Tim Adams buys Clare’s Leasingham Winery

It was all smiles and champers in Clare last weekend. The region’s biggest and one of its oldest wineries at last found a new owner prepared to buy local grapes, make and market wine and reopen the cellar door.

Leasingham’s previous owner, Constellation Wines Australia, a subsidiary of Constellation Brands USA, closed the winery in August 2009, sold three of its key vineyard, then in 2010 offered its winemaking equipment and winery-cellar door facility for sale.

Constellation retained the Leasingham brand. But its decision to abandon the winery deeply depressed the mood of the region. Leasingham had been the largest winery in the region since the 1890s. Its operations affected hundreds of families across the Clare Valley, especially those of independent grape growers.

At the time of Constellation’s decision, with winemaking assets already flooding the market and seemingly few buyers, locals feared the site, on the edge of Clare township, might be bulldozed for housing.

Constellation quickly found buyers for the Rogers, Dunns and Schoebers vineyards. Then in December last year they offered the winemaking equipment and winery-cellar building for sale separately.

Luckily for Clare and its grape growers, local winemaker Tim Adams and wife, Pam Goldsack, reached an agreement with Constellation to buy the winery as a going concern, provided most of the winemaking equipment remained in place. Constellation agreed, sold only a small part of the winemaking gear, and in December Tim Adams announced details of the sale, to be completed in January 2011. Adams confirmed that the price was “much less than replacement cost”.

Last Friday at noon, Adams and Goldsack settled on the deal, becoming Leasingham’s first private owners since America’s H.J. Heinz acquired it from the Knappstein family in 1971.

Adams aims to make it “a community winery” as it was during his apprenticeship to Mick Knappstein from 1975. He says, “I was Mick’s last apprentice – the last apprentice of the last private owner. He was a generous, community minded man. He loved making wine for all sorts of people to enjoy. He cared for the 130-odd growers, and hated it when Heinz cut back on buying. His wife Gela is over the moon about our news”.

Adams says the winery contains some of the best, most efficient winemaking equipment on the planet – enough to process up to 5,000 tonnes of grapes annually – equivalent to about 350 thousand dozen bottles. The winery has storage capacity of about 4.5 million litres.

Adams says he’ll focus mainly on Mr Mick, a new brand honouring his late mentor. But he’ll also offer a badly needed regional contract winemaking facility.

The local growers have been having a tough time, says Adams. But he expects Mr Mick, pitched at $12–$15 a bottle, with broad appeal across the retail and restaurant markets, to bring them back into the market. “These will be wines with a real story to them”, he says. He anticipates strong support from Coles and Woolworths, albeit with occasional discounts to $9.99 a bottle.

Eighteen months before buying Leasingham winery, Adams bought its 80-hectare Rogers Vineyard. Panted to shiraz, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, semillon, chardonnay and malbec, it was source of Leasingham’s once legendary Bin 56 cabernet malbec.

He’s been using these grapes in his own brand (made at the 1,500-tonne capacity Tim Adams winery). In future the vineyard will also supply the Mr Mick brand.

In fact, we can enjoy the first Mr Mick wines later this year – a 2010 riesling, from the Rogers vineyard, and three wines sourced from grower vineyards: 2010 pinot gris rosato (a dry rose style), 2009 cabernet shiraz and 2009 shiraz. These were all made at the Tim Adams winery.

Adams doesn’t plan to combine the two wineries as their functions are distinct – Tim Adams to make dozens of small batches for the premium end of the market, and the Mr Mick facility for bulk production.

He’ll reopen the Mr Mick cellar door and hopes also to offer Leasingham wines should the new owners of Constellation Wines agree to it. Meanwhile Constellations Brand USA announced in November plans to sell its Australian and UK wine divisions to a private equity company, Champ, for around $290 million. Constellation paid a little under $2 billion for the assets in 2003, joining a long line of large businesses exiting the Australian wine industry through the same hole they came in at – but notably poorer.

Tim Adams can’t save the name Leasingham. But he’l have saved the landmark facility, given hope to local growers and kept the Clare flame burning.

Leasingham timeline

1894 – Company founded by J.H. Knappstein and others

1895 – Opens for business in the old Clare Jam Factory

1900 or earlier – Making more wine than all other Clare wineries combined

1911 – J.H. Knappstein gains total control of the company

1971 – Knappstein family sells to H.J. Heinz

1988 – Thomas Hardy and Sons acquire the company

1992 – Thomas Hardy merges with the Berri-Renmano cooperative to become publicly listed BRL Hardy

2003 – Constellation Brands (USA) acquires BRL Hardy. Name changes to The Hardy Wine Company

2008 – The Hardy Wine Company becomes Constellation Wines Australia

2009 – Constellation Wines Australia closes Leasingham Winery and sells three vineyards but retains ownership of the Leasingham brand

2010 – Constellation offers Leasingham Winery and winemaking equipment for sale separately. Tim Adams and Pam Goldsack agree to buy winery and equipment as a going concern.

2011 – Tim Adams and Pam Goldsack settle on the winery and plan to launch a new Clare Valley wine range, Mr Mick, in honour of legendary winemaker Mick Knappstein. CHAMP equity buys 80 per cent stake in Constellation’s wine assets, including the Leasingham brand, changing the company name to Accolade


Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011