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A vintner's tail

Published:  23 July, 2008

John Casella is the Pete Waterman of wine. For those familiar with the two, that might sound an unlikely comparison, and certainly the softly spoken family man behind Yellow Tail has next to nothing in common with brash pop impresario Waterman in terms of personality, career, origins or lifestyle. And yet, consider the two men's fates. Waterman, most recently a pundit on TV's Pop Idol and several of its spin-offs, was formerly the Svengali behind the careers of such 1980s pop puppets as Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. Through these and other ciphers he has been responsible for more number-one singles than The Beatles and earned himself millions of pounds in royalties; still, despite all of this success, something rankles with him: critical approval has always eluded him. In fact, Waterman's name in rock and pop critical circles and beyond is all but synonymous with naff, manufactured rubbish.

Now think of Casella's place in the wine trade. Since its launch in 2001, his brand Yellow Tail has been one of the most successful wine brands ever launched, selling some two million cases in its first year alone, and some 23 million cases to date. It has stormed America, where it is the biggest-selling imported wine brand, and it is now making inroads in the UK, too, selling 300,000 cases, with listings in all the major multiples bar Tesco, and growing at 30% in the past year. And yet, few brands have met with more scorn from the critical fraternity. Indeed, in wine critical circles Yellow Tail is all

but synonymous with the triumph of marketing and added sugar over real' wine.

The fate that both the aforementioned men share is that of the successful populist. It might be down to jealousy - that someone has mastered the elusive knack of tapping into the desires of the masses - or it might be because of a genuine, if high-handed, belief that the products with which they have succeeded are cynically targeting the lowest common denominator. Either way, a populist is seldom popular - a fact that has always bothered Waterman and both baffles and annoys Casella. I wish [the press] would be more mature, rather than just looking to simplify what's happened by saying [that the success of Yellow Tail] is because it's sweet or something like that, and that the wine's no good,'

Casella says. When you say that, you're effectively insulting millions of people. And the wine writer has got to understand: are you that clever? Think about what you're writing, is what I say. People are buying it; they're parting with their money. And they're not buying it because it's the cheapest or because it's the only wine available. They're buying it because they bloody enjoy it! They wouldn't buy it again otherwise. I'm almost more offended on their behalf than I am for me. I'm only supplying what they want.'

So what do they want? What is it that keeps bringing consumers back to Yellow Tail, which, as Casella proudly points out, has a 70% re-purchase rate - a rate that is very high for the wine industry'. For Casella, it's easier to understand Yellow Tail's appeal in terms of what it isn't than what it is. It's interesting', he says, that Southcorp is now spending an awful lot of money on getting consumer groups to taste their wines, and they've got winemakers working to modify their wines and tailor them and keep fine-tuning them to get to what the consumer wants. When we first made Yellow Tail, we effectively did that without the groups. I went back to before I was in the industry and asked myself what I didn't like about wine back then. The answer was harsh acidity and tannin. People don't like tannin; they like suppleness and fruit flavour. I realised that what we needed to focus on were the positives of wine. With other wine, you drink it because you want to have a glass of wine, but you don't necessarily enjoy it.'

This focus on the positives has, according to Casella, given Yellow Tail the ability to attract consumers weaned on the

sweet, accessible likes of Coca-Cola to the sometimes frighteningly esoteric world of wine. There's a big gap between the people who don't drink wine, and wine. On the one hand you've got soft drinks, and then you've got something [wine]

that is acidic and tannic. But Yellow Tail can bridge that gap. People who don't drink wine will have a glass of wine [when it's Yellow Tail], and you get people who don't drink red wine having a glass of red wine. I think that's wonderful.'

A little sweetener

All this talk of sweetness might seem to present an open goal to Yellow Tail's critics. After all, much of the sniffy press generated by the brand's launch in the UK focused on its high sugar levels and the possibility that those levels might

be lower in the wines produced for the British market - and critics - than those sent to the United States. But for Casella - who, one senses, has grown somewhat weary with the sugar question - this is all so much rubbish. For one thing, it's the same Yellow Tail in the UK as in the US as in Australia. Logistically, it would be a nightmare to have different wines

in different countries. You know, there was one case where the same wine writer tasted it once and said it was sweet, and then said to me that the one we release for the domestic market has half the sugar. I thought, "Obviously, you weren't thinking about it the first time you tasted it, because it's the same bloody wine!" It's just madness! We don't want to change

it for anybody. We consistently get gold medals around the world. If it were sweet and sugary it wouldn't ever do that.

The sugar level is all about harmony and balance - it's not there as a sweetener. What the press has missed is that, in the past, you had some really crappy wines from France and Italy, and people would add sugar to the point where you could drink them. Yellow Tail has never been about making low-quality wine taste better with sugar; Yellow Tail has been about good-quality wine being finely tuned with a bit of sugar. And that's why we've had that level of success. It's not way out of balance, and we certainly wouldn't have people who can afford much more expensive wines buying Yellow Tail for their everyday drinking - which is something that happens a lot -

if that were the case. People drink more of Yellow Tail than they normally do [with other wines]. I hear the story again and again: "We started drinking it and we ended up finishing the bottle, but we never usually drink a whole bottle of wine." I had two Italian winemakers visit once, and I gave them a couple of bottles of Yellow Tail, and they stopped next to the river on the way back to Melbourne and told me they drank the whole two bottles and said, "I don't think we've ever enjoyed drinking a bottle of wine as we have today." And these are two winemakers!'

From Griffith to the world

Though the genesis and aims of Yellow Tail may be miles away from, say, DRC or, for that matter, Giaconda, there is nonetheless something quite romantic, in a rags-to-riches kind of way, about the Casella family story. John's parents were both itinerant farm workers in north Queensland who moved to the Riverland in the late 1960s, when John's father got involved in the wine business. He started out making bulk wine from his own vines and selling it to the people he knew back in Queensland. Things ticked along in this way until the early '90s, when John, who had by this time trained and worked as a winemaker, came into the business. For a while they operated as a sourcer of grapes, but I realised, because I'd been through surpluses before, that you can't survive on that for long'. So the company moved into contract winemaking, and by the time of the launch of Yellow Tail, it was already crushing 20,000 tonnes a year. In 1999 the company made its first foray into the American market, with the less-than-successful launch of Carramar Estate. And then, according to John's version of events, the Yellow Tail phenomenon simply happened'.

Well, not quite. I looked at Griffith in the early days. I guess I was upset that my father had settled there and not somewhere like the McLaren Vale, where there was good-quality fruit,' he says. But at the end of the day, I realised that there was no point in looking at what you can't have. You've got to look at what you do have, and Griffith and the warm regions do

grow good-quality fruit. It's not fruit that's going to make wines that will age for 10 years - it's just not - [so] we shouldn't try to match other areas in doing that. But we do produce fruit that you can drink fairly quickly, that's got nice soft tannins and very good flavour intensity, and is very ripe.' When you add all those elements to the competitive grape and land prices in the Riverland, he continues, then you have something that you can offer to the customer for very good value for money. And that's what we did.'

The process was driven by John Soutter, who had a massive role to play in the brand's development. Perhaps his most important contribution was the deal he struck with US importer WJ Deutsch, handing over 50% of the brand's US equity to motivate sales. Soutter also, legend has it, found the label for the brand following a chance meeting with label designer Barbara Harkness at an airport. But a label design on its own won't make a brand,' says Casella. It will help you get customers to take it off the shelf, and it will help consumers to remember it, but it won't make them re-purchase it. Only the wine quality can do that.'

Casella goes on to assert that the success of the wine cannot be attributed to any one single aspect. The label played its part,' he says, and the price point played its part. If it had cost twice as much, it wouldn't have worked; but if it had been cheaper, we wouldn't have been in business. And timing played its part: a lot of things came together at the right time.'

The trappings of success

According to Casella, overnight success hasn't changed him, his company or his family all that much. He still lives in

the same house as he has for years, and his parents have remained in the house adjacent to the winery, despite it being surrounded by the stainless-steel tanks that the Casellas put up in haste once Yellow Tail's sales rapidly exceeded the 25,000 cases they had anticipated for its first year. The biggest thing for me has been the satisfaction of success,' he

says, the satisfaction that the family now means something to the town: we're probably the second-biggest employer in the town now. Then there's the satisfaction that we've made a difference to growers and that we've got something that sells around the world. Griffith is just a little town in New South Wales, and suddenly it's on the map - you go to America and everyone knows Yellow Tail.'

The brand now features five whites and seven reds, including recent additions such as Pinot Grigio and Verdelho, as well as a reserve tier of wines. And although the company does produce other brands, its focus will continue to be on the one that made it famous. The next five years are going to be about consolidation,' Casella says. We've got to build a new head office in Griffith to send out a statement to the Australian wine industry and prove our commitment to the industry and to the brand. We're not going to be distracted by other brands until Yellow Tail is fully mature.'

There is also a desire in Casella to build his sales still further beyond the United States. The brand is now selling well' domestically, apparently, despite being launched in Australia after the US. We couldn't have launched a wine with a kangaroo on the label in Australia unless it had proved itself internationally - you just don't do that!'

Casella is also proud that Yellow Tail is making inroads in his parents' homeland, Italy, where it is selling around 30,000 cases - pretty good for such a big exporting nation. It's not as though we've gone out there and promoted it; we don't really have a budget for it in Italy. People have just taken it off the shelf.' Not that Yellow Tail is any more popular with Italy's wine critics, or wine industry, than it is in the rest of the world. Apparently, Casella says, it's known in the Italian trade as the black beast'. They're terrified of what it's done in the US,' he says, and they don't want the same in Italy and Europe.' But it's unlikely these territories will have any say in the matter. Indeed, to paraphrase one of Waterman's ditties, they should be so lucky.