Big Australian Wine Shows – Taking the Bull by the Horns

Ah yes, the Pandora’s Box that is the Australian Wine Show “system”. There’s no nice way to say what I am about to say and it is by no means a complete critique of Australian wine shows – it’s a very specific matter. It is also a conversation that has been repeatedly had behind the scenes, at lunch and at dinner and around the back of the shed. I thought it might be worth widening the circle of conversation a little. We’re all mates after all.

I’ve long been involved in judging wine shows in Australia and will continue to do so this coming season. I’ve judged at many capital city shows – Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. I’m currently on the judging panel at the National Wine Show and I’ve judged at many regional shows as well as a handful of international wine judging gigs.

And I, along with anyone in possession of even barely functioning ears and eyes, have long recognised the need for change and evolution at the big end of the Australian wine show scene. I work on the “get involved and make change from within” philosophy; I simply can’t respect those that whine and whinge from the sidelines.

There has been some degree of ongoing change and evolution in most capital city wine shows in Australia. Melbourne, for example, has run a particularly impressive race to reinvention in recent years, most notably grindingly amending their flagship award, The Jimmy Watson Trophy, to become an award for bottled rather than unfinished wine. A giant step for the Royal Melbourne Wine Show but a small step for mankind. I wonder how many consumers will even notice.

But it becomes increasingly obvious that there seems to be an immovable barrier to change at many of our capital city wine shows. Despite the common sense, intelligence, expertise, drive etc. of the various capital city wine show steering committees, the judges, captains of industry and others who toss their hat in the show ring, there is an ongoing and fundamental disconnect between all of these people that champion the great cause of Australian wineries and the capital city wine show “landlords” – these being the various Royal Agricultural Societies.

The most commonly stated raison d’être for our capital city wine shows is twofold:

1)    to “improve the breed” – that wonderful private school-ish saying that means to champion great wine and encourage/teach others to follow (here here, toodle pip, bravo and there’s a good lad!).

2)    as a promotional vehicle to increase the popularity and sales of wine – a form of marketing, if you like.

Do our capital city wine shows really improve the breed? I don’t think so. And it’s not really their fault either. The world of wine production, and all that drives and shapes its leading edge, has evolved impressively and it’s a vastly different place in which we make and enjoy wine today than when the capital city show template was first cast in the mid-19th century.

Today, winemakers looking to improve their best efforts hire consultants, travel the world, meet the great makers, buy and taste the great examples and look to their peers, at times. Hell, they might even consult the internet.

Regional wine shows offer a very different encounter. They are the most effective wine shows in Australia when it comes to improving the breed from a grass roots level and they are intimate and nurturing of their constituent winemakers. They’re closely connected to the reality of the local wine industry. Regional wine shows also reinvest their spoils in their stakeholders and their local community. I love ‘em.

I should also make the distinction here about truly regional shows and isolate the quasi-regional wine shows that include Cowra, Griffith and Rutherglen. I struggle to understand the contemporary relevance of these wine shows that simply open their regional branding to all and sundry willing to pay up and send in. And I am certainly not alone on this. It just doesn’t make sense.

On the marketing front, it seems to be a widely held consensus (from my conversations, at least) that one decent review from a respected critic is a vastly more relevant and more valuable means of promoting wine to distributors/agents, trade and consumers – everybody you need to convince to buy your wine – than several gold medals from capital city wine shows. And I would suggest the exchange rate is now constantly and irreversibly moving against the favour of capital city wine shows.

It’s astounding then to see that most capital city wine shows don’t do a better job of getting their results out into the market, whether by investing more, doing a better job, or both.

Here, Sydney is a notable exception, making a good fist of promoting the whole wine, dairy and fine food package. It’s a common sense offering that has built some momentum in the market. There’s talk of iphone apps carrying results and producing consumer-friendly versions of catalogues, exactly the sort of initiatives that would potentially build ongoing relevance and value for wineries and consumers alike. Encouraging stuff.

But exactly why do we have capital city wine shows in this day and age and why do we need six roughly identical ones, seven if you count the National Wine Show in Canberra, which is a kind of über-capital city wine show? I bet consumers would give up some interesting points of view on this.

It seems to me the reason we have all these capital city wine shows in Australia is jointly tradition and business, quite big business. Consult the websites of the various Agricultural Societies and tally up the rough total of annual entries and you’ll see that the going rate of turnover for each capital city wine show in Australia is significant.

For example, in 2010, the Royal Melbourne Wine Show garnered around 3250 entries, each of which paid AUD$120 to be in the running, generating an income of around AUD$390,000.

Anecdotally, from a member of a capital city wine show committee who asked to remain anonymous (for fear of retribution I can only assume), the windfall from their 2010 show ran at around $180,000 after all costs.

The issue with this, and one that each and every member of Australia’s winemaking community should consider before sending their entries off to our capital city wine shows, is that it won’t be long before these events will collectively amass somewhere approaching AUD$1,000,000 after operating costs are paid and that the large proportion of this money heads off into the coffers of the various Agricultural Societies.

Given the fact that nowadays they really don’t improve the breed and are widely regarded as an increasingly obsolete marketing tool, the return on investment in capital city wine shows does not seem to stack up all that well for the Australian wine community. Isn’t it time the industry took charge and demanded dramatic and constructive changes for its own benefit. Where’s the leadership on this? Where is it coming unstuck?

Why aren’t our Agricultural Societies reinvesting the bulk of the money they make from their respective capital city wine shows back into the Australian wine community – why aren’t they investing in clever initiatives aimed at assisting winemakers in “improving the breed”? Wasn’t this their original mission? Where has the love gone?

To simply say “we do it the way it’s always been done” is to walk a slippery slope. Harvesting this money year after year and returning the bare minimum to the Australian wine community means our Agricultural Societies are potentially digging their own shallow grave.

Maybe a new and better system will come along, one that works with a strong connection and understanding of the context of today’s wine trade, one that is as outwardly focused as it is inwardly aware and one that rewards all of its stakeholders more fairly?

Is it time for a new system of exhibiting and judging Australian wine? Surely a system that delivers a great result and a fair return to all corners of the industry that supports it is the bare minimum Australian wineries, the industry and their wines deserve. A fair go for all is not too much to ask.

About postferment

Australian wine critic, author, presenter, broadcaster and winemaker, Nick Stock.
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30 Responses to Big Australian Wine Shows – Taking the Bull by the Horns

  1. Paul Tudor says:

    Greetings Nick

    I judged for eleven years in shows in NZ and tried to “work from within”. Unfortunately, when I did criticise and offered some suggestions for change I was “asked” to leave the scene. Ironically, since becoming an MW I have been asked back by a couple of key people, however if the system itself is not ready for change, then I am not ready for it. I suspect you have taken on an un-winnable war, however I wish you well in the opening skirmishes.

  2. Max says:

    Bravo, Mr Stock. If (capital city) wine shows wish to remain as relevant in the future as they did in the past, plenty of change needs to happen.

  3. bierfesten says:

    Relevancy is the probably the word associated with the industry now. After being overseas for the last 7 years I have noticed that the industry has changed while I was gone. I used to look at Awards like most consumers, but now after tasting (Winning) wines at a recent show in Sydney I now think I prefer the dirty French Style wine making that would not win any awards. I enjoy dirty dry Grenache from Mclaren Vale, & Coonawarra Shiraz that is aged and ‘Dirty’ as such.

    Styles of Wine have changed as have consumers tastes in wine, so no longer are they wanting Riesling made in the Germanic Style, or Shiraz Cabernets made in the Australian style, but thankfully the Wine Makers are making their own styles.

    If we now invest more time & energy into local regional shows, should they concentrate on certain Styles, or grapes from that region/state? should they introduce new ‘Rules’ for different categories? Craft Beer breweries in the United States are going through this issue now, as they are inventing new styles of beer, like the American IPA.

    • postferment says:

      It’s always an interesting question to see how well wine shows can address the diversity of wine styles being made – that will be an ongoing challenge.
      I like the parallel with beer.

  4. Zar Brooks says:

    And then some.

  5. Great article, it will be very interesting to see the reaction to this. I hope the ensuing discussion is a catalyst for real change and that major agricultural wine shows evolve to be more relevant to both wine makers and punters.

  6. Dave Brookes says:

    Nice one Mr Stock….telling it like it is.

  7. Andrew Guard says:

    Great to see you tackle this Nick – it is a subject that is prickly and changing established structures of power and influence is never easy…
    Cheers, Andrew

  8. Ian hongell says:

    So what did you have in mind. Possibly regional shows only being regional. Best of goes to state show. Best of goes to Canberra?

    • postferment says:

      1) I think it’s a really good model that the regional shows are truly regional
      2) I can see some merit in then having the capital city shows be the gathering for all the wines of that state
      3) One national show that then brings all the wines that qualify with a certain level of awards through to national judging & a well-promoted platform for international exposure.

      The issue being that, once you move from regional wine shows, the rolling together of wines of different origins and different styles becomes a rather pointless exercise. Imagine the Northern Rhone tasting off the best Hermitage, the best Cornas, the best St Joseph and the best Cote Rotie for the Northern Rhone Shiraz trophy? I think we’re evolved enough in Australia, in terms of regional wine styles, to make it an equally irrelevant exercise to judge the best Barossa shiraz, best Adelaide Hills Shiraz, best Clare Valley shiraz etc. Maybe regional is where it should stop?

  9. Andrew locke says:

    Very interesting article, and a topic that has been talked about in the back stage for some time. Has there been any comment from the Ag societies ! Most capital city wine shows contain winemakers on the committee who are also involved in regional shows as well.

    • postferment says:

      There’s been no comment as yet. Yes, there are many winemakers on the wine show committees, but most that I have spoken to are either too worried about their political standing or too apathetic to care – they were convinced by a friend to be on the committee. It begs the question – surely winemakers on these committees are there to represent their colleagues and get the best outcome for the winemaking community? Are they succeeding in this?

  10. Personally, I think the wine show system and ‘rorting’ of medals in years gone by has diluted the effectiveness of medals as a marketing tool. Also, spending $1000’s to get a fist full of Bronze and maybe a Silver if you’re lucky doesn’t help as no one sticks these on the bottle anyway. I think given the influence and growth of wine bloggers and reviewers this is a better avenue to take. You don’t get any feedback from a wine show, but a few, even mildly positive reviews from a few different sources can do a great deal from a marketing perspective. I do agree however, that regional shows at least fulfill part of the wine show brief and can offer something to the region. Plus they are cheaper!

  11. Ed Tomlinson says:

    Right on Nick. I could think of a few projects the Ag Society of WA could tip in for which would really benefit the local wine producers. Subsidising the cost of bringing new grapevine material through quarantine would be a good place to start.

  12. I think wineshows will only improve when wineries (their customers) start treating wineshow entries with a bit more economic reality. The question then would become, just how competitive could a wineshow become, in terms of offering a ‘product’ to sell to the winery?
    This stems back to entry prices, media garnered by the show, engagement of social media, entry into national/international shows and the like.
    Then we would also see strong competition between shows for their customers – which would give rise to a new era of ‘improving the breed’. Tally ho!

    • postferment says:

      Well said Chris – it’s amazing that wineries have not demanded this previously. The question now is whether the Agricultural Societies should be given the opportunity or whether the industry should take the bull by the horns and do it for itself?

  13. via collins says:

    Good read Nick, and well put.

    One area that i would take issue though, is the review versus prize stickers.
    Wine afficionados are by and large way past being interested in wine show labelling. But the majority of wine buyers – and I’m being anecdotal of course – will still be influenced by show labels.

    Nearly everyone I know has minimal interest in wine. And I’ve learnt to generally stay fairly quiet about wine when it bores people. But I can tell you for sure that they’ll mutter positives when a well stickered wine turns up on the table.

    A little frustrating, a lot like real life though.
    Thanks again for a bloody good read.

  14. Sarah Pidgeon says:

    Well argued Nick. Glad you like regional shows & I’d just like to point out that the Limestone Coast Wine Show is strictly non-profit. In fact the entry fees only cover about half of the cost of the show, we would not get by without our generous and supportive sponsors.

  15. Nick, excellent article. More of these pls. Only line I would engage with is “I simply can’t respect those that whine and whinge from the sidelines.” Even if you don’t find the wine show system relevant to your life (and I don’t, at all) I still think your critique can be valid. I did a couple of minor shows early in my career, hated it, and recognised many elements of the system that had, in my view, tainted our wine culture. I don’t want to change it from within, but I don’t see why I, or others like me, should not be able to criticise it.

  16. Gary Walsh says:

    Too right Robert Walters. I’m not keen on show judging (or unpaid labour not for charity, for that matter) but feel I have a right to comment on a system that’s essentially flawed. Too many wines in one day is a wider issue, for example. Then again the whole thing is wobbling off into obscurity anyway, so the job is being done…..

  17. Imagine if the Ag societies pushed large percentage of that profit into actually helping promote the wines that do well- it is in their interests to keep wine show medals relevant to the peeps to keep the wineries entering. Giving back to the wine producers would be a BIG step up. For the records- I do judge, but dont enter national wine shows anymore. I do enter our local show- in which profits go back into promoting brand McLaren Vale, sponsoring scholarships, etc.- as it is much more relevant for us.

  18. As Chairman of a number of capital city extra virgin olive oil shows run by Ag and Hort Societies, I can attest to many of the comments made by Nick. My dealings with them over many years has taught me one thing. They are well intentioned but uber conservative. They only seek significant change when the number of entries begins to fall. Otherwise, they have the attitude if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And from their current perspective it ain’t broke. It is worth noting that they run dozens of different shows – wine, olive oil, beef cattle, wool etc. Most of the members on the Ag Society Boards are ex or current farmers. They’re not specifically wine people as such. So, the winemaker reps on the organising committees must make more of an effort to relate to them what directions they should take. But it begs the question, do the winemaker/industry reps know themselves? It seems that different winemakers have different views on what the show systems should be there for, and the direction that they should be heading.

    My opinion is that the ‘improving the breed’ justification doesn’t stack up in the face of practice. If they really wanted to improve the breed they would give feedback to non medal winning exhibitors on why they didn’t make the grade. We do this in olive oil shows. Every oil gets a comment – good bad or indifferent. Recently we saw a defect character in an exhibit – (4-ethyl phenol in fact!). No one in Aus had ever seen it before. I spent quite a bit of time finding out if any overseas producer had come across it, and after some probing of them and the producer concerned, I found out that it was probably due to residues from a cleaning agent that they were using.

    EVOO shows with 50-200 entries are small by comparison so we can find the time to do these things so as to improve the breed (only just I might add), but I can imagine that the wine show system started out just the same. Maybe they need to reaffirm their purpose by acting like they mean it.

    • postferment says:

      Richard – you are absolutely on the money. A great comment and contribution to the debate. I specifically want to single out your observation about the importance of the winemaker reps on committees actually serving the people they represent – they are the agents for making changes if the Ag Society model is going to be around in the future.

  19. Pingback: Wineshow judging with that Krueger kid | grainsandgrapes

  20. Great work Nick,

    what really, really irks me is the request for 6 bottles, when one, possible 2, maybe 3 will be used. The rest are used by the Ag Society for every dinner they have, and distributed to their members.

    How hard would it be give them back to every producer who showed up at the back door once judging finishes?

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