Blood into Wine
What does it really take to work with family – is it fraught, or fulfilling? We talk to the people behind three top generational wineries about the reality behind the scenes.
If you ask Ben Thomson of Victoria’s Best’s Wines, working with family isn’t so complicated. As a fifth-generation vigneron who works with his father Viv and brother Hamish, he would know, too. Ben jokes about joining the family business at the age of two, but it’s not too far from the truth. “I officially started working at Best’s when I was 17, so I’ve basically been here my whole life.”
The oldest of four kids, Ben has taken on a lot of responsibility over the years – as managing director and vineyard manager – but says he never felt pressured to do so. “I’m glad I’ve done it because it’s a pretty good gig to be in,” he says in his typically understated way. “I originally wanted to be a farmer, but this is still a form of farming, and it’s lovely to be able to drink what you make.”
Even after working with family for so long, Ben describes their business as drama-free. It helps, Ben says, that Hamish is charged with the very different tasks of marketing and sales, so they simply get on with their jobs. They also continue to learn from Viv, too. “You can probably yell at each other a bit more, and you might also have your silent times, but Dad’s the most invaluable source of information we have – he has a fantastic memory of every season. I don’t have to use his advice, but I can listen,” he says.
Viv, now in his early 80s, has seen history repeat when navigating these dynamics. While he acknowledges that working with fathers can be difficult at times, he agrees they’ve always found their way through. “Dad was always very fair with me and a good bloke, and I learned a lot from him, but we had a different way of doing things. I’d walk around the table one way, and he’d go the other, but we’d end up at the same place. And it’s been pretty much the same with Ben and me.”
Viv admits they’ve never planned too far ahead in their business, and that includes succession. “In terms of progression, Ben’s wife Nicole is strong on marketing, and her son Jackson is working in the winery. We also have one granddaughter, Isabelle, working in the lab and as a cellarhand, but we know she wants to travel, so we’ll see,” Viv says.
Regardless of how it unfolds, Ben is excited about their future. “My nieces and nephews are young, but in another 10 years, they might be keen as mustard to get involved, and I’ve got a few years left in me yet,” he says. For Ben, their legacy is as much about family as it is about how they operate. “The secret for me is honesty, integrity and doing your best all the time,” he says. “I want people to know that if they buy a bottle of our wine, it’s 100 per cent Great Western fruit, and it’s the best possible wine we can make each year.”
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
When it comes to working with family, the Hunter Valley’s Usher Tinkler seems to have the best of both worlds. The vigneron runs his own eponymous business while also making the wine for his dad and uncle at Tinklers Wines. “I’m a small shareholder, but the family business is theirs, so they do what needs to be done in the way they want. It’s the same for me – I can do things in my business the way I want, and if it doesn’t work, then that’s on me,” he says.
With the Tinklers Wines range traditional in style and Usher Tinkler Wines more contemporary, Usher says their way of working means he can “modernise without compromise”. “My Dad and uncle have the freedom to maintain their wants and needs, and I’ve got the freedom to be as ‘out there’ as I want,” he says. The Usher Tinkler Wines Death By Semillon is just one example, a popular release fermented with skins to create a boundary-pushing take on the region’s flagship white.
A third-generation farmer, Usher grew up driving tractors and picking grapes, but he completed an environmental science degree before turning to winemaking full-time.
“I’m an environmentalist at heart,” he says, crediting that passion with time spent with his grandmother while growing up on the property. She would often take in orphaned birds and animals, and taught him about the local flora and fauna.
Today, the family owns and runs about 10 per cent of the region’s vines, which provide a breadth of varieties. In addition to the region’s hero grapes, including Chardonnay, Semillon, Shiraz and Verdelho, they also grow newer clones and other varieties better suited to a changing climate. These include Tempranillo and Prosecco; the latter proving to be one of their biggest successes. “It gets nice, lifted nashi pear flavours due to the warmth,” Usher says.
These days, working with family is pretty straight-forward for Usher. “When you’re younger, you’ve got lots of ideas and ambition, and, in some ways, it can be a bit challenging to get everyone on the same page,” he says. “But I’ve got enough battles in my own business, so if they don’t want to do something, that’s fine. I want to help them, not tell them what to do every day. For me, it’s about being supportive and helpful where I can.”
As for what comes next, Usher says they don’t have any solid plans for Tinklers Wines or his own business. But with his dad and uncle still entrenched in the vines, and Usher’s own winery and cellar door enjoying a post-pandemic boom, it’s far from their current focus. “I think we can get very emotional and wrapped up in what we do, especially in wine, which is such a long-term game,” Usher says. “But things are very fluid for me. If I’m winemaking in another 10 years, great. If I’m not, it probably wouldn’t worry me too much.”
RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY
It was Craig Willson’s experience in his family’s newspaper business that set the tone for how things run at Bremerton, the Langhorne Creek winery he founded with his wife Mignonne. As his winemaker daughter Rebecca puts it, Craig understood succession and its challenges first-hand, so they even established a family constitution. “It’s so important,” Rebecca says.
Today, Rebecca is Bremerton’s co-general manager with her sister Lucy, who manages their marketing. With both parents on the board and still living on the property – Mignonne even makes morning tea for the team – they feel lucky to have their support and insight in easy reach. “We’ve had awesome guidance and they set the standard for us,” she says.
Similarly, the duo have only positive things to say about working together. “We have respect for each other’s responsibilities, so we don’t need to worry about each other. We’re always talking about what we’re doing, and we feel comfortable with it, so it’s great from that perspective,” Rebecca says. They are, however, both head-strong, according to Lucy. “We laugh, we cry, and we argue, but we’re a great team and love each other 99 per cent of the time! One of the key things Dad taught us is to look after your personal relationship as well as your working relationship. Even if you’ve had a disagreement at work that day, you still need to be able to go around to the other’s house that night for a drink or dinner.”
While the duo initially pursued other interests – marketing and outdoor education respectively – they both actively chose to join the business. “Lucy and I didn’t know what we wanted to do the following weekend, let alone for the rest of our lives, but we both decided we wanted to get involved, so it was a conscious decision to build the brand together,” she says.
Craig and Mignonne first planted vines on their lucerne farm in 1991, but after a flood destroyed their entire lucerne crop the following year, they committed to fully converting to viticulture. The growers took their first stab at winemaking in 1998, and the family has been producing wine ever since, now with an expansive range that also includes gin.
“Although we’re experimenting with new varieties and styles, what’s held true for us over the years is consistency and commitment to the more traditional varieties for Langhorne Creek,” Rebecca says. It’s also an exciting time for white wines in the region, which has long been renowned for its reds.
Bremerton is now home to an expanded cellar door, with meals offered daily, but that building work almost didn’t happen as it coincided with the start of the pandemic. “We were wondering if we’d ever get tourists again, so it was a big decision for us with many sleepless nights.” Rebecca says it’s those times that make them even more grateful for the support of family and the board, where decisions are made together.
With four young children between Rebecca and Lucy – the oldest is 15 – succession plans are some way off. Both sisters also have partners in the industry, but, for now, they don’t discuss Bremerton’s future with their kids. “We don’t want to put any pressure on them,” Rebecca says. “I really want them to find their own path.”