Witches Falls Winery owner and winemaker, Jon Heslop, has long had a passion for wine. While working as a wine sales representative in the early ’90s, he made a life-changing decision to become a winemaker. He packed up his family and moved from Brisbane to the Barossa Valley to begin work as a cellar hand. From the Barossa it was on to the Hunter Valley, where he worked as a winemaker, before moving his family to Tamborine Mountain in 2003 to establish their own winery. The winery is now a popular destination for visitors from Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It is also the workplace of a close-knit team of people, all passionate about wine. At Witches Falls Winery, culture is king. (www.witchesfalls.com.au)
JON & KIM HESLOP & HELEN MCATEER
When did you establish Witches Falls Winery?
JON: In 2003 we bought the property and started the business, and the first vintage was in 2004. We were fortunate as someone lent us a shed, so we were able to process that first year while we were getting approvals and whatnot. Then, the first couple of years, we did everything, Kim and I, seven days a week. I’d start here at six in the morning with the builders, and finish at three in the afternoon. Then, at four o’clock, we’d go around to where we’d set up the winery temporarily, and Kim was my cellar hand. We’d work until midnight. Then, we’d come home and, the next day, we’d get up and do it all again.
So, you built it from scratch?
JON: From scratch. Everything. There was just the house, which we live in up the back, and this was all gardens. The property is just over five acres. So, then we got approvals, built the winery, moved the whole winery back here — it was a third of the size it is now — and then Monday to Friday Kim worked cellar door and I did the winery work, and Saturday and Sunday we both did cellar door. We did that for probably a year, I suppose. For the first couple of years, it was just the two of us. Then, bit by bit, as we grew and expanded, we were able to say, ‘What job am I really rubbish at?’ or ‘What don’t I like doing?’ Then, we could say, ‘Okay, let’s get someone to do that role and that role.’ There have been ups and downs along the way, but the stage the business is at now, it has a very strong culture — and that’s the main thing about the business.
JON: The decision came about because … I mean, I left school and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. The short history of me is, I finished school, did a gap year in Scotland, came back, studied chiropractic for two years. It was a five-year course and in the chiropractic subjects I received high distinctions, but the science subjects, I failed. I mean, it was terrible. I went travelling overseas for another three years and became a tour manager for Contiki, running tours around Europe. It was great, but you can’t do that forever, can you?
Where did you meet Kim?
JON: We met in France. In Beaujolais!
KIM: At a Contiki stopover, but not on a Contiki tour. I was with Helen — her mother is my godmother. She is like my sister. She is family.
JON: We met in Beaujolais, came back to Australia and … I had worked in pubs when I was at uni, and I had done wine purchasing in pubs. So, I went into wine sales for three years and I was really good at it. I got all the sales awards, but I didn’t like it. I was coming home every day, whingeing and complaining, and one day Kim said to me, ‘You know, your job is not going to kill you. I am going to kill you.’ So, really, it was as simple as sitting down and doing a pros and cons list. What do I like? What don’t I like? I came up with winemaking. I quit my job and enrolled at Charles Sturt and, in fact, didn’t get in. So, I applied via the open learning institute. A couple of months later I got a phone call saying, ‘You’re into the course.’ That was 1999.
Where do you source your grapes?
JON: We buy them from all around the Granite Belt. We’re the biggest contract buyers of fruit on the Granite Belt in Queensland. We have one main grower, David Westlake — he is wonderful, he and his partner, Cheryl. They’re out at Ballandean. David is our guy out there. He does all of the coordination for us. He gets approached by vineyards — can we take their fruit? He goes and has a look. If it is no good, we don’t take it. If he believes it is up to the standard we require, we’ll have a look at it.
Tell us about the wild ferment range?
JON: Our wild ferment chardonnay, for example, we started doing that in 2005. The only other company that I knew was doing wild ferments at the time was Yalumba, and that’s where I got the idea from. Now there are loads and loads that are doing it. We have a significant reputation for our wild ferment chardonnay, now, and our wild ferment range. The style of chardonnay we were producing was big and complex; it had oak and the oak was obvious; we’d lees stir it, and all the rest of it. At that time, the wine world allegedly was going in the opposite direction of that style of chardonnay. But, we’ve sold out. What sells and what people drink, and what is happening in the media or with wine writers, doesn’t necessary match up, I don’t think.
When is vintage?
JON: Mid February, and we go until April. It depends upon the year and every year is different. This year we had a four-week gap between whites and reds. A couple of years ago, we had a five-week gap. Last year, there was no gap and everything was in by the end of March. We’ve never had that before. So, every single year is different.
Tell us about your members’ day.
JON: In our business we have 4000 members on our database. We have our members’ day and we have 400 or 500 turn up. First, it is a day where we can say thanks to our members for their support. So, we put on tastings of new wines and we talk about them, so it is educational. We talk about the vintage; we talk about different things we do in the vineyard — how it affects it and why we did it; we might talk about different clones or pruning techniques — why and how and where, and people find that very interesting. You don’t get to hear about that normally. We have music. People come at eight o’clock in the morning to secure their position, and we don’t start until eleven or twelve! It is unbelievable. We do those twice a year. We have food vans and it is a feel-good day. And, ultimately, from our point of view, it is a sales day as well. People know that and they’re comfortable with that. It is a day they can get great deals. It is fantastic and there are loads of people who have been coming to those members’ days for over ten years. That’s incredible support. And that is why our membership is so important. We look after our members and give them unbelievable customer service. It is a real focus. For people who sign up to become a member of the winery, they’re not only buying wine, they’re buying the experience. We have to understand that because, if they just want to buy a bottle of wine, there are plenty of other alternatives.
What is the best thing about being here?
HELEN: It is all about sharing good wine. It is really nice to work in a place where you feel supported. Everyone likes each other and we like what we do. It is the culture.
KIM: For me, it is about the lifestyle and flexibility, and about the business providing everyone with family connections. It is about providing an environment, a business, that people want to come to but they also feel their families are first, their lifestyles are first, that experiences are first. If you give up everything for work and business, you have nothing.
JON: One of the great satisfactions for us — possibly the greatest satisfaction — is that something we’ve created can contribute to so many people’s lives and their livelihood. That’s a really cool thing. Everyone has a responsibility to the business, and the business has a responsibility to everybody. Those that feed the business are fed by the business. That’s the attitude we always take. The fact that it is a winery and a feel-good product and all the rest of it makes it even better.