Without Brown Bros there may not be a King Valley wine industry today. A seeming permanence on the landscape since 1889, sheer size, wide consumer recognition, an early acceptance of new grape-growing ventures in the south of the valley and apparent prosperity made them the biggest player in the region and keeps them well ahead of competitors in size and public recognition.
Amongst consumers, Brown Bros is one of the most widely recognised wine brands of all. It is also one of only a few wineries established in the nineteenth century to prosper and survive into the 1990s still under family control.
Where the Hardy, Penfold, Seppelt, Lindeman, Gramp, Morris and Tulloch families lost control of their businesses the Browns, along with McWilliams and Tyrrells not only survived the long haul but remained significant mainstream players as well, although each remained intact into the 1990s by a different route.
Until recent times, Brown Bros was a diverse farming operation. Wine making was a major, but not sole focus of the business.
Chief Viticulturist , Mark Walpole, says he joined Brown Bros as a farm manager, but as wine making became the core activity of the family, he concentrated increasingly on vineyard management, learning the trade from Dr Jim Hardy, hands on work and international vineyard tours.
These days, he says, the family farms are leased to allow a one hundred per cent focus on wine making, based on vineyards in the King Valley, Rutherglen and on the Murray River, near Swan Hill.
Like other wineries, the focus is moving rapidly towards the premium end of the market. Over the last few decades, says wine maker Rob Scapin, production has been fairly evenly split between cask and bottles.
Now, all growth is in bottled wine and Scapin says the cask may not exist in another seven years. By that time production will have grown to around 18,000 grape tonnes a year (about 1.3 million dozen bottles) split fairly evenly between whites and reds with a smaller portion given to fortified wines.
By then, Brown Bros hopes to be exporting fifty per cent of its bottled-wine output, double the current level of 25 per cent.
Brown Bros see the trialing of new and different grape varieties as important to its future.
Scapin says the company crushed forty three different wine-grape varieties in 1997 and many of these were bottled separately for tasting and sale through the cellar door facility — one of the biggest in Australia and symbolic of the Browns’ unique approach to wine marketing.
The Browns are now, and for as long as I can remember, have been more concerned with what the drinker wants than with what critics, retailers or show judges think of their wines.
During the seventies and eighties — an era of perennial wine overproduction and subsequent producer-led discounting in Australia — the Browns steadily built a following for their brands by marketing an image direct to the public.
They were almost alone amongst wine producers in driving their own demand rather than relying on the retail trade to create interest through discounting.
They did much of the spade work at cellar door. With Melbourne just a few hours drive away from Milawa, the Hume highway just twenty minutes away and being on the road to the Victorian snowfields, Brown Bros direct sales boomed.
However, cellar door success came not just through location but through a consistent effort to find what the drinker wanted and then providing it.
Brown Bros became the champion of new grape varieties. With the CSIRO they developed tarrango — a new red-grape variety that thrived on the warm Murray and made fruity, soft, easy drinking wines.
It was first sold at cellar door in the seventies. Success there led to increased planting and production. It is now the company’s biggest selling red wine — selling more in the UK than at home.
More recently, the Italian variety, Barbera, made a successful debut at cellar door. Production is now on the increase, and thirteen hectares have been planted at the new Banksdale vineyard on a volcanic ridge in the south west of the King Valley.
Dolcetto seems set to get a guernsey, too, and the Brown Bros don’t give a hoot if the critics scoff. Instead of the traditional Italian dry style Browns have made an extremely sweet red wine. Why? Because cellar door trials showed that significant numbers of cellar door customers wanted a fruity, sweet red without bubbles — something more prestigious sounding and more expensive that Lambrusco.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007