Sitting with Anthony Grundel and Craig Viney from Murray Street Vineyards, you get the feeling the pair run a very smooth operation. Grundel, the general manager, is just as comfortable talking about the importance of the winery’s mailing list as he is discussing their plans in China. Viney, who drives a VW Kombi and rides a skateboard, has a sample from the final press of the 2015 vintage on the coffee table. The pair spoke to Nathan Gogoll about making wine, selling wine and capability – rather than potential.
In a near-new winery in Greenock, Murray Street Vineyards crushes about 230 tonnes each year. Its own vintage numbers are boosted by a range of small producers who also make their wines in this modern facility. The winery already has storage space for one million litres, but is seeking to increase its licence to 1000 tonnes. There are plans to plant an extra vineyard on the Greenock property and to make sure the nearby Gomersal vineyard is performing at its best, which will probably result in some grafting or replanting in the near future. The winery has already paid its growers for the fruit they delivered for the 2015 vintage. And there are also plans to increase the number of cases of premium reds produced, aiming to hit the export market with more Shiraz at around $25 per bottle.
They don’t talk about waiting for more opportunities at Murray Street Vineyards, they talk about getting ready for them.
“It’s not about opportunity, it’s about capability,” said Grundel. “As a winemaking facility we are looking to increase our licenced capacity to 1000 tonnes. And that will allow us to push more of our Black Label range.”
The Murray Street journey began in 2001 when Bill Jahnke, a US investment banker, partnered with Andrew Seppelt, whose ancestors were very important pioneers of the Barossa wine industry. It started with a vineyard at Gomersal and within a couple of years was expanding into Greenock and shipping the first export orders to the US and Asia. By the time the 10-year anniversary arrived, the wines had earned a range of international accolades; the wines were being made in a brand new winery and the Greenock tasting room had earned the title of ‘Best Cellar Door in the Barossa’.
Today, it is the Jahnke family that owns 100 per cent of the business and Bill not only “really engaged”; he is setting up for the next generation of his family to takeover. It’s no secret the winery was on the market only 18-months ago, and had attracted serious interest. But Viney reckons a visit to the winery during vintage change Jahnke’s mind – the sights and smells hooked him back in. When Bill Jahnke returned for the recent Barossa Vintage Festival, Grundel said he brought a buzz of family ideas and energy with him.
The long-term goal is to grow this range to sales of 20,000 cases, which will rely on extra capacity from the estate vineyards and extra supply from other Barossa grapegrowers. Murray Street owns about 130 acres of vineyard and last year contracted out the vineyard management.
“The costs are arguably like-for-like, but the value of no stress on that part of the business is amazing,” Viney said. “The first vintage played out so well. Yields went up without compromising quality.”
There is expected to be more improvement from the vineyards, with blocks like their young dry-grown bush-vine Mataro just starting to hit its straps. “We were really happy with the Mataro this year, we picked the best fruit I’ve seen from it yet,” Viney said.
There’s a focus on “getting the right things in the right places” and putting in more Shiraz “because it’s selling”, according to Grundel. However, if the growth happens according to plan, more fruit will need to be sourced from other growers.
“We’ve always been happy to pay the right amount for the right fruit,” said Grundel.
And pay quickly, which Viney admits does keep his phone ringing as each vintage approaches.
Murray Street currently has a dozen full-time staff members. There are four team members in the winery, supplemented by a bunch of extra winemakers sharing space for their own projects.
“At the moment we do a bit of contract winemaking as well,” Viney said. “But our number one priority is to work with people who really fit in with what we are doing.”
Having a group of other small producers in the winery has proven to be a positive experience, with a range of different approaches being adopted by the various winemakers and varieties which aren’t part of the Murray Street range, also arriving.
“It’s really good to bounce ideas off the other guys while they’re here during vintage,” Viney said. “I like to call the small winemaker section of the winery the ‘gourmet kitchen’.
There were about 10 other brands using the space this vintage and it gives us space to do little batches as well, at one stage I think I had 14 little parcels on the go. We’ve got storage space for a million litres, but the biggest individual tank has a capacity of 18,000 litres.
“It means you can try a few things like a parcel of Grenache with a percentage of whole bunch in the ferment. We’ve got the space to do something a little bit left of centre, something quite unique.
“I still get excited about seeing parcels of fruit from different patches of dirt with all the different styles you can see from across the Barossa.
“And as far as our cellar hands go, I reckon they’ve got one of the best wineries to work in.”
Viney has been with Murray Street Vineyards for more than eight years and assumed the responsibilities of chief winemaker when Andrew Seppelt departed. During his time in the Barossa he has managed to sneak in a Northern Hemisphere vintage, 2008 in Walla Walla Valley, Washington State, and the international winemaker swap with L’Ecole No 41 enabled the two wineries to share information and technical expertise.
The new winery sits in an elevated position on the Greenock property, overlooking the tasting room. From every angle it’s an idyllic setting and a drawcard for visitors. The cellar door doesn’t have a tasting bench; instead guests are seated for a ‘hosted’ experience.
“We led the curve, set the bar, with the way we set up our cellar door,” said Grundel, who has extensive retail experience on his resume. “We’ve seen other Barossa wineries come along with lots of other great things and that has all added to the strength of the region.”
The setting and the experiences go well with the sub-regional focus of the wines available in the cellar door. This theme gets a boost from the setting; and the fact the small township of Greenock has more and more for visitors to see and do.
“There are a couple extra cellar doors in town now and it’s looking like we will get to five or six,” Grundel said. “And when visitors find out where we are, we think we’re actually one of the easiest cellar doors to find. So we are getting busier and busier and we’re now getting into events, looking at weddings and conferences.
“Our range of wine is structured so the MSV range is primarily direct sales, driven by our tasting room and our mailing list.
“We’ve been headhunting people for different roles and have moved to a flatter style structure where everybody is a salesperson.”
Things are tracking well in the cellar door and the team is happy to keep engaging customers on the back of good regional promotion, but there is an understanding the brand needs to work on its national and international awareness.
The winery recently appointed a PR company to help get the message out, with the task to improve the situation where it’s currently “not really on the radar in Sydney”.
At the same time as the winery grows it’s highly rewarding direct sale opportunity, work is also being done to drive export demand.
“We are really happy with the energy building to attract visitors to the Barossa and we know when you look at that regional picture ‘Brand Barossa’ is well ahead of other regions,” Grundel said. “But we also know that when we go overseas there are some people who ask ‘doesn’t all Australian Shiraz come from the Barossa?’ We know that’s a huge advantage, but we also know it will be a long-term fight for our brand to be recognised.”
The winery has been designed to maximise efficiencies, so the thought of scaling up production doesn’t faze the winemaker or the GM.
“Our Black Label, which started in 2008 and was built up from 2010, is aimed at people looking for Barossa Shiraz,” Grundel said. “For the Black Label, the ultimate goal is 20,000 cases – but give us five years.
“Moving up to a 1000 tonne capacity in the winery is all about being set up to meet opportunities.”
There is real experience in building the domestic market and Grundel said Dan Murphys “had been nibbling for a while before we had the capacity for them”. And the lessons are being used to guide the export focus. The plan is to retain as many direct-to-consumer export options as possible because “in China and Hong Kong delivery costs are really cheap and orders of a couple of bottles, rather than a dozen, can work”.
There are a few export markets ticking along and Grundel believes the Black Label Shiraz is central to the growth plan. The groundwork into export markets is often laid by visiting big international wine shows, before actually booking a stand. And Murray Street has also partnered with Wine Australia and wine brokers to have a presence at shows like ProWine, Vinexpo and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair.
When the Murray Street journey began in 2001, the plan was to divide the sales three ways… one third domestic; one third to the US; and one third to the rest of the world.
“We had just started ‘making it’ in the US when the GFC smashed,” Grundel said.
The focus shifted to China and the winery has started to make in-roads. And more recently, there have been more encouraging signs from traditional export markets.
“The week the Australian dollar dropped [the third week in January this year], the phone started ringing again and we sent our first order to the UK in four years,” Grundel said.
“Europe is now back in play,” said Grundel, and what was a three way split distribution ambition has been adjusted to a 60/40 plan – with domestic sales having the larger share, for now.
“There are still some issues with some international markets. In China it’s easier to move a $60 case or trophy wine – things that rank as tier one and two,” Grundel said. “There’s a lot of talk about China changing to a consumer-driven market and the austerity measures took out the speculators and entrepreneurs, but we are now seeing more distribution businesses popping up. Our experiences with Amazon China have been interesting, they’re respecting our brand and we’re happy with the prices we are seeing on our wines.
“We’ve been lucky to get on board with a couple of airlines, which I don’t think from an Australian point of view we place enough value on. I think Australian wineries think it’s good, but I’ve seen French producers who are gutted to see an Aussie wine take the place of something French on an international airline wine list – they really rate it very highly.”
When Murray Street’s five-year growth targets are achieved, it won’t come as a surprise to anybody in the winery. They are building the capability that has the winery ready to grab its opportunities.
This post has been adapted from an article first published in the June 2015 Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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