Dream Vertical: Josef Chromy
When it comes to inspiring stories, it’s hard to go past Josef Chromy’s. In 1950, as a 19-year-old butcher, Josef fled his war-torn Czech village of Zdar. The war was over and he really wanted to start his own business, but after 11 years of Nazi and Soviet occupation, he knew that this was never going to happen.
Without saying goodbye to his family, he and two friends escaped across borders guarded by minefields, dogs and soldiers. While his friends were captured, Josef made it onto a train heading to Vienna.
With a ticket, but not a word of German or any papers, Josef was at risk of arrest. So when the guard appeared, he pretended to be deaf and dumb and made it through to Vienna and American occupied territory. There, Josef was granted asylum status and spent the next five months in a Saltzburg refugee camp.
Although flat broke, Josef immigrated to Australia and chose Tasmania as the place to bring his business dreams to fruition. In the town of Railton, just outside Launceston, he found work in an asbestos and cement factory.
A failed business venture in Burnie followed, after which he met a Dutch girl, Alida, and fortune began to smile on Josef. They married and opened a butcher shop in Camdale and began specialising in smallgoods.
The business was called Continental Smallgoods, eventually becoming Blue Ribbon Meats, and for the next 35 years, he built it into a smallgoods empire that included 20 butcher shops, an export division, a meatworks and 530 staff.
In the early 90s, Blue Ribbon went public and Josef made a tidy sum. By this stage, he was 73, but instead of retiring, he began toying with the idea of wine.
Josef established JAC Group (Josef/Alida/Chromy), as, he explains, “Without the support of my wife, I would not be where I am today.”
JAC then purchased three struggling vineyards – Heemskerk (Janz), Rochecombe and Buchanan.
“In 1994, I saw the Tasmanian wine industry as very similar to the meat industry,” Josef describes. “It was undergoing rationalisation where many participants were undercapitalised and unable to achieve the economies of scale necessary to take full advantage of winemaking in Tasmania’s premium cool climate.
Time for Wine
Pictured above (from left to right): Sparkling starter; Jeremy chooses a drop.
Frost was always a big problem for Tasmanian vineyards and without significant investment in frost-proofing, the prospect of yearly crops was less than 50 per cent. On the Rochecombe vineyard, Josef built a dam and installed a sprinkler system that improved the viability of the site as a vineyard. That site is now called Bay of Fires and produces the fruit for Arras, Australia’s most esteemed Sparkling wine.
After an offer too good to refuse on the Jansz brand and the Heemskerk vineyards, Josef sold the brand and began to establish vineyards and infrastructure at Kayena, a pocket of land on the western side of the Tamar, just outside Beaconsfield. The wines that eventually came from the property are called Tamar Ridge and the success of that venture was described by wine writer Chris Shanahan as, “Surely one of the most stunning, complete and instant wine brand creations in the history of Australia’s wine industry.”
Name on the Door
Pictured above: The beautiful Relbia property.
Josef eventually sold Tamar Ridge and in 2003 purchased 61 hectares of vines at Relbia, south east of Launceston.
He set about building a team that could build a winery, make the wine and generally nurture the brand to life. This included recruiting Tasmanian winemaker Jeremy Dineen who had been lured back to his home state by prolific contract winemaker Andrew Hood.
“I was actually thinking of heading to New Zealand because the skiing is better,” Jeremy says, laughing. “But I ran into Andrew and he asked me to apply for a job that he had. Back then, there were very few winemaker jobs in Tasmania, so I thought I could apply now or wait another ten years, so I applied.”
The experience of making wine with Andrew for so many producers was eye-opening for Jeremy and it gave him a good view of the future potential of Tasmanian wine.
“It was like doing 30 vintages in one year,” he recalls. “It gives you the opportunity to see fruit, both good and bad, from the whole state and it was big experience in a short time.”
In Jan 2004, Josef approached Andrew after a successful run at the Tassie wine show and he asked if he would consider making some wine from a vineyard outside Launceston.
“That initial 20 tonnes soon became 80 tonnes,” Jeremy describes. “Josef tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to make wine for him, and from 2005, I was working for Josef Chromy.”
A lot of work has transpired since 2005. Where there was once a simple house now stands a fully-fledged tourism-focussed cellar door and restaurant. Jeremy is now chief winemaker and general manager, who with senior winemaker Ockie Myburgh and Scott L. Clarkson, presides over an impressive, state-of-the-art, winemaking facility.
As you would expect from a man as driven as Josef Chromy, it’s no surprise that the business and the wines have come a long way in a very short time.
“Working for Joe can be tough, but it’s rewarding,” Jeremy says. “He’s a demanding individual, but is very much a visionary, always thinking differently and several steps ahead of everybody.
“I always knew we would be successful, we’ve won medals and awards, but my biggest measure of success is not those things, it’s when people come to us and say I really liked it and want to order some more, that tells me we are doing something right.”
Pictured above (from left to right): Jeremy discusses his wines; The view from the cellar door.
To prove his point, Jeremy lined up a range of wines that provided a 15-year snapshot of some incredible wines. Starting with Sparking, these wines reinforced that the best Australian Sparkling wines come from Tasmania.
Fine, tight and racy, these wines are built for the long haul and slowly flower and evolve over time. Standouts were the structured, relaxed and delicious 2004. The fine and fresh elegance of the 2008 and the incredible complexity and definition of the 2015.
Next was Riesling, a sleeper variety for Tasmania that should get more attention than it does. “Riesling is Tasmania’s unsung hero,” says Jeremy. “Like Tassie’s Gris, it has incredible lime juice, as well as finesse and elegance you don’t find in other parts of the country.”
The 2005 proved his point with fresh lines and a soft mouthfeel, and the youthful 2015 was light and tight, but had restrained power. The 2017 off-dry SGR was a treat, showing sweetness, attractive white flowers, icing sugar, but a balanced and flinty dry finish.
Pinot Gris is another Tasmanian sleeper, emulating the fine and textured styles from Alsace and Germany. The 2006 Gris proved this point with fleshy pear, green apple, apricot and white peach aromatics followed by a rounded mouthfeel with a fine acid tailed finish of complex pears and apples.
Chardonnay to pinot
Pictured above (from left to right): Pondering a label; Paul Diamond and Matthew White with Jeremy.
An incredible line-up of Chardonnays followed from the Estate and premium Zdar range, named after Josef’s home town. It’s no secret that some of Australia’s best come from this state and this range stands as a beautiful representation of the stylistic possibilities for Chardonnay in Tasmania. The estate wines are complex and juicy with the Zdar wines a richer version, showing a greater reflection of each vintage. Standouts were the 2017 estate with its tight, mouth-watering range of apple skins, peaches and ripe pears laced with lime juice and the 2013 Zdar for its elegance and mouthfeel.
The tasting finished with Pinot Noir across three labels. The first was Pepik, reflecting the Czech name for men called Josef, and these Pinots are fresh, fleshy, delicious and great value. The 2018 proved that point with its fresh strawberry aromatics and bright fruits.
The Estate range shows more depth and complexity with broader tannins, spice and a darker array of broody fruits. The 2009 was incredible, presenting a beguiling, broody complexity that matched its development. The Zdar wines were a step up in expression with both the 2005 and 2014 displaying why people get bewitched with Pinot Noir.
Finally, Jeremy showed a once-off small-batch Pinot Noir made from one estate block that possibly showed what Josef Chromy saw as the potential of the vines he purchased 15+ years ago.
Made in 2014 from just one barrel, this wine is simply labelled B14 and is stunning. Complex, concentrated aromatics of sweet and sour black and red cherries make way to a glossy, undulating palate of sweet and savoury fruits. Mesmerising, quite possibly Australia’s best Pinot. Thanks Josef.