10/07/2007 - 22:00

No cellar hands on deck as Vasse Felix gets innovative

10/07/2007 - 22:00

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Virginia Willcock’s new job got a little more difficult midway through last year’s vintage. Just five months into her role as Vasse Felix group winemaker, she lost the services of one of the winery’s most experienced operators – David Dowden.

No cellar hands on deck as Vasse Felix gets innovative

Virginia Willcock’s new job got a little more difficult midway through last year’s vintage.

Just five months into her role as Vasse Felix group winemaker, she lost the services of one of the winery’s most experienced operators – David Dowden.

Mr Dowden, who had been managing the group’s winemaking operations after head winemaker, Clive Otto, was made redundant in 2005, quit his job as senior winemaker in February.

Ms Willcock simply rolled her sleeves up a little further and got on with the job at the Heytesbury-owned winery.

“It was really tough; we were coming to the end of vintage and someone pulled the pin, but we have a new, bigger and better team,” she says.

Faced with changes to the group’s winemaking team, Ms Willcock has created a fairly innovative winemaking structure with the blessing of Heytesbury chief executive, Paul Holmes a Court.

A major difference between Vasse Felix’s winemaking operations and those at wineries of a similar size is that there are no cellar hands, but rather assistant winemakers.

The other major difference is that the winemaking teams are split in two.

There is one winemaker in control of the white varieties, who is then helped by their own assistant, while the same structure is in place for red wine production.

The two teams report directly to Ms Willcock.

Ms Willcock says that by eliminating the cellar hand role she has been able to reinvigorate the winemaking job, something she believes is more suited to young generation Y workers.

“If they can’t get mentally involved themselves then they’ll do it for a few months and then leave,” she says.

“They need to be passionate about what they’re doing and they need ownership of what they’re doing.

“The way we are doing it is that two people have complete ownership of white wine production and two people have complete ownership of red wine production. The level of responsibility is divided but they get to be very hands-on.”

Ms Willcock says that, under the new structure, would-be winemakers can get a job “which is reasonable pay with very high interest” over the cellar hand role, which she believes is “low pay and low interest”.

With her winemaking team cemented (Paul Dixon is in charge of whites and Jarred Olsen in charge of reds), Ms Willcock can focus on the future development of the group’s wines, which also includes expanding the winery’s production.

Ms Willcock says that the winery will plant about 20 hectares of vines in the next one to two years on a parcel of land the winery bought during the height of the grape glut, which forced many wineries to downsize or sell off assets to stay afloat.

“Paul [Holmes a Court] has a very good idea of quality and where we need to go, and while people have been battening down the hatches we are going extreme quality,” she says.

Ms Willcock told Gusto that, while Vasse Felix will plant chardonnay and cabernet, the majority of plantings will be of the red variety – a variety that is currently in oversupply.

But she’s not concerned about the glut of red because she is able to plant clones from the winery’s existing Houghton clone, a variety that has produced some outstanding red wines over the years.

“If you have the best cabernet that has been grown in Margaret River then you can’t fail,” Ms Willcock says.

“Vasse Felix will be a benchmark cabernet producer in the future.”

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