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The Australian Wine Industry
Our Export Sales are Slumping - Why?
Monday, 20th July, 2009  - David Farmer

The exports of Australian wine are faltering and when a strong upward trend line goes into reverse like others I am curious as to why. Here are some of the reasons that commentators worldwide have noted over the last few months as they try to explain this sudden turn.

1. Australia was fashionable and now it is not. "Fashions in wine, just as in everything else, come and go but the speed with which Australia has moved from being revered to being reviled is quite remarkable."

This thought may have some validity and would imply that each country has its moment in the sun. A combination of many forces some quite small made consumers react to and reassess whether they wanted to drink Australia each evening. We know that brands and wine styles can suddenly lose appeal. Perhaps countries can as well.

2. The use of distinctive Australian animals for branding was a mistake. "The staggering success of Yellow Tail, with its kangaroo label, spawned so many imitation "critter" brands, as they were known, that at the bottom end of the market, Australia came to be seen as ubiquitous and vapid."

This idea has been promoted by many commentators though I have been told several times that Yellow Tail for example has enhanced brand Australia in the US. For a decade a very strong supermarket brand in the UK was Hardy's stamp series which depict animals. This brand is now faltering. It may be hindsight but it's hard to think that a stamp series would maintain appeal for ever. Was there no plan B?

It is a curious thing that often brands that will not sell in the country of origin, who wants a Kangaroo on a label locally, find comforting appeal when exported as they focus attention on the country of origin. French producers for example are having some export success with labels called Arrogant Frog and another depicting a typical Frenchman on a bike with a red beret and a long loaf of bread. These 'country of origin' labels may though only have a short life.

When wine writers use terms like 'vapid', meaning boring and dull, I'm not sure that they are not signalling their own beliefs, rather than a true reflection of what the basic, buying public thinks. My experience is that our best wine writers do not have a lot of experience in the hard end of the commercial world and readily confuse what they would like to see happen, often hope will happen, with what the consumer looking for a cheap, good drink every day really believes.

3. Exchange rates. There can be little doubt that exports have been knocked around by an exchange rate that has strengthened since the late 1990's, especially for the US. It's one thing selling when the dollar is at 50 cents to the US to 80 cents and above.

4. Some wine styles fall into disfavour.

"In the upper reaches of the US wine market, Australia enjoyed a brief period in the sun when the powerful critic Robert Parker espoused a series of quite different labels cooked up especially for American consumers".

The thought here is that the big, full bodied styles such as Barossa reds were briefly fashionable. It may well be that it is now harder to sell expensive wines in the US (they were never popular in the UK) but the amounts sold were tiny and would have little impact on the major sales decline being recorded. Does the chatter though from wine writers and knowledgeable consumers that these iconic wines are unfashionable or overrated or undrinkable or 'many Americans who bought them found they did not perform as well as expected', seep down to and alters the opinions of the casual, budget drinker? I find this very hard to believe.

At this point it's worth digressing to make a few other comments. I believe that the wines that Robert Parker and other first wrote about in the late 1990's were genuine discoveries. They were not cooked up for the American or any other market. Those who gained high 'Parker points' are still around today and are doing very well. Our best warm climate reds are a genuine expression of a profoundly great wine style.

I promoted the Veritas Hanisch 1991 (now called Rolf Binder) well before Parker made it famous, simply seeing it as an extension of the great advances of Max Schubert, and it remains one of my regrets that I could not get local consumers to understand the greatness of wines such as this. To say that these wines were made for a specific market, or a single palate is simply untrue. It took the UK market and later Parker to draw attention to the wines and the recognition was long overdue. These endorsements then encouraged local buyers. The makers got no encouragement from local commentators and the constant snide comments that still flow from the local press about Parker is to their shame.

I also challenge the view 'they did not perform as well as expected', as on many occasions I have drunk high Parker pointed wines with 10 years of bottle age and similar older wines prior to Parker reviews that are simply breathtaking.

It is also apparent to many onlookers that the English press is annoyed and jealous of the Parker phenomena and repeatedly question his judgement. Poor Australia gets dragged in because impressionable wine buyers both companies and individuals think it is now fashionably correct to bag high alcohol wines. They taste very nice to me thank you.

5. The buying power and preferences of the large supermarket chains.

"The big UK supermarkets played the big companies off against each other and it turned into duel by discount. The average British wine drinker became conditioned into buying simply what was on promotion and Australian wine became increasingly synonymous with cheap wine." There is no doubt that the buying power and domination of the large supermarket chains in the UK can have a profound effect on sales. By all accounts they are using their muscle with ruthless effect. Whether selling a wine cheaper and cheaper, associates it in the consumers mind with cheap wine, meaning poor wine, I have my doubts.

I do not have enough knowledge to say how the supermarket buyers have reacted recently to Australian wines compared to other countries and whether there has been an unnatural swing away from the Australian product for some reason. I do believe that buyers can develop prejudice for all number of reasons. The odd beliefs of the Tesco wine buyers do make you wonder. In the US there has been strong growth of Argentinian and Chilean wine.

We are also dealing here with exchange rate problems and rapid gains by low cost competitors (see below).

Incidentally supermarket power also applies in Australia with the profound difference that our big two still have to supply what Australian's want which is largely Australian wine.

6. Low cost competitors.

Yes competition is fierce and Chile and Argentine and soon Eastern Europe are now formidable competitors and the English and American buyers have many alternatives to Australia. On many occasions they will buy on price which is their job.

7. Did our large company fumbles lead to a loss of momentum?

I suspect a significant cause of our current problems relates back to mistakes made by Southcorp-Fosters and Constellation and this will not be corrected any time soon. Smaller family companies such as Yalumba I understand are doing well.

8. Is there an ill defined image problem or some aspect we are missing?

Other causes that may have destroyed our International image are local overproduction that has forced the dumping of wine overseas and some locally; and being a warm country producer we cannot swing to making cool climate white wines as fashion changed; while a local market dominated by two chains has taken much of the profitability out of the home base. There are no doubt other factors that we do not grasp, the mysterious X factors, and we come back to a problem of image. How and what made it slip?

9. Over-production, wrong varieties and domestic market woes.

It all seemed like plain sailing for so long and many folk climbed aboard and now we have wealth destruction on a large scale with vineyards being devalued. The slide in exports is a disaster as this cannot be absorbed locally. As well what are we to do with all the chardonnay plantings now it has lost its popularity to sauvignon blanc? Some say we have over 50 million litres surplus and this will only be moved at a loss. This increases the pain. All these problems take out the profitability.

I was in London in April 2008 and I saw in Waitrose a Cote du Rhone (Guigal) for six pounds and I knew then we would be in trouble. A distinguished, famous producer now entering Australian price territory is a big problem. The world is awash with wine.

A curious side issue is that we have invested an enormous amount of energy into technical aspects to make the very best wine possible. When sales were growing a lot of this success was attributed to our technical prowess. What do we now say as sales are crumbling? It turns out that the best wine research in the world is not worth a row of beans if the country image has been neglected. How did it come to this?

* The quotes I have used come from: How Australia went down under By Jancis Robinson, Financial Times, April 4 2009. Many others have voiced similar views such as The New York Times, Bloomberg and local papers.

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Friday, 2nd December, 2005

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Tuesday, 23rd August, 2005

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Tuesday, 26th July 2005

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Sunday, 24th July, 2005

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Wednesday, 20th July, 2005

Deloitte Finds Losses Aplenty

Wednesday, 20th July, 2005

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Tuesday, 19th July, 2005

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One Small Step - New York Changes

Friday, 15th July, 2005

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Tuesday, 12th July, 2005

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Thursday, 7th July, 2005

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Wednesday, 6th July, 2005

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Monday, 4th July, 2005

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Tuesday, 28th June, 2005

Xanadu Hardly Idyllic for Shareholders

Tuesday, 21st June, 2005

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Tuesday, 21st June, 2005

Yellow Tail the Trendsetter

Wednesday, 15th June, 2005

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Wednesday, 15th June, 2005

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Wednesday, 15th June 2005

Straight Talking By the Man From Thomas Hardy

Tuesday, 7th June, 2005

The Downward Price Vortex Gathers Speed

Sunday, 5th June, 2005

Trying Until the End

Wednesday, 2nd June, 2005

What a Difference a Year Makes to SGARA

Thursday, 19th May, 2005

Holding up Well Ė All Things Considered

Tuesday, 10th May, 2005

One for the Brave Investor

Sunday, 8th May, 2005

We Talk with U.S. Importer Peter Weygandt

Friday, 29th April 2005

Ned Kelly Rides In

Wednesday, 27th April 2005

More on that Disappearing Wine

Tuesday, 26th April 2005

Wine Investment Takes Another Knock

Friday, 22th April 2005

Let the Hard Work Begin

Friday, 22th April 2005

Will a Desperate Company do a Desperate Thing?

Wednesday, 20th April 2005

Nearly Half are Yellowtails

Tuesday, 19th April 2005

The Smell of Death

Thursday, 7th April 2005

Fake Medals to Go

Thursday, 7th April 2005

An Update on Australian Wines in the U.K.Market

Saturday, 2nd April 2005

A Peep Behind the Wine Show Door

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Downward Wine Price Pressure Continues

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Make Me Some Clean Skins

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

The Fosterís-Southcorp Game of Bluff

Thursday, 10th March 2005

Greg Norman Back on the Winning List

Tuesday, 8th March 2005

Bridget Jones Enters the Wine Marketing Lexicon

Saturday, 12th February 2005

Mine is Bigger than Yours

Friday, 11th February 2005

Bridget Jones Enters the Wine Marketing Lexicon

Saturday, 12th February 2005

No Surprises from Foster's and Southcorp

Wednesday, 9th February, 2005

Jacob's Creek and Wyndham Estate Feel the Pressure

Saturday, 5th February, 2005

A Wine Merchantís Warning

Monday, 31st January 2005

Drinkers Will Smile and Investors Frown

Friday, 28th January 2005

Great News For Southcorp Shareholders - the Bid is for Cash

Monday, 17th January, 2005

A Record to Inspire Confidence?

Friday, 14th January, 2005

A Terrible Botch at Takeovers

Thursday, 13th January, 2005

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Saturday, 25nd December, 2004

Wine Comes to the Big Screen

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2004

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Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

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Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

ABARE Report Shows Meagre Returns for Grape growers

Monday, 15th November, 2004

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Tuesday, 9th November, 2004

What Governments Give...

Thursday, 28th October, 2004

Hot Weather to the Rescue

Tuesday, 26th October, 2004

The Battle for Pubs

Tuesday, 19th October, 2004

Back to Being a Cash Cow Good News for Investors

Tuesday, 19th October, 2004

Another $70m of Embarrassment for Fosterís Group

Wednesday, 13th October, 2004

A Good Idea at the Time

Friday, 1st October, 2004

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Tuesday, 2nd September, 2004

Glug visits the Adelaide Wine Show

Friday, 8th October, 2004

The Price Of Being One Industry

Tuesday, 29th June, 2004

Cork Amnesty Ė The Move to Screw Tops Continues Apace

Thursday, 16th October, 2004

Coming to a Bar Near You?

Wednesday, 8th September, 2004

Andrew Garrett Goodbye?

Tuesday, 24th August, 2004



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