Women in Wine: Kate Sturgess
Kate Sturgess joined Brokenwood Wines in 2015 as Assistant Winemaker and was promoted to Winemaker in 2019. She has experience winemaking in several Australian wine regions as well as in Okanagan Valley, Canada, and has been involved in wine judging at local and national wine shows. A young gun, Kate was in the 2021 cohort of Wine Australia’s Future Leaders program and was nominated for Winemaker of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends Awards 2021.
What are some of your favourite highlights throughout your career in wine?
The 2018 vintage in the Hunter Valley was just stellar and such a privilege to be able to see fruit like that come through the winery and live up to its fullest potential when it went to bottle. I’ve got a lot of that stashed away for a later date! The 2013 vintage in the Grampians working for Mount Langi Ghiran was still some of the most pristine Shiraz fruit I have seen coming into a winery, and working vintage in Canada in 2012 was an experience I’ll never forget. Snowing outside during harvest is such a world away from Australian harvests!
Do you have any role models or mentors who have been an important part of your career journey?
So many! The people early in my career who helped me decide on what I needed to do to get to where I wanted to be were Mike DeIuliis and Sam Connew – who still keeps me on the straight and narrow. Pete Bissell in Coonawarra was the perfect first real mentor and such a considered and thoughtful winemaker. Iain Riggs and Stu Hordern can’t go without a mention for giving me the opportunity to join the fold at Brokenwood. Sarah Crowe, Gwyn Olsen, Liz Silkman, Annabel Holland, and Liz Riley for being absolute powerhouses and paving the way in the Hunter Valley. Brendan Kaczarowski, Ben Mullen and Melanie Chester who are the best friends and hugely talented and supportive winemakers a girl in the industry could have. I have been spoilt for choice!
In your career, have you had any standout achievements? What was that experience like?
Brokenwood is a pretty special place to work in terms of accolades so there are a few – but the ones that really stand out are the 2018 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz being named James Halliday’s Wine of the Year in the Australia Wine Companion, and one of our Semillons being named as the best current vintage Semillon at the Hunter Valley Wine Show for the past three years running – which shows the consistent effort of our whole vineyard and winery team.
What is your favourite wine to make, and your favourite wine to drink?
I love to make Hunter Valley Semillon – it is so raw and pure. Such a clear example of every decision made along the way to get it into bottle. It really is a reflection of the vintage and the site and the winemaking all shown in the glass.
I love drinking Chardonnay – Australian, from many different regions and exploring new producers all the time. Some of my favourites are Nocturne, Giant Steps, Mulline, Silkman (or First Creek) and Stargazer.
How did you get started in the industry and what inspired you to work in the wine industry?
I decided in year 10 at school that I was going to be a winemaker – which is a bit wild for a girl from Brisbane! My parents both liked wine and I loved science and the idea of working outdoors. When I looked into winemaking and saw that people were still in the industry and so passionate about what they were doing well into old age it seemed like something I couldn’t say no to.
What are you most excited about in the Australian wine industry right now?
I am loving the focus on sustainability through vineyards and wineries – ensuring the industry is in the best place it can be to keep making top quality wines. Lorrae, our lab supervisor, has organised certification for all of our Hunter Valley vineyards and it has been a huge job but also so worthwhile!
There also seems to be a lot of opportunity for young people making their own brand and having the opportunity to develop their own style and show their interpretation of the vineyards.
What qualities do you think it takes to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
I think you need to have faith in yourself and maybe even a naïve confidence in your abilities in the beginning and then quickly learn to be humbled and resilient from any mistakes along the way. Most of all you have to be willing to just muck in and have a go. I think those are the same qualities you need to be successful in any industry though.
What advice would you give to young women just starting out or considering a career in winemaking?
Do a vintage. If you don’t love vintage – which is the most exciting and action-packed time of the year for any winery – you won’t love the rest of the year in the winery. Vintage is what energises and refreshes the best winemakers I know – a new season, new grapes, a new chance to make the perfect wine. And it comes about every year!