The Non-existent Presence
Interview by PHILIP WHITE – Winestate June 1983
Frank Stone loves wine. A softly-drawling Georgian, he is headmaster of a body called the Wine Academy of USA, and is also president of the Society of Wine Educators in America.
While he talks, Stone pulls wine marketing and import/export statistics from his memory with an uncanny flair, and he pauses now and then to ensure his last gentle barrage of figures and ideas has properly settled on his listener.
Also a merchant, Frank owns Skinflints, a chain of six supermarket-sized bottle shops in and around Atlanta, Georgia. These shops specialise in quality wines, and they turn over $25 million each year. That’s quite a lot of wine. Frustrated with the difficult task of getting solid and up-to-date information about the Australian wine industry, Stone eventually made time to come and find out for himself.
Philip White intercepted him in the middle of Victoria, and found an interviewee fired with enthusiasm for what he had so far found, and similarly fired with criticism of Australia’s bumbling in the international marketplace.
How do you see the Australian wine presence in the USA?
There’s virtually not a presence. It’s a non-existent presence. Currently, Australian wines are usually put in the “all other wines” section. Perhaps merchandised along with wines from Jugloslavia; less prominently than Hungarian wines; next to Chile and Turkey.
Partially, my criticism is for the really piss-poor PR that your wine marketplace has generated for itself, both within and without the country.
Has anybody ever been to talk to you about it?
No. Not one. Nobody. Not one wine shipper has been to Atlanta Georgia and seen me. Let me tell you even worse than that – much worse than that: as the president of an international wine education association with 1,600 members who teach in universities and colleges, adult education and trade education course – get it: I am the clearing house for all wine information for that group, and have subsequently regurgitated a catalogue of every piece of information available on the subject of Australian wine, and every other wine – do you know how many times I’ve been contacted by anyone from Australia? Never.
Can you make some comparisons between what Australia’s doing and what other countries are doing?
Aw shit. As an example, let’s talk about France and Italy. For the last five years, the French wine imported marketplace has been taking it in the ass in America – at the expense of expanding market share for Italian wines, OK? The French are selling the same amount of wine, with proportionate increases each year, accounting for inflation. However, on the other side of the scale, the Italian wine-producers and importers are accelerating their rate of growth and their market-share percentage by tenfold extrapolated over the French.
Five years ago, 9% of the wine consumed in the United States was imported. The Italians’ share of those imports was less than 11%. Today, imports account for 24% of consumption, and the Italians’ share of that is 67% okay? From 11% of 9% to 67% of 24 – that’s quite a jump in four years! And you know how they’ve done that? First, a media program that’s second-to-none. Advertising, point-of-sale material, maps, charts, books ... they run five trips a year to Italy for wine writers, all expenses paid. All you gotta do is show up at the airport. Five trips a year for forty people apiece! That’s 200 writers a year, every year for the last five years, taken to Italy. OK?
Let’s take Marquis Antinori. You know him? He owns Villa Antinori. Seven years ago, he was shipping 40,000 cases of wine, total. Last year he shipped 2,500,000 cases of wine. Let’s talk about Villa Banfi. Seven years ago they didn’t exist. Last year they shipped 17,000,000 cases of wine. That’s just the States. 17,000,000 cases!
Could they have done that on the quality of the wine alone?
They didn’t do it on the quality at all. They did it by marketing. There’s this body of merchandisers who have been put in New York City. They opened a wine-tasting room, just for the media and the trade. They had an outreach and hand-holding program that went to every village and every city, starting at the population centres and working out like tentacles, making friends, giving tastings, holding seminars and holding classes; correspondence courses.
Last year, imported wine constituted 7% of America’s total balance of trade deficits. Now ponder on that.
The word is that Australia, and Australians, are all fairly popular in the USA at the moment. Is that true?
Absolutely. There’s a very strong kinship with things Australian right now. The phenomenal success of the films is evidence of this. Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, and The man From Snowy River – I’ve seen all three of those, and I think the reason Australia has some fascination for Americans is that’s it’s a resemblance of the old west tough-guy-strikes-out-against-all-evil mentality. It’s been so well-received over the years. But more than that: there’s a philosophical, maybe an emotional endearment to a people who speak the same language, and have the same developmental processes, as the Americans have had.
So in terms of potential adaptability to the marketplace, it couldn’t be better than it is right now.
Are there many similarities between the Australian and American wine marketplaces?
God, there are so many. It’s easier to talk about the differences!
To begin, the marketplace is relatively embryonic in terms of marketing positions and in terms of packaging. It’s fairly sophisticated in the sense of wine technology, and the development of new types and varietal characteristics.
I think the technology’s very high here. The experimental things I’ve seen here have been very interesting, but the really good wines I’ve seen here are really one step beyond experiments, and beyond the hobby – I call them gentlemen – winemakers.
Another thing is that Australian makers have a very introspective perception of the marketplace: they can barely see past their sales room or customer list. From what I’ve seen they don’t have much sensitivity to what’s happening outside their own region. They have very little sensitivity to the world marketplace other than for comparative analysis of their own product.
What are the differences in the customer’s approach to the wine store? Do Australians expect anything that Americans don’t?
Well, they’re telling me that the Australian consumer buys low-price, high-volume goods in great numbers and that you have no market for super-premiums. But see, then when I ask ‘OK, where are the super-premiums?’ they’ve sold completely out, and they’ve got a warehouse full of low quality – I’m sorry – low price, high volume goods left. So maybe it’s the numbers that on paper reflect an avalanche of consumption of high volume and low price, but the synergism in the marketplace is for the unique and the high quality, which supports my allegation that although they say there’s no place for it on the market, it keeps disappearing off the shelves.
What I have noticed with striking similarity is the polarisation of the elements: the consumer element; the retail element; and the wine-producing element. They seem to be at odds with one another about their common interests.
At the producer level, they seem to be hell-bent on distribution at all costs. “We want penetration. We want depletions”. And at the retail level they’re caught in the syndrome that more boxes beget greater market share. They prostitute profits.
At the wine consumer level you seem to have an element who are drinking wine as an alternative to beer, or soft drink, or water. Then you have another element who have developed a cognoscenti of wine snobbery. I don’t like to use the word “snob” though ... let’s say “enthusiasts”. You have these enthusiasts who support the expansion of the super-premium wine market. They do it by wine-tasting clubs, wine-buying schemes, wine-drinking organisations, and then, to a lesser extent, through the restaurant trade.
The most unique character I’ve seen so far is in the restaurants. The restaurants here have a better grip of what’s of what’s happening in the regional marketplace. Much better than the retailers I’ve seen. Now maybe it’s because the marketplace is structured differently here than it is the States, but almost every restaurant I’ve been in has had a pretty active wine-marketing program for that region.
Which Australian wine products would suit the American market?
I don’t think all the products that are made here could suitably be exported and marketed successfully in the United States. I came over here looking for very specific types and kinds and qualities. Specifically, premium reds. Cabernets and shiraz. Some very high quality ports, which is a surprise to everyone that I’ve talked to, and sherries. There is an absolutely insatiable market in the United States for quality port.
You can tell from the auction prices in London that there’s a world demand. Look at the Decanter index! The port index is up higher than the Bordeaux prices! The numbers speak for themselves.
Best of the things that I’ve seen, there are least a half-dozen that I’d be proud to sell, not as an Australian wine, not as a wine from another wine-producing region, but a god-damn good seven dollar bottle of red wine! That’s the crux of the thing: I’m dealing in goods that are international in scope. And I’m looking to supply our market with the best quality, within the price range, from anywhere in the world. I don’t give a shit where it comes from. And my customers don’t either. I used to think they were hung-up, but they’re not. They’re buying what I tell them is the best value for money. That’s how I built my business.
Here’s an example: a year ago I went to South Africa, and became enamoured with the Zeonnebloem cabernet. One particular vintage out of the eight I tried was outstanding. Stylistically, it’s a non-typical cabernet style for America. It’s got a good presence of colour, a good complexity of flavour, long in the mouth, with no astringency and no tannin – it’s as if somebody clipped off the bottom half of the glass.
Slippery, wonderful taste. And I also tasted the same wine-style that they’d been making over the last thirty years. They were that old, and they still had fruit in the glass! I couldn’t believe it! If I hadn’t tasted them myself, I would have thought that that wine would have been over the hill and in the salad dressing within five years. It has a structure unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s because of the climatic growing conditions. You can read about it, but until you see it, it’s an absolute anomaly.
I took a shipment of some of these wines back, along with some Edelkeur, which is a botrytised dessert style white. I took 200 cases back to the States, and I sold it faster than a cat could lick its ass. You know why? Because it’s light, it’s got good colour, good fruit. People can drink it like a Beaujolais. Drink it chilled – not cold – as a complement to food: a wonderful food wine. We don’t have a wine made in America that’s like the wine I’ve just described.
Anyway, 200 cases was my first shipment last March. Before the end of December this year we’ll probably do 80,000 cases.
Have you seen any wine in Australia which excites you so much?
I don’t want to be patronising or partial, but so far the most unique thing is Hickinbotham’s Anakie Cab Mac. It’s exactly the type of wine I’m talking about. Forward, and fruit-like, with not a lot of complexity to it, and easy ... a fun wine to drink!
But that’s coming from one of the smallest wineries in the country!
Well, what can I tell you?
Well, what else can you tell me?
I don’t think the chardonnays I’ve seen have sorted themselves out in a way comparable or similar to the Californians.
But I’ve seen some cabernets and some reds from Coonawarra that are very nice. They’re wines that I have an interest in. I did see a couple of things in the Barossa that were interesting. The Hill Smith outfit has a couple of wines that I’m really partial to. In the McLaren Vale I found a couple that caught my attention. The most interesting thing I found there was Hardy’s Show Port.
We were hoping you’d never discover that! What about riesling? Are we ever going to sell it in the States?
No. We’ve got plenty of that now. The botrytised wines are a definite, although there are a lot of attempts at botrytised wines here – they don’t have the depth or the apricot flavours that I’m looking for yet, but they’re certainly getting there. You’ve certainly got the areas for it.
Can you make just a short comment on what Australia should be doing?
Australian wine products are not recognised in America. By and large, Americans don’t even know that Australia is a wine-producing nation, and that the wines that are being made here are serious efforts towards making universally-accepted wine products.
The way I propose to expediate the development of that awareness is through education.
Last year, the Society of Wine Educators provided wine education for over 600,000 people in America. OK? That body is currently in the process of developing a core educational program for every wine-producing country. This will be disseminated to the Society’s members on, say Italy, or it could be France, or Germany, South Africa, Australia, or Chile. Slides, transparencies, maps, production data, crop information and statistics, contact points, where you get tasting samples ... OK?
You take all that and you get it to 1,600 wine teachers and you start communication.
Another obvious thing would be for your wine-producing areas to collectively develop what I call educational tasting tours through the States. Hit the eight or nine major markets. Put on educational tastings. Invite the trade and the press. Get twenty wine producers to go through the United States on a ten-city tour. A goodwill media blitz. Tastings. A coupla lunches and some breakfasts, handing out maps and charts and photographs. God-damn, you’d get $500,000 worth of publicity out of a trip like that, and they don’t cost that much. Those are the things that are proven ingredients. They’ve worked very successfully for other producers. I’ve talked to dozens of people from here who say “we need a good export scheme”.
You don’t need a good export scheme. Shit, you don’t even export yet. Well?.