John Eales

Fierce col­lab­o­ra­tors An ‘us-against-them’ at­ti­tude among wine­mak­ers of­fers some wider lessons for Aus­tralian busi­ness

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

The rugby leg­end on the wine in­dus­try's win­ning strat­egy.

Like many peo­ple I have a great love of wine. Un­like some vices, some amount of wine is good for you.

Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not a sim­ple lin­ear re­la­tion­ship where some wine is good and more is bet­ter, but some is good so I’ll run with that.

Re­gard­less of whether your palate takes you to the Yarra Val­ley, the Mar­garet River or the Hunter, the wine in­dus­try of­fers many valu­able lessons, but none more so than col­lab­o­ra­tion.

It is of­ten said wine peo­ple are good peo­ple. That be­came ev­i­dent to me as I met many of Aus­tralia’s great­est and some of our more ob­scure, yet equally tal­ented, wine­mak­ers. De­spite it be­ing an in­cred­i­bly com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try, I have never heard any­one in­volved in the in­dus­try speak ill of oth­ers or of their brands. Com­ing from sport, where there are so many petty jeal­ousies, this was a rev­e­la­tion.

I shared my ob­ser­va­tion with Aus­tralian wine pi­o­neer Wolf Blass. He re­called the time when the in­dus­try was seen as lit­tle more than an en­thu­si­as­tic chal­lenger, an up­start that showed prom­ise, but couldn’t re­ally com­pete with the es­tab­lished brands and re­gions of the world. It was dur­ing these for­ma­tive years that he and a few sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers made a pact that de­liv­ered Aus­tralian wine to the world.

“For Aus­tralian wine to suc­ceed it had to be ‘us against them’ (the in­ter­na­tional brands and wines) be­fore it was ever ‘us against each other’,” he told me once.

Such think­ing is un­usual for a fiercely com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try and, im­pres­sively, it is not just a cus­tom of the past but an at­ti­tude that pre­vails in var­i­ous in­no­va­tive guises.

No name is as big in Aus­tralian wine than James Hal­l­i­day. Great­ness is not a qual­ity that should ever be be­stowed lightly, but Hal­l­i­day has earned such an ac­co­lade. He has ex­celled as wine­maker, writer, critic and col­lec­tor, mas­ter­ing the de­tail of each craft through per­sis­tence and rep­e­ti­tion. When re­search­ing for his Aus­tralian Wine

Com­pan­ion, the 76-year-old will taste 80 bot­tles be­tween 7am and 1pm each day for three months, tak­ing metic­u­lous notes on up to 6000 wines – notes that will guide the drink­ing and col­lect­ing habits of peo­ple all over the globe.

“There is a transna­tional esprit de corps and col­lab­o­ra­tion that binds wine­mak­ers all over the world, and I want to al­ways re­main part of that,” he says.

Such co-op­er­a­tion helps nav­i­gate the com­plex­i­ties of a chal­leng­ing in­dus­try where the wine­maker must blend his or her artis­tic and sci­en­tific skills with busi­ness acu­men, as seam­lessly as they blend the vintage. For the vint­ner is the fund-man­ager of the busi­ness, al­lo­cat­ing cap­i­tal and re­sources to get the best re­turn. Do you pri­ori­tise chardon­nay or pinot noir on a given day?

“Wine is agri­cul­ture-based and there­fore has nu­mer­ous vari­ables, but it is no longer the fin­ger-to-the-wind stuff of the past,” says Hal­l­i­day. “Wine­mak­ing has gone be­yond the maxim, ‘Great wines are made in the vine­yard’, be­cause the wine­maker has to make all the cor­rect calls from the day the fer­men­ta­tion starts to the days, months or years down the track when the wine is bot­tled. But all the skill in the world won’t make a great wine from medi­ocre grapes – even great vine­yards are not im­mune from ex­ces­sive rain, heat or smoke taint from bush­fires.”

An ex­am­ple of col­lab­o­ra­tion was an idea Hal­l­i­day bor­rowed from Ore­gon in the US and adapted for the pinot mak­ers of Vic­to­ria. By na­ture, pinot noir can be a re­cal­ci­trant wine but the re­wards can be ex­cep­tional. Bur­gun­dian ex­am­ples such as Romanee-Conti rank with the best and most ex­pen­sive wines of the world and Aus­tralia con­tin­ues to pro­duce bet­ter and bet­ter ex­am­ples.

Ev­ery Novem­ber, Hal­l­i­day is one of the pinot wine­mak­ers from 50 dif­fer­ent winer­ies in Vic­to­ria who as­sem­ble for work­shops with their pend­ing vintage re­lease.

Over two days they con­duct four ses­sions with 10 wines scru­ti­nised at each ses­sion. All tast­ings are blind and feed­back is given on the wine be­fore its iden­tity is re­vealed. Hal­l­i­day de­scribes it as a, “fear­less en­vi­ron­ment where wine­mak­ers can seek ob­jec­tive help from their di­rect com­peti­tors”.

The end re­sult is that ev­ery­one’s prod­uct is bet­ter than it would oth­er­wise have been.

The in­dus­try, how­ever, is not with­out head­winds. Ac­cord­ing to Wine Aus­tralia, wine ex­ports to the US, Bri­tain, Canada, Swe­den, Nether­lands, China and Hong Kong, which grew by about 560 per cent be­tween 1995 and 2005, only grew by 5 per cent in the next decade, and have been in de­cline over the past five years.

With growth cru­cial for the pros­per­ity of any in­dus­try some more col­lab­o­ra­tive and in­no­va­tive think­ing over a nicely aged pinot might be just what’s re­quired.

‘There is a transna­tional esprit de corps and col­lab­o­ra­tion that binds wine­mak­ers all over the world’

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