A wine distributor in Melbourne with a big-name local brand has to think fast when the wine is released during the hottest months of the year. He has a good market for the wine in Brisbane, but that city is more than 1,660km away. By road, it takes around 18 and a half hours. Perth is also strongly interested in the brand, but is 3,418km west or 36 hours by road.
What to do?
Distance is the enemy for wine distribution in Australia — together with population. Transport costs by road, rail and air are expensive and money outlaid is often difficult to recoup through sales because Australia remains a small market. The country has eight capital cities but only two — Melbourne and Sydney – have populations in excess of 4m people. If you want to be a successful wine distributor with national coverage, these are the places where you have to do business.
And, yes, it gets pretty crowded in those two cities.
Like many wine-drinking markets, the nature of wine distribution in Australia is changing. Some distributors are now also wine producers, while others are leaving bricks and mortar and moving online, offering 24-hour ordering capability in a B2C (business to consumer) transaction. Then there are small players creating a disruption by specialising in niche offerings dedicated to organic/biodynamic wines, Pinot Noir or Italian or Spanish wines.
Adding to the squeeze are the two major supermarket chains that control almost 80% of wine sales in Australia: Woolworths and Coles. They are now also winemakers distributing their own brands, often at the expense of shelf space for Australian and international winemakers.
They are fast and creative in their thinking, moving into online and subscription services and engaging A-lister winemakers to craft exclusive labels.
The Top Ten
Treasury Wine Estates
Key brands: Penfolds, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Stags’ Leap, Beringer.
The world’s biggest wine company is on a high with total revenue for the 2017 fiscal year running at A$2.53bn ($1.96bn), up 8.1%. Having divested its beer interests, it’s concentrating on wine and that includes building new brands from scratch, such as Samuel Wynn & Co., to target millennials. In 2013 it built a national distribution centre in Penfold, Adelaide, capable of moving more than 25m cases of wine a year.
Key brands: Grant Burge Wines, Hardys, St. Hallett, Petaluma, House of Arras.
Multi-national winemaker Accolade Wines distributes its own stable of wine companies — a serious grouping of quality makers in its own right — but has also morphed into a serious national player by taking other brands under its wing. In November 2016, it acquired premium wine distribution business, Fine Wine Partners, from Lion for a reported A$100m, and along with it some big wine names such as Petaluma/Croser, Stonier Wines and Knappstein. Fine Wine Partners had around 3.7% of the Australian premium wine market, representing 1.3m cases of wine annually.
Negociants Australia/Samuel Smith & Son
Key Brands: Seppeltsfield, Bleasdale, Antinori, Cheval-Blanc, Beychevelle.
Two established distributors, Negociants Australia (founded 1984) and Samuel Smith & Son (1923) are controlled by the Hill-Smith family of Yalumba fame. The two companies carve up the Australian wine scene between them, sharing more than 200 national and international brands. Negociants is the bigger of the two and the heavyweight, representing some of the biggest wine names in the world: Antinori, Vega Sicilia, Leflaive, Hugel and Gaja to name a few.
Casama Group (red + white, Mezzanine)
Key brands: Dog Point, Felton Road, Giant Steps, Leeuwin Estate, Tyrrell’s, Craggy Range.
Size does matter when it comes to wine distribution in Australia and the Casama Group is a good example of a major company. Established in 1963, it is the parent company of the independent companies red + white, a fine wine distribution company, and Mezzanine, which is exclusively focused on promoting small, artisanal makers who, in their words, “challenge the perception of wine”.
Key Brands: Champagne Duperrey, Dumont Prestige Cuvée, Marques de Riscal, Riddoch, Cow Bombie, Marlborough Sounds.
Woolworths, the biggest supermarket power in Australia, has embraced vertical integration by becoming a winery owner and producer, importer, distributor and marketer. Pinnacle Drinks is charged with running the wine arm and it’s here that so many of the company’s own or private labels — believed to be in excess of 200 — come to life. Private wine labels generate better profit margins and no chain is as profitable and all-pervading as Woolworths, with national distribution through 1,400 Dan Murphy and BWS stores together with a 75% stake in hotel group ALH.
Bibendum Wine Co.
Key Brands: Champagne Agrapart, Selosse, Alain Gaillot, Dagueneau, Luciano Sandrone.
Bibendum has developed a strong reputation based largely on supplying organic and biodynamic wines from France and Spain, as well as Australia and New Zealand. It’s a niche market, but it’s riding a wave at the moment with Australian sommeliers taking to low-intervention wines with gusto. Bibendum director Robert Walters leads the charge and in 2017 self-published his book, ‘Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne & The Rise of the Great Growers’.
Key brands: Cullen, Mount Mary, Domäne Wachau, Brundlmayer, Donnhoff, Dr Loosen.
CellarHand was started by young Melbourne sommelier, Patrick Walsh, whose passion for German Riesling has developed the company into a significant German wine importer and distributor. The company’s success is responsible, in large part, for German wines being the sixth biggest import into Australia. CellarHand has the pick of the Germans, toting brands such as Georg Breuer, Donnhoff, Dr Loosen and Heymann-Lowenstein. It works to balance its international offerings with classic Australian producers such as Mount Mary, Cullen and Yeringberg.
Key brands: St. Andrews, Fernleigh, Cradle Bay, Punters Corner.
Just like its main supermarket competitor, Coles is heavily into the business of producing own or private brands and distributes them across its national outlets: Liquorland, First Choice and Vintage Cellars. Its distribution network includes 985 wine stores and 89 hotels.
Domaine Wine Shippers
Key brands: Sevenhill, Seville Estate, Turkey Flat, Champagne Billecart-Salmon, Georges de Vogue.
Gary Steel was an airline pilot with a passion for the wines of Burgundy, but a prolonged pilot’s dispute with Ansett Airlines in the late 1980s made him start a new career as wine importer. The wines of Burgundy were among his first imports, making D.W.S the first stop for any aspiring Pinotphile. It remains so today with the Burgundy portfolio full of long-time brands such as Georges de Vogue, A & P de Villaine, Blain-Gagnard, Comte Armand and Dom. De Montille. The extensive portfolio also boasts good-quality wines from Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy and Portugal.
Oatley Fine Wine Merchants
Key brands: Rymill, Oakridge, Giesen, Robert Oatley, Chateau de Sours, Joseph Drouhin, Piper-Heidsieck.
Oatley Wines started life as a distributor for Robert Oatley Vineyards, but is quickly evolving into a major player in wine distribution, working with some big-name overseas producers as well as a number of premium local names. The company is focused heavily on-premise with independent retailers making up the remainder. The brainchild of the late Bob Oatley, the founder of Rosemount Estate, the distributor is a smart — and rising — national operator.
Distributors worth mentioning
Nelson Wine Company/Prime Wines
A wine distributor based in Melbourne that concentrates on supplying the eastern states. It has a broad mix of small makers, including a strong showing from Western Australian makers such as Howard Park and Castle Rock. It also represents the wine businesses of the Rathbone Wine Group – Yering Station, Mt. Langi Ghiran and Xandau.
Déjà Vu Wine Co.
This year Déjà Vu celebrates 10 years in wine distribution. Its focus is on small to medium-size producers from Australia (26) and New Zealand (11), supported by a large and often impressive imported portfolio (49) that includes Château Haut-Brion, Paul Jaboulet and Louis Latour. Australia’s recent taste for the wines of Greece is reflected in the portfolio, alongside the growing interest in Japanese wines and sakes.
Fesq & Co.
Long-time wine distributor based in Sydney that was founded in 1848 by Georges Fesq, son of a Bordeaux negociant. The family-owned distributor looks to quality-minded family-owned wineries in Australia and New Zealand for its portfolio. It has a strong presence on the east coast in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
House of Fine Wine
House of Fine Wine is a joint venture between Bollinger Champagne, Henschke and Villa Maria, which chose to band together following the sale of their long-time distributor, Fine Wine Partners, in 2016. It has its own dedicated sales and marketing team, supply chain and operational support.
Andrew Guard Wine Imports
A small but influential importer/distributor that promotes organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wines from Australia and Europe, Andrew Guard has been heralded as a pioneer of “new-style” importing and distribution with its focus on alternative, small production wines.
The Wine Company
Established wine distributor that concentrates on the eastern states of Australia, maintaining a portfolio with a strong family-owned winery presence. Members of the First Families of
Australian Wines – d’Arenberg, Tahbilk, Tyrrell’s – are among its most high- profile members.
Stock on Hand
A small Victorian distributor much used by Melbourne sommeliers looking for something “different”, Stock on Hand wines are regularly featured on Melbourne wine lists. Many have an organic or biodynamic bent, others are found in emerging wine regions such as Canberra and Beechworth.
The Spanish Acquisition
It is often said that Scott Wasley, the man behind The Spanish Acquisition importer/wholesaler, has single-handedly turned Australian drinkers on to the charms of modern Spanish wines.
Wasley created the Melbourne-based company in 2001 and has been behind the growth in Spanish sherry and red table wine sales. He has now moved into Portuguese wines.