|Tony Lord photographed in Chesser Cellars by Philip White 1982|
08 December 2008
THUS SPRACH THE LORD
by PHILIP WHITE - Interview in WINESTATE July 1982
Tony Lord is the editor of the prestigious British wine magazine, Decanter. In Australia recently, on his way home from New Zealand, Lord delivered some scathing criticisms on the way Australian wine marketing is conducted abroad, especially in London itself.
Lord believes that since the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation closed the Australian Wine Centre in London, an invaluable twenty years of effort in promoting Australian wines there has been almost entirely wasted.
Pointing out that the number of cases of Australian wine imported into Britain escalated steadily from 11,000 in 1977/78, to 48,000 cases in 79/80, Lord is particularly reproachful of the fact that this figure dropped to 33,000 cases in 80/81, neatly comparing the situation to the number of Californian cases imported: that figure has jumped from 40,000 cases to 400,000 in two years.
Explaining that the established European wine producers are almost operating at their maximum production levels, with very little room for expansion, Lord believes these suppliers have little choice other than to charge higher prices for their shrinking market share, and is adamant that the gap will be filled by wines from the New World countries, like Australia, California, South Africa and New Zealand.
However, Lord explains, Australia, unlike the others, appears now to be disproportionately focusing its attention on the much more difficult markets of the USA and Canada, both areas requiring relatively massive investments for the slightest market share.
A jovial expatriate Australian, Lord displayed a rare and irreverent candour when confronted with the Winestate microphone, and fairly large chunks of his dissertation proved far too spicy for these pages. A pity, but there’s plenty here:
Will we have to send our best wine to Britain to establish a market?
It’s always better to start at the top and work down, but given the quality of the wine selling there now, the wines like the ones Yalumba are shipping are very good flagbearers.
If you look at what’s happening in Australia at the moment, you’ve got a glut of wine and you’ve got price discounting. Everybody’s moaning about there being no profitability in wine, but those companies that are exporting are making money. Any company that’s built up a substantial export base, even on a modest scale, at least they’re getting some reasonable profitability with their wines, which may help the subsidise the furtherance of what they’re doing.
I was talking to Max Lake the other day, and he’s firmly committed to exports, and he said ‘It might be that I do have to cut down the amount of wine that I release in Australia’, but, he said, ‘I just can’t rely on the Australian market for my livelihood if we’re starting to get these price discounting problems with people undercutting and stuff selling for a buck a bottle’.
All the smart people in this industry are the ones who are exporting. In the future, and I’m certain that in the not-too-distant future, there’ll be a huge wine glut in this country again, and in the next minute we’ll see Boeings full of Ockers coming over to London and trying to offload what they’ve got in their warehouses, with little regard for the poor bloody importer who wants continuity of supply, and this time the people in Britain certainly already know what they can expect. They’re not gonna touch these guys with a bargepole. But they will go for the companies like Yalumba and Rothbury and Petaluma, and those companies that have been in Britain for five or six years, and all release a certain quantity of wine to that market each year.
See, that’s very important. The poor bloody importer. I just heard the other day about two companies from Australia that have been exporting to Britain and have decided not to send them any more wine. They’re getting top dollar over here, but when they’re not getting top dollar, they’ll be back over there, and that’s stupid short-sightedness. It really is.
Is there any way around the problem of trying to attack a big market like that with four or five pallets of cabernet?
If the maker finds a good importer and he’s prepared to say ‘Yes, I’ll let you have a thousand cases each year”, and if they’re honest about it ... you see Whitey there’s far more possibility for consistency here because of the climate, if for no other reason.
If the importer gets a duff one, he’s gonna make a decision what he’s gonna do about it. The first and foremost problem is that most of the poor buggers who are in London trying to sell Australian wines – and there are some of them who are putting far more effort into it than their profitability would ever justify – what they want to know is that they are going to get wine. I mean, one of the people who have pulled out rang up the UK importer and said ‘Look I can’t let you have any wine for the next two years’. Well now, what is the importer expected to say? He’d been building this thing up, and he’d had the winemaker over. He’d been holding lunches. He’d been getting press coverage, and then he gets this telephone call. He only wanted two or three hundred cases!
But you need about two or three thousand cases there to start with, to make any sense in terms of profitability, and there are very few wineries here that are even prepared to let an export market have that much wine. And they’re silly. The Californians will let you have as much as you want. They realise what the future is! The South Africans will let you have as much as you want.
The New Zealand industry thinks far better about the future than the bloody Australians!
See what they don’t realise is that London’s a prestige market. The Californians aren’t there to make a noticeable profit within five years. It’s a prestige market. They’ve got to see you represented. Every decent wine merchant in the world goes to London, if only because it’s the stop-off before you go to France. But they see your wine, you’re talked about, and the West Germans feed off it, the Belg feed off it, the Scandinavians feed off it, and the Dutch feed off it. And it’s a very big deal to be there.
The north-west Americans feed off it very heavily, too. But the Australians have got tunnel vision. And this is where I ... well, for a highly-placed person in an Australian wine corporation to say, effectively, that Poms wouldn’t know a good bottle if it hit them over the head, is just the end. If they think it privately, keep it to themselves but you don’t go saying it where it’s going to be quoted back at you in an influential trade publication. If the wombat’s doing these things, you bury him in a very large hole!
There are no marketing skills within the industry that apply to the international market that I’ve ever seen. If you’re dealing with Canada, you must have somebody who understands that market. If you’re dealing with America, you’re dealing with a totally different market, and you need somebody who understands that market. And ditto for Germany and the UK. But what we have here is a Coca-Cola salesman who goes around and thinks he can apply Australian marketing techniques in four totally disparate markets. And what he’s doing is – they open the door and they see this turkey coming from ’way back.
There’s an advertising agency in Toronto who are I bet are still laughing at the rip-off they got over Kelvin the Koala. Jesus, they must be bloody in hysterics! “Half a million in your pocket? Great, we can do you a beaut one!’ And, of course, what everybody forgot was by putting this French-speaking koala on the market was that they immediately alienated all the English-speaking Canadians who thought they had a strong bond with Australia through the old Commonwealth. And I mean that’s just a fundamental marketing mistake.
If they can’t see such elementary mistakes, God knows what happens when they get down to the fine print with dealing with these Americans who are so bloody sharp that they’ll eat you before breakfast. In fact, that’s probably when they got this bastard, before breakfast, and tied him up then. You know, while he was still half asleep. They’ve all had a jog and a shower and a jacuzzi and a screw and they’re into the office at seven-thirty in the morning, bouncing and raring to go.
You know me, and any Pom I know, we stagger and say ‘Jeez, I need a glass of good bloody Champagne!’ And you know, these Americans: ‘While you’re signing the documents we’ll open the Deutz, Sir’.
What do people in Britain look for on an Australian wine label?
Well, the varietal name. Area definition, and perhaps a little back label information about the product. It’s getting to the point now with these bloody EEC bureaucrats that by the time you’ve got all the crap that they want on the label, you’re lucky to be able to fit the producer’s name.
Fundamentally, what they want is attractive labelling, and like every other market, there’s just ... well you take a Wolf Blass label. There’s eye-catching shelf appeal, with the varietal name, and the area information, and the vintage. Varietal name and vintage are the key things at the moment because they imply immediately that this wine is quality wine.
It doesn’t necessarily follow-through in the bottle, but, at the moment, anything that hasn’t got a vintage date or a varietal name in Britain is considered real cheapo junk.
But what about an indication of style?
There’s a fine balance in Britain now. You’ll find that, say compared to ten years ago, there’s far more descriptive stuff on labels. “Dry red’, ‘medium white’: very much more indication to tell the consumer what’s inside. People make automatic assumptions in Britain now that if they buy cabernet they expect a certain style of wine. 99.9% of the time they’ll get it. But if it’s a blended wine, like say cabernet-shiraz, you can do that on the back label. But the only thing you don’t want to happen is to go to the California extreme where they literally tell you what socks the winemaker was wearing when he made the wine. I think that’s the sign of a fairly unsophisticated wine-drinking market.
The primary considerations must be shelf-appeal. Eye-catching visual stuff. The South Africans, say, might just call it ‘premium dry red’. We’re not allowed to use the pejorative name in England, but you can in some other markets. You know, in Belfast the soldiers think it’s a good day if they get hit on the head by a bottle that says ‘premium’.
What about the state of Australian wine writing?
I think the wine writers here pussyfoot around a bit too much. There should be much more criticism, because no industry’s going to really top if it’s not criticised, and if it’s not criticised constructively.
There’s this stupid Australian insularity problem. Australians know they’re making good wine. Some of them mistakenly think they’re making brilliant wine. There’s a person I went to university with who’s now a winemaker, and he’s going to charge $14 a bottle for his next release of cabernet sauvignon. Now, this guy’s a doctor. Well, he’s a butcher at medicine, and his winemaking’s even more execrable.
Now it’s awkward. I’m a magazine editor, like you, and we’ve been criticised because we don’t mention bad wines. But a newspaper journalist who has no problem with that sort of thing can come out and say ‘Look, this wine’s been released at $14 but in my humble opinion it’s just not worth the money ... I went down to Chesser Cellars and bought a bottle of Lindeman’s riesling as well as a bottle of so-and-so for under $14 and I think the money was better spent’.
They can’t do anything about that.
What can we, as an industry, do to correct some of these problems?
I’d like to see a lot more of the Wine Board bringing down good journalists and good people from around the world, who know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about wine. More scribes and trade people from different countries. You know, you should be saying ‘OK, the biggest wine buyer from the biggest wine chain in Germany is coming to town, and if anyone in the trade wants to come and meet him for lunch, come along, because he’s going to talk about how to sell wine in Germany’. That’s the sort of thing you should be doing more of, instead of giving your boys first class air tickets to go and whoop it up in the ritziest hotel in New York, wasting growers’ money, when they bloody well need it back here..