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The Australian Wine Industry
The Epitaph for Eliza Lindeman reads Became Skinny Girl
Wednesday, 10th April, 2013  - David Farmer

This is a story about one of the great heritage family brands, Lindemans, and its long drift looking for a meaning. To more easily understand this story it helps to see the wine business as being made up of two halves.

Each half makes and sells a product made from grapes but they have a different ethos, different behaviour patterns, and they seek out different customers. This is of course a simplistic view as the two halves intertwine in many ways and many producers have a foot in both camps.

One half is the fine wine business which can appear snobby and deals in expensive wines. This snobbishness may be because fine wines are described with a particular prose style which can seem overblown and invented; and is enhanced by a love of comparative tastings and preposterous scoring systems. Still despite this it is all quite absorbing and provides lots of interest.

The other half is the watered down half, and covers the cheaper end of commercial styles, sold by believers in fast moving consumable goods, the FMCG experts. Here the emphasis is splitting consumers into style types and like those catering to women's fashions they love to create changes every season and are specialists in spotting trends. The days and nights of marketing experts in this half are filled with dreams of detecting an unmet consumer niche which can be expanded rapidly and by so doing make them a star.

When I think of Lindemans I look back to the great CEO Ray Kidd, and now, at least partly, I understand the difficulty he wrestled with for years in trying to resolve the two halves of his wine business. This dilemma was created by the amazing success of Lindemans Ben Ean which made its debut in 1956 and by the mid 1970s had become a taste sensation. Kidd knew this success created a problem as it distorted the conventional idea of what a table wine company should be.

This in turn makes me ask a few questions. Is it possible that a phenomenal success can so distort a company that it becomes unstable, and did the slow demise of Lindemans begin with the success of Ben Ean? Is it far-fetched then to conclude that after decades of effort spent in promoting and maintaining Ben Ean it left nothing but exhaustion when sales subsided?

Lindemans had its birth place in the Hunter Valley which meant a great deal of effort went into maintaining a portfolio of superlative Hunter wines which were generally accepted as the best of this region. Entering the wine trade in 1975 I quickly realised you could never be considered a wine merchant if you could not discuss the differences between the Lindemans Hunter River whites titled Riesling, White burgundy and Chablis and for those who have forgotten these were made from Semillon.

At this time Lindemans had great support from other Hunter producers in the promotion of the Hunter Valley and the Evans phenomenon of Rothbury Estate and personalities like James Halliday and Max Lake gave the impression they were firmly bedded in a region of fine wine.

To further enhance the fine wine credentials Kidd had also laid down an extensive cellar of maturing Hunter wines plus those of other regions and these were periodically released too much critical acclaim. This was an incredibly advanced concept, steeped in the tradition of the English fine wine merchants and involved at least 150,000 cases of cellaring stock in commercial quantities going back to the 1950s.

Another move had been to purchase the Rouge Homme Company in Coonawarra (1965), a region which looked as if it would develop as a fine wine producer. The interesting firm of Leo Buring (purchased 1961) was part of Lindemans and in particular the Buring portfolios of South Australian rieslings were some of the greatest wines ever made in Australia. As well a range of wines was made from other well known regions to show they were a serious wine company.

Alas we will never know if such measures to maintain the 'fine wine' half can balance out the FMCG half as the owners Philip Morris, which had purchased Lindemans in 1971, became disenchanted and sold the company in 1990 to the Adelaide Steamship Group subsidiary of Penfolds. This sale helped fan the frantic trading in wine companies which did such enormous damage to the Australian wine industry.

As the years rolled by it must have been hard for managers reviewing what had been acquired to find any meaning or feel the passion for these traded brands. The result was endless repositioning involving redesigned labels, tearing down what existed, and creating further untold destruction with most of this done by those trained in other consumer businesses. But tricky indeed is the image of wine and all marketing principles it would seem are not universal as in the wine trade there are strong forces that oppose the commercialisation of wine and its image and to ignore them I believe is to ignore the future of all of us.

What has ruined our many heritage brands, and make no mistake they have been, is having no sense of history. The importance of reflecting upon what others have achieved does not excite new brand managers. Upon commencing a new position it is easier to stay in blissful ignorance as it allows the focus to remain only on what seems important which is their ideas.

So what now can be done with Lindemans, a company stripped of its fine wine portfolio and a brand now pulled which way and any way to suit the whim of each new marketing chief?

In an article "Harvesting the years of sunshine", Eli Greenblat, Sydney Morning Herald, May 26th, 2012, interviews Michelle Terry, the current brand manager;

"Unlike some wine reviewers, and many wine snobs, Terry does not run away or retreat in horror from the ''sunshine in a bottle'' tag that has become synonymous with Australian wine, especially chardonnay, and which has made Australian wine so popular with US and British drinkers.

"I think the consumer is looking for that, sunshine in a bottle, and that's part of the reason for them coming back to great quality Australian wine, which is led by Lindeman's."

I wish Ms Terry well but it will be a hard job to punch life back into Lindemans as previous brand custodians have not left much to embrace.

To illustrate what concerns me about Lindemans let us have a look at a range of cellar door wines introduced in 2012 as a tribute to Eliza Lindeman, described as a matriarch of the Lindeman family and mother of 10 children. The children's names are used on the wines. The release date coincided with celebrations at the Lindemans Ben Ean Hunter winery and marked its opening in 1912.

Here are the website descriptions:

Lindemans Eliza's Ten Arthur's Generous Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra 2010
Eliza's son Arthur was the first of five boys, born in September 1846 and his name is given to this wine, Arthur's Generous Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from Coonawarra in South Australia. The label depicts Arthur in the winery. For Arthur, managing the vineyard and helping to build the family business was truly a labour of love. He was just like his mother Eliza, intense, passionate and generous, like the vineyard and the wine itself, only getting better with age.

Lindemans Eliza's Ten Lillian's Graceful Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2007
Eliza's daughter Lillian was the fifth and last of five girls, born in August 1863 and her name is given to this wine Lillian's Graceful Sparkling, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from the Adelaide Hills. The label depicts Lillian at the Ball. Now it was as if everybody had left the ball as Lillian imagined herself in his arms, twirling her gown, revealing her glimmering shoes with every graceful step she took. Lillian's Graceful Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay shows immediate approachability and is perfect as an aperitif with canapes.

Lindemans Eliza's Ten Herbet's Refreshing Pinot Grigio Henty 2010
Eliza's son Herbert was the fourth of five boys, born in December 1858 and his name is given to this wine, Herbet's Refreshing Pinot Grigio, sourced from Henty in South-West Victoria. The label depicts Herbert in the winery. Sometimes the wine was just beguiling, like looking through a shimmering jewel. Often Herbert forgot where he was, lost in the moment of contemplation. This was where he was always meant to be, close to his passion and close to his family.

Lindemans Eliza's Ten Harriet's Elegant Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2010
Eliza's daughter Harriet was the first of five girls, born in October 1841 and her name is given to this wine Harriet's Elegant Pinot Noir, sourced from the Yarra Valley. The label depicts Harriet and her violin. At night there was stillness in the air and Harriet looked out to the rich darkness, the beauty of the vines was captivating. She picked up her violin and played her mother Eliza's favourite pieces. The notes floated through the vineyards, dancing with the vines.

Are the creators of this range serious? Among other things Eliza's Ten shows disrespect for Eliza Lindeman and thus the heritage of the brand. The descriptions of her children are simply fanciful and the silliness of the writing is an affront to the art of copywriting and to the wine trade which expects better from the custodians of this famous history. Good copy tells a story and that built around the company's heritage must be based on the truth. You must not invent stories, and I ask the copywriters to prove that Harriet played a violin and if she did that she played for her mother. Next prove that Herbert and Arthur worked in wineries. The copy also implies the children were at Coonawarra, or Henty because it is convenient for the writer to make this up. It may be cruel to suggest but perhaps the writer should consider a future with Mills and Boon.

The temptation to simplify wine and seemingly make it accessible is a strong one for the FMCG crowd. Thus calling a wine from a region like Coonawarra 'generous', a Henty wine 'refreshing', a Yarra Pinot 'elegant' and an Adelaide Hills sparkling 'graceful' must have seemed like a great idea but such a one word tasting note says nothing at all to the consumer though it might make them burst out laughing. It is juvenile in the extreme and brand managers should know that the rest of us do not do things like this because it is a dumb idea.

The main problem though is that these examples illustrate that there is no thought on how to manage and enhance the worth of a brand that has taken 150 years to build. Each piece of silliness pushes Lindemans worth as a potential fine wine brand further and further away. Yet the search for a quick, sales fix continues as Ms Terry has her eyes on another big idea as explained by Eli Greenblat;

"...she has big plans for Lindeman's. On the cards is a launch in the US of its new Early Harvest label over the next 12 months, a new variety of wine that could be a big hit with people who like to watch their weight and their calories.

"Early Harvest is a growing collection of reds, whites and sparkling - seven styles in all - that use flavour ripe grapes harvested from early ripening regions in south-eastern Australia to produce a wine that is 25 per cent lighter in alcohol and calories. Early Harvest has been a huge hit in Australia since it was launched five years ago, and is appealing especially to an older demographic that enjoys drinking wine but also wants to keep an eye on the waistline - and are less enthusiastic about a hangover the next day.

"The core demographic is 40-plus and people looking to have a full lifestyle. They talk about it as a benefit of being lighter, and there are also people who buy it quite frankly because they are calorie counters....

"...Terry, who recently took up marathon running and completed her first half-marathon, has big hopes for Early Harvest in the US, where lighter alcoholic beverages are making a huge splash, such as the Skinnygirl range of cocktails which is backed by a reality TV star and are proving amazingly popular...."

Perhaps I should stop right here. Maybe Treasury knows the best of the brand is past and I admit they are perhaps right. Thus any thought of making Lindemans what it should have been, a brand as great as Penfolds, is gone and they have decided to squeeze out whatever is left.

But I find it hard to let go and looking for answers ask was the 1990 takeover the end as a fine wine brand, as what remained left the heart with no home. I also ponder the hypothetical that the history was doomed when the founder Dr Lindeman disembarked at Sydney as he had few places to go to fulfill his desire to plant vineyards. While the Hunter Valley is the oldest of our wine regions for complex reasons it has never captured the heart of the consumer. Perhaps some of these reasons are a lack of scale and the indifference of consumers to the wine styles, a product of the climate and the unusual weather for growing grapes.

The premium image could not be retained without a heartland and as the string of famous Hunter vineyards was lost the historic significance of being a Hunter pioneer faded and the romance died.

The attempts to create a base for fine wine elsewhere may have worked. For a brief moment a trio of Lindemans Coonawarra reds had appeal, enough for one or two to get into the Langtons classification, but a shift had occurred and finding itself without a home endangered the brand image.

Perhaps all that can be done at this late stage is to take what is left and attach the brand to any passing fashion. Today it's to be grouped around a range of low alcohol, early harvest, and sweet nothings. What was serious becomes fruity and refreshing and sweet seasons takes over from vintage differences with frivolity above replacing the cellar below. How quickly will all of this date?

The current web-site is perhaps a fitting epitaph for this famous brand with wind puffs blowing flowers and leaves of fading green and Autumn hues across the screen. Strangely I have always associated the bouquet and taste of old Hunter whites with the wet and dry aromas of crushed Autumn leaves and will remember the glory of Lindemans as expressed in the perfection of the Lindemans Hunter River Chablis 1970. While for Eliza Lindeman, loving mother of 10 children, the epitaph is being re-incarnated as skinny girl.

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A Record to Inspire Confidence?

Friday, 14th January, 2005

A Terrible Botch at Takeovers

Thursday, 13th January, 2005

Doctors Keep Pressing for Increased Wine Tax

Saturday, 25nd December, 2004

Wine Comes to the Big Screen

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2004

American Journalists Must be Wine Drinkers

Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

Memories of 1905

Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

ABARE Report Shows Meagre Returns for Grape growers

Monday, 15th November, 2004

The Value of a Brand

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

How do You Grow a Wine Company While Cutting Vineyards and Stock?
The Answer is:

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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