Australian vintner Michael Twelftree got into a taxi cab in Philadelphia last week. Hearing his Aussie accent, the driver turned to him and asked, "You Australian?" Then, without missing a beat, he added, "I love that Yellow Tail wine."
"It happens all the time," says Twelftree, one of the partners behind the Two Hands winery, who visits the United States several times a year. "And it's starting to piss me off."
It used to be Crocodile Dundee, he recalls over dinner in San Francisco, then it was the Crocodile Hunter. Now it's Yellow Tail.
The good news is that means wine, and in particular Australian wine, has penetrated the popular culture the way movie and TV personalities have in the past. Aussies I know cringe at association with such caricatures.
Yellow Tail has become the largest selling wine brand in the U.S. Its success is based on powerhouse distribution and a crowd-pleasing sweet style of wine. It has as much to do with the best of Australia as Paul Hogan, who played Crocodile Dundee, has to do with such actors as Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe.
Twelftree and his partner, Richard Mintz, worry that the runaway success of Yellow Tail will cheapen Australia's image and make it harder for serious wineries to make headway in the United States. In less than a decade, Two Hands has established itself as one of the hottest producers in Australia. I rate the wines consistently in the 90s. Twelftree fears that their success will be short lived if Americans consign Australian wines to the scrap heap of "cheap and cheerful."
Twelftree and Mintz also see an increasing fixation by the big wineries around them on the bottom line instead of aiming for quality across the board. On that I disagree. The big wine companies, such as Foster's, Orlando-Wyndham and Constellation, are rolling out some outstanding wines along with decent value-priced bottlings. It's a glass half-full or half-empty question.
Maybe I just don't see as much of the dross as they do in Australia. I certainly taste my share of woeful negociant wines. And every winery shoots wide of the mark at least some of the time, even Two Hands. But on the whole, Australia does a pretty good job of putting good juice in the bottle and usually prices it less than you would expect to pay for the quality.
I am more concerned about expensive wines from Australia that don't live up to their hype. Twelftree and Mintz ought to be, too. That's their competition.
Right now, Australia is dealing with some serious dislocations in production. A huge lake of surplus wine is starting to dwindle, especially as the drought-plagued 2007 vintage starts. It is expected to be down 40 to 50 percent overall from last year's total. Growers who signed long-term contracts can't grow enough grapes this year to make ends meet.
"Good growers are coming to us," says Mintz, who recently signed up a McLaren Vale vineyard that had been selling its grapes to BRL Hardy (now Constellation). "It's a spectacular vineyard. I took one look and could not get the pen out fast enough to sign him up." The grapes are destined for the winery's Lily's Garden bottling.
When the dust settles from all this, will Australia be better perceived that it has been, or will the reputation be tarnished? The game is on.