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October 11, 2009

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Party boy legend ties on another one

THEIR revealing flowing costumes were predominantly red and both were tall women but seemed loftier because of the plumage headgear they were wearing. Whatever their real height, the stocky man with the bow tie looked even shorter than usual.

But it was a party to celebrate his 75th birthday and, as has been his style for the best part of 40 years, he was going to kick up the heels and make a night of it. Truth be known that, although his birthday fell quite close to last month's party in Shanghai, he has been celebrating it for most of the year.

The man in the bow tie, Wolfgang Blass, is known to most people with just a casual interest in the development of wine for the stuff in his bottles with the yellow, black and grey labels ... and the tie. The wine industry knows him better as a consummate promoter of his self-named label, Wolf Blass Wines.

And not much has changed in his style since he started making wines in Australia all those decades ago. This scribe was learning the ropes as a food and wine critic in the same towns as Blass was emerging in the 1970s as a preposterously successful "overnight" sensation.

In the ensuing decades, his zest for life, outrageous nature, plain speaking and driving ambition have combined to spread his name brand to 70 countries, winning countless scores of wine awards and establishing a major corporation from a standing start of zero.

While no longer directly involved with the stuff in the bottles, Blass can't escape the phenomenon and it is difficult to separate the man from the label.

His visit to Shanghai was part of a global 75th birthday carnival, and the party at the Grand Hyatt in Pudong was the 38th he has attended in his honor so far this year. Yes, he's a party guy with a personal bent for promotion.

With the support of the Fosters company, which owns Wolf Blass Wines among its clutch of other wine and beer labels, and its China distributors ASC Fine Wines, the man in the trademark bow tie came to China and had plenty to say during his visit about the China market, his foundation, drinking trends ? and himself.

When asked to describe his legacy he replied defiantly: "What legacy?" but quickly developed an answer.

"The Wolf Blass story is a remarkable story. I'm not talking about the man, I'm talking about the brand which has exploded in a period of 35 years, overshadowing companies that have been there for hundreds of years," he said.

"And selling close to 70 million bottles a year into 70 countries and being a driving force in exports is something that not in your wildest dreams could anybody have imagined.

"It's not an ego trip anymore, that's gone. I feel compelled in some way with a responsibility (to the wine industry) because I'm probably the only bloke left behind," of the veterans he competed against, he said.

He retains a passion for the wine industry but would like to see more young people showing the same degree of commitment and passion, a core focus of his self-named foundation which has been established to assist the wine industry to achieve excellence.

On selling wines into China: "Our wine style hasn't changed so I think it would be foolish to attempt to make a northern hemisphere wine," he said.

"In the next couple of years we could be selling around 50-60,000 cartons a year in China. There's nothing wrong with that as we're making a high priced product."

On the region: "We have been visiting every country in Asia for the past couple of years and we have seen small increases in market share, particularly in women drinking red wine," he said.

"We're No. 1 in Hong Kong where we've been for 25-30 years so we must have done something right to get into the hotels and the hospitality industry with our style which is easy drinking.

"We've learned a lot in Singapore, we're now in Macau, we have arrived in Shanghai and we can't fail. As far as white wines are concerned we sell 75 percent red and 25 percent white in Asian markets and I don't think this will change."

The last word goes to the label's global wine ambassador George Samios who celebrated with the veteran in Shanghai. "There will never be another Wolf Blass, no doubt about that, but times have changed," he said.

"When he started there were 300-400 wineries in Australia, now there's 2,500. Chile was making wine but no one knew about it, supermarkets weren't buying as much, spirits and beer have smartened up their act.

"I don't think anyone will ever go from a standing start of zero and get to selling 70 million bottles a year in 30 years again."

And why does he wear the trademark bow tie: a practical choice because long ties would get tangled in winemaking equipment.


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