The newcomer winery of the year is all about team and taste with, a lot of character thrown in to the mix. Andrew Cooke meets founder Rob Dolan.
Winemaker Rob Dolan is a glass half-full kind of guy. When a forklift accident crushed his left foot 20 years ago, he took advice from seven surgeons until he found one who said he could save the leg. When a business venture goes slightly awry, he salvages what he can, dusts himself off, and moves on to the next thing he is passionate about.
The common denominators in his ventures are wine and teamwork. As a former premiership footballer in the South Australian Football lLague he knows only too well the value of surrounding himself with people who are good at what they do and driven towards the same goals as he is.
So when the 55-year-old finally saw an opportunity to create a label with his own name on it, he seized it with both hands. And he has been well-rewarded – the Rob Dolan range of wines was recently awarded the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion prize for best newcomer, and the brand is making healthy inroads into the retail market.
Rob has been around wine all his life, having grown up on a vineyard near Renmark in South Australia. After a brief but remarkably successful career in football (the six-foot-six genial giant won two premierships with Port Adelaide in the three years he played, despite by his own modest admission “not being very good”) he decided to try his hand at winemaking, so joined a winery in the Coonawarra as a cellar-hand and enrolled to study winemaking at Roseworthy College. He later spent five years working at the Arrowfield and Rothfield Estate wineries in the NSW Hunter Valley before moving to the Yarra Valley in 1991 with his wife Jude and young family.
Now, after three decades in the industry, he is putting some of the lessons he has learned – some of them the hard way – into practice. “Wine is very much a cyclical industry. People jump onto the same varieties and the same styles at the same time, which is not always a good thing,” he tells me at his winemaking base in Warranwood. “You don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket, because there are frost, drought, hail, fires, all sorts of things that can trip you up. The impact of the 2009 bushfires is still coming through the industry now.”
“If you look at the last four years in the Yarra: 2009 there was the fires, which was a total disaster for us because of smoke taint in the grapes; 2010 was a strong vintage; 2011 was a very difficult vintage with a lot of rain and wine quality not as high as we’d like; and 2012 and 2013 were down 30 to 40 per cent.’’
In order to have more eggs in more baskets, Rob approaches the industry from several directions. After setting up various wineries and brands throughout the Yarra region, including the highly successful Punt Road and Sticks labels, he now focuses on contract winemaking for other wineries, as well as leasing out sections of his facility to other wine and spirit makers, and producing his own Rob Dolan line. “I have also been concentrating on picking up other companies and taking the quality level up, hopefully, and also putting teams of good people on place. I have such a good team of people here now. They are all passionate, they are all hands-on and that works for me and the overall business. It allows them to grow, but it’s also very stimulating.’’
He has a team of about 10 people who work either directly for him or partly for him, and partly for themselves. Most make their own brands, while one recently imported a custom-made still from Germany and plans to start producing gin and other spirits. “If you can get a good team and you can meld the team together, that’s when you can start to make good-quality wines,” Rob said. “I also want to make sure I understand the business side of things properly. I have pulled myself out of the day-to-day winemaking side of things because I want to make sure I don’t get caught in the sort of situation where someone else controls my destiny. It sounds terrible, but it’s true.
“What I want to do is make certain the quality is there and focus on the premium end of the market. And have a story to tell so that people want to have your wines on their table. But quality fruit and quality people is the key to it.’’
The Yarra Valley is littered with examples of businesses that haven’t quite got that story right, Rob said. And change is in the wind, with lots of fresh ideas and new people entering the wine industry. “It certainly is a stimulating time but there is going to be a lot of fallout happening in the next few years. There are places that are fantastic, they have beautiful facilities and magnificent buildings, but they are over-capitalised. There comes a time when people say ‘ok, you’ve now got to look at this from a purely financial point of view.’ But I also believe that you make your own luck.”
Part of that push for success, he says, involves doing lots of homework on branding and finding styles that are most likely to win over consumers. Many styles made in the Yarra Valley are “fantastic” wines which will not necessarily appeal to the general public. They may win the approval of sommeliers and people who are educated about wine, “but I’m not sure they will be wines that the other 95 per cent of people will want to drink,” he said.
Working out what consumers in a looming key market for Australian winemakers is another area of strong interest for Rob. While the global financial crisis and high Australian dollar have “thumped” many in the industry, he says the Chinese market remains an exciting prospect.
“The Chinese market is very strong, but the issue there is that it’s a strong gift-giving market, so it’s all about prestige. Eighty per cent of the market is gifts, so you have to build a brand there that people either recognise, or they can go online to see if you are known or have won awards.
“It is a lot of hard work. We have got deals going where we make wine for Chinese clients who already have markets over there. There are opportunities, but you really must have a strong brand.”
As far as his own table is concerned, Rob is a cabernet man through and through, although he is not a big drinker. He remains passionate and excited about the myriad of opportunities that winemaking offers. “If you had 10 winemakers and gave them all 10 tonnes of grapes from the same vineyard, they would all come up with a different wine. There’s different oaks, different winemaking techniques; everyone is doing different things. People don’t realise how much you can do with different techniques, particularly with pinot noir.”
“But there’s no good making the best wines in the world and not being able to sell them. And eventually you want to put your name on something. I decided I’ve got to do it once in my life, so I gave it a go.”
Hopefully, Rob’s glass will remain half-full – with a delicious and well-rounded Yarra Valley cabernet.
WORDS Andrew Cooke PHOTOGRAPHS Adele Van Es