The confusion conundrum

We try to ignore it.

We nod politely when punters say they drink dry, and then choose the sweetest wine on the list.

We scream from the rafters our joy at drinking dry riesling, dry rose, gewurz.

And yet…

We fail to deal with the fact that we have multiple styles of riesling and rose on the market (don’t even get me started on chardonnay), and a buying public with no idea of which wine might suit their tastes. So you know what? They rarely ask. They do not wish to look uneducated, or undecided, and instead they opt for a wine style which may be simple, but delivers a certain style. Kiwi SB. Margs SSB. SEA Dry White. Occasionally predictable, but delivering on a promise.

We make a wide range of styles of riesling, rose, sparkling, chardonnay, pinot gs (both intended styles). We write about them. We claim the next coming of riesling almost twice a year these days, and yet… Yet the consumers struggle to identify the style which they might like, because we have nothing consistently indicating which style lives in that bottle. We need to take the confusion out of the equation.

So now, I am asking for help to stem the tide. We have hordes of people who enjoy riesling in cellar doors, at events, and in private homes, but we as the wine-producing community need to get our collective arses into gear and endorse a way of categorising wine which is simple, well understood by the consumer, and clear. And something we can happily put on our labels.

And by labels – I mean front labels. People rarely pick up wine of which they are unsure. I want consistency. I want the industry as a whole to get behind this, and not to snipe, argue or complain. We know we have a problem. Let’s fix it.

Case in point: a few years ago, the enterprising peeps at Jim Barry whacked a little purple sticker on their Lavender Hill Riesling. It says “I’m a sweetie”. Simple. Successful. People know what they are getting, and have no need to ask anyone, or mess around being unsure.

We complain endlessly that riesling is one of the great Australian white varietals, but it is such a hard sell. Rose – wonderful stuff. But why isn’t the punter – the most important part of this particular equation – buying it?

Because they do not know what they are getting, unless they are very familiar with that particular vintage of that particular wine. The VGR, FGR type approach has legs for the people who know what it means. By which I mean – pretty much just us, the trade types. Are we just making riesling and rose (and yes, granted, this could get a lot wider, but let’s address the big issue first) for ourselves? Because we sure as hell are not addressing the problem around selling what are some excellent wines – both sweet and dry, and of course everything in between.

Those who know me, know I am a lover of riesling in all its forms. And I have spent my adult careers selling wine, and riesling and rose are some of the hardest wines to sell. Because the consumer is confused, and there are few people actually addressing this. There is a sweetness scale knocking around. On the back labels. There are the wine reps and trade types hand selling riesling because they know it will suit the food, or the client, or even very simply, the day. But there is no industry voice. No industry consistency or answer addressing the problem.

And sometimes we forget about sweeter styles. We think they sell themselves. They don’t. People who don’t know, return to the brands they know will deliver their desired product, like Rosemount TR2. They return to the safe bet just as easily as dry drinkers.

We know we have a problem, and yet it is so very simple. People would like to know what it is they are purchasing.

Let’s tell them.

  • A sweetness scale – readily recognisable. Front label. Small enough to not obscure the label. Large enough to be noticed. An icon, maybe? A dial makes sense to me, but what do you think?
  • This must be voluntary, as sweetness is an individual perception, rather than a scientifically identifiable number.
  • Be honest with your sweetness, as faking it will lead more people away from the wine.
  • Let’s get a media slot. Hell, let’s get as many as possible, and for once, show a united front to our customers. We are doing it for them, in order to keep producing wonderful wines for the market.
  • Let’s get the majors on board – could we put this icon on the price tickets in supermarkets? Could we even get them to change the facings so that the sweeter styles are at one end, leading to the bone dry at the other? No idea. Let’s try.
  • Rather than yell at the customer that our bone dry riesling/rose is great and that they will love it, let’s ask them what they want.
  • Let’s build an app. Industry can voluntarily submit images of their wines with the icon showing where the wine sits. No links to websites: that is not what this is about.
  • Let’s sell more riesling and rose, and not have to resort to clearing it out at a silly price. To someone who may want an utterly different style.

There is a reason why riesling and rose social media campaigns are coming up trumps: punters want to like them. Maybe we could help them along.

Let’s be smarter. Let’s be a group with a goal in mind. When was the last time that happened? I know Clare Valley Winemakers forced the screwcap into the national consciousness – why can’t we, as a smart, well-informed, connected group of people find a way to make this work?

Am I banging my head against a brick wall here? Do we not all wish to sell more, to people who will enjoy the wine?

Then, please. Let us be better.

Any suggestions and assistance gratefully accepted.

Rant over.

It’s a funny thing, when people die

So, the circle turns.

I have an interesting history, which involves restaurant work, a reasonable amount of travel, and insane amounts of time around wine. And there are people in my world who have made it a better place for me, and a better human of me.

And Tom was one of those men. Erudite, before I comprehended the term. Brilliant in his field, and respected by all around him. Surrounded by books, perpetually. Always one for seeing the beauty in everything, from the banal to the blessedly complex.

And engaging of his friends’ children. Offering to explain. Shining a light forward. Comprehending that language most purely exists in a context, and without that context, the language will never be understood in its pure intent.

I thought growing up that their furniture was made of books. There were seeming acres of bookshelves, and piles of books on the ground. All in a semblance of order, yet also often plucked from their surrounds on a whim, and breeding a pure academic delight.

My family members are no slouches . They know their way around academia. And better than most. The love Tom showed for his life endeavour, for the pursuit of learning simply because it makes us better people, was inspirational, even as a child messing about in the stacks in their home. And, I like to think, to my parents.

I took inspiration from his wife: an English teacher like my mother, the two of them shared an uncanny knack with engaging their  audience, be it the kids who never understood why and how the questions were asked, to the hyper-intelligent kids chafing at the bit. These two women have passed books into my hands over the years. And let me wander unfettered through libraries of beautiful knowledge.

And Tom and his wife showed me that the beauty of knowledge, academia, and the eternal drive to learn, know and comprehend was not just the province of my family. And let me take it further than I may have possibly imagined. And all over a few scant visits. Meals. Coffee. The odd Boxing Day hijinks. Memories distorted by time and childish memory.

It is funny how such incidental people in our lives leave such deep imprints . The man who taught me not just the rules of backgammon, but how to play the game. The co-op winery in Italy that let a 16 year old  Australian kid get her hands dirty. The poetry tutor who told us that inspiration was nothing without labour. Had we not laboured, our work was nothing. (They cannot all be positive.)

The winemaker who trusted me.

The English teacher who changed my world.

The boss who took a chance.

The three parents’ friends who never treated us like children.

The Chinese aunt who expected the best, not the worst of these white kids’ tastebuds.

The other aunt who brooked no frivolity, but taught us better than many how to fend for ourselves.

The great aunt who was oh so very young at heart. Until the day she died.

And her partner, whose heart gave up a week later, from loss.

The restaurant owner, who saw something in me, and in countless others.

The friend who took my keys and packed the most comprehensive bag for when I was in a quarantine unit with swine flu. And sent countless meals from his restaurant, but wouldn’t take a dime from me.

The people all over the world who have welcomed me into their homes and lives, for no reason other than that someone asked.

The members of the contrada della giraffa in Siena who made me their mascot for a month. Just because I arrived, and on that day, they won.

The wine friend, who helped find me a home and understand Adelaide for no reason other than wanting to do so.

Another wine friend who takes calls when he shouldn’t, and answers my silly questions, and reads my bountiful rants.  And responds in kind.

The friends who just love, when I give them so very many reasons to forget.

The man always saw people as better than they might ever be. And his pure, driven, brightly intelligent nature, which drove me to be better, when I was old enough to recognise what could be better.

Thank you, Tom. I raise a glass to your name, and everything you have done. Thank you everyone who has brought me here. And the ones I will forget to thank in the future.

I’m sorry: nothing to do with wine, or business, but something to do with being better. Look to the ones who are around us, look to their strength, and thank them just for being.

Or not. I never have. But today I have cause to remember.

And I raise a glass to you all.

The business of wine

We talk about the wine industry, and we complain about market pressures; we laud the beauty and the romance of our work, and we talk in terms of luxury and indulgence. But we rarely look at the levels of attention required to get that grape from the vine, into the bottle, and being purchased by a customer.

Our work is infinitely more than a rustic idea, some winemaking nous and sheer enthusiasm.  There are now thousands of brands vying for shelf space, an increasing proportion – and variety – of imports on offer, and the ever looming spectre of supermarket own brands replacing our slot on the shelf. And in order to be a successful part of the wine game, it is simply no longer enough to make good wine.

We must also have a comprehensive understanding of cash flow, and the financial requisites encompassing the path from vine to glass. The price of a bottle must take every level into consideration, from vineyard equipment, storage fees, and the cost of filling a salesperson’s car with fuel. Not to mention, the multitudes of costs too long to note here.  This price must cover every last detail, and also be reflective of the value of the wine – a somewhat more amorphous concept. Let alone the more idealistic notion of market positioning…

And we must accept that, at times, a client may request a bonus, or a discount, or a donation of stock, or co-op funding. There has been a long history – and it is still rampant – of producers putting their hands in their pockets for the benefit of the client, be they distributor, retailer, pub, or hospitality venue.  For the larger companies, this is part of their marketing budget, and can be rather more readily absorbed by volume, and the economies of scale.

But for the smaller producer? Where is the cost of this bonus stock, or co-op expense accounted? A bottle of wine given away still has a cost attached to it, and to ignore these costs – be they potential, or actual – has been of great damage to many brands over the years.  The cost of selling a bottle of wine? Exponential in the early days, and with ever more ways used by the market to extricate something as perceived bonus from the seller, that salesperson or producer must be continually en garde to ensure that the sale of that bottle generates an adequate rate of return. And the ongoing business of that producer.

A good business manager, accountant, or finance type is imperative. Should you, as a producer, not have 100% of the time and knowledge required to address the costs of making and selling that bottle of wine, hire someone who does. It need not be a full time position, it need not be someone you actually like. It does need to be someone in whom you can put your faith. The ongoing potential of your business rests in those hands.

It would also do to remember that there are real people at the client end. Real people, running their own businesses. Who have their own concerns, daily challenges, and plans.

So, if you cannot complete a transaction as planned – be it delivery time, short supply, inability to supply, vintage roll, label changes, pack size changes, whatever issue it might be today – understand that they have planned around your agreement. If you cannot supply their riesling , the restaurant will have a gap on the list. The store will have an empty slot, which will rapidly be snatched up by another smart salesperson, who will deliver on their agreement.

Pick up a phone. Tell them in person. Offer them a solution before someone else does.

Any issue in sales and distribution is not solely the province of one side. Your actions – as ever in life – have an impact on those around you. People appreciate notification of any change. They will rapidly condemn, and often boot out, those who do not accept that this is how the industry operates. Be honest. Apologise, if an apology is required. Thank them for their business. Appreciate that they do not wish to have to extend their trading terms any more than you do. But someone may not have paid them. Or there has been some other issue. You do not know their business inside out. Never presume. If they are owing money, a gentle nudge will accomplish so much more than a heavy handed demand. If they need to order to keep up their end of the bargain, belligerence will get you nowhere.

These are the pepole buying your wines, and showcasing them to the consumer. These are relationships which deserve respect. That respect may often tested, but taking the position of being the party who understands business – on both sides of the equation – and who makes an effort, rather than making presumptions, can only be of benefit to the growth of your brands, and of your business.

And should that respect be stretched, the business manager/accountant/finance type can be brought into play… A divide between salesperson or producer and accounts is imperative. Allow the sales relationship to be unsullied by the tawdry, yet ever necessary imperatives of financial sustainability.

The business of wine operates across so very many platforms. Each platform has their own unique requirements and must be addressed separately, with a holistic view of that bottle, the cost of its development and sale, and it’s position in the marketplace.

Just remember that there are also people involved… Just being good may not be good enough anymore, but add a dash of vibrant passion, and a measure of financial smarts, and we may be well on the road.