The year is 1987 and budding stockbroker Mike Brown was working on the floor of the Sydney Stock Exchange. Having spent much of his time growing up in the country watching his father work farms it was a new world and Mike was loving it. The pace, the city, the nightlife – all were intoxicating. But unfortunately not for long. On the 19th of October, the market crashed and this country boy was out of a job. And while Mike did not know it he was about to begin a journey that would take him back to his country roots and to Gemtree Wines.
The Gemtree story though had been sown decades before and began with the purchase in 1966 of an Adelaide wine shop by Paul and Jill Buttery. Fourteen years later and well before Australian table wines had taken off they made the leap into vineyards, acquiring a property on Tatachilla Road in McLaren Vale in 1980. Paul also went on to found a vineyard management business – helping to establish and tend local properties. It gave him an ear to the ground and an eye on practices around the region. Soon enough when high quality new adjoining vineyards came onto the market he would snap them up, expanding the family’s area under vine.
But there was still no Gemtree wines. The Buttery family were happy to let their neighbours take the risks of developing new wine brands – they would simply sell fruit to the highest bidder. However the next generation were not so sure, with children Andrew and Melissa launching Gemtree in 1998, with a single Shiraz.
After Mike Brown’s brush with stockbroking he found himself working in a Sydney liquor store. And it was not long before he got a taste for the business and at this stage selling wine. In 1990 Mike enrolled in Roseworthy Agricultural College for a two years stint. Thereafter he launched himself into winemaking, and on the way worked for luminaries such as Warren Randall, Andrew Garrett and Chester Osborn, gaining knowledge from each of these very different experiences. In 1994 Mike met his soon to be wife Melissa Buttery, and was later the natural choice for Gemtree’s winemaker.
A seminal moment for Gemtree was the 2006 Great Shiraz Alliance tasting. Mike and Melissa tasted Shiraz from around the world, and were struck by a handful of wines – their character, power and brightness of fruit. One feature tied these wines together – biodynamic wine production – and Melissa’s reaction was immediate “We have to do this”. At the time some pioneers were experimenting with natural farming methods but it was far from common and it certainly took a little time for the Buttery clan to come around.
Melissa’s brother Andrew had returned from the corporate world in 1997 to launch Gemtree and was not happy. “You two are off the wall. If you screw this up, you’ll pay the difference. And don’t come back to me with any excuses”. One key feature of biodynamics is the lower fruit yields and production plus higher labour costs, which Andrew remained unconvinced could be covered by higher fruit quality and price. In addition, a family that had prided itself on strict vineyard management would now be going down a path whereby their own vineyards were encouraged to exist in a more unkempt, natural state without herbicides and pesticides, with natural grasses growing up and down what had traditionally been barren vineyard rows. That said, the changes was made and in 2006 30 percent of the vineyards were converted to biodynamic viticulture, which grew to full certification in 2011.
Since that time Gemtree has expanded its dedication to the natural environment with wastewater treatment plants and energy neutral status, due to a large solar panel array. Perhaps the greatest achievement has been the increase in local biodiversity gained by the creation of a natural 10-hectare wetland, surrounded by 50,000 native plants and trees.
Common wisdom would be to distance vineyards away from forested areas to avoid any predator issues. At Gemtree the vineyard is planted next to the wetland to encourage rather than discourage biodiversity. Since the wetland was created a common local moth pest has not again been a problem as it has provided a suitable habitat for the moth’s predators. Bad news for moths but good news for wine consumers in that while Gemtree is no doubt a leader in the wine trade for biodiversity and sustainability their wines are also exceptional and very well priced.
By Angus Hughson