Podcast – Appellations, classifications, communities – A vision from Down under In conversation with Andrew Caillard MW and Peter McAtamney

What does it mean to be “in this together” in an era when travel and meeting together is no longer possible, and everything is happening digitally? And, perhaps more importantly, what does collective identity and action mean in regards to creating regional identity?

ARENI spoke to Andrew Caillard MW, the Fine Wine Principal of Australia’s Pinnacle Drinks and Peter McAtamney, the Principal of Wine Business Solutions, also an Australian company. Both are senior members of the Australian wine trade, who have not only witnessed the impact of Covid-19 and the Chinese trade war on the Australian wine economy, but also the devastating impact of the bushfires that happened earlier this year.

Andrew Caillard MW, Fine Wine Principal, Pinnacle Drinks

What’s at stake when we talk about “being in this together” for wine?

Well, from a community point of view, we’ve all got to do our bit to protect our families, our friends, and our community from catching COVID. I think it’s created that feeling of community spirit, for sure. I think that probably extends into the world of wine as well.  

How does the appellation system create community?

There’s the appellation system, where people get together and promote their wine together because they are from the same locality. Then you’ve got the classification system, where people get together and promote their wines together because they produce the same level of quality. Then finally, what we see appearing is the community system, where people get together and promote their wine together because they think the same way.

But an Appellation Contrôlée kind of system has been really, in many respects, forced upon us by the European community. For us to get access into the European community, we’ve had to change the way that we do things.

We’ve always had our regions, and our regional styles, or even individual famous vineyards. Before the WWII, we used European terms like ‘Claret’ and ‘Hermitage’. Surprisingly, we still were using those until the 1970s, but with all these agreements [with the EU], we have stopped doing that.

Not only that, we also were obliged to start defining our regions by introducing GIs, geographical indications. We’ve had a European cultural view forced on the Australian landscape.

The problem with that is that it has a social problem. We were just talking earlier, before this interview started, about these new movements, like about gender, women in wine, and about Black Lives Matter.

We never talk about the Aboriginals in terms of their impact in the Australian wine industry, but they were there. They were working in the vineyards.

When the white settlers pushed into the Barossa Valley, the Barossa Valley was well farmed by the Aboriginals. They managed that landscape and had managed that landscape incredibly well for a millennium.

With one or two generations in the Barossa, the English farmers, using broad scale farming and European practices, absolutely damaged the landscape to the point that they couldn’t continue farming. Because of erosion and because of just bloody awful farming, a lot of the initial English families that went there left.

I think, going back to the appellation system and forcing it upon Australia – all it does is cement that whole arrogant attitude. Let’s force this on the Australians because this is how we want to perceive wine.

Andrew Caillard MW at FM4FW 2017

There have been a lot of questions about the appellation system. Even in France of 60 or 70 years ago, the ‘goût de terroir’ was supposed to define what separates Pommard from Volnay – it was also because everyone was harvesting at the same date. Everyone was using the same techniques.

I’ve read so many books from the 19th century and ‘terroir’ is a really interesting word, because where does it come from? From the point of view of English books, it’s not mentioned until the 1980s or 1990s. It’s been weaponized over the last 30 years.

We’ve talked a lot about how producers got together and why they would get together. Does it make any difference to you how wine makers come together, when you’re in this position of buying?

I’m not really a buyer, but the answer is, I don’t think so. I think that collectivity is very good for promotion and to build a sense of identity in the minds of the consumer. But as retailers, unless you’re doing a promotion for a particular region or whatever, you’re basically buying the individual identity. In the end, the retailer is buying wines that the market or consumer wants.

So, going back to what you were just saying before, about the kind of community collective where you’re doing promotions, it’s terribly important, but it’s important because it’s creating your identity.

Champagne has probably done it better than any other place in the world. And the overall quality across the board is generally kind of pretty good. But they’re talking about expanding the region yet again and again. And, sooner or later, Champagne will be the size of the Netherlands. And that’s really one of the problems with all these kind of classification systems – they’re political and they don’t always relate to quality.

But just going back to collectivity, it’s is important for regional voice and things like sustainability, particularly coming out of this post-COVID world. A lot of people who’ve been locked down had to be in their communities.

Peter McAtamney, Principal, Wine Business Solutions

When you hear “we are in this together”, what does it mean for you and what has it meant for Australia and Australian fine wine?

When this started, I knew I had to do something fast and I knew it had to be good.

And I thought well, there’s got to be some gold in my notes, so I dusted them off. There was a piece about putting your own mask on first, about stopping all the outflow of cash that’s unnecessary, about renegotiating your bank interest rate. All that stuff was good. And the next piece was really interesting, around psychology. How do people behave when they’re under huge pressure? How does their thinking get compromised? How does their decision-making get compromised?

Everybody here in the wine business has come through really well because they realized very quickly that they’d better move towards digital and direct sales. In Australia, the average digital and direct sales increased by 50%. But in South Africa they increased by 700% on average. And that to me was a true inspiration because the lockdown there was so hard that wine makers couldn’t even send their samples out to laboratories to be tested. People couldn’t even move wine off the docks. They were completely frozen, but the one thing they could do was appeal to their audience globally and get them to buy wine. And people found out just how fast you can run when you have to.

So, people got through by putting their foot down on the things that they should be doing. And they found that in fact they’re a lot easier to do than what they had been anticipating.

And one of the most important things is that no one ever lose sight of the other. And that no one ever thinks that the other is the enemy.

Peter McAtamney tuning in from Australia to discuss cooperation

How do you strengthen ties? What can you keep after the crisis is over?

The most important thing is you just keep talking to that person who’s next down the line and make sure they’re OK. Make sure you’ve got terms that will enable them to continue if they’re struggling financially. At the same time, wineries need to be leaning on the people that have been loyal to them in the past, to continue to buy their product.

I think what people will remember out of this time, when there’s a vaccine and we can all travel again, will be the connections that they made at home when they’re under lockdown and what they were drinking, and how wine formed a critical part of that experience. A lot of people are just discovering the joy of cooking at home, the joy of sitting around a table together, the joy of sort of staying as a family and, sometimes, the struggles.

This transcript has been edited and condensed and only represents part of a fascinating conversation. Listen to the entire conversation here:

Andrew Caillard MW and Peter McAtamney discussing the various meanings of “In this together”

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