National Show shouldn’t ignore gaps in its ranks

Canberra’s National Wine Show bills itself as the grand final of the Australian circuit. But to deserve the mantle it needs to re-invent itself. In reality, it’s just another capital city show, more notable for what’s not in the tasting line up than what is.

Its strength is the high standard of judging and the probity of its results, meaning that as drinkers we can rely generally rely on the award winners to put a smile on our faces. This is partly driven by stringent entry conditions, restricting entry in many classes to medal winners from other shows.

But the problem I see as I flick through the catalogue (you can view it at is the absence of so many leading, generally small, producers from most classes. In certain cases, such as the semillon and tokay and muscat classes this leads to the dominance of just one or two producers.

For example, in this year’s class 18 for 2008 vintage and older semillons, Tyrrell’s and McWilliams fielded 13 of the 22 entries. Good on them for putting forward so many extraordinary Hunter wines. But where were the dozens of other wonderful Hunter semillon producers? And in the tokay and muscat classes, Morris of Rutherglen once again dominated, but in the absence of other distinguished Rutherglen producers.

While single companies don’t dominate classes less regionally specific than semillon or fortifieds, the list of notable absentees expands. For example, in class 1 for 2009 vintage dry rieslings, one of Australia’s great specialties, 11 companies entered 19 wines – barely touching the diversity this variety offers across Australia.

The gold medallists, Knappstein Enterprise Clare Valley Handpicked Riesling and 2009 and its cellar mate from the Lion Nathan group, Knappstein Clare Valley Ackland Vineyard Riesling 2009, are beautiful wines and readily available. But given their victory in such a narrow, unrepresentative field, forgive me for not accepting the hype that they’re champs from a grand final. They’re not. And the pattern repeated itself throughout the show.

At the trophy presentation dinner, Jeremy Stockman, representing the major sponsor, Vintage Cellars (part of the Wesfarmers-owned Coles Liquor Group), called on the show organisers to rethink their approach and find ways to attract more entries from small makers.

As the Australian industry reels from the effects of overproduction and the wreckage of the ‘brand Australia’ juggernaut (we now have a surplus of about 100 million cases and growing), it’s shifting its marketing focus to regional specialisation – trying to sell our extraordinary, diverse winemaking achievements locally and in export markets.

In this environment, it’s perhaps logical for our look-alike capital city shows, run by conservative agricultural societies, to adopt a regional focus, too. This is not a call to bar medium and large companies from exhibiting, but to encourage participation from small producers as well.

It’s a difficult task, partly because many of our very best small makers happily develop their wine styles and markets independently of the show system. Winemakers like Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk and Tapanappa’s Brian Croser, for example, see no need for independent benchmarking or show awards. For various reasons, those that do see benefits in shows are more likely to enter in the growing number of regional shows (limited to wines produced in a single region or zone) or perhaps events like Canberra’s Winewise Small Vignerons Awards.

A solution might be a more structured show system that streams winners from regional shows to state shows to a truly national show. But given the independent, competitive and national focus of our capital city shows, this will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve.

It might be more practicable, therefore, for the National to seize the initiative by opening its doors to award winners from a greater range of regional shows and high-quality independent competitions like Winewise Small Vignerons and the Sydney International 100. However, if Canberra’s National simply ignores the gaps in its entry ranks, it will become increasingly irrelevant. The organisers have an opportunity now to re-invent the show and make it the truly innovative event that it was in the eighties.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009