Accolade Wines, a titan in the Australian wine industry, boasts an impressive portfolio of premium wines that have graced tables worldwide including Grant Burge, St Hallet in Barossa,Petaluma and Hardy’s to name a few. With its roots tracing back to over a century ago, the company has grown to become a leading global wine business, distributing its iconic brands to over 140 countries.
With a glint in his eye, Craig Stansborough, the Group Premium Winemaker at Accolade Wines, shared with us in an interview the complexities of export markets, the sting of China’s tariffs, and the labyrinthine challenges birthed by the pandemic form a tapestry of trials and tribulations. Yet, for Craig, the story of wine is deeply personal.
This year marked his 30th vintage in the wine industry, having first started in 1993 at Barossa’s Grant Burge. Reflecting on the wine evolution he has seen over the last three decades, “For the Australian wine industry in general, we went through a period where things got a bit riper, more oak,” Stansborough began.
The era he alluded to, the 90s and 2000s, was one where critics like Robert Parker held sway, championing wines with intense ripeness and pronounced oak. But Stansborough’s pride in Grant Burge’s integrity was palpable when he noted, “We never really followed that direction. We never changed our style dramatically to suit that.” This unwavering commitment, he believes, stems from the visionaries like fifth generation owner Grant Burge.
Having embarked on his journey with Grant Burge in 1993 and subsequently ascending to the role of Senior Winemaker, Stansborough’s insights come imbued with experience.
He’s witnessed a transformative shift in wine styles, moving towards brighter, more structured, and balanced profiles. Delving deeper, he observed, ” Our overall wines now are probably a bit brighter, a bit more structured. A bit more balanced, with oak and fruit.” This shift, he believes, is a manifestation of a more profound connection with the land. “We understand our soils better. We understand our vines better,” he mused. The enhancement in fruit quality is also a testament to the meticulous and selective processes that the winery employs.
For Stansborough, the underpinning of all these evolutions is research, drawing parallels with other sectors. “It’s like every industry. There’s research and research and research,” he said. This relentless pursuit of knowledge allows winemakers to discern what they’re doing right, rectify mistakes, and delve deeper into the nuances of winemaking.
The Ballet of Market Dynamics
Turning to the business of wine, “Our biggest market was the UK, followed by Australia, our domestic market,” Stansborough remarked.
While China wasn’t Accolade’s strongest market like it was for other players such as Treasury Wine Estates, it played a pivotal role in the group’s growth strategy. However, the landscape shifted dramatically with China’s sudden tariffs on Australian wines. Stansborough revealed the stark contrast, “Before Covid, Australian exports to China were AU$1.3 billion, plummeting to now AU$8 million. It’s crazy,” he remarked.
Elaborating on the ramifications of the China tariffs on Accolade Wines, Stansborough pointed out, “All the intended growth for the group was based on China.” The long-term nature of wine production, where investments are made years in advance, meant that these sudden changes had a ripple effect, causing disturbances for many Australian wineries.
This turbulence was further accentuated by global economic challenges, intensified by the pandemic, fluctuating interest rates, and soaring inflation. Observing the broader economic picture, Stansborough commented,”Everything has caused the pocket to be a bit tighter.”
In terms of resilient markets during these tumultuous times, Stansborough shared a candid perspective. The development of a wine culture, particularly in populous countries like India, is not an overnight endeavor. The shift from China to alternative markets is a time-consuming process, and as Stansborough highlighted, no market truly stood out as a beacon during the COVID era.
Adding to the complexities, the logistical quagmires brought on by geopolitical tensions, such as the Ukraine-Russia war, further compounded the industry’s challenges. With rising costs and retailer pushback against price hikes, wineries found themselves in a tight spot, grappling with shrinking margins.
Yet, some positive trends emerged. The Australian domestic market experienced a boost as home-bound consumers increased their wine purchases. However, this was counterbalanced by the decline in restaurant sales due to pandemic-induced closures. The pivot from China to other markets also presented its own set of challenges, with new target markets becoming quickly saturated and fiercely competitive.
“People put a lot of emphasis on South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand and all of a sudden that became super competitive. So it’s a difficult situation,” he lamented.
Debunking ‘Factory Wine’ Myth
As our conversation continues, Stansborough felt compelled to address a prevalent myth that large-scale production was akin to factory output. In the realm of wine, size does not dictate quality, he affirms.
He expressed his aversion to the term “factory,” clarifying that large-scale production does not necessarily compromise the wine’s uniqueness or quality. “People use the word factory sometimes. It’s not what they are. Because consumers tend to have this conception: if the volume is huge, oh, the wines are like Coca-Cola wines. But maintaining consistency at such scales is quite an endeavor,” he maintained.
To drive his point home, he brought up Hardys, Accolade’s flagship brand and its biggest commercially successful brand. “People sometimes see Hardys, because there’s a lot of commercial, and think we don’t have the premium in. But we have some amazing premium wines like Eileen Hardy. These wines are at the very top of what we do in the Accolade portfolio,” he emphasized.
He underscored the significance of viewing wine as an agricultural marvel, unique in its essence and fraught with production challenges. “Wine is a farming agricultural product. We get one chance per year,” he said, highlighting the crucial roles played by farmers and viticulturists. Stansborough lamented the loss of this message and emphasized the importance of experience in achieving consistency in large-scale winemaking.
As the seasoned winemaker delved into the intricacies of wine production, he shed light on its unpredictable nature and the undying commitment required to curate each bottle. “And it’s the skill of the viticulturist and the skill of the winemaker to make sure that you get the best out of the vineyard and the best out of the grapes that you process.” He mused, his gaze distant yet filled with passion. “But that’s also part of the attraction, the uniqueness about wine that no two vintages are ever the same.”