“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





28 May 2012


Decanter co-publisher/editor, the fearless Australian Tony Lord, photographed - enjoying a Seppelts Flor Fino Sherry - by the author in Chesser Cellars, Winestate July 1982

Sometime around 1982 Robert Hesketh, then chairman of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, strode into my office with Mark Swann, his partner in a wine broking business, both grinning impishly.  They’d invented the critter label.

They plonked two bottles of what turned out to be eminently forgettable wine on the desk.  Koala Court, a white, bore an image of a giant koala hugging a wine barrel.  The red I think wore a kangaroo leaping over a barrel. It was called Roo’s Leap.  No attempt was made to explain the varieties within.

The big idea was export.  Australia was awash with wine: discounting was rife: you could buy a bottle for a buck. In 1977/78, Australia had exported 11,000 cases to Britain; in 79/80 it hit 48,000 cases.  But in 80/81 it was back down to 33,000. 

For perspective, we sent the Brits the equivalent of 27,588,888 cases in 2011.  Increasingly, this is exported in enormous bladders fitted in shipping containers and then pumped full, to be bottled in the foreign marketplace. In other words, it’s bladderpack quality in bottles.

One of the most discussed wine articles of 1982 was my interview with the ravening Tony Lord, the Australian editor and co-publisher of Decanter. I asked him what the Brits wanted to see on our labels.

“Well, the varietal name,” he said.  “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 actually got all the crap they want on the label, you’re lucky to be able to fit the producer’s name.  Fundamentally, what they want is attractive labeling, 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 the vintage are the key things at the moment because they imply immediately that this is a quality wine,” he continued. “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.”

It’s important to emphasise Blass’s influence on labeling. In the ’seventies, Jim Ingoldby (left) in McLaren Vale had followed the Burgundian example, and pioneered the listing of even the grapegrower on his delicious suite of vineyard-specific reds, but this did not catch on for at least a decade. It was Blass’s robust insistence on variety and region that forced many others to follow.  He’d been influenced in turn by the man who first brought him to Australia: the great Ian Hickinbotham.  

When he was MD of Kaiser Stuhl, Hick (left) even went to the extent of blending big volumes from different vintages, and listing them prominently.  I have a bottle of his Kaiser Stuhl 1954 Claret, which bears a neck tag proudly announcing “Vintage 1954 with 30% 1957”.  

Many modern wines would be better drinks if winemakers were game to try such blending adventures and honest labeling now. 

Another honest man and generous mentor, Colin Gramp, was fastidious in accurate labeling at Orlando, a corporate philosophy long ago diluted by the world’s biggest creek.

Regardless of their true meaning, Blass’s brilliant promotion of trophies and medals gave his wines huge authority in the quality stakes: his rivals were envious, and had no choice but to climb aboard.  This led to the explosion of Australian wine shows, which multiplied exponentially, eventually making the medal practically worthless.

Sorry, but there's not much resolution here: wartime photograph of the young Wolf Blass (with space-age vegetable-oil powered tractor) and his ground crew.

It’s hard to explain how primitive the general attitude was to truth in labeling, and how confounding the whole deal was for the consumer.  In those days, the most popular white in Sydney was called Traminer Riesling, which was usually a sickly-sugary blend of greasy Muscat and battery water Semillon.

It was largely the Blass drive to more honesty that forced the change: to be credible, people had to follow.  When I asked one bright Hunter-based promoter, Richmond Grove’s Mark Cashmore, why he’d changed the name of his blend of Chardonnay and Semillon from Richmond Grove Pinot Riesling to Richmond Grove Semillon Chardonnay he famously explained:

“Pinot Riesling doesn’t mean very much at all. Chardonnay’s not Pinot Chardonnay and I don’t think Riesling in the context of Pinot Riesling means very much. I mean Riesling is Semillon and Pinot is Chardonnay, and we have more Semillon in the wine than Chardonnay, so it should be Semillon Chardonnay.”

It may not quite look like it, but Cashmore was telling the truth. 

Lord also delivered a warning that too many producers still fail miserably to consider.

“The only thing that you don’t want to happen is to go to the Californian 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.”

Typically, when Zar Brooks worked for d’Arenberg in the ’nineties, he ignored this advice as brazenly as possible, and invented the fly spot label, with entire bloody novels filling the back label in fonts that look like microscopic speckle to ordinary eyes.  When I suggested this was pure sophistry, as in a generally fallacious method of reasoning, Brooks promptly had his business card changed to include the title “Chief Sophist”.  He still uses this to considerable effect, while d’Arenberg has gone on to extend the Brooks back label style to incredible lengths, providing a perfect example of unsophisticated actually meaning the opposite of what everybody thinks.  

This brings to mind the recent publishing fad where photographs of the winemaker’s dog seem to have become an indicator of quality.  Nothing new in this, however: the perfectly mad Richard Beckett, writing under the pseudonym Sam Orr in The Nation Review in the early ’seventies used a dog index to rank wine quality.  As in “good enough to drive a brown dog to drink,” “rough enough to kill six black dogs”, or “likely to make a cattle dog lie down and cry.”

David Wynn, son of Sam, founder of Wynn's Coonawarra Estate, with the legendary food critic, John McGrath, and the author at Wynn's epic Mountadam in the early nineties.

When Brian Croser, Karl Seppelt and David Wynn followed Colin Gramp’s Steingarten example and battled intensely to plant vineyards at the highest possible altitude in the ’seventies and ’eighties, ridge wines became the norm.  Every vineyard, it seemed, suddenly lived on a ridge: a claim of greater altitude became a quality indicator.  Everybody had a Something Ridge: but for export, of course, where the claim could never be checked.  Most of these wines really came from Australia’s flattest deserts, or, if you were lucky, the vast flatness of Riverland South (Padthaway), but this never mattered to the marketers.  At about the time I joked with the fine wine dealer David Ridge about his failure to release a Ridge Ridge, another grog-flogger boasted of gracing the cheapo shelves of Blighty with eleven different ridges, simultæneously.

If the truth be known, they were probably all the same wine.

This doesn’t apply, of course, to McLaren Vale’s respected DogRidge, one of the first brands to adopt the irreverent post-modern attitude to punctuation when it fused the two buzzwords and kept the cap R.  DogRidge at least has exemplary red – check out their Grenache –AND a hill, where I witnessed d’Arenberg wine-and-wordsmith Nick James-Martin perform a deadly flying tackle on an actual dog which had run off with some poor kiddy’s teddy. 

I’m sure this smœrgasbœrd of evocations will find its way onto a bottle of d’Arenberg eventually. 

Chester Osborn, hair of  d'Arenberg, left, dressing up with a coupla mates - critter label evolving? Three Blind Mites?

Which brings me to the post-modern fad using numbers or even digits in branding.  This one’s really friggin’ annoying.  It was that prime sophist, Toby Ralph, who first thought of this when he was aiming for a lucrative consultancy at Tolley Stott and Tolley in about 1980.  “I’ve thought of a great name,” he whispered at dinner.  “Eleven Shadows.”  While I think that failed to eventuate, and TST vanished, soon we had these weird number brands all over the place.  Open the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory and you’ll smack straight into 201, Two Dorks, Two Figs, Two Furlongs, 5th Chapter Estate, Five Oaks, 572 Richmond Road, 181 Wines, Three Willows, Three Wishes, 3WITCHES, III Associates, 5 Blind Mice, 919 Wines, First Drop, Five Geese, Quattro Mano, Ten Miles East, Ten Minutes By Tractor, Two Hands, 3 Oceans, 3 Drops, Estate 807, Fifth Estate, Seven Ochres, Vineyard 28, et cetera, ad infinitum

While this doesn’t give real places like Severn Brae or Leven Valley much of a chance, it leaves me dumbstruck wondering how in the names of Bacchus and Pan they imagine anybody’ll find 201 or 572 or 3 or whatever in a directory.  But there you go. We can’t all be in MENSA.

As the French are now feverishly copying our critter labels, it’s the perfect time to dump them. The American market which slurped them up this last decade is quite wisely beginning to regard them with disinterest verging on revulsion, as it develops a distinct interest in better, more expensive wines.  Which quality eludes many of the critter wine creators, just as it seemed beyond the reach of the ridge raiders before them. 

Since their sales are, shall we say, not quite so fluid as they had been, I would have asked [yellowtail] to discuss this, but where would you look for that number?  Under “brackets”?

Wikipedia, just by the way, lists 78 different types of fish called yellowtail, but no kangaroos.


(1) Whitey, the 11 Ridges were all the same wine - but were not my creation. The English wholesalers thought them up. (Name withheld to protect the innocent.)

(2) Philip, I very much enjoyed your article “Time to dump the critters’

Having designed [yellow tail] and been on the receiving end of a number of awards for it, Just Add Wine went on to be sought out worldwide by those “me too” producers seeking their own future [yellow tail] on what became a veritable tsunami of critter label requests at that time.

But back at the outset, in a perfect sliding doors moment in time at the Sydney Qantas Club, Casella’s very talented John Souter, then International Brand Manager had the good sense to spot something different.

Combined with some talented winemaking matched to good market research, some intel, quality marketing skills and a lot of investment, the Casella’s turned a kangaroo label, albeit somewhat more sophisticated in styling than just a picture of a kangaroo leaping over a barrel, into a phenomenal success story.

And the rest as they say, is history, and well deserved to them all too!

And yes, then came the run on numbers, but at least some offered creative opportunity, other requests just left us scratching our heads!

All the best to you and keep up the great articles.

Lorenzo Zanini


three ideas said...

Number labels: Idaho has just decided Five Wives is taking it too far: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/29/five-wives-vodka-ban-idaho_n_1553122.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003

Anonymous said...

You too generous on Yellowtail. That was not anything to last long, and the wine is Griffith floodwataer.

Anonymous said...

Vineyard 28 doesn't take it's name from numbers, but is in actual fact a reference to the raucous Port Lincoln Ringneck Parrots, known locally as "28's" that frequent the property, here in WA. Tourists visiting the property love the name and it's link to the birds.