Australia: Wine wizards of Oz

Jeni Port identifies Australia’s most notable wine stores, many of which are proud of their international ranges.

Ian Cook, Five Way Cellars, Paddington NSW
Ian Cook, Five Way Cellars, Paddington NSW

Australia is the 10th largest wine consuming country in the world. Not surprisingly, Australian wines dominate retail sales — 83 percent — but when Australians look outside their own backyard they look wide and far and with gusto. 

Sales of imported wine in the off trade grew 2.6 percent in volume to February 2019, driven principally by New Zealand and Italian imports. While Australians might be drinking less — a relative term, because they still rank eighth in per capita consumption — they are drinking better. The premium segments of A$15-20 ($9.60-12.80) and A$21-$30 ($13.50-19.31) are still growing.

Pre-Covid-19, small, niche-driven wine shops were thriving. Increasingly, their role was seen as providing an alternative to the supermarket giants, led by Woolworths and Coles. Woolworths-owned liquor stores take around 50 percent of the A$14.5bn spent annually at such outlets, led by its mega-successful discounting arm, Dan Murphy’s. Its closest competitor, Coles, has a 15.5 percent market share, while IGA Supermarkets (3 percent) and Aldi (3.5 percent) run a long way behind.

This year, Woolworths successfully spun off its liquor interests into the stand-alone Endeavour Drinks, while buying Chapel Hill winery in McLaren Vale to produce its exclusive wine brands. Small independent retailers are countering, with some becoming wholesalers and importers of their own exclusive brands. With margins getting tighter, it’s seen as one way to survive.

Armadale Cellars, Victoria

For 23 years, Armadale Cellars owner Phil Hude has embraced both the corporate world and a local clientele, with wine education courses, wine dinners and, in 2018, a wine distribution arm. This year he introduced a delivery service that delivers wine within an hour of ordering. “The nature of retailing is changing in Australia,” he says. “We were exploring a year ago getting a motor bike and getting things out quickly because that’s where it’s all headed. People want efficiency, they want it straight away.”

The product mix at the three-storey wine shop, housed in a Victorian-style building in the wealthy Melbourne suburb of Armadale, is a fifty-fifty mix of Australian and imported wines. The Australian emphasis lies with local Victoria-based wineries, while imports are led by Champagne and Burgundy.

Craft Wine Store, Queensland

Craft/artisanal wines and craft beers are the foundations of the two Brisbane-based Craft Wine Stores, owned by Tony and Tanya Harper. Craft opened its first store in 2012 and its second in 2018, both in comfortable middle-class suburbs. “There are so many good wine brands out there that don’t go to the chains that need representation,” says Tony Harper. “So why not use them?”

The term ‘artisanal’ covers everything from zero additions, skin contact and low intervention/ natural to biodynamic winemaking, representing up to 40 percent of Craft business. The main arbiter of taste is Tony Harper: “I won’t let anything in unless I taste it first.”

A side project that has taken on a life of its own is the Urban Winery, where each year Harper and consumers get their hands dirty and make wine on the street, literally, outside the Red Hill shop. Next stop for the owner is importing his own selections of wine. His big sellers remain Champagne, anything Italian and, for his hipster clients, Jura.

Five Way Cellars, New South Wales

A former economics major, Ian Cook describes his family’s Five Way Cellars wine business as something that started as an out-of-control hobby. That was 33 years ago. The modus operandi back then remains the same today with the focus on a mix of corporate wines sales (40 percent), email/mail order with private customers (40 percent) and shop traffic (20 percent).

Given that the “shop” is a 4.8m-wide terrace house in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Paddington, its size belies the role it plays in providing top-tier wines to some of Sydney’s corporates. Big-name Australian wines represent about 50 percent of business, while the rest is an impressive range of Europeans.

The international movers remain Barolo/Barbaresco and Burgundy. “I love Burgundy, but Burgundy in general has slowed down in the last couple of years because of a couple of massive price rises,” says Cook. “Burgundy has gone up 100 percent. Barolo, in that period, has gone up 20 percent.”

Cook’s son Ches joined five years ago and encouraged his father to create a website. Ches is also finding new styles to promote. “It’s been enlightening,” says his father. 

La Vigna, Western Australia

For nearly 30 years the Tamburri family have supplied Perth with some of the oldest and rarest wines available in the state. La Vigna is one of the last of its kind with the ability and financial clout to keep extensive lists of old wines; the family’s cellars at La Vigna at Menora in North Perth run deep, with vintages back to the early 1930s. 

“Back vintages are hard to come by,” admits Ann Marie Tamburri, daughter of founders Michael and Grace Tamburri. “Before wineries started allocating, Dad would buy big amounts of top wines. He also collected wines before the market caught on, with wines like Tignanello, Sassicaia and Solaia. My Dad was born in Italy and our strengths are more in Italian as well as Australian back vintages.” To engage younger consumers Ann Marie has introduced Learning To Love Aged Wines sessions.

Italy’s new and emerging stars from Sicily, Campania and Puglia are gaining traction on La Vigna shelves, a timely counterpoint to the Australian Mediterranean grape varieties, Nero d’Avola, Fiano and Vermentino, making inroads with drinkers.

Pinot Shop, Tasmania

Creating a wine store devoted exclusively to online sales in 2007 was daring. An online wine store selling Pinot Noir and nothing else? It made good sense, says Michele Round of Pinot Shop. “I could see this rise of interest in Pinot Noir, and the fact that if you weren’t in a major capital city you couldn’t get your hands on the good stuff. It was rare and hard to source,” she explains.

So the world’s first store devoted to Pinot Noir — to Michele’s knowledge — was born. While she retails out of a Launceston bricks-and-mortar store, up to 70 percent of her business remains online and by mail/phone order. The “sweet spot” price is wines that sell between A$30-40 a bottle, which can be hard to source internationally; however, demand for super premium names, especially Pinot-based Champagne and sparkling wines, are always remain strong. 

The Wine Emporium, Queensland

Historically, The Wine Emporium has been a major supplier of Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux to Brisbane’s well-heeled wine drinkers. “We do have a lot of very serious wine collectors,” says manager Brent Williamson. “Sometimes we are taking 40 to 50 to 60 per cent of Australia’s allocation on some wines.”

But beside the bottles of Montrachets are everyday wines. “We’re a convenience shop as well as a fine wine shop. We sell a lot of Australian wines, but sales tend to slow down around the A$50-100 mark.”

With degrees in wine science and viticulture, Williamson has little time for on-trend natural and low-intervention wines; he gets upset with faulty wines, but he does buy Radikon and Gravner. He does not accord organic and biodynamic wines their own separate shelf or category because he believes that they aren’t stand-alone sellers. The maker comes first.

P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants, New South Wales

Noted wine writer Mike Bennie never intended to become a wine merchant. It just morphed, he says, from living and embracing the colourful and unconventional inner-Sydney community of Newtown.

In keeping with the area’s avant garde food scene, he and two business partners focus entirely on natural wines and artisan spirits, beers and sake. P&V — Australian slang for “piss and vinegar” — was born in 2017 and looks and feels different from any other wine retailer in the country. 

The shop is housed in a former swingers’ club and methadone clinic, the music is loud and the 75 percent female staff serve from the front of the bar, offering free wine tastings. There are always a lot of conversations going on. It’s more wine bar than shop in vibe. 

The three biggest sellers are amber/orange wines, Pét-nats and light, fresh reds sourced from Australia and Europe. P&V also deliberately seeks to give a voice to female winemakers.

International brands share fifty-fifty representation with local makers, and P&V can boast of being the biggest seller of wines from the Jura and Georgia in the country.

Prince Wine Store, Victoria and New South Wales

Every Tuesday morning, the wine team at Prince Wine Store in Melbourne — owners Michael McNamara and Alex Wilcox and up to seven floor staff — sit down to taste new wine releases. It’s not a quick sniff and sip; the tasting can last four or five hours. Preferably winemakers and distributors present their wines directly to the team. “It is important to us that the people selling the wines and talking to the customers have a degree of ownership over buying and choosing the wines,” explains Alex Wilcox.

The Prince is fine wine focused. The week Meininger’s contacted PWS, Germany’s Robert Weil was presenting a virtual tasting to Prince customers. The following week it was Sam Neill of Two Paddocks in Central Otago.

After opening in 2004 on its present site, Prince developed a following among serious wine collectors; however, it was after the development of the adjacent Bellota wine bar in 2013 that Prince developed a broader range of customers. In 2003, Prince became the first outlet to offer the WSET programme and continues to run regular casual wine courses. “The whole premise of the store is to represent the world of wine, especially Burgundy, Barolo and the Northern Rhone; to have representative samples of wines that are true to where they come from, both varietally and stylistically,” adds Wilcox. 

Jeni Port

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.

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