Wine by design: Barossa winemaker takes hands-on approach

Making wine is a very personal venture for this Barossa Valley-born and bred artisan combining two passions in his small-batch business.

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David Lehmann grew up immersed in the business of winemaking in the iconic Barossa Valley, but his teenage passion was graphic design, which he planned to make his career.

After a year working overseas, however, Lehmann’s love for the iconic wine region, with its history and winemaking traditions, had grabbed hold of him. The son of Australian wine industry giant Peter Lehmann, he says his desire to make wine was “burning bright”.

So, Lehmann junior developed a new plan – to create his own wine label in a business that combined his talent and love for design with his skills and heritage in winemaking.

On launching his david Franz label in 2000 (Franz is his middle name), Lehmann’s vision was to be hands-on from vine to bottle. As well as crafting the wine, he began designing labels and hand-printing each bottle to create a signature look reflecting his personality and the handmade nature of the unique, small-batch product he wanted to produce using traditional, ‘old school’ techniques.

Through trial and error, he developed a system whereby he could screen-print directly onto the bottles. His aim? To recreate the look of the first bottles he ever sold to friends, when he would use a white paint marker to handwrite the grape variety on each bottle.

“My first vision was this idea of being a one-man band, making this hand-crafted wine from start to finish on my own,” Lehmann explains. “I wanted to personally hold and touch every bottle before I sent it out into the world.

“Right from the start we also did our own labelling and packaging, and I was hand-labelling everything. The design on the bottles and the packaging let me retain my ability to be an artist at the same time as being a winemaker. For me, the packaging and each individual bottle have always been vitally important as a marketing tool.”

Retaining the personal

This year, Lehmann is celebrating his 21st vintage under his own label, having grown david Franz from 1.5 tonnes of grapes annually in the beginning to 130 tonnes today.

The steady expansion of the business means he’s no longer able to “touch every bottle”, but he still works to retain the personal artisan nature of the wine as well as continuing to design and print in-house – albeit now by ‘team Franz’ – a nimbleness he sees as a valuable business advantage.

“One of the big reasons we went down that path with the packaging originally was that, as well as being something I could do, it also gave us more control over the process,” Lehmann says.

“By doing it in-house, we didn’t have to rely on a third party for designing or printing. There’s not the frustration of trying to get something done to a deadline and having to rely on outside forces.

“I’m not physically touching every bottle any more. We have a great team on that … it’s still pretty intimate, and I don’t plan to really change that.”

Distribution control

More control is one of the factors driving the company’s latest business addition – a recently-opened cellar door in a restored 1800s building on the david Franz property at Tanunda. As well as selling and promoting his wines, Lehmann plans to one day expand the retail outlet to include food, creating a dining destination for locals and tourists.

“First and foremost it’s a physical face, a way to have a personality beyond what’s in the bottle,” he says.  “We’re confident it’ll also allow us to reach people who might not otherwise come across what we do.

“The second opportunity it creates is to pull back some of our full margin sales.

“As we’ve grown we’ve had to have a stronger reliance on distributors. We went from selling almost every bottle direct to a customer – so, making full margin sales – to then selling to bottle shops and restaurants, eventually needing a distributor to do that on our behalf.

“We found our success with distributors in selling product was eroding a lot of our direct sales online.”

Lehmann says the cellar door will enhance his connection with customers and put them to work for him. “You have the chance to spend time with people and imbue them with your enthusiasm,” he says. “If you do it well … they go out, share the wine with their friends and tell them the story. [They] become your sales and marketing person.

“They pay you money to take your wine and also sell it for you. It’s great!”