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Wine on TV - Plonk

PLONK: Nathan Earl, Chris Taylor and Josh Tyler.

By Nathan Gogoll

BRINGING the stories behind the labels to television screens is set to have an impact on how consumers understand the wine industry. Two separate programs that first went to air in 2014 are shaking up the traditional way wine has usually been presented to TV audiences.
Plonk, a light-hearted “show about a wine show” has just finished filming its second season, thanks to funding from the South Australian Tourism Commission, on the back of a first series supported by Destination NSW.
While People of the Vines, which follows Tyson Stelzer into wine regions, is close to wrapping up the filming of a second series after it attracted audiences of more than 1.2million viewers to episodes that aired late last year on the Channel Ten network.

Nathan Earl is the Plonk creator, director, producer, co-writer and explained the show is a bit of an odd combination of a documentary and a comedy.
“So it’s not just a matter of writing a script for a comedy, we were essentially researching and filming a documentary at the same time. And that meant we had a very organic process of a documentary and drama on top of each other,” Earl said.
Both Earl and his co-writer Josh Tyler grew up in wine regions, Earl in the Hunter, Tyler in the Barossa. But their preparation for each of their first two series has relied heavily on the willingness of people within the wine industry to get involved.
“We’d visit the regions and ‘get lost on the trail’, but we made sure we found key people in the industry who we ended up relying on to open up doors for us,” Earl said.
“People like Victoria Angove, who was happy to help us out, but in no way inferred she wanted to see Angove on screen in return. She’s smart, so she knows anything that’s good for McLaren Vale will be good for their McLaren Vale cellar door and her brand. And there are a lot of smart people in the industry who share that attitude.”

Plonk season two, was all filmed in South Australia “apart from a few little pick-up shots to explain how this dysfunctional group ‘the show within the show’ ended up on the road again”.
“The weather was fantastic, which was good because we are beholden to the life-cycle of the industry and you have to be out there at the right time to catch the action in the wineries and the beauty of the vineyards. But what was even better was the support and access we got all the way through the wine industry – from the top down.
“We were lucky people trusted us not to make them look foolish, I think that came on the back of the first season. But people were also willing to have some fun with us.
“We also ended up having a lot of fun with Jane Ferrari, we were in the Barossa when the Barons did their welcome to vintage thing and we were wondering how to interact with it. Jane became our hook into working with them. We were mindful of showing respect to what the Barons are about, but we’ve had some fun and we hope that will enable their story to reach a new audience.
“There’s no point doing a show about the wine industry without getting the support of the industry.”

Tyson Stelzer and the People of the Vines team has also been filming in South Australia, specifically the Barossa. This show concentrates on one region during vintage and unearths the characters involved in the process and relies on their real stories to shape it.
The stories from the first series, which was filmed in Tasmania during the 2014 vintage, focussed on how the industry has evolved on the Apple Isle through smaller, family-run wine businesses.
One of those was Delamere Vineyards, run by husband and wife team Fran Austin and Shane Holloway. Stelzer was able to use their story to show how quickly the winemaking landscape has changed in Tasmania – from the early days at Delamere when Austin and Holloway struggled to find people to work in the industry, through to more recent positive times where people have embraced food and wine tourism across Tasmania.
Stelzer found plenty of other interesting angles to take his audience inside the industry during his first series. He’s currently getting toward the end of the filming process for the second series, which looks set to feature hand-picking the 2015 Henschke Hill of Grace grapes and lots more characters.

Stelzer, a prolific wine writer and self publisher, said it has not been uncommon to find that an 11 or 12 hour filming day resulted in just six minutes of edited footage. It’s a whole new adventure for him. And an expensive one. The first series was completed on a budget of about $200,000, the second series required double that amount and Stelzer would like to allocate $600,000 to the third series.
“If you look at it long-term, to do it really well we would love to have a million dollars for a series, and that would allow us to make post production improvements and to use things like drones,” Stelzer said. “But we don’t want it to be glossy. When we get wineries involved they usually ask us if they should do a clean things up and I always say ‘no, just be natural’. Still, when we first turn up they do put on a show and tell – which is what I’m used to when I arrive to see new release wines or write a magazine article. But for the television series we get to spend a couple of days with people and that’s when the real depths of the personal stories emerge.
“I’m seeing a whole different side of the industry. I don’t think many people have a real idea about what it takes to make a bottle of wine, that there’s a crucial time period where people are up before dawn and still working after dark to get it all done.”
Stelzer used Ian Hongell, in his first vintage as Peter Lehmann Wines chief winemaker as an example.
“You look at what a young winemaker like Ian is doing… at Peter Lehmann Wines they had already crushed 14,000 tonnes of grapes by mid-March. They only crushed about 7,000 last year. He’s doing his first vintage as chief winemaker for the first vintage since the winery was taken over by Casella – that’s a remarkable personal story.”
Clearly, the size difference between some of the wineries in the first and second series of People of the Vines will be significant, but Stelzer said there are also differences in how people approach the industry in the Barossa, compared to Tasmania.
“There’s a lot more big-picture thinking in the Barossa,” he said.
While the a hand-picking finger injury was a big talking point for a winery in Tasmania in the first series, the winemakers are more likely to be focused on things like global warming and business takeovers in the Barossa for the second.

Of course, there is also quite a difference between the two shows.
“While Plonk is scripted slapstick, we’re unscripted and we’re real,” Stelzer said. “Most people don’t know that wine is almost all about the stories and for me that’s the exciting thing about what we’re doing – bringing out the real stories. And it doesn’t need to be a game show or slapstick to do that.”
But then again, there might be similar aims. Stelzer hopes to brings personal stories to the screen and encourage his viewers to better connect with the process they never gave much thought to when opening a bottle of wine. Earl wants his show to inspire people to visit wine regions and make their own stories and memories.
“Many people have aspired to take wine to the mainstream,” Stelzer said. And he’s already in a better position than most who have gone before him, having seen significant audiences for first series (even Earl, who has plenty of television experience, was impressed).
“You can’t get that sort of coverage anywhere else. It’s a crazy medium and I’m on a steep learning curve.”

But will People of the Vines and Plonk become great vehicles for the wine industry?
“It all depends on the tone and making sure there’s a distinction from advertising content,” Earl said. “I think there’s an impression of wine being a bit elitist, people get to see a little bit of this fantastic thing which then isn’t available to them. But that’s not what it’s like inside the industry at all.
“I grew up in the Hunter Valley, dad’s involved in the industry and I’ve done my time working in cellar door, so I know it’s about the wine… but at the same time it’s not. When people really feel connected to wine is when they share it with friends, when they get out there and explore the dearth of options on the doorsteps of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and even Canberra.
“Wine struggle because of a misnomer that it’s not as interesting, or not like food which you can watch on TV and then go and do in your own kitchen. People can’t basket press s Shiraz in their own lounge rooms, but they can have a wine experience, they can pick up awesome stories along the way if they go for a drive.
“There are such a diverse range of experiences within the wine industry, and you can see that reflected in the different approaches of Plonk and the Be Consumed campaign for the Barossa.”

Which means television will be an excellent way for the wine industry to get its message to a big audience.
“There’s a hell of a lot of wineries out there, how does each one ‘cut through’? It’s a crowded market place,” Earl said. “I know Australians are drinking a lot more wine than they used to, but it only benefits a few big companies if they buy all their wine from BWS or Dan Murphys. The real question is how do you get people motivated to get in their car and drive to McLaren Vale or Murrumbateman?
“I think there’s a huge hunger, people want to know more about wine.”
That’s where a television show, or a variety of shows on different platforms, can help. But how much traction a winery can gain will probably have more to do with winery’s own efforts to convert a glimpse on a screen into a customer and eventually into a loyal fan.
“I think this has been duplicated on TV, if you look back 10 or 15 years ago everybody was watching Friends. But now someone who’s a fan of a niche series out of the US can hand you the whole series on a thumb drive,” Earl said. “It’s the same for the wine industry; people are interested in the little winery they never heard of that their friends found last weekend while they were away. And then you look at a winery like Alpha Box & Dice and they’ve converted people into their members into their ‘gang’ and they do cool events to keep people interested. You don’t necessarily need to put on a show, but you have to work out how make people feel included in what you’re doing.”

The other things Plonk and People of the Vines have in common is the time it took to get television networks to sign them up and the all-important search for financial support.
Stelzer said it took three years to convince a network to take his show on.
“The challenge is to attract sponsorship to make it long-term sustainable. Support from the likes of the Dan Murphys of this world and the state tourism commissions will be essential.”
But Stelzer said he won’t hand over editorial control, no matter who the sponsor.
The second series of Plonk was made possible through the financial support of the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) and Screen Australia. But there was deliberately no approaches made to wineries to become major sponsors according to Earl.
“That does get a little murky, if you take some money from a company it can be a very slippery slope that steers the narrative in directions it wouldn’t go organically,” Earl said. “But where we will look for the support of the wine industry is in sharing the programs, we’d love to see them promote it via social media and eventually put links to the episodes up on their Facebook pages. And that show of support is bound to help whatever project comes next in whatever format it happens.”
If these two wine shows keep attracting viewers, they won’t just guarantee the production of their next series, they will surely inspire others to copy, and even improve on, what Earl and Stelzer have done.

This article was published in the April 2015 Grapegrower and Winemaker magazine. Not a subscriber? Visit www.winetitles.com.au/gwm/subscribe/ or email subs@winetitles.com.au to access the wine industry’s leading monthly information resource package.
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