The money demon

First published

An old editor once gave me some advice. Never resign from a job in a fit of rage. Always wait a week until you have calmed down. Before becoming a vigneron it might be a good idea to wait a month or even a year. Think how many hours it will take out of your week then multiply by ten.

Being a vigneron is a splendid method for consuming time. We knew wine people who used to play golf, wine people who had yachts, belonged to fancy yacht clubs and sailed on the Bay. Not any more. There are wine people who thought about writing the great Australian novel, wine people who liked to indulge in carpentry, turn out fancy dining room tables, that sort of thing. Not any more.

We know wine people who used to like spending the winter skiing at Buller, Hotham, Perisher and Thredbo. No hope of that now. There is only one time you can take holidays and that is maybe two or three weeks in August. That is the sweet fleeting moment when the wine person has finished pruning and nothing is happening, but look here, it is essential to be back by bud burst at the beginning of September.

Oh dear, money. I have been trying to hold back on that one. There is a very well-used saying, it is easy to become a millionaire in the wine business. Start off with two million. First, it is impossible to grow grapes without land. Well, the Mornington Peninsula is lovely. Cool climate, rich red soil akin to a splendid cake, good rainfall and adequate sun. Don't even get out your cheque book unless you are prepared to pay at least $20,000 an acre.

An acre of pinot noir, ploughing, fertilising, trellissing, irrigation, that cost $10,000.

This meant we could have grapes. Ah, but they had to be saved from the birds. We found some nets at a good price, $700 for the acre.

The grapes had to be saved from all the frightful diseases. Just one container of Delan to hold off the downy mildew, that was $260. But there is an infinite variety of choice diseases and you need a special elixir to cope with each one. Just put down $600 to get you on your way.

You can't put on the spray without a machine, helmet, glasses, ear plug. Put down $850 for that.

Ah, but we have to make the wine. First the winery, our little winery cost $21,000. We bought some stainless steel milk tanks, a simple hand winepress, and a crusher de-stemmer, $1600. But then we needed all sorts of tubing, stainless steel connections and a decent electric pump. All this, I couldn't believe, $1520.

Barrels, French oak. It is deeply unfortunate that great quality oak seems to come only from France. I don't know why the English don't do it, they made their reputations as sailors by making very good ships out of superb British oak. Australia? I have seen excellent oak in the Botanic Gardens and even outside our local church. The Americans make reasonable oak, good maybe for cabernet but not serious stuff like pinot. No it is the French who make the great oak from forests with famous names like Nevers, Troncais, Limousin and Alliers. Only the French, blast them, seem capable of producing this special subtle 'oakiness' flavour. The cost is shocking: You would think they were Chippendale furniture. We bought three French oak barrels in the first year for $2400, yes, 5800 each. We also bought six pre-loved barrels from Coldsteam Hills, $1250. Actually French oak barrels are more expensive than Chippendale furniture. You would expect a good Chippendale chair or cabinet to last 500 years. A French oak barrel imparts that mysterious flavour for only three years. You can shave the inside and get maybe one or two more years. After that it is useless, you cut it in half and fill your French oak tubs with petunias.

Well, the barrels can't just roll around in the winery. It is necessary to stack them securely one above the other to save precious space. We spent $460 on steel racks made in Dromana. You can't make wine without laboratory equipment. We had to buy a PH meter. One needs to monitor the acidity of the wine at every point. We needed all sorts of curiously shaped flasks for determining sulphur content, we needed pipettes, burettes, measuring gauges, tartaric acid, citric acid, yeast... another $1400. When this last bill came in I started to shake. But the man at the supply business gave some excellent advice: "Oh dear me, you must remember you are in the wine business now and money flows. You just keep paying and smiling."

So one puts on a sort of taut Bronwyn Bishop smile and maintains in the top drawer one of those large double size cheque books. Now we come to bottling. There was $540 for a bottling device and we needed labels and bottles. The art work for the labels was $1100, printing $1200, corks and capsules $1000, and bottles $1000. Oh yes, cartons, S410. All this was for a small quantity of wine. I was amazed to discover that I could pay as much as $1.20 a carton and extra for inserts These were fancy cardboard creations that would finish up, probably, as handy containers for carrying Mother's Blue Omo, Coco Pops, cabbages, and skinny milk out of the supermarket. We worked out that it would cost us $4 a bottle if we just bottled water.

So there it is for a fascinating study of mental instability, the cost of producing wine from an acre vineyard, $46,030. Oh, did I mention the cost of an acre? Make it $66,030. I wasn't even game to do serious calculations for fear of alarming Marie. But our accountant gave deep understanding smiles and after a little doodling it seemed possible that we could break even, "Let's see, mmmm, you'd be wise to sell your wine for around $50 a bottle."

Little vineyards, why sell it at all? We have rich friends who don't bother to sell the stuff. They give it away to friends, or let it accumulate under the house in ever growing geometric numbers. Yet ultimately the wine producer spends so much money, somehow, some way, he has to get it back. There are several methods. Of course, you can sell your grapes to another wine producer. Miserable that, as John Brown says, where is the fun in it if you don't make your wine? Where is the fun if you don't see the end product of all your labour? If you make your wine, then you have to sell it, and it is against the law to sell it without a licence. Ask the Premier of Victoria, Mr Jeff Kennett, who in 1993 started selling wine from Parliament House. No licence for him. He thought he was sufficiently important not to need one. He sold 'Cabinet Claret' and 'Cabinet Chardonnay', prettily decorated with all the members of his Cabinet on the label. It was all in a good cause. He wanted it as a fund raiser to make money for the Liberal Party. It caused a furore and eventually he was taken to court and fined.

Mr Kennett was quite frank. He admitted that he did not have a licence. Why did he need one? He was not even slightly repentant. He said in Parliament that it was "just a storm in a tea cup," created by the Opposition. All this happened just after we had gone through our long battle to get a licence. Storm in a tea cup, indeed! What sort Of tea was he drinking? Non-alcoholic, of course, perhaps a nice English breakfast tea.

When first we applied for a licence for our small vineyard the Licensing Commission sent a booklet of instructions. The things we had to do were spellbinding. It was not easy to get a liquor licence, and we agreed with that. Nor should it be. But this was overwhelming. It seemed we had to get permission from almost every authority except the local vicar. Anyway, what would he think? He was entitled to put in his protest.

A friend told us, you had better pass it all over to a good legal firm and let them handle it for you. But the Superintendent of Police at the Licensing Branch in Frankston was a kindly man. "You don't need a lawyer," he said. "Do it yourself. They'll be more impressed at the Licensing Commission if you handle your own affair."

First we had to get a permit from the local Shire. That was enough to make us tremble. Did we get permits for all those sheds that went up in the past? The Shire wanted a complete plan, the extent of our property, the position of the buildings and the exact layout of the winery, including all the equipment. They wanted to know our relation to other properties in the area and whether it was a suitable place for business activities. Proof was required also that we owned our own place.

This was awful. Have you ever tried to measure your house and garden. Have you tried to get all the angles right particularly on a non-rectangular block. I did it four times and every time it was different.

I drew a picture on a huge sheet of paper and even added some bits in color. I do hope Jeff did the same thing when he applied for his licence. I mean I hope he got out a tape measure and got everything right with the size of Parliament House, particularly those areas where he proposed to flog his Cabinet Claret.

While we were in the midst of these agonies, a gentleman called from the Licensing Commission and he was helpful. He wondered if my pretty picture was good enough. So in the end we had to call in a surveyor who did the plan properly. That was expensive, $900.

So we put in our plan, won approval from the Shire. Next we had to get an approval from the Health Department. So the Health Department called, checked our winery. I tell you, that day the winery had more shine than the Royal Children's Hospital.

Next we had to get a permit from the Fire Department. The local Fire Chief called. He decided we needed fire extinguishers here and there. All this progressively was costing money. Next we had to get Police Approval. Were we citizens of good character and did we have a criminal record? Statutory declarations had to be signed. Those speed cameras had given us a bad time but the police did not hold this against us.

We were applying for a Producers Licence and we had to supply proof we actually made wine on the property. This was a tricky one. The Commission did not quite believe that we actually made our own. Maybe there was a suspicion that it was all coming in at 2 am loaded in a tanker from the Barossa. Another gentleman from the Commission called, he wanted real action. He insisted on seeing the grapes actually fermenting in the vat. Having seen us in full cry winemaking he returned to Melbourne to put in his report.

We couldn't believe it when a month later there was another message from the Licensing Commission."We need proof that you make your own wine." "But. but you sent someone down to actually see us making wine." No, that was not good enough. They said we had to sign a statutory declaration and virtually swear before God that we made our own wine.

The Shire wanted four copies of our plan, the Licensing Commission wanted another four copies. We needed copies. I tell you the local stationers and copiers were doing marvellous business.

Finally we put in our application including a sworn statement of all our stocks of wine. Then we had to nail a copy of our application to the front gate. And if that wasn't enough, place an advertisement of our intentions in the local newspapers. The notice on our front gate had to stay there for 28 days giving all citizens time to protest. Actually I didn't have time to nick up to Parliament House to see whether Jeff's notice was nailed to one of those Corinthian columns.

This is an unnerving time. Protestors keep out of sight. They don't knock on your door. They approach the Licensing Commission. So far as I know we had only one protest and that was from another winery in the district.

The Licensing Commission was helpful at all times, but extremely firm. For example, we were told, if we were late in submitting returns we could be fined $200 a day for every day the return was overdue.

It took six months for us to do all the running round to get a licence, but when it arrived, that was one of the great exciting moments. The letter with Liquor Licensing Commission across the top dropped into our letter box at 12:30 pm. I went running round the house shouting: "We got it We got ity! LOOK! LOOK! IT'S OURS. WE'RE IN BUSINESS." I beamed over the little piece of paper which announced our permit number and we opened a bottle of champagne.

It was not without cost. When we put in our application we had to announce the stocks of wine we had on the premises, how much we expected to sell retail, and how much at the cellar door. I didn't understand it at all and the Licensing Commission charged a huge figure. But they are honest people, the next year they readjusted the figure to cover what we had actually sold.

The 1994 fee made a beautiful document which I would like to get framed. It announced that our Licensing fee was $4. Would you believe that, just four dollars. However we could choose, if we wished, to pay it in one dollar quarterly payments. Selling the stuff, ah there's the rub. Gary Crittenden at Dromana Estate told me: "When I went into the wine business, there were two things I swore I would never, never do. That is, put nets over my vines and go in for cellar door sales. Within a year I was doing both."

It took me no time to discover why. Birds, of course, are stopped only by nets, and real profits come only from cellar door sales. As soon as our bottles were labelled, naturally we went round the restaurants and the big liquor retailers. Most of them were most interested and enthusiastic.

But first we had to hand out free bottles, free samples. Anything up to 20 per cent of the first vintage can go in launches, tastings, spreading the word. What's more the local charities call by and say: "Look, we would just love to put a few of your bottles up for auction in our Christmas hamper." "It's such a worthy cause. Would you like to donate six bottles to the blind budgerigar league?" Requests from charities still come in at the rate of three a week.

But as we sent case after case to shops, retailers, hotels, restaurants, we said to each other: "Isn't this lovely. Alle we have done for the past four years is pay, pay, pay: Now we shall see real money coming in. September went by, October Went by, November went by and soon we were into December. Bill after bill we dropped into the mail box but nothing happened.

We said to our vigneron mates: "What's wrong? Don't you ever get money for doing this?" "Oh no", they replied. "It's usually three months before you see any money. "But...but, when we pay for bottles, labels, yeast, and fertilisers, taxes and all, they expect their money by return mail."

"Oh no," was the reply, "you have to realise buying is a completely different philosophy to selling. Retailers feel they could have your wine on their shelves for three months, it is reasonable that you should wait while they sell it. Some restaurants think it is just a privilege for you that your wine appears on their wine lists.

"But they get it a wholesale rate. Retailers make 40 per cent, restaurants, anything up to 200 per cent."

"You are learning dear friend," continued the wise vigneron, "that's why so many of us go in for cellar door sales, and that's why we cultivate our mail order lists. Money comes in immediately, on the barrel head, literally."

Our first opening for cellar door sales was on Queen's Birthday weekend and we received all sorts of warnings. "Watch out for the invasion. Lock your house, keep an eye on everything. You would be wise even to nail down the roses. You will need parking attendants. Signs everywhere. You will need a marquee to cope with the crowds, And remember, it always rains on Queens Birthday weekend."

Gary Crittenden said people could be unbelievable. "They really take over your place. We have had them just go out ang play tennis on our tennis court. In shoes and everything. One time we found a kid riding a bicycle up and down our verandah."

Most of the dire warnings proved to be correct. Queen's Birthday weekend proved to be frigid, squalls with intermittent rain. The marquee looked absolutely lovely, decorated with wine leaves plus a large picture of Chloe who didn't even have goose pimples in the cold. But nobody wanted to sit out there, they much preferred to be inside with the barrels.

Our grandsons had a fire going in the garden. All grandsons are trainee arsonists and soon the blaze reached majestic proportions impervious even to June rain. The bonfire was popular.

Our first car was a busload of 30 people. Very quickly they were all tasting wine at once, and marvel of marvels, almost all of them started buying. I had received very careful lessons from a kind gentleman at the National Bank who showed me how to handle the credit machine.

But the first sale was so overwhelming I found myself putting my own credit card into the machine. But wine drinkers are kindly people. The first customer watched what I was doing. He tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Here, let me show you how." He put in his own card, placed the slip in the right spot and ran the slide across it. "There, that's the way."

There were all sorts of comments. One character came in pulled up a stool and started tasting the red wines. We noticed that he left his wife out in the car. "Why don't you bring her in? She might like to see the winery.

"No, she doesn't drink red wine."

"Well, perhaps she would be interested in tasting a sparkling pinot. That's not red." "Nuh! The wife's only interested in the fizz from Safeway and she gets it at $2.95 a bottle."

For three days cars poured through, they cut up the front lawn, they backed in to the roses, but it was lovely watching wine go out the gate, and there was the pure beauty of instant payment. There was the fascination too of meeting people. Old friends we hadn't seen for years suddenly arrived in the winery. It was good also to chat across a glass with Americans, Japanese, English.

Indeed that is the ultimate pleasure, the satisfaction, which makes all the agony worthwhile. Marie and I love pouring our own wine, which, naturally, we think is delicious. David commented on this only last week. He said: "Dad, you have the most finely honed cellar palate I ever encountered."

Follow onto the final chapter, Demonic people

The twelth chapter of Keith's book on his relationship with wine, beer and drinking, My life with the Demon.

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WineViticultureWinemakingBronwyn BishopJeff KennettGarry CrittendenDavid Dunstan

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