Pioneering winemaker David Hohnen has stepped away from the core business, but still remains involved in the sector.

Hohnen a reluctant ‘entrepreneur’

Thursday, 14 June, 2018 - 15:50

I questioned the integrity of the Australian honours system earlier this year when I noticed that fallen car park king Laurie Wilson had been awarded an Australia Day gong for philanthropy.

It seemed to me that whoever accepted his nomination did not do their homework, because Wilson’s charitable efforts had already earned him something by helping him avoid jail in the mid-1990s for stealing as a director.

You can search the Business News website to read that story in detail.

But I don’t want that (hopefully) single lack of due diligence to undermine the value of these awards, or in any way lessen the kudos that worthy recipients should receive.

With that in mind, I was appreciative of the many familiar Western Australians who were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours list earlier this month.

Perth business figures Erica Smyth, Peter Fitzpatrick, Danielle Blain, Torsten Ketelsen as well as long-serving public servant Reece Waldock and science leader Jonathon Carapetis were recognised for their service, as were WA Opera general manager Carolyn Chard, inaugural Fremantle Dockers chief executive David Hatt and former Australian cricketer and educator John Inverarity.

Perhaps the one I appreciate the most is David Hohnen, a pioneer of the Margaret River winemaking district who built the much-admired winemaker Cape Mentelle. Just to show that we are not parochial, Mr Hohnen also founded New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay winery in Marlborough.

Even though I covered wine from a corporate and business perspective for many years, I cannot claim to know Mr Hohnen particularly well.

In fact, I only recall meeting him briefly when I shepherded a friend of mine, a business publisher from New Jersey in the US called George Taber, around the Margaret River region about 15 years ago – about the time that Mr Hohnen was selling out of Cape Mentelle for good.

Mr Taber was writing a terrific book called the Judgement of Paris, which focused on the rise of so-called ‘new world wines’.

He had focused on the key Californian players, but had also extended his reach to the antipodes. He was in WA to interview Mr Hohnen, but the story was about Cloudy Bay, which had put New Zealand on the wine map with its sauvignon blanc.

I managed to have a brief conversation with Mr Hohnen after he had been awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

He has stepped away from winemaking businesses but remains enthusiastic about the product. Intriguingly, despite starting several successful wine businesses, he claims he was not suited to retaining a business like Cape Mentelle, which he had run for more than 25 years before he sold out completely.

“I am not an entrepreneur and there is no way I would have held on to that business,” he said.

“I think it is in the right hands now.”

It is almost a bit mischievous of him to suggest that building brands as he has, including one of the Southern Hemisphere’s best-known labels, was not entrepreneurial.

And then you only have to look at what he does now to see that he has a penchant for being involved in businesses that are new – like wine in WA was back in the early 1970s.

He is enthusiastic about two very different businesses.

One is The Farm House, a family-owned fresh meat butchery, smokehouse and small goods maker associated with the McHenry Hohnen wine operation that he started up after leaving Cape Mentelle.

The other is a wine brokering business trading as Crackerjack, which sources wines in WA’s South West and France’s Bordeaux region to offer to customers in Britain and Ireland.

“That is great, it is a complete turnaround from what I did,” Mr Hohnen said of Crackerjack.

He said that, looking back 20 years ago, supermarkets did not play the key role in the wine industry, but has he come to appreciate the sophistication of buyers in that retail segment to which the firm pitches its wares.

As  a result most winemakers spend most of their time competing for a tiny piece of pie, independent on premises retailers, whereas supermarkets are the main game.

“The business model has changed,” Mr Hohnen said.

He said Margaret River had earned a strong position in the global wine market and was an important contributor to the profile of Australian wine.

However, he warned there was always work to do to keep a region at the top of consumers’ minds.

“There is no room for complacency,” he said.

Congratulations to Mr Hohnen and all worthy honours recipients for 2018.

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