Nestled between Waikerie and Morgan, in South Australia’s Riverland, sits a beautiful cellar door right on the edge of the Murray River. It’s only been open for a few years, but Caudo Vineyard has cemented itself as one of the most popular and progressive wine businesses in the region. The winery’s philosophy of ‘wine inspired by a lifestyle’ has been driven by Zac Caudo who now manages the family business in between water skiing, wakeboarding and fishing. Emilie Reynolds reports.
Although Zac Caudo has only been working in the wine industry for seven years, he has been surrounded by it for most of his life. His parents Joe and Christine Caudo purchased a property on the Murray River in the mid-1980s when the family still lived in Perth.
“My parents planted a vineyard where we had water skiing holidays,” Caudo said. “The lifestyle I enjoyed on the Murray River led me to this next step in my career.”
In 2009, Caudo moved to the area and took the reins of the company as manager. From there, he transformed the business from a bulk supplier of wine grapes to producer of its own Caudo brand of award-winning wines and a tourism destination for thousands of visitors.
“We decided to change from contract grapes to bulk wines because in contract grapes you are at the mercy of big wineries, whereas with bulk wine you instantly open yourself to export trade and consumers,” he said.
Caudo, an avid water skier and wakeboarder, said he has been inspired by the lifestyle of the river from day one.
“It’s all about lifestyle inspired wines with a focus on the history of the property and community,” he said. “We have such a beautiful location on the Murray River and the environment it gives life too. If you have ever been to the Murray River for a camping holiday, I am sure you would agree that every morning here you pinch yourself, just so you know you’re not dreaming.”
Caudo said his aim was to bottle that feeling of happiness within his wines.
“We want to try and capture that with all of our beverages, one for every occasion,” he said. “We are a young brand with a long history and, still learning and fine tuning our brand philosophy. No need to be rigid out here, don’t be too serious, just go with the flow and take it all in.”
With a relaxed frame of mind, Caudo has taken a series of risks which have all seriously paid off for the business.
In 2014, the winery launched a range of white and red sangria with loud packaging and a fierce marketing campaign. Caudo said he initially began experimenting with different products because he wanted a way to entice visitors to the winery on hot summer days.
“On a 46 plus degree day a lot of people don’t like drinking wine so we created our own beer, the Hogwash Bend Lager in the middle of last year and then we also made a Desert’s Edge apple cider,” he said. “We started mixing our Shiraz with ice and different fruits and it started going well. Then I started mucking around with some unique blends of fruit and spirits and I started to strip the tannin from the wine, it gives it a much more refreshing characteristic.”
The finished product, simply called Sangria The Red and Sangria The White, exploded in popularity and kick-started Caudo towards his goal of breaking down a few barriers between wine producers and their consumers.
“I would like to change the way wine is perceived by, what I think is, the majority of people,” he said. “I think the wine industry tends to be quite intimidating.”
Caudo said he encouraged customers to just enjoy the wine, without worrying too much about the vintage, variety or region.
“Don’t get me wrong this is very important, how else would you begin to know what you like or what different areas offer,” he explained. “But I think by linking a lifestyle you live to the wine it will help to relax the stigma and simply allow people to enjoy the wine.”
Caudo’s successful campaigning of not only his brand of wines, but also the Riverland as a whole, caught the attention of the Rabobank Australia Leadership Awards last year. He took out the 2015 Rabobank Emerging Leader Award and was credited as “a passionate advocate for the Riverland” by Rabobank Australia and New Zealand Group managing director Thos Gieskes.
Gieskes said the leadership Caudo had shown at just 29 years of age was “extraordinary”.
“It will be exciting to watch him continue to develop his leadership skills as he positively influences not only his community and the wine industry, but the wider agricultural sector,” Gieskes said.
Caudo credited the award as his biggest achievement so far and attributed the success to his parents, who he said have given him the flexibility to continually evolve, learn and find new ways of doing things.
“We haven’t spent a lot of money on advertising, but we get traction by being savvy on social media and being advocates of the Riverland, which includes a regular blog on all that is happening in the region to not only encourage people to visit our cellar door but the wider region,” he said.
Caudo said although expanding the business has been his biggest challenge so far, hard work combined with a great team effort paved the way for success.
“The leap from simply selling grapes to selling everything from bulk wine to our own brand in both retail and wholesale was really challenging,” he said. “We are essentially four brand new businesses all in one. You can imagine the SKU’s have gone through the roof so managing stock is a big issue. Luckily we have an amazing team that has formed around us making the transition not so challenging.”
These days Caudo said he keeps busy with a number of different roles through the week.
“We have a very versatile operation,” he said. “Usually vineyard management at the start of the week. This will also include looking at citrus and now almonds and avocados. The citrus accounts for approximately 25 per cent of business. Mid-week usually results in a trip to Adelaide to visit customers and have meetings with sales reps and at end of the week I’m back up to Waikerie to get ready for the weekend at the Cellar Door. All this with interspersed festivals, functions and overseas trips.”
For most people it would be tough to wear so many hats at work and still find time to get out and enjoy the river, but luckily Caudo works at the nation’s only cellar door that can be accessed by boat.
“I’ll water ski most days,” he said. “I’m an advocate not of ¬selling the wine, but selling the lifestyle and the tourism.”
This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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