Thursday, 24 October 2013

Savour or Saviour? Report on Savour, Adelaide, September 2013

(This article first appeared in Meiningers Wine Business International, print edition)

From the moment Master of Ceremonies Jeremy Oliver stepped up to the podium and addressed 750 delegates in language more suited to the bedroom than the conference hall, the tone of Savour 2013 was set.

Australia has grown up, Oliver said. ‘We are more mature. When we get your confidence back we will treasure it. When you wake up in the morning expecting us to be beside you in the bed, we won’t be. We’ll be out and about, doing things, getting you coffee.’

For the last few months the unkinder wits in the international  wine world have suggested the addition of a letter ‘i’ to the title of the conference would be appropriate: the Australian wine industry seems to be in no doubt that it's in need of a saviour. Over the last five years exports have plummeted due to the combination of world recession and a strong Australian dollar, and while producers and marketers squabbled about the way forward – should they chase value, or promote sub-regionality, or varietals? – Australia lost its ability to charm the world’s press, which became bored with endless new strategies and briefings, each more complicated than the last.

Savour promised to be different, and from Sunday’s opening party in the market halls in downtown Adelaide to the Grand Tasting of hundreds of Australian wineries on Wednesday, journalists, critics, winemakers and buyers from dozens of countries have been left in no doubt that – as Oliver said – ‘Australia is open for business again’.

'spine-tingling' - Nick Cave

A look around the packed amphitheatre on the opening Monday – after a spine-tingling showing of South Australia tourism’s AUS$6m ad featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – showed that the international wine world is keen to see what the country has to offer. Delegates from the two key markets that Australia wants to entice back to bed were there in substantial numbers – more than 10% (82) were Chinese, and nearly that number (75) were from the US. The latter figure surprised some commentators, given that the US market has been particularly hard for Australian producers over the last five years. ‘It’s been almost non-existent for us,’ one prominent producer said.

Savour 2013 was conceived and executed in much less than a year, driven by the exigencies of political funding priorities: in the last quarter of 2012 a federal grant was made available for Wine Australia and Tourism Australia for an international event – but it had to be spent by June 2013. ‘It was like organising the Olympics in seven months’ one member of the organising committee said. The board – whose members included globetrotting consultant Tony Jordan, and Robert Hill Smith of Yalumba – rapidly conceived the idea of a conference that would be not just a talking shop but a showcase for pan-Australian wine and food. ‘We wanted to break the mould. We wanted not just business  sessions but long lunches as well,’ Wine Australia marketing general manager James Gosper said.

By the end of the third day it was clear that Savour had lived up to Oliver’s initial promise to seduce - although many delegates fell in love despite, not because of, the business side of the conference, which sometimes seemed to be no more than an add-on to the task of demonstrating with verve and imagination the potential of Australian wine and food.

The business sessions actually took up no more than two mornings, and could seem frustratingly cursory and hurried. In that time, however, Wine Australia and Tourism Australia between them hammered home their key message: Australia is selling itself short, and it must find new ways of telling its story.

‘We under-promise  and over-deliver,’ said Nick Baker of Tourism Australia, quoting research showing only 27% of people who have not visited Australia associate it with good food, a number that increases to 60% with those who have visited. He announced that in a joint venture Wine Australia and Tourism Australia intend to double the current AUS$70bn spent annually in ‘overnight spend’  to AUS$140bn. One of the main planks of the campaign will be a promotion entitled ‘Restaurant Australia’, selling the country as a foodie destination.
The tasting took place in the stunning 1880s State Library of South Australia.
Shiraz the Australian way (image:  Wojciech Bońkowski)
The business sessions may have been hurried, but they were thought-provoking. On selling wine in China, for example David Andrews of Hong Kong’s Macro Wines and Spirits stressed how Chinese wine consumers tend to value personal endorsement from peers, from family or from bosses – and from social media such as weibo and weixin – more than promotions from traditional media and wine companies. Alex Lu of Shanghai City Wine Shop contrasted the strength of Bordeaux in China with Australia’s image. ‘Australia hasn’t got a strong identity except for Shiraz. You need a backup story – you need to get across the diversity of style in Australia.’

Elsewhere Mike Osborn, founder of, the world’s biggest online wine retailer, said value is increasing in website sales. ‘Previously, online has been about clearance of inventory, with low cost being a key driver. But now, with the increase in customers, the average bottle price is increasing. We’re proving that online can be a mechanism to increase value as well.’

Overall, panellists and speakers were of the highest level. There were retailers such as Osborn, or Jared Liu, CEO of the huge Chinese website,  Jeremy Stockman of Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong’s largest specialist wine retailer, and Yang Lu of the Shangri-La group. They shared platforrms with winemakers and wine professors such as Chinese academic Li Demei, or those from the auction sector such as Simon Tam of Christie’s China, and critics and commentators such as MatthewJukes, Meiningers' own editor-at-large Robert Joseph, Hamish Anderson of Tate Modern, and wine communicators Leslie Sbrocco and Sarah Ahmed.

The conference covered a wealth of topics: How Australia is placed to take advantage of global trends; The role of social media; Australian economic update; Australia on the global stage; Re-booting a mature market; Retaliers – friend or foe?

It was this very richness of subject matter, together with the quantity and knowledge of participants that caused some of the talks to misfire. ‘Mythbusting’, for example, saw eight renowned winemakers and commentators, including Prue Henschke of Henschke, Steve Webber of de Bortoli, Bernard Hickin of Jacob’s Creek and Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrells lined  up on stage. Once each had had their say there was no time for any audience feedback, something which left many delegates frustrated. As one put it, ‘it’s a common problem of conferences – you overload the proposition so it gets diluted.’

But Wine Australia had promised to provide ‘more than just business sessions’ and it amply fulfilled that part of the bargain. Lunches were lavish while the all-day ‘Providores’ Market’ showcased foods from around Australia. Before and after the conference, week-long ‘immersion tours’ of the regions – including Langhorne Creek, Mount Benson, Robe, Coonawarra, Barossa, and McLaren Vale - were impeccably put together, with well-thought-out tastings and visits, and quality access to key winemakers.

Afternoon sessions – ‘Landmark tastings’ – aimed to cover the enormous variety of wines commercially produced in Australia, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Merlot to Riesling, Pinot Noir, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris and Viognier. One session presented Shiraz from every wine producing region – and not just any Shiraz but some world-renowned names: Spinifex La Maline 2010, Torbreck The Factor 2009, the scarce Craiglee 1996 from Sunbury, Victoria, Rockford Basket Press 1996, Henschke Hill of Grace 2004 and Grange 1999, among others.

Savour was conceived with good intentions and – considering the timescale – well-organised. Of the more than 750 delegates including 111 distributors, importers and wholesalers, 120 representatives of trade outlets, 89 media and 304 wine producers, it was difficult to find anyone to say anything negative beyond cavils about the layout of the business sessions or the selection of wines at a particular tasting. Most came away enthused by the Australian wine industry. Jared Liu of, for example, said the conference was ‘a big success’.

‘I can see vividly how active Australian wineries and Australian government are, in the promotion of Australian wine to the China market and other international markets.’

Liu said networking was crucial, both in terms of growing the business: ‘I got to know a lot of wine makers and wine companies which will definitely help our import business’ – and building relationships: ‘potential cooperation between Yesmywine and Australian online leaders is also under discussion.’

The fact that Asian delegates were so numerous was testament to Australia’s importance in the region, but some delegates felt there was not enough effort made to break down barriers.

‘They needed to be engaged, instead of leaving them interacting among their grouping,’ Singaporean wine consultant Lim Hwee Peng said. ‘I was probably one of the few attendees that mingled among the Asian grouping (China, India, Thailand, and my home country - Singapore), as well as with
Australian wine producers and other nationals' representatives.

For Australia’s winemakers – and there were many celebrated names there, Jeffrey Grosset, Prue Henschke, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg, former Grange winemaker John Duval and  many others – networking was also vital. One producer, Derek Hooper of the Mount Benson winery Cape Jaffa, told Meiningers that his conversations over dinner with a Canadian wine consultant ‘prompted me to revisit old markets. I’ll be watching the north American market closely and I’ll also be  getting on board one of Wine Australia’s export programmes.’

Derek Hooper of Cape Jaff
If the conference was seen as a success by Hooper, whose winery is a 70 acre (28ha), 30,000 case biodynamic operation in one of Australia’s smallest appellations, his enthusiasm was shared at the other end of the spectrum by Neil McGuigan, who runs Australian Vintage, lately McGuigan Wines. The last few days had ‘kicked up a lot of dust,’ he said.

‘It’s refocussed us. It’s back to basics. There are a lot of people who have just discovered what a great country we are, and we have to build on that. I’m halfway through a letter to Wine Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation [of Australia] saying “Great job – now what’s the plan?”.’

How precisely to capitalise on the fund of goodwill released by Savour is the subject of much debate: should the conference be repeated every two years, or every four years? McGuigan said the next thing should be a programme of intense ‘immersion tours’ of 40 or more people at once, while the majority canvassed thought bi-annually would be ideal. The key factor, as ever, is funding. ‘Should they repeat it? I don’t know,’ a major South Australian producer said. ‘The problem is, Wine Australia doesn’t have any money, so it will probably be a Tourism Australia event with Wine Australia piggybacking.’

A timely reminder that politics will be a major factor in how Savour progresses. South Australia was a natural home for the conference – it has more than half the country’s premium wineries – and it was delighted to win the bidding to stage it. If the goodwill created by the first Savour is not to be squandered, the other wine producing states should get more heavily involved. The first Savour has laid the foundations, and now the building must begin.