Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fear & Loathing: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Wine Industry.

I've been in the wine industry for just over five years, now, and have met some of the most incredible people that one could ever wish to meet. Life-long friends, with whom I will continue to share many fine moments, over incredible views, foods and wines. Lots of deep belly laughs, and moments that make life special. But for every good part of life, there are always disturbing ones. Moments that make you step back, and wonder.

When Karra Yerta entered the wine-world, it was a tough time. Very tough, actually. I mistakenly saw it through rose-coloured glasses and can remember telling my husband of my plans to create a brand (he had been making wine for our own personal use for many years, but we had never sold any, nor applied for liquor licensing to do so to the public) and the words that came back to haunt me were "How hard can it be to sell three hundred cases of wine, a year?" That phrase bit me faster than a pile of bull-ants, my bare feet standing directly on top of their nest. I knew we had very, very good wines from an incredibly special old-vine vineyard but that was of no help. None.

I also had the support and advice from the very lovely James Lindner, of Langmeil Wines, and being a Barossa girl, whose parents had worked at Penfolds for almost thirty years each, an insight into the industry and many friends who were already involved either with the viticulture side, or the wine side. I had worked at Yalumba and Penfolds, myself, even. None of this helped much. Simply, despite the fact that I had not lived a sheltered life in any way (think hitch-hiking across the country at sixteen and partying like there was no tomorrow) I was in no way prepared for the savageness of the wine industry.

What I have realised in the past months, is that if I thought it was savage then, what has it become now? Savage doesn't even begin to describe it. Ask the vignerons who are still waiting for payment for their grapes from two years ago. Or the businesses that label or bottle wines, who are still chasing up payments from the wineries from last year, or ask the wineries who are owed tens of thousands of dollars from their distributors (the ones who refuse to answer phone calls or emails.) Or the wineries who make stupid and unprofessional errors in the process leaving people with wines who, maybe years after the wine-making, have a product that they have to recall. Or the wineries that process other honest people's grapes, make wine from it, charge top price and then when it is corked/exploding/damaged in some other way, take no responsibility whatsoever. Savage, I tell you. SAVAGE. And it's hurting families who are struggling to survive in this often, depraved and decadent industry.

If there's one thing that knocks one's confidence, it's being continually deceived and misled. Liars believe their own lies, and justify telling them by their own belief in their lies. Eventually, it makes you question your own integrity, and possibly, your sanity. The fact that grape-growers were handed Beyond Blue pamphlets (Beyond Blue is an Australian depression initiative) last year shows me that it's not only our farmers who are becoming suicidal, but now, we can add vignerons and dairy farmers to that equation. People who have worked their land for decades, being caught up in the abyss of deception.

But back to 2006. I recall the very embryonic stage of trying to sell our wines. The pressure was on - we had lots of stock, another vintage upon us, and my husband was wondering why I was not having any luck with getting our wines stocked anywhere. And I mean, anywhere. Thus, I set up a few appointments, one of which was the turning point of my entire life. The rudeness and arrogance of the people with whom I had said appointment devastated me.

The good thing about that experience was that it led me to a fellow called Philip White. In my wine-ignorant state, I had no idea who he was, as during his times of writing for 'The Advertiser', I was busy raising my children and doing volunteer work on School Councils and the like. Wine was not part of my life, in a business sense, until I hit the road trying to sell it. Via James Lindner, I managed to get hold of a list of people in the media who he suggested I contact in view to get our wines reviewed, in the hope of getting something in writing to back up their quality. The list intimidated me to no end, even though I only recognised a few names (James Halliday was one, I forget who the others were). I chose Philip White randomly. I sent him an email. When it bounced back, I turned into a nervous wreck as I simply couldn't handle HEARING any more rejection - I preferred to READ it.

To cut an already very long story short, I ended up having to call Philip (no way did I want to tell my husband when he got home from work that I had still not made any progress!) and before I knew it, I was in the car, wine in hand, and heading to Philip's residence to take him samples of our first ever Karra Yerta riesling and shiraz.

I was so anxious that I was almost beside myself, but I kept driving and hoping that by some act of God, all would go well. It did. Philip was most hospitable and invited me into his home so that he could taste the wines, there and then. As he did so, I told him of my last experience with the rude and arrogant people in Adelaide, and he quite rightly compared the entire experience to me being in a Reservoir Dogs situation. He was spot on. They were vicious -but in a silent, smiling, assassin kinda way - and almost made me give up. Philip actually wrote an article in the January 27-February 2, 2007 edition of 'The Independent Weekly' on our meeting and in it, mentioned the Reservoir Dogs. I wonder if they ever knew it was them that he was referring to. I have that same article laminated and hanging in my office. For many years, it was my inspiration to keep trying to get our wines 'out there'. It worked. In 2011, Karra Yerta is still in the game.

So, now we have the crux of this blog post. It was my own 'doggie situation' that has inspired this post, and this is why: I recently met a lovely young woman who lobbed quite unexpectedly on my own doorstep. She was flustered and dejected for she too, has been chewed up and spat out by retailers, distributors and no doubt, others on the winery side of the industry. I saw so much of myself (of five years ago) in her that I was still thinking about her last night when I went to bed, and again on waking this morning. On top of all the other things I have heard, witnessed or experienced recently, it was the final cherry on the top of the ugly - the Fear and Loathing - side of being in the wine industry.

Of course, I tried to help her, if only to explain that it was nothing that she was doing wrong, that it was just a savage market. I told her of my own experiences and gave her the addresses of certain wine-writers that I found to be most supportive of smaller wineries, and particularly of ones who really are passionate about their products (madly so, in fact, as the hope of profit surely gives us sleepless nights - what is profit? I am yet to find out!).

I think she was most surprised that I was sympathetic to her and her quest, but how could I not be? I could already see what she was facing before she told me. The stress showed on her face. Her pretty face and kind heart would only make it easier for those who enjoyed boosting their own egos at her expense. I have tried, and will continue to, try to help her. It's the least I can do.

I believe that the wine industry needs to have a good hard look at itself. I have worked hard for the past year, particularly, to not only promote the Barossa Valley as a region, but also to promote South Australian wines (I am not ashamed to admit that my favourite red wines are mostly from McLaren Vale, and why should I be? I also adore Clare and Eden Valley rieslings, if you really need to know). South Australia has so much to offer wine buffs - magnificent wines from the Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek, Flinders Ranges, Clare, even Kangaroo Island - is it not better for us to work together than against each other? I do not understand how many people put up brick walls and just make life harder for themselves, and my 'good' wine friends, and me, in the long run. I don't drive a fancy car. I don't live in a fancy house. I like to think that I do not have a huge ego, and that I am helpful to people, not detrimental and deceptive. What I do have is a great circle of wine friends - other winery people, wine writers, customers etc and I feel truly blessed to have them in my life. It's a bloody hard industry to be in, and the sooner that people show some foresight and humility, the better. Then, many of us will be able to stop
Running Through The Jungle.


Anonymous said...

Well Written!

Carol said...

Wow, I must have been walking around blindfolded.
As if this shocking "adult" behavior is really happening.
We have only recently moved to McLaren Vale, everyone seems very friendly - on the outside
I recently worked in a "boys club" industry and can totally understand how these people have made you feel. If you don't have enough courage to get that knife out of your back each time, then you will sink - After a 7 year battle of toughing it out - I "sank"
You sound like you are on top of things, I can only wish you the best of luck.
My only piece of advice to you, "keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer"

The Wine Punter said...

What a brilliant post! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us, it is refreshing to see the industry from this perspective. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to call it like it is, this doesn't happen enough in the wine industry or any other for that matter. Keep up the good work, the cream always rises to the top. Whilst you may not drive a fancy car or live in a big house, i'm sure you sleep well at night and enjoy real, authentic and meaningful relationships with people you respect. Thats priceless.

Anonymous said...

So true.. It is cut throat and bloody out there.. Savage is the exact nature of the business... Deceptive how the Barossa looks and feels all close- knit and supportive from the outside, as you drive on through