Thursday, August 10, 2006

Dan Berger Downunder

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.


Mike said...

I received an anonymous comment on this post that for some reason Blogger will not me select so that it appears in the Comments section (all comments are moderated for Shiraz to avoid spam). Normally I don't let anonymous comments appear because if you are going to make a statement you should have the intestinal fortitude to append some sort of identification to it. But in this case I'm going to let it pass. The comment was:-

"Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Dan Berger Downunder":

Now you've got me wondering... You wrote,"...but I wonder if he has ever farmed grapes and had to rely on adequate prices for survival of his livelihood?"

So, here's what I'm now wondering... Are you farming grapes and having to rely on adequate prices for survival of your livelihood?

Perhaps Dan's opinions are based on his experiential, insider learnings by the constant sharing of industry professionals who ultimately shape his views..."

No I have not farmed grapes, but that is, of course, completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. What was being questioned, as indicated by the Seppeltsfield comments in my post, is the extent of Berger’s knowledge of what is happening in the Australian wine industry.

If you actually read the Berger presentation it is clear that he is either a poor speaker, or the text for his presentation was prepared in haste; it is a rambling hodgepodge and must have been difficult to listen to. Plus there is nothing all that original in Berger’s advice to the Australian wine industry. People have been providing the same list that Berger gave for years. Its been folks like the late Len Evans, who have actually done things to help the industry.

Although Berger suggestion that “I believe it is the duty of wine writers to alert consumers to issues of pH and total acidity” is sure to be a real winner. I can see wines streaming out the doors of the avant-garde wine shop that adopts the use of pH and total acidity in their shelf talkers. And they are sure to do wonders for the wine publication that uses them in descriptions of any wines. If anyone other than wine makers actually took any notice of such information don’t you think it would be on the label of every wine bottle? Very, very, very few wine drinkers are concerned about acidity and pH.

In terms of commentary I have much more confidence in Campbell Mattinson who noted in an Editorial in his Wine Front web site in April that he does not give a toss about the grape glut. But Campbell has his feet on the ground. His concern is – “The Australian wine industry is chockers full of folks with nothing unique to offer – folks who like the idea of throwing the words “my vineyard” or “my wine” into a sentence.” Fortunately if you are producing quality, then you are doing well, at least in the Barossa. As was recently reported by Nicki Bourlioufas on August 23, 2006 in The Daily Telegraph “Recent AWBC statistics suggest that as at June 2006, Barossa Valley wine exports were up on the previous year by almost 20 per cent in both volume and value.” But as Campbell notes you have be recognized in a sea of ordinary wine, that’s the struggle for many who really want to make a contribution. Berger does not acknowledge that aspect of the industry, but its easy to see, you just have to visit any wine region and talk to folks at cellar doors. I visit a different region in Australia each year and seen this each time, wealthy hobby vineyard/winery owners with resources that simply drown out their struggling but more talented competition who actually have “a genuine feel for wine”.

Campbell does not have a problem if a wine is “boring, flavoursome, but dirt cheap”, afterall that’s the type of wine the average Joe drinks. Also he does “feel sympathy for those grape growers genuinely flailing in the shark-infested waters of grape selling”. I endorse those sentiments. Its obvious Dan Berger does not, but then Campbell lives and breathes the Australian wine industry.


Mike said...

Another view on Berger's comments, can be found here. One comment worth noting is this Boom-bust cycles are a feature of the Australian wine industry and have occurred a number of times, but that does not mean that the plight of long-term growers who are hurting badly is anything but real, and describing their hardship and difficulties as “Mother Goose tales” is insensitive and demeaning..

Seems I'm not the only one to think that Berger is insensitive in his comments about Australian grape growers.