Tag: Hunter Valley

RIP Ben Hammerschlag and the End of an Era

RIP Ben Hammerschlag and the End of an Era

The past weekend saw the passing of two Australian wine industry luminaries, an occurrence all too common these days. Wayne Stehbens, the legendary winemaker at Katnook Estate in the Coonawarra, was the more well-known individual, recognized in both Australia and America. Ben Hammerschlag, the visionary behind Epicurean Wines and maybe not as well known, was no less important in his role as the US importer for a number of Australian wines. Both men left us way to early.

Ben was an early supporter of Australian wine back in the day when he was a wine buyer for a Seattle supermarket. I still remember his hand-written piece of paper for The Jug Shop‘s Aussie mailing list and noting that Margaret River was his favorite region. Years later when he started Epicurean, he was instrumental in bringing Barossa producers like Ben Glaetzer, Dan Standish and other Barossa Valley outfits to our shores. And that’s not to mention Penny’s Hill and Mr. Riggs from McLaren Vale. He never forgot Margaret River where Moss Wood remains in the portfolio today.

While the future of his import company is currently uncertain, there is no doubt that his passing also represents an important turning of the page with respect to the future of Australian wines in America. Much of the Australian wine segment in the US market 57eee24556cd6464023933_square_ffffff_346today was built by a small group of importers that identified brands overseas, created their import and distribution networks in the States and then set about to build the demand for Australian wines in America.

Starting with Old Bridge Cellars, (created in 1990 by Rob McDonald), what followed was a succession of Aussie wine importers that were founded by dynamic personalities possessing the charisma and drive needed to energize consumers and the trade in their efforts to build the category. OBC was soon followed by John Larchet (The Australian Premium Wine Collection), Ted Scrauth (Old Vines Australia) and Dan Phillips (Grateful Palate). Ben’s Epicurean Wines collection entered into the frey in 2000. As the Australian wine category exploded in the States, these independent importers worked alongside and in competition with importers like Negociants and Southcorp which were mostly aligned with the Australian wineries that owned them.

Ben’s passing represents the closing of this important chapter in the history of Australian wine in America. Of all the original independent Australian wine importers that helped create the category in the States, only Old Bridge Cellars remains and even they have moved on a bit as they expanded their portfolio to include wines from other countries. Today, it’s just a bit sad to realize that many of the individuals and personalities that helped to build the category are no longer around.

Indeed, times have changed. There are new narratives and perspectives that frame how Australian wines are viewed by consumers and the trade today. And after over more than a decade where Australian importers were in decline, new specialist importers focused on Aussie wines have sprung up and embarked on their own efforts to bring the country’s wine into the States.

The new importers are mostly regionally based in their distribution or started off that Website-header-1-rev-2015-960x440way. Hudson Wine Brokers and Little Peacock are the largest of the new entrepreneurs to start nationwide distribution while smaller scaled importers such as Red Earth and H. Mercer ply their wares in corners of the country. Interestingly, these new importers are all Australians whose stated purpose is to expose Americans to the wines they drank at home but could not find in the States. Of all the original Aussie wine exporters that exposed Yanks to wines from Down Under, only one (Rob McDonald of OBC) was born and raised there.

The American wine market these new importers will face is quite different than what Ben and his fellow evangelists encountered back in the 1990s and the early-Naughties. For many of today’s consumers and members of the trade, the Australia wine bashing that brought about the malaise in sales over the last 10-15 years happened quite some time ago. The negativity attached to the category is not something heard as much today as critics now write about the “New Australia”.

I noticed this recently when showcasing Hunter Valley semillons in a series of masterclasses across the country. Back in the day, semillons suffered from poor corks which ensured that purchasing a good bottle a dicey proposition. The screwcap has revolutionized semillons today with each bottle now fresher and no longer affected by cork. Today’s consumers have only enjoyed semillons in that fashion. Referencing to a past problem they never encountered was a wasted exercise to many in the audience.

A similar distance from the past exists with Barossa shiraz. The hyper-critical view of the region’s wines as overly large in scale now seems to not even be in the rear-view mirror for the latest entrants into the wine market. Today, the big Barossa wine style is just one example of the diversity of styles made in the region, a style that co-exists with many other approaches to growing and making wine. The richer expressions shown today are appreciated for their balance, length and purity of fruit expression as well as their intensity of flavor. Once again, there seems to be little gained by pointing out the stereotypes that critics lashed onto wines in the past. Everyone today is ready to enjoy the wines as they are presented with no need to rehash the challenges or stereotypes that came before.

The Aussie wine market in the States today is more diverse in style, from a broader range of growing regions and a wider variety of grapes. To those few in America who have been working with Aussie wines over the past 20-30 years, it would seem that the new importers have inherited a significant gap of time where selling Aussie wines was not a priority and that difficulties would surely lie ahead.

But the groundwork laid by those who built the Aussie wine category in the States now seems to be but a chapter that has now been concluded. The new importers start their enterprises upon the shoulders of those who worked before them but they don’t necessarily know who they were or how they operated. And maybe they don’t need to. They have their own ideas about how to build the category in the States. And so begins a new chapter, to be written by them.

But to Ben, as well as to Rob, John L., Dan, Ted, and John G, thanks for writing that first chapter. I’m sure it will be read, and re-written, in the years to come.

 

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Australia has been blessed with a surfeit of great wine writers. There’s plenty of them, each with their own voice. Some may be more professorial, others like news reporters. But taken as a whole, reading about Australian wine from the perspective of the country’s writers is reflective of the wine industry’s strength.

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Judge’s badge from Queensland Wine Show

One of my favorites is Philip White, a highly opinionated writer based out of Adelaide. Whitey, as he known in Australia (and to distinguish him from Tim White, another critic who also rarely hides his demeanor), does not suffer fools gladly. Bureaucrats, politicians and blowhards are all in his line of fire. Yet he has unrestrained passion for wine and the people who make up the industry, both present and more importantly, the past. His blog, Drinkster, is must reading for those who want to read wine writing at its fiery best.

A recent post, however, brought me to a crossroads. In it, Philip decried inviting members of the trade from other countries to participate as guest judges in Australian wine shows. As he says:

The Royal Adelaide Wine Show. Bloody Royal. Every major Australian capital city has one.

This writer lost interest in these royal plonk races many years ago. Not only cynical and exhausted by the notion of such giant wine competitions being run beneath a letterhead bearing the crown of the Germano-Greek family which rules Britain, like many others, I’m also tired of the guest preachers and teachers the Royal Show controllers ship out here to pat us on the head before giving us a lecture about how to make wine after three or four days tasting it with us.

They mount a huge self-congratulatory luncheon to hand out the bling and this star guest gets up and teaches us all a lesson.

And then, almost invariably, they tell us how little we should expect to be paid for it.

I mean, they go home, Poms, mainly, whisper in a few ears and have their buyer mates import their favourite discoveries, having screwed the Australian maker/supplier through the basement floor of the profit division. If you’re lucky, unlucky or whatever, they’ll write about their “discovery” and recommend it in a newspaper or shiny magazine or a blog or something.

In other words, guest judges are invited to Australia and end up only insulting the hosts with no change in Aussie wine sales upon their return.

It was one thing to have Whitey promote this but others picked up on his idea. Tom Carson, winemaker at Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula, is also an influential judge in the Australian show system serving as Chair of Judges at the Melbourne Wine Show which awards the Jimmy Watson Trophy. His tweet below concerns two of Australia’s top wine shows (“Melb” is the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, “Nat” is the National Wine Show in Canberra):

Great read, some salient points to consider…’Royal’ Melb, QLD and Nat have dropped international judges, Melb since 2014

Finally, Tony Keys, who writes a weekly trade review on his website, threw his support behind Philip’s opinion.

White also despairs at international guest judges at wine shows. Why are they required? Again, Australia has more than enough quality talent to judge its and any other countries’ wines in a show.

Critics have leveled many complaints against wine shows generally and the Australian wine show system specifically. They are numerous and many have some validity but that’s not the topic here. But the contention that the Australian wine industry is best served without judges from other countries is just plain wrong.

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Shiraz class lined up at the 2015 Royal Queensland Wine Show

The primary benefit for a visiting judge is to see how wine shows are conducted. In my experience, the judges are qualified, medals and trophies truly awarded to wines that deserve them and the entire show is conducted professionally. The tasting abilities and skills necessary to be a wine judge require considerable knowledge and the confidence to support the wines you believe are worthy.

In addition to bearing witness to the show itself, there is the incredible chance to gain an in-depth understanding of wine categories that would be impossible to do at home. To taste through dozens of Hunter Valley semillons at once or a few flights of fortified wines could never happen in one sitting in any country. Wine shows allow tasters to discern the different levels of quality within a category and learn about them from very educated people in the Aussie wine trade. That level of knowledge is just not available outside of Australia.

This deeper insight is also complemented by the ability to get a broader vision of the Australian wine industry itself. When awarding medals or trophies, discussions on winemaking styles and philosophies can be quite vigorous. The ability to participate in these debates with such a broad cross section of the Australian wine trade is of incalculable benefit to understanding the industry itself. For example, the appearance of sulfides in chardonnay is a popular trend in Australian chardonnay these days. Over the last few wine shows, I have been able to learn how and why this style came about and to develop and present my own personal critique to against this development fellow judges. It would be impossible to come to this understanding tasting chardonnays here and there in America.

The benefits of participating in wine shows is not just limited to the judging experience itself. The time set aside for dinners, drinks and recreation nurtures relationships that can allow for a deeper understanding of Australian wine. Meeting winemakers, distributors, even wine writers, can provide insights into better tasting skills, a view of new trends and the development of friendships, all of which would be difficult to accomplish alone.

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Meeting of judges at the 2012 Hunter Valley Wine Show

Perhaps what is really needed is not the elimination of guest judges but simply inviting better judges. Wine judging in Australia is fairly technical and intense so this is not the place for someone who has never judged before. A familiarity with Australia’s wine regions and styles might also benefit the judging process. And the dreaded after-dinner speeches might be more informative if those invited are selected because they have something interesting to say.

But what is really troubling is that three notable members of the trade are in agreement that international judges are not needed. True, the awards can be easily handed out without inviting outsiders and I do not doubt that the tasting skills of visiting judges may not match those of Australian professionals.

Nevertheless, shutting out international visitors from judging wine shows will only deny Australian wine enthusiasts the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the country’s wine industry. And somehow, that just seems a bit, well, un-Australian.

Wine Review: 2013 Mount Pleasant B-Side CF13 Dry Red (Hunter Valley)

Wine Review: 2013 Mount Pleasant B-Side CF13 Dry Red (Hunter Valley)

Over the past decade or so, the Hunter Valley has really revealed itself, not only as a bastion of youthful energy that has transformed the region as a locus for contemporary wines but also in resurrecting respect for the vines and vineyards that came before them. New bottlings highlighting individual plots of ancient vines are weaving compelling wines into the fabric of the Hunter. All of this after a decade or so that has seen Hunter semillon and shiraz reach new heights of quality.

The renewed respect for the older vines that are the backbone of the Hunter has led to many folks to take an even deeper look at what is actually planted there. While Australia does not compare when it comes to the wide variety of varietals grown in California, there are plots here and there that contain some pretty interesting stuff. McWilliams, one of the Hunter’s oldest wineries and owner of Mount Pleasant Winery, home to legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea, is home to a rarity named montils. The grape recently found a home in their new wine program entitled B-Side which is devoted to experimental, small batch winemaking.

The original home for montils is in the Cognac region of France where it’s also used to make eau-de-vie. It ended up in the Hunter as part of the Busby collection of grapes that contributed to the foundation of Australia’s wine industry back in the 1830s. Prized for its ability to maintain a low pH in warm climates, it has fallen out of favor in France.

13332915_10153670472171149_3571934894324661444_nNew plantings of the grape have been recently arranged from the original vines that were planted in the 1920s at the winery’s home vineyard. Winemaker Scott McWilliams decided to round up some shiraz planted by O’Shea in his Rosehill vineyard back in 1946 and co-ferment the two grapes as was done back in the day. Because there was so little montils available, only 800 bottles were made.

The result is a translucent, pale red wine that is a perfect wine for those desirous of a lighter styled wine. Fresh and crunchy red fruits fill the palate but resonate lightly thanks to some crisp acids. Bits of spice and light tannins frame the whole experience, both aromatically and texturally, thanks to a bit of stems in the ferment and old Hungarian oak. A couple of years should see this wine pick up a bit of weight and the acidity mellow.

This is a great window into Australia’s movement towards lighter, fresher red wines that are also seen in wines like 2015 Te Mata Gamay Noir and 2015 De Bortoli La Boheme Syrah/Gamay. These local products are starting to populate the hipster wine bar scene there and could easily make a splash in the States. Quaffable and refreshing, one can feel the mustache grow and the tats form a sleeve on your arm as you quickly polish off the glass and reach for another.