Over the past decade or so, a new wave of smart and nimble wine distributors (many of whom were former sommeliers) have helped to reshape the drinks industry, bringing with them a never-before-seen sense of diversity to wine lists and retail shelves.
Today, in the latest of our Hits From The Trade series, Andrew Graham chats with the highly regarded Andrew Jamieson of Andrew Jamieson Wine Merchants about the highs and lows of premium wine distribution in Australia.
Also a former sommelier, Jamieson now represents more than twenty-five wine labels from across the world, including local lofi heroes like Inkwell, Vinden Wines, Salo, Polperro & Moon.
We join Sydney-based Jamieson in Brisbane, where he has just expanded further, while some of his producers were pouring at the Young Guns of Wine event - including Pipan Steel, who Jamieson believes are producing some of Australia's best Nebbiolo (and were shortlisted as a Halliday Best New Winery last year).
Kaddy Community: You're up in Brisbane expanding the network?
Andrew Jamieson: We're showing Fighting Gully Road around and talking to some people. Also, eating and drinking up here is a lot of fun. It's really unpretentious, and all the people that work up here (in Brisbane) have a hunger, and everyone's driving it. You know, if you want to have a great meal out and spend $150 on a bottle of wine, I'm seeing places where you can pickup something for not much more than Sydney or Melbourne retail.
Nice, So remind me now - how long has it been now in the industry? Where did it all begin?
I think I started in 2007 in a full-time capacity when I became an assistant sommelier at Gazebo Wine Garden. That was after a few years of chasing snow savings in North America. I was working part-time at Malaya before that, and I started going to the Gazebo because I was studying Introduction to Winemaking at Ryde TAFE under Clive Hartley, and this was just an extra study thing. I was going to the Gazebo a lot, and they offered me a job there (which then led to becoming Group Sommelier for Keystone Group).
What do you reckon has changed in the industry over the 15 years since then?
Many things, obviously. One of the biggest changes, and I suppose where the opportunity came in my business, is the growth of the smaller, more specialist artisan producer and watching it evolve over the last fifteen years is exciting. Just seeing a lot of small specialist producers like Pipan Steel. Or Mark (Walpole, from Fighting Gully Road), for that matter, that people really doing things differently. They're not just trying to turn out Shiraz and Chardonnay. It
It's a really exciting time with the rise of that small to medium-sized producer, and I'd say it's driven a lift in quality across the board (for alternative varieties) as a result.
Speaking of, what challenges do you face as a smaller distributor?
Just the challenges of small businesses in general, especially in the last few years of COVID and whatnot. Otherwise, it's probably resources. It's not like David vs Goliath, but not having the resources to be doing things as you'd like. Or as formally as you'd like at times. (Being smaller) means you do things differently than someone with bigger resources in terms of marketing, PR and engagement, warehousing and logistics. Otherwise, the staffing piece at the moment throughout the hospitality sector is a challenge, especially keeping staff when they can earn $40k per year in tips as a sommelier.
40 grand a year in tips!
Isn't it? Yeah, it's a crazy time.
Ok, so I know that you've brought on a few new producers lately. How does that process work?
Things like Young Guns have been great events for finding producers like that for everyone in the trade. Here is an event where those small guys get some airtime, and people can come and taste 100 wines that are a bit left the centre. Otherwise, finding new producers is where my professional life and personal life and interacting with the wine world come together. It's fun where I am seeking out what's cool and what's new and exciting things to drink that I think will work. For someone like Pipan Steel, I just start off a dialogue with them and seek out their wines. Then I made some time to go see them and hang out, and it's perfect because there is a gap in my portfolio.
That's the thing about being in the 'middle section' of the industry, where you don't have to have the big brands, but I like my portfolio to have things that are a little bit different with more interesting points. I mean, you take Giant Steps - I think they're one of the best producers of Pinot Noir & Chardonnay pound for pound, but I don't have the infrastructure or resources for that brand. Yet I do have Salo which is the brand of Flamo (Steve Flamsteed, Giant Steps winemaker). That's the sort of trail that I want to follow - things that are interesting and unique with quality outside the mainstream.
On another topic, do things in the industry feel a bit more normal after the pandemic peak, or is it different now?
It's very different. We're seeing a lot of operators that have gone back and reverted, and the whole landscape is different. The hangover of COVID is still very apparent, again, that comment around staffing. And that's all the way down the supply chain. I'm sure you've experienced it, I think everyone has. And we just can't seem to rely on logistics as much as we could - no matter whether you're sending with Fastways or Australia Post. I think it's going to linger for a time more and be exacerbated by staff shortages. I mean, I had a client that spent $2.5 million on a restaurant and had to shutdown for the month of July because of staff shortages. Things are looking up now, but that's a big hole to fill. I think this financial year is going to be tough for a lot of people, as they're still trying to trade through what they've accrued over the last two years. It feels like two steps forward, one step back.
What do you think is going to be big this summer?
I'd think that people are really embracing different things - like pet nats, orange wines, skin contact wines. There are better examples out there now, and I think people are becoming much more discerning because there is more choice. Those kinds of wines are now pushing into the mainstream, and I'm seeing restaurants and even retailers who would never have had those styles of wine in mind previously and are now. I also think people are more curious about what they're drinking - plus they're travelling more domestically, which I think really helps to open some eyes. You know, Will Gilbert in Mudgee is recording record numbers through the cellar door. It's the same with Angus Vinden (at Vinden Estate) in the Hunter. Suddenly, you're seeing people out in the wine regions like Tumbarumba or Canberra who wouldn't normally be there before. People are paying more, and being more discerning - they're not drinking their Oyster Bay anymore, and they're more likely to choose a premium local Sauvignon Blanc.
Looking back now, is there anything you think 'I wish I'd done this differently?
I would have been more discerning earlier. You know, I never went out to go and build a portfolio for the sake of having 100 wines available, but some wines I chose that were commercially feasible but probably didn't fit with what I really like. Also, when I first got into it, I made some inexperienced decisions because I didn't have any formal business training. I also think I came out and tried to be everything to everybody instead of a specialist in what we do. More Salos of the world, more Nebbiolo. You know, we had a tasting for Will Gilbert the other day, with all these somms tasting and really getting into Orange (region) sparkling. That's what I want to be doing.
So what's next?
I'm going to stay Australian true to heart, but there is a few conversations happening in Piedmont right now with a few different brands. I'd like to import more of those wines that I really like. I'm also looking at Burgundy too. Not big producers, but just those who align with the producers who I work with in Australia.
It's an excuse to go to Piedmont, too, isn't it?
That's the aspiration yeah! Hopefully, I'll have producers from Piedmont & Burgundy lined up this financial year. That's the goal.
Photos drawn from instagram.
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