Heart and Soul – inside Australia’s ‘First Families’ of wine

A history of twelve great wine families by Graeme Lofts, with a foreword by James Halliday

By Robyn Lewis
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heart and soul – Australia's First Families of Wine

heart and soul – Australia's First Families of Wine

Campbells Winery, Rutherglen, Victoria
Yalumba, Angaston, South Australia
Tahbilk Underground Cellars
Bruce Tyrrell outside his cellar door, Tyrrell's, Hunter Valley NSW


Australia may be a ‘new world’ wine region, but that doesn’t mean that Australian wine regions, its vines nor its wine-making families are all new.

It’s a little known fact that some of the oldest grape vines in the world reside in Australia. Its geographical isolation and good quarantine measures have prevented most Australian wine regions from exposure to the dreaded ‘vine louse’ phylloxera, that sucks the sap from vine roots and leaves, and withered many French and other old world vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The famed Barossa Valley region of South Australia even categorises its vines by age: ‘ancestor’ vines are over 125 years of age, ‘centurion’ 100 years or more, ‘survivor’ over 75, and ‘old’ are merely middle-aged, at 35 years plus.

Australian soils are also ancient; much of the continent is derived from the original Gondwana landmass – one reason why Australia is so flat, its mountains eroded away by wind and time. Flat, and frequently infertile and dry.

Perhaps fortunately, early Australian pioneers knew none of that, but they quickly saw similarities to the climate of the Mediterranean. Moreover, in the 18th century, wine was regarded as an essential medicine, so it was inevitable that white settlers brought wine grape cuttings aboard the First Fleet in 1788.

Whilst these original cuttings failed, by 1791 Australia’s first vineyard was established in Parramatta in NSW, with an impressive 3 acres under vines (the varieties appear to be unrecorded, and the vineyard has long gone).

Tasmanian settler Bartholemew Broughton advertised the first commercial wines of the (then) colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1827, grown and made in what is now a Hobart suburb, and three years later the first Hunter Valley vines were planted in 1830. Remarkably, some of that Tasmanian bottled wine was recently discovered intact. Broughton also supplied vine cuttings to both Victoria and South Australia, which laid the foundations for both their wine industries as those colonies developed.

Pioneer South Australian vigneron Christopher Rawson Penfold carried selected vine cuttings gathered from Southern France on his voyage to Adelaide in 1844, and with a legacy from his wealthy godfather and namesake, Christopher Rawson, established Magill Estate, then a farm on the outskirts of Adelaide.

Magill and Penfolds famously endure, but are now under corporate ownership – whereas some very special of these early plantings remain in the hands of the original families who established them, up to six generations later. They may not have mediaeval chateaux, but they certainly have lineage and authenticity.

The ‘Australian First Families of Wine’ (AFFW, or hereafter the ‘First Families’) was formed in 2009 as a collective of twelve of these family-owned wine producers, who modestly aim ‘to showcase a representative and diverse range of the best of Australian wine with a focus on regional and iconic drops’.

Their charter is to engage consumers, colleagues and members of the wine and hospitality industries around the world ‘to understand the quality of Australian wines, appreciate its character, and the … personalities behind the brands’. 

Together these First Families grow grapes in eighteen of Australia’s wine regions and have over 1200 collective years of winemaking experience, and 48 generations of winemakers – sufficient to stretch back to the reign of Emperor Charlemagne. They aren’t new in experience, either.

Each of these twelve First Families was founded by men and women with a passion for the land, and today they complement each other – perhaps by evolution each occupying a distinct niche – making a range of premium wines, from ‘great-value varietals to single-vineyard icons’.

The inaugural members of this elite group are:

    •    Brown Brothers, founded 1885, with vineyards in the King Valley, Heathcote and Swan Hill regions of Victoria, and northern Tasmania;

    •    Campbells, founded 1870 – Rutherglen, Victoria;

    •    d'Arenberg (the Osborn family), founded 1912 – McLaren Vale, South Australia;

    •    De Bortoli, founded 1928 – Riverina and Hunter Valley in NSW, and Yarra and King Valleys, Victoria;

    •    Henschke, founded 1868 – Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills, South Australia;

    •    Howard Park Wines (the Burch family), founded 1986 – Margaret River and Great Southern, Western Australia.

    •    Jim Barry Wines, founded 1959 – Clare Valley and Coonawarra, South Australia;

    •    McWilliams, founded 1877 – the Riverina, Hunter Valley and Hilltops in NSW, Yarra Valley in Victoria, Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia;

    •    Tahbilk (the Purbrick family), founded 1860 – Nagambie Lakes, Victoria;

    •    Taylors, founded 1969 – Clare Valley, South Australia;

    •    Tyrrell's Wines, founded 1858 – Hunter Valley, NSW, Heathcote in Victoria and McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast in South Australia;

    •    Yalumba (the Hill Smith family), founded 1849 – Eden and Barossa Valleys, South Australia, and Tasmania.

 

As well as history, they share common values and beliefs, a commitment to environmental responsibility and best practice, a custodial approach to some of Australia’s iconic ‘sacred sites of wine’ in their trust, and of course a huge love of every facet of wine.

Yalumba is the oldest, falling into the centurion category, and Howard Park the most recent, and they now cover five of the six wine-growing States of Australia, the Browns having recently purchased into the cool climate areas of Tasmania.

However, they all have another feature in common, apart from the passion of their founders – a remarkable capacity to endure. Anyone who has run a family business for even two generations will know what a challenge this can be.

Heart and Soul  – Australia’s First Families of Wine by well-known author Graeme Lofts is their story.

Lofts was originally a teacher, with a subsequent writing career. He and his wife are long-term members of Victorian Wine Guild, which was established over 50 years ago with the aim to educate the wine sellers of the day – licensed grocers – about the (then) new phenomenon of table wines, and to introduce them to a drinking public at that time more accustomed to fortified wines and beer.

As consumer tastes in wine developed through the 1970s and the knowledge of wine retailers increased, the Guild became less trade-focussed and more of a general wine education group. Graeme and Di Lofts became involved, and then intrigued, first by the wine itself and then by its history.

Graeme Lofts had heard of the formation of the First Families, and serendipitously, Alister Purbrick of Tahbilk heard of his interest. Backed by Lofts’ publisher, John Wiley, they were connected. The resulting book was a year in the making, during which Lofts travelled Australia and was given exclusive and intimate access to interview members of every family.

He was captivated by their stories, ably told for the first time in Heart and Soul – Australia’s First Families of Wine.

Lofts is by his own admission not a wine expert. The book could have been commissioned from one of the current crop of Australian wine writers, but to me, a great deal of its charm and approachability is that it was neither commissioned, nor is primarily about wine.

It is foremost about the people, the families, and what made them succeed. Enough is written about wine already, and Heart and Soul is not meant to be a collection of tasting notes, facts and figures, an expose of the wine industry, or a technical manual – it’s approachable, and human instead.

Sure, Heart and Soul covers wine, but in an engaging and factual way that even a novice can understand – Lofts’ teaching background shines through. But his book does far more – it gets behind the labels, the marketing and the hype, and reaches into the authentic heart and soul of Australia’s wine heritage, and as the cover photo alludes, presents it to us as a gift.

Winegrowers and makers are of course learning that we consumers want to connect with them and hear their stories, so Heart and Soul is very timely for the First Families. But the book goes where a website cannot. Each family delved into their archives of family photos, and publisher Wiley spared no expense with the printing, with full colour reproductions, but still retaining a subtle tint of yesteryear. These bring Heart and Soul and its stories to life.

Renowned wine writer James Halliday AM writes in his introduction “there is, or … should be, a continuous link between vineyard and winery, and between a winery and consumers. It is this continuity that allows the members of Australia’s First Families of Wine to maximise the potential quality of the wines they produce and make informed decisions on wine style and price. The outcome is wines that routinely over-deliver of a price-to-quality ratio.”

This is indeed modest praise, as Halliday continues: “Then there is the sheer quality of wines made by the First Families”. Ten of the twelve members of the First Families hold his ultimate star accolade (out of a total of 96 in the whole country, out of several thousand), and the remaining two are at the next rank of five red stars. In other words, their wines rank at the top.

There are many lessons as to why this should be the case throughout Heart and Soul, and it’s a book I recommend to any aspiring winemaker or grower, as well as to those wishing to connect with what they are drinking.

Firstly there is the emotional connection of the families to their land and business, and growing up with wine and vines literally in your blood. They are part of you, and you of them, and it’s a bond not easily severed.

For those who were not born nor married into a business family, the all-pervasive nature of business and the continuum between business and family life may seem impenetrable, or even bizarre. Talk of business often begins at breakfast, and continues one way or the other all day, almost every day. Yet far from being tedious, this is the living, breathing embodiment of what these people are, originally by inheritance, but nowadays also by choice.

For another of the reasons the First Families have successfully endured into the 21st century, and a second lesson, is that their birth no longer means an automatic job in the family business. Lofts has explored this delicate subject well.

An outsider might see only the privilege, and think “he/she only has this position because their father or mother is a Brown/Hill Smith/Tyrrell” or whichever. This may have been true in the 1920s, but one common feature of all the families now is that their jobs must be held on qualifications.

Many of the families go so far as to insist that their offspring work elsewhere for five years after graduating, and then if they choose, can apply to join the family firm. Indeed it is a matter or pride amongst the current generation that they are there on their own merits. They also bring back not only new ideas and experience, but the knowledge of what it’s like to be just another employee in the real world of corporate hierarchies, government or someone else’s business, where ‘throwing your weight around’ just doesn’t cut it.

Certainly the private school educations and university degrees unhindered by subsequent years of debt repayment are privileges that many can only dream of, but after that it’s work – lots of it, long hours, hard, and ongoing. This is the third common factor. The descendents of pioneering families who shirked the hard yards and instead chased the good life are not in Heart and Soul for a very good reason – their businesses have failed to endure.

Another common factor is that they now all have succession plans, boards with external members, and that sales and marketing are as important as the romance of the winemaking. It’s no accident that all these businesses are well run. You can see the canniness in the eyes of their ancestors peering from the photographs.

They probably all have developed rather thick skins, too, from working in close proximity to those who know better than anyone how to press their emotional buttons.

Separating the personal from the professional, containing egos and above all managing expectations are issues faced in any family company, whether a dynasty or otherwise.

Some handle it better than others. In the case of one family, the Purbricks, the risks are reduced by allowing only family members to hold shares, thus preventing say a run of bad years forcing a sale by disgruntled external shareholders.

But Heart and Soul is not an agribusiness manual. More than anything, it’s the families’ love of vines and wine that shine through. The First Families’ children have picked up wine almost by osmosis, from the highchair onwards, and another consistent factor is that this was not forced on any of them.

Many worked in the wineries to earn their pocket money as children, and dreamed of making “yummy wines” as Chester Osborn – now Chief Winemaker at d’Arenberg –   famously said to the late Len Evens whilst sitting on his knee as a six year old. Chester, like John Graham Brown of Brown Brothers at the same age, had already decided that he wanted to be a winemaker.

It is to our great benefit that they, and the others in Heart and Soul, did.

Heart and Soul devotes a chapter to each of the First Families, exploring their idiosyncrasies as well as their common themes, and the cultures and heritage of each family. The de Bortolis, for example, are of Italian origin and this is reflected in the family’s core values. Their motto, as I learned on a recent visit, is ‘semper ad majora’, which loosely means ‘always strive for better’. It directs almost everything the family members (and their employees) do.

The book is littered with anecdotes and amusing tales. I asked Lofts to elaborate on some of these:

“One was the degree to which the older and younger generations are proud of each other. It was a common thread during the interviews, but in some instances when I interviewed two generations around the table and asked the question ‘What are you most proud of?’ the younger generation responded ‘our parents’ and we all became quite emotional and tears were shed.

Parents expressed similar feelings about their grown-up children who have stepped into the family business.

All families talked about the experiences they had as youngsters growing up in the surroundings of a winery. They picked grapes, pumped wine, cleaned tanks, washed bottles and drove tractors. They invariably complained (tongue in cheek) about how little they were paid; in the order of 10 cents per hour in some cases.

As children, they met and socialized with some of the legends of Australian wine – people like Len Evans, Maurice O’Shea, Max Schubert and James Halliday.

Some of them got up to mischief. Hayley Purbrick remembers hiding behind barrels in the dark and eerie Tahbilk cellars and suddenly jumping out to scare visitors. There were lots of games of hide and seek in most of the families’ cellars.

Some of the kids were quite resourceful. Doug McWilliam, now Chairman of McWilliams, recalls making his own wine at the age of seven or eight. He put some grapes into a meat mincer and fermented them in an old kerosene can. According to Doug, the wine was ‘bloody awful’. 

They all talk about arguing, but they argued in different ways. Most of them are able to quietly resolve differences of opinion, but there has been some volatility in some of the families – in one instance father and son yelling at each other in full voice until they realised that they actually agreed.

In another family an argument (several generations ago) developed into a bitter and occasionally violent family feud in which brothers came to blows and shotguns were raised and fired. That feud lasted more than twenty years and almost destroyed the family business. It was finally resolved in court.”

However these are the rarities, and most of the first families are remarkably stable – another note to prospective candidates for family business longevity: choose your life partner well.

As Stephen Henschke says “what we have you cannot buy”. However it’s not just the old buildings, the vines and the estates to which he refers, but the lineage, the history, passion, connectedness, endurance, care, respect and indeed the love, for each other and to their land.

This is real, living authenticity, and you can taste it in their wines, as much as their terroir and winemaking skills.
 
Heart and Soul is above all an inspiring book, not only for young people who may one day hope to become a winemaker or a vigneron, but for anyone who despairs that the ‘get rich quick’ mentality of the current crop of young entrepreneurs is about to take over Australian or indeed western culture.

Their lives are marathons, not sprints, but along the way there is much fun and laughter, good times together with the tough vintages, and overall happiness triumphing over the inevitable tragedies and losses that any family experiences over so many decades.

To me, there are only two small complaints: I believe that Heart and Soul would have better reflected its the quality of its contents had it been published in hardcover, but then of course the price would have been higher. The second is the inclusion of maps and tourism information at the end of each chapter, which to me interrupts the tales. (Perhaps at the end might have been better?)

However, tell that to the couple travelling Australian wine regions with their copy of Heart and Soul in hand, collecting the signatures of members of the First Families as they go. They are connecting with Australia’s wine heritage, savouring the true richness behind the labels and the history in their wine glasses, and fully appreciating that none of it is ‘new’. Wherever you live in the world, Heart and Soul – Australia’s First Families of Wine will allow you to do the same.




Heart and Soul – Australia’s First Families of Wine by Graeme Lofts is published by John Wiley and Sons Australia Ltd (Milton, Queensland 2010; sc, 344 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.95.

Subscribers and Members of VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive can
click here to purchase Heart and Soul – Australia’s First Families of Wine from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount off RRP (postage extra).

 

Heart and Soul was nominated for the 2011 Blake Dawson Business Literature Prize in October 2011.

Heart and Soul has also been nominated in the New World Wines category of The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2011.

 

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April 13th, 2011
 
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