What does Real Strength mean for a modern Aussie man? This is what I (Stu) reckon.

Stu emceed the launch of Dove Men's #RealStrength campaign, which featured five of the Qantas Wallabies sharing their thoughts on feelings, fear and fatherhood.

Stu emceed the launch of Dove Men+Care’s latest campaign, which featured five of the Qantas Wallabies sharing their thoughts on feelings, fear and fatherhood.

I wouldn’t normally blur the lines between my personal blog and work stuff but Liquid Ideas has been working on a campaign for Dove Men+Care that has actually stirred me. Apart from the TV ads making me cry, it has really got me thinking about what it means, what it takes, to be a real man in today’s society. We all hear a lot about women’s place in society and its need for (r)evolution but too often we blokes just get on with it, don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to be seen as “soft”.

Well as I’ve grown older I‘ve become less concerned about what people think of me – to be honest, I think I revel in contradictions and challenging stereotypes, but I think we need a conversation. So here I go and (blatant client plug coming) go to YouTube and type in “Dove Men care” and if a couple of those videos don’t resonate (and make you cry) well you’re a harder nut than me.

The other day I was on a Qantas flight and we had only one of those screens to watch telly on (my God how OLD school) and I really didn’t want to do any work (not rare) so I tuned in…

After the obligatory Sky News (with all reference to airborne tragedies expunged, naturally), there was a nice looking lady introducing what looked like an Aussie documentary series where two people talk of their special relationship. Think of it as a televisual version of the excellent Two of Us column in the Good Weekend.

The lady then introduced frock designer Alex Perry and his Creative Director Trevor Stones as “not your stereotypical Australian male partnership.”

And I wondered, what the hell did she mean? Two blokes, who’ve known each other a long time, who clearly have a great respect for each other and care for each other, two smart blokes taking an Aussie brand to the world . . . so what was ‘un-stereotypical’ about it? I was quite surprised by my own reaction to the introduction. I was actually, truly a bit pissed off.

Was it because they made frocks and styled photo shoots? Was that ‘un-manly’? Was it because fashion is a bit ‘gay’ and Aussie blokes are ‘straight’? Was it because two Aussie blokes shouldn’t tell each other and the world how much they trust each other and care about each other and how much they value the others’ directness, kindness and honesty?

What was the ‘stereotype’ to which she was referring? Was she thinking a more typical intro might be ‘Here are Des and Graham, two Aussie builders who went to school together, drink beer together on a Friday and support the same footy team. Des and Graham are two typical Aussie blokes…’ It’s rubbish, it’s bullshit and it’s so thoroughly outdated it makes me mad even referencing it. Surely our modern day Australian society recognises there is more to being a man than muscles and a love of sport?

I’m an Aussie male who fulfills a few stereotypes and challenges many.  A bloke who works in a ‘lightweight/unmanly’ industry like public relations yet is a vocal footy and cricket fan. I have gay friends and work colleagues – I have straight ones, conservative ones and ones who are batshit, mad hippies. Which makes me just like most other blokes I know.

I have just a few close mates (in fact maybe two) with whom I’d confide my closest held fears and I know that’s several fewer than most of my female counterparts – and I’ll be honest, I wish I had more.

I’m not a great communicator about my feelings and I probably always think things can be sorted out over a few beers and a laugh. But I know that’s a bit old-school and it’s something I’m trying to change. I am the father of a son who is eight, who liked to wear dresses as a kid but who now obsesses about cricket and rugby; an eight year old who freely admitted to me the other night that he’s still a bit afraid of the dark. I know his favourite uncle is gay Uncle Glenby, who is as flamboyant as a drag queen but who also defies stereotypes. Mardi Gras stalwart, tick. Racehorse owner, tick. Mad golf buff, tick.

I love my son. Not more than my father loved me, but different. I hug him and tell him how much I care about him all the time and I’ve cried in front of him on many occasions, including watching those damn Dove ads. I warn him never to judge, always to be kind and caring, and to accept everyone on face value. I reckon that’s the true measure of a man – being comfortable with who you are and how you feel, no matter if it’s the ‘norm’ or not.

Male stereotypes, whatever they are, are AWFUL. If you make one young man uncomfortable in his skin, make him feel “weird” or worse, unloved, then we have failed.

We blokes are all full of contradiction and confusion, and we don’t deserve to be told we don’t fit the ‘bill’. If we can move away from these confining, stereotypical ideas of what a ‘real man’ is, then we’ll be creating a better place for our kids to grow up. And we’ll be creating a better place for ourselves too.

Each to their own my friends. Each to their own.

To support the Dove Men+Care initiative, share your thoughts on today’s modern man using the hashtag #RealStrength on Twitter or Instagram. And be sure to check out the Dove Men+Care #RealStrength podcast series, the first of which features Wallabies and Waratahs rugby coach Michael Cheika: http://www.dovemencare.com.au/realstrength-podcast.html

The Greatest Food and Drink Show on Earth: A Night at The Fat Duck

The Liquid Nitrogen Gin & Tonic is just one of many innovative concoctions at The Fat Duck.

The Liquid Nitrogen Gin & Tonic is just one of many innovative concoctions at The Fat Duck.

Last Friday night I had the best dining experience of my life. Yep, I went to The Fat Duck.
It was epic. It was long, very long, funny, delicious, creative, whimsical and a little bit mind-blowing. And yes, it was very, very expensive. It is very hard to reconcile the cost, it’s almost impossible to suggest it represented value but it was a proper once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was even better than the most over hyped expectations and it took the dinner experience, the restaurant experience to a place I’m not sure I ever thought it could go.

The whole thing was bloody marvellous but the adjective I kept returning to when I came around from my hungover splendour the next day was “confidence”. There was something just awesome about the confidence of the place, of the people, of the intent and the delivery. It was not smugness or arrogance, it was a sense that “we know what we are doing” come along with us. A little bit of swagger for sure but a wonderful, secure sense of “we invented this whole crazy dining thing, there are many, many imitators, now just watch us do our stuff”. And they blew the imposters away.

The staff were brilliant – so often the failing at Australian restaurants. This team were polished but always friendly, never condescending, completely charming, knowledgeable and just a bloody joy to have coming to your table – and they came a lot – I think it was 17 courses…

I have a well-known aversion to smug, self-serving sommeliers – insecure, bearded men who want to confuse and patronise you. The Fat Duck team, lead by a Turk and a Frenchman, were the absolute opposite. At one stage Remi, the French one, even talked me DOWN in price from a Burgundy to a German Spätburgunder and it was INSPIRED. The wine list had a lovely mix of new and old, international and Australian, post-modern and classic. And while it was expensive, I didn’t get the feeling they were taking a lend of me.

The highlight of the meal - the West Australian marron

Highlight of the evening: The West Australian marron.

The food, well it was dazzling. And I don’t think I’ve ever been bedazzled by food and it’s certainly not a descriptor I’ve ever used. I mean the concept of dry ice floating across the entire table with mounds of moss sounds completely ridiculous yet I was as transfixed as a kid in a candy store. The snail porridge is famous and, goddam it, completely bloody delicious. The local touches were superb. A West Australian marron dish was probably the food highlight of the night – superb Australian produce treated brilliantly. The botrytis cinerea dessert, a play on the classic sweet wines, is quite simply the best dessert I’ve had in my life – and I’m bloody lucky that I’ve now tasted it twice.

And that’s what this was, a once (or maybe twice) in a lifetime experience – it simply made a whole lot of other restaurant experiences just feel like being fed by strangers. This was theatre and execution at an entirely different level. And the marketing people talk about “customer engagement” WELL THIS MADE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE PART OF SOMETHING SO SPECIAL, SO AWESOME THAT REALLY you want to proselytise about it to anyone who will listen, or read. The brilliance of each diner getting a small piece of a giant puzzle (that then gets placed on a giant wall puzzle to be completed at the end of the six month stay) gives you a sense that you played your small part in the history – that you can say you were there, that you were involved in the movement.

Best dessert of all time? The botrytis cinerea.

Best dessert of all time? The botrytis cinerea.

I’m very lucky that over the next few months I’m visiting some of the great restaurants in the world in many different cities – I’m sure most will have stunning food and great service but I wonder if they will make me fall in love like the Fat Duck. Heston wasn’t there – he was apparently in London in the “lab”. But we didn’t miss him and nor did the restaurant.

Bravo The Fat Duck and bravo Crown Melbourne. I feel enormously privileged to have sat in the very front row at the greatest food and drink show on earth.

The future of PR? Well, it’s not PR for starters… Frankie goes to London to find the answers

Frankie GFrankie Gallucci is the 2014 Liquid Ideas Employee of the Year, she is 24 and tomorrow night is a finalist for Best New PR Talent at CommsCon, the industry’s Logies. But she doesn’t reckon we should be in PR, or be called PR. . . . This is a good thought piece for those of us interested in, and fascinated by, the changing way we consume media and marketing messages:

The future of PR? Well, it’s not PR for starters…

Having studied advertising at University I grew a strong distaste for PR and those studying it. Advertising was more creative, we had more fun and the end result was clear – it was everywhere – on TV, billboards, you get my point. PR on the other hand was an unexplainable part of the marketing mix. I knew very little about what it entailed except for two words it was defined by: earned media.

I got my job at Liquid Ideas through the Communication Council Graduate Program knowing very little about public relations. The graduate program pairs up recently graduated hopefuls with advertising agencies but the year I entered one PR agency had entered the mix – Liquid Ideas. The decision to put Liquid down as my number one preference on the day was complete impulse, having only ever wanted to work for an ad agency, but Stuart Gregor somehow won me over in with his unique persona, scatter brain and ability to differentiate himself from the pack. I had never met anyone like him. Except maybe my dad. My dad played huge influence on why I wanted to enter the advertising world – having passed away far too young, he is well remembered and respected in the advertising and media landscape in Australia.

So, the point of my three paragraph introduction – had you asked me two years ago what public relations was I would have said earned media – simply getting other people to say nice things about your clients, while crossing my fingers behind my back hoping that I could ‘fake it until I make it’ at Liquid Ideas. Little did I know or expect that two years on I would be on the other side of the world in London sitting with 30 PR professionals from around the globe discussing the future of public relations and the communications industry.

Liquid Ideas is the Sydney partner of IPREX – a global consortium of communications agencies from around the world. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend and participate in a global leadership conference in London. Over two days, together with my peers from Europe, America and New Zealand, we listened, learnt and discussed the future of public relations through the lens of ‘Beyond silos: operation and managing in an integrated communication industry.’

The first presentation (and my favourite) was from Arun Sudhaman, partner and editor-in-chief at the Holmes Report, one of the world’s leading journals focussed on our industry. Arun confirmed something we all already know and practice but don’t necessarily advocate within our industry – public relations is no longer defined or restricted by the term ‘earned media.’ Instead we need to start thinking in terms of converged mediapaid, owned and earned all together.

To stop myself from writing a novel about what we learnt and my thoughts on the communication industry below are some summarised learnings:

  • The term PR as it stands is no longer relevant. If we want to keep referring to ourselves as PR practitioners we need to change the stigma associated with it. We need to show (and then sell) all of what we are capable of. Education within the industry and to our clients is starting point. PR is NOT Edina and Patsy from AbFab . . .we wish they never existed, despite how funny they might have been.
  • Recruit and structure differently. We need to stop only hiring people with a traditional public relations background. Let’s expand the talent within our agencies to those with expertise in  digital, animation, creativity, analytics, behavioural science, cultural anthropology and the list goes on. Currently, the biggest form of recruitment in PR is talent from other PR agencies. In order to adapt to the changing environment we need to explore new talents that expand our capabilities (as well as upskill and train ourselves). On a global scale, talent is overtaking economic conditions as the biggest challenge in public relations.

The question here is does recruiting differently mean we need to change the structure of our agencies. Do we need to develop new teams such as social, editorial, film-making, planning and insight? Or can these areas of expertise work best as freelance? Traditionally PR agencies are structured differently to advertising agencies – is this something we should learn from? There is no clear answer here but something worth considering.

  • We need to think about changing the way we charge our clients. Agencies bill clients for staff hours. But at the end of the day clients are buying an outcome not hours. This was an interesting topic of discussion with at least half the room of delegates agreeing that billing hours may not be the most effective way of charging our clients moving forward. That being said there is no clear answer or direction of where change could come from but it does makes an interesting debate – charging for the calibre of the idea as opposed to the time for the idea.
  • Measurement is a mysterious beast. One challenge consistent across all agencies is measurement, how do we accurately show the value of our work? This topic is still very much up in the air globally but two things were clear. AVEs (advertising value equivalency) is NOT the answer. As an agency this is something we don’t do however many clients still use this to compare PR value to advertising. The other outtake was that we need to measure inputs, outputs and outcomes. Often we only look at the first two as outcomes can be hard to track – how do we measure the effect an article had on a consumer’s purchasing decision. If the public relations industry wants to prove their value in the marketing mix we need to make sure we are searching for these answers.
  • Leadership and management is not the same thing. Real leadership happens in the conversations you are having with people while management is about managing and allocating resources, capacity, projects etc. Leaders ask what, why, how while managers ask when, who, where. Leadership starts with empathy, which builds rapport and then trust. If you took the hierarchy away (of management) would people still follow? The worst thing you can hear within an agency is “that’s just the way we do it here.”
  • There is no such thing as a new idea, but there are new ways of thinking. Invest in creativity. Full stop.

The definition of public relations may be changing but the fundamental building blocks of what underpins our industry – understanding influence, relationships and storytelling remain the same. And public relations is not alone, traditional advertising and media agencies alike are also facing an unknown future as we no longer stand alone as silos. The black and white lines of the marketing mix have turned to shades of grey as the communications industry is at a tipping point of huge change.

A big thank you to IPREX Global President John Scheibel who created the wonderful GLC forum for me (and my peers) to discuss and learn what I just (briefly) touched on above. IPREX is a wonderful extended family that Liquid Ideas is lucky to be a part of. Check out more info here: http://iprex.com/

And Stuart Gregor – thank you for letting me take over your blog this week and for giving me the invaluable opportunity to represent Liquid Ideas at this year’s GLC.

Final words from John Scheibel, an age-old truism with a unique Ice Hockey slant:  “Skate to where the hockey puck is going…not where it’s been.”

The week that is… some reflections on a crazy weekend

Yesterday the business I co-founded, Liquid Ideas, turned 15 years old. Saturday night I attended one of the best sporting events I’ve ever been to in Sydney. Sunday morning I woke to the news that a good mate and Glenn Wheeler had been badly hurt in a scooter accident. Queensland, which has always been a rogue-ish unpredictable place, has just back-flipped better than a 14 year old Bulgarian gymnast on the floor. And meanwhile in the rest of the world (well the USA at least) the obsession with today’s Superbowl just seemingly knows no bounds. Oh, and our Prime Minister is a bit of an idiot and unelectable in 18 months’ time, but let’s be honest, we knew that already.

Some weeks there’s not much on, some weeks are pretty action packed – this very much feels like the latter.

A moment of reflection on my business and I wonder what it was, what was the motivation to go out and start my own business 15 years ago? Some think it some kind of entrepreneurial calling, an ambitious plan to be a “game changer”, a certainty that you can revolutionise the way your industry operates. Well I’m here to tell you that ain’t the case in my case. I started my own business because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and I’d met a smart chick at business school who agreed to be in it with me. So necessity was the father of this particular invention. A mere matter of 15 years later and it seems like it was all so pre-ordained, that it was obviously part of the master plan… #rosecolouredglasses.

I think more people should start their own businesses, I know the stats aren’t great but that’s because too many of the wrong people start-up businesses in fields about which they know little. If you’re going to start your own business here’s my one piece of advice – know loads more than most people about what it is you intend to do. And show some perseverance. It won’t come quick. People who want quick bucks should go into banking and finance – for the rest of us, its graft. Keeping at it. And staying fresh, staying young and staying real.

It’s a real temptation to believe your own bullshit after a while, even if you’ve experienced just moderate success like I have. Don’t do it. Apart from the fact you will become a wanker you will also start to get passed by smarter, younger turks as you revel in your own awesomeness. Stay humble.

Whatever you do, don’t write a blog about your own amazing success – that’d be the perfect example of jumping the small business shark.

So onto other things – jeez the Socceroos match was exceptional. Epic as son George called it.

A wonderful night where the very best of Australia was on show. In the Stadium Australia crowd I sat between a young woman in a headscarf with a blow-up kangaroo  and a couple of elderly Eastern Europeans with broken English, yellow and green wigs and huge smiles. The trains worked, the spirit was beautiful. The Korean fans were fabulous, loud and decent. Gosh I loved it. On the way home on the train I thought what the Socceroos represent. I have always been a Wallabies guy – I am after all white, Anglo-Saxon, from the North Shore with a private school background. I realised that while the Wallabies might be MY team, the Socceroos are truly OUR team. Our national team, representing all of us and the best of us. Much more than the cricketers ever could be.  And mention must be made of THAT play by Tommy Juric when he got knocked down twice, was double teamed and still got in the cross . . one of my great moments executed by ANY Australian footballer EVER. And Massimo Luongo, who my son had not heard of on Saturday morning, is now the household favourite.

Glenn Wheeler – please get better. The world needs people like you. People of unbridled enthusiasm, people who see the positive in everything, people who light up a room and are happy to wear terrible shoes and worse jackets. Come on mate, you’ll get through this, I know it.

And as for the PM, well if the National Press Club speech is the best he’s got… well that ain’t good enough for me. A call for consensus politics from this PM is akin to a call for sledging calm from D Warner. Not going to happen Mr Prime Minister, not on your watch anyway.

And the Superbowl? Well, I love it. It is now officially on the top of my sporting bucket list. I’m just going to have to make a lot more money in this small business to get myself a couple of tickets…

Back to the grind I guess.

I’m the luckiest bloke in the world.

Solve world hunger . . . one meal at a time


Solving world hunger . . it’s no small topic to broach in the lead-up to Christmas but you can be thankful the issue has not been addressed by me but by Ronni Kahn, CEO and Founder OzHarvest, Australia’s leading food rescue organisation.

Ronni is, of course, the Founder and CEO of OzHarvest; she is strong-willed, single-minded and extraordinary. Ronni set up OzHarvest a decade ago and today there are 28 vans tootling about each capital city in Australia feeding people who would have once gone hungry. But OzHarvest, and Ronni, are becoming much more than just a pick-up service for leftover food. They are leading the charge on food waste – a $10billion waste in Australia alone. It’s a proper disgrace.

And yes, I am honoured to sit on the Board of OzHarvest.

This week Ronni is in Lima, Peru as a guest of the United Nations. Here’s what she is going to say:

Solving world hunger and climate change by addressing global food waste

Although you’ve heard this  before, we need you to hear some of the issues facing all of us again and perhaps pass this knowledge onto someone who hasn’t heard it, so they too can be aware…

On one hand, nearly one-third of the world’s food production goes to waste each year.

That’s some 1.3 billion tonnes of fruits, vegetables, cereals, meats and dairy products lost or wasted instead of being eaten according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

On the other hand, 870 million people across the globe are undernourished and without access to food.

Skip to Australia. OzHarvest, as part of our Education pillar (the other pillars being Rescue and Engage), repeats this fact year on year, that $8-10 billion of food is wasted in Australia every year. That’s 4 million tonnes of food that ends up in landfill.

Think of the staggering amounts of squandered water, energy, fuel and labour used to produce those products.

Horrendous for a country with a modest population of 23 million.

The terrifying reality is that 2.5 million of our fellow Australians actually live in poverty according to the latest ACOSS report released this year, and rely on assistance and food relief services such as those provided by OzHarvest, FoodBank and similar organisations to get by.

Without the basics of food and water, how can one survive?

This is what connects all humans. It’s also what provides a person with dignity and respect. It is our basic human rights. It’s also why some experts say food security and food sustainability are two of the most important issues necessary to solve in our lifetime.

I bring your attention to some of the global challenges that we at OzHarvest like to get our hands dirty with, and have a go at contributing our innovative thinking and solutions towards.

The global issue of food waste, food security, and how to feed a growing world population which will exceed 9 billion by mid-Century.

Another is Climate Change. It’s real. It sure is.

Believe it or not, food waste contributes significantly to Climate Change.

So if you’ve ever wasted the weekend’s leftover spag bol that you just couldn’t bring yourself to eating on Monday morning, or threw away a banana because it’s too brown and bruised…. we’re all a little guilty aren’t we?

Every kilo of food wasted or lost that ends up in landfill, rots and creates methane which is 20 times more harmful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) points out, if food waste were a country, it would be the third highest GHG emitter after the USA and China. Scary fact.

It’s exactly these issues that see OzHarvest invited by our international partners UNEP and Climate Action, to bring our decade of experience, learnings and knowledge – and proven track record – to activate a food waste themed educational, informative and interactive lunch event for 350+ delegates as part of the Sustainable Innovation Forum at COP20 Lima.

The Sustainable Innovation Forum brings together world leaders, CEOs, senior executives, national, regional and city leaders, investors and industry experts to share ideas and accelerate innovative solutions to address climate change, accelerate green growth and sustainable development.

It’s with pride and honour that our somewhat small actions at OzHarvest, in having saved 10 million kilos of food from landfill to date, and delivering 30 million meals to hungry Australians have left a huge positive impact on our environment and social world and continue to make an impact as we share our model and legacy with other countries.

I hope this encourages you all to think about what you too can do, to make a small contribution in your own way, to help solve hunger, reduce food waste and make a positive impact to addressing Climate Change which will affect each and every one of us , if not now, in some time in the not too distant future. Help us make the small changes necessary to make a huge difference.

RIP Gusman encore. A worthwhile reminder why we should fight cancer with all we got.

When you’re dealing with parents growing old and getting crook, as all of us in our ’40s undoubtedly are, you’re always struggling for perspective, for meaning and sometimes you get an unexpected clarion call.

On the weekend I got an email from Maz Larkin thanking me for a post I wrote a year ago about the death of her beautiful son Gus to brain cancer at age 15. She had been sent it from a friend on the one year anniversary of his death on October 24, 2013. She pointed me to a video tribute made to Gus that is now on the Cure Brain Cancer website here.

She also reminded me that this weekend right around the country you can walk for a cure; there are literally hundreds of walks on – so maybe try to do one or donate a few bucks.

Brain cancer is shit. We’d be far better off without it.

So following is the blog I posted the day of Gus Larkin’s funeral on October 30, 2013; I hope it’s worth reading again or for the first time. I did and cried like a baby. But somehow it also filled me with hope and so did Maz’s amazing note this week. It’s pretty amazing how strong we can be.

RIP Gusman – I wish I knew you better
Original post, posted on October 30, 2013

I didn’t know Gus Larkin real well. Met him a few times, seemed like a good kid – son of a mate, funny bastard, quirky sense of humour, loved the Simpsons. Nothing unusual about any of that. I got to know Gus a whole lot better today at his funeral. Gus Larkin passed away last week aged 15, courtesy of a horrible brain tumor, as if there is any other kind.

Gus lived shorter than all of us would want, he suffered more than most of us could imagine, yet he did it with the strength and attitude all of us would covet. He was an ordinary kid at 11 when he had a bit of blurred vision. That was 2010, he was tested and the news every parent dreaded was delivered. What made this impossibly worse was that at almost exactly the same time, in fact within the very same month, his old man, my mate Gav Larkin, founder of RUOK Day, was also diagnosed with an entirely unrelated Lymphoma. Gav died in September 2011, Gus went to join him last Thursday.

Today was impossibly difficult. It was hard enough for us, the congregation at the church in Waverley, but for Maz, Gav’s wife and Gus’ mum – well you just can’t fathom it. You simply can’t put any of your feelings into words; whether written or spoken.

And when Gus’ sister Josie spoke, and she spoke incredibly beautifully as anyone who knows her knew she would, she said that this one – burying her brother, was even harder than the last one, burying her beloved father – you just had to ask yourself – how can this be allowed to happen? How can life be so brutal, so unkind, so impossibly sad?

And when Maz spoke, so gently, so beautifully about cradling Gus in her arms at his birth and just 15 short years later, at his death – your heart just fair dinkum broke. In half. Shattered.

I’m not a religious bloke, so I’m not sure God is going to do it for me, but the Catholic father said something that resonated. He said “Trust”. You just have to have Trust and you have to believe that somehow things will get better. For Trust, read faith. And regardless of your denomination of faith, faith is the thing that binds us. Faith that somehow, something good can come of such tragedy.

I’ve never felt so despairing at a funeral. I’ve seen a few off in their ‘40s and plenty in their ‘80s, but seeing off a 15 year old is gut-wrenching. Your whole body aches, your head throbs and hours later your eyes still sting. As a mate said as we exited the church; “15 year olds should be at birthday parties, not funerals.”

To Maz and Josie and Van and all their extended family all we can do is extend ridiculous, sincere and wholly unfulfilling commiserations. From what I knew and now know of Gus, or the Gusman, is that he was awesome. That he celebrated every day – every sunrise and sunset; that he saw the great in every day. That he lived and fought and loved and celebrated as hard in his 15 years as many do in eight or nine decades might say something. What? I have no idea.

His was not a life fulfilled, it was a life cut well and truly short. But it WAS a life well lived. He was surrounded by love and heartbreak and joy and real, genuine sadness. He never reached the potential he might have, given time, maturity and worldliness, but he gave his short 15 years everything he had. And maybe we just have to trust someone or something or some entity that, that’s enough… Because let’s be honest – what other option is there?

One option is to donate money right here www.cureforlife.org.au

Why are we eating our own? A leading #sommelierspeaksout

Last week I posted a blog on my frustrations with a very particular type of wine list in a pretty particular type of place – if you don’t remember my estimable words please refresh your mind here.

On the following day in the slightly more august Sydney Morning Herald, veteran wine writer Huon Hooke had his say on his own pet frustrations on pretty much the same topic, although his issues were slightly different to mine. See them here.

And off went twitter. Sommeliers were aggrieved, wine writers were defensive, some people were rude, some saw a conspiracy, others wondered what all the fuss was about. Most normal people didn’t even know it was happening – such is the insular world of the wine-loving twittersphere.

Tom Hogan is an award-winning sommelier, formerly of the Lake House in Daylesford where he presided over a list that last month was awarded Australia’s Best in the 2014 Wine List of the Year competition. More recently he has set up his own excellent part wine bar/part shop in Port Melbourne called Harry & Frankie which won Best New Wine List in the same national competition. It is a wonderful joint and Huon and I both agree its wine list is of the very highest order.

Tom was a bit peeved by a few things we wrote so I have offered him the chance to put forward his personal view, and that of the profession of which he is justifiably very proud.

Take it away Tom:

Why are we eating our own?

The role of a Sommelier within restaurants and the broader wine industry has dramatically increased in importance over recent years – this has been triggered by the higher standards of professionalism within the Sommelier community and a desire from the dining public for more specialised beverage service. Sommeliers now enjoy a greater responsibility, along with winemakers and wine writers, in nurturing an ever-increasingly competitive wine industry.

Mirroring our chef colleagues’ desire to challenge and innovate, the best Sommeliers are curating wine lists championing the artisanal and the dynamic from here and abroad. I’m always excited to see an emphasis on the former rather than the latter, including boundary pushing styles that can sometimes be confronting. The best wine lists recognise the importance of synergy with the restaurant’s cuisine, service ethos and environment (both immediate and surrounding). It would be inappropriate for Attica – an innovative, dynamic, challenging food experience – to carry a list boasting producers whose heyday was in the early to mid-90s. Nor should an RSL list be dominated by alternative “amber” wines. Attica’s signature dish of ‘potato cooked in the earth it was grown’ surely demands a match more progressive than the vinous equivalent of steak, egg and chips.

It is important to recognise that a restaurant’s target audience is not necessarily the general public as a whole – successful restaurants pitch themselves succinctly to their target audience. The moment one attempts to be something to everyone, you’re not too far away from being nothing to no-one. Ultimately, the success of a wine list is shaped by market pressures – are consumers embracing the list? The financial sustainability of a wine program will help inform its future direction.

It’s indisputable that stories sell wine; it’s also true that the best stories are those you’ve experienced first-hand. Having said that, your story is only as engaging and significant as your wine is delicious. It’s with these concepts at the forefront of our mind, my colleagues and I champion producers such as;

  • Ruggabellus: Abel, Emma, Bailin & Rouille are some of my family’s closest friends having spent Christmas & Easter together
  • Jauma: James is responsible for the biggest hangover of my life and is someone I’ve known for 8 years
  • Syrahmi: Fozzie’s to blame for my ‘big break’ at Lake House & I’m to blame for setting him up on a blind date with his future wife and
  • Jamsheed: I probably learnt more from drinking with Millsy at Gerald’s in the late-2000’s than I did through my WSET Diploma

These stories might be seen as self-indulgent – and probably quite rightly – however, I’m trying to convey that these producers are not trendy in my eyes – simply, they are my friends and they are making fantastic wines that I’m proud to stock and serve.

The fact that they are found on many wine lists is further testimony to their quality.

On the single occasion I was visited by a TWE / Fosters / Southcorp representative in the past decade, I placed an order which was unable to be fulfilled because the product in question had been removed from sale in order to fulfil the minimum stock requirements for future wine shows. It’s hypocritical for big companies to bemoan the lack of local support, having neglected the local market for much of the past two decades.

Harry & Frankie is a family business. I choose to do business with families and owner operators who are producing excellent wine and with whom I have personal relationships. I don’t have a gripe with big companies – but they lack the personal connection I have with many of Australia’s artisanal producers.

The Sommelier community’s increasing relevance and influence has been met with thinly-veiled criticism from a small, yet vocal portion of traditional wine media. The role of the critic, in my mind, encompasses actively partaking in constructive discontent. Unfortunately, the Sommelier community has been on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of published works displaying an unhealthy dose of unconstructive negativity. In my mind this particular discourse might just be fuelled by a fear of irrelevance in an evolving wine landscape, a landscape that is highly influenced by the digital environment we now live in. But that might just be me having my personal grip and taking things a little too personally.

On almost every day, the wine game is an incredibly rewarding industry to be involved in. We deal in a completely unnecessary product that we indulge purely for our pleasure. However, it is a tough game. All of its major players are currently under pressure; big wine companies are reporting record losses, wine writers are seeing their column inches cut and restaurateurs are facing ever diminishing profit margins.

Some in the industry have reacted poorly and have chosen not to support one another – rather, they have chosen to adopt a seemingly cannibalistic approach to one another. In particular, I felt last week’s piece by Huon Hooke in the SMH questioned the validity and worth of my, and my colleagues’ role as sommeliers while casting aspersions on my wine making friends with the other. I took it really personally. Maybe that’s not how it was directed and I know Huon is not a malicious man, in fact he’s a great bloke, but that’s how I felt.

We do our best to encourage people to learn about and enjoy more interesting wines. We slave over our businesses and try to be hospitable, we are protective of our own. And when we feel aggrieved we feel the need to fight back and defend our turf, in a civilised way, with a great glass of wine by our side.

So Huon – what will it be? I will open any bottle you like on my list – there’s nothing that can’t be sorted out over a good bottle of wine – at least that’s something we surely agree on.

Tom Hogan
Owner & Sommelier
Harry & Frankie