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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of Grapegrower & Winemaker.

 

Katherine Brown was born into the wine industry. After studying marketing at university, she returned to her family’s business to help sell the wine. After more than 10 years in the marketing team, Brown decided to change career – without leaving the family business – and become a winemaker. Daniel Whyntie spoke to Brown about her journey.


When Katherine Brown introduced herself to wine journalist Peter Bourne he noted the last time they had met “you were three feet tall and not wearing at stich of clothing”.

“The smile went from my face and turned in to absolute red cheeked embarrassment. It was one of those moments when you know you have really grown up inside the wine industry,” said Katherine Brown, assistant winemaker at Brown Brothers.

Tree change

Brown’s childhood probably has every cliché you’d expect from somebody who grew up around a winery: Tasting wine at the dinner table from the age of five; building cubbyhouses in the barrel shed; and ‘helping’ in the tasting room (read eating the cheese and olives on offer for the customers).

But her broader education was accelerated at the age of 14 when she was packed up from the winery life and sent off to boarding school. After high school, her study continued with a Degree in Entrepreneurship from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, before Brown immersed herself in the world of marketing and brand management.

“After school and university, studying business and marketing, I still had the passion to be back amongst the barrels, the vines and the people in the cellar door,”

 

She began her working life in the coffee industry but it wasn’t long before Brown got her foot into the wine industry door, selling wine in the corporate market and completing a Masters in Wine Business at the University of Adelaide.

“After school and university, studying business and marketing, I still had the passion to be back amongst the barrels, the vines and the people in the cellar door,” Brown said.

“In 2009 I had been working in a city-based marketing role and really started to fill the urge to get my hands dirty and get down to the raw side of the wine industry, I just felt that this was the direction I wanted to head.”

So Brown exchanged her corporate attire for steel caps and high-vis and spent a year dragging hoses as a cellar hand  back in Milawa, Victoria, followed by vintages in Bordeaux and Champagne.

It was after a big day of harvest in Bordeaux, sitting on a dusty concreate step at the back of the winery (the only place with Wi-Fi), Brown started looking at her options for completing a winemaking degree.

She enrolled in a Masters of Viticulture and Oenology at Charles Sturt University and spent  four years juggling study and a fulltime marketing role.

In a mix of fete and good planning, by the time the course was completed, Brown applied for an assistant winemaker role, back where she grew up, at Brown Brothers Milawa.

Brown faced her biggest challenge when she decided to change her career direction at 32 years old.

After working in marketing and climbing up the ranks of the discipline for nine years it was a huge step to move to wine making and starting at the “bottom of the ladder” again.

“Two years later, I am still learning new things in the winery every day and loving it every bit of this challenge. With the change of career, I also make the “tree change” of leaving the city life I had for 15 years, and moving five km down the road from the winery,” Brown said.

“Biggest thing I miss from the city is Pho… we need a Pho restaurant in Milawa!”

 

“This has made a huge impact life and has increased the juggle between work, social life and family. Biggest thing I miss from the city is Pho… we need a Pho restaurant in Milawa!”

Family traditions

It seems ironic, but Brown’s experiences  in Bordeaux and Champagne, surrounded by the traditions that characterise those famous regions,  helped to reinforce the importance of her own family business within the wine industry.

“It led me to want to come back to Brown brothers and ensure that we will always be a family-led business,” she said.

“The wine industry is so diverse, there are not many other industries where the same company grows and harvests the primary material, then manufactures to the finished good and then takes those goods and completes the marketing, distribution and sales on it,” she said.

“In my current day to day I say that I “wear two hats”, I am Katherine the winemaker and also Katherine the marketer/brand ambassador. I just have to remember what hat I’m wearing at the time.”

Brown spends about 20 per cent of her time in a ‘brand ambassador’ role, but the priorities of her winemaker role during vintage ensure she is “grounded” at Milawa.

The winemaker

The role change has already been capped by an award – a trophy for the ‘best single varietal red’ at the 2016 Royal Melbourne Wine Awards.

“I won. It was a dream come true and I still have to pinch myself as I think about it. It was with a Nero D’Avola from our Heathcote experimental block. We had the vines in the ground for five years and had only ever got one decent crop from it,” Brown said.

“In 2015 the winemakers handed the fruit into my hands and I went out to show then what I could do with it. After the wine spent a year in old oak I knew it was good, but I had to verbally convince a number of people around me to get that wine in bottle!”

The wine also collected a gold medal at the 2016 Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show in Mildura and now Brown is looking for more trophies, with a focus on alternative and experimental varieties.

Currently Brown is looking after a handful of both traditional and innovative varieties from the Brown Brothers’ King Valley, Heathcote and Murray Valley vineyards as well as some fruit from growers in the Yarra Valley.

“I am excited about making dry Rose for the second year, these is such a great trend in drinking pink. Arnies is a new variety for me to work with and I am currently looking at different style to work with on this variety,” she said.

Brown will also be making Tarrango, a unique Australian grape variety, bred by CSIRO scientists in 1965 by crossing the Portuguese red grape variety Touriga with the versatile white grape Sultana. It was developed specifically to produce a light, fresh red wine ideal for summer drinking in the many countries with warm to hot summers. Named after the tiny township of Tarrango in the Mallee district of north-west Victoria, where it was designed to thrive, the vines bear generous crops that ripen late and maintain a fresh acidity.

At one stage in the 1990s  Tarrango was one of the most popular Australian wines in the UK market and Brown wants to put her own take on it, building on Brown Brothers’ 30-year experience with the grape.

“I love making this wine; we use a carbonic maceration method to get a beautiful cherry flavour out of the grapes. This takes hand picking and storage in bins for around 10 days which the grapes create a ferment inside each berry. The finished wine is similar to a light style Pinot Noir, with a burst of wild cherry, it’s the best thing to drink chilled on a hot day after a busy day at the winery,” Brown said.

The brand ambassador

Having studied and worked around the wine trade and within the winery, Brown has a significant understanding of the business as a whole, and this has her well-positioned to setting up to become an industry leader.

In 2009 Brown took part in the Future Leaders professional and personal development program; a combined initiative of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia and Australian Vignerons, facilitated by Wine Australia; and was recently named the chair of the First Families of Wine next generation committee.

 “If the consumers could understand this, and have this as a greater consideration when making their wine purchasing choices, I’m sure many of us would see a brighter future for recognition of the high quality of wines produced by Australian winemakers.” 

 

“Future Leaders was such a great experience, I learnt so much about the industry but more importantly I learnt about myself, my career goals and how my personal goals work with this,” she said.

“The team that I did future leaders with will be mates for life and I love attending industry events and seeing those familiar faces across the room, we have a very special connection that I can’t quite find words for.”

Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) formed in 2009 with the idea that the 12 families would jointly promote their brand in export and domestic markets.

Since then the next generation from each family found that they had a lot in common, and the ‘next gen’ committee soon began, with the aim to foster network links and educate the future custodians of the family wine businesses involved.

“It’s a great privilege to be the next chairperson of the ‘next gen’ group and I look forward to furthering the strength of bonds that the 12 families have created with one another, which only in turn strengthens the whole of the Australian wine industry,” Brown said.

Brown believes family-owned wine businesses are crucial to a healthy Australian grape and wine community.

“The families that have built their business and brands for two to five generations are required to stay in family hands for the sake of all Australian winemakers.  “Wine should come with a story, a real story about the real people behind it. It should be treated differently to other commodity goods purchased from the supermarket. The Australian wine industry will only maintain its highly regarded global reputation with the support of family wine business,” Brown said.

“If the consumers could understand this, and have this as a greater consideration when making their wine purchasing choices, I’m sure many of us would see a brighter future for recognition of the high quality of wines produced by Australian winemakers.”

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