Thursday, August 14, 2008

Major Importer of Australian Wines Trimming its Portfolio?

Just a week or two before we left for vacation in July I was offered deep discounts on wines from several Australian producers including J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden. The reason given for the deep discounts was that the distributor was dropping these wines. I bought a few 6-packs and thought nothing more about it. Then today a thread on eRobert Parker’s Bulletin Board has become embroiled in a discussion about how many producers Dan Philips’ Grateful Palate, a significant importer of Australian wines, is dropping from its portfolio. Guess who imports J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden?

The discussion on eBob suggests that some 18 brands would be dropped from the Grateful Palate (GP) portfolio. At present its anyone’s guess as to which brands are being cut but the non-GP brands being kept likely include Kalleske, Kays, Tscharke, Noon, Greenock Creek, and Majella. There may be others as well as the Grateful Palate portfolio of Australian producers imported by Dan Philips is long and includes many small wineries that make some outstanding wines. A sampling includes Burge Family, Glaymond, Tim Smith, Scarpantoni Estate, Shirvington, Samuel's Gorge, The Willows, Tim Smith Wines, as well those mentioned above.

The reason for this possible slashing of products is not clear, but both Michael Opdahl (Joshua Tree Imports) and John Gorman (Southern Starz) have contributed lengthy posts on the current difficulties being experienced by those trying to sell Australian wine into the US market; “Australia is one seriously screwed up wine category right now and desperately in need of a major make over.” John Gorman.

I certainly agree with some of the major concerns including the influence of the dramatic increase in the value of the Australian dollar against the greenback over the last 4-5 years and the confusion produced by the sameness of many Australian wines especially those in the $25-50USD price range. Another important concern, reflected somewhat in the sameness of many wines, is the limited exposure of the US market to the diversity of Australian wine. There many be millions of cases of Australian wine brought into the US each year but much of it comes either from the amorphous wine region called South Eastern Australia and/or reflects the lack of knowledge about Australian wine by the American wine consumer. Educating and refining the wine palates of a population as large as the US is a daunting task. For example, here is simple question. How many wine regions (called geographical indicators, GI) are there in Australia? Ten, twenty, thirty? Try 64! Next question – How many can you name?

Wine Australia has made some attempt to expand knowledge of the diversity of Australian wine with their Regional Heroes program but the audience that has some knowledge of how this works is abysmally small. More importantly even if consumers can describe the most important varietal or style from a region and its recognizable characteristics they may still be unconvinced as to why they should pay $50 for a Barossa Shiraz when they can get a Shiraz for $10 from South Eastern Australia. What is needed are clear definitions of why some wines are superior to others. A good example of how this can be achieved is the definition of wine styles for Rutherglen Muscat. If you appreciate this type of wine (as I do) then just a little reading makes very clear to you what defines a Rutherglen Muscat versus a Rare Rutherglen Muscat. A similar type of definition (and code of practice) could be applied to other wine styles. For example the spectrum of Barossa Shiraz could include generic Shiraz that comes from multiple vineyards versus that from single vineyard sites. The age of the vines could also be used to further refine the style. Selection of parcels of grapes or certain barrels could be used to highlight wines that are a wineries’ best exemplar of the region.

A good example of how selection of vineyards and barrels can be used to identify wines of increasing superiority is that used by Wayne Dutschke of Dutschke Wines. The St. Jakobi Shiraz is a single vineyard wine, the "Oscar Semmler" is a blend of the best structured and most mouth filling parcels of Shiraz from the St Jakobi vineyard and represents "the best of the vintage”, while the “Single Barrel Shiraz” is the best barrel from the harvest of the St Jakobi vineyard. That is an easy system to understand both in terms of what each wine represents and why each is priced differently. And no where near as confusing as the R wines of the Grateful Palate.

No comments: