Monday, November 11, 2013

Plantagenet - Part 1 of 2

This week’s column – even in its extended form posted today, and covering more ground than the article printed in the Weekend Australian Magazine – is as notable for what it does not say as it is for the words in the article.

For while Tony Smith’s pioneering work in Mount Barker was on the other side of Australia, and the early years did not entirely match my endeavours, we were – and remain – driven by near-identical aspirations, and are both left with bitter-sweet legacies.

At the celebration dinner he recounted how ‘The first vineyard I had ever had anything to do with was my own, the first winery likewise.’ When I and two lawyer friends paid the princely sum of $10,000 for a four-hectare block of acidic clay and straggly ironbarks and spotted gums in the Hunter Valley in 1970, we knew what vineyards were supposed to look like, and had seen inside a few wineries.

When we crushed our first vintage of one tonne of shiraz and (two weeks later) half a tonne of cabernet sauvignon in 1973, we had a hazy idea about the theory, but no practical experience of winemaking. Tony Smith’s crop of half a tonne of each of shiraz and cabernet from the Bouverie Vineyard had been packed in wooden banana boxes and delivered to Dorham Mann in the Swann Valley for fermentation in the bottom of a concrete tank.

It was the next year that he learnt of the existence of a disused apple packing shed, and two-and-a-half acres of weed-infested surrounding land in the middle of the Mount Barker township. Elders Stock & Station had the property for sale at $12,000, and Tony Smith’s response was ‘Done.’ The purchase completed, the local Apex Club removed the weeds, helped clean up and repair bits and pieces of the shed, and Plantagenet was open for business.

Our paths crossed many times over the ensuing years, mainly, but not always, in Mount Barker. In 1984 he convened the inaugural meeting of The Australian Winemakers Forum in the Melbourne offices of my law firm, Clayton Utz. The Forum was formed to represent and protect the interests of small family-owned wineries. It was ultimately absorbed into the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, having succeeded in its aim.

In early 1988 Coldstream Hills, which had been founded by my wife Suzanne and myself, became a small listed company on the Stock Exchange, taking our ownership down from 100% to 51%, but providing the capital to double the size of the vineyard (with an existing second house) and complete the building of the winery. At the back of my mind I envisaged a management buy-out when the business was fully established, but when wine market prices collapsed in 1991/1992, we were forced to raise additional capital for Coldstream Winemakers Limited, but weren’t able to participate in the rights issue. Consequently, our share fell to less than 30% of the issued capital.

In 1992 part of the privately owned Plantagenet Wines share capital was acquired by Lionel Samson and Son, Western Australia’s oldest family owned business, leading to further sales of the next seven years until, in 1999, Tony Smith was the only remaining minority shareholder. This left him without a viable position, so in that year he sold his shares to Samson, but became Chairman of the Board of Plantagenet Wines. Two years ago Samson took sole management control, leading to Smith’s resignation as Chairman.

In 1996 Southcorp Wines launched a takeover offer for Coldstream Hills; after much discussions and negotiations, my wife Suzanne and I decide we should accept the offer, thus leaving me without any proprietary interest. For some years I was a group winemaker within Southcorp, with responsibilities for Coldstream Hills, Devil’s Lair and the Hunter Valley trio of Lindemans, Tulloch and Hungerford Hill, but in 2000 fell back into a formal (by exchange of letters) consultancy agreement for Coldstream Hills.

Tony Smith and I respectively have strong emotional bonds for ‘our babies’. My feelings about Coldstream Hills, and pride in its achievements, are exactly the same today as they were when Suzanne and I were the 100% owners of the business, then 51%, then under 30%. I am privileged to conduct all my general wine tastings for the Wine Companion in the winery, and Suzanne and I own the house high on the hill above House Block Chardonnay (planted 1985) and G Block Pinot Noir (planted 1988).

I believe Tony Smith’s attitude to Plantagenet is much the same, contract or no contract.

Part 2 of this post will be published on Tuesday 12 November

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