Everyone Has Their Limit

(Originally published April 2005)

Hanes knows when he is licked. After all, true strength lies in knowing your weaknesses, no? Well, when it comes to sorting through the glut of cheap Australian Shiraz wines Hanes gives up.

Sure, it's his responsibility as a World Famous Wine Reviewer to do the heavy lifting and wade through the ocean of crap to find the few gems worth slurping down. But even Hanes is mortal and he could taste a sub-$12 Shiraz every day for a year and barely make a dent in what's out there. Since it is anyone's guess which of these wines Hanes's readers will encounter it's best to just avoid the whole mess. But how did we get here?

Australia's wine industry has been booming for some time now with new acreage of vineyards coming online each vintage. Luckily for them the demand has been there, particularly in Great Britain and the United States (Hanes suspects few of these wines get sold domestically, especially since like 13 million cases of wine are exported from Australia to the United States each year). But that's crazy capitalism for you, supply rises to meet demand and then outstrips demand as either demand falls or too many farmers go hillbilly nuts with visions of grape-driven riches in their heads. Another factor has been consolidation among the wine industry's biggest players. They all strive for large efficiencies of scale to win and keep market share and so they raise the stakes in an effort to steamroll their competition. When selling to the United States many large-scale producers have thinned their margins to keep the prices low and maintain market share. This is being done even in the face of the weak U.S. dollar in relation to the Australian dollar. The main reason here is that where they were previously beaten easily on price, many American (particularly Californian) producers are winning back market share from the Aussies at the cheap end of the price spectrum.

It seems likely that there will be some major fallout in the next few years as this situation has the smell of a “winner takes all” war with many new labels just now becoming familiar to American consumers to be erased from the competitive landscape. Beyond these obvious corporate losers in the race to ubiquity will be farmers who can't get enough money for their grapes or find no buyers at all. A lot of mid-sized players will not be able to make the leap to the next level and get subsumed by the winning brands. End consumers really shouldn't lose much at all since, shit, most of these wines taste the same anyway and it will only take a couple of years to get used to another brand name rather than the one bought the past few years. Consistency of flavor profile is the main goal of the large producers (one could call it the “Rosemount recipe” which defies vintage variations in weather or general growing conditions to the point where one wonders why they even note the vintage on the label). This is because this trait is the main thing desired by the end consumer. Coke and Pepsi taste differently but both are cola sodas. A person develops a preference for one or the other and then expects it to taste the same each time a can of soda gets popped open, no deviation allowed. (Recall the disaster of the New Coke rollout.) A consumer will decide they like Jacob's Creek better than Lindemans just as they choose Coke over Pepsi or RC. End of story, honey pick up some Jacob's Creek when you're at the supermarket.

Keep in mind that the production numbers of these wines run from something like 5,000 cases to hundreds of thousands. Consumers don't care if they buy bottle #4,862 or bottle #292,065 or bottle #1,043,706. They want consistency. This is hard to do, if not impossible, if you also want to maintain a distinctive flavor profile. As a result, a credible minimal threshold of drinkability is striven for with homogeneity the hallmark of the day. Consider that the grapes needed to make so many cases come from innumerably different and varied grower sources so that blending them in a vat the size of Wisconsin is the only way a consistent product can be attained. It's worth mentioning that “bottle variation” has been a problem plaguing the popular Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” wines from California which cost $1.99 at Trader Joe's.

Anyway, it's not like Hanes is assiduously avoiding these wines. OK, it is like that. Chances are he won't buy them but if he encounters them at a party or in-store tasting and a pen is available, sure, he'll scribble a tasting note for The Hanes Wine Review. Luckily, Hanes's friends are too old to throw parties and he orders wine mostly through the internet, avoiding actual stores as much as possible. If he does happen to be browsing in a store and encounters the Australian section it only takes seconds for his brain to overload in the attempt to absorb the delectable possibilities of choosing an inexpensive Shiraz among Alice White, Amaroo, Amberley, Annie's Lane, Aquila, d'Arenberg, Arunda, Azure Bay, Banrock Station, Barletta Brothers, Barossa Valley Estate, Jim Barry, Beresford, Big River, Black Opal, Black River, Black Swan, Bleasdale, Blue Tongue, Boonaroo, De Bortoli, Bremerton, Brown Brothers, Buckeley's, Guy Buffet, Bulletin Place, Grant Burge, Cheviot Bridge, Clovely, Cockatoo Ridge, Crocodile Rock, Cudgee Creek, Deakin, Evans & Tate, Firefly, Four Sisters, Ghost Gum, Simon Hackett, Hanging Rock, Hardys, Heaven's Gate, Hill of Content, Jackaroo, Jacob's Creek, Jindalee, Joseph River Estate, Kangaroo Ridge, Kelly's Promise, Kirralaa, Kissing Bridge, Koala Blue, Langhorne Crossing, Leasingham, Peter Lehmann, Lengs & Cooter, Lindemans, Little Boomey, The Little Penguin, Logan, Long Flat, Mad Fish, Magpie Estate, Marquee, McGuigan, McPherson, McWilliam's, Mitchelton, Nepenthe, Nine Stones, Nugan Family, Oxford Landing, Ozwell, Paringa, Andrew Peace, Penfolds, Pikes, Piping Shrike, Plantagenet, Platypus Creek, Poole's Rock, Ram's Leap, Ravenswood, Red Knot, Redbank, Redhouse, Reilly's, Château Reynella, Reynolds, Riddoch, Riverina Estate, RockBare, Rocky Gully, Rosemount, Rothbury Estate, St. Hallett, Salena Estate, Salomon Estate, Sextant, Step Road, Stonehaven, Swan's Flight, TarraWarra, Tatachilla, Teal Lake, Thirsty Lizard, Thorn-Clarke, Twin Beaks, Tyrrell's, Wakefield, Wallaby Creek, Wally's Hut, Water Wheel, Weeping Rock, Western Range, Wirra Wirra, The Wishing Tree, Wolf Blass, Woop Woop, Wyndham Estate, David Wynn, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Xanadu, Yalumba, Yangarra Park, Yellow Tail, or You Bet, to just name a few.

Now, Hanes has never been to Australia but it must be hard to walk around easily since there seems to be a famous creek worth naming a wine after every ten feet, rife with gamboling kangaroos, swans and koala bears…