In a cut-throat wine market dominated by multinationals, a clutch of family-owned estates has joined forces to woo international buyers and opinion leaders with a collective charm offensive.
Formed in 2009, the Australian First Families of Wine is a club of 12 producers which have combined their marketing muscle to push their top-shelf drops in markets where Aussie plonk has struggled to shake a cheap-and-cheerful image.
The Australian wine industry is expected to turn over $5.3 billion in 2012-13, $1.9 billion of which will come from the export market, according to Ibisworld. In recent years, the rising Aussie dollar has made it tough for local producers to compete with other 'new world' players, particularly in the volume market.
First Families are the clans behind many of the country's most iconic drops and include the Henschkes, De Bortolis, Tyrrells, Taylors and the Browns of Brown Brothers.
Membership is open to other comers but upstarts need not apply. Wineries must be family owned with a minimum two generations' of experience, have an "iconic" wine going back at least 10 vintages and be active in industry affairs.
The Families have travelled together to the UK and Canada, sharing their histories and spruiking their wares at combined cellar door-style roadshows. Latterly they have set their collective sights on China.
It's the world's fastest growing wine market, thanks to a burgeoning middle class of millions who have begun to acquire a taste for the grape. They're happy to spend up on premium brands for quaffing and gift giving, with full-bodied reds the favoured tipple to date.
The Families' three-city tour in September will take in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
The group also runs occasional food and wine events in Australia. On June 3 they will stage an "Unlocked" masterclass in Brisbane, where participants can pay $300 to rub shoulders with the dozen and sample museum wines from their private cellars.
First Families chairman, Taylors managing director Mitchell Taylor, says the personal push has been a big hit with UK distributors and opinion leaders whose whim determines what ends up on premium wine lists and bottle shop shelves.
“People get a thrill out of having a wine actually poured by the person whose name is on the label,” Taylor says.
“People want that authenticity. It's part of the land, a crafted product – and every family has a different story to tell. People love to hear the individual stories of the families. It shows the broadness and diversity of the industry.”
The Families' long pedigrees and focus on succession will hold special appeal for the dynastically minded Chinese, member Stephen Henschke predicts.
The Tyrrells and Henschkes are fifth- and sixth-generation producers respectively and the group has a collective 1200 years of winemaking experience.
Almost as longstanding as the clans' ties to their vines is a mateship that transcends competitive pressures. It helps give the group a vibe that's more old fashioned guild than industry collective, according to Tyrrell's CEO Bruce Tyrrell.
“It's put a bit of fun back in the wine trade,” Tyrrell says.
“It's rare in any industry to get people who are competitive to sit around the table and do something for the good of the industry ... people can't believe the cooperation in the Hunter [Valley] and how we all get on.”
Psychologist and founder of the advertising agency Naked Communications, Adam Ferrier, says joining forces was a stroke of genius for the Families; any of which would struggle singularly to be heard on the international stage.
“Hats off to these guys. It's a fantastic idea to blend their marketing spend, using the combined resources of all the brands to attack a very fragmented market,” Ferrier says.
“If they can get in there first in an emerging market like China and position their brands as premium, it's a good thing for the whole market.
“Normally the loudest voice in the market is from the value market players.”
A principal at branding agency Truly Deeply, Peter Singline, agrees.
“It's a ripper idea … to get some scale to go into those countries,” he says.
“I've not seen brands come together like this and share a platform in terms of storytelling. They're sharp players who think about what they do and draw strength from each other.”
Their authenticity is the group's biggest strength, Singline adds.
“They have a real sense of place – it's not just a pretty label. Lots of brands are virtual brands these days," he says.
“Everyone talks about heritage and staying relevant – and theirs is clearly relevant. They're producing good quality wine.”