Have gone from being a penniless Czech refugee to owner of a $75 million company, Josef Chromy could have rested on his laurels. Instead, he turned his attention to making wines and put cool climate Tasmanian wines on the map. By June Lee
Josef Chromy of Josef Chromy Wines
There are few stories as riveting as that of plucky Josef Chromy, now 88, and no less a maverick than when he escaped his Soviet-occupied hometown. Although Pepik Chromy (Pepik is a diminutive of the name Joseph in Czech) had suffered a stroke in 2005, affecting his speech and handwriting, he's since undertaken intensive therapy and recovered substantially. His meticulous personality trait shines through in all his answers, especially when he divulges his decision making. “I was not sure at first whether it was a good idea to name a new wine business after myself if I were to decide to sell the business one day. My team convinced me, however, that my life story and contribution to the Tasmanian wine industry were unique and encouraged me to use my name,” he quips.
BORN FOR BUSINESS
Born in 1930 in Žďár, Czechoslovakia, 20-year-old Chromy made a risky run from the Russian occupation and got himself to Tasmania to start a new life. He rose through many hardships, going from an asbestos worker to butcher hand, to starting the Blue Ribbon Meat Products company, which turned over AUD75 million by 1992. At 64 years old, Chromy spotted another gap in the market. He says, “In 1994, I saw the Tasmanian wine industry as very similar to the meat industry in that it was undergoing rationalisation where many participants were undercapitalised and unable to achieve the economies of scale necessary to take full advantage of winemaking. I had 37 years of experience in creating scale, quality, yield and new markets and I did not want to waste it.” Through the JAC Group (Josef and Alida Chromy), he bought three established but struggling wineries: Heemskerk (Janz), Rochecombe and Buchanan vineyards. In 1998, he also built, from the ground up, Tamar Ridge, a cuttingedge vineyard at Kayena which used Dr Richard Smart's Scott Henry trellising, and quickly became the most successful winery in Tasmania. By 2003, he had sold off all his other wineries and bought Glenwood Vineyard, with 61 hectares of vines in Relbia, and this was to become Josef Chromy Vineyard, Winery and Restaurant/ Cellar Door.
DOING IT HIS WAY
“The most important lesson in achieving the wine style you want is to plant the grape varieties and pursue the wine styles best suited to your vineyard. Then use traditional techniques with the assistance of modern technology to produce ‘world class’ wines at good value to achieve a commercial return,” encapsulates Chromy. He's been collecting wines since the 1970s, and his own cellar of 1,500 wines comprises 95 percent Tasmanian wine. It includes Pipers Brook Rieslings 1986 to 1992, Tamar Ridge Pinot Noirs 1999 to 2002, Jansz Sparklings 1991 to 1993, and Arras Late Disgorged Ed Carr Sparklings 1998 to 1999.
Jeremy Dineen, who was approached by Chromy and his grandson Dean to join fulltime in 2005, concurs on Tasmania's unique positioning. “We have a much longer and cooler ripening season that allows for the gradual accumulation of delicate flavours with the retention of natural acidity necessary for structure and ageing. The conditions are better suited for growing exceptional sparkling grapes than anywhere else in Australia so there is a large emphasis on traditional method sparkling as well as Pinot Noir and aromatic whites, very different to the full-bodied red wines that Australia is probably best known for,” he expounds.
Chromy immersed himself into the process, to the extent of co-developing a pneumatic Smart Plunger. Dineen says, “During the fermentation of red wines, the skins need to be submerged into the liquid to extract colour, tannin and flavour. With Pinot Noir it is important to do this in a gentle fashion via pigéage or treading on the grapes with your feet. Joe was involved in developing the original Smart Plunger, essentially automated foot, at his previous wineries and we have improved on the design so it is fully automated and can be programmed to operate without supervision.”
Chromy's wide-ranging palate can lead to interesting collaborations, such as when he invited Czech winemaker Ondrej Vesely to produce the Josef Chromy ‘OV’ Riesling 2011 in his own style. “If you drink different wine varieties regularly and begin to appreciate how they develop over time then you are on your way to becoming a wine connoisseur. I am intuitive when tasting wine but still focus on colour, nose, palate, texture and finish. I particularly enjoy Rhine Rieslings. On a business trip to Germany in the late 1970s, I purchased 150 dozen of various estates. I drank those wines for the next 25 years and found it very interesting how the wines developed over time,” he recounts.
While Dineen tends to the winery's self-sufficiency and initiatives, such as a water treatment system to recycle waste water and installation of 100kw of solar generation on the winery roof, Chromy continues to do what he does best – JAC Group has diversified to now include wine production, tourism and property development at Mt. Pleasant, Hawley, Shearwater, Latrobe and Kingston.
Visitors to Launceston are sure to notice award-winning developments like the old Launceston Hospital building, which is now a 99-room hotel and mixed-use development. He's also gratified that his winery is winning awards that confirm his belief that Tasmanian wine is world class. This is further enhanced by running events like Effervescence Tasmania which has been described as one of the best sparkling wine festivals in the world and is focused purely on Tasmanian sparkling wine – something unheard of 15 years ago. Most important to Pepik Chromy is that these projects give back to Tasmania by employing local people and bringing recognition.
Perhaps his Facebook post on the Humans of Launceston page sums it all. “Over 67 years ago I came here with nothing but hope and ambition. Tasmanians welcomed me and with their help, I have been rewarded for the challenges and risks I have taken.”