Rebel Vignerons: Battling the Retail Giants with Tom Keelan 

Rebel Vignerons: Battling the Retail Giants with Tom Keelan 

If you’re an investor, you’ve probably been impressed by the upward trajectory of the Coles and Woolies share prices. After all, at the time of writing, Woolworths shares have risen by about 12% in the calendar year to date, and while Coles are down this year, they’re still sitting well above their pre-pandemic levels. The big supermarkets’ shares are favoured by many stockholders as they’re defensive, growth stocks that also pay a tidy dividend. But to wine lovers, these retailing behemoths are a knife in the soul of the industry as they squeeze the margins of the producers they buy from and exclude others from the eyeballs (and wallets) of the average Australian consumer. How do the little guys compete when between them, the two biggest players control about 56% of national annual liquor sales (wine accounts for roughly 26% of this)? 

In the David and Goliath struggles of small-scale vignerons, it’s been those who have developed successful strategies to outwit and outplay the corporates who have fared best in this oenological warfare. Some have focused on cellar door experiences, others have marketed their wares online, and many have turned to hitting the road to reach consumers where the product is poured. In a sector in which it’s not a job but more often a passion or obsession, there’s plenty of stories of the “Davids” who have defied the odds to create a prosperous brand, despite the challenges. And that’s where the story of Tom Keelan becomes an inspiration. 

I picked up on the Tom Keelan story recently when some samples arrived in a somewhat unusual way. Rather than being contacted by a wine PR company, then emailed a slick set of bottle shots and PR fluff soon followed by the arrival of samples expertly wrapped in glamorous packaging of the level you’d expect from a High Street handbag retailer, Keenan’s arrived unannounced in a plain cardboard box with a personalised letter that used the font you’d have expected from a 1970s typewriter!  Not exactly polished, but nonetheless, attention grabbing! 

The Keelan story starts back in 2002 when Tom and his wife Rebecca Willson suffered rejection by a “nameless, soulless wine monolith”. Their parcel of fruit was considered not quite up to scratch by the corporate leaving them feeling as though they were nothing but sacrificial pawns in a global game of wine industry chess. And with that, the “Pawn Wine Co” was born. Now more than 20 years on, the couple are making small parcel artisan wines from fruit grown in the Adelaide Hills and Langhorne Creek. In their crusade to prove a point to the colossal industry players, the duo shine a light on the lesser known old world varietals that the bigger companies either ignore, or use just for blending. It’s an unconventional approach, but one which seemingly works. 

So how were the wines, you ask? To be fair, pretty good. They were all from the aptly named, El Desperado range.  

The Pinot Grigio 2023 ($24) shows abundant florals on the nose and ample honeydew and lemon meringue through the middle. Love the spicy but crisp finish.  

When it comes to sauvignon blanc, I’ve never really enjoyed the style that arrives from across the ditch smelling like a gooseberry and tasting like tropical fruit cordial.  The 2023 El Desperado ($24) certainly isn’t that. Flavours of rambutan and longans join lychee and passionfruit across the palate and is nicely balanced by natural acidity. 

For red lovers, the 2021 Tempranillo ($30) is a handy option. Dried herbs and mulberries appear with the first sniff, while sweet black cherries and Japanese plums grace the midpalate before firm savoury tannins march through the conclusion. Being medium-bodied, it’s built to pair with meatballs or pizza. At only twenty bucks a bottle, you certainly won’t regret experimenting! 

Taking up the cudgel against the corporates may not yet have made Tom Keenan a billionaire; but I’m sure that was neither his mission nor purpose. But handmade, low intervention artisan wines, sold at a sensible price-point, certainly strike a blow for the industry battlers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *