Whether they’re long shining, or on the rise, these Australian winemaking stars show that the key to achievement is always looking for the next chance to learn.
While there’s no blueprint for a successful winemaking career, common themes emerge when speaking to those who have already achieved greatness. The industry’s most respected heads are typically driven by the desire for continuous improvement, embracing every opportunity to broaden their skill sets and learn from their senior peers.
“It’s so important that you go to many different wineries and ideally many different regions, so that you get a feel for how many options there are in terms of grape varieties and winemaking techniques,” says Andrew Quin of Hentley Farm Wines and Quin Wines in the Barossa.
“I give this advice to young winemakers all the time. I think if you’re just stuck with one winery in one region through that early period in your winemaking career, you’re probably going to end up being a little one dimensional in your approach.”
After doing his first vintage at Galli Estate in Sunbury, Victoria, Quin did vintages in California and Languedoc, France, prior to returning to Australia. He’s received a raft of accolades since settling at Hentley Farm Wines in the Barossa, including 2017 Barons of the Barossa Winemaker of the Year; and 2015 James Halliday Winery of the Year.
“I saw lots of different winemaking techniques through that early period of my career,” he says. “I think a lot of what I do now has been framed through those first five or six vintages.”
Left: Andrew Quin of Hentley Farm Wines and Quin Wines in the Barossa; Right: Samantha Connew, winemaker and founder of Tasmania’s Stargazer Wine.
Samantha Connew of Tasmania’s Stargazer Wine has won a multitude of accolades, including 2007 ‘International Red Winemaker of the Year’ at the prestigious International Wine Challenge in London.
She points to her ten years at Wirra Wirra Vineyards as being some of the most pivotal; working alongside the late founder Greg Trott and former managing director Tim James.
“There was this sense of loyalty that a lot of ‘died in the wool’ Wirra Wirra supporters had with Greg,” she says. “He would always rock up wearing gumboots, faded corduroy pants and jumpers with holes in them.
“There was nothing pretentious or high falutin’ about him. He just had so much integrity and that was really what I wanted to bring to Stargazer; that very strong sense of the person behind the brand.”
At Stargazer, which she founded in 2010, Connew is relishing control she has over every part of her business.
“I made my first payment for Pinot Noir grapes in 2010 on my credit card, so I certainly haven’t come into this with a huge amount of capital,” she says.
“I’ve done it all myself, so I’m pretty proud of myself for getting to the point where I am now.
“After this year I’ll have five hectares under vine of my own vineyards, a really successful wine business and most of all, people who enjoy my wines.”
Connew has risen to the pressures associated with having this level of control and responsibility.
“When you’ve got a small label, it’s not like working in a big winery where if you stuff a wine you can blend it away or downgrade it to another wine… There are no other wines!” she says.
“Having done close to 30 vintages now, fortunately, I know how to push the envelope and make good mistakes, not bad mistakes.”
home and away
Sue Bell, of Bellwether Wines in Coonawarra, says her existing love for the industry was galvanised by her time in France doing vintage in Bordeaux.
“I love that wherever you go in the world as a winemaker you can find a bed, a meal and good wine,” she says.
“I felt very honoured when I was travelling overseas on the Len Evans Tutorial scholarship to be received by people with an even warmer handshake than normal.
“I’ve always made sure that I’ve returned that favour to people that are travelling around, or students studying winemaking.”
At Bellwether, Bell produces small batches of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon along with a diverse range encompassing Heathcote Vermentino, Wrattonbully Shiraz and Barbera, and Bianco d’Alessano from the Riverland.
She says her confidence to follow this direction has undoubtedly been shaped by the breadth of experience she’s had overseas and at giant winemakers Penfolds and Hardys.
“That experience definitely exposed me to the diversity of fruit and climates and the scale of quality from ordinary, right through to very good,” says Bell.
“Then I could really choose where I wanted to work and experiment. I had more confidence what to pinpoint, what to take a risk on and the contacts to ask questions.”
Left: Mount Pleasant chief winemaker and general manager Adrian Sparks; Right: Harvesting by hand at Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley.
At Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley, chief winemaker and general manager Adrian Sparks is driven to continue the iconic brand’s legacy.
“I love the place,” he says. “The opportunity to work with these vineyards, you don’t get very often.
“If I went to another winery in the Hunter I would be making wines from lesser vineyards. I’d rather have the best fruit at my disposal.”
Sparks’s winemaking talents came to the fore in 2013 when his 2012 Armchair Critic Chardonnay was awarded best in show at the NSW Wine Awards.
“That was the first trophy for a wine I’d made from scratch,” he recalls. “That was when I thought, ‘I’ve got this. I understand the vineyards and fermentation and oak.”
There is no shortage of emerging talent moving up through the ranks of the wine industry to take the baton from these industry leaders.
Melanie Chester was just 26 when she joined Sutton Grange as chief winemaker and was very shortly after named one of the country’s most promising young winemakers.
Having achieved many of its highest accolades so early in her winemaking career, Chester is now motivated by the opportunity to deepen her understanding of the
“Initially it was all about winemaking, but now I’m really focused on the vineyards,” she says.
“Then at other times I’m really involved with the business, cellar door and marketing.
“It’s such a multi-faceted job. It’s certainly something I can see myself enjoying for a long time yet – you can find so many different rabbit holes to go down, depending on what strikes your fancy.”
But she says it is “the small minutiae” she finds most rewarding, rather than these “big ticket items.”
“I really treasure being able to share a bottle of my wine on the couch with my husband while we watch the footy, or giving a bottle to my mother,” she says.
Left: Sutton Grange chief winemaker Melanie Chester; Right: Senior winemaker at Brokenwood Stuart Hordern.
At Brokenwood Wines in the Hunter Valley, Stuart Hordern describes a sense of custodianship that motivates him in his senior winemaker role.
“The Graveyard vineyard is one of Australia’s iconic Shiraz vineyards,” he says.
“It’s one of only a handful of Langton’s classified ‘Exceptional’ wines and they’re few and far between.”
His key achievements include five trophies for the 2014 Graveyard Shiraz at the 2015 Hunter Valley Wine Show, while James Halliday named the 2018 Graveyard his Wine of the Year in 2020.
“I would like to see Brokenwood continue to focus on making some of the greatest examples of single vineyard and regional wines in the country,” he says.
“And I want us to have an open mind as to how we achieve that, in terms of winemaking techniques.
“You need to evolve your style both in terms of adapting to what the vintage provides, but also making wines that are relevant to contemporary consumers.”