Here’s a novel idea. Recruit a group of leading sommeliers and buyers around the world to come and visit your country and go on a tour that has been devised and planned by local wineries. Only it’s not such a novel idea. This weekend marks the 12th James Busby travel tour experience of Australia, that to date has seen 135 intrepid wine souls board the tour bus (and plane) to criss cross their way across all the happening areas of Australia. Here chief organiser, Tim Wildman MW, and the brains behind the James Busby experience, sets the scene for this year’s tour.
Unless you happen to live Australia is not the easiest place in the world to get to. So if you’re going to make the effort to go, you want to make the most of it. So try not to envy too much the latest group of sommeliers and buyers that are currently heading Down Under to join up for this year’s James Busby Travel wine tour experience.
This weekend the James Busby Travel trip kicks off in Melbourne. Our traditional first stop is William Downie’s farm in Gippsland for Bill’s home grown Pinot, pig and philosophy. That word tradition kept cropping up while I’ve been planning this year’s itinerary. But with almost 10 years under our belt, 11 tours and 135 past travellers in our alumni community, I guess we do have traditions now.
It’s one-in, one-out for producers these days, as I’ll remain loyal to those individuals who backed me in 2010, when it was just a crazy idea of how to create the ultimate trade tour, free of the compromises tied into state, regional or government funding. Our tour is designed by the wineries for the wineries, aimed at introducing Australian wine to the new generation of sommeliers and buyers, and with commercial outcomes built into it’s DNA.
Back in 2010 Michael Dhillon at Bindi told our first group that the international markets had fallen out of love with Australian wine. He was right, sales were at their nadir, grape prices low and everyone was hurting. What difference a decade makes. I’d like to think that in our quiet way, the Busby trips have played their part in helping bring back the love. It’s not been easy doing it our way, one bottle at a time, one person at a time, hearts and minds. But I think that’s pretty bloody cool.
All over the world
This year’s group of guests is as international as ever, with representatives from Canada, the US, UK, Sweden, Norway and China. The reputation of the Busby trips overseas is now a draw card that allows us to attract the world’s top wine professionals. This year’s group includes the beverage director for Hakkasan Restaurant Group North America, the head sommelier of the Joel Robuchon Group in China, an MW in charge of the buying program at Altia, one of the Nordics largest wine companies, the head sommelier for London’s highest profile wine club, 67 Pall Mal, as well as the managing director of one of China’s most successful online wine companies, Vinehoo.
These days the Busby trips have a three year waiting list, and in markets such as China it’s a sign of significant status to have been invited on a Busby trip.
Since the first trip in 2010 the program we offer the guests has evolved and developed and I can confidently say that this year’s tour promises to be the wine trip of a lifetime for our guests. Over the two weeks of the trip we’ll visit 13 wine regions, meet with 64 individual wineries and taste somewhere in the region of 500 wines.
We’re including more experiential and recreational activities than ever before, from surfing in the Mornington Peninsula, cycling the Riesling Trail, Kegel Bowling in the Barossa, squid fishing in McLaren Vale, clay shooting in the Eden Valley, beach cricket at Port Willunga and skateboarding in the Adelaide Hills. We’ve learnt that long after the tasting notes get forgotten, it’s these cultural actives that stay longest in the memory and shape the legacy of the trip.
At the heart of the Busby trips is a philosophy to treat our guests like you’d like to be treated yourself, as individuals. That means not seeing them as some wort of walking wine-tasting machines, or two legged order books. It’s always been the aim to treat our guests as human beings, as individuals who want to have fun and relax on their trip to Australia, as well as taste, learn, play and hopefully buy.
One of our mantra’s has always been that the guests should be as awake and receptive on day 14 as day four. The key way to achieve this is to limit the number of visits per day and control the number of wines shown to the group, we aim for three events a day, with a maximum of 12 wines per visit.
No big room tastings with dozens of producers showing hundreds of wines, that’s why we don’t work with regional bodies. In the early days some wineries pushed back against this discipline and to the guests it can seem in the first few days that they are “under tasting”. But everyone benefits in the second week, when we arrive at the last winery on the last day and the group are jumping off the bus, bright eyed and bushy tailed and still eager to taste and ask questions.
The structure of the trips and the funding model also plays a part in regulating the pace. We don’t seek funding from regional, state or government bodies, the trips are 100% funded by the participating wineries, and designed to deliver maximum value to the wineries. This means we always spend at least two hours, often three or four with each winery. This allows our hosts the time to fully explain their terroir and story, as well as interact and form a bond with the guests.
Shared visits are limited to four wineries, which we do to include the smaller, exciting players for example in the Hills, Mornington and Yarra Valley. The only “group” tastings on the whole trip are in McLaren Vale, where the dazzling diversity of producers and styles warrants a larger platform, which this year will be a winemakers lunch on the back deck of The Star of Greece and and Artisans Tasting on the terrace and lawn at Samuels Gorge.
The itinerary and tastings have evolved so we focus on highlighting the individual strengths – and celebrating the differences – of each producers. Our iconic “heritage hosts” such as Henschke, Yalumba and Tahbilk open up the museum and crack open the crown jewels to blow our guests away with a world class fine wine experience. The cool kids in the Basket Range bring the skate boards and disco beats and seduce the somms with natural styles and contemporary feels. We’re getting better at putting best foot forward, curating the story, constructing a narrative of region, variety and style that our guests can take home and share with their colleague and customers.
After almost 10 years I’d like to think that we’re getting pretty bloody good at this wine tour business. We work hard at keeping them in contact with the 135 members of our alumni community, and I’m pleased to say I’m in touch with every single one of them following their career moves, and sharing their news with the wineries through newsletters, database updates and in-market reunions. Because after all, its not about the wine, it’s about the people; the hundreds of winemakers, chefs, boat skippers, sommeliers and bottle washers who create magic every year and make our guests fall in love with Australia and it’s wine.
You can follow this year’s trip on Instagram with the hashtag #JBT18. We’ve got big plans for the 10 year anniversary in 2019, and I’m already looking forward to the next 10.
- If you would like to find out more about James Busby Travel go to its website here.