From Moree to England, then on to Perth and South Australia, and back to Western Australia, this winemaker’s life is a lesson on the rewards you can reap if you put yourself out there.
Gavin Berry found his way into winemaking via a lengthy, circuitous route. Born and brought up in the farming country of Moree in northern New South Wales, he completed a psychology degree at the University of New England, tried real estate and decided that he didn’t want to live in a large city, wear a suit and tie, or work in a large organisation. On a visit to England and penniless, he drove a tractor on a farm near Peterborough, and decided that he would look for a position in agriculture.
While in Perth for the America’s Cup, he spent a day in the Swan Valley with some mates and a carton of Sandalford Verdelho. Later in the afternoon, Berry thought ‘vines, grapes… that’s agriculture’ and sought advice from the local Department of Agriculture the next day. Undeterred by a lack of encouragement, he decided to knock on doors in the Swan Valley and offer to work for free to get more experience.
David Atkinson at Jane Brook offered him work as a cellar rat. He did a vintage there, enjoyed the experience and so decided to go to Roseworthy as a mature age student of 25. He did a Graduate Diploma with a small group including his wife-to-be, Gill Graham, and two past winners of Winemaker of the Year: Sue Hodder and Pete Bissell.
Berry and Graham returned to Perth where he did another vintage at Jane Brook before they travelled overseas in 1988 to do a vintage at Château de Trignon in Gigondas. They returned to France to do vintage at Michel Juillot in Burgundy in 1995. While he was at Gigondas, he applied for and got an assistant winemaker’s position at Plantagenet working with John Wade.
The Berrys purchased a 40-hectare block in the Porongurups, which became Mount Trio. When Wade moved on from Plantagenet after the 1993 vintage, Berry took over as winemaker – a position he held until 2004.
When West Cape Howe founders, Brenden and Kylie Smith decided to move on and sell their 50 per cent share, their equity partners invited Berry to become managing director, senior winemaker and an equal partner in the business. Rob Quenby is hands-on as viticultural manager, farmer and long-term friend of the Berrys. Ian Crockett and Rinze Brandsma are both retired accountants and passive investors who bring structure, business discipline and a focus on the bottom line. The four partners are also equal shareholders with Michael Kerrigan in Hay Shed Hill.
For the team at West Cape Howe, their Alan Bond moment came when Constellation put the 7,000-tonne Goundrey winery and its 130-hectare Langton Vineyard on the market in 2009. They didn’t need the Windy Hill, Fox River and Omrah vineyards, but were encouraged to take them to seal the deal. Vincor had paid $50 million more for the same deal less than 10 years beforehand. They sold the three vineyards that were surplus to requirements, although they still lease Windy Hill for its stellar cabernet.
The day after the purchase, Berry began the task of ‘trimming’ the Langton vineyard; 30 hectares of unsuitable land was cleared. The business changed from one which was focused on the winery and wine sales to one which was clearly connected to the vineyards and what they were capable of producing.
Since then, the emphasis has been on tweaking the vineyard, learning its subtleties and the ways in which changes in soil, aspect and wind direction affects flavour. The result is wonderful depth of flavour and quality at all price points, through the Cape to Cape quaffers, to the Regional Range, the single vineyard varietals, and the barrel selection King Billy Cabernet.
There’s even time to play, with the family’s Mount Trio hitting the high spots with its pinot noir; and with Mike Kerrigan in the high-end K&B range – pure essence of riesling, and beautifully structured, age-worthy cabernet sauvignon. The boy from Moree is very much at home in the Great Southern.