After living and working in Manila for six years, Australian couple Bill and Jacqui Stevens decided it was time for a change of career and lifestyle. *Geoff Low writes for FOOD.
Bill is an engineer with many years business experience in Southeast Asia, and Jacqui comes from a family of McLaren Vale grape-growers, so their idea of making wine in Australia for export to Asia isn’t as surprising as it might seem.
Stevens Brook Estate winery was established by Bill and Jacqui in Echuca-Moama in 1995 and released its first Estate wine in 1999.
The company currently sells its own label wines into the domestic market and 40% of their grape production to Casella for their export ‘Yellowtail’ label.
With estimated grape production capable of increasing to 100 tonne by 2006, producing approximately 50,000 cases of wine, it is one of the larger wineries in the Echuca region, with a cellar door in the popular Port of Echuca tourist precinct.
Early in 2004 and with turnover increasing rapidly, Bill and Jacqui felt the company was ready to explore its export potential.
“The intention was always to export our own wine to Southeast Asia, once we had sufficient production capacity and consistent quality,” Bill said. With nearly 20 years experience in the region, Bill has built up an extensive network of contacts in most countries, and is familiar with its cultures and business practices.
For instance, one fundamental issue to be addressed is the absence of a commonly accepted ‘wine culture’. “We’re working to overcome this by offering wine education to agents, staff and potential consumers as an integral part of the company’s service, and conducting wine appreciation classes for the hospitality industry and the general public.”
Through a Chinese contact, Bill was able to secure a small order from China for the launch of an Australian Wine and Gourmet Food outlet in a Beijing property development, which will provide long-term exposure as well as ongoing wine sales.
“Even so, we realised that we couldn’t do it alone, so we contacted Regional Development Victoria (RDV) for advice and assistance, and attended a number of trade delegations.”
The company successfully applied for funding from the Victorian Government’s First Step Exporter program, designed to help companies in the early stages of export development, to enable it to participate in the Guangzhou Wine and Spirit Trade Fair in China in July 2004.
“That support was crucial, as having a presence at such a major trade fair gave us a great chance to meet and evaluate potential distributors and outlets.”
Bill says that the Chinese market is both highly regulated and costly to enter, but as a huge market that is quickly becoming more wine-conscious, it represents an attractive long-term prospect.
“We’ve deliberately aimed for the premium end of the market, and sought to link with a smaller distribution agent, as in both cases it’s a better fit with our product and resources.”
Being part of Guangzhou certainly paid dividends, with very positive feedback on the company’s stand at the fair and 25 potential distributors expressing interest in its wines.
With advice from Austrade , Bill and Jacqui shortlisted the most likely prospects.
“The fact that three of our preferred agents, who were in Australia on a trade mission, travelled to Echuca specifically to check out the company’s operations at first hand suggests we’re on the right track,” Bill said.
The Chinese distributor they finally selected has recently made a formal offer to represent Stevens Brook Estate as its sole Australian wine producer.
Together with other local producers, Stevens Brook Estate was also invited to join a presentation to an inbound trade delegation from South America in September.
“Again, we received a number of enquiries, including one from an Ecuador-based distributor who has offered to take our wines into the USA next year,” Bill said.
“We’re discussing entry into the premium end of the market, so all things considered we’re very pleased with our progress so far.”
* Geoff is a communications adviser, business development at the Victorian Department of Innovation Industry & Regional Development .