February 12, 2016

Five generations of Tahbilk wine

The Purbrick family has been managing the Tahbilk winery in Victoria for five generations. It’s now managed by Alister Purbrick and his daughter Hayley, who believe they have a responsibility to leave both a sustainable environmental legacy and a successful business for future generations.

The Purbrick family has been managing the Tahbilk winery in Victoria for five generations.

It was purchased by Reginald Purbrick in 1925, who went on to win a seat in the British House of Commons, becoming a confidant and drinking companion of Winston Churchill. It’s now managed by Alister Purbrick and his daughter Hayley, who believe they have a responsibility to leave both a sustainable environmental legacy and a successful business for future generations.

When Hayley Purbrick was working as a tax consultant with a leading city firm, she couldn’t imagine working in a rural area.

“I had no intention of working in the family business, but they do have a way of pulling you back,” she says. “My first degree was in Agricultural Science, and I had always liked the idea of working as a consultant in resource management. It just hadn’t occurred to me that Environmental Manager of Tahbilk was my ideal job.”

The Purbricks have been custodians of Tahbilk since 1925 – a winemaking heritage that now spans five generations. Located in the Nagambie Lakes region 120 kilometres north of Melbourne, Tahbilk is the oldest winery in Victoria and one of the oldest in Australia. The estate covers 1214 hectares of rich river flats with about 200 hectares under vine with a mix of rare, traditional and new varieties.

“We still have over half a hectare of shiraz vines that were planted when the winery was founded in 1860 – the third oldest of their kind in the world,” says Alister Purbrick, Chief Winemaker and Chief Executive Officer, who was just 24 when appointed by his father to run the winery. “We also have the oldest Australian and largest single holding of Marsanne vines in the world, which were planted in 1927 and are the second oldest in the world. We love being able to draw very good quality fruit from such historic blocks of vines.”

Respected wine critic James Halliday, who named Tahbilk 2016 Winery of the Year at the Qantas epiQure Halliday Australian Wine Companion Awards, singled out the “1927 Vines” Marsanne, a wine made only from these venerable old vines, for particular praise- calling it “remarkable”. Bottled for eight years before release, it’s the longest maturation of any Australian table wine.

“The wines are made in a winery that breathes history,” wrote Halliday in his review of the winning vineyard. “Alister undertook a lead role in developing Australia’s First Families of Wine, which has been an unqualified success. He has served on wine industry boards and associations with clear-eyed intelligence, unafraid to express views different from the stance of some or all of his peers. Finally, he has guided Tahbilk through a decade of financial challenges impacting on every sector of the Australian wine industry. One aspect of this success has been the enhancement of what must be one of the most successful wine clubs, connecting Tahbilk with its thousands of loyal customers.”

Commitment to sustainability

Hayley describes working in a successful family business as “empowering”.

“It’s very exciting to be part of something everyone is so passionate about,” she says. “When the whole family is on board with an idea, change can happen very quickly.”

Change has been high on the agenda since 1995, when the family set about turning their low-lying, flood-prone agricultural country into a wetland and wildlife reserve.

“We were all in love with the concept but, at first, we had no particular objective in mind,” says Alister. “Then, about five years later, we started thinking about how we could derive some commercial benefit from our 11-kilometre frontage to the Goulburn River and eight kilometres of permanent backwaters and creeks. After a lot of boardroom discussion, we decided to offer cruises on 30-seater battery-operated boats and to build a cafe. We opened all of this to the public as part of our 145th anniversary celebrations in 2005, and we now have about 80,000 visitors coming through every year. We’ve found it attracts a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise visit a winery.”

The family has also embarked on a plan to become carbon-neutral by establishing native plants on 160 hectares of the estate. When the government introduced the concept of carbon trading, they incorporated this into their overall plan.

“We commissioned an emissions audit in 2008 and achieved a net zero balance of carbon emissions by 2012,” says Hayley. “That means all of the carbon emissions associated with our wine production and tourism operation are balanced by carbon offsets. Some of these are in the form of carbon sequestration resulting from our long-term revegetation program; the rest we purchase from accredited projects. Now our goal is to become naturally carbon balanced by 2020 – that is, carbon balanced without the need to purchase any external carbon credits.”

As they have already revegetated almost all of their available land, the Purbricks are now focusing on reducing emissions.

“We have taken steps to minimise our power consumption and have substantially reduced our chemical input into the vineyards,” says Alister. “We’re also managing our green waste more efficiently – instead of sending about 200,000 kilograms to landfill each year we’ll be incorporating it into our compost on site. Next we intend to install solar panels on the winery, integrate rainwater run-off for use in the winery and use lighter-weight glass for more bottles. Most of the major changes are in place, so it’s more a question of finetuning.”

A recent challenge was consolidating all of the activities into one coherent plan.

“It was a massive job, but we now have clear strategies in place that will keep us on track for our 2020 target,” says Hayley.

Commercial benefits

The Purbricks believe they have a responsibility to leave both a sustainable environmental legacy and a successful business for future generations.

“We’re careful to take financial outcomes into account in developing our sustainable strategies so that, while the initial investment may be quite high, we know we’ll be able to recoup that in spades over the longer term,” says Alister. “Overall we’ve found that sustainable practices are also more cost-effective. For example, you can make significant savings by consuming less power. And reducing the chemicals you use in the soil is as good for the hip pocket as it is for the environment.”

Tahbilk labels now carry the carboNZero certification mark and, while Hayley has no doubt that consumers’ purchasing decisions are based largely on quality and price, she believes that the brand’s green credentials have helped to raise its profile.

“I think the biggest impact has been in Scandinavia, where consumers are particularly conscious of environmental issues,” she says.

In Australia, sustainability is also a good talking point, particularly to the company’s Wine Club members.

“They tell us that they appreciate what we’re doing and that they’re proud to be part of a brand that takes sustainability so seriously,” says Hayley, who previously managed the Wine Club.

Tahbilk’s unusually large and loyal group of Wine Club members purchase more than 60,000 of the 100,000 cases of wine produced every year. About 30,000 cases sell in Australian retail outlets, and the rest are exported to 16 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries.

“We find that international sales fluctuate according to the strength of the Australia dollar,” says Hayley. “When it’s strong, we concentrate on keeping a foothold in our key markets until it falls again. Then we return to more intensive marketing.”

Safeguarding the future

Looking back over the generations, Hayley sees a common thread of entrepreneurship, passion, hard work and a love of good wine.

“The family can be quite traditional but I think we have always been very open to change,” she says. “This has enabled the business to keep evolving.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2015). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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