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The Australian Wine Industry
Remembering Harry Brown - Wine Merchant Salesman 1918-1999
Monday, 27th July, 2009  - David Farmer

There are several books detailing the history of the Australian wine industry which have a chronological focus starting with those who first planted vineyards, how the family companies grew, and go on to discuss the wines they made, continuing in this way into the modern era. They provide an important historical perspective of how the production side of our wine story developed.

These books leave me with a nagging feeling that an equally important story is not being told which would emphasise trends from the customers perspective including what we drank over this time and who were the merchants that influenced our tastes. For example what types of wines did we drink from 1880 till 1960? We seem to have little data at all about wine brands over this time and as an example we have little idea of what a restaurant was serving in say 1935.

After 1945 table wine became a significant part of Australians lifestyle and merchants that awakened and catered to this interest included Rhinecastle (Johnnie Walker), Crittendens, Dan Murphy, Seabrooks, Douglas Lamb and Harry Brown. [They in turn were preceded by Oakley Adams, Nathan and Wyeth and Mathew Lang and no doubt others, though these were wholesalers without the retail-customer focus]. The following article is from notes I took during two lunches with Roger Brown on the 28th October, 2008 and 3rd March, 2009, when we discussed the career of Harry Brown*.

Harry Repetto was born on 28th November, 1918 and his name was changed to Brown when his mother re-married seven to eight years later. We like to think this was Harry's first big salesman's idea. Around 1936 he began working for Rhinecastle wines, owned of course by J.K. Walker. Harry progressed slowly through the ranks and by 1946 was entrusted with assisting the newly formed Wine Society which distributed wines from the Rhinecastle premises. About the same time he began selling Houghton's White Burgundy which was being increased in production due to demand in the Eastern States. Rhinecastle got the Houghton's agency in 1946. At the time supplies of Houghton's White Burgundy, sold in a bocksbeutel, was limited and exclusive to private customers and the restaurant trade. The off license retail trade, at least in the Eastern States was not supplied until 1980-1981.

By this stage Harry was showing great skills as a trader and was responsible for building the on and off license trade for Rhinecastle, This business was built around three main divisions, the thriving bistro, a large private customer business and a contract with the growing Wine Society. To this can be added the business that Harry Brown created although it seems its full potential was not appreciated by Rhinecastle. For this reason Harry was able to buy this division for twenty thousand pounds in 1964 and Walker had the view that Harry would be broke in six months. The Rhinecastle liquor licence was transferred to Harry Brown on 5th March, 1964. Roger Brown joined the business after finishing his accounting degree on 1st November, 1964.

The opening portfolio of Harry Brown included Houghton's, Browns of Milawa, Tullochs, Elliots and the Rhinecastle brands which included the very successful red, Bin 26A. A range of cleanskins were bought from Hardy's and McWilliams and these were labelled as Rhinecastle Bin 84, Bin 024, Bin 26A Claret, Bin 120 Burgundy, Bin 77 Hock, and a Bin 92 Moselle the later being sourced from Bests of Great Western. At the time Hamiltons Ewell Moselle was the category leader. For years Rhinecastle changed the Bin numbers each vintage and Harry with his marketing eye altered this and by the early 1960's began using the same number each vintage. From this time where appropriate he also added the varietal name. These Rhinecastle wines were enormously popular and the relabelled cleanskins purchased from Hardy's outsold the Hardy's branded wines. Tullochs also used to buy a lot of wine from Hardy's but even so the Tulloch wines were on strict allocation. Gilbeys were later to take over Tullochs.

Harry Brown also acquired a range of interesting imported agencies which included Mouton Rothschild, Trimbach, Laurent Perrier (from Crittendens of Melbourne), Martell cognacs, Marie Brizard, Paul Bouchard Aine, Dienhard, Joseph Drouhin, Mommessin, and the big South African KWV. Later still they gained the agency for Mateus which had colossal sales of 60,000 cases in 1979. At the time they could only get 200 cases a month of Houghton's rose.

Over the years the local portfolio also grew to include Brian Barry, All Saints, Quelltaler, Jim Ingolby and wines developed around the McLaren Vale Wine Company which were co-branded with the growers such as Kay Bros.

Harry was looking for a softer more approachable style of red with emphasis on fruit and early drinkability and had Edgerton Dennis (of Ingolby) make this new style. This wine became the launch of the Brown's Bin 60 with the label look based on brown wrapping paper. The first wine was a Browns Bin 60 McLaren Vale Shiraz 1963 from Ingolby's vineyards [I'm not sure about this as I have an HG Brown Bin 60 1963 label saying the wine is from Dennis's vineyards-although Dennis and Ingolby were particularly close]. It can be said that this style pre-dates the approachable red style that Wolf Blass was pondering and launched in the late 1960's to early 1070's. It also marks a transition for McLaren Vale growers from making fortified wines, a market that was in decline, to an emphasis on table wines.

Harry in the early 1970's in a meeting with Len Norman of Normans Wines was shown a red from the 1969 vintage that had been made by Wolf Blass who at this time was consulting to Normans. It had won gold in Adelaide and Harry purchased the lot. This subsequently led to a meeting with Blass in 1970-1971 which in turn led to Harry Brown becoming the NSW distributor in 1972-1973. At Harry's 80th Birthday Blass paid tribute to Harry by saying that apart from himself Harry did more than anyone else to establish the Wolf Blass brand.

Another strong product was Rhine Pearl which was made by Frank Cassel at Tempe from the 1960's to the early 1970's. Frank was a German and used German technology to make a range of sparkling styles many of them at very keen prices. Similar technology had been imported by Colin Gramp at Orlando to launch Barossa Pearl in 1956. [It was also used at Chateau Yaldara].

A common thread through the stories about Harry is his marketing brilliance, genius even, which shows in his ability to redesign labels for a newer, more alert wine consumer and to find wines they wished to drink. This all seems so basic now but what we do today builds on what merchants like Harry initiated.

This is illustrated for example with Quelltaler. The Quelltaler White Burgundy was a consistent seller. In the mid 1960's (?) this wine won gold at the Adelaide Wine Show. At the time Larry Sobels was against showing the vintage or medals on the label. Harry convinced him otherwise and sales of this wine went from 20 cases per month to 500 cases. Harry was keen to see sales go to Quelltaler as he was on an allocation with Houghton's. It should be remembered that at this time table wine sales were still tiny. Another example is Tullochs riesling which was in a squat bottle which Harry had repackaged in a riesling bottle and at Pruniers restaurant for example sales promptly doubled.

As well he persuaded Bouchard Aine to add the variety, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to the entry level French wines which was done in the mid 1970's, a very advanced idea for the French who apart from Alsace producers paid little heed to varietal labelling.

In the mid 1960's Harry was talking to Mick Knappstein of the Stanley Wine Company which at the time was very successful and he mentioned it was for sale. This information was passed on to Mouton Rothschild but Heinz which wanted to diversify moved quickly and grabbed the opportunity. At the time Stanley sold 85% of its wine to the bigger companies and was keen to expand their own range. This range of Bin wines such as Bin 7, Bin 56 and and Bin 49 were on allocation. Heinz had commissioned John Heine to develop new business ideas and he had convinced them that casks would make up 85% of the wine trade by 1980. Heinz believed they could take a commanding position by buying Stanley.

Harry Brown distributed The Stanley Wine products and the fast developing cask market began to dominate the company. In 1979 Harry sold to Heinz who wished to control their distribution and since Stanley had become such a large part of the Harry Brown business he had little leverage to refuse knowing they would take the agency away and set up their own distribution.

Harry continued as a salesman for Tyrrell's wine until shortly before his death in May, 1999. For most of this time he was the top salesman selling in excess of $1 million each year.

Harry's golden rules when buying wine still sound pretty good today. Wine no good; wine too expensive; wine not what people want.

*I keep nudging Roger Brown but this article has not been proofed by him so at this stage it is on record but could contain inaccuracies.

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