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.