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"Australia Decanted"

"The U.S. is our biggest challenge, but in several respects it's also our biggest opportunity."
by Mike Dunne
July 27, 2018
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Staff members of Wine Australia wore shirts printed with particulars of the event on the back - 390 wines, 100 attendees, etc. Photo/Mike Dunne 

Wine Australia, the global marketing branch of the Australian wine trade, just wrapped up an ambitious and intensive series of seminars under the looming Sierra Nevada mountains in California’s Lake Tahoe basin.

Also looming in the background were the latest figures on Australian wine exports to the United States, and they are as dark as the thunderheads that periodically accumulated over this week’s conclave.

Australian wine shipments to the U.S. fell eight percent in value and 11 percent in volume for the year ending last month, reports Wine Australia.

A decade ago, annual Australian wine sales in the U.S. hit $1 billion; now they are down to $420 million, says Andreas Clark, Wine Australia’s CEO. The plunge has been almost solely in wines priced from $4 to $8; wines in pricier categories are showing some growth, most notably riesling, semillon, pinot noir and shiraz.

(China has eclipsed the U.S. as Australia’s prime export market, with sales totaling $1.12 billion this past year, Clark adds.)

The Australian wine industry’s concern about struggling sales in the U.S. was the reason for Wine Australia’s Lake Tahoe gathering, officially dubbed “Australia Decanted.” Over five days the 100 invited gatekeepers attended animated panel discussions and focused tastings on wine styles, regions and trends led by 13 Australian winemakers. Andreas says the confab, held in and about the Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley, cost the sponsors around $1 million.

The captive audience ran largely to restaurant beverage directors, wine retailers and sommeliers, many from New York City, though San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago and elsewhere also were represented.

By the focus of the seminars, which concentrated on the premium end of the wine spectrum, Wine Australia officials clearly are eager for Americans to buy into the notion that Australian wines in history, variety, versatility and expression equal the finest wines of Europe and California.

“We haven’t told the story well enough of our diversity. We’ve sometimes assumed that everyone understands the intricacies of Australia, and they don’t. We have to tell our stories better,” says Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at the winery Yalumba in Barossa Valley and director of the Australian Wine Research Institute.

Stories to emanate from the sessions ranged from the continent’s wide range of soil types and microclimates to its innovative strides with the likes of screwcaps and “orange” or “natural” wines.

Australian vintners fret that the perception of their wines among too many Americans hasn’t much evolved over the past couple of decades, ever since American wine drinkers were seduced by cheap everyday chardonnay and shiraz whose labels ran to cute and colorful critters with playful names.

Australian winemakers still fancy clever names – “Ten Minutes by Tractor,” “I Am the Owl” and “Sailor Seeks Horse” were among the wines poured – but most of the 390 wines on display were far removed in authority, complexity and perseverance from the simple shirazes and chardonnays of a generation ago.

Whether the U.S. wine consumer is ready for a $90 chardonnay, $100 grenache, $110 pinot noir or $165 cabernet sauvignon from Australia remains to be seen, but they are poised to be shipped from the country’s docks.

“Australia Decanted” was just the first surge of a campaign to reintroduce Australian wines to Americans and to persuade them to trade up to more refined styles of wine from the country over the next three years. Next up is “Aussie Wine Week” in September, to be followed by “Aussie Wine Month” in the fall of 2019.

“The biggest outlier for us is the United States,” Clark says, noting that Australian wine sales are up in other export markets. “The U.S. is our biggest challenge, but in several respects it’s also our biggest opportunity. It’s why we are here this week. It’s the start of what we will be doing over the next few years in this market.”

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Comprehensive tasting of pinot noirs from Australia and the US conducted by, from left, Mac Forbes of Mac Forbes Wines in Yarra Valley, Michael Hill Smith of Shaw+Smith Wines in Adelaide Hills, Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards in Sonoma County, and Michael Dhillon of Bindi Wines at Macedon Ranges in Victoria. Photo/Mike Dunne

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