Noted American wine writer Dan Berger gave the Wine Press Club of NSW Annual Lecture on August 9th at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, Australia. The title of Berger’s presentation was “The Quality or the Critter? Australian Wines and the American Palate”.
Berger began by arguing that Australians should stop worrying about the so-called grape glut, noting that it’s “a classic example of Chicken Little hollering that the sky is falling combined with that of the boy who cried wolf, as well as a number of other Mother Goose tales”. As Berger argues, these events are cyclical, but I wonder if he has ever farmed grapes and had to rely on adequate prices for survival of his livelihood?
He then went on to state that “I can tell you that, in general, the higher you go on the price scale for Australian wines, the more quality you get. I cannot say the same for French, California, or Italian wines.” That is an interesting comment given some of the discussion that has taken place in some wine spheres in recent weeks. There may well be differences in quality in terms of price but the problem, at least in the USA, is whether there are sufficient differences among the wines at a particular price point to justify purchases from multiple wineries? When most of the wine taste the same, why buy them all?
Berger also noted that he had talked with Peter Gago of Penfolds, and had been told that there is actually a shortage of many different wine grapes, including top rated cool climate Chardonnay fruit and quality Sauvignon Blanc. This is a good thing for Australian grape growers as the larger Australian wine makers buy grapes for both inexpensive (commodity sector in Berger’s words) as well as the higher-end wines. According to Berger this situation is different from the USA where the larger wine companies (The Wine Group, Gallo, Bronco) have no wines in the quality range. Grape gluts in the USA are thus more likely to adversely affect the industry.
Berger then addressed the future of Australian wine and some of the strategies he thinks should be used. The list he commented upon included
1) Highlight your regions,
2) Eschew number mongers
3) Launch campaigns highlighting gold medals and trophies at wine shows around the world
4) Empower the consumer with factual data
5) Tell a story
6) Focus more of your efforts on Riesling and on rose and dessert wines like ports, sherries and muscats that are classic Australian offerings and which are unique here.
I’m not going to comment on Berger’s strategies, except for the last one. In addressing his last point he states “As for your dessert wines, they are some of the world’s finest, and yet the only time I see overt praise for them is about the coldest days of winter. If we all don’t stand behind these amazing products, they one day may be just a memory.” When I see comments about regionality, medal winners and Australian fortifieds lumped together I'm reminded that its the one wine style that is known in the USA on the basis of
1) At least one major critic raves about them,
2) At least one major critic awards them massive points,
3) The major region (Rutherglen) is known, and yet
4) They remains the best value for money both inside and outside Australia.
Australian fortified wines need to tell their story? To whom? Maybe someone should tell Dan Berger about a place called Seppeltsfield and a company called Fosters. When a behemoth like Fosters divests itself of the jewels that are the Seppeltsfield fortified brands one significant story in Australian wine history may be coming to its ending.
For those who want to read Berger’s comments his presentation is here.