By Gerri Nelligan
Winemaker Hamish Seabrook was determined that following his dream wouldn’t turn into a financial nightmare when he decided to develop a Barossa ‘home’ for his family brand. A fifth-generation member of the Seabrook wine family, Hamish has the industry in his blood.
Since 1878 Seabrooks have been in the wine trade, blending, importing, selling or making wine under the company philosophy of ‘sourcing top-quality grapes from the best regions of Australia’. And Hamish has made plenty of great wine from top quality grapes, including as a salaried winemaker in one of those ‘best regions’, the Clare Valley.
But that wasn’t enough: his dream was for Seabrook Wines to have physical roots, and ones that he could share with his young family.
A Barossa home
The first step was taken two years ago with the purchase of a 20-acre vineyard in the Barossa, east of Tanunda. An historic cottage on the property was ideal for a cellar door, so the dream was on its way.
“What I wanted to do was make wine in the traditional sense – and I wanted a piece of the Barossa as well. So for the first time now my family owns vineyards,” Seabrook said.
“I’m a believer that if you’ve got good grapes and a good patch of dirt, you’re always going to have good wine. It’s about having that complete control all the way.
“And having a cellar door for us is not a big money making machine. It’s a way to connect with people, show them what we’re doing and show them our wines.”
All in the timing
Seabrook left his fulltime winemaker role with Kirrihill in Clare to concentrate on his own brand and run the new tasting room. It was a risky decision in some ways, but he felt the time was right – for both him and his family.
“It’s a good time in my life right now, and it’s what (my wife) Jo and I wanted to do,” he said.
“I’ve been a winemaker in many different guises, worked for many different people, and it was either go up through the ranks working for someone else or do my own business. It just made sense timewise to do it now.
“I loved the last job I had – the challenge and the buzz of vintage, when you do so many tonnes and crazy hours. It was a fantastic job, and I had a steady and reliable income. But when you’ve got your own vineyard and you know what you’ve got to do every day, it’s really satisfying: you’re growing something and it’s your business, and that’s so much more rewarding.
“Then there’s the opportunity to turn off the machinery and go and pick up the kids, because you’re on your time not someone else’s. If I’d waited four or five years I’d have missed out on that time with the kids, so it was a lifestyle change as well.
“I was a nervous wreck at first and scared about the future, as was Jo, but we decided that if you don’t ever try and don’t give it a go, you’ll never know.”
The more buoyant mood across the grape and wine community also helped with the Seabrooks’ decision.
“Time-wise in the industry it made sense as well. There are lot of small producers out there right now doing a lot of good things,” Seabrook said.
“In the last 10 years I’ve watched a lot of small producers show what they can do, so I figured that now was a good time for us to get out and do something too.”
Limiting the risk
While establishing most businesses requires some capital, Seabrook said they were careful not to take on too much debt, and therefore too much financial risk.
“Financially we’ve been fairly sensible about what we’ve done,” he said.
“A lot of the work has been respectful to the old cottage and you don’t have to spend a lot to do that. We also applied for and got both a cellar door grant and a heritage grant, which obviously helped a lot there.
“Other than that, we funded it and did the work ourselves, and that really lowers the risk.
“Having a diverse business also helps make it work: in addition to the cellar door, we have income from selling some of our grapes and I have an export company selling wines overseas. You have to have a diversity of incomes, otherwise the risk is high.
“That said, we’re like most Australians – the bank owns everything we have.”
The other risk Seabrook faced was the regulatory processes involved with setting up a cellar door in a heritage building. Luckily, the only setbacks were minor.
“We had a hiccup with trying to get our application through in the first place – it took so long,” he said.
“But council have been good to us and we really haven’t had too many problems. Working with an old cottage is always fun, of course. Ours was first built in 1854 and then built on and built on, so it’s all different levels and different roof heights, and it does have a lot of architectural issues that we need to address.
“But overall, it seems to have gone really well, and all the liquor licensing and other legislation stuff just worked.”
Lost … and found
Seabrook said that a physical home for the business will strengthen the brand, in terms of both the cellar door ‘face’ and the ability to better communicate the story.
“We’ve been kind of lost. I started making wine for Seabrooks in 2005 and in that time we’ve never had a home. We’d sell through distributors or over the internet, but we never had a face,” he said.
“So we definitely feel that at last we have a home for our brand.
“And while our range is still very diversified – Barossa, Great Western, Yarra Valley, Eden Valley, Langhorne Creek – and our family history really is Melbourne, it makes sense to have a home like this in the Barossa. I love the people, I love the community, and it’s a place where I love making wine. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
The opportunity for consumers to “meet the people who make the wine” is an important part of Seabrook’s business plan, despite the time-consuming aspect of running a tasting room.
“Winemakers all want to be there at the cellar door meeting people – and people want to meet us, to hear what we’re doing. You can make great connections and really communicate the story behind your wines; that element which makes them different,” he said.
“But if you don’t have passionate people behind the counter who believe in you, it’s the opposite – a bad experience – and with social media, all it takes now is that one time.
“That’s one reason why it’s just me here.”
The other reason the winemaker is behind the tasting bar is, no doubt, financial. In fact, Seabrook has taken on a variety of roles within the business.
“I do pretty much everything, from vineyard manager and cellar door manager to toilet cleaner,” he said.
“The cellar door’s open five days, and Tuesday and Wednesday are the days I’m in the vineyard or visiting our distribution clients, so it’s pretty full on… between 10pm and midnight I have to myself, and that’s about it.
“There are occasional days when you’re slammed with so many menial things. In the past I would have had people under me doing them but you’ve just got to get on and do it all. Some days it’s overwhelming – how am I going to get all this done? But you just do. You juggle the smaller things and often you find the urgency is not as great as you thought.”
Taking it slowly
And while the vineyard has allowed for the Seabrook Wines’ production to expand, Hamish says there’s no urgency about that either.
“We’re not making thousands and thousands of cases but we are making some moves to grow. It’s costly but you’ve got to do it,” he said.
“And the reality is that having your own vineyard lowers your production cost – there’s no mark-up or margin in it.
“It really comes down to what a friend of mine, Tim Smith, said when I was breaking away from fulltime employment: ‘it’s scary, but you do make money because you’re forced to’.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, so we went for it. I really see it as Seabrook Wines having been in caretaker mode, and now we’ve put it in full swing.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 edition of Grapegrower & Winemaker Magazine. To subscribe please visit https://www.winetitlesbookstore.com.au/shop/australian-new-zealand-grapegrower-winemaker/.