March 13, 2015

Lisa McGuigan: The winemaker flying high

Lisa McGuigan’s eponymous wine label really took off when she secured a deal to create wine for Jetstar’s inflight service. Now her wines are stocked by 350 retailers and restaurants across Australia. She shares her story and next big step: selling her wine into overseas markets.

Regarded as Australian wine royalty, fourth- generation Hunter Valley winemaker Lisa McGuigan is one of just two women included on a list of Australia’s 21 Most Influential Liquor Identities – and a hard person to pin down these days.

A regular part of her weekly schedule includes hitting the road with her distributor’s sales team to do what she loves best – talking about wine. McGuigan is enjoying being able to ‘hand-sell’ the wines from her own wine label, which turned over $2 million in the 2013-14 financial year. “I like to work closely with my distributors,” says McGuigan. “I work three days a week with the reps helping them sell my wine. I don’t want my wine to be just another product in a sales team’s portfolio, because wine is all about an experience. I love selling and talking about wine so I’m back to doing what I really love.”

The family trade

McGuigan knows wine – how to make it, market it and sell it. She grew up on her family’s Hunter Valley winery learning the business alongside her father, Brian.

But she wasn’t always destined to become a winemaker. After high school, her original plan to be a graphic designer was put on hold while she attended a finishing school in Switzerland that specialised in hotel management studies. A year abroad fuelled the teenage McGuigan’s pre-existing love of hotels and after returning home, she enrolled in a hotel management course at the Hunter Institute in Newcastle. “When I applied for the course there were 400 applicants and they only took 15 – so obviously I was meant to do it. I was so passionate about it,” says McGuigan.

McGuigan started at Sydney’s Renaissance Hotel, eventually working her way up to managing three restaurants where part of her role was buying wines. “This was 1995; there were lots of wines coming across my desk but I didn’t get excited about putting them on my list. I began thinking about the kind of wine I’d like to make,” she says.

It was then that McGuigan’s idea for the wine behind Tempus Two came to her and ultimately brought her back into the wine business. She told her dad that she was ready to join the wine business. “I worked on formulating my own brand and then approached the board of directors of McGuigan Wines, where dad was then chief executive officer, and presented my idea for a boutique premium brand that would run separately from the McGuigan brand,” she says. “They gave me a budget of

6,000 cases in the first year. That was in 1997. By year 10 we were doing 250,000 cases.”

McGuigan had to wait a few years, but after sales reached a certain level, she pulled out one of her big guns for the Tempus Two brand – pewter labels. “When I came out with the metal labels it went nuts,” she says. “It was really the first time a brand had done something so unusual in terms of the material used on labels. It took sales up dramatically from one year to the next. It was so eye-catching but I knew that because it was so different some people may think, it looks good but is the wine good? So I always knew I had to over deliver on the wine. My brief to the winemaker, Sarah-Kate Dineen, was that ‘it has to be a rock star wine’.”

Launching out

Ironically, it was the success of the brand both here and overseas that eventually contributed to McGuigan deciding to leave the company whose board she then sat on. “I’d spent 10 years at McGuigan’s and I needed a break from what I was doing,” she says. “I’d become so attached to my brand that I hadn’t been involved with the wider wine industry for so long and I needed to go back to where I had come from, which was restaurants, buying wine and speaking to people about wine. My job had become very office bound and I wanted to get back to doing what I loved. I missed the hands-on challenges of the early days and I didn’t want to lose my marketing edge.”

What better way to find out what consumers think about wine and how they buy it than in a bottle shop? That was McGuigan’s next move – purchasing a liquor store in Sydney’s CBD. “It was the best way for me to get an education and an update about Australian wine at the time,” she says. “Being able to see how consumers react is important. You can have the best wine and the best packaging but you have to put it in the fridge to see what consumers think. And retail was something I’d done before; I’d set up the cellar door in the Hunter. My vision this time was to create a New York-style bottle shop and to have really amazing wines in there.”

In 2010, McGuigan was ready to make her own label a reality again, launching Lisa McGuigan Wines, which was fully funded and backed by herself. She joined forces with acclaimed winemaker Liz Jackson whose career was fostered by McGuigan at Tempus Two, and who was named Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year in 2010. McGuigan launched with four core wines and a range that’s since expanded to include 10 wines in three collections positioned at different price points.

Flying high

McGuigan scored an early marketing coup with a deal to supply 187-millilitre bottles of her wine for Jetstar’s inflight service. “It was a great opportunity to launch the wines because they went all around Australia and Japan, and everybody got to see the product before I even launched the 750-millilitre bottles.”

Today, the brand is stocked by about 350 retailers and restaurants in NSW and Victoria (a Queensland launch is planned for early next year) and the venture’s annual turnover is predicted to reach $4.5 million in the 2014-15 financial year.

McGuigan says her philosophy with the brand is similar to when she started Tempus Two. “The formula was to make the best wine I could from great fruit, take it to the people and hope they’d be as excited about it as I was,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, the look of McGuigan’s newest wine range again includes her eye-catching metallic labels, though this time they’re shiny platinum. Her most stunning packaging feature is yet to come, with an upcoming launch in an attention-grabbing new design expected to take wine packaging in Australia to another level once more.

In matte glass and featuring indented versions of her gothic cross logo, it’s due to roll out in time for the busy Spring Carnival and Christmas party season. “This bottle is hot,” says McGuigan, with her still strong love of design shining through. “This has taken me 18 months to design and it’s the ultimate package.”

The concept’s also a timely arrival for her next big step: selling her wine into overseas markets. “I’ve really just concentrated on Australia so far because you need to have a good home-based brand. Whatever happens overseas, you’re always going to end up back home.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2014). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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