The Retail Buyer’s View
By Dan Schmude
Recently, while wine shopping for my annual family vacation to the Jersey shore, I found myself in an area of the shop that just five years ago would have never been considered. I was loading up on Australian white wines from the likes of Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, Hunter Valley and even the Granite Belt. I will admit I’m partial to this part of the store being that I’m the Australian buyer for the Bottle King Group in New Jersey, but five years ago this category was drastically different. Other than a few select Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, it was hard to find anything with character or regional representation as it was mostly monotonous commercial bulk wine. It’s not hard to figure out why the entire Australian category has considerably declined since the heights of the early 2000s. Your answer could easily be found on the shelves of any respectable retailer.
Seeking Out Australian Wine Gems
When I took over the Australian wine buying responsibilities at Bottle King roughly four years ago, it was initially hard to come by any new wines of interest. The most exciting offerings came from Negociants or Epicurean and I stocked their wines on a rotating basis dictated by scores and press from Wine Spectator, among other wine publications. At any trade tasting, Australia was buried in the back corner of the room like an unwelcome visitor. The country’s biggest problem was they were being under-represented – its best and more exciting wines weren’t being offered to this market. This trend is starting to reverse, and the deeper I’ve delved into the category the more I’ve seen how much is really there to offer.
Australian Wine’s Strengths: Diversity, Quality, Value
Australia’s underlying strength is the diversity the country has to present. Wines from any region other than Barossa and McLaren Vale are generally not found at the retail level anywhere in the United States, and this is where a great opportunity presents itself. Most American customers are unaware that Sauvignon Blanc is even grown in the Adelaide Hills, that they can pick up world class Pinot Noir from Victoria’s Yara Valley, or that Margaret River produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to rival any in the world. These are regions I’ve chosen to focus on in our retail locations because the quality to price-point is something our customers deserve to be offered. Some of the recent arrivals I’ve welcomed to the selection include Riposte The Dagger Pinot Noir and Sidewood Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills, Silkman Sémillon from Hunter Valley, Hand Picked Cabernet from Margaret River, and Best’s Great Western Shiraz from Victoria.
The challenge remains in convincing the consumer – who has a preconceived notion that an entire country only produces over-ripe Shiraz – that there is real diversity, quality and value in a country that has been shunned for being one-dimensional. The first step I’ve taken at Bottle King is to represent all regions of Australia; not to list one or two unique items but a diverse selection from around the country. A great first impression is really important, so when a customer who is willing to try a Hunter Valley Sémillon stumbles onto the Aussie spread they also find wines such as Pinot Gris from Tasmania, Vermentino from McLaren Vale, numerous Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs from the Adelaide Hills, the list goes on and on. The key is to make the selection interesting for the adventurous customer to keep them experimenting and coming back for more. Creating a destination for singular offerings at a price point that offers value is critical; it plays to Australia’s undiscovered strengths in value and diversity.
Australian Wine’s US Renaissance
If there is going to be any Australian wine renaissance in the US market it’s going to be built on value, which is why I’ve focused on the $12-$25 price point. As Californian wine prices push upward, the door has been left open for Australia to put its stamp back on the US market. The key will be convincing the California wine-loving customer that an Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc at $15 can deliver greater value than their normal $25 purchase from California. On the other hand, as a buyer, another challenge has been convincing Aussie wineries that their Sauvignon Blanc that fetches $25 in their home country needs to sell for $15 here in the US. The New Jersey market in particular is very price sensitive. Just across the Hudson, wines that are selling for $25 in New York city are expected to sell for considerably less in New Jersey due to bigger retailers and a more competitive environment. I’ve found many wineries are willing to play at a lower price point just to have a footprint in the States and this will play a crucial role in bringing Australia back. After all, who doesn’t want to pay $15 for a wine that is worth $25? American wine drinkers will figure this out, it’s just a matter of time.
Dan Schmude is the buyer for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa at Bottle King in New Jersey