An importer and exporter who were in on the beginnings of the Australian wine surge in the United States visited me in San Francisco last week. By coincidence, they both stopped by on the same day, suggested the same restaurant for lunch, and made the same telling comment about the state of Australian wine here.
They said, to quote Yogi Berra, it's "Déjà vu all over again."
When they started plugging away at selling good Australian wine in the United States, it was an uphill battle. The prevailing opinion 15 years ago was that Australia made lots of good, cheap wine. They had what they thought were some pretty good wines that cost significantly more. Retailers and restaurateurs looked at them like they each had two heads until the perception finally set in that Australia was indeed capable of competing with the best from anywhere.
We all know what happened next. Insiders discovered Australian Shiraz at the high end, while the the mass market went for low-priced crowd-pleasers like Yellow Tail. Once again, the Tail is wagging the dog (or whatever other animal happens to be on the cheap wine's label). Both wine sellers report that the U.S. market is resisting the influx of high-end Australian wines, just as it did in the beginning.
"Australia is not hot anymore," says Dan Philips of Grateful Palate, who stopped by with winemaker Chris Ringland in tow. Ringland, who made the wines at Rockford, including the Basket Press Shiraz, was one of Philips' early finds. He has since taken over as the U.S. importer's go-to winemaker, now that Philips' long-term partnership with Sparky and Sarah Marquis has ended in court.
"A phase is over," Philips continues. "What will happen next will define what Australia really is."
"Australia has become so familiar to American wine buyers that they think they know what to expect," says John Larchet, whose Australian Premium Wine Collection exports some great wines too, including Grosset and Elderton. "Today we have to prove all over again that the wines we are putting forward are worth it. It's bizarre that we have come full circle."
Philips and Larchet can be relatively sanguine about things because they aren't trying to build a business from scratch anymore. Instead, they are trying to expand Americans' consciousness to accept wines like Australia's crisp, dry Rieslings, zingy Victorian Shiraz and, yes, maybe a Cabernet Sauvignon or two.
Meanwhile, both have gotten into the value-wine game. Philips has his own Marquis Philips brand and Paringa Estate, a partnership with grapegrower David Hickinbotham to make $10 wines. Larchet makes Hill of Content and Wishing Tree, which tend to be more bright and crisp than Philips' delicious fruit bombs.
Neither of them will ever come close to Yellow Tail's massive sales numbers, but they're happy to keep plugging away at finding distinctive wines that just might broaden the scope of how America thinks about Australian wine.
Personally, I think the resistance to high-priced wine is not limited to Australia. The free spending that made cult favorites of $200 Napa Valley Cabernet, $300 Barbaresco and $500 garagiste Bordeaux has waned. The wine drinkers I know are asking themselves if it's really worth it, and they are looking for good wines they can afford without selling stock options.
And oh, by the way, the restaurant both Philips at Larchet wanted go to was Bong Su, the relatively new upscale Vietnamese restaurant. I'll blog later this week on how some Aussie wines fared with the food.