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The Victorian wine regions showcase – an unsustainable event?

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Update 14 January 2009: I think my critique has been at least partially justified by the 2009 schedule and pricing of the event – it is now $25 (plus $2 glass hire). It appears to be a clear attempt to deter the casual drinks crowd. I hope it works.

I have been attending the monthly Victorian wine regions showcase at Federation Square for over two years now. I go each month to taste regional wines to educate myself about their unique qualities and differences. I then use this knowledge to plan day trips and weekends away to the regions whose wines I enjoy the most. I don’t buy wine packages as I prefer to choose bottles individually, to buy in very small quantities and to keep trying new and different wines rather than drink the same thing regularly. I make several trips in regional Victoria each year.

Sometimes I make day trips to the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. On weekends away I usually stop in at wine regions or individual wineries on route to my destination, such as Witchmount and Galli on the outskirts of Melbourne on the way to Ballarat, or to Heathcote heading north to Echuca, or to Brown Brothers, Sam Miranda and others in Milawa and the King valley on the way to Beechworth and Rutherglen. It’s fun and I enjoy buying unique wines from boutique wineries that I cannot buy in shops.

Over time the Victorian wine regions showcase has become more popular, and in some months in 2008 have been impossibly crowded. I have noticed an increased number of younger people, which is in theory a good thing, but on reflection it may not be. Many of the younger people are travellers, backpackers or young city workers using the event as an alternative to going to a bar.

An increasing number of people have worked out that for less than $20 they can get unlimited wine tastings, which is a bargain compared to going elsewhere for evening or pre-dinner drinks. As the event has become more popular, it has been more difficult for people who are using the event to genuinely seek out new wines to get to the individual stalls, to talk to the winemakers and to make themselves heard over the background babble.

The event is designed to market boutique wine from small regional producers to discerning consumers, who will either sign up to the mailing list for more information, join the winery club to purchase regular wine packages or later visit the wineries and buy at the cellar door like I do. It is a marketing event designed to promote the wineries and their wine, not a social event where alcohol is served to enhance the mood.

Backpackers and social drinkers are not the customers the wineries are chasing. The former are obviously going to move on and are not going to be around to order wine in future months or years. The young social drinkers are more interested in the socialising than what they are drinking, and are seeking cheap drinks in a social setting, not the best wines that regional Victoria can provide.

When I visit winery cellar doors I always tell them I first discovered their wines at Federation Square and pay close attention to the conversation that follows. Their feedback is increasingly negative. As well as a participation fee of $200 (this pays for the venue, cleaning and administration), the wineries must obtain their own liquor licences to serve (and optionally to sell) wine at their stall and provide the tasting stock, which for smaller wineries can be extremely expensive. Giving away dozens of bottles of what are often quite small vintages must have a strong marketing return, and increasingly the winemakers I speak to say that the event does not work for them and does not make financial sense to participate in.

The August 2008 show was the annual best of event and was extremely well attended. The September 2008 was back to normal, but some of the winery stalls were placed in extremely odd locations in the Federation Square atrium, making it difficult to get to them, awkward to queue and easy to give up and try something else. I did not attend the October 2008 one as I was disappointed by the decline in the organisation of the event.

In November 2008 I went to the Western Victoria region showcase. The placement of the stalls was better, but the general organisation of the event was not. I usually download a discount voucher from the showcase website that reduces the cost from $18 (plus $2 glass deposit) to $13. Prior to November, the voucher was not available on the website. When I asked the staff taking entry payments at the event about this, I was told that the discount was no longer being offered. No explanation was given in person or online. November was very quiet.

The winemakers are increasingly complaining about the amateurish nature of the tasting list provided to consumers at the event. They are required to email their details and a list of the wines they will be offering for tasting at the event to the organisers to compile. This list is used by consumers use to choose which stalls to visit.

During 2008 the lists have become increasingly inaccurate, with some wineries being left off altogether (although they claim to have submitted their content before the deadline). Others have incomplete lists of wines included, and the winemakers are very unhappy when I point out the differences between what wines are listed and what they have brought to taste. The list is becoming an embarrassment to the winemakers, who work extremely hard, and an indicator of the inadequate project management of the event organisers.

This is very important because the wines are entered in a people’s choice competition, and winning this is an important marketing achievement. If people do not know a particular wine is available to taste (because the organisers have mistakenly left it off the list) then consumers will not visit the stall to taste it and consequently don’t vote for it in the competition.

In December 2008 at the Gippsland and north-west regions (an odd combination of geographically distinct places) the discount voucher was back on the website, but I didn’t go. The showcase’s experiment with eliminating the voucher and raising prices resulted in significantly reduced crowds in November. It seems that in their minds this is a problem or a failure, but I think the opposite: it helped eliminate the social drinkers looking for a night of cheap fun and created more space for serious wine consumers. The wineries would have saved hundreds of dollars each in used stock.

The winemakers I have spoken to are becoming angry at what they see is an inequitable relationship between themselves and the organisers of the event, which is a partnership between Regional Development Victoria, Tourism Victoria and Wines of Victoria.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the winemakers and the event organisers have different goals. The winemakers want to focus on strong leads and generate business while minimising costs and the loss of stock. They are niche providers with a niche audience who have the time and the interest to pursue boutique wine. The event organisers want to maximise attendance numbers to justify continuing with the event.

The interests of genuine consumers are similar to those of the winemakers: keep the event small, focused and sustainable. Less people at the event means lower costs for winemakers, fewer queues for consumers and more time for the winemakers and their customers to talk to each other. I enjoy meeting the winemakers and find the discussions really rewarding and informative, and it’s great to be able to tell them how much you like their product.

The event organisers do not seem to understand who their important customers are, or that they need to better support the winemakers. They provide poor service in terms of changing conditions (vouchers, then no vouchers, then vouchers again) and inaccurate wine lists that undermine the interests of winemakers and consumers.

I hope to continue to discover wonderful new wines at the showcase each month, but I fear that it will soon collapse. Unless the showcase is carefully managed it will become economically unsustainable for the winemakers and will deter the customers it needs the most.

One comment

  1. Well written and thoughtful piece. I too have been going to these for several years, and have similar concerns. Lizzy used to be the organiser, and I have noticed that her disappearance has spiralled the event downwards. There are now so few wineries representing each of the regions, it doesn’t cause me stress to miss a night like it would have before.Well done!!

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