In 2010, Robert Ellis, son of John and Ann Ellis, returned home to join his mother, father and sister Ruth, in the family business. Hanging Rock is located in the Macedon Ranges wine region and a significant contribution to its business is the shiraz grown in the Heathcote wine region.
Ann Ellis has impeccable credentials in Australia’s wine industry. Her father, Murray Tyrrell, is one of the best known names in recent Australian wine history. Murray’s father, Avery Tyrrell, was the youngest son of the ten children of Edward Tyrrell who planted vines in the Hunter Valley in NSW in 1858. Murray’s uncle, Dan, ran Tyrrells’ wine interests with his youngest brother Avery, twelve years his junior. Dan took over many of the family vineyard operations at the age of fourteen, officiated at his first vintage the same year, and holds the winemaking record of officiating at seventy five successive vintages before dying at eighty nine, just weeks after his final vintage. Dan was making Tyrrells’ wine in the era of Maurice O’Shea and Leo Buring.
Avery’s son, Murray, was born in 1921. On his return from service in World War II Murray worked as a cattle dealer. He took over winemaking duties at the family business at the age of thirty seven. He worked tirelessly to position the Hunter Valley as a premier winegrowing region, becoming known as “the Mouth of the Hunter.”
Murray had two children, Bruce and Ann. Bruce now runs Tyrrells. Ann has worked with her husband John to develop Hanging Rock Winery into what is arguably the best known winery in the Macedon Ranges region. Both Hanging Rock Winery and Tyrrells, along with many large wine producers from other wine regions, have large vineyards in the Heathcote region.
“Bruce and I worked in the winery when we were kids,” says Ann. “We were child labourers! It was pre-electricity in the winery, so we bottled wine with hand pumps and learned a great deal about winemaking. I never really considered a career outside the wine industry. I went to boarding school in Sydney, then came home for a year, and did a secretarial course. Dad said to Max Schubert at Penfolds ‘If you give my daughter a job, I’ll sell you another cask of wine.’ I started working for Penfolds, initially in Sydney conducting wine tastings. I worked alongside Rada Penfold Russell, who was instrumental in bringing about a change from fortified wine to table wine after World War II.
“Then I worked in the Penfolds laboratory in Sydney and also at the Magill vineyard in Adelaide. I worked for a wine distribution business in Sydney until Len Evans asked me to manage his new liquor store at Circular Quay.” Ann was just 22 years old at this stage. “I left Len Evans to start up the wholesale side of Tyrrells business and worked there for four years. Then I met John who had just been appointed as Rosemount’s first winemaker.”
John had been to a career advisor when he was about fourteen. The advice he received was that his talents lay in something to do with agriculture, outdoor work would suit him best. His family on all sides were engineers. “Actually my dad was an accountant, but he was an accountant for an engineering company. “My dad was from Newcastle, my mum from Melbourne, and the family worked in engineering and steel foundries. I had no interest in that direction and decided to follow the advice of the career advisor. I enrolled in the University of Melbourne’s course in Agricultural Science and Vet Science, but my heart was not in the vet subjects. I failed important vet subjects, so returned to the same career advisor. He retested me, checked his list of outdoor careers in agriculture, and asked ‘what do you know about wine?’
“My family were teetotallers but my father was secretary of the local Rotary Club which included a large number of wine lovers. He started to collect wine for the Club events. I recall one event with a masked tasting where one participant tasted the wine and identified that it was a cabernet, it was from South Australia, on a sea facing site. It turned out to be a 1958 Seaview Cabernet Shiraz from McLaren Vale. That twigged my imagination. I wondered how he could have known that.”
John enrolled in the winemaking course at Roseworthy College. At that time it was necessary to do an agriculture diploma before you could do the oenology diploma. He had already achieved good results in the agriculture subjects at the University of Melbourne. At Roseworthy College he got top marks in all his subjects, ending the course as Dux of his year. “An important lesson here,” says John, “is that a mentor to help make career decisions is very useful. Many school leavers make unwise decisions because no one ever asked them the ‘what about….’ questions that might lead to a better decision.”
During the four years he was studying at Roseworthy John worked part time for companies in Adelaide and in the Barossa Valley. “My first full time job was as winemaker at a Barossa start up winery which became Krondorf. In 1973 Dalgety bought up a number of wineries including Krondorf and ended up with six winemakers, which was five too many. I was down the bottom of that winemaker hierarchy.
“While I was looking for my next job I attended a wine growers meeting at which Wyndham Hill Smith from Yalumba was speaking. He was looking at the prospects for the 1973 vintage, explaining that the industry was in oversupply and prices could not be sustained, pretty much the same conditions we have now. A highly audible voice of the Yalumba winemaker at the back of the hall said something along the lines of ‘I have never heard such a load of rubbish in all my life.’ Overnight there was a vacancy for a winemaker at Yalumba where I became responsible for Pewsey Vale Riesling.
“After Yalumba I went to the Hunter to help establish the Saxonvale winery and then was lucky enough to score the plum job of winemaker at Rosemount Estate. Within two years our rieslings and gewürztraminers had put Rosemount Estate on the map. In 1975 Rosemount won two Trophies and seventeen Gold Medals. It also provided me with the fantastic experience of working with the brilliant businessman (and yachtsman), Bob Oatley. He was a great business mentor. Bob was a great motivator, he set us the challenge of creating an Australian prestige wine and we did our best to live up to it. In those days Australia was a world leader in wine technology.”
John’s next move was to Echuca where he worked with Peter Tisdall. “Peter was a visionary wine producer, one of the pioneers of cool climate viticulture, planting the Mount Helen Vineyard on the granite escarpment above Avenel. At one stage Tisdall Wines was Australia’s biggest single producer of chardonnay and pinot grapes and also produced seventy five percent of all the merlot grapes.
Tisdall Wines quickly became a high profile and successful brand in the seventies and early eighties, enjoying something of a cult following. While working at Tisdall Wines, John and Ann were looking for somewhere to develop their own cold climate vineyard and winery. Their ambition was to make a world class sparkling wine in the style of Bolinger and Krug Champagne. They chose the Hanging Rock Winery location following a geologist’s recommendation that the Macedon Ranges Jim Jim Hill’s southern slope would provide the coldest site in Australia for growing chardonnay and pinot noir.
They started developing their vineyard while John was still working at Tisdall Wines. The two hundred and fifty acre property was bought in 1982, the vines went in the following year, above the frost line. John had visited a demolition site one day thinking that he might buy a steel shed there. What he bought instead was an old grain silo which, after much reconstruction work, became their home, cellar door and winery. The original building had eighty six red gum poles, forty eight of which were reused in their reconstruction. The family moved into their new home in July 1986.
In 1985 and 1986, while Ann managed the building development at Hanging Rock Winery, John served as Executive Officer of the Victorian Wine Industry Association, an organisation that provides the interface between the wine industry and government.
During his tenure at Tisdall, John travelled frequently from Melbourne to Echuca, sometimes taking the scenic road less travelled, through Colbinabbin. “I’d been assisting Len French and Jim Munro and we knew of the great shiraz that Ron Laughton was making. At that stage only Ian Rathgen had planted vines north of Ladys Pass. I could see the whole strip from Ladys Pass to Colbinabbin becoming vineyards. When we started Hanging Rock Winery we knew that we needed Heathcote shiraz in our grape mix.
“In 1986 we leased the Mount Camel Vineyard and made our earliest shiraz from that source. The vineyard was salt affected and lasted only six years, but we made great wine in those years. Our 1987 vintage, released in 1988, won many medals and was compared with the current release Grange Hermitage by The Wine Press. In 1992, John started looking for land to plant their own Heathcote vineyard. Athol Guy, just returned from the Seekers last world tour, decided to establish a vineyard in Heathcote and was advised to use John as a consultant.
In 1994 the first planting took place at ‘Athol’s Paddock,’ initially a joint venture with Athol Guy but now fully owned by Hanging Rock Winery. “We have a very loyal following for our Heathcote Shiraz,” says John. “Around 20 percent is pre-sold to return customers.”
Ann’s father Murray Tyrrell, being a third generation Hunter Valley Shiraz grower, was prepared to call Heathcote the second best place in Australia to grow shiraz,” says John. “As early as 1980 Murray saw the wines being produced by Albino Zuber. I recall drinking some Heathcote Shiraz with Murray who commented ‘We’ve got to get a piece of that.”
John and Ann’s daughter, Ruth, is now Hanging Rock Winery’s Sales and Marketing Manager. “We grew up surrounded by wine ” she says. “Our bedrooms backed on to the wine fermentors.” Her brother, Robert, “knew when I was about 12 that I had to be in the wine industry. My brothers were going in other directions. Dave is now a pilot, and Chris is an engineer. Perhaps it was a sense of duty. I certainly had a lot of encouragement from my grandfather. It simply has not ever occurred to me to look at other careers.”
After attending the local primary school and then boarding school, both Robert and Ann went to Adelaide University. “We have different skill sets,” says Ruth. “Robert just knows what to do when he goes into a winery, whereas I walk in and break things! We understand each other’s skill sets and we work well together. We have little overlap, but we do share the same goals and ideas about the future of the business.”
Ruth followed her parent’s advice to look at other careers. She considered a hotel management course. After her first stint of six months practical experience working in a resort on the Whitsundays, and a trial of a business management course at Monash University, she realised that her passion lay in wine marketing. “As kids we worked in the vineyard and winery,” she says. “I took a few months off after I finished my wine marketing degree, and went backpacking, but was really pleased to get a ‘come home’call from mum and dad. I’ve had a few titles since then including Brand Ambassador, Export Sales, and now Sales and Marketing Manager. I’ve even had a 12 month stint of being on the road as a sales rep which proved very valuable. I realised the challenges of many sales reps, an understanding that will serve me well.”
Robert’s oenology course at Adelaide University was about one third on winemaking. “In our second and third years we were at the WAITE campus which is a campus dedicated to wine courses. There’s about a thousand people there, including students, lecturers, and researchers. In my course about eighty started in first year, and about twenty of those entered the fourth year. Just ten finished the course and of those ten, only seven are still working in the industry. Some discover that there’s not the romance in winemaking they had dreamed about. I’d grown up in the business, so I had no such illusions. I also worked part time during my study years at Hewitson’s Adelaide Barrel Cellar.
“I finished my course in 2006, then did a couple of vintages in Western Australia, South Africa and Oregon in the US, then returned home to help out. In 2008 and 2009 I returned to Hewitson Wines to run its new winery, did some vintages in Burgundy and Champagne, returned to Hewitson Wines in 2010. Then there was a vacancy for a winemaker at Hanging Rock Winery, so here I am and I am very excited about the future.”
Ann and John feel they were fortunate to be part of the early days of the revival of the wine industry in Australia. “We were lucky to be in the wine industry in the late 60s. There were huge opportunities then for new brands to be created. In 1969 there were nine licensed wineries in Victoria, now there’s more than eight hundred.
“People like Len Evans, who came here from England post-war, brought with them a new approach to wine drinking, and consequently to wine production. We moved rapidly from a purely domestic ‘wine is plonk’ culture to a country producing quality wine that is internationally recognised,” says John.
“We’ve faced financial stress over the years. At one stage we were close to a public listing but one week later there was a financial crash and that was no longer an option. We’ve had offers to buy and that’s when we sat down with the family and said, ‘Why are we here ?’
“Why do people take on what is a fairly arduous work load of wine production? One reason is ambition. Ann and I wanted to make great wine and we’ve done that. Then you have the option to cash it in or pass it on. When we mentioned a possible sale, Robert and Ruth’s response was, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ We are delighted that Ruth and Robert have the same passion for continuing Hanging Rock Winery that we had when we started out.
“But wine production can’t just be about lifestyle. It needs effective business management. We need to know where we are, where we want to be, what we must do for sustainability and for profitably. We need to create better assets, evolve the business and the brand. The industry has changed forever, our margins are shot to pieces. The big supermarkets are our major competitors where price is all that matters for many buyers.”
“Dan Murphy used to be our biggest customer,” says Ruth. “It is now owned by Woolworths. They have recently dropped 20,000 product lines from their wine business. We got a letter explaining they would no longer be stocking many of our products. A couple of weeks later, we got a letter from a different part of Woolworths asking if we would tender for supply of wine that they could sell for $ 8.99 a bottle. That’s what Australian wine producers are facing in the domestic market.”
But, as one market closes, another opens. For Hanging Rock Winery the new market of China is its biggest opportunity. “We have tackled China differently,” says John. “The traditional model is to seek out retail, wholesale and onpremise markets. But in China there is a market for prestige products, they value gift giving, especially prestige gift giving, where the gift has a high intrinsic value, and scarcity.
“I answered the phone one day and it was a Chinese gentlemen who explained he was calling me because I was a famous Australian winemaker, and he was interested in buying our wine. He was a business man who wanted gifts of quality Australian wine for his business contacts. Through him I met some of his business friends, one of whom purchased four hundred dozen of our Heathcote Shiraz. We now have eight agents around China, none of whom take the supermarket approach of seeking to buy the cheapest wine they can.”
John and Ann have not only developed Hanging Rock Winery and set up a succession plan for it, but John has also invested many hours in both wine industry bodies and tourism bodies. Among his many awards are the Distinguished Service Award from the Victorian Wine Industry Association, a Tourism Victoria Award for the Most Outstanding Contribution by an Individual, and the French Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s French Flair Award.
He is a Legend of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, has chaired both Tourism Macedon Ranges and the Macedon Vignerons Association. He has judged more wine shows than most of us have had hot dinners. Ruth already has more than ten years experience as a wine judge.
Ruth and Robert have more than two pairs of big shoes to fill. After all they are fifth generation Tyrrells, and second generation Ellises.
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