Mark Maxwell is both a product and emblem of an ebbing era in Australian wine – a robust, energetic and stubborn winemaker who built Maxwell winery in his own image over 40 years. However, as he moves through the sunset years of his career, the question is obvious – what happens next?
The succession question hangs over Australia’s wine industry. Small to mid-sized wineries developed by winemaker/operators make up the bulk of Australia’s 2500 wine companies. These companies are entering a fraught period as many proprietors reach retirement age.
Maxwell has handed over the company reins to his eldest son Jeremy, who has greatly changed the appearance and direction of Maxwell Wines since becoming general manger a year ago. “He’s worked in wineries around the world, follows my taste in wine and food, and understands that what we offer is much more than just a bottle of booze,” says Mark Maxwell.
There is tradition to consider. Established in 1979 by Ken Maxwell, the winery came under his son Mark’s charge three years later, and the father graciously didn’t interfere as Mark imbued the wines with his big personality, along with the McLaren Vale cellar door and restaurant, and the brand.
Now a new generation of wine buyers must be courted if the brand is to survive and thrive. Jeremy has focused on this aspect, initially through rejuvenating the winery’s dining space and tasting area – areas that Mark had originally built from rustic limestone, but which now boast an elegant contemporary design. “For so many years I had no clear idea of what to deliver – we were serving burgers at one stage – until recently deciding on a mix of fine dining and stylish casual food,” admits Mark. “Jeremy has understood exactly where we need to position ourselves.”
With chef Fabian Lehmann, Maxwell’s top-end dining has grown to become a regional culinary signature, and is among just a few hospitality businesses to have emerged after COVID-19 restrictions to enjoy unprecedented demand. While delighted with the winery’s new upmarket look and stylish rebranding, Mark admits it was an expensive transition he would have hesitated to take.
“The refit, the new labels and rebranding of the winery was a lot more than what I would have wanted to spend. Personally, I would have baulked at half the cost,” says Mark, “but Jeremy’s direction on this matter has been spot on.”
Mark’s influence inside the winery has also changed, with head winemaker Kate Petering overseeing a refreshed Maxwell portfolio of wines and Mark now playing a supportive winemaking role. Change began when Alexia Roberts worked in his cellar from 2011 (she is now head winemaker of Penny’s Hill Wines in McLaren Vale). “I was set in my ways,” admits Mark, “but the wines evolved to become more pretty and elegant, because Alexia would argue very strongly with me about them – and that was a good thing. Until then, I’d always felt obliged to try to do everything myself. I’ve learned that there is much more than my opinion.”
The result has seen a recent lift in Maxwell wine sales and visibility in the marketplace, accessing parts of the wine trade and customers that had eluded Mark. In some ways, it’s being viewed as a new wine brand. “I know that other winery succession plans haven’t taken shape, but this is such a perfect result,” says Mark. “I have total faith that Jeremy absolutely gets it.”
Celebrity attached to a wine brand brings its own set of concerns when it comes to succession plans, but is something John Duval has worked through with careful, methodical planning. His son Tim joined him in business at John Duval Wines during 2016 – 13 years after John started his eponymous wine company, having left his job as chief winemaker at Penfolds.
Tim had studied and practised law before deciding on this career change, saying his father never applied pressure on him or his two brothers to join the family business. Still there were open discussions within the family about the long-term plans for their wine brand built around John’s fine reputation.
“Developing this from a man to a brand required building a very solid business structure, and to do this, we worked very closely together,” says Tim. “I’m at his side, trying to unlock as much as possible from his mind, and he has faith in what I’m doing. He’s a kind-hearted, generous guy and I’ve earned his trust and gained more responsibility.”
While not trained as a winemaker, Tim is learning at his father’s elbow in the winery – “we have similar palates and philosophies about what makes great wine” – and crucially is continuing the relationships with grape growers that John has established and that remain a cornerstone of the wine brand’s quality and success.
Now John and Tim are working together to shape new wines, including the 2018 Concilio (released only two weeks before COVID lockdown) – a fresh style of old vine grenache with 15% shiraz ($30) that has a youthful savoury lick.
“At vintage time, the decisions and planning [are] being shared between us, but I have my ideas as well,” says Tim. “I see that we now have a wine brand with a history, and I’m gaining the skills, experience and confidence to make the right decisions for that brand.”
Mitchell Wines in Clare has enjoyed success since 1975, steered by Andrew Mitchell’s fastidious winemaking and his wife Jane’s vigorous marketing. With the couple now enjoying retirement, their three children are running the winery – none of them involved in making wine.
“I’ve always resisted the cult of the gun winemaker being the sole focus of attention,” says Andrew Mitchell. “I see it as a peculiarly Australian thing – you see the brand or the chateau mentioned first throughout Europe. I’ve always considered that the winemaker is only one cog in the enterprise – and, if anything, the work of the grape grower is probably the most essential contribution.”
He’s therefore delighted at the decisions son Angus is taking as viticulture manager and winery general manager. The quality of Mitchell’s vineyard sites at Sevenhill, Watervale and Auburn has given the wines a distinctive edge, and Angus’s focus on soil regeneration, eliminating artificial pesticides and herbicides has resulted in improved vine health.
Angus is working with his sisters, Edwina and Hilary, taking Mitchell Wines into a new era that speaks clearly to their generation, while continuing to embrace their traditional customers. Part of this is introducing a new range of single vineyard wines, the Kinsfolk range, that embrace bright, modern winemaking.
“Having two ranges allows us to talk about past and present,” says Edwina. “We’ve kept the Mitchell label traditional and consistent, but the Kinsfolk wines show that there’s a new side to what we’re all about.”
This path remains untrodden for Charlie Melton and his wife Virginia Weckert, who have spent an energetic 36 years building Charles Melton Wines into a Barossa wine brand of international stature. Neither has any intention of removing themselves from winery operations any time soon, but they have seen contemporaries without succession plans forced to sell their wineries. It made them question what lay ahead for their winery – and how much value their brand would retain when Charlie no longer makes the wines.
While discussions swirl, the seeds of gen-next influence have sprouted. Their daughter Sophie is now an assistant winemaker at Thorn-Clarke in the Barossa, and son Thomas is studying commerce. There is room for both of them within Charles Melton Wines, but Charlie wants them to gain rounded experience before considering the family business.
“We’re in a fortunate position. There are no other shareholders we have to answer to, no other voices to satisfy. We can be patient,” says Charlie. “I continue to love making wine. I see myself as being that old nuisance who will forever be on this property, pottering around in the vineyard long after someone else is making the wines. We’ve built up something wonderful here that I would not let go of easily.”
Whatever happens, Charlie is happy that there is now more freedom for family-owned enterprises to survive and thrive beyond the input of their founding winemakers.
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