Book review — Max Allen

The history of Australian wine: Stories from the vineyard to the cellar door
Max Allen, Victory Books 2012, $49.99

Canberra readers might wonder at first, as I did, why Max Allen’s new book excises us, and surrounding wine regions, from Australian wine history. Local industry founders, Edgar Riek and John Kirk don’t rate a mention. Nor do Tim Kirk and Clonakilla’s world-famous shiraz viognier – arguably Australia’s most influential new-age shiraz. Even the ubiquitous Ken Helm, father of Canberra riesling, misses out. And readers in Young will note the omission of Peter Robertson, founder of Barwang Vineyards and, with it, the Hilltops wine region.

But flip from the index to Allen’s introduction, and we quickly learn the book is best summed up in its subtitle, Stories from the vineyard to the cellar door. It’s not a history at all, in the E. H. Carr sense, but a clever and entertaining compilation of personal stories and opinions.

Allen writes, “Based on a series of interviews conducted across a wide range of industry figures – from winemakers to cellar hands, from business leaders to grape growers – it’s neither an official history nor a definitive history: it’s an oral history, full of first-hand accounts of what happened and when and why, and personal opinions on how Australian wine got to where it is today”.

Those oral histories reside in the State Records of South Australia. They were commissioned by the Wolf Blass Foundation and recorded, transcribed and compiled by Adelaide historian Robb Linn. “Rob harvested the stories, fermented them and carefully bottled them up. I have merely decanted them onto the page”, writes Allen. And he does, images included, over 212 pleasure-to-swallow pages, including the index.

But the available material sets the scope of the book, accounting for the gaps mentioned in the opening paragraph – and the limitations of seeing wine history largely through the eyes of producers.

That’s what the book’s about, of course. But as an old retailer and marketer, I’d love to see more on the dynamic interaction between producers and sellers of wine. For example, Chapter 8 Boom and bust: The business of Australian wine details acquisitions and mergers among producers, but doesn’t refer to consolidation at the retail end that spurred some of this producer activity.

In an earlier chapter, Allen mentions perhaps the most far-reaching legislative change in Australia’s retailing history – Gough Whitlam’s Trade Practices Act. The Act ended retail price maintenance, precipitating massive changes in the distribution chain, particularly in retailing.

Some wine producers resented the abrupt end of what was in effect a gentlemen’s price-fixing racket and resisted the change, futilely, for some years.  It’s unfortunate that the book’s sole producer perspective on the Trade Practices Act, comes from Hardys – at the time one of the most conservative companies and, in my memory, one of the slowest and least effective in dealing with the change.

Hardys’ Ray Drew, says the book, links the discounting unleashed by the Act “to the extreme consolidation and virtual duopoly of today’s wine retail market”. Does he mean the industry should’ve stuck to price fixing? I think we need to look elsewhere to understand how Coles and Woolworths amassed their estimated 80 per cent of Australia’s wine market.

The Trade Practices Act created opportunities for retailers and for almost twenty years after the Act’s passing independent retailers collectively controlled the fine wine market. They couldn’t have done this without the protection and freedom afforded by the Act.

It’s true that some of these operators relied almost solely on discounting to drive trade. But some, like Dan Murphys and Nicks in Melbourne, Farmer Bros in Canberra and the Wine Society in Sydney, actively sought the best wines from Australia and overseas and educated their customers through press ads, newsletters, tastings and dinners. Thus the Trade Practice Act not only lowered prices, but allowed entrepreneurial retailers to fan demand for wine.

The Act also released wine producers from the grip of hoteliers and opened the new trading opportunities essential for a production orientated industry producing more than it could readily sell.

But in Queensland, restricted licensing laws gave hotels a virtual monopoly on liquor sales, wine included. However, the conservatism of the hotels, proved to be their own undoing. Their limited wine selections, combined with comparatively high pricing, opened a tremendous opportunity for mail-order wine sellers in the southern states. They soon counted Brisbane and the state’s more affluent provincial centres among their best customers.

By the mid nineties, accelerated by the recession we had to have and interrelated consolidation on both the production and distribution side, independent retailers began to lose their grip on the fine market. Coles moved first, launching its Vintage Cellars chain in 1994 and aggressively acquiring independent outlets to trade under the banner. A few years later Woolworths acquired Dan Murphys. A decade later it had become the dominant force in Australian wine retailing.

Of course none of this happened without intense interaction between the retailers and the producers who tell their stories in Max Allen’s book. Allen takes a unique resource – Rob Linn’s oral histories – and combines it with his own knowledge to give a colourful sketch of Australian wine and the personalities behind it. It’s a valuable contribution to our wine literature. And it whets my appetite both for the missing winemaker stories and the bigger picture of wine commerce.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 1 August 2012 in The Canberra Times