"If you're not over-delivering, you won't be around for long," says John Davey, co-owner and chief winemaker at Shingleback, one of the most successful Australian wineries in recent years.
He should know. His cheapie brand, Red Knot, ($15) has taken red-wine drinkers by storm. It's selling more than 100,000 dozen bottles a year. The three Red Knot reds, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and grenache shiraz mourvedre, regularly figure among the best-value wines in my tastings.
They over-deliver, to use wine marketing parlance.
Shingleback, named after a lizard, is all about classic McLaren Vale red wine: full-bodied, rich, smooth and cuddly. They're mostly shiraz, cabernet and grenache. The 90 hectares of the Davey Estate - all located around the Malpas Road, California Road, Pethick Road area of central McLaren Vale - is planted 65 per cent in shiraz. Davey himself previously worked for Krondorf in the Barossa, and his assistant winemaker, Dan Hills, worked at Fox Creek. So there is a background of making soft, generously flavoured reds that people want to drink.
The portfolio consists of Red Knot at $15, Haycutters at $17 to $18, Davey Estate at $25, D Block reserve shiraz and cabernet at $60, and experimental wines JohnFoolery (including a viognier that won gold medals at Royal Adelaide in 2012 and '13) at $18 to $19. And off to one side is the Gate Shiraz, which is $35. Now they're releasing a new label, Davey Brothers (just a shiraz at this stage), which is $18 and exclusive to Dan Murphy's.
Says John Davey: "We produce 130,000 to 140,000 cases of wine a year, but only 20,000 of those are over $20 a bottle. So our pyramid is a very flat one: we'd like to make it more pointy!" In other words they would like to sell more of their higher-priced wines, which are more profitable. Wouldn't everyone?
The company, owned by the Davey family, is only young: the first vines were planted in 1994 and the first vintage was 1998.
Its growth has been impressive. Part of the key to that success has been working with the big supermarket retailers. Creating brands for them is integral. Haycutters is sold only through Coles Liquor outlets; Davey Brothers is in the Woolworths chain Dan Murphy's; Red Knot is for Dan Murphy's and BWS.
"Our sales in Woolies have increased 30 to 40 per cent in the last few years," Davey says. "It's just hard work, on the part of all our team. Our staff are very loyal: a lot of them have been with us since the start, including our vineyard manager, Michael Schofield. My brother, Kym, is managing director (hence the Davey Brothers brand) and Craig Camm, our CEO, used to be our bank manager - so that's some kind of vote of confidence, I guess. You not only have to get your product on the shelf, but into the consumer's hand."
Another smart move was not building their own winery. The wines are all made at Steve Maglieri's nearby Serafino winery. It's a productive relationship with Maglieri and his chief winemaker, Charles Whish. "It's almost like having an extra winemaker on the team. Charles is a great guy. We run things past him and he runs things past us."
Davey has a novel way of describing what he does. "Winemakers are like sieves," he says. "We're constantly sieving grapes and wines and sorting out the levels of quality and price for everything."
A good palate and an instinct for what people like are key, the proof is in the bottle.
Shingleback Unedited was one of my favourites among the newly released 2012 vintage McLaren Vale Scarce Earth shirazes. It's a big, rich, typical McLaren Vale shiraz, but is relatively fruit-driven. In other words, the grapes and the land that grew them are clearly expressed in the wine. It's a small-production wine, which justifies its $70 price tag.
It's one of 25 shiraz wines vintage 2012 selected for inclusion in the 2014 McLaren Vale Scarce Earth release, now on sale. These limited production wines (some as little as one barrique of 225 litres, or 25 dozen bottles) were deemed by a panel of tasters, myself included, to be representative of the region. The prerequisites are that they be made from a single block of vines at least 10 years of age. It's the fourth year of the project.
Most will announce the geology of the vineyard on the label. McLaren Vale is one of our most geologically diverse regions and the soils and base rocks have been painstakingly surveyed and mapped. The wines are all high-quality, often from old or low-yielding vines, and are therefore mostly expensive - ranging from $35 to $99 but most between $45 and $65. They're on sale at winery cellar doors initially; any stock remaining after July will be available for wider distribution.
The wineries involved this year are Battle of Bosworth, Chapel Hill, Coriole, Cradle of Hills, d'Arenberg, Dowie Doole, Five Views, Fork in the Road, Gemtree, Haselgrove, Hugh Hamilton, Kangarilla Road, Maxwell, Mr Riggs, Penny's Hill, Shingleback, Shottesbrooke, Vinrock and Wirra Wirra. There's a limit of three per winery.
Other favourites of mine were Wirra Wirra Whaite Old Block ($130), Coriole Willunga 1920 Block ($55), Chapel Hill The Chosen House Block ($65) and d'Arenberg The Amaranthine ($99).