A wine company charts its own destiny

When Brokenwood Winery found itself squeezed by retailers, it decided to steer its own course. Jeni Port looks at what happened next.

The Brokenwood Winery
The Brokenwood Winery

Brokenwood has a name as one of the modern-era stalwarts of the Hunter Valley wine industry. It will forever be associated with Australia’s greatest wine writer, James Halliday – one of the three original founders back in 1970 – as well as its top wine, the Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz which, despite the name, does not have and has never had its roots in sacred cemetery soil. 
But at the turn of the 21st Century, Brokenwood was showing its age. The old cellar door in Pokolbin, with its distinctly 80s feel, was small, and unable to cater for everyone turning up for free wine tastings. Not only that, but retailers were squeezing margins. 

“We somehow needed to filter out the tyre-kickers,” says managing director and chief winemaker, Iain Riggs. Brokenwood introduced paid tastings at the cellar door about four years ago. Then it became cashless, which made the cellar door run faster. Soon enough, one thing led to another and a complete overhaul of the cellar door and the business was in the works. 

Today, Brokenwood is unrecognisable. 

Pivot to tourism

It is a 1,400 square-metre, bold, modernist vision in timber and glass with restaurant, café, circular self-contained tastings pods, winery observation “holes,” and a revitalised direct-to-customer experience that maximises every aspect of the business. There’s even a new convivial vibe, etched in large letters and placed around the building: Enjoy GREAT wine and have FUN. “It was a change in paradigm,” says general manager Geoff Krieger.

Brokenwood is no longer exclusively in the wine business – it’s also in the winery tourism business.

The A$8m ($5.4m) re-development opened in December 2018. It was five years in the making (in large part due to the objections of the local Council), but the delay proved to be a godsend. “Those years turned out to be extremely valuable,” says Krieger, “because we were meeting every week to think out every single idea. What type of software do we need? Let’s go and research that because we’ve got time. Because we had that extra time, we were able to do a lot of the planning and staff training before the place even opened.”

Inspiration came from visiting cutting-edge winery installations in Australia and around the world. In South Africa, the Fairview Wines cellar door with its tasting pods that invite small groups to taste with a dedicated wine pourer, excited. Visits to Seppeltsfield, Wirra Wirra and St. Hugo in South Australia showed how the winery tourism experience could be elevated to include food, wine and music, tempting wine lovers to stay longer. Attracting and keeping people at the cellar door became a priority. “The whole premise of the new winery building was to get someone there at 9:30 in the morning for a coffee and they would leave at 5:00 in the afternoon,” says Riggs. “That drove what we did in the new building.”

Brokenwood worked with Destination NSW through its Export Ready Program which assisted in developing and promoting its tourism products to an international market.  It joined Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia (UWEA) – an off-shoot of Tourism Australia – which promotes high-end, behind-the-scenes experiences at 24 top Australian wineries including Seppeltsfield, Yalumba, Penfolds and Josef Chromy. To join costs wineries A$13,000 ($8,900) annually.

Experience oriented

Krieger says UWEA advised Brokenwood on the “right” experiences to offer, and how to have the “right” systems in place so that overseas travel agents and international tourism organisations could find them; one of those systems was the REDZY online booking software. The winery also has a Mandarin speaker on weekends and price lists in Mandarin at the cellar door to cater for the growing number of Chinese visitors.

As a result, Brokenwood now offers a number of levels of wine experiences. At the tasting pods, the introductory A$10 Varietal Tasting offers a 45-minute guided tasting of the varietal range, while the A$25 Single Vineyard Tasting is a 45-minute guided tasting of premium wines. A private, behind-the-scenes tour and tasting is A$100 a head.

The top tier raises the stakes considerably with a five-hour, A$1,099-per-head tour that starts with oysters and Semillon in a private tasting room, then moves to a tour of the winery and the Graveyard vineyard, to a four-course degustation menu in The Wood restaurant followed by a pre-release Graveyard Shiraz tasting. Guests also get a take-home bottle of Graveyard Shiraz, worth A$300 a bottle.

Moving into the fast-paced world of winery tourism meant a total change in approach. Every person who enters the tasting pod area is met with a glass of water, a price list and a conversation. Details – name, email, phone number – are recorded. This data helps to build a better picture of Brokenwood customers and, importantly, helps to sell them wine.

“The old service approach of just purely trying to sell wine and sell memberships wasn’t enough in the new building,” says Krieger. “We had to retrain all of our staff in hospitality and tourism. Now, we had to have our staff monitoring people that were there enjoying their day because our whole aim is to keep people at the place longer, to give them more touch points to have the opportunity to join the wine club or buy wine.”

Staff now walk around and say, ‘I see you have finished your glass, would you like another bottle?’ Or, ‘Can we tempt you to try a glass of Rosato?’ Or, ‘Perhaps you’d like to join us for lunch today?’

The new Brokenwood cellar door has an extensive terrace space in addition to The Wood restaurant and Cru Bar + Pantry where visitors can buy coffee, a salumi plate or a rare Brokenwood wine by the glass via a WineEmotion dispenser. Private tasting and dining rooms are also available.

Encouraging people to stay longer would seem to ask for trouble with the potential for over-consumption of wine. The answer, says Krieger, is to have quality food and coffee on offer and to work with local tour operators to get people to and from the winery safely. The Brokenwood Wine Club, as well as offering access to exclusive wines and discounts, has a new emphasis on a broader range of member benefits, such as a concierge system for booking accommodation in the Hunter Valley. “Overall, our wines aren’t inexpensive. In fact, they are quite expensive and so to an extent, price moderates consumption,” adds Krieger.

The majority of Brokenwood’s direct-to-customer and club members are aged 50 to 60 years old, drawn from some of the wealthiest suburbs of Sydney. This demographic ensures that it’s the higher priced wines (A$60-$100+/bottle) and wine experiences that are among its most profitable. Brokenwood has always had cachet, in part from being so closely associated with James Halliday, who left to start Coldstream Hills winery in the Yarra Valley in 1985.

But who replaces the Baby Boomers? It used to keep Geoff Krieger awake but not now. “We are seeing the children of our customers and our wine club members now visiting Brokenwood,” he says, “ because the place is new, its hip and funky and it’s wired and does all of those things that they take for granted so they are coming here.” He says they already trust the brand, because they’ve been seeing it “since they were kids”. 

The winery

Brokenwood began with three business partners in 1970, grew to nine, then 11 and now has 27 shareholders, including the children of two of the original founders, the late Tony Albert and the late John Beeston. 

Like all Hunter producers, it was built on two grapes, Semillon and Shiraz. Under winemaker Iain Riggs, who was the company’s first full-time employee when he joined in 1982, Brokenwood has expanded into multiple wine regions. Now it uses grapes from regions across New South Wales, Canberra, Victoria and South Australia. One wine, the Beechworth Pinot Gris is now among of the biggest sellers at the cellar door and production needs to increase to meet demand.

Before the re-development, Brokenwood attracted between 50,000 and 70,000 visitors a year. Since the relaunch, Brokenwood recorded 6,600 sales of the A$10 per head varietal tasting, and 1,000 per head of the A$25 tastings in one four-month period. Those figures don’t include sales in the rest of the complex. Visitor numbers are expected to reach 250,000 per year.

To put this in contact, 8.4m people visited Australian wineries and spent A$9.6bn on their trips overall in 2018/19, according to December 2019 data from Tourism Research Australia. The number of international visitors to wineries now exceeds one million annually. Winery tourism is big business, but it requires a different way of thinking. “The wine industry has to evolve and keep pace with what our consumers are demanding,” says Riggs.
A new generation of drinkers is coming to the cellar door, he says, and their expectations and demands are different to previous generations. They want wines that are sustainably produced, particularly organic, biodynamic or vegan wines, and they expect a tasting environment that includes food and exposure to different wine experiences. 

One thing Brokenwood will never do is make wines tailored to younger tastebuds. “There’s been a lot of talk about producing wine for the Millennials or the Xs or Ys or whoever the next lot is,” says Krieger, “but I’m old enough to remember when cynically, wine companies starting marketing wines to women. It is just so condescending, it never worked.” He says that Brokenwood will not go down the track of marketing to individual demographics. “We’ll just make the best quality wine that we possibly can and I think that will be enough.”

Jeni Port

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.


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