Thursday, October 3, 2013

Aussie Rules On Wine

I am not here.

But I was.

Just over a week ago, I was roaming Wayne Ahrens's beautiful biodynamically farmed vineyard as the sun set on my last day in Australia. I had been there for almost two weeks as part of the North American delegation to the massive Savour wine conference. We all started out in Adelaide for the conference, then headed into the Barossa Valley for visits, tastings, and dinners with some of the bigger corporate players, and finally dispersed on various regional tours. My mini-group returned to the Barossa with a stop in the Clare Valley where we visited some of region’s smaller producers and growers, soaked in the history and food of the areas….and chased down kangaroos.  (North Americans in Australia are apparently helpless against the pull of the roo). Aside from the official program, there was a bit of off-piste action, visiting even smaller producers (some of whom are, well, maybe a little crazy?), natural wine bars, cocktail dens, and Chinatown.  And there was beer. A lot of it.

Along the way, I drank quite a bit of wine. Good wine. Delicious wine. Wine that did not taste like jam or oak or require a spinning cone to thin my blood. Sure, there was some of that, but there was much, much more.

While this diversity would pleasantly surprise some of those on the trip, it wasn’t really a shock to me. Before opening the shop, I traveled to Australia twice, during the several years I spent running the US business for two Australian wine brands based on neither strangely-evolved mammals nor a quest for a perfect 100 Parker score. But this was in 2005, when those two poles were pretty much the only Australian wine sold in the US. Trying to sell anything priced above $12 from any region other than Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, anything with some elegance and even earthiness to it… let’s just say I still have the bumps on my head from beating it against a wall.

It’s changed since then - now, there’s pretty much no Australian wine sold here. (Alright, that’s a bit of an exaggeration…but not much.)

When I opened the shop at the end of 2007, smaller wineries from beyond Barossa were starting to pull back and exit the market. The big companies were merging in ways that would frighten even the most hardcore contortionists. The exchange rate was about to throw the critter wines into a tale-spin. And my once three-shelf wide Australian section (that’s a lot of shelves in my store) had shrunk to just a handful of bottles. It was sad. It was a bad-day-mate.

But things are changing… here and there. There are a handful of new importers focusing on Australian wine. And there’s a slight buzz among a handful of wine writers and buyers newly excited about what they’re tasting. And while the wines available in Australia have always been much more diverse that what was ever sold here, that diversity has only increased. New grape varieties, a focus on old vine stock, young winemakers moving away from the idea that a wine has to be 100% clean and fruity and hit the right pH level to be “good…”

It's all over there.

And that’s what this trip was really about. At least for me.

It was a chance to get back and visit regions I hadn’t seen before. To see how the “wine industry” and the individual people within it were presenting themselves to the world. To see what was new and exciting and to react to it... and to see how other buyers were reacting to it. (And with any luck, to see some kangaroos.)

So over the next several weeks, I will be posting various impression, thoughts, and notes about the trip. Don’t expect a coherent summary. Party because if I attempt that, I know I’ll never get it done. And partly because that’s not how I traveled. This trip… really any far-away wine-related trip… is more a haze of sunlight and jet lag and business cards, long meals and wine glasses and endless rows of vines than any straight, coherent narrative. Sure, I could piece one together, but like I said, that just isn’t going to happen. Maybe someday, when I get my book deal (hello publishers, hint hint) but until then, just sit back and enjoy the views!


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