Tomich Wines takes a different path to export markets

Exporting Australian wine is a meandering, often maddening route, especially for small brands that make up the bulk of this nation’s 2400 wine producers.

Boutique Adelaide Hills brand Tomich Wines has forged its own unconventional path to global customers by exploring and entering different types of trade partnerships, to ensure enduring export sales.

“As a reasonably new wine brand, we need to find new opportunities to enter the market, which means we have to look at things quite differently,” says Tomich Wines director and winemaker Randal Tomich.

The Tomich family established big vineyards in Adelaide Hills from 2000, comprising 27 blocks across 130ha, and initially sold all the grapes to Penfolds.

By 2003, small volumes of fruit were being retained to start the Tomich wine label, and by 2009, when the contracts with Penfolds ended, their emphasis changed.

Tomich Wines’ city cellar door on King William Road, Unley, Adelaide.

“We got serious about selling wine,” explains Randal, noting the steady rise of Tomich Wines to now produce about 60,000 dozen wines annually.

This change saw export strategies become an important part of the business plan, but as a new wine label, Randal felt he needed to explore different opportunities rather than follow the same crowded trade routes to US and UK customers that were already filled with scores of Australian wine brands. Instead, from 2009, Randal looked to Hong Kong and China.

“I see these as great areas of opportunity, places where we can establish our own clear identity,” he says.

Selling strong and consistent amounts of wine into China has not been an easy progression, but Randal has persevered, while shifting strategies and learning to embrace different cultural and business practices.

Randal’s current Chinese business partners have suggested to him that Australian wineries need to be more creative about how to market their wines in China; for example, obtaining an endorsement from an esteemed entrepreneur such as Jack Ma of Alibaba fame or a Chinese media celebrity would be much more influential than promoting high scores from respected Australian wine critics.

Tomich Wines has three cellar door tasting rooms and sales outlets throughout China.

While Tomich Wines has not pursued the endorsement path, it has opened its own elegant cellar door tasting rooms and sales outlets in Shanghai, Chengdu and Chongqing (located in the foyer of a five-star hotel) and employing professional Chinese wine staff to represent the company, where other Australian exporters have employed language students for similar sales roles, with mixed success.

Establishing a strong physical presence in major Chinese cities has been crucial for Tomich Wines to establish necessary sales networks. It now has 17 distributors working in different parts of China, in a complex and surprisingly fragmented system.

“You can’t think of China as one country, because there are many, many small networks built around individuals rather than a highly complex and evolved distribution system,” says Randal.

Still, having established a string of functioning networks throughout China, Randal is also considering other strategies, including starting new wine businesses with Chinese partners, in which he would be prepared to take a minority shareholding.

“It would show that I’m not trying to take advantage of any Chinese partners, and ensure that I would not be a barrier to growth. It’s not the way business partnerships work in Australia, but China demands a significantly different approach and mindset if you are going to make headway.

“I’m an entrepreneur and I can see great opportunity there,” he adds. “I believe the future of wine is in China, and that the time to invest in China is now.”

China is only a part of Tomich’s export strategy. The company’s presence in the US is also unconventional, built on the back of Randal’s successful vineyard excavation business Soilworks, which uses advanced soil ripping techniques that help prevent soil erosion, maximise water retention efficiency and accelerate successful establishment of new vines.

Soilworks started winning vineyard-ripping contracts in 2008, and by 2011 the Tomich family had become partner in a 70ha vineyard in Pasa Robels, California.

The resulting T&C wine range comprises small volumes of elite cabernets and zinfandel which carry prestige in US retail outlets, and has provided an opportunity for Tomich Wines to piggy-back into the same markets – which Randal says are notoriously difficult for high-value Australian brands to break into.

“Everything gets categorised in the US, and Australian wine is categorised as sitting with (lowest-priced) Yellowtail wines,” he says. “It’s a perception that can’t be shaken, so for our higher-end wines, we had to find a different way in.”

While exports currently account for up to 40% of Tomich Wines’ production, Randal says he wants to realign the business focus to increase sales in the Australian market.

“Export is a key but we still get the highest value from our sales in Australia,” he says, although he remains committed to pursuing unconventional pathways, outside traditional distribution networks.

“Forget the old models,” Randal suggests to emerging wine entrepreneurs. “There are new and different opportunities, but you have to go and hunt for them.”

Header image features Randal Thomich, left, and Patrick Zhu.

Industry in focus: Trade and Investment

Throughout the months of January and February, the state’s trade and investment industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia is in a prime position for trade and investment opportunities as we have a 24-hour connection to international markets and a prime reputation for our premium products and services.  Read more trade and investment stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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From little labels, big wines grow in the Adelaide Hills

The time to focus maximum attention on the Adelaide Hills wine region is right now.

An outstanding suite of wines presented as trophy winners at the recent Adelaide Hills Wine Show underlines that this region rides at the forefront of modern Australian winemaking – and continues to keep offering new sensations, illustrated by the show’s supreme winner being a winemaker most people would not yet have heard of.

Charlotte Hardy makes her small batch wines in the tiny hills sub-region of Basket Range, and releases them under the brand name of Charlotte Dalton.

The New Zealand-born winemaker first came to the district 13 years ago and was soon besotted, realising it produced the type of superior cool climate fruit that would allow her to make lean, sensuous wines of distinctive appeal.

As a result, the 2017 vintage of Charlotte Dalton Wines Love Me Love You Shiraz won three big trophies at the 2018 Adelaide Hills Wine Show – Best Shiraz, Best Single Vineyard Wine and Best Wine of the Show.

Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines in Basket Range.

Named sentimentally in tribute to a lullaby that her mother sang to Charlotte in her childhood, this slender, spicy and nimble shiraz – more akin to pinot noir in structure, but with a more plush fruit palate – represents an exciting new benchmark for cool climate shiraz.

“I firmly believe that a wine must be made with a happy heart and a content soul,” says Charlotte. “And that is, simply, why I make the Charlotte Dalton Wines – to bring me joy, happiness and contentedness, and to share those feelings through the wines.”

Shiraz in the Adelaide Hills has come of age, and is now respected as one of the four vinous pillars of strength in the region, along with sparkling wines, chardonnay and pinot noir.

The wine show judges awarded seven gold medals for shiraz wines this year compared to three last year – with the great improvers being small, artisan producers.

Out of 592 entries in this year’s Adelaide Hills Wine Show, a vast majority come from small and family producers, and 315 were awarded medals – with a startling 56 being gold medals, signalling a new high water mark of quality.

Michael Downer of Murdoch Hill.

“Right now, this is the most exciting wine region in Australia,” said chairman of the wine show judges Nick Stock, addressing a capacity audience at the wine show awards lunch held at Bird In Hand winery on November 30.

Much of Nick’s excitement is directed towards innovative winemaking. Michael Downer of Murdoch Hill wines, awarded best Adelaide Hills producer making less than 100 tonnes of wine, also won best avant garde wine with the 2018 Murdoch Hill Happy Pinot Gris, an experimental orange wine produced from extended grape skin contact and longer oak maturation.

It has proved such a success from its small batch trial that Michael has confirmed he will make the same style again.

“Experiments can lead to popular styles,” says Michael. “If we don’t push the boundaries and break with convention at times, we don’t fully understand what’s possible in making great wine.”

Recognising boutique excellence extends through to sparkling wine production, illustrated by Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard being awarded best sparkling wine of show for its 2015 Pinot Noir, Chardonnay – one of the exciting categories identifying a raft of small producers throughout the Adelaide Hills region producing fine wines of exceptional quality.

Sharon Pearson and Garry Sweeney of Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard.

“The next step ahead for the producers of this region is focus hard on ultra-specialisation, in both the quality of the grapes we grow and the wines we make,” says Garry Sweeney, co-proprietor of Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard with partner Sharon Pearson.

“We make 16 different wines from only five grape varieties, because we are intent on finding the best individual parcels of fruit and making the very best wines we can from them. Absolute attention to detail is what will continue putting the Adelaide Hills wine region on the map.”

Wine judge Nick Stock agrees. “The Hills winemakers are wonderfully capable of making great sparkling wine. Smaller producers are very committed and realise that the best thing for them is to go the extra step to give their wines that extra quality which will bring them notice and make them successful.”

The region is also abreast of fast-moving wine trends, especially the transformation in style of the booming rosé class, with the best examples becoming more pale, dry and nuanced.

Howard Vineyard winemaker Tom Northcott with a group of cellar door visitors.

This year saw Howard Vineyard 2018 Clover Rosé come out on top, earning the trophy in consecutive years with a refined, elegant and delightfully aromatic wine made from cabernet franc grapes.

Importantly, Howard Vineyard also won the trophy for best Adelaide Hills Cellar Door experience, marking the success of recent improvements to the Nairne winery’s visitor centre that have been introduced by owners Ian and Sharon Northcott with their winemaker son Tom.

“Making sure that visitors to the Adelaide Hills wine region have a fantastic experience is of primary concern to us all,” says Tom Northcott. “That’s how people remember our great wines – by tasting them in a great setting.”

All the results of the 2018 Adelaide Hills Wine Show can be found online here.

Header image: Michael Downer of Murdoch Hill.

Multi-regional blend shines in push for more women in wine

The annual Australian Women in Wine Awards – announced on November 16, with South Australian winners including Sarah Marquis (Mollydooker Wines), Kate Goodman (Penley Estate) and Nicole Pitman (Kingston Estate) – don’t just celebrate achievement.

The organisation hopes it can provide a beacon of inspiration for more women to join the wine industry and achieve outstanding results.

This has become a significant issue; women comprise less than 10% of the Australian wine industry, with numbers dipping further in viticulture. Representation of women in leadership and senior roles is even smaller.

To help rectify this imbalance, Australian Women In Wine Awards aims to start a scholarship that supports young women undergoing tertiary wine education – and a unique style of SA shiraz is being created as this endeavour’s major fundraising platform.

The Wine Creators’ Project recently came together in a rustic vineyard shed at Irvine Wines in the Barossa’s picturesque Eden Valley.

Three revered female winemakers from different regions – Sue Hodder from Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Corrina Wright of Oliver’s Taranga in McLaren Vale and Rebekah Richardson of Irvine Wines – sat around a wine blending bench, mulling over the possibilities for their historic project that involves only females. This included winemaker Emma Norbiato of the Barossa’s Calabria Family Wines supplying one quarter of the wine to be blended, right through to graphic designers Denomination that created the wine label.

Corrina Wright of Oliver’s Taranga, left, Sue Hodder of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, and Rebekah Richardson of Irvine Wines.

Each winemaker donated an elite barrel of 2018 shiraz to the project and they were determined to create a bold and unique wine from the resulting blend.

“We didn’t just want to make a typically pretty wine; that would be such a boring, cliché statement about female winemaking,” says Sue Hodder.

“We’re happy to step far beyond what we’d usually do in our own wineries to celebrate a true collaboration of ideas.”

Indeed, the challenge of producing a multi-regional blend from the one grape variety represented a first for each of the winemakers.

They agreed on a very elegant and excitingly modern blend, with enticing aromas of violets and bright plum but also striking mid-palate plushness and generosity. In addition to its attractive juiciness, the shiraz has great flavour length thanks to ripe tannins and crisp acidity.

“A great multi-region blend is a proven Australian tradition, yet it’s not something that any of us have had the opportunity to do before,” says Rebekah Richardson. “This really has been an exciting exercise.”

The wine will be aged in the Barossa Valley, in older oak barrels so the fruit quality speaks rather than winemaking artifice. The limited release of 500 dozen bottles will be launched in April 2019 – coinciding with the 125th anniversary of Australian women gaining the right to vote.

With SA being the first state to give women the vote in 1894, the winemakers think it entirely appropriate that a forthright modern women’s organisation should produce a distinctive SA shiraz to embrace the spirit of the occasion.

The blending session in Eden Valley.

The Wine Creators’ Project provides a lightning rod for positive change in the Australian wine industry. “We want to promote the development of career opportunities for women in the wine industry, to show what is possible and what can be achieved,” says Corrina Wright.

“The wine industry is – and it certainly needs to be – in a state of transition, but we’re still not seeing the numbers of women coming out of wine and viticulture courses at university.

“Anecdotally, we know that large amounts of women drop out of the wine industry because they try to juggle too much, especially when they start families, because the path to advancement seems out of reach. This organisation wants to show them there is a better way.”

Sue Hodder adds that larger community concerns fit into this picture. “Beyond the wine industry, we’re worried about the future of rural Australia generally,” she says.

“Where is our next generation of rural workers going to come from? I reckon the Australian Women in Wine offer a pretty good solution. Get a whole lot of young women out there taking up opportunities in regional vineyards and wineries, and a whole lot of interested young men will surely follow.”

Outstanding women winemakers are also being promoted in leading Adelaide venues, with Level One at Electra House continuing its series of Women in Wine dinners by featuring the Wrattonbully region on Thursday November 22 – with Jane Richards of Eight at the Gate, Susie Harris of Land of Tomorrow, and Sue Bell of Bellwether Wines – and the McLaren Vale region on Wednesday December 12, with Corrina Wright from Oliver’s Taranga, Vanessa Altman from Switch Wines, and Gill Gordon-Smith of Fall from Grace.

At these dinners, each winemaker matches one of their wines to a course from Level One’s modern Asian menu, followed by a discussion with the winemakers about their work. More details and tickets are available via Eventbrite.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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