Taste of Australia

Wine Market owner heads Down Under for symposium


When asked where good wine is made, even the teetotaler will come up with an answer of France, Italy or California.

Wine Market proprietor Scott Smith with a few of his favorite Australian varieties. He’s spending time in Australia learning about the wines from Down Under to be able to help customers with selections.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But not many, even with years of sniffing corks, tend to think of Australia.

The winegrowers of that country aim to change that, informing the world at large on their long history and fruitful bounty with a four-day symposium to be held in Adelaide, South Australia, beginning Sept. 15.

And local wine retailer Scott Smith, owner of the Wine Market at 4734 Spottswood Ave. in East Memphis (winemarketmemphis.com), aims to bring that knowledge back to Memphis to increase the love for, and sale of, wines from Down Under.

Smith entered a contest sponsored by “The Tasting Panel,” a trade magazine geared toward the beverage industry. He wrote a letter to those putting on the conference, called Savour Australia, explaining how his attendance would help in the dissemination of information to his customers and the United States as a whole.

Touted as Australia’s first global wine forum, it’s designed “to bring wine professionals in from all over the globe and make presentations to them and have conversations with them, to sort of begin to understand the difficulties that Australian wines are having selling in the global marketplace right now,” Smith said.

While China remains a bright spot, he added, the U.S. and Europe have not been as big of consumers as the Australians would like to see. Therefore, the growers have recently begun pooling their resources to get the word out and market themselves collectively to the world.

Having worked for Star Distributors before opening McEwen’s on Monroe with its heralded wine list, Mac Edwards has long celebrated the country’s vintners.

“Australian wines are made in more of a western style, not in a French style, but in a California style,” he said. “They make big, rustic, full-flavored wines.”

With this, and his customers, in mind, Smith wrote: “What I wish they knew, and what I do my utmost to show them, is that there’s so much more to Australia’s wines than (the larger winemakers). If they give me a chance, I love to talk to them about the smaller, family-owned wineries that hand-craft their wines from specific vineyards in places like Barossa Valley, Margaret River, or the Mornington Peninsula.”

Written like a connoisseur who knows where good wine is produced, Smith’s letter was one of only two in the country selected (the other went to a private dining club in Seattle) for the all-expenses-paid trip to Australia.

And how do the wines from Down Under sell at the Wine Market?

“Good, but not as good as they once did,” Smith said. “They have lost some ground, I will say.”

One reason he points to is perception. Larger winemakers such as Alice White and Yellow Tail have saturated the market with their more economical brands, possibly turning customers off. The marketing, labeling and branding in the U.S., too, “got a little bit too cutesy and cartoony,” Smith said, leading to the brands not being taken seriously by consumers.

“Fine products for what they are,” Smith said, “but (customers) might not understand that there are much, much better wines; much more serious and complex wines available from Australia other than that.”

Edwards, who now owns The Elegant Farmer restaurant, is someone who knows the oenological landscape in Memphis. He agreed that Australian wines suffer from a problem in perception and knows it’s nothing new to the industry. When he began selling Sebastiani wines in Memphis from the century-old California winemaker, it was only available as “jug wine,” he said. “So when Sebastiani started making more good wine, it was really difficult in Memphis to change the perception of Sebastiani. And the wines were terrific.”

He calls The Elegant Farmer an “American restaurant” and says he only has one wine available from elsewhere, and it isn’t Australian. This isn’t by design but rather a case of “out of sight out of mind.” The wholesaler hasn’t suggested the wines, so they haven’t made the list. Proof that it’s not, at this time, a make-or-break menu item.

At the Wine Market, however, it’s a different story. Walking the aisles in his store, which Smith opened seven years ago in the shopping center adjacent to Target and the Williams-Sonoma outlet, one will notice that Australian wines take up half of the length of one 32-foot shelf.

At four shelves high, that’s 64-shelf feet of Australia product. On those racks, he’ll point to bottles of Two Hands with a price tag of $80, but he also touts Jacob’s Creek at a more budget-friendly $16. His personal favorite is a bottle of Vasse Felix cabernet sauvignon, which comes in at $37.

Smith’s mission is to educate his customers, not just on what wine might go with a particular entrée, but on where that wine comes from, to “stress regionality and topicity of place, like French wines and California wines.”

Edwards has the same approach in his restaurant.

“Wine is liquid food,” he said. “Wine is agriculture.”

Smith believes his immersive trip to Australia will help give him the information and experience he needs to better spread that gospel.

In closing his letter, Smith wrote: “And I will continue to evangelize to both my customers and my suppliers not to forget the real wines of Australia with a new-found enthusiasm and vigor. I sincerely want Americans to re-evaluate their opinion of these important wines, and understand what tremendous values the best Australian wines represent.”