I ran into Wilhelm Klinger, popularly known as Willi, at a wine conference in Vinitaly in 2002 when I wrongly walked into a fully packed seminar, only because the short guy wearing glasses was speaking in German. Having lived in Stuttgart for a year, centuries ago, I thought I may be able to pick up a few words-in every other room they were speaking an incomprehensible language- Italian; in any case there were several wine-glasses lined up on each table so I knew I could at least taste a few wines.
Working with Gaja
The seminar was on Bolgheri wines from Caâ€™marcanda and the speaker was Willi, who presently welcomed and introduced his boss Angelo Gaja who conducted the tasting. I met him and Angelo briefly after the seminar. Willi worked as Export Manager for Gaja from 2000 to 2006 before â€˜returningâ€™ home to Austria to take up the new assignment with AWMB in November 2006. â€˜I worked for a couple of months with Michael Thurner, then Managing Director and took over in January 2007. Even when I worked with Gaja, I used to spend one week a month in Barbaresco and the rest in Vienna from where it was easy to communicate and commute to several countries that I was handlingâ€™, he says.
Acting his way to wine marketing
Willi has been in the wine business for a quarter of a century. He joined an importer of Bordeaux and Italian wines in Salzburg in 1987 and stayed with him for 6 years. Why was it that he changed his profession and got into the wine business, I wondered. â€˜I used to be an actor and loved to drink expensive wines but could not really afford them. So I thought it would be best to get into the business that would provide me with a great opportunity to drink good wine,â€™ he says unabashedly, adding, â€˜I joined as No. 2 to the owner and stayed on as one, looking after sales and marketing.â€™
Willie is an actor and a performer on stage, though he now focuses on his passionate subject-Austrian wine. â€˜I went to drama school in Vienna for a career as an actor in theaterâ€™, he informs me. His eyes light up when he talks about Woody Allenâ€™s comedy â€˜Donâ€™t Drink the Waterâ€™ in Salzburg and says, â€˜I played the role of Woody Allen!â€™Â
Married to a Viennese, he returned to Vienna in 1993 when he heard that the soon-to-be-formed â€˜Wein & Co.â€™ retail shop chain needed a wine expert. â€˜As the Founding General manager, I opened 6 shops in 1993 and 3 more in 1996, then I moved to Wachau as the joint Managing Director of the co-operative Domaine Wachau where Fritz Miesbauer looked after production and I managed the export,â€™ he says. Angelo Gaja has a distribution company â€˜Gaja Distribuzioneâ€™ which imported wines from Domaine Wachau, he tells me. This perhaps explains his move to Gaja as export director.
Speaking Italian was no problem for Willi, who had done a Masters of Philosophy and studied philology as part of his programme, in which Italian and French were his subjects. He has intertwined the knowledge of languages rather deftly into one of his loves-music. He can sing the famous Italian Paolo Conte with as much ease as French numbers or even Austrian cabarets. He has even composed a few songs that he sings when he gets into the mood. He even dabbles in political cabarets, making political comments at ease.
He is quite witty. When he stands on the stage belting out rock-n-roll numbers or practically seducing the piano, he says in jest that he thinks he can always get a job as a musician if he is fired from the current job. If you listen to him mimicking politicians or even comedians, you would agree that working as a stand-up comedian could be yet another option.
Performer on the AWMB stage
But he knows he does not have to face that eventuality. He is a great performer on stage but his performance as the head of AWMB-the small outfit doing big things-made the German magazine Meiningerâ€™s Wine Business International call him the â€˜Australian Maverick who is unarguably one of the best-known generic wine promoters in the world.â€™ It is not uncommon for him to sing â€˜Let it Beâ€™ â€“if only to slip in his own lines, Let us Sell, Let us sell, Drinking Austrian Wine, Let us sell- conceding that some wine journalists helped him modify the lyrics of the evergreen Beatlesâ€™ number last year.
Whereas many marketing bodies would find it difficult to organize the visit of enough right-profiled people for a wine show like VieVinum, there were over 850 importers and journalists from all corners of the world, thanks to his organizational skills.Â Agreeing with me, he says, â€˜There is a judicious mix of the importers and journalists though. I changed the earlier practice and we now lean more heavily towards importers. The producers at the stands want to do some immediate business and are more keen to have importers whereas in the â€˜Wine Summitâ€™- another initiative of AWMB - we invite only journalists and expose them to different regions of Austria.â€™
Willi the Pied Piper
To promote wine marketing not only in exports but also the domestic market which consumes 72% of the production, Willi has a core team of 5 managers sharing the world pie, with himself holding the lionâ€™s share that includes the US and parts of Europe. With a support staff of 15, each manager gets 2-3 people as assistants; it would appear to be an arduous task at best. But he is candid enough to admit he has an excellent team who are ever willing to share creative ideas. As an example, all wines at the show have been QR coded for the first time. This means that using a Smartphone, one may â€˜visitâ€™ the winery or look at the wines offered at the stand, making the task of writing detailed tasting notes easier.
â€˜A new person joining the organization has to be prepared to work hard. Besides, he/she must be willing to learn the procedures and systems we have developed over the last 26 years.â€™ Â In fact, when I ask him how such a tiny organization can plan so efficiently, he emphasizes that the team is on its toes all the time and he has decentralized completely. â€˜For instance, Christian (Dworan) handles the Asian market. He may know all the Chinese people he has invited- I may know only the key guys. I know all my American guests very well individually. But I enjoy going from table to table and always introduce myself and try to get to know more people. â€™
Willi has been exhorting the Austrian producers to move away from the bulk wine production and concentrate on higher quality, fetching higher prices, while telling the journalists and importers unabashedly that Austrian wines are artisanal and authentic wines that are more like New Zealand wines and deserve higher prices. Bulk wine was selling at 30c a liter a few years back. â€˜It should start at â‚¬ 2.50 a bottle,â€™ he asserts. Â â€˜Of course we only support the marketing and sales and create hype for imported wines into other countries. Producers have to take the pricing decisions and do the selling themselves.â€™
Although he managed to collect around 850 journalists and importers, including 4 from India, he and his team are quite selective about who to invite-it is not a vain exercise of just getting the numbers. A journalist colleague who I meet at various events in Europe including earlier programmes of the AWMB, told me at the gala dinner that this year he and many of his colleagues were not invited officially as they were not the target audience. He had driven to town with several colleagues to visit the show anyway.
â€˜We work with other organizations too. For example we work a lot with the Austrian Tourism Board. We also have an excellent wine glass culture here and we are very proud of it. Companies like Riedel and Zalto are always willing to help us,â€™ he says. Riedel was the official glass sponsor with thousands of glasses floating around.
Getting it up
Willie has a multi-pronged strategy to get the export revenues up:
He likes to have a heads-up about the trends that could help increase the sale of Austrian wines. â€˜Ten years ago mostly Germans and the Dutch were coming to Austria for skiing. Today they come from Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia in BMW cars. These super middle class people who are only a 3-hour drive away from Vienna come here, as we are the first paradise for these people. We must focus on wine tourismâ€™, he says. Interestingly,â€™ there are no wineries in the West, which is for skiing, while the East is for grapes and wine, though we do have 2 hA of vines in Salzburg,â€™ he adds.
â€˜So we plan to put relevant brochures in different hotels and ski resorts like the tea bag displays and dispensers at hotel breakfast buffets. Depending upon the profile of the guests we shall keep the information in these boxes in the appropriate language. Since most of these countries are not making wine in a big way, our sommeliers can help them choose and buy our wines and thus help the promotion.â€™
â€˜Then there is a shift from spirits to wines in many countries, mostly with food, that can help us improve our share. For instance, Sweden buys close to a million liters from us. This could go up to 2 million with this shift,â€™ he feels. Â Â
Shift in Price points
In UK the average price is rather high at â‚¬ 6.50 a liter but we sell only 400,000 liters worth of wine, which is very low. We need them to retail our wines starting at an average price point of £7.99 and not £9.99. On the other hand we are too cheap in Germany but have high volumes. I want to get them to taste our better quality wines. Similarly, I canâ€™t sell in Chinese supermarkets, as there is no market for us there. We have to get our share in the niche restaurant business.
In such a small organization where things are running so efficiently, isnâ€™t turnover of the staff a problem?Â â€˜We have 5 managers who have been here for a long time-Susanne (Staggl) has been here for 10 years. The younger girls work for a few years. In fact, we like them to work with us for around 4 years. They are trained well enough to get into the wine industry after going through the grind and we look for new talent. But we have great continuity in our work. 26 years of experience has taught us many things and they are all in our manuals and handbooks. For instance, all the steps to be followed for the VieVinum are all listed out in the manual. So the continuity is being maintained. I want young people to learn about the business and be enthusiastic about it. The new people have to understand that they have to enjoy meeting people and a job that entails long hours occasionally. Otherwise, they wonâ€™t be happy with us.â€™
Donâ€™t be Jealous
If there is one piece of advice Klinger has for other wine producing nations, it is that one must not be jealous. â€˜My message is everyone has a good wine (though we have a great wine)â€™. He has some words of wisdom for the Indian wine industry as well. â€˜With foreign wine culture you get better with wine quality. As the lifestyle gets more modern, the foreign wines will open doors for your domestic wines to get better and more competitive for export and you may also be singing - Let us sell, Let us sell, Drinking Indian wines, let us sell.â€™
Whatâ€™s Next Doc
â€˜Well, I am into the 6th year of working here and have no plans to change or go anywhere else. I believe there is no business like the wine business. So when I get older-I am only 56 years old right now - I want to work on the science and historical side of wines, the cultural heritage of Austria and the science part of it. I would like to find out facts about the monasteries. I may take more piano lessons than I am taking even now. Who knows, I might even be invited to India to help them sell more wines abroad!â€™