In the wine business 50 years is too short for reflection while one hundred years spans several generations and covers a wide variety of trading conditions. Companies that are still family owned and trading after 100 years are the rare survivors and it was at this point that most of them commissioned a company history. Many great contributors to the Australian wine history, and to single out one, Alexander Kelly's Tintara, did not survive for long and we know little about them.
If we arbitrarily take 1850 for the start of the Australian wine trade then the period to 1950 would test any business. This time covers two world wars, two depressions, bank busts and recessions, loss of markets, a gold rush which took away the labour force, a strong temperance movement, changing consumer tastes, many crop failures, droughts and diseases (phylloxera was detected in Geelong in 1875 and proceeded to wipe out many Victorian regions), the need and costs of technical innovation, the effects of Federation, low prices, and periods of overproduction. It also gives plenty of time for two other major destroyers of businesses to develop; family feuds, and bad management.
Of the pioneering firms that grew to be leaders in the first 100 years; such as Seppelts, Lindemans, Penfolds, Orlando (Gramps), Hardy's and S. Smith and Sons (Yalumba), only the last is still in family hands. The smaller firms that have survived include Bleasdale (1850), Draytons (1853), and Tyrrells (1858).
Frank Potts arrived in South Australia on the HMS Buffalo in 1836 with Captain John Hindmarsh and it was likely that he was at the proclamation of the colony on December, 28th 1836. Frank was a remarkable man who took up farming in Langhorne Creek at a property he called Bleasdale in 1850 and later planted vines. That same year Thomas Hardy arrived on August 15th and by September 9th had taken a full time job with John Reynell, another great pioneer whose family firm did not make the century. [I have not found a record of how long Reynell's were involved with their company.]
By coincidence 1850 marks the year that Johann Gramp, then 31 years old and farming in the Barossa, made his first wine, 68 litres of white which he must have thought was in the Germanic style as he called it a hock. Across in Melbourne another migrant, Joseph Seppelt arrived with his family on the 17th January 1850 en route to Adelaide and by 1852 was living at Seppeltsfield. Joseph at 39 years of age was starting anew, and at a much older age than the other pioneers.
Two Doctors have enriched our wine history, both being born in 1811 and arriving within a year of each other; Dr Henry John Lindeman to N.S.W. in 1843; while Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold chose South Australia, arriving on August 8th, 1844. Both were well educated and it is assumed were motivated to come to Australia for different reasons than our other pioneers. Both were very interested in the medicinal qualities of wine and initially made wine to recommend to patients.
The five families Seppelts, Lindemans, Penfolds, Orlando (Gramps) and Hardy's, became the foundation for the first 100 years of Australian wine history. There are many other contributors of course such as Yalumba, Saltrams, Stonyfell, Normans, Hamiltons and from W.A., Houghtons and Valencia and a group of family firms clustered around Rutherglen such as Morris, but the main directions were set by these five companies.
What we know about these companies comes from commissioned histories which naturally do not cover topics that were considered delicate or were just not seen as important.
We are told about the main historical reference points and quite a lot about the wineries, equipment and buildings, indeed some books seem to be the history of a winery, but little about how the wines were sold and marketed.
Unfortunately and more importantly the personalities of the family members even those with key roles in the business are sparingly developed. A few descriptions of business incidents and occasional character insights are given though these do not build into a memorable depiction of any of the wine pioneers. We know almost nothing about how they steered their companies around the numerous business obstacles and no real business or financial data is recorded.
Also little mention is made of the non family employees, some of whom were very important in building these companies and you only have to think of Colin Preece (Seppelts), Max Schubert (Penfolds) and Roger Warren (Hardys).
All of these companies faced critical decision times, but we are left not knowing how these were handled? For example how did they handle generational change?
To know the foundations of our wine business you need to know about its historic underpinnings. The slimness of the volumes shows they were only ever meant to be brief sketches but they ask so many questions. Alas you cannot but feel sad about the details which we will never know.
To highlight just one quite recent, extraordinary example, consider this sudden change in how the Penfolds Company was managed. Frank Penfold Hyland died in 1948 and from 1949-1961 the Chair was passed to his wife Gladys. At the same time Frank's personal secretary, Miss Grace Longhurst became the Managing Director a position she held from1948-1960. Surely this is one of the few times, or only time in Australia when both the Chair and Managing Director of a major company have been women. This covered a time of great challenge in the Australian wine business straddling the consumer shift from fortifieds to table wines, a shift that Grace recognised.
The most recent of the books brings the Orlando story up to 1997 and serves as an example of the fast changes that have continued to take place in the wine trade. In 1997 Orlando took pride in Jacobs Creek as a major brand but the other brands, Orlando, Gramps, the Saints table wine range, and even the single vineyard Steingarten riesling are all given prominence in a manner suggesting they had a secure position in the future. Today the company has reduced itself locally to marketing 90% of wines as Jacobs Creek.
Over the long time that these histories cover, from 1847 to 1997, business and family difficulties compounded and steadily ground down the pioneers and one by one they were taken over by other drinks groups or food manufacturers. The evidence is everywhere that the new owners will do no better.
It's not that the future will be any more difficult it's just that today's owners will alas fall for the same hubris that fells all companies-they think they are better than they will prove to be. At times when caution is called for, self belief will foster marketing madness as they rush to drive the business forward.
Over the last few decades we have watched a terrible tragedy unfold as the new custodians of these brands drove them into the ground at record speed, many in under a decade. And yet it was not because business was so hard. During this time the wine trade has ridden the coming of age of wine, favourable tax advantages, record consumption and a huge export boom but it was still not enough. Thankfully our proud pioneers cannot look down on this wreckage.
While we recognise the long history of our pioneering families we seem to have failed to use this advantage in marketing and what that means for brand building globally I will discuss in another article.
The sad final stages of these companies is best summed up by the last line in the Penfolds history; "Penfolds, 1844 for evermore". Alas it was not to be and for most of the other families as well. If there is one given from this history it is that those in control at the moment will not see in the next hundred years. The next time someone says we must expand, our moment is now, it might be best to say why, and are you sure?
Recently I mentioned to some wine makers that Bleasdale was a remarkable company. They piped in unison 'But what have they ever done'. They survived and that is enough. Proof perhaps that following quietly is the best way for a long, healthy, business life.
* Details of Books
The Hardy Tradition Tracing the Growth and development of a Wine making family through its first Hundred Years. Thomas Hardy and Sons Adelaide 1953.
A Family Tradition in Fine Winemaking.
One Hundred and Twenty Five Years of Thomas Hardy and Sons 1853-1978
Rosemary Burden. Published by the Board of Directors 1978.
Leo Buring Australia's First Wine Authority. Dr Philip Norrie. (Apollo Books) 1996.
The Orlando Way. A Celebration of 150 Years 1837-1987
Tony Baker (Published 1987, Gillingham Printers)
A Heritage of Innovation. Orlando Wines 1847-1997. Tony Baker (Peacock Publications, Anvil Press, September, 1997)
Bleasdale 1850-1986. Griffin press, South Australia
The Penfolds Story. Published by Penfolds Wines Australia Ltd, 1975. Story by Oswald L. Ziegler (Printed by Ambascol Press)
Penfold Time Honoured.
The History of Dr C.R. Penfold and Penfolds Wines. Dr Philip Norrie (Apollo Books) 1994.
Morris of Rutherglen. A Celebration of 130 Years 1859-1989. David Dunstan. (Gillingham Printers, Adelaide, 1989)
The House of Seppelt. 1851-1951
1951 Adelaide (The Advertiser Printing Office)