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