Wine economics

Monday, September 04, 2006

Idiosyncratic observations on wine and wineries in QLD & NSW

After a conference at the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, I took a car and travelled along the New England Highway from Toowoomba, QLD all the way to Sydney, NSW. Naturally, visiting the Hunter Valley was part of my travel schedule. Here are some observations from the trip.

1) On the way from the Bunya Mountains to Toowoomba my friends took me and my wife to the Rimfire Winery at Maclagan, QLD. We tasted some of their whites and reds. The Rimfire whites are quite allright - I liked their Verdelho and un-oakded Chardy - but they are overpriced, unless one is prepared to spend several dollars for drinking a local product. The Rimfire reds reminded my of some of the weaker and thinner German red wines that rarely seem to get enough sun. Why anybody would want to pay more than 20 A$ a bottle for that thin and unimpressive stuff beats me.
Rimfire follows some extraordinary marketing principles. Whereas wineries in many parts of the world provide picnik spaces where visitors can enjoy there own food together with the winery's products, Rimfire asks its visitors not to consume their own food on the winery's premises. Really irritating is Rimfire's rule not to sell about half of their wines to visitors who are not members of the Rimfire wine club. This is definitely not the way to treat visitors and potential customers. I still regret that I bought something from them.

2) The last time I travelled the New England Highway was in 1993. At that time there already were a few wineries coming up in the fruit growing area around Stanthorpe. Now there seem to be many with road sings everywhere showing tourists the way to the next winery. We were in a hurry and I could not visit any of them.

3) Shortly before Armidale a winery has sprung up in a sheep paddock beside the New England Highway at an altitude that is probably above 1000 m. The winery has the appearance of an modern agricultural shed.

4) The city of Armidale, where in the late 70s the culinary experience hardly went beyond steak, meat pie, and Lindeman's cellar cask, now tries to present itself as an abode of advanced culinary experiences. One element in this experience is Petersons wines from the Hunter Valley who operate a vineyard and a guesthouse at Armidale. The Petersons wines are even sold in "Booloomimba", the administration building of UNE whose ground floor has been converted from offices into a cafe. Prices for the Peterson wines offered in the cafe are remarkable: I didn't see a single wine being offered below A$ 20.

5) In the Hunter Valley I had appointments at two wineries: Brokenwood and Bimbadgen. We also visited Keith Tulloch Wines, Tempus Two Wines, Tyrrell's Wines, and Wyndham Estate. Finally, we made a short visit and tasting at Camyr Allyn Winery in East Gresford.

6) At Brokenwood I met with Geoff Krieger, General Manager of Brokenwood. We mainly talked about why Australian wineries tend to be much more innovative than wineries in Germany, about grpe sourcing and supply chain management, about the impact of the Web on direct marketing, and on sundry issues of the Austrlian wine industry. With regard to innovation Geoff believes that the absences of regulations is key to innovation in Australia's wine industry. He emphasized that he can grow whatever variety wherever he wants to grow it in Australia. Moreover, Brokenwood does not hesitate to blend wine from different regions - the Hunter and Orange, NSW, McLaren Vale in SA, and from locations in Victoria.
Brokenwood also buys considerable quantities of grapes. The purchased grapes are grown under contract and Brokenwood pays prices that are above the going market prices (~ 1800 A$/t instead of ~ 1200 A$/t of red grapes.)

Brokenwood uses only oak barrels for oaking its wines and it uses neither oak chips nor oak staves. Spinning cone is not used for Brokenwood wines. Organic growing of grapes is not an option because of the high incidence of mould in the Hunter which makes 10-12 sprays necessary.

Brokenwood sells about 100,000 cases of wine per year, of which ~ 60% are sold domestically through the wine trade, 20% are sold at the cellar door, and 20% go into export, in approximately even shares to the UK, the USA, and to Canada. Brokenwood wants to increase its exports in the next five years from ~ 15,000 cases to ~ 50,000 cases per year.

The web, in Geoff's opinion, is not for sales and the quantity of wine sold by Brokenwood over the web is insignificant. An important marketing tool is the wine club. Members of the Brokenwood wine club are sent either 8 cases per year or 4 cases per year; members can choose the wines they are sent.
Wine yields in the Hunter: Brokenwood Graveyard (Brokenwood's flagship wine selling at A$ 100 the bottle): ~ 1.5 t per acre (= ~ 3.7 t per hectare); other vineyards: 5-6 t per acre (~ 12.5 - 15 t per hectare, red varieties).

7) At Bimbadgen I spoke with Heidi Sheridan, the brand managemer who also is in charge of the Bimbadgen website, with Simon Thistlewood, the Bimbadgen wine-maker, and with the Bimbadgen export manager whose business card I have misplaced. The Bimbagen people cave me plenty of their time and after the talks they gave me and my wife Karin a very agreeable lunch in the stylish Bimbadgen restaurant with a nice view.
The Bimbadgen website is in its 3rd generation. The 1st generation website does not seem to have been much - at least neither Heidi nor Simon said much about it. The 2nd generation website seems to have been overly ambitious, its navigation was difficult, and its impact on wine sales was unsatisfactory. The latest, 3rd generation website, unlike the 2nd generation one which was designed and programmed by an external agency, is maintained by Heidi wit ha CMS. Navigation is made easier and sales on the website have increased. Orders on the web are collected over the day, printed out, and then processed like conventional mail or telephone orders.
The website is also am important medium for communication with the 2,800 Bimbadgen wine club members. Club members are sent two cases per year, each valued at ~ A$ 100; club members have no choice over the wine they get.
Channel conflicts: occasionally, Bimbagen's cheaper wines are offered in supermarkets at prices that a below the reduced list prices for club members. Club members do not complain about this because they tend to be more interested in Bimbadgen's premium wines. Heidi will soon be responsible for the wine club, in addition to her web responsibilities.
Bimbadgen is thinking about installing a website in Japanese that would allow Japanese to order wine from the website; the order would then be forwarded to an importer in Japan who would ship the wine to the customer.

Simon Thistlewood gave me much more of his time than I could have asked for and I learned a lot. Simon confirmed what Geoff Kieger had already told me: absence of regulations is a key to innovation in the Australian wine industry. In contrast to Geoff, who emphasized the freedom of growing grapes in Australia, Simon emphasized the freedom that winemakers have to create wines that are attractive to wine journalists - who talk up wines - and to consumers. Wine shows seem to have been of central importance to Simon: there he could learn from other wine-makers and he could build a reputation with small quantities of "show wines". Important sources of new ideas are for wine makers their class mates from college (Roseworthy College, SA), their peers in the Hunter, and experts at the Australian Wine Research Insitute whom wine makers can ask for advice on the web or on the telephone.
In contrast to German wine-makers, who tend to emphasize custom and tradition in the image they project, Simon seemed ruthlessly customer-oriented: when it sells, why not do it? The number of expensive oak barrels will be drastically reduced and all oaked wines, except Bimbadgen flagship wine, will be oaked with chips or staves. (Compared to Brokenwood's Graveyard, Bimbadgens Signature series wines are cheap at A$ 40 a bottle). Bimbadgen also has thrown out conventional corks - it is screw tops for all wines. There were no complaints from customers. Simon is thinking about concentrating a shiraz that is a bit too light-bodied. We also talked about spinning cone: the cost for reducing alcohol content from 16.7% to 14.5% are A$ 0.512 per litre.
Vineyard operations such as pruning and harvest, are mechanized at Bimbadgen.
I asked Simon whether he uses ozone for cleaning in his winery. He does not. Boulton from UC Davis has come through Australia warning wineries of the health hazards of ozone.
At the 2005 Decanter World Wine Awards Simon's Botrytis Semillon won the International Trophy for best dessert wine (under £10 category). The wine was harvested in July instead of April, when whites are usually harvested. In the cellar we tasted the latest Botrytis Semillon from the steel tank: to me it tasted like a mixture of grape and pinapple juice, but then, I am not all an exprienced wine taster - not from the glass, much less from the tank or barrel. We also tasted from the tank a blend of shiraz and viognier that should stay another year in the tank before it is bottled. The wine was something of taste-chameleon that constantly changed its taste. Quite interesting, but a bit unusual. Also, the wine was rather light coloured.
I also talked with Simon about sourcing grapes, either from the Hunter or from elsewhere. Bimbadgen does not contract for grapes in a formal way but talks to grapegrowers before the harvest. It does not pay premium prices. Simon reckons that new wine growing areas are not systematically identified in Australia; it is more done by trial and error. Simon mentions the Orange wine growing area in this context. There the terroir is very heterogenous and the performance of some vineyards is disappointing.
The export manager told me about her difficulties with exporting wine to China, where import regulations are enforced differently at different entry points. I also learned several useful details from her: (i) wine is too heavy for 40" containers to be filled with wine; a 20" container is more cost effective (~ A$ 3,500 ex winery); (ii) the importer, not the winery, chooses the shipping agent; (iii) the EU and some other countries demand that palettes are fumigated; this doubles the costs of palettes. Palettes made of plastic do not need to be fumigated but they are not yet strong enough. (iv) Traceability of wine is achieved by means of a batch number printed on the label.
What I liked at Bimbadgen was (i) their wines seem to be reasonably priced; (ii) the winery is a very agreeable blend of skilled wine making, stylish tasting room and restaurant, (iii) excellent food, (iv) stylish architecture in a pleasant environment; (v) perhaps most important, very friendly people everywhere in the winery. To me, the Bimbadgen is a very good example of a pleasant comprehensive or holsitic experience: nice wine, nice food, pleasant environs, and, friendly people.

8) We also visited some other wineries at the Hunter. The cellar door at Tyrells winery was a disappointment: some old blokes filling tasting glasses with unimpressive wines in an unattractive envrionment. De Julius has a very impressive architecture, so does Tempus Two. On Saturday morning at about 10 a.m. we arrived at Keith Tullock. Tasting the Tullock wines on the verandah on a fresh spring morning is a very agreeable experience. On the way to East Gresford we visited Wyndham Estates; I did not like their wines - far too much oak in the Chardonnay.

9) The last winery we visited was Camyr Allyn Winery at East Gresford. We visited East Gresford because of Emma and Andrew Badgery who have just moved their into their freshly renovated house. On Saturday we visited the East Gresford rodeo, with Akubras, RM Williams boots & pants, beer cans, steak sandwiches, kids, and dogs everywhere. The next day, before we left the valley to go to Sydney, Emma and Andrew took us to Camyr Allyn where we talked to the owner who is a friend of Emma. I only tasted very little of their wines because I had to drive afterwards. But the winery is located on a very nice spot on the shoulder of a hill overlooking a small river with ducks, a vineyard, and the valley. A perfect spot for a picnic.


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