Leftover Men Repackage Scraps
Good Or Bad For The Business?
by PHILIP WHITE
“I buy grapes from growers and wineries,” a passionate wine-trading reader wrote this week.” We’d been discussing ‘virtual wineries’.
“The grapes are crushed and wine is made by arrangement with a couple of local wineries (not contract processors), and in a couple of mate’s sheds around the place, but always fully under my direction. I pay a good, fair and sustainable price for grapes, perhaps too much in some cases. These grapes go into our wines that we sell for a minimum of $18 per bottle. Otherwise, potentially, these grapes may go on the ground, be sold at an unsustainable price, or end up in some big bulk blend somewhere destined for China @ $0.50/litre.
“I don’t wish to de-value my region by flogging more wine at lower prices and capitalising on my region’s name,” he continues. “That’s not sustainable and is indeed very harmful. It does happen around here. We’re trying to do something serious and sustainable.”
This letter has been on my heart, triggering a mess of confused thought which crystallized this morning with the arrival of a visitor.
Dudley Brown is no firebug, but he’s usually on fire. The proprietor/grapegrower/winemaker/blogger of Inkwell Wines, and former chairman of McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism, was burning.
Dudley (above) has a very sharp analytical brain for business logistics and efficiencies. He’s been thinking a lot about the nature of the Australian wine industry since he came here from California to start his little winery. He talked about the clay feet of this business, how once a winery gets real big, it must descend by its very nature into a psyche of compromise and damage control.
It never gets to the point at which it can boast of preventative maintenance.
“Like,” he said in his agitated staccato, “they can no longer pick when the fruit’s ready. They can’t get if off and into the winery at the ideal point. There’s just not the capital in the business model to be able to afford it. So the fruit comes in a week or two after the best moment, and it’s too late to make great wine. Regardless of how much effort went into the viticulture. They have to correct it; fix it up with chemicals and tricks. The whole damn thing works on fixing shit up afterwards. Too late!”
Some distant background. I’ve been up to my neck in history these last months, writing a big book about Penfolds Grange. The minute that’s done, I begin on Ray Beckwith’s biography. For those who came in late, Ray was the Louis Pasteur of the international wine business, making incredible discoveries in his revolutionary career, beginning with his discovery of the importance of pH adjustment in winemaking, thus eliminating the 25% average waste incurred by bacterial spoilage in wineries before his eureka moment on the Murray Bridge train in 1936.
Ray happened to be the bloke who convinced the Penfold Hylands to appoint Max Schubert as chief winemaker at the Grange at Magill when Max came home from the war to discover he’d been demoted to the role of lab assistant, simply for defying Frank Penfold Hyland’s warning that anyone who signed up for military service would be sacked.
Penfolds winemakers Ray Beckwith, Alf Sholz and Max Scubert
But Dudley’s ascerbic summary is spot on. Accountants and greed and corporate idiocy has almost rendered redundant the lifetimes of work put in by brilliant men like Schubert and Beckwith.
Time to swap companies, and cross the line from the Penfolds winery at Nuriootpa to Kaiser Stuhl, next door, where that other brilliant wine scientist and marketer, Ian Hickinbotham had quickly risen from lab assistant to general manager after his 1954 appointment. As “Becky” had recognised and promoted Schubert, it was “Hicky” who brought Wolf Blass to Australia in 1961.
These were the days of the Pearl Wars. Hickinbotham (left) was determined to save the old Barossa Co-operative Winery Ltd. He convinced his board to embrace their Germanness and promote their culture. He changed the name to Kaiser Stuhl, and began a pitched battle for control of the sparkling market, which meant chipping away at the incredible success of Barossa Pearl, the creation of another mighty Barossa brain, Orlando’s Colin Gramp. He, in turn, had imported his own German fizzmeister, Guenther Prass.
The advancements Hickinbotham made in sparkling wine manufacture soon had Kaiser Stuhl making enormous volumes of wines for its rivals. He saved his growers. Penfolds, Seppelts, Yalumba and many merchants all over Australia were soon depending on Kaiser Stuhl for their sparklers; even the phenomenally-successful Leo Buring Sparkling Rinegolde came from Kaiser Stuhl.
Mammoth profits came from these developments, which were all new technology: consistent quality-based works of intellectual rigour and secret pride. But when that generation passed, it left a corporate mentality of anonimity and secrecy which has since decayed to a sickly, totally destructive point.
Nowdays the refineries do indeed eventually afford to pick what started out as good fruit, and then set about attempting to correct its accountant-driven faults later. This is why Australian wine judges were for fifty years trained simply to search wines for faults, rather than evaluate them with any regard to good taste, new flavours, and, God forbid, the gastronomic arts.
And it has given rise to the virtual winery, where men with i-Phones and Porsches trade in the slops that the huge refineries either cannot repair, or simply can’t be bothered with. These bottom-feeders buy wine on the grey market and pay others to bottle it. They hire somebody with pointy spectacles and a graphics computer to think up a label, and tip their mess into the market at prices that start at the dreadful bottom and move quickly up to rip-off.
It is in their immediate interest to destroy the small legitimate wineries who have bothered to grow grapes and build a winery of their own. They profit from this destruction, not just by making space available on the discount shelves for their “own” nefarious works, but by pushing onto the market the undervalued wrecks of the legitimate, whether it be winery equipment, unpicked vineyards or half-finished wine. This is their stock in trade.
The scavengers encirled the carcass this last fortnight of Barossa Valley Estates, the remnant of that same Barossa Co-op which Hickinbotham converted to Kaiser Stuhl, and built into an incredible success. After years of typical big company bad management and a disastrous union with the utterly hopeless giant, Hardy's-Constellation-Accolade, the Commonwealth bank rolled the Woolworths-Cellarmasters' meagre offer and moved to close the business down as it owed its growers nearly $18 million, or 40% of their total grape invoices for their 2012 harvest. It'll be interesting to see how that big (1000-2500 tonnes) new winery's stocks are eventually presented to us.
Now we have the Wine Australia wine police actively scouring the records of small wineries with forensic obsession, searching for the tiniest inaccuracy, it must be possible, for perhaps the first time, to change the labeling laws so that the vendor and drinker can learn before purchase where each wine came from, who made it and where. Like immediately learn its long wasteful path. Not vague virtuals, post office box numbers or trendy insinuations of things which simply do not in reality exist.
I want to see the names of the humans responsible, the where and why.
And I want to know which wines, on those vast hectares of shelves, have been made by real people who have bothered to go to the extent of buying land, growing vineyards and building a winery, versus those which were not.
Like the worried bloke who wrote my opening paragraph, there are still honest traders amongst the shady at this end of the game, just as there was honour and pride, if secrecy, in those old Kaiser Stuhl days. Such rare people should feel relief that they can finally come out of their closet, and enjoy the good reputation they have if they’ve earned one.
But until we have this clarity, this glasnost and perestroika, we will continue to watch the wine industry follow the fate of the dairy farmers of New South Wales and Queensland. Since the milk wars of the duopolists began with their promise of cheaper milk, great swathes of that country is now bereft of fresh milk. It’s all UHT.
Back to my letter-writing friend.
“I’m not seeking to defend or justify my business to you,” he explained, “but this is a heart on sleeve explanation of what we do – with a real commitment to our wine community – and why I believe we differ from the swathe of ‘virtuals’ that came after. I loathe the word ‘virtual’. It doesn’t really capture what I think we do, and it comes with a stigma, a lick of opportunism. My whole original plan, as much as you could have one in this line of work, was to eventually buy or lease a small 5-10 acre vineyard, deck it out with a cellar door and a small shed of winemaking gear, and see out my days. The romantic, altruistic vision.
“There’s no ego here,” he continues, “but there are quite a few of ‘me’ around ... altruistic guys sans vineyard/winery. In some ways we’re bringing colour, diversity, creativity and freedom to the field, are we not? It was never about selling a huge amount of wine and making a motza … given that domestic retail options are dwindling, it would seem unlikely that I will make my fortune this way anyway!”
Dudley left in a burning rage, back to throw his headful onto his blog The Wine Rules. Somehow somebody’s gotta start listening to people like these, or we’re all back to UHT.