Selling stories in a vacuum

So. Big wine conference. Wine types from all over the world brought in to talk, exchange notes, and see that Australia is capable of more than the ‘sunshine in a glass’ style of winemaking. Savour.

Millions spent. Much chatter. Some press, even, from around the world. Wolf Blass got irate for some ill-defined reason. Food and wine consumed in terrifyingly large quantities.

But. Maybe I am missing something. I often do.

There was a lot of chatter about the perception of Australian wines, and how in the export market, we have kinda sold a certain story, price point and wine. And that it is time to change this up. No problems here. Sunshine in a glass? Great, but maybe we now need to focus on selling our quality and diversity. Fantastic. I am all for it.

Except…

A substantial part of both our diversity, and our offering is the ‘sunshine in a glass’ approach. Wine which ticks boxes for a number of consumers. A very great number of consumers if we look at the wine sold in various markets – including our own – over the last few decades.  And if we are going to talk about diversity, should we not also talk about the wines which have been successful? And perhaps look at why these wines have been, and still are successful? Perhaps look at the diversity of not just our regions, but also of the people and styles produced within each of these regions?

And what about the market? The consumer? What do they want? Because, if we look at China, they want recognised brands for the most part. If we were to look at the US, there is a massive increase in moscato sales – assisted by the urban culture getting behind this sweet, spritzed drink. If we look at the UK? Cheap (ish) grocery wines – you know the ones. The ones you pick up like you do your milk and bread. The same each week, familiar, with a whack of residual sugar for the most case. Reliable, consistent purchases.

And these are the wines very many people enjoy. They tick boxes: price, style, local availability.

I’m a big believer in the story, but before the story comes the wine. And before the story becomes a success? Comes the idea of understanding one’s market. Relying on the story, and preaching how the story can change the consumer mind can be dangerous. Because there will be someone out there paying more attention than you.

I am also a big believer in producing your best wine from your property. The best expression of you and your land and your vines. It would be handy to then have viable markets and channels through which to sell those wines so you can do it all again next year.

OK – so Australian wine is more diverse than everyone got used to thinking. It is good, and varied, and often more expensive. And there were writers and top sommeliers and retail buyers here raving about the diversity and the quality. Great. Brilliant, even. But maybe missing a little something.

Many wines from the more ‘commercial’ regions and producers are also vibrant, diverse and value propositions. But other than two of the big names from the big (sponsoring) players, these producers were not in evidence. There are any number of producers making juicy, fruit-driven styles which appeal to a certain palate. Not however, the palate being discussed at many of these lectures. An aspirational proposition, Savour was all about delivering the message that Australia produces quality, and diversity in its wines. Aim high, and filter down.

I wasn’t at Savour. I am relying on the messages conveyed by those who were, and the lectures posted online. The message I received, from guests and exhibitors was that it was great to talk about the quality and diversity of Australian wine. But… Where were the wines currently forming the backbone of Australian wine exports? The wines successfully being exported – and sold, and consumed – in volume?

Great to see our wines being tasted and appreciated en masse.  Wines from across the country, with most regions ably represented. But was this exercise about purely rebranding Australian wine? Or selling some it? Or both? And if just rebranding, am I alone in thinking that rebranding without acknowledging the wines which are currently successful in market is a little contradictory? And possibly, a little damaging? We have had the world’s media here to talk about our wine, and yet we fail to discuss the success stories? Because… what? They are not high-end? Niche wines? Boutique? They don’t have an engaging story of quality and diversity?

They have a story. They have comprehensively listened to the market, and delivered that which the market craved. Not local, I know, but equally noted for the success in this field is Kiwi Sauv Blanc. With one key difference: the producers are proud of the wine, and the style, and the success. As well they should be.

It seems Australia is selling two stories: the quality/diversity/niche/boutique story, and the one we don’t talk about so much at events like Savour. The production-on-a-grand-scale, tank farm wines. The wines the consumers like to drink. Big business…

And the consumer? Well, we all know that the higher end of the market is crowded. And crowded with wines from around the globe. So Savour was pointing out our potential for quality and diversity – great – but not talking about one of the brilliant aspects of our quality and diversity, which is our capability to produce large volumes of wines the consumers enjoy drinking at a price.

Hmm. The fallout from Savour – Wolf Blass excluded – seems to be positive. The message being taken to the world is positive. This is a good thing. And oh, some of the wines on display… Be still my beating heart!

I just wonder. Would including the – let’s call them the volume propositions – have damaged Brand Australia so very much? Or would it have reassured drinkers and buyers world-wide that that quality and diversity exists at pretty much every level of production? That all (well, most, anyway) Australian wine can be good. At all price points.

I agree that associating wines of a certain price point with food – ahem, Restaurant Australia – is beneficial. But on-premise as an exclusive focus for wine sales is dangerous. Sales are – generally – slower, they drip-feed out. Bills are drawn out, paid when the restaurateur gets there. Distributors focussing on the on-trade frequently fail on the back of the vagaries of the industry. Nice to be on a wine list at a noted high end venue, but so are two thousand other wines. Why yours? Oh, because of the story. At that end of the game, who is telling your story? And who told it to them? How did it get to be where it is, and who will get to know two thousand stories to sell each and every one of them?

An on-premise plan should be only a part of a grander plan. A more cohesive plan. Food and wine? Great. But more importantly, why your wine? That should be the start of your story. Make the wine great. Those interested will then discover the story. Make it easy to get to, given we are so very far away from the world where much of our wine will be sold. Make the story palateable to all – a simple story, told well.

But make the story complete, Savour. I might be a bit of a wine snob when it comes to my own palate, but not when it comes to the wines we produce as a nation. The majority of which, are pretty great. And exceptional value for money. Include everyone. Big names and volume propositions next to the farmer making two hundred cases of fiano and nothing else each year. Everyone. All of us.

I am proud of this entire industry. I get a little ranty about silliness at times, but I am proud of what we have accomplished and what we can produce.

I just worry that perhaps amongst all the happiness, and tasting and eating and back-slapping, there is a vacuum between what we are selling, and those to whom we are selling it. Does the punter in the wine aisle care about the story when they are picking up a bottle for dinner that night, or do they just want a red, with minimal tannin, a whack of alcohol, and some jammy characters?

Because there is nothing wrong with that. And if, as producers, we were to spend more time standing in big box liquor stores watching how people shop for wine, we might see a few more truths about how wine is selected. And sadly? It is rarely selected on the back of a story. It is the familiar wine. Or it is on special. Or it simply is a reliable style, wherein the buyer knows pretty much what the wine will taste like before they buy it (see: NZ Sauv Blanc, Margaret River SSB).

So, do we subscribe to this, and alter our wines to suit? No. Of course we don’t. The beauty of our industry is the quality and diversity on offer. I just wonder on occasions such as Savour whether we are spending all of our time and money spruiking the more specialised styles whilst ignoring the other – somewhat more commercial – side.

Or is this the very best way to sell the concept of Australian wine? Talk about the (insert adjective here: niche, boutique etc) wines, at the higher end, and create aspirational demand? Perhaps. We certainly need something to bolster our perception in the global market. And perhaps talking about smaller producers and alternative styles is the way to do it. I’m not sure however, that the end of the market which is buying is actually reading these things. But perhaps it will get us past more gatekeepers, and spark more interest in the brand that is Australian wine.

Many of the speakers talked of the importance of the story. Being a personality, a legend, something more than a bottle of wine that ticks all the boxes for the end customer. But who is the story for? We are being told it is for the consumer, but in reality? In reality it is for the writers and the gatekeepers, not the consumers. In which case, we might need to tweak the voice we are using, and the story being told.

I wonder if many people know who there stories might be for, and whether they even care? Talk to reviewers and wine writers and they happily admit that press releases and media guff gets disposed off with the packaging. Without a second glance. Gatekeepers – they have heard pretty much every story, and most of them are more interested in the margin a product will deliver. Not that the story won’t resonate, but there are other considerations as well.

No story should exist in a vacuum. Understand the target of the story, and understand that they may be a very different person to the one drinking your wine.

Pitching Australia as interesting for wine is one thing. I hope that Savour accomplished this. Selling Australian wine as an on-premise option is only one – small – part of the story. Being smart – one of the key Savour messages – is imperative.

I guess my question is, who is the audience for this brave new world of Australian wine? Because I am not sure the majority of consumers are that audience. Which is not a bad thing per se. But to ignore them completely…?

Caveat: my business produces niche, high end, limited release wines. We also produce ‘volume propositions’.

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