct and believe it or not the road goes on forever and the story never ends..
    while i am no longer engaged in a “whole of Industry approach” nor a big maker apart from body size.. i still work hard at establishing a role for independent producers of wines built from designated vineyards. and love it try barr_-Eden mataro /shiraz /grenache, or our Riesling 500 metres in the eden valley. thanks again bob

  2. Phil Reedman
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Bob, delighted that you like the blog. Great to know that you’re still pushing the Barossa and Eden Valley cause. It needs winemakers of all sizes to keep the UK momentum going. Keep up the good work and see you for a glass of Riesling soon.

  3. Kieron Galliard
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for this great insight into the history of Aussie wine in the UK and their original marketing strategy which turned out to be so successful. Not only interesting but very useful info for MW assignments!

  4. Chris Anstee
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Great summary Phil!
    Pertinent, well considered and encouraging.
    An apocryphal story about (Sir) Jack Cohen, the founder of your old company, Tesco, and which seems to be your subtext, alleged that he wore a tiepin consisting of the letters YCDBSOYA. When asked what it was, he explained it was his core commercial philosophy: “you can’t do business sitting on you arse!” Quite so!
    Best wishes

  5. Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Great point, Chris, and I couldn’t agree more!