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 today 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 way. 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.