The Dot Drop Boom
What a year in technology. Google’s “Android” phones are challenging the trend-setting iPhone for marketshare. The iPad has easily created a whole new market segment of slate computing. And Facebook? No one remembers MySpace, yet Mark Zuckerberg’s notion now has more users than many countries have residents.   But who cares about big bandwidth when you want a bold Shiraz? We do – the Australian wine industry has its roots in innovative winemaking (we were the boldest of New Worlds, after all), yet much of it languished in obscurity due to the problem of courageous winemakers finding equally courageous consumers.   Can we change that? All this technology at your fingertips just may be the answer.   Finding an audience   Wine is a thing of tradition, passion, and rich heritage. We can trace the origins of many of our premium South Australian vineyards back hundreds of years, and if anything, changing things presents serious challenges to winemakers. Will that obscure varietal really take off? Will anyone want a new style for an Aussie icon like Chardonnay or Shiraz? Just as a BMW enthusiast considers rear-wheel drive and a singing straight six a central part of the experience, winemakers thinking outside the square can have a hard time when the broader market wants status quo.   Going back through the years, before the explosion of premium Australian wines in the 70’s, there were plenty of courageous winemakers swimming against the tide of fortified wines being produced en masse. People like Maurice O’Shea were crafting good table wines as far back as the 1920’s, yet we Aussies preferred beer and fortified’s. Maurice was enormously influential in winemaking circles, but he certainly wasn’t getting rich.   The problem wasn’t quality. If history is correct, as far back as 1873 judges at the Vienna Exhibition were very impressed with our wines, and in this case refused to believe they weren’t French. Fortunately, actual awards were being picked up from more open-minded judges in the next decade. We could do it, but that tyranny of distance made it hard getting the word out.   Inside Out   It was the stubborn and brilliant Max Schubert who showed the industry that, if you stuck to it, excellence would find its place and the world would come to your door. His first run (1951) of the legendary Grange Hermitage was so disliked that it was never released commercially. Yet Max, despite instructions to do otherwise, kept at it in secret. By the time those early vintages had aged, he was not only vindicated, but acclaimed. His 1955 vintage has snapped up more the 50 awards worldwide and even the maligned ’51 will now fetch over $50,000 at auction.   That turnaround is indicative of how our wine industry turned around in the 1970’s. Mavericks (some say renegades) were tilting against windmills, but unlike Quixote and Panza, theirs was a quest fulfilled. Wine like Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay and characters like Wolf Blass emboldened our industry, and our winemakers finally found an audience clamouring for premium Australian wines.   The numbers backed it up. Exports to the U.S. surged from 578,000 cases in 1990 to 20 million in 2004. Sure, marketing and a very favourable exchange rate played a significant part, but we are truly on the world stage as craftsmen of great wine.   And, with a tip of the hat to Maurice, that success is now celebrated (and sampled) by us domestics. Sometimes it takes praise from our overseas neighbours to get that On Ya out of a local.   Bring It Home, Boys   Today, boutique wineries abound. We have some of the best terroirs in the world (industry speak for climactic and soil conditions), and we know how to work those grapes.   And we have a new wave of mavericks. Passionate, small volume producers such as Lost Valley are producing rarities like Cortese. They rely on word of mouth and email lists to keep those cases moving. Cellar door sales are vital to these producers, and unlike Max labouring away in secret, they are sharing everything online. Newsletters, blogs, vintage reports, extensive notes and (in the case of Wirra Wirra) tales tall and true are all a click away.   This problem now is not finding an audience, but the audience selecting the wine. All this access means a lot of Googling and scanning of winemaker notes. With over 700 wineries here in South Australia alone, finding what you want can be a chore. A day trip out of the city is barely enough to hit the big cellar doors, let alone find those hidden pleasures that are, by nature, well off the beaten track.   Thankfully, it’s hard to keep a secret in the modern internet age. The web made getting stock to customers much easier (we should know), and nowadays if one person knows something, odds are anyone who is interested can find out about it. Right, Julian?   Big bandwidth is good; smart bandwidth is great.   The Social Vineyard   If you aren’t on Facebook, odds are the people next to you are. With over 500 million folks posting everyday factoids about themselves, finding that secret pleasure your friends tripped over is now more word of mouse than mouth. Try it – post or tweet that stunning something you sampled, and see what your friends think. They may have found similar wines in their travels. Social is the New Black, and searching is so five minutes ago. (We certainly are practicing what we preach:   With the web in your pocket thanks to the ubiquitous iPhone, the travelling nerd can tweet wine road trips to their less fortunate homebodies. Foursquare and Google Maps are making it hard to forget the location of any great cellar door, and make it very easy to publicise.   We celebrate Australian greatness. Now, more than ever, we can tangibly support it by getting the word (or tweet) out to our community. Let’s make sure those modern-day Maurice’s have a line at the door telling them (and everyone else) that different isn’t just acceptable.   It’s what we want.