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People power

Published:  18 January, 2007

Halfway through listening to Wolf Blass's speech towards the end of this year's Australian Wine Marketing Conference in Adelaide last month, I realised I was witnessing a genius at work.

Wolfie had chosen to address the conference theme of navigating your route to market' by telling us his life story. Again. Accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation of the photos and newspaper clippings we've all seen a million times before, Wolf launched into his rags-to-riches tale (arriving in Australia in 1966 with just 300 in his pocket, developing a red-wine style that no one understood at first, etc). All of which we'd also heard a million times before.

But as he stood there unleashing his relentless story on to the 600 conference delegates, you could see the clever ones suddenly get the point. To succeed like Wolf has, you have to be out there all the time, relentlessly making friends for your wines, turning your customers into your ambassadors. Wolf told us that at the height of his meteoric rise, he would spend four months each year travelling. What he was telling us was that there isn't any easy route to market.

If the theme of the conference, then, was how best to get to market, as Wolf and many others demonstrated, the answer is, simply, people. People like Blass - and Chris Hancock, who regaled the conference with some fascinating stories on the pre-history of the export boom. In '65, '66,' recounted Hancock, I was working with Max Schubert at Penfolds at Magill, where we'd take the pressings from Grange, put it into paraffin-lined 65-gallon stringybark hogsheads along with a heavy dose of caramel, and ship 'em by tramp steamer to England, into the tunnels at Waterloo, and the wine'd emerge later as an important component of the London-bottled Burgundies.'

Hancock also put things into historical perspective when he reminded everyone of the seminal moment, in 1986, when the representatives of all seven - count 'em - Australian wine companies at that year's London Trade Fair pitched in A$500 each to hire Hazel Murphy to promote Australian wine in the UK. That', said Hancock with characteristic dryness, was only 19 years ago.'

As Matthew Jukes, who had been invited to moderate the conference, had said at the beginning of the two days, How did Australia get to be in the number-one spot in the UK? The answer lies in its people. You lot. Australians have an awareness of modern society's attitudes, topped off by a liberal dusting of character and a sense of fun - and you tell your story with style and gusto.'

Jukes pointed out to the conference delegates that many of the questions being asked by today's winemakers have been asked by previous generations - and hardly any of the answers are new. You've got to remember your recent history,' he said at the conference dinner. I remember at the Barnes Wine Shop in 1987 picking up bottles of wines like Cape Mentelle Cabernet and thinking, "My God, what is

this great wine?" You've been having that effect on us for

a while now.' And there's no reason why Australia has to

stop now.

Not everyone is convinced, though, that people wearing out shoe leather, pouring their wines and telling their stories with gusto are the key to Australia's ongoing success. Some - particularly in the large-scale/FMCG/so-called popular-premium category - are interested instead, it seems, in yet more critter wines'.

Hardy Wine Company managing director David Woods said he firmly believed that the popular-premium segment is as important to the wine industry as the wheel and combustion engine are to the motor vehicle industry'.

Woods insisted that the key to ongoing success was to maintain a sense of fun, life and laughter', as exemplified by two new Hardy brands, Kelly's Revenge (the label features a Keith Haring-style bushranger) and Four Emus (the label features ... no, go on, guess).

This contrasted quite starkly with winemaker Andrew

Pirie's call for Australia to unequivocally indulge in more aspirational marketing and head very definitely upmarket. When we talk about icon wines, sales managers shuffle in their seats,' said Pirie. But icon wines can have a wonderful effect both on a company and a nation.'

These differing views exposed the ongoing tension between the FMCG sector of the industry and the ultra-premium' sector - or, as a winery investor once defined them to me, the guzzle industry' and the sniff 'n' sip industry'.

At the risk of disagreeing with Chris Hancock, who insisted that unity is crucial', perhaps there should be two marketing conferences? One for the large-scale producers of so-called popular-premium wines (producers who are already doing all the research) and one for the small guys who need all the help they can get.