Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wine Australia ditches tasting panel - common sense prevails

Well, well, well. Wine Australia, the industry’s regulatory body, has scrapped the controversial export tasting panel.

Full cloud alert: one of these things is not like the others ...
I wrote about the tasting approval process in The Weekend Australian last year. Since 1929, before being allowed to leave our shores, every wine destined for export been assessed by a panel of wine professionals to ensure it is ‘sound and merchantable’ and does not ‘bring Australia’s reputation into disrepute.

I - and other journalists - have long pointed out the problems at the heart of this process. If a wine has already received an export order from a customer overseas, for example, surely that alone makes it ‘merchantable’? And while many of the wines that were being rejected for being faulty (i.e., ‘unsound’), they are exactly the kinds of funky, quirky, idiosyncratic styles that could actually enhance Australia’s image overseas - an image founded on technically sound (there’s that word again) but ultimately bland wines.

This issue enjoyed a burst of international attention in August when winemaker Gary Mills of Jamsheed in the Yarra Valley hit Twitter to complain about how he had had a wine rejected by the panel - despite the fact that it had already been selected by a Master of Wine to be served at a special dinner in Japan, and was receiving rave reviews back home.

I tracked down a bottle - it was a 2011 cabernet franc - and tried it. Yes, it was hardly what you’d call squeaky clean - it was a bit cloudy and a but sharp - but it was super-juicy, fun, refreshing, and very much in the ‘natural’ style so beloved of trendy wine bars and indie retailers (indeed, it was floor-stacked inside the front door of the indie retailer I bought it from). A few re-Tweets later and suddenly international journalists were taking an interest, joining the chorus of disapproval for the approval process.

Soon, rumours started circulating (on Twitter of course) that Wine Australia was seriously thinking of disbanding the export tasting panel. And now, a few months later, this has indeed come to pass.

So what happened? Why the change of heart? The power of the press? A triumph for Twitter? Or simply a case of good old-fashioned common sense prevailing?

Probably a little of all of the above. Certainly the new approach is more sensible and realistic than the old approach: rather than mandatory pre-export tasting for all wines, the existing system of compliance audits (which includes checking winery records and labels) will be expanded to include analysis and taste-tests.

It would be great if this could be supported by some in-depth wine training for the auditors (it would have been good if this could have been offered to the old tasting inspectors, too). Anybody assessing whether a wine is ‘sound and merchantable’ need to be exposed to the incredible diversity of styles out there: from big, black, overoaked, over-alcholic shiraz to cloudy, orange, amphora-fermented sauvignon blanc, almost anything goes out there in the modern wine scene.

As Wine Australia chief executive Andrew Cheesman himself said when announcing the overhaul: ‘The market place and consumers should be the arbiter of wine quality.’

(a version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian A Plus on 11 Feb 2012)