Ross Brown’s sweet lesson on how it pays to listen

A few years back, says Ross Brown of Brown Brothers, the Winemakers Federation of Australia discovered something startling: sixty per cent of Aussie wine drinkers enjoy a glass only infrequently. Asked why they didn’t drink more wine, the occasional sippers said they didn’t like the flavour. Shock! Horror!

The revelation floored the WFA. Why, they wondered, was the industry talking to just forty per-cent of drinkers? How could so many people not like the flavour of wine? But the finding didn’t surprise Ross.

Why would you be surprised, he asked last week in Canberra? Wine, he said, is so unlike the sweeter things that we drink all the time – everything from mother’s milk to fruit juice to soft drink and even beer – it’s little wonder that many people don’t like it.

Conditioned by decades of testing — via Australia’s biggest cellar door operation – Brown Brothers had long since cracked the taste code of the WFA’s reluctant sixty per-cent.

Located on the Oxley Plains, at the northern entry to the King Valley, near Victoria’s ski fields, Brown Bros hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. They literally flow from buses, cars and bicycles into a series of easy-access, spacious tasting bays.

For decades Browns have used the cellar door to test new wines, learn what people like and then give it to them. This approach treats both the wine savvy and the insecure equally seriously.

While cellar door sales constitute only a small fraction of output, says Ross, it provides continuing, direct feedback on what people like. And this, in turn, drives strategic decisions on grape plantings and wine production for the market at large.

This approach encourages a stream of new products that can be made in small volume in the ‘kindergarten’ winery, tested at cellar door, and then rolled out in volume if successful.

Successful rollouts can mean anything from cool-grown, bone-dry pinot gris for enthusiastic wine drinkers to innovative sweet styles for the unconvinced. And whatever the new style is, ramped-up production means big investments in vineyards and considerable lead times.

Ross says that consistently over the years sweet, fruity table wines – in a range of styles — have been the winners and remain the biggest selling styles at cellar door.

The current cellar door favourites, for example, are the red Cienna and white Moscato – both sweet wines weighing in at a modest 5.5 and 5 per cent alcohol respectively.

Cienna is a new variety which, like Brown Brothers successful Tarango, was bred by the CSIRO. And the Moscato, a delightful frizzante style, is modelled on the fruity, crisp, low-alcohol styles of Asti, Italy.

These are seriously good, innovative wines that join a long line of other sweeties, including the red Dolcetto (a normally dry Italian variety), as consumer favourites.

And the people who buy them love them fervently, often driving hundreds of kilometres to stock up. Don’t ever believe that only experts are prepared to go out of their way to buy cases of wine, laughed Ross.

Of course there’s nothing new in people being attracted to sweet and fruity wine. It’s been a constant theme in Australia since the release of Orlando Barossa Pearl in 1956.

The difference now seems to be that most winemakers don’t take these styles seriously — and it shows in their mediocre offerings. What Brown Brothers have demonstrated is that occasional wine drinkers become enthusiastic wine drinkers when you give them what they want.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007