Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine
THIS IS A STORY about a world-famous Australian entertainer, a shrewd Sydney entrepreneur, and the resurrection of a brand name that hit the heights of success in the 1980s before bombing out big-time in the early 90s.
It all began a few years ago in Malibu, California, when Olivia Newton-John was out horse-riding with friends, There, the singer was introduced to fellow Australian Phoebe Neylon. Subsequently, the two became firm friends. Phoebe Neylon and her husband, Sean, kept in touch with Newton-John even after they left California to set up in the south of France. Sean Neylon was a young businessman who had already made his fortune during the dot.com boom, and he was looking around for other opportunities. Neylon’s family owned a vineyard in Victoria’s Macedon region and he was keen to expand his interests in the wine industry. All he needed was a hook on which to hang a new brand of wine. Enter Olivia Newton-John and Koala Blue.
When Neylon first approached Newton-John about the idea of reviving Koala Blue, the singer was sceptical. Out of the blue, Sean called me and said, ‘What would you think about starting Koala Blue wine?’” Newton-John recalls “I told him that we didn’t own that name any more” When the chain of boutique Australian stores was forced into liquidation in 1992, Newton-John and business partner Pat Farrar lost control of the Koala Blue brand. But Neylon had done his homework. He tracked down the current owner of the Koala Blue name, who was perfectly happy for Neylon and Newton-John to use it to sell wine. “He said, if you can do something with it, you can basically have it,” says Neylon. With Newton-John and Farrars’ approval, Neylon enlisted New Zealand-born winemaker Andrew Byers to produce a Koala Blue Chardonnay and Koala Blue Shiraz. Made with fruit from several south-east Australian regions, the wines are light (particularly the Shiraz), fresh and uncomplicated, and they’ve packaged in brightly coloured bottles, complete with stylised koalas on the labels.
In April 2002, less than a year after Sean Neylon had first approached Olivia Newton-John with the concept for Koala Blue Wines, the products appeared in bottle shops and supermarkets up and down the east coast of Australia. The Chardonnay and the Shiraz retail for $8.95. While Neylon is more than pleased with the interest Australian distributors have shown in the wines, his sights are most firmly set on export markets. Neylon expects to send 70-80 per cent of production to countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and New Zealand. Further, he is hoping to achieve his distribution target of a whopping 400,000 cases per annum over the next 12 months.
The Koala Blue project doesn’t end with a couple of brightly packaged, budget-priced wines, however. Small quantities of the premium Olivia Newton-John Signature Range Padthaway Chardonnay and Coonawarra Cabernet will hit the shelves later in the year, and there are plans to develop Koala Blue’s headquarters, at the Neylons’ Mount Macedon Winery, as a tourist destination. Newton-John is particularly enthusiastic about a range of organic wines, which is scheduled for release in 18 months’ time.
Of course, Olivia Newton-John is not the first Australian celebrity to enter the wine game. Greg Norman blazed the trail in 1999 with the launch of the premium Greg Norman Estates range, which retails for US$15-18. That project - a joint venture between Greg Norman’s own company and Beringer Blass - has enjoyed tremendous success. Beringer Biass sold six times more than it projected in the wine’s debut year and shipped 160,000 cases to the United States in 2000.
Sean Neylon is well familiar with the Greg Norman Estates story. Together with a prominent investor in the wine industry, he claims to have conceived of the original idea. ‘Back in 1998, I thought of the Greg Norman concept with Chris Day,” he says. “We negotiated the deal with Greg Norman’s manager.” Although the deal ultimately fell through, it gave Neylon a taste for wine marketing. “I realised that you need that little edge to differentiate yourself from the other 15,000 labels inside a bottle shop.’ Neylon contends that Koala Blue has plenty of advantages over its rivals on the supermarket shelf. ‘‘There’s the packaging - they look good and stand out on the shelf. There’s the Australian wine thing, which is really exciting in the US at the moment. There’s Koala Blue, which has brand recognition but needs more of a push. And there’s Olivia Newton-John, who’s a megastar. Everyone’s heard of Grease.”
Newton-John may be a highly recognisable name, hut she claims no special interest in wine. “I can’t drink very much,” she says. “But if I go to a restaurant I like to have a glass of wine with my dinner - or at least half a glass. I enjoy a light white and a very light red, like a [Beaujolais] Nouveau, which is what the Koala Blue wines taste like to me”
Bright bottles and celebrity-based brands may have aficionados reaching for their spittoons, but in the brave new world of wine marketing, it hardly seems to matter that Newton-John is no connoisseur. ‘We’re building a wine business from a brand,’ says Neylon. “I’m trying to bring the wine industry around from a production focus to concentrate on marketing and sales.’
Neylon probably doesn’t realise the extent to which his sentiments resonate within the wine industry. In 2000, the Winemakers Federation of Australia and the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation released The Marketing Decade”. This strategy document called on the industry to redouble its marketing efforts if it hoped to prolong the extraordinary success it has been enjoying in export markets over the past 15 years.
The Australian wine industry has technical expertise and highly trained personnel by the barriqueful. And, as we keep hearing, there’s more than enough good-quality fruit to go round for the next few years. Perhaps what the industry needs if it’s to maintain its status as one of the world’s most prolific exporters, are more Sean Neylons and Olivia Newton-Johns. No doubt there will be plenty of people waiting with bated breath to see whether koalas really can have two lives.