North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Anita Mcpher­son pho­tos Marc Bongers

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.

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