Creating the Farmer Bros National Wine Show Trophy

Bill Moore of the Royal National Capital Agricultural Society and Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges, put their heads together with David Farmer recently to come up with yet another innovative change to Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia.

Since 1982, the show has allowed the judging of a special class for chardonnays in their third year or older. The winner carries off the Farmer Bros Trophy – the top ranked and most widely publicised award of the Show.

However, in recent years Farmer has been a critic of his own award. He saw its major shortcoming as a failure to attract entries from many accomplished wine makers, particularly smaller producers in evolving cool climate growing areas.

Farmer says the award was never intended for simple workmanlike chardonnays with a few years bottle age. His intention was always to reward a chardonnay with something of the power, elegance and longevity of the great White Burgundies of Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne vineyards of France.

I well remember the seminal years of the award and its planning from the late seventies until its introduction in 1982. In those years Dr Edgar Riek (of Lake George Vineyard) was the driving force behind the National Wine Show. He and David met regularly and were even known to enjoy a few drinks together on a hot day. I was fortunate to sit in on those meetings.

Edgar was always keen to improve the Show. He saw long before others did that wine shows were no longer simple agricultural affairs, but public forums and, increasingly, marketing platforms to launch or enhance wines lucky enough to win gold medals and trophies. He liked bouncing ideas off David with his coalface experience of retailing.

Edgar was keen for Farmer Bros to sponsor a major trophy and David equally keen that were he to do so, it would have a lasting benefit to consumers, the winner, and the industry as a whole as well as to the sponsor.

He didn’t want any connection with another farce like the Jimmy Watson Trophy in Melbourne. In his view, unwarranted commercial value accrued to a wine not yet through pre-bottling maturation.

It was the dawning of the chardonnay era in Australia. After years of shortage, this perhaps greatest of all white-wine grape varieties was finally popping up here, there and everywhere. There was not enough to go around but, equally, it had moved from the hands of only enthusiasts into the commercial realm.

David developed his palate and love of wine mainly out of Australia. As a geologist in South Africa and Canada, he’d spend holidays in the early seventies in France, Germany, and Spain enjoying the great European classics. In those days you did not have to be wealthy to drink French country wines, and even the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, and the Mosel and Rhine Valleys were not out of reach. The dollar was strong, and America’s millionaires had not yet moved away from Bourbon and Scotch.

Later, David left Geology to join with brother, Richard, in liquor retailing. So from 1975 he turned a by now well-honed European-orientated palate to the Australian scene. With his early support of Brian Croser’s original Petaluma Chardonnay, it was not surprising he and Edgar Riek finally decided on a Farmer Bros Trophy for an Australian chardonnay.

June 27th, 1993

The point has been made several times in this column that Australia’s Wine Shows, source of all those glossy medals festooned on wine bottles, need constant change if results are to mean anything to consumers or makers. Last week, I gave background to changes being made to one of the major trophy classes this year at Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia.

Since its inception in 1982, the Farmer Bros Trophy has been awarded to medal-winning chardonnays in their third year or older. Entries burgeoned in recent years, but David Farmer has been worried that too many were over the hill. They met the age criteria for entry, but simply were not up to the standard envisaged. More importantly, many of Australia’s and New Zealand’s top chardonnays were simply not entered.

David took this problem to Bill Moore, president of the Royal National Capital Agricultural Society, which runs the show, and Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges. Together, they’ve changed the rules. Hopefully, we will now see all the best chardonnays lined up together and get a better view of the state of the art. The changes are also certain to be studied by other show societies, especially innovative Adelaide, as the realisation sets in that things cannot be run the same old way forever.

In previous years wines were eligible for the Trophy tasting if they were in their third year or older, had won a medal, and the maker had fifty dozen in stock. At first, those criteria kept entry numbers low. It was early days for chardonnay in Australia and New Zealand.

By 1991 entries had expanded to 100 wines. In that year judges awarded medals to 33 wines but commented, “… extremely disappointing class with many tired, over-oaked, over-extracted wines showing phenolic breakup. Perhaps as much a comment on the strides made in handling chardonnay in recent years as anything else.”

In 1992 there were 86 entries, 45 being awarded medals. But the judges were still not happy, commenting, “… many wines too mature and lacking freshness.” It might also be added, many major names were missing from the line up. It was a Melbourne Cup without the thoroughbreds.

The 1993 Canberra Show Schedule, mailed this week to 700 wineries in Australia and New Zealand, spells out the new rules and hopes to rope in those thoroughbreds not previously on the starting line.

Wines no longer need to have won medals to be entered. Entries simply have to be “named commercial wines, future, current or past releases” from the 1991 vintage or older. There is no minimum quantity requirement (an enticement to small makers) and “points and awards will not be published in the Catalogue of Results which will show only the list of Exhibits in random order and the Trophy winner.”

Hopefully this last requirement will clinch entries from top makers building brands outside the Show System. Those building a reputation without relying on show awards, see little to gain and much to lose in the normal system. Unless they fluke the top award, there’s always the chance of a low score which, if published, becomes a black mark against the brand.

Petaluma is a good example. Chief Executive, Brian Croser, chairs the Adelaide Show, but refuses to enter his own wines. He sees a conflict of interest in judging them. Equally important, Petaluma now has nothing to gain in open competition where the results are published for all to see. This is no reflection on the quality of Petaluma. (But it says volumes on the reliability of show judging).