Vasse Felix realising great ambition

15/05/2017 - 15:41

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SPECIAL REPORT: Paul Holmes a Court plans for Margaret River’s oldest winery may not come to fruition in his lifetime.

Vasse Felix realising great ambition
Paul Holmes a Court wants to make Vasse Felix a world-renowned estate. Photo: Frances Andrijich.

Paul Holmes a Court has spent the past decade quietly restructuring Margaret River’s oldest winery, re-engineering the business and its operations as he looks towards a goal that very few others would dare to consider.

Mr Holmes a Court took full ownership of his family’s agribusiness, Heytesbury, in 2008, including the 50-year-old Vasse Felix winery, which had been a subsidiary since 1987.

He had run the business on behalf of the family since 2005, but believed the time was right to take control of his own destiny.

Since that time, Vasse Felix has added nearly 100 hectares of vineyards, including through acquisitions such as a 37.5ha parcel from Watershed Premium Wines for $3.3 million about two years ago. Its total holding is now around 260ha, all under the watchful eye of Vasse Felix chief viticulturist Bart Molony.

“We are probably the biggest owner of vines in Margaret River, or acreage of vines,” Mr Holmes a Court told Business News.

“During that period we have brought our grape production in-house; we have full self-sufficiency in grapes.

“It is large, it is strategic, but they are exceptional vineyards in their own right.

“We have done that to make ourselves secure in terms of premium grape production.”

That control has not stopped with viticulture, but extended through the whole winemaking process, including bottling, which is all done with the group’s own equipment.

“If there is any factor of quality in wine production, we own and control it 100 per cent,” Mr Holmes a Court said.

“We have eliminated the possibility for anything to interfere with factors of quality.”

While nothing about the wine industry is cheap, Vasse Felix may well have benefitted from being a counter-cyclical buyer, as it increased its footprint in a region that Mr Holmes a Court has complete faith in.

“People are investing again in vineyards in Margaret River, but when we started doing this we were the only ones expanding at that time,” he said.

“Margaret River is one of the great wine regions of the world, one of the few in the world.

“I think Western Australians take it for granted, we assume we are being parochial.

“We assume we like it just because it is our region, but it is more than that.

“My confidence in Margaret River is 100 per cent.

“So investing in premium exceptional vineyard sites in Margaret River that are planted with the right varieties is actually an easy decision.”

Operationally, the effort has not simply been in adding acreage and bringing the processing fully into the hands of Vasse Felix staff.

The company has also embarked on a project to make even better wine, culminating in the launch this year of the new single-vineyard Tom Cullity cabernet malbec, named after the winery’s founder and made from the produce of the group’s oldest vines.

Wine writer Ray Jordan is fulsome in his praise for what has been taking place at Vasse Felix, the site of the first commercial plantings in Margaret River 50 years ago – an anniversary he plans to commemorate with a book due out later this year on the region’s development since that time.

“Paul really has focused for about 10 years on cabernet,” Mr Jordan said.

“There is no question that, in the past 10 years with him driving the cabernet project, and his winemaker Virginia Willcock, they have moved the cabernet to another level.

“It is a nice touch that the one they have just released as part of the 50th, the Tom Cullity, they have used cabernet malbec as a blend.

“Their wines are superb.”

So what is behind this decade of development; what is the point?

“There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret River is one of the truly great wine regions of the world, and given our history and our vineyards and our vision we should, we ought to build one of the great wine estates of the world in Margaret River,” Mr Holmes a Court said.

“That is achievable, worthwhile and great fun.”

Mr Jordan responded positively when asked if Vasse Felix could become a world-renowned estate.

“I think there are a number of wineries in Margaret River that could aspire to that level and I think it is a noble pursuit,” Mr Jordan told Business News.

“There is no reason why they can’t.

“In a relatively short time, 50 years and even just 10 years, they have elevated that wine.”

While he doesn’t rattle off a list of the great estates he would like Vasse Felix to join, Mr Holmes a Court does coyly provide a couple of examples, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and Petrus in Bordeaux.

Such modesty belies the business vision behind such a move. It is not often a WA business enunciates a vision to be a global leader, especially in a luxury market where brands are often centuries in the making.

Despite this grand vision, already 10 years down the track, and his continued development of the Heytesbury cattle empire alongside that, Mr Holmes a Court shies away from the term entrepreneur, a tag that was closely associated with his father, Robert, whose ambitions, including the attempted takeover of BHP, were played out on the front pages of newspapers throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

Perhaps the so-called four-on-the-floor entrepreneurs of the 1980s, such as Mr Holmes a Court’s father, were different in the time horizons they were prepared to tolerate. They were building empires fast.

The goal for Vasse Felix is one that its owner acknowledges might be up to his young children to complete.

“Unless you have a 50- or 100-year outlook and vision, then there are easier ways to make money or better places to invest,” Mr Holmes a Court said.

“I am in the fortunate position that I am the custodian of this brand with heritage.

“We have the vineyards already. With resources to invest, we can do something great down there that is significant on a world scale.

“It is so much fun to be a part of.

“How long do these things take? How long is a piece of string? It is multigenerational.

“I was not there when it was planted. I am hosting the 50th party. I probably will not be there for the 100th party.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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