After a long career at Brown Brothers establishing its most productive vineyards, viticulturist Mark Walpole now tends to his own vines as well as championing new varieties in Australia.
Like many in the industry, Mark Walpole didn’t originally set out to join it, but the signs of an inquiring mind were already there and the rest followed. “I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied with the status quo,” Walpole said. “I was setting up a walnut orchard and was thinking, ‘why are we planting all these tired old French varieties when there are better Canadian ones?’” That interest in new varieties was to take him elsewhere.
Walpole gained a diploma in farm management from Glenormiston Agricultural College, now part of Melbourne University, and then worked overseas for a year in 1986. On return he sent a resumé to Brown Brothers and Peter Brown offered him a job at Milawa right away clearing land, fertilising it and preparing it for planting vineyards. Walpole’s family had lived nearby at Whorouly since his great-grandfather had moved house from Everton, literally. “He had carried it across the Ovens River,” explains Walpole. In 1987 Walpole and his brother Tim planted their own vineyard at Whorouly, but Walpole didn’t want to go the popular varietal route, so planted touriga and the first tempranillo and verdelho vines in Victoria. Not long after he remembers thinking “Help! We’d better plant something we can sell”, so they added cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chardonnay. Currently they also grow pinot gris, friulano and prosecco.
Meanwhile, things were changing at Brown Brothers, too. Under patriarch John Brown Senior, the company had for many years been experimenting with new grape varieties, so when chief viticulturist Jim Hardie asked Walpole to join a research and development group it was a great fit between Browns and the inquiring walnut grower. Walpole also took on the grower liaison role, working with grape growers in the King and Alpine Valleys who supplied Brown Brothers with several of the newer, particularly Italian, grape varieties. Then, in 1997, Browns offered him the position of chief viticulturist, a job he maintained until he resigned in 2007.
“Mark was always impeccably professional,” says Ross Brown, Brown Brothers’ CEO for 10 years. “He’s a very sharing person, generous with his knowledge and, when you asked for his advice, he was always considered in his judgement. He had a big role in our Banksdale Vineyard, now our largest source, and also influenced us in establishing our Heathcote vineyard.”
“Mark was always impeccably professional…generous with his knowledge and, when you asked for his advice, he was always considered in his judgement.”
In 1995 Walpole bought land in Beechworth for a new vineyard, planting in 1997 after clearing “scrub, stumps and many thousands of rabbits”. The site is above an escarpment overlooking the Ovens Valley to the southwest and about 360 metres above his Whorouly vineyard. From this he supplies Brown Brothers and other growers with grapes, but retains some cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo for his own brand, Fighting Gully Road. After making these at other sites in the Beechworth area, Walpole is now working with Adrian Rodda, previously at Oakridge, acquiring a site for their winery at Mayday Hills, in Beechworth.
A further step in Walpole’s career occurred in 1998 through a chance meeting on an international flight between vineyard consultant Dr Richard Smart and Dr Alberto Antonini. Antonini had recently resigned as vineyard manager for Antinori and was setting up his consulting business. Smart strongly recommended he meet with Walpole when in Australia. The two clicked, leading them to work on vineyard projects and importing clonally selected Italian grape varieties such as vermentino and sagrantino. Walpole later passed the rights to these to the Chalmers Family, who was Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine’s Viticulturists of the Year in 2014.
Another person who greatly benefitted the wine industry was Louis Pasteur, who once wrote, “chance favours only the prepared mind”. He could have been writing about Mark Walpole.
Photography by Georgie James Photography