It has been a few short months since Yvonne May was appointed to the role of Wine Australia’s Regional Director for the UK, Ireland, and Europe, but you could forgive her if she already had second thoughts about taking on the role. The long list of problems facing her and Australian wine in the UK seem almost insurmountable. Key trade buyers and press are apparently bored by Australia and underwhelmed by the quality and value on offer. The strong Australian dollar is a continuing barrier, with Europe and South America becoming more attractive, and that trend is compounded by the growing tax burden in the UK. Key large producers have lost confidence in the direction of Wine Australia in the UK, and have pulled out of the program.
If all the negativity surrounding the Australian category is getting May down, she’s not showing it. In fact she meets it head on, pointing out that if producers are talking negatively, it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There certainly seems to be little danger of May getting bogged down by any negative sentiment. When I interviewed her during her recent visit to Australia, she came across as highly enthused and full of confidence about Australia’s outlook in the UK. As she points out, Australia has the largest share of the UK wine market, with about 21% by volume and value. The recent ‘Australia Day’ tasting in London attracted 35% more attendees than last year, including good representation from key buyers and press. And although she takes a positive line as befits her PR background, the problems that Australia faces as a brand and as a category are not glossed over. Encapsulating the challenge facing Wine Australia, May cites a Decanter poll in which over 60% of respondents associated Australia with “mass-produced” wine.
So there is clear recognition of the need to build Australia’s reputation for regional, artisanal wine with consumers and trade. To that end, May is supportive of the push to promote Australia’s regionality – she believes “regionality is important to inspire established drinkers” - but at the same time she is pragmatic about the need to be inclusive of wines that don’t fit the regional criteria in programs like A+ Australian Wine. May points out that not only does A+ currently exclude the generics, like Australia’s biggest selling brand in the UK, Jacob’s Creek, but it also excludes the likes of wines blended from more than one region, like Grange and Eileen Hardy. If we want to use it as a way to help people trade up, May points out, “we need to include the wines from which they trade up.” Currently someone googling Jacobs Creek would not find their way to the A+ site, and its wealth of information about Australian wine. It is an anomaly that she plans to redress, and that’s a move that will have its critics. One of the key elements of the A+ program was that it was limited to wines that came from one of Australia’s 62 regions, that the region was shown on the label, and that it was a genuine brand, bottled in Australia, not a BOB and/or bottled in the UK. These tight criteria are now under review.
A critic could point to the move of Fosters to pull out of the UK promotional program just after May started, indicating the big companies are not above playing games to maximize their influence within Wine Australia. Is there a danger that in trying to appease the likes of Fosters and Australian Vintage Limited, too much ground will be given and the focus on Australia’s regional distinctiveness will be compromised? Certainly I think there is a danger, but I also think there’s every chance that May will manage to accommodate the marketing imperative and the political sensitivities.
One of the biggest issues facing Wine Australia management, that of the method of funding, should be resolved this year, with a review of the tonnage based funding that forms an important part of the annual Budget. The Wine Grape Levy, which contributed $3.162 million in FIN 09/10, was $383,000 down on the previous year’s figure, and with the 2011 harvest affected by heavy rain in many areas, it may fall once again, putting more pressure on the organization. In terms of the promotional arm of Wine Australia, the unpredictability of the funding can impact on the ability to deliver the long term market support that our key export markets need.
Yvonne May is an experienced PR pro, has worked with Australian wine for many years, and is well connected with the gatekeepers in the UK market. Both producers and importers that I’ve spoken to see her appointment as a positive one for Wine Australia. I think we can expect a return to the PR zeal, the relentless belief in the potential of Australian wine, and the engagement with UK press and trade that marked the tenure of Hazel Murphy, with whom all incumbents of this role are inevitably, and usually unfairly, judged. With the resignation of Paul Henry from his role as General Manager – Market Development last December, and the relatively short amount of time that May’s predecessor, Lisa McGovern, spent in the role, it is very important for Wine Australia in the UK that May is able to quickly gain the confidence of the UK trade and Australian producers. Once they have confidence in her, the next trick will be getting the UK trade and Australian producers to regain confidence in each other.
First published in WBM - Australia's Wine Business Magazine.