The value of communication

Column - Robert Joseph

Robert Joseph
Robert Joseph

Two great Australians died during the same week in April. Readers unfamiliar with cricket will probably not have heard of Richie Benaud who, after captaining his - unbeaten - national cricket team, became a leading commentator on the sport. Bob McLean’s name may be similarly unfamiliar, but anyone who has followed the extraordinary history of Australia’s wine industry over the last four decades will know how big a part he played, and the example he offered to wine producers across the globe. 

A famously large man, his early career included a spell working as a nightclub bouncer before he landed a job at the Orlando Wine Company in the 1970s, where he was given the job of promoting Pol Roger Champagne. From the outset, he applied a strategy that Hazel Murphy would successfully adopt when piloting the Australian wine promotional office in London a decade later: he generously poured samples for large numbers of people. Critics suggested that he gave away more wine than Orlando actually sold, but the brand became a solidly profitable favourite in Australia, a country that is still a great market for the Champagne region as a whole. 

Hazel Murphy came in for similar scepticism. “What’s the point of simply giving thousands of people a taste when they won’t remember what they’ve had?” they asked. The results spoke for themselves: Australia moved from being an unknown in the UK to the head of the table where it remains today.

Listening to people mocking the fruity, oaky, ‘sunshine in a bottle’ character of the Australian wines of the 1980s and 1990s, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary they were, compared to what was then on offer, and how ground-breaking the approach was of the people who produced and sold them. And that brings me back to ‘Big Bob McLean’ who progressed from promoting Pol Roger to helping to build the Petaluma brand before taking over an obscure company called St Hallett and turning its Old Block wine into one of the flagships of the Barossa Valley. In a farewell message (that appears on, he denied that he had ever been a ‘PR person’ or a marketer. He was, he said, “more of a communicator than anything”, someone who “got everybody talking” and “made things work”.

A typical story about McLean was told by Dr Damien Wilson, now of the Dijonʼs Burgundy School of Business, who in his youth worked as a waiter in an Adelaide restaurant. A customer was questioning whether a bottle of St Hallett wine was corked, but before Wilson could deal with the matter, McLean who was dining on the other side of the street, had already crossed the road and placed a replacement bottle on the table.

For the countless numbers who met him and heard him spin a few tales in his gravelly voice, it is impossible to think about St Hallett without conjuring up an image of Bob McLean. But surely the same is true of a long list of premium and super premium wines. Would D’Arenberg, Torres, Hugel et Fils, Gaja, Guigal, Antinori, Mondavi or Montes have achieved the successes they have without the communication skills and readiness of the individual human beings with whom those brands were associated?

The value of having a good communicator at or near the helm is illustrated by the way that Accolade uses Bill Hardy as a brand ambassador for Hardy’s, the company that once belonged to his family. Margrit Mondavi still holds the position of vice president of cultural affairs for the Robert Mondavi Winery and has been active in promoting brand and its wines since their acquisition by Constellation. Journalists visiting Krug often get to meet Olivier Krug, but most commercial decisions are made by the CEO, Maggie Henriquez.

One thing the best of those communicators tend to have in common is that they are not narrowly focused on their own brands. Robert Mondavi in particular was happy to promote the Napa Valley as a whole, while Etienne Hugel is often seen as an ambassador for Alsace and Riesling, along with the Hugel family brands. 

Richie Benaud, the cricket commentator mentioned at the beginning of this piece, won international respect for valuing the sport above his own country, roundly criticising the Australian team when he disapproved of its behaviour. Bob McLean flourished commercially by being part of a Barossa Valley he helped to make famous. In an increasingly corporate wine world, where brands struggle to capture consumers’ attention, the need for genuine communicators who can “get everybody talking” will be keener than ever.



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