Rothbury Estate — part one of two: the Len Evans’ years

In 1996, Foster’s-owned Mildara Blass acquired Rothbury Estate, just four years after it went public.

Foster’s advances had not been welcomed by Rothbury Chairman, Len Evans. Many small shareholders shared Len’s wariness. With a soft spot for Len’s exuberance and fond memories of the wine-loving origins of the venture, they wondered where the hostile takeover might take Rothbury.

Would it become just another brand to sit alongside Wolf Blass, Yellowglen and Jamieson’s Run in the Mildara Blass portfolio? Would production of the small-volume, idiosyncratic Hunter wines continue? Would the popular mail-order wine club continue?

Indeed, Rothbury Estate’s history and personality were so strongly linked to Len, it seemed hard to imagine a Rothbury — let alone a better Rothbury (and that’s what’s emerging) — without him.

Len seemed to combine a romantic view and love of wine with hard-nosed, pragmatic entrepreneurial skills. As a founding father of Rothbury, Len watched his baby crawl, totter, stumble, walk and grow.

From being a Lower-Hunter specialist in 1968 Rothbury became a non-listed public company
in 1974, shifted its focus from the Hunter to Cowra in purchasing a large chardonnay vineyard there in 1981 and, after a public float in 1992, became the centrepiece of an operation including Baileys and St Hubert’s wineries in Victoria.

Prior to the float, St Hubert’s and Bailey’s belonged to the Goodman Fielder Wattie Group. When Rothbury purchased these two wineries, GFW Ingredients, a subsidiary of Goodman Fielder Wattie, acquired 19.7 per cent of the new company, making it the largest shareholder. Len Evans remained the second biggest holder with a 15 per cent stake, and another founding father, Daniel Chen, was the third biggest with 11.3 per cent.

From Rothbury’s 11 founding investors in 1968, Len Evans assumed the role of marketing director, while Murray Tyrrell looked after the vineyards. The company planted about 340 hectares, all in the lower Hunter. Gerry Sissingh made the wines. But only those passing muster with the selection panel — Len Evans, Rudy Komon, Gerry Sissingh, and Murray Tyrrell — emerged under the Rothbury label.

Rothbury’s initial production was predominantly red, a direction dictated by a short boom in red-wine drinking in the late sixties. Unfortunately for Rothbury, consumer preferences moved quickly to whites, putting the unprepared company under severe financial pressure.

Rothbury’s bacon was saved by a controversial 1981 board decision to buy an established vineyard in Cowra. It allowed Rothbury to meet an exploding demand for good-quality but inexpensive chardonnays.

It turned out that the wine-buying public was little interested in the lower Hunter’s great specialties, shiraz and semillon, varieties making up the majority of Rothbury’s Hunter plantings. Len Evans takes the credit for seeing where demand lay and persuading the board to grab Cowra.

The Cowra vineyard had been established by Tony Grey in 1972. It proved an ideal location. By the Lachlan River in central Western N.S.W. in a benign climate with plenty of water, it quickly and efficiently produced biggish crops of high-quality grapes. Evans recognised the quality early.

He was instrumental in sourcing Cowra grapes for Petaluma Chardonnay from the first vintage in 1977 until the vineyard’s acquisition by Rothbury in 1981. At the time of the purchase, Cowra was planted to a number of varieties including 12 hectares of chardonnay.

In that year Rothbury made just one thousand cases of its first Cowra chardonnay. Production increased steadily as more chardonnay went in and other varieties were pulled out. Forty two thousand cases were made in 1990, by the mid nineties production was running at about sixty thousand cases a year.

Rothbury’s production turned even more to whites with the acquisition in 1988 of Denman Estate’s vineyards in the upper Hunter. Then as tasted swung back to reds again in the nineties, Mudgee shiraz and cabernet became important.

By the mid nineties Rothbury’s Hunter plantings were down to just 63 hectares producing around 500 tonnes in good years. That was only 10 per cent of the group’s total crush, reflecting just how far from commercial reality the original Hunter dream had been.

Some might say the dream evaporated completely with the arrival of Mildara Blass in 1996. Heads rolled. And, shock horror, the flagship Hunter Reserve Shiraz was slaughtered — falling from around $30 to $15 a bottle in Sydney and Canberra retail outlets.

In fact, the old vision has been replaced by a new one. In some respects it’s more hard nosed than the old one. But, ironically, the dream of making great Hunter wines probably has more chance of succeeding under the new regime than it did under the old. That’s next week’s story.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007