In 2020, Chris Yorke took the role of Managing Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, stepping into the role that had become synonymous with its previous incumbent, Willi Klinger. Not only was it a big change at the AWMB, but Yorke arrived just as the pandemic hit, upending strategies and plans.
But Yorke is nothing if not flexible. A British national, he has had a high-level business career taking in pharmaceuticals, chemicals and credit cards, in Britain, Germany and Switzerland. In 2004 he became Global Marketing Director for New Zealand Winegrowers, where he was instrumental in promoting New Zealand’s wines to the global market. He is also fluent in German and Swiss German.
Can you give me an overview of the state of the Austrian wine industry?
We’ve just released our export numbers for 2022; we have been on quite a strong upward export trajectory over the last few years. We're now at €231m which is 6.4% higher than last year. That’s given us our highest average price, which is important because as you know, costs for everybody are increasing.
We were very happy that in 2020 exports didn't fall: they increased slightly. And then, in 2021, we were very active, particularly online. And we had our biggest ever value jump, from €187m to €217m — about €30m. And then we've managed to grow on that as well.
I would say there's strong recognition. What scared me during COVID was that Austrian wines would be left gathering dust on the shelf in retail; and of course, restaurants were closed. So, we did a lot of promotions to make sure that that stock was moving, which has definitely helped us.
I think stylistically, people are moving away from wanting big, bold, throw everything-at-it styles of wine and Austria very much fulfills that. It's what consumers are looking for now: fruit driven yet still complex and interesting soils, amazing ability to age. That’s a real insider secret from Austria. You can buy a €10 wine and that wine will keep going for 10 years.
You’re talking about the value of exports rising. How much of that is simply a reflection of inflationary pressures and how much of that is the value rising?
Obviously, everybody's under inflationary pressures, but we have a clear strategy to drive value. So, we're focusing on our top 10 countries where we can deliver that. We've got very strong growth in places like Canada: I think we grew by 40% there. The Scandinavian markets are very important to us; the US is in double digits now. So, we're very much targeting what we believe are the right markets for us.
When you see that kind of spectacular growth in today's wine landscape, can you point to markets and see anything within that market that was responsible for it? For example, in the United States, the number of importers interested in Austrian wine is growing. How much of your growth is due to marketing efforts, and how much is due to changes that are happening in the wine sphere at the moment, like consumers looking for more elegant, mineral wines?
It's a combination. I think you see first of all that many of our younger winemakers who are starting to come of age speak better English. So, there is more presence in the market.
Secondly, we are offering more platforms for them: we took 80 wineries to Montreal, we were in London last week with 100 wineries. So, we are starting to be much more present in the market. Last year we organized VieVinum, which is our biggest wine show, in the Imperial Palace. We brought in some very good trade and press from around the world, and we got a big kick from that. I think it's due to all of that coming together.
One thing we definitely see, particularly in the Nordics and in Canada, is that they place a real importance on our commitment to the environment. We have a very strong sustainability scheme, and 22% of our vineyard area is now organic, which is one of the highest in the world; almost a fifth of that is biodynamic. So, in those sectors of the market, we're seen as being quite innovative as well.
You mentioned being online during Covid. How much of the hybrid tasting approach and similar initiatives have survived the pandemic era, and how much have we gone back to doing it the way we always did?
One thing that we said very clearly is, we're not going back to 2019. So in our planning we set out to say: Okay, what have we learned? And then what can we do? How can we do it better? Going forward, there was a massive need to reconnect with people in person. And that's definitely happened with VieVinum. But the Germans have this wonderful expression: you don't need to dance at every wedding. People are thinking about their travel more and it's become more expensive to travel. The other thing we learned was, maybe we'll go to Stockholm in person, but we'll still do an online thing with the outer reaches of the Swedish countryside.
We’ve actually invested in a film studio in our office and converted one of our rooms into a film studio with cameras. We ran a big marketing meeting online, where we normally have 400 - 500 wineries, but we can now have over 1,000 because we're doing it online.
We’ve actually invested in a film studio in our office.
When the pandemic happened and everybody went online, some people went crazy doing Hollywood-style productions that were very staged, and other people were so loose that it didn't translate very well online. What do you think works particularly well online? How much depends on the script, how much on the camera work being good?
We had a big discussion — should it be offsite or onsite? And I said, I want it to be onsite, because I want it to be used. The first thing was proximity and people seeing it, because, by having it in the office, people say: “Oh what are you doing? Can we have a look?” There is almost an education within the teams in terms of how they use it.
As a membership-based organisation, obviously it’s very important that we do our communications to our wineries very well. You learn how to use the teleprompter, so it comes across naturally. Everybody’s on a learning curve and it’s great to see the team — I’ve got a very young team — all trying. And we've found some great stars in the organization who are simply brilliant.
Do you offer any of this kind of media or social media training to winemakers or are they all on their own when it comes to using Instagram and so on?
We do a number of classes online. For example, we give the sort of “10 tips to online marketing and social media”. We speak about how you should approach social media, which channels, how you should post, all those sorts of things. We’re building an extranet so that our wineries can come in through logins and find tips for markets. And of course, we have our marketing day that we run once a year.
You mentioned that you had to shelve your strategies when Covid came. What happened after Covid? Did you change your strategy?
The first thing to say is that what came before was excellent because it positioned Austria as a premium wine country. That was crucial. I think what I have done is to take the next step - how can we translate that into more sales? How do we promote our wines to the right target group? What are our top 10 markets within those markets? What are the key sectors that we're looking at? What are our activities there? What is the mix? Are we playing to all our strengths? Because I did an analysis of our exports, I could see that 20% of our exports are in that organic, natural space, which is a very high percentage.
When I started talking to people in the trade and in the media who are in that field, they said: “Well, Austria's got a good reputation for making very well produced, but alternative style wines.” Well, I've got a theory on that: next year in Montpellier we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamics, who was Austrian.
Are there any upcoming legislative changes or regulations that are going to impact what you're doing?
I always says that Austrians are very smart because they drink three-quarters of Austria’s wine production at time. Because they realise what good quality and what great value for money it is. But the growth is in exports. A lot of our structures and legislation, however, have been driven by the domestic market. And as we know, wine markets internationally are different. So I see part of my role is to question some of those structure that we’ve got: They’re right for the domestic market, but are they right for the export market as well?
How does Austrian Riesling manage to differentiate itself from German Riesling?
In my old job, I had to spend half my time saying, “New Zealand is not Australia. Please have a separate category for New Zealand”. And now I have to say “Austria is not Germany. Please do not group it with Germany, because we have different price points and different styles.” When I was working with some new collaborators, they said, “Give me the one sentence difference between Austrian and German wine”. I said, “I’ll give you two words: ‘always dry’.”
But like any smaller brother, we always have a big respect for our bigger brother. And we have good contacts with the various groups within Germany, as we do with Switzerland.
How has being in Austria changed you and your approach, both professionally and personally?
I always describe myself as a European: I've lived a long time in Switzerland and in Germany. I'd worked in France, in the UK, and then 18 years in New Zealand. I've actually learned a lot more about this part of Europe. You know, we’re 45 minutes from Bratislava; Budapest is a three-hour drive.
I’ve always respected Austrian wines from afar, but I hadn’t realized the Austrians are such good fun: they like to enjoy themselves. They like to have a bit of structure as well, but not too much. So, it’s a very good place to work. There’s an openness to finding solutions.
Vienna is the best wine tourism destination in the world.
Wine tourism is a big, growing sector. Are you leaving it up to individual wineries to run their wine tourism, or are you liaising with the Austrian National Tourism Office?
This is a bold claim, but I think Vienna is the best wine tourism destination in the world. Why do I say that? Because first of all, it’s Vienna, which is a beautiful city. It has the highest amount of vineyards of any capital city in the world; about 600 hectares. It’s part of the culture of the city, in particular with the 'Heurigers' (wine taverns). But the really interesting thing is that in an hour’s drive you’re in the Wachau, you’re in the Weinviertel or in Burgenland, or the Thermenregion. In two hour’s drive, you're in Steiermark.
Wine tourism is very important. We ran a major wine tourism campaign in Austria with Austrian Tourism during 2021 to bring people out. We wanted to get people into the country, into the regions. We wanted the wine enthusiasts, not the geeks. We know that when they travel, they spend more and they like to have accommodation that’s a little bit better, a dinner that’s a little bit better. It’s important strategically. I talked to Austrian Tourism and they accepted the fact that strategically it was important to get people to go to the countryside. It was a really good campaign and our wineries really noticed people buying wine out there.
Do you have an ongoing strategy for wine tourism?
The next thing now is we're really activating our regional bodies. They’re much closer to it than us, and they have the relationships.
Let’s talk about the future. So, all of this fantastic stuff is happening and you’re in growth. What’s next and what are the limits to growth? How much can you grow and at what point do you just want stable markets?
That is actually a very interesting question. The potential for growth of Austrian wines is somewhat limited by the very high domestic demand. 90% of wine that’s sold in Austrian restaurants is Austrian wine.That’s massive. It’s really part of the culture here. So there’s a little bit of tension in taking wines from the domestic market for export. A number of people have said to me, “Well, Chris, it’s all fine and good pushing exports, but don’t push it too much, or we won’t have any wine.”
But if I look at it from a market perspective, I think our Grüner Veltliner offers a wine that can go in either an entry level or a premium level: spend €50 on a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and you’ll get an amazing wine that you can cellar for 20 years. The indigenous varieties that we have are really exciting; it’s something that people are looking for. They're looking for wines with character, with soul, with a sense of place.