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Whither Australia's Reputation?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 2, 2007 2:09pm ET

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.

James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  February 2, 2007 4:20pm ET
I have never drank Yellow Tail, but it is very difficult to find a totally undrinkable value wine (under $10) from down under. That, like it or not, is the Aussie reputation. Still, when they are accessible for me (unlike now), I do buy mid-range Aussies--my all-time favorite being the 1996 Leasingham Clare Valley Classic Shiraz which was just phenomenal for the money. Honestly, I don't know what these guys are complaining about. The wine drinkers who know, know that Yellow Tail is...well...Yellow Tail. Any outstanding wine at an outstanding price will sell well. Wine drinkers (like us) are just too connected not to notice. It is irritating when the suddenly noticed start jacking up their prices, though. That's when they lose me. - Jim
David A Zajac
February 2, 2007 4:44pm ET
Other than us wine geeks who are aware of some of the high quality wines coming out of Australia, I am not sure its good long term for the industry in general as I believe most up and coming wine drinkers will discard Australia in general once they get out of the Yellow Tail habit. Its kinda neet that the wines are inexpensive and fairly tasty, all for only $10 per bottle, but once the income goes up and they are willing to now spend $20 per bottle, I think they leave Yellow Tail and therefore Australia behind. Maybe then its on to Spain or Italy or wherever, but I am not sure its a good thing for the long term health of the Australian industry. Any marketing people out there with experieces like these?
Gerald Tye
February 2, 2007 5:03pm ET
Mssrs. Twelftree and Mintz might want to calm down a bit. Not everyone can afford to be a big fan of Two Hands' wines. Their "recognition" plight is not unlike that of a lot of California winemakers who get lumped in with, and villified for not being, Mr. Franzia, of Charles Shaw fame (or infamy, as the case might be). .
John C Winkelmann
Cincinnai —  February 2, 2007 6:04pm ET
If I were Mr. Twelftree, I would be irritated too. But I don't see how a successful low end product like Yellowtail can hurt higher end Aussie wine makers. I have tried Yellowtail out of curiosity. I didn't care for it, but I can see the appeal. For many, it will be a "gateway" wine that will lead to more costly wine purchases down the road. Yellowtail lovers will trust the Aussies to give them pleasurable wines at decent prices. How can that be bad?
Fred Brown
February 2, 2007 7:50pm ET
Businessmen worry.Good wine, priced right, sells.Wish that I'd bought more than 2 bottles of the '04 Bella's.
Thomas Smith
Antioch CA. —  February 2, 2007 10:25pm ET
Whats wrong with buy American, you can find a wine in your price range from California, Washinton, and many more states. They will thank you. Tom
Michael Mock
West Des Moines, IA —  February 2, 2007 11:39pm ET
About 12 years ago, I got my introduction to red wine with the Rosemount "diamond label" wines, which were basically the Yellow Tail of the 90s. Those wines got me interested in other Aussie reds, and a wide variety of mid-to-upper price range Aussie reds now make up a substantial section of my wine shelves. So, rather than expressing fear and resentment, perhaps the "serious" Aussie winemakers should view the popularity of Yellow Tail and other value wines as a great opportunity to introduce consumers to the wonderful world of Aussie wine.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  February 3, 2007 12:14am ET
It seems to me that people who are experimenting or new to wine usually don't start with $30 bottles, they start with the lowest price range. Wines such as Yellowtail, Blue Nun, Charles Shaw and white zin's are easy to stomach and easy on the pocketbook. Consider it part of the wine education, and as people learn more about wine they usually try better and more expensive bottles, from Australia and elsewhere. Pretty soon they are blogging on Wine Spectator and buying magnums of Chateau Petrus on auction...
J E Shuey
Dallas, TX —  February 3, 2007 12:22pm ET
The growing problem for Aussie wine as I see it isn't Yellow Tail, et al, it's their infatuation with higher and higher alcohol content in almost all their wines across the board. A decade ago, moderately-priced Aussies were just behind California in representation in my cellar. Now I have very few, and Australia barely edges out South Africa.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  February 3, 2007 6:16pm ET
Michael Twelftree's problem has much more to do with the softening of the higher priced Aussie market (over $40) than it does Yellowtail. In his case, with Paterno taking over import of Two Hands we have seen an general increase in prices on his wines. Not as bad as what happened with Clarendon Hills a couple years back, however. At a time when customers are finding incredible Aussie wines in the $12 to $29.99 range and are not buying as many of the $39.99 to $79.99 price points, as the bulk of Two Hands wines fall into, any 10% to 20% increase is going to take it's toll on their sales.
Will Miner
Denver, CO —  February 5, 2007 1:57am ET
The only place I've had Yellowtail is at my in-laws, who are retired now and don't have the income to serve even what my wife and I (modestly) can serve. It's because of wines like Yellowtail and Fat Bastard that in the 10 years I've known them we've gone from everyone bringing his or her own beer or cocktail to the dinner table to a regular serving of wine, and varietals beyond just merlot and chardonnay. I see having wine as a regular fixture at the dinner table to be a great leap forward. I agree with others here that Mr. Twelftree's big worry should be the unjustified escalation in prices for wines not only from Australia but also from California, etc. There are so many great Australian wines to be hand for under $40, why spend more? For wines above that price, I've had too many disappointments, and over the past few years have found myself growing conservative and only splurging on wines from regions with long history, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, northern Italy. Somehow an $80 Barolo that doesnt live up to its appellation bothers me far less than an $80 Napa cab that has little to justify its price other than expensive real estate or cult marketing.
Marchello Chacchia
Connecticut —  February 5, 2007 9:43am ET
If Mr. Twelftree is getting positive feedback on wine from his mother land by a cabbie in Phily, he should take it as an indirect compliment and be more optomistic. As long as any country is associated with good wine, good things will happen (either directly or indirectly) to the producers in that country. It's all about perception isn't it? Given the fact that Two Hands has probably the highest percetage of bottles in my modest basement collection, they certainly have my allegiance. By the way Mr Steinman, I wonder how you would rate their 2004 Deer in the Headlights. I personally love it but would be interested in your perception.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  February 5, 2007 10:16am ET
Yellowtail won't ruin the reputation of Australian wines any more than "Two-buck Chuck" ruined the reputation of California wines. Yellowtail buyers are probably not going to buy Two Hands or any other higher priced wines, from any country.
Timothy Andrews
Poulsbo, WA —  February 6, 2007 1:27am ET
I think that in this day and age when wine drinking is becoming more prevalent then ever before, we should be thanking producers like Yellow Tail for opening the door for so many people. I agree, the worry should on the dissapointing, over-priced wines (from any region, for that matter).
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  February 6, 2007 4:41pm ET
While Australian Shiraz may win the value to price competition when compared to California Cabs, I still find California and Washington Syrahs to be more balanced and complex, more varied and diverse than those from down under and the Cal and WA wines are also a better value at the higher end. Two Hands needs to focus on making distinct, location driven wines that are restrained and structured instead of hedonistic fruit bombs with over 16% alcohol that start tasting like too sweet blackberry jam after a half glass.
Tim Burnett
February 7, 2007 1:32pm ET
My only complaint with Yellow Tail is that others have started to imitate it. I've had some great $12 to $15 reds, a new vintage comes out and - BAM - overly fruity impersonations of Yellow Tail. As an example, when my wife lived in the East Bay of the San Francisco area, we grew to like Concannon Petite Syrahs and a blend called Stampmaker's Red for everyday drinking. Recently, I tried both their 2004 Petite and the Stampmaker's (now) Syrah; and my first and all but only thought was "tastes like Yellow Tail."

In general I'm fine with Yellow Tail. I'd rather have their wine at an average Midwest wedding than other comparatively priced stuff. I know people who drink afair amount of wine and just really like fruit forward to the point of pushy, my father for one. But its just not to my liking and I find its influence on other wines frustrating.
David Harper
Annapolis MD —  February 7, 2007 1:50pm ET
While just departed from 3 yrs in OZ I have to admit I never tried Yellow Tail. In general, I found Aussie whites uninteresting with the exception of Grossett Reislings, those of Pewsey Vale and the Art Series Chards of Leeuwin. But, the Shiraz of Two Hands from all its labels (Bella's, Lily's and Samantha's Garden) to its Ares series is great stuff that they've marketed well with a bulls-eye on the U.S. market. Henschke doesn't compete, neither does Elderton, nor does Clarendon Hills. But, for Two Hands folk to get annoyed by a single mention of Yellow Tail in a cab is silly. Neither house is stealing from the other; one is very good and relatively expensive, the other is simply fair dinkum in the Aussie way and making a bunch of bucks along the way.
Anthony Clapcich
February 8, 2007 10:50pm ET
Amen Tim and Shuey! MANY of the Aussie wines are extremely alcoholic and over extracted. It reminds me of the old Monty Python skit where they describe the wines of Australia as "only fit for hand to hand combat". At 16+% alcohol I may as well be drinking vodka with my meal! If "in-your-face-alcoholic-fruit bombs" are your fancy, then you will be happy with most of the shiraz and shiraz/cab blends available. Yes, subtle gems exist, but they start at >$60-80, and for that money I would much rather invest in tried and true brunellos and bordeaux!
Bruce Nichols
Naples, —  February 14, 2007 8:29pm ET
The good news is that a lot of people are drinking yellow tail. The bad news is that well...ditto.Let's not begin to lump all Aussie wines into the yellowtail category by confusing price and value. There's a sea of great "value" wines from down under that includes wines like what Hugh Hamilton is producing ("Jim-Jim" shiraz) and Henschke S.B. fetching $30 a bottle.Let's not forget where some of us starting (yours truly included!) with our first wine experiences. Yellowtail would have been considered a grand cru.Bruce www.napleswinenews.com
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 14, 2007 9:11pm ET
I don't know what Bruce could possibly mean. I cut my teeth on Lancer's and Gallo Hearty Burgundy (in the 1970s...)

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