14/12/2004 - 21:00

No doubting Willcock’s commitment

14/12/2004 - 21:00

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VIRGINIA Willcock’s first overseas posting as a wine consultant was a true test of her passion, tenacity and commitment to the job.

No doubting Willcock’s commitment

VIRGINIA Willcock’s first overseas posting as a wine consultant was a true test of her passion, tenacity and commitment to the job.

Working through an agency that sent young winemakers abroad, Ms Willcock found herself in Albania, not a country renowned for its wine production.

“They [the agency] plonked you somewhere in Europe to do contract wine making and I got plonked in Albania,” she says.

And while that experience was the “longest five weeks of my life”, there can be no doubting the rewards have flowed from those times.

Ms Willcock is currently the chief winemaker for listed wine company Australian Wine Holdings, which operates Hay Shed Hill Wines, Chestnut Grove, and Alexandra Bridge Winery, and has an enviable winemaking reputation.

Ms Willcock’s journey to the heights of Australian winemaking began at a very young age.

“My parents had a vineyard at Bindoon,” she says. “All I knew was that we grew grapes and I would ask dad how we got the wine from the grapes.”

Her parents later sold the winery, much to the disappointment of their daughter, who was only appeased when she was allowed to go to wine school.

Ms Willcock undertook a course at Roseworthy, which later became known as Adelaide University’s School of Agriculture and Wine.

She says while there were only three women in her class, the trend is changing.

“I think in the past 15 years women have proved their palates and women are tidy and very organised and they are really important for the production of wine.”

But it’s also a very demanding job, both physically and mentally.

“During vintage you work seven days a week, working 12- to 15-hour days. It requires a huge amount of dedication and stamina,” Ms Willcock says.

“You have to be able to handle the vintage pressure. You’ve got growers hassling you and everyone else in the winery wanting to get things moving; it’s really full on and you can’t believe that you do it.

“It’s a huge adrenalin rush.”

It’s all such a long way from her first overseas posting in Albania.

“The guys I worked for wanted to make the first Albanian wine to go to the UK market,” she says.

“We had to ensure the quality and to see if we could source the right fruit. The thing was it was a 200-year-old winery that couldn’t make wine.

“It was heartbreaking because it was like going back in time; they had no concept of money and what to do with it. They would pick the grapes early and turn it into grappa because they knew they could make money and how to do it.

“It was a tough time. It was hard because you couldn’t go in and do what you wanted to do or that you knew you should do. I was there five weeks and it was the longest five weeks of my life.”

Ms Willcock was soon given a different taste of the industry, however, spending the next vintage in northern Italy.

She swapped vintages, travelling between Australia and Europe, before taking a full-time job with her current boss, Mike Calneggia, when he was operating Selwyn Wines.

Three years later the winery was sold to Evans and Tate and Ms Willcock stayed on as senior wine-maker, developing contract wines.

But about 18 months ago she was approached by Mr Calneggia to head up Australian Wine Holdings’ expanding wine portfolio.

Under her leadership the winemaking team, which includes Mark Aitken, Nigel Kinsman, and Vanessa Carson, has won a swag of awards.

Ms Willcock says her first job was to implement quality control systems to ensure consistent wine production.

“The main thing was to ensure that we had systems in place to have consistent quality year-in year-out.

“We’ve got to a place where it’s working effectively.

“Everyone knows the style of the direction of the wineries, the fruit, and the style of wines.”

Ms Willcock says the past vintage has yielded some great fruit that, while currently maturing in barrel, will produce excellent drops in the coming years.

“I’ve very excited about it and can’t wait till it comes out,” she says.

• The reporter’s transport to Margaret River was provided by AWH.

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