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The politics of buying wine

Wine

Whitey looks at the wine consumption statistics of Australians and finds there’s more to your weekly purchase than meets the eye.

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There are 24 million people in Australia. 4.8 million of us buy ethanol each ordinary week, ethanol ideally being the safest sort of alcohol taken in pursuit of refreshment, gastronomic delight and/or intoxication.

Each of those 4.8 million people spend an average of $61 per week buying ethanol in one form or another.

Roy Morgan Research yesterday confirmed that the Woolworths chain, Dan Murphy’s, is Australia’s leader in market share and total customer numbers in the ethanol-dealing business.

This comes as little surprise to those of us who live with our noses to the winestone. Hungry Dan’s is in your face. Some hacks in this racket get to thinking Woolworths IS the bloody winestone. [Note to self: write song for next band: The Ballad Of Hungry Dan and Winestone Woolie.]

But the burgeoning reach of this giant dealer is breathtaking: 1.2 million – 23.9 per cent of total ethanol buyers – attend Dan Murphy’s each week. Add that to the 1.1 million who attend Woolworths’ BWS ethanol chain – the silversleeve second to Dan’s silvertail – and you get 2.3 million.

Only 1.8 million Australians make it to church each week, for Christ’s sake, and I’m doubting that lot tithes anything like the $48 the average BWS convert puts in the Woolworths plate. The Hungry Dans’ congregation tips in $68 per head per week – $7 more than the national average.

To me, this indicates volume more than quality.

Then there’s Woolies’ undisclosed share of the direct-order wine clubs’ sales, which lure only 4.8 per cent of us to make a contribution each week. When we do, mind you, the whole 74,000 of us, it’s a whopping $194 weekly spend, on average. That’s even more godly than the 30,000 or so happy-clapping Penties who get along to Hillsong each week to sweat and holler in the names of Jesus and money.

And, oh yes, there’s Woolworths’ Liquor, where 4 per cent of us spend $56 per week. They must be nice shops. And then of course the 4 per cent of Australia’s gaming pubs Woolworths owns through its 75 per cent slice of the ALH Group. Together they own 6 per cent of Australia’s poker machines and 294 pubs.

Which is not to say that Woolworths actually wants you drink too much. Its website seems almost delighted to be able to announce that “Alcohol consumption in Australia has fallen by over 20 per cent in the last 40 years. Around 85 per cent of Australians consume alcohol on a regular basis and most do so responsibly. The amount of alcohol consumed in Australia on a per capita basis equates to around two standard drinks per adult person per day.”

Those in the propaganda trade love possibilities like this, where the opportunity is set, should a clever retailer reverse this trend, to announce “destructive slump in premium wine slows” rather than “Ockers back on the piss”.

This language on Woolworths’ website sounds very much like Roy Morgan’s finding of August 28, 2015 (No. 6422), which reports a “distinct decline in the proportion of Aussie adults drinking [alcohol] at all … the total proportion of Australians 18+ who drink any kind of alcohol in an average four weeks has fallen from 72 per cent as of June 2006 to 68 per cent as of June 2015”.

While this plunge is not linked to the quality of the cheapest wines Woolworths makes for its cheapest liquor hangars, its website also makes clear that as a responsible corporate citizen, it is capable of assisting those susceptible to inappropriate consumption.

“We have a small number of supermarket liquor stores in remote communities,” it says, “where the effects of alcohol related harm can be magnified by other issues such as social disadvantage and welfare dependency. We work proactively with local authorities in these areas to address issues of concern – sometimes changing our range, our trading hours and our service policies to meet local needs.”

A shareholder looking for returns would probably prefer to know that Woolworths always adjusts its grog prices and hours to meet local needs without any interference from pesky local authorities, but at least the sentiment’s there.

An ongoing relationship with Roy Morgan makes very good sense for Woolworths. Especially when Andrew Price, the pollster’s general manager of consumer products, reports: “Along with the corresponding increases in the proportion of us drinking red and fortified wines during the July-September quarter, our findings also reveal that Aussie adults are also much more inclined to drink hot chocolate at this time of year than any other quarter. One has to wonder, therefore, why no liquor brands have yet introduced a pre-prepared alcoholic hot chocolate into the market …”.

Some may find it alarming to think that there’s nobody working the vast halls, barns and hangars of Woolworths who’s had the smarts to think of the hot Bailey’s or steaming Kahlua and cream, but it is possible they need blokes like Mr Price to do it for them.

All that aside, I have a terrible confession to make. Whenever I’m in a Woolworths store and the register person quacks, “Will you be having a receipt for that today at all?” I can’t help thinking of Bernard Finnigan, who’s just resigned from the South Australian Legislative Council after being found guilty by a court of obtaining child pornography.

Finnigan is a former assistant secretary of the Shoppies – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the biggest union in the Australian Labor Party, of which all those well-intentioned supermarket and liquor store staff are members.

There’s 28,000 of them in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Broken Hill. The Shoppies number around 200,000 members nationally, including the employees of Coles, Bunnings, Hungry Jacks, Pizza Hut and McDonalds.

During Finnigan’s five years as assistant secretary of the union, he was a protégé of Don “Godfather” Farrell, who later became a senator and extremely powerful hard-Catholic-right ALP powerbroker who helped chop the head of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then lost his seat and was stopped from an easy parachute drop into a safe SA lower house seat by Premier Jay Weatherill.

Weatherill is now planning to hand Finnigan’s seat to another Farrell protégé, Shoppies’ secretary Peter Malinauskas, a former Woolworths checkout jock. Malinauskas famously walked into former premier Mike Rann’s parliamentary office to tell him his days were up, which saw Weatherill take the job.

Farrell, meanwhile, has bought himself a full RM Williams rigout and moved to the safety of the Jesuits at Sevenhill, near Clare, where he grows grapes and gets a neighbour to make wine for him.

The language on his website already looks like something from a Hungry Dan’s brochure.

“Nestled in the historic town of Sevenhill in the Clare Valley of South Australia, Don Farrell and wife Nimfa bring you their bespoke wines hand crafted from the most sought after grapes in Australia,” it starts.

So how will all this finish? I dunno. But next time you’re in a Woolworths liquor store paying your tithes, look closely at the jockey riding the register and realise that might just be your next premier. Be respectful.

Later, if you manage to get your purchase home before cracking it, wonder awhile how politicians like these manage the source of the cheapest, biggest volume, most heavily-irrigated wines in the shop, the Murray Darling Basin, where most growers are consistently making terrible losses and our precious water regularly runs dry.

Peace in the valley?

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