Monday, November 22, 2010

What's wrong with 'All For One Wine'

Aside from the irony of an anti-import, 'Buy Australian' wine campaign being promoted with a slogan derived from a French novel, there is plenty wrong about 'All For One Wine'.

The campaign, launched by South Australian winemaker Stephen Pannell, asks Australians to stop buying imported wines from 1 January through until Australia Day on January 26. Instead, consumers who sign up on the pledge site will drink only Australian wine for those 26 days. The campaign seems to be addressed to the wine trade (winemakers, wine show judges, retailers, reviewers) and to the general consumer (at home or out at a pub, cafe, bar or restaurant).

Stephen Pannell's open letter explains the reasons why the campaign has been launched (I wouldn't say 'developed' as that could imply a depth of research and thinking):

'Have a look at your local wine-bar or favourite restaurant: imported wines are everywhere.

I appreciate the importance of benchmarking with European wines, and admit I have been an enthusiastic consumer of imports over the years. But I think we have all gone too far. Just think about our wine shows, where foreign judges are plastered with Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone every night. What does this say about how we regard our own wines?'

He goes on to describe as a 'cultural cringe' the drinking of imported wines with local foods. The answer is not a ban on imported wines, but asking 'ourselves' (the Australian wine industry) if 'we couldn't do a better job'? This better job would involve making more Australian wines that were more like imported wines, something that should not be too hard:

"Imagine if we couldn’t import any wines at all. If the wines we like to drink weren’t available, then we could easily make them. So why don’t we?"

So why do I think this is a bad idea?

First, I have 'skin in the game'. I help out in an Australian wine business in the Canberra District that grows grapes from mainstream (shiraz, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc) and 'alternative' varieties (such as savagnin, sangiovese, sagrantino and tempranillo). I also have a blog site that has a focus on Italian grapes and wines in Australia. Both of these are volunteer efforts that provide me with no income. I do them because I can and because the doing is challenging and worthwhile.

That aside, here are my top reasons for why 'All For One Wine' is a bad idea:

- The chief proponents come across as 'reformed sinners' regretting how their past consumption of imported wines has possibly been at the expense of Australian wine, and wish to perform their acts of contrition in public. As powerful a motivator as guilt can be, people feeling like they have created a problem does not neccessarily position them well to provide solutions.

- The proponents of the campaign do not seem to understand that there are many people active across Australian wine who have invested a lot of time and effort in understanding and promoting the regional and varietal diversity and distinctiveness of domestic wines, including those made along food friendly lines and from grapes suited to our climates. The guilt of the reformed sinners is not collective guilt, shared by all.

- There is very little evidence of evidence, or of research effort, behind the idea. Contrast this to the effort behind the First Families of Australian Wine initiative, where significant amounts of research and consultation happened before any public launch of the concept. It comes across more like an after-dinner idea, sparked off by a parade of Mo'vember 'taches.

- The idea that we can make domestic versions of any imported wine here easily, with similar quality and distinctiveness, directly contradicts the idea of terroir that many campaign advocates use to sell their wines. If we can make anything 'they' can make, just the same and just as good, then what is special about particular wines?

- The very exposure of Australian consumers to imported wines helps broaden wine knowledge and makes market opportunities for domestic producers making wine in different styles or from 'foreign' grape varieties. Competitive pressures work for good and ill.

- Australian wine history already includes many wines that are lighter, lower in alcohol and more food-friendly. This campaign ignores this history: of grenache, semillon, riesling and other wines. It is a history available as a starting point for consumer education and awareness.

- All For One Wine is anti-import before it is pro-Australian. The last thing the Australian wine industry needs is to seek refuge in the negative, to stigmatise imported wines as tastes for the cringing. The website did not come wrapped in a flag, but would be something Pauline Hansen would endorse at speed and without equivocation. Just that thought-experiment should have given pause.

- An export-dependant industry should not advocate a campaign in their domestic markets they would not wish to see happen in countries they export to. How would Victorian wine exporters to China feel about a buy-local campaign in that market?

- The time of the year chosen is spectacularly poor. If you wanted to promote to Australian consumers the idea of drinking exclusively Australian wine, much of it likely to be red, and shiraz, perhaps the height of summer is not the best time to choose? If you want to eat local and seasonal, the wine should not need air-conditioning. A whole bunch of 2008 South Australian shirazes, drunk at room temperature in mid-summer will do wonders for bringing consumers back to Australian wine.

So what might have been better?

To start with, use the evidence. Make fact-based cases that put real information in front of consumers about Australian wines, including export volumes, average prices of exports and what makes up the import story. People drink New Zealand sauvignon blanc for a whole host of reasons that make sense to them, which makes them 'good' reasons, not ignorant mistakes, or a lack of Australian sauvignon blanc.

Then pitch a pro-Australian initiative that is positive from the beginning, not predicated on stigmatising imports. If you want to influence the opinion-makers in Australian wine, then why not a campaign (pledge or otherwise) where Australian winemakers, wine show judges and the like drink widely across the diversity of Australian wine (including the diverse pricepoints) and tell the stories of their discoveries back to the industry and to consumers? Perhaps do it through the month of November (alongside Australian Music Month) and covering the National Wine Show? National Wine Show dinners with all-Australian wine lineups, perhaps?

Or skip the problem of picking a month in mid-Summer or elsewhere by having Australian wine show judges and other leading lights commit to 12 months of drinking only Australian wine, rather than 26 days of riesling and heat.

Or avoid choosing between Australian wine and imports completely. Try a pledge campaign where for a month people drink only wines that are not chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, whichever country they come from. Or pledge to only drink wines from regions, varieties, blends and makers you do not normally try?

Instead of assuming that there are gaps in the market for food-friendly domestic wines and that new wines need to be produced once the market is better educated (educated by not drinking these wines from other places?), you could run a campaign that highlights wines already being made along these lines in Australia. Writers like Max Allen have spent years advocating and publicising these wines, grapes and producers. Efforts like those should be a recognised starting point for a new, pro-diversity campaign.

There are all kinds of options for encouraging positive investigations of the diversity of Australian wine without starting in guilt and pandering to protectionism. Australian wine, and the consumers of Australian wine, deserve campaigns more positive and less hypocritical than All For One Wine. 'We' can do better.


  1. Sound to me like xenophobic insecurity. What about a campaign to get people to look beyond TWE or Constellation for a month and "Buy from the underdog" small winemakers rather than invent a foreign "enemy". I wonder what the market percentages are for corporate vs imports are?

  2. Paul,

    Well said. I thought it was a surprising and jingoistic idea. Surely the influx of international wines has contributed much to the local wine scene. Would there be a drive to create more off dry and off beat rielsings without the increased availability to European examples for instance? Would our pinot noir have improved so much with exposure of the market to the wines of Burgundy?

    Like most winos, I have no trouble drinking local wines - as long as they are well made and interesting. I do have a problem with marketing campaigns and ideas that are at once prescriptive and restrictive.

    One final point - perhaps local wine makers and critics, should do what Tim Kirk recently did - and host dinners, open to the public, where they showcase their favourite Australian wines.