THERE ARE FEW more high-profile names in the Australian wine industry than Peter Lehmann, which is why following in the great man’s footsteps was also going to be a big ask. But as Andrew Mole reports, the company’s new Swiss owners seem to be making all the right moves.
“My name is Bond. Jeff Bond.”
Nah, he didn’t actually say that but only, I remain convinced, because he didn’t want to come across as a complete tosser.
For surely the temptation must always be just one slip of the tongue away. Exquisitely, almost painfully, overwhelming to just once drop it into an otherwise deep and meaningful conversation.
All the while exuding that air of the uber cool. Reaching for the battered Ronson to light up the Macedonian special blend from Morland of Grosvenor Street, never glancing down at the stack of chips being shuffled with one hand on the baize of the roulette table.
Yep, whichever way you come at it, the whole idea just screams tosser.
Which is almost certainly why Peter Lehmann Wines chief executive Jeff Bond (who also lacks a Scottish accent) got straight down to the business of talking about his business.
Specifically, how well it is going.
Instead of Monte Carlo the conversation was at a coffee shop in Adelaide’s chic – but not yet uber chic – eastern café strip.
And with Bond on a schedule because, amongst other pressing issues, as it were, the company’s Swiss owners were coming to town and everything up in the Barossa needed to be spick and span.
And Bond, who has come to PLW via the global circuit of the high-end spirits industry, got his hand on the rudder just in time to try and steer it through the depths of the industry’s current supply malaise.
Trotting around the world with the likes of Remy and Constellation might have been a hoot but Bond had a long-time affinity with wine and that’s where he wanted to be.
So when the transition came with the retirement of Doug Lehmann, Bond was front and centre for the opportunity to land his dream job.
“I am really attracted by both the agricultural side of the business and the fact we go end to end, there aren’t many jobs where you can say you do that,” Bond said.
“There is a real craft to what people do here, not unlike the work I had seen being done with whiskey and cognac,” he said.
“But with wine there is that something special, and with PLW that something is very special.
“Peter himself was an industry icon and the time I had to talk with him, and talk about what we were doing, was irreplaceable.
“Doug, who had been successfully running the business for 20 years, was a winemaker and a wizard and he has passed on so much to me.
“Although Hess Family Wine Estates now owns PLW, the Lehmanns are still shareholders and that is a valuable connection for us.”
A big part of that value according to Bond was the actual production skills of the business were without equal so the mechanics of the business were going to be the least of his concerns when he got the job.
His focus is strategic and developing the future sustainability of the business and the brand.
“The wine industry has grown so big, so fast, and now that has caught up with it we are all going through a massive transition,” Bond said.
“There is still a lot of money to be made by the smart people with the right products – and of course that will be really helped if our dollar keeps going down,” he added.
“But what I think did get lost in the explosion of the Australian industry onto the world stage was that we made wine too simple and now we are trying to build back that complexity and brand power.
“The reason why people should pay more for a better product.”
At the peak of the wine boom, circa 2010, PLW was exporting 70 per cent of its 700,000-case production.
Bond admitted it was a heady success and it wasn’t until the Australian dollar really started to soar that the wine industry got its wake up call.
But for too many it was too late.
“We have been working hard to rebalance our business with a stronger domestic market where currency is never a risk and things are easier to control,” he said.
“Like most people we lost a lot of export sales and even though we have significantly improved our domestic sales it has still not made up for what we no longer have overseas.
“The key for us is to sell more but at a higher price point. We are talking the premiumisation of the brand. Not selling just $100 wines, but focusing on wines at the $20-$30 mark instead of being bashed around at the cheap end of the market.
This is not where our strength lies.
That said, neither Bond nor PLW have any problem with Australia’s supermarket duopoly.
As he said, they are a big part of Australia’s retail scene and have a legitimate role and PLW is “happy with the way they do business”.
“We have a space where they don’t want to play and that’s fine, but we are also working closely with our independent customers also.”