Boutiques, the heart and soul of wine
Occasionally one hears the irritating comment, usually from overseas, that Australia makes little but ‘industrial’ wine. Yes, we do have some very large wineries, and yes, we do have some huge, mass-market brands such as Yellow Tail and Jacob’s Creek. But more than 80% of our wineries are boutique-sized.
That is, they crush no more than 250 tonnes of grapes each year for wine sold under their own label. That’s the definition of the Boutique Wine Awards, a show for Australian and New Zealand wines, which I’ve chaired for 17 years.
How small is that exactly? Let’s look at some numbers.
Australia crushes about 1.6 million tonnes of grapes a year for wine.
Big companies crush several thousand tonnes each. There are only 390 in Australia crushing more than 250 tonnes a year, leaving 2044 crushing 250 or less, and qualifying as boutiques. That’s 81% of our wineries. (And there are at least 100 more that aren’t shown in the statistics, which are probably also boutiques.) New Zealand’s wine industry is not dissimilar in its pyramid structure. Again, not exactly ‘industrial’.
Why do we dedicate a wine show expressly to boutiques?
Almost all wine companies, regardless of their present size, began as boutiques. They are usually family-owned. They are often driven by a single passionate, determined, visionary individual. These are creative types. Pioneers. They conceive the ideas that others later imitate.
No-one is pretending that the best wines of these two countries all come from small wineries. Some of them do. Some of them also come from the biggest.
But, because of their poorer economies of scale, their higher costs, and their lack of marketing power, boutiques are at a disadvantage compared to larger wineries. They’re disadvantaged in access to the market. They are also disadvantaged by the minimum volume requirements for entry into some of the larger wine competitions. The Boutique Wine Awards has no such limits.
Small wineries are the powerhouse of creativity and originality in wine. The current fascination for pinot noir was driven by boutique wineries, beginning in the early 1980s. The resurgence of Rhone blends had a similar genesis, with wines like Charles Melton Nine Popes (tastings) in the late ‘80s. Pinot gris was pioneered by Mornington Peninsula boutiques led by T’Gallant. Indeed, all the ‘alternative’ grape varieties tend to get their start with boutiques. There are many more examples. Public companies, which tend to be risk-averse because they have boards and shareholders to answer to, wait till initiatives generated by boutique wineries gather momentum before jumping on the bandwagon.
The life of a small winery owner/operator is not all froth and bubble.
Once upon a time, it was enough just to make good wine: those who made good wine were able to sell it, and were successful. These days quality is not enough. It’s just the first rung on a ladder. A boutique winemaker not only must be a viticultural and winemaking expert, he or she must be a good financial manager, an expert marketer, a skilful salesman, an energetic promoter, an effective communicator, and be abreast of technology – especially in communications.
Not many people are good at all those things. Most people get into a small winery because they want to be in the vineyard with the birds and bees, in the fresh air: they want the creative thrill of actually dipping their hands in the vats. But the reality is, at the end of the day, they have to sell the wine.
This is where the boutique wine show can help in a small way. And Dan Murphy’s, the major sponsor, also: it agrees to buy a certain minimum quantity of each trophy wine to promote and sell in its shops.
Trophies (all gold medal winners) from the 2012 show:
The Alchemists, Margaret River 2010 ($22.70 – tastings).
All prices are Dan Murphy’s. Full results at www.boutiquewines.com.au
First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine, Oct – Nov 2012.