THE QUIET ACHIEVER
As an innovator and advocate, Colin Campbell has made an indelible mark on the wine industry.
As an innovator and advocate, Colin Campbell has made an indelible mark on the wine industry.
THERE are five points to consider when tasting wine, according to Campbells of Rutherglen patriarch Colin Campbell, and it doesn’t involve using a lot of flowery adjectives. He says you must consider the fruit flavour on the palate, the weight of the wine when you take it onto your tongue, then that particular varietal’s flavour at the back of the mouth. Then there is the most important part – the wine’s overall balance.
“I like to have a wine that’s just smooth and doesn’t hit you and disappear,” he says.
“It should come up, go right through and finish with a kind of smoothness. That’s good balance which is critical in my view. Then you’ve got to have wine with length - when you have a taste it should hang around in your mouth for a while. They’re the sort of things that I look for.”
It’s the kind of quietly considered advice you can expect from Colin, a gentleman and legend of the wine industry. And it’s advice worth taking from someone who has spent five decades immersed in the business, who has won the admiration of his peers and has an unparalleled reputation as a visionary, advocate and quiet achiever. That vision may well have come down the family line when you consider Campbells of Rutherglen will mark its 150th anniversary in two years’ time.
Colin said he and his brother Malcolm were always aware of the family’s pioneering history in the Rutherglen region as they were growing up. They’d heard the story of John Campbell, their great grandfather, and how he left his home in St Andrews, Scotland in 1857 and sailed to Australia in search of gold, arriving in Rutherglen in 1860. The ship which brought him was the “Merchant Prince” and its moniker now adorns the family’s most prestigious Muscat.
It was John who found himself on the Bobbie Burns Lead to the west of the township of Rutherglen where in 1868 he selected an adjacent 79 acres of land, planted vines and two years later established Campbells Wines.
The home he built on the property, known as the Bobbie Burns Homestead, is still right there next to the winery - a monument to the founder and the base from which John’s son David and his wife Isabella, his grandson Allen and his wife Isabel, and his great-grandsons Colin and Malcolm, would each play their part in the family business. At times they would face adversity, and each generation has had occasion to steer the ship through rough waters, but with tenacity they managed to keep it afloat.
Colin and Malcolm were born in a time when the wine industry faced an uncertain future, when farming was more profitable than winemaking and their parents sold produce like pigs and eggs to make ends meet. Yet somehow, through sheer determination, they still managed to send their sons to boarding school at Scotch College in Melbourne. Malcolm returned to the family business in 1961 after their father suffered a serious heart attack, to help run the vineyard and manage the farming property and he became the viticulturist. Colin, two years younger, went from Scotch College to complete a Diploma of Agriculture at Dookie Agricultural College, then a Diploma of Oenology at Roseworthy in South Australia, before spending several years working at Lindeman’s Wines in Corowa. He then returned to the family business in 1968 as a winemaker and has been pivotal to its growth ever since.
He says in truth his future could have been spent on the farm and it wasn’t until his second year at Roseworthy that he became really interested in the wine industry. >>
“I had a choice - I could have stayed at Lindeman’s or I could have come home and worked and I felt there was more interest and challenge in the family business,” he said.
“There was also the ability to do things without going through such a complicated decision making process.”
During that period in the late sixties and early seventies a significant shift was taking place in the industry, following a wave of post war European immigration and the arrival of Italian families who had brought their food and wine culture with them. Colin said the wine industry changed dramatically, with fortified sales going from 80 per cent of total wine sales to just 20 per cent in only a short space of time as demand for table wines skyrocketed.
“It was probably opportune because we didn’t have a lot of grapes at that time, so we were able to plant varieties for table wines like Shiraz and Chardonnay, whereas before it was mainly Muscats and Topaques,” he said.
Colin’s time at Lindeman’s would prove fortuitous for both the family business and for Rutherglen, for it not only gave him the experience he needed, but was where he learnt about white wines which weren’t in focus at the time. He introduced refrigeration to the region, an innovation he said his father Allen wasn’t too keen on. It signalled the dawn of a new age for white wines in Rutherglen because it meant they could keep the wines cool while they were fermenting, instead of them becoming “hot, flat and uninteresting”.
“We could keep them fresh - and it really was one of the major changes which led us to start to make white wines in earnest,” said Colin.
“There was enormous growth in that period in the early seventies - it was a world of opportunity - because there were only maybe six wineries in the area back then.”
While Rutherglen was full of wineries in the late 1800s, evidenced by the remains of historic red brick buildings which can still be seen dotted throughout the landscape, they were wiped out by Phylloxera at the turn of the century and most vineyards weren’t replanted. So the seventies was a boom time for Campbells of Rutherglen.
Riding on the growing market for table wine, the family expanded their operation, beginning a massive replanting program, launching their iconic Bobbie Burns Shiraz in 1970 and turning their trestle-tabled tasting area into a serious cellar door, one that is still there today. Bobbie Burns Shiraz has now been made every year for 47 years and in 2020 when the family celebrates its 150 years in operation, the wine will have its 50th birthday.
“There are not many wines in Australia that have been consistent for 50 years, so that will be quite a hallmark,” said Colin.
While building their portfolio of table wines, Colin never lost sight of the significance of its Topaques and Muscats, describing Muscat as a Rutherglen specialty and one of the most revered wines in Australia. It’s an area he is focused on developing to this day, establishing the Muscat of Rutherglen group and working tirelessly to see the variety recognised worldwide as the unique wine of Australia. He wants Rutherglen to be renowned as the Muscat Centre of the World, a vision which has been supported by the Indigo Shire Council through its recently released and “game-changing” tourism strategy aimed at bringing an additional 1.1 million visitors to the region by 2023.
“We want to create a drawcard which attracts tourists to something unique that they can’t see anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“We hope we can get that up and off the ground - tourism is still a very big part of our business that needs to be developed.”
Over the five decades, Colin Campbell has been an integral part of his own family business and the wine industry and he has been witness to a number of major developments. These include advances in technology, the introduction of automated equipment and processing, new areas and varieties being planted and constant fluctuations in the market. In 1967 the first Rutherglen Wine Festival, the oldest wine festival in Victoria, was a modest event held at the local football ground and Colin said it marked the beginning of winery tourism. Over the years Rutherglen became synonymous with Aussie red, and today, festivals like the annual Winery Walkabout attract a staggering 18,000 people.
At Campbell’s the area under vine has also grown from 30 acres back in the sixties to 180 acres today and there are around 35 staff who the family consider as brand ambassadors and integral to their longevity and success. This year the whole Campbell’s crew recently went out and hand-picked Shiraz as a kind of team bonding exercise, hand-plunging it at the cellar door before putting it into its own barrels. They hope to release it as part of their 150th celebration.
While Colin hopes the recent excitement and push to develop the wine export market into China will be a success for all, he has some reservations, suggesting it must be just a part of a balanced strategy.
He is also well aware the domestic market can’t be solely relied upon.
“In our business we have our four different pillars – Cellar Door, our Cellar Club, Distributor and Export - in the hope that if one pillar is down, the other three pillars can hold it up,” he said.
“That’s what we need to do in Australia - buffer ourselves in case the markets change and we can adjust our strategy to absorb as necessary and build where necessary.”
In the same way while interesting and somewhat fashionable new wines are explored from time to time, the staple wines remain the core of Campbell’s business, including its Shiraz, Durif, Chardonnay and Riesling. It’s something that is appreciated by the company’s loyal customers through its cellar club which was established in 1997 and continues to go from strength to strength. New varieties and wines drifting in and out of the portfolio include Tempranillo, one that grows well and has proved popular, and Rose which is currently very popular. Whatever the wine, what’s important to the family is that it’s the best it can possibly be and true to Campbells style.
These days while Colin is still a passionate advocate on behalf of the industry, his favourite part of the family business is tasting the wines and trying to make them better, particularly when it comes to blending fortifieds. He is modest about his own palate, saying there are others better suited for the intense concentration required for the hours spent judging hundreds of wines at competition level.
“Where I get the most pride and most satisfaction is when I’m in the tasting room and suddenly you see a wine and it’s just A1 – that’s what keeps you going for another 12 months,” he said.
The Campbell family is also part of Australia’s First Families of Wine, an organisation established in 2009 when 12 of Australia’s oldest family-owned wine businesses came together to tell the world about the rich history and provenance of Australian wine, and set the record straight that quality Australian wine was being produced in this country. Colin said it was created at a time when mass-produced, cheap wine was all that overseas buyers associated with Australia.
“Other wineries now see us as a reputable group who get off their backsides and go and do something and we’ve done a lot to help promote Australian wine around the world,” he said.
Getting off his backside and getting stuck into it is something Colin has made a career of, devoting significant time to industry bodies and to lobbying government as part of his advocacy work, including his strive to reform the Wine Equalisation Tax (WET) rebate. In 2014, Colin was named the inaugural Victorian “Legend of the Vine” by the Wine Communicators of Australia, and in 2016 he was awarded life membership of the Australian Wine Industry by the Winemakers Federation of Australia, College of Patrons. His dedication was formally recognised again this year when he received an Order of Australia medal for his contribution to the winemaking industry.
It follows on from the Order of Australia medal brother Malcolm received in 2001 for services to viticulture and the community. “I was very humbled by it,” said Colin. “You don’t expect to get something like that and it’s very nice when you do.”
While he’s not about to retire completely from the industry he loves, he is willing to take time out and make way for the fifth generation to step up.
“It’s their business and theirs to run the way they want to run it, because they’ll do it differently,” he said. >>
“Obviously we hope they’ll come to us if they want some advice. We call it the wisdom of age and exuberance of the youth and it’s true for wine - the blend of old and young is usually better than the two separates - and it certainly is in business too.”
The fifth generation of Campbells includes Colin and wife Prue Campbell’s three children, Julie, Jane and Susie, who are now winemaker, brand and public relations manager, and marketing manager respectively. There is also Malcolm’s son Roger who looks after the farming enterprise.
Colin and Prue made it clear that if their children wanted to come back to the winery after boarding school, they had to bring new skills into the business. Study, travel overseas for 12 months, then go and work for someone else for at least five or six years. Only then if a job came up, could they apply for it, and they would be considered on their merits.
“Too many people bring their children into a family business without ensuring they are passionate about it - because if you’re not passionate about a particular role, it’s not going to work,” said Colin.
“You’ve got to have your heart and soul in it or your business won’t work. The wine industry is one of the most complex industries, because we’re in the primary, secondary and tertiary industries, so there is never a dull moment because there is something happening in each area all the time. It is complex and you can’t be skilled in each area, so you’ve got to have a very clear understanding of your responsibilities and who is doing what.”
Colin and Prue also established a peer management line giving autonomy to leaders of individual departments where they become responsible for their department, giving them a sense of freedom knowing the business is in safe hands. Their philosophy is understood by their daughter Jane who agrees it’s particularly pertinent to the wine industry, and she says it’s fortunate she and her siblings moved naturally into their fields of expertise and “felt at home”. “A family wine business can be hard work,” she said. “You’ve got to have something that brings you back and also grounds you too. I’ve always felt that my roots are here in the winery and I’ve been lucky to always have this to come back to. When you walk in to our winery it feels like home - it’s part of you. Even at the end of the day when all is quiet there is a warmth, a real sense of place and foundation. As the fifth generation, we will work hard to make it work.”
Having lived and worked in Alice Springs, Darwin, Italy and now Beechworth, it is no surprise that Alan Phillips’ 40-year retrospective Carpe Diem – Collages features pieces that present historic and current affairs linked to these places, interpreted through his sense of humour, life experience and art knowledge. One of the bigger pieces at 400 X 1500mm, the Evolution of the Vespa – Leonardo da Vinci reflects Alan’s deep interest and research into the history of art, but also his sense of humour, connecting the use of carp fish to the exhibition title, Carpe Diem. “I had a bit of fun with it. I was looking into da Vinci’s inventions and propose that he might have used rotting carp to test some of his designs. Also, that I found his primary school report in the archives. The competition between da Vinci and Michelangelo was all a bit serious, so I felt it needed lightening up a bit,” Alan said. While Evolution of the Vespa is a mix of the serious and the light-hearted, Alan also uses his art to challenge many historic developments including the Uluru Handback informed through many years working with Indigenous communities. Alan graduated in industrial design from RMIT and worked for two years as a graphic designer before training as an art teacher and then teaching in an Aboriginal school in Alice Springs for 10 years. There he made formative connections and the genesis of his style can be traced back to the years he spent in Central Australia. He regards this as one of the most influential periods of his life, as a teacher, artist and person. “I learned then from my students and their families and continue to learn now from the elders and traditional owners to stop, listen and observe. My last exhibition ‘Paintings from the Gibson Desert’ was as much about the music of the desert as it was about images, and I credit my Indigenous teachers for that creative awakening and awareness. I regard many Indigenous paintings as works of great scholarship. While I will never fully understand the culture they spring from, I can learn from them about connection to country, and try to express my own experiences of connection to the land,” he said. Carpe Diem has become known to mean, seize the day, thanks largely to the film Dead Poets’ Society. Alan and wife Joy continue to seize the day themselves, having lived in Europe and explored Central Australia on many occasions. Putting together this exhibition, with 32 pieces, and setting it in the Old Beechworth Gaol is another big undertaking for Alan. “It’s a huge amount of work but we are really lucky to have such a space for exhibitions in the region, so I wanted to use it. I wanted to seize the opportunity which also helps promote what the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship (ACRE) have planned for youth in our area and what the town’s people did by buying the gaol collectively. They seized the day,” he said. The exhibition is about the events and rituals that precipitated historic actions and the consequences of these. “Much of the material comes from my visual diaries that I have maintained since 1977 and others have been constructed using materials gathered from cities and places throughout the world where significant events occurred. It highlights how Carpe Diem has been interpreted from artistic endeavour to immoral gain,” Alan said. “The role of the artist continues to change, grow and expand. It remains an incredibly important part of society. Art is a powerful medium not only to record momentous events but to bring issues to light in society, encouraging discussion and conversations.” Works in Carpe Diem - Collages come with plain English explanations of the history and characters involved. In one piece, What do we worship? (The Hierophant), Alan tackles those of his peers who present ‘artworks and incomprehensible explanations’. “In the mid 1990s, after visits to contemporary art galleries, I kept coming back to the question: why does contemporary art cloak itself in language and images that are alien to the viewer? So, this piece is my challenge to ask, what do we worship and why?” Alan said. Carpe Diem – Collages will open on Friday, 14 September at 6pm in the Old Beechworth Gaol, Beechworth. It will then run from 10am to 2pm daily until 24 September. Old Beechworth Gaol tours operate daily at 11am.
FIFTH GENERATION / Colin’s daughters (from left) Julie and Jane Campbell, are proud to keep the family tradition going.
NEW ERA / A cellar door tasting and sales area was constructed in 1972.
CONSISTENCY / The now iconic Bobbie Burns Shiraz was launched in 1970.