MAKING HER MARK
At Billy Button Wines, Jo Marsh is creating varietal wines showcasing the region’s premium fruit.
IF there were more hours in the day, Billy Button Wines’ Joanna Marsh would find a way to fill them. The Porepunkah-based winemaker is not short on ideas; inspired, excited and passionate about new grape varieties and the different ways she could apply her inordinate skills to them. So it’s interesting and maybe somewhat unusual in this region, that it wasn’t necessarily a field she was born to pursue.
Jo grew up south of Adelaide and her interest in winemaking began while studying in South Australia. She was in her second year of a chemical engineering and science degree at Adelaide University when she found herself feeling a little bored, coming to terms with where it would lead, and deciding it wasn’t a trajectory she wanted to be on. One day in a tutorial she began chatting with a fellow student who was planning to work in the wine industry and that’s when the penny dropped.
“It got me thinking about wine and on the bus ride home I thought, that sounds like a better industry,” she said.
“At the time I didn’t even drink wine, but my mum enjoyed it, so the next day I pulled out of engineering and switched to wine making. It’s one of those decisions I made very quickly and it seems to have worked out well for me.”
That’s an understatement, but while today Jo exudes an innate understanding of wine and the winemaking industry, it didn’t happen instantly. She admits to feeling quite out of her depth for a while.
“Not too many people decide to become winemakers straight out of school, so the ones that were, were generally either from winemaking families or mature age students with experience,” she said.
“I had very little knowledge of the industry compared to a lot of other people and it took me a long time - but the love of wine came quite quickly after going to a lot of tastings. But it was a bit intimidating for a while - I must admit.”
Jo says she was probably the only student in the class at the time that didn’t drink wine so she decided to apply herself, tasting as part of her studies and joining the campus wine club. Now she is a highly respected judge using her finely honed expertise to assess wines at shows right across the country, including the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards and the Sydney Royal Wine Show, but back then, at her very first Riesling tasting, she admits all she could say was ‘it smelled like white wine’. >>
“After going to a few of those you start noticing little differences between them - every time you learn a little bit more and develop your palate,” she said.
“I ended up winning the (R.H. Martin Memorial) prize for sensory evaluation at university.”
Jo says her mum wasn’t surprised she turned out to be a winemaker, because growing up she always had an acute sense of smell and didn’t like it when her mum wore perfume in the car. She says while a lot of people may think being a wine judge and trying lots of wines is fun and a bit of a junket, it couldn’t be further from the truth. “It’s actually the hardest thing I do,” she said. “It takes so much concentration and focus - I actually really enjoy just drinking wine and not having to assess it. When you have to do it properly, and you may be doing 120 wines a day, you have to give each one your full attention and it’s actually really exhausting - far more so than physical work in the winery.”
After university Jo secured one of two positions offered each year in the then Southcorp Wines graduate program, which was aimed at continuing the successful candidates’ education in the industry. Over the next two years she undertook an intense type of cadetship, moving to different sites around the corporation’s considerable portfolio, starting at Penfolds in the Barossa and spending time at Seppeltsfield, Rosemount in the Hunter Valley and Lindeman’s in Sunraysia. She said it gave her an excellent grounding in the industry.
“You come out of university after four years and you know nothing - it’s like you have to start again,” she said.
“You have your degree and you know the science behind it, which you need to know, but you also need the experience and the feel - it takes quite a few years to become a real winemaker. I got to see a lot of different things and also experience a large scale operation - Lindeman’s were doing about 80,000 tonnes.”
In 2003 she took up a position as assistant winemaker at Seppelt Great Western, a “small winery producing five or six thousand tonnes” and over eight years worked her way up to become senior winemaker. There were also vintage stints at Beringer Wines in the Napa Valley and Frederic Magnien in Burgundy. In 2009 Jo won the Graham Thorp Memorial Scholarship as winemaker for Best Sparkling Wine at the Sydney Royal Wine Show and for the 2005 Seppelt Salinger, and in 2011 she won the Member’s Choice and Sommelier’s Choice at the Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year awards.
But she was beginning to grow frustrated with the constraints of working in big business and dealing with the hierarchy and politics that came with it. She just wanted to be free to make wine and was in need of a break. It was then a call came through from Janelle Boynton at Feathertop Wines, referred by a mutual friend, who was looking for a winemaker. Jo came over to have her first real look at North East Victoria, drove around and was blown away by it.
“I didn’t know much about the region - we used to source a lot of fruit from the Alpine Valley but I’d never been to see it,” she said.
“It’s interesting because a lot my growers now, were growers who supplied Seppelt, but I’d never met them or seen their vineyards, so it’s kind of come full circle. Pretty much straight away I knew it was going to work.”
Jo took up the position at Feathertop Wines, which though only producing 150 tonnes of wine a year, was considered one of the bigger players in the region. She’d transitioned from corporate winemaking to family winemaking - going from spending most of her time behind the tasting bench and computer - to literally getting hands-on. While it was another learning curve it was just what she was looking for, free from the restrictive processes and protocols of big business but empowered by the experience, she was able to make decisions and get things done.
“There’s the romance of winemaking, of wanting to do everything perfectly, but that’s not the reality out there,” she said.
“The truth is it’s about logistics - you’ve got to get a certain amount of fruit in, in a certain amount of time and it can be quite an exercise to make it work.”
Within two weeks of arriving at Feathertop, Jo attended her first meeting of the Alpine Valley Vignerons, where she was given the responsibility of running the local wine show - a task she still performs today. She started meeting and socialising with other growers and producers and found they were a close, welcoming and cooperative group. They also happened to be growing great quality fruit they were struggling to sell.
“The Alpine Valley is not a really well known region, and it was such a shame seeing this amazing fruit not being picked and I thought about what I could do to help get this region a bit of attention,” she said.
“I came to the conclusion the best way to do it was to make my own brand, to make wines as best as I could, and get them out there.”
Jo decided to start her own business and Billy Button Wines was conceived. She already had the connection to the growers to source the fruit she wanted, and at the same time she took on making their wines to help them improve the quality. Jo says on a personal level she also felt immediately at home when she came to the region, deciding to buy a block of land and build a house only six weeks after arriving.
“I think it’s partially because so many people have chosen to move here to live here, so they’re very welcoming of new people, both in the community and in the wine industry,” she said.
“And of course it’s so beautiful - I knew straight away it was where I wanted to stay and start my own business.”
Jo says her experiences at Southcorp and at Feathertop have been invaluable since deciding to go it alone with Billy Button Wines, where she is winemaker, accountant, marketing manager and more. The name was suggested by her aunt and comes from the common descriptor for the Craspedia, a daisy-like plant which is native to the region and grows in abundance on the Alpine peaks. It also lent itself symbolically to the friendly and accessible brand she was trying to create. Another reason Jo was attracted to the Alpine Valley was the different grape varieties grown there. At Seppelts, 95 per cent of her winemaking involved Shiraz, Chardonnay and Riesling, in contrast to Feathertop’s extensive range of alternative varieties. During the first year of Billy Button, she planned to make six wines - three whites and three reds - but ended up making 10.
“I have a problem with saying no - and I’d stumbled across some more interesting parcels,” she laughs. >>
“In my second year it became 19 - and now it’s 23 - but it has become the focus and success of my brand - making other varieties that are quite rare in Australia that many people haven’t tried before.”
Jo says offering that variety has helped make her now two year old cellar door in Bright a success - a place where people looking to explore can come and try new things. She says not actually growing her own fruit isn’t a limitation as there is “more than enough fantastic fruit” being produced by already established growers who’ve recently been diversifying.
“I think maybe 10 or 15 years ago people weren’t as open to trying new things as they are now, so I came along at the right time,” she said.
“I’m now working with some of those growers on what other varieties are out there, new to Australia and working well, so we can stay at the forefront - the cutting edge - which is what the brand is known for. I’ll give anything a go once but it has to be good enough and interesting enough to keep going with, and so far they’ve all been interesting enough so I haven’t dropped any yet.”
At the moment Jo is enjoying making Friulano - an Italian variety she says is challenging to grow and took she, and grower Michael Dalbosco, five years to perfect - but it is “a super interesting wine”. She’s also enjoying making the red varieties Refosco and Schioppettino, rare both here and back in their Italian homeland, and Jo believes she is the first to have released Schioppettino in Australia. Juggling the winemaking responsibilities involved in such an extensive range, in addition to the 10 other growers she makes wine for, is a daunting task with over 100 separate parcels on the go this year. When it comes to drinking, Billy Button is understandably the house wine, but she also swaps with other winemakers and particularly enjoys Riesling and Tempranillo. Jo still enjoys judging but has reduced her commitment to three or four shows a year so she can spend more time on her own business. She also continues to organise the North East Victorian Wine Challenge - a wine show which encompasses the Alpine Valley, Beechworth, Glenrowan, King Valley and Rutherglen regions.
“Judging is really important - for me it keeps your palate current, particularly in a smaller region,” she said.
“It’s really important to taste with other people and it’s also a great networking opportunity, so it’s good for me personally but also for the region. It’s through the contacts I’ve made that I first began selling my own wine in the cities.”
Jo’s own ability to be flexible and ‘embrace the new’ applies to the business which continues to develop, with plans for a ‘lower tier’ range of everyday drinking wines and a ‘premium tier’ created from what was an exceptional 2017 vintage. But she remains committed to small batch, hands-on winemaking to ensure there is no compromise on quality - something which is a signature of the brand. After four years of constant growth and a growing list of industry accolades, including being named in the top 50 Young Guns of Wine this year, she’s looking forward to a period of stability and time to breathe. She credits “an amazing crew” of around seven full and part-time employees for helping make Billy Button a success, with the addition of the cellar door and the development of a wine club providing some financial stability. But there are also plenty of side projects on the go, like a joint release with winemaking friends, a release of Tasmanian wines in partnership with Jo’s winemaker husband Glenn James, and a new wine and gin spirit creation. There may even be time for a holiday now and then.
“It’s been a lot of hard work over the past few years but it’s now come to fruition and becoming sustainable,” she said.
“I like things that challenge me and are interesting - I’m always looking for things that fit those parameters.”
At Billy Button Wines, Jo Marsh is working with growers to create varietal wines which showcase the region’s premium fruit.
TEAMWORK / Best friends labrador Cannubi and miniature pig, Thelma, enjoy helping Jo in the winery during vintage.
ALPINE DESIGN / The name Billy Button comes from the daisy- like plant which flourishes in the alps.
SHARED PASSION / Both winemakers, Jo Marsh and husband Glenn James ( left) are also working on side projects together.