Careless whispers from Oz?

11 January, 2008

What's the fastest way to get your product de-listed by Tesco? Short of doubling your price or telling the UK's biggest wine retailer that you never want to see your brand on promotion, accusing Dan Jago, the company's wine category director, of self-abuse is probably as quick a way as any. So when Bruce Tyrrell, of Hunter Valley's Tyrrell Wines, was quoted in Australia's Sun Herald saying that Mr Jago was a "wanker" and that "after 30 years in this business I have learned to listen to consumers rather than guys like this", I assumed he had momentarily mislaid his marbles.

Tyrrell has subsequently claimed that he was misquoted. Unless the journalist, Maxine Frith, taped their conversation, or has excellent shorthand, we shall probably never know the truth. But pushing several portions of humble pie into his mouth at once, Tyrrell hurriedly attempted to repair the damage with Cheshunt central. "I must applaud Tesco for beginning to make a broader range of Australian styles available," he told one trade journal. "That is where the future of Australia lies."

Not everyone has been as outspoken as Tyrrell - assuming he did use the " W" word in his original interview - but other producers have taken a similar tack. "I don't want to be dictated to about flavour by a British supermarket," commented Rick Burge, of Burge Family Winemakers. All over the world, various wine forums have been buzzing with discussions of Jago's comments. Just take a look at wine-pages.com and type in the word "Jago" if you don't believe me.

One strange thing about this whole affair is that neither Tyrrell, Rick Burge nor Maxine Frith was actually present at the Wine Industry Outlook Conference where Jago gave his speech. He tells me he presented a series of slides to the audience and made a few comments about how Australia could protect its market share in the UK. "When I walked off the stage," he says, "one delegate told me I'd been too gentle. All I said was that ­Australia should do everything it can to be attractive to consumers. I categorically stand by what I said."

And what was that exactly? The five most contentious comments, all of which Jago confirms he made , are as follows:

"For too long, you've been saying 'this is good just because it's Australian'. You have to tell us why it's different "

"You should be looking to make wines that are lighter and more refreshing "

"If you don't change, others will change faster "

"Put the personality back into your brands "

"There is a danger that mainstream Australian wines will be perceived as uncool." I don't know about you, but I don't disagree with any of this .

Australia has dominated the UK market for the past decade or more. Its success has been based on the quality of its wines and (just as importantly) on brilliant marketing. But the wine world is changing fast. The competition in both the New and Old Worlds has learnt from Australia's example and copied the best elements of it.

Australia is now facing the prospect of another vintage curtailed by drought and, as a result, higher grape prices. This is bound to be reflected in the price of its wines on the shelf. Can Australian producers persuade UK consumers to stick with them? I don't know, to be honest. But calling Dan Jago a wanker is not the best place to start.




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