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The Survivors
By Gerald D. Boyd
Nov 3, 2009
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The wine industry tends to be fluid and ever-changing.  Not long ago, New World wineries, like those in the Old World, were mostly family owned.  In recent years, though, the structure of the wine industry worldwide has moved toward corporate ownership and away from the family.  So it’s refreshing to see a noted Australian wine family that survived the corporate world and then re-invented itself as a family wine company.

Chief among the survivors are Robert Oatley and Chris Hancock, two Aussies who display the don’t-quit tenaciousness of someone who won’t let life’s hard knocks kick the legs out from under them.  In 2001, Oatley agreed to his Rosemount Wines being absorbed by Southcorp in one of those business ventures that somehow never work as hoped.  And Hancock, who was fighting a life-threatening illness, resigned from his long-time job at Rosemount in 2005 when Southcorp was absorbed by Fosters. 

The good news is Oatley and Hancock are back working together again, and neither man has lost the fire that brought them into the wine business in the first place.  Oatley bounced back with Robert Oatley Wines, based in Mudgee, New South Wales, and Chris Hancock is at the center of the new operation with his old friend and employer, as Deputy Executive Chairman of Robert Oatley Vintners & Vignerons.  Two other men who were key to the Oatley-Rosemount success are Sandy Oatley, now Executive Chairman of Robert Oatley Wines, and John Gay, now director of Robert Oatley Vineyards, importer of Robert Oatley Wines.

I met with Hancock recently and he looks as fit--albeit a little older--as he did when we first met in Australia in 1986.  We talked about Robert Oatley Wines, but I also wanted to hear from him what had happened with Rosemount.  Hancock’s straight-forward reply was a bit of a surprise.  “With me being out of action for so long and, in fact with a fairly dire prognosis, Bob needed to boost the management side of the business, so he brought in Keith Lambert, his son-in-law, who drove the business hard, growing Rosemount into a big financial success.”

“Bob had suggested a merger but Southcorp was going through some changes and the synergies didn’t work,” Hancock continued.  “It was a flawed business plan, driven on price and pitting a family culture against a corporate culture.  I went to work for Southcorp, but Bob wasn’t satisfied and he sold his shares in Southcorp to Fosters.  I declined to join Fosters, although I did choose to stay on as a consultant for a year and then I returned to the Oatleys to start up a new wine business.”

With all that disappointment, it’s a wonder that Bob Oatley returned to the wine business and that Hancock followed.  “It’s in the blood,” said Hancock.  “Bob retained some of his vineyards in Mudgee and I suppose the decision was probably prompted by a sense of unfinished business.”  Although Rosemount sourced grapes from many areas, the main winery was in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales.  “We’ll never go back into the Hunter.  The northern part of the valley has been destroyed by open-pit coal mines,” Hancock said regretfully. 

In late 2006, Chris Hancock was recovering from his bout with cancer and itching to get back to work.  “I had retained my friendship with the Oatley family for 35 years, so I thought it was time to get my backside in gear.”  While at Rosemount, Hancock, a trained winemaker introduced Rosemount Chardonnay to the world, helping to boost the image of Australian Chardonnay. 

Through Robert Oatley Wines, Hancock and Sandy Oatley introduced Wild Oats wines in Australia.  But their effort to launch the wines in the U.S. market was blocked by a health food company that owned the name “wild oats,” so in 2008, Robert Oatley Wines was launched in the United States.  Sourced from the Oatley family’s seven Mudgee Vineyards, other Mudgee growers, South Australia’s Currency Creek, and Margaret River and Pemberton in Western Australia, the current line, all under screw caps, includes Chardonnay, Rose of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and Shiraz from Mudgee; Sauvignon Blanc from Western Australia, and Pinot Grigio from South Australia.  In 2010, Hancock says that Robert Oatley Wines will release a single vineyard Shiraz, a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon with a little oak, and a small-production Chardonnay from Margaret River.

Hancock describes the Robert Oatley style as “wines that drink nicely with food but don’t intrude on the food flavors.  Above all we strive for texture and our wines are lighter-bodied so they won’t carry the higher alcohols.  Texture is the single-most important factor of wine to the consumer. We need to build that into the wines.  And the wines should taste like the grape.  Blends have their place but you should be able to taste Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in the blend.”  He added that Merlot seems to like Mudgee and the character they want in Shiraz will come from aging in Hungarian oak.

“We’re not trying to replicate Rosemount wines,” said Hancock.  “We need to make wines with texture that are relevant to today’s consumers -- good to drink and good with food.”  Achieving that texture and varietal character in the wines is easier said than done--especially when dealing with Australia’s extended drought.  “We’ve had sporadic drought conditions here [in Australia] since 1993, and today our riverine system is in an advanced state of distress,” Hancock explained.  “The most recent bout has been probably from 2003 and it continues; 80% of New South Wales has been ‘drought declared’ and has been for some years.”

“Mudgee is fortunate that we have a stable water supply, compact volcanic soils with good drainage and low water utilization, helped by the Cudgegong River that flows through Mudgee then feeds into the Murray-Darling in Victoria.”  In general, though, he believes Australian viticulture is suffering from the drought. “Some growers can’t get water at any price and this affects the wine market throughout the country.  By contrast the southern part of the continent has had its best winter rainfall for many years. There is little doubt that for anyone close to the soil that climate change has arrived.”  

With all the rumors circulating about the state of Australia wine, I asked Hancock for his views.  “We’re under pressure from competition from other countries and the reality that there are more choices in the market and consumers are more confident now that they can make the right wine choice.”  And how are Australian winemakers viewing this new reality?  “Australian winemakers got a little lazy with zip-code wines that had no provenance and the heavy reliance on the South Eastern Australia appellation.  Then Australian products were becoming known only for critter wines and big, syrupy Barossa reds, and the Australian wine industry got sucked along by the top six or so big companies.”

“My view is if Australia doesn’t want to be a commodity wine supplier it needs to re-invent it self and start marketing interesting wines with provenance.  As for Robert Oatley Wines, I just hope that we’ve made the worse wines we’re going to make.”