The vines that bind
The Burge family dynasty has endured six generations to prove that adaptability equals success in an ever-changing industry.
Published Selector Autumn 2012
When John Burge arrived in the Barossa in 1855 he was 44 years old, which would turn out to be exactly halfway through his life. Having come from England’s industrial north where, as a tailor, he’d sold footmen’s uniforms to Queen Victoria’s court, John Burge couldn’t have been facing a more different second innings.
With his wife Eliza and young sons Meshach and Henry, John had emigrated to Lyndoch to help his parents-in-law make wine on their 320-acre property, Hillside Vineyards.
Embarking on the challenge of growing grapes and crafting a palatable end product, John Burge was drawing on the scant knowledge of winemaking he’d garnered through trips to the wine regions of France.
Add to that the unrelenting Australian sun beating down on his vulnerable English skin and you had a man up against it, a man who would never have believed that five generations later, the Burge name would become one of Australia’s most successful wine dynasties.
The man at the Burge helm today is Grant, whose company, Grant Burge Wines, has a vast presence throughout the Barossa including 300 hectares of vineyards and a big new cellar door complex on the verge of opening.
While much of the success of Grant Burge Wines is thanks to Grant’s hard graft and business savvy, he takes great pride in the heritage of his family name. “I am a romantic, and I have a real sense of my family history, of my father and grandfather and what they achieved.”
It was therefore with great pleasure that Grant welcomed Selector to his Barossa home to talk through the history of the Burge dynasty.
Once John Burge and his family were established, Eliza’s parents sold them 40 acres to start their own farm. On this property they grew wheat and raised sheep but also continued down the path of viticulture.
By this stage Meshach and Henry were old enough to help their father and, as Grant explains, they’d had an early introduction to tending vines. “On the voyage from England to South Australia bad weather forced their ship into Cape Town for a couple of weeks. A lot of rootlings were taken on in Cape Town and Meshach and Henry’s job was to water them. They’d collect the water in sails if there had been any rain, then run it into a barrel. That way they kept the vines alive on deck.”
After helping to make their father’s farm a success, Meshach and Henry bought their own properties around Lyndoch. While both had experience in winemaking, Grant says it wasn’t their mainstay. “Meshach, my great-grandfather, definitely made wine because one of his sheds had fermenting tanks. We suspect he might have made a little bit of wine for himself and friends, but it wasn’t really a big part of his commercial enterprise; farming and grape growing were more so.”
As if farming wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Meshach also served on the formative Barossa District Council, helped build the Lyndoch Holy Trinity Church, was a committee member of the first Angaston Railway Scheme and fathered eight children.
Of his brood it was eldest son Percival (Percy) who carried on the family tradition of grape-growing. From a patch of land just down the road from his father’s, Percy sold grapes to local wineries until 1928 when the Depression stymied his success.
With plenty of quality fruit at his disposal, Percy decided to start making wine and set up his own business, Wilsford Wines.
But, Grant explains, “He ran into strife because all of the big companies had contracts with the hotels so he was locked out. Not to be outdone, he thought, ‘blow that, I’ll buy a hawker’s licence’ and he went around selling door to door. In the 30s he built up quite a big business and by the 50s had about five trucks delivering wine all over South Australia.”
By this stage, Percy’s sons, Noel and Colin, were ready to join the company, with Noel one of the first to graduate from Roseworthy. As equal shareholders, Noel and Colin ran the business, based on fortified wines, until the mid 1980s.
Wilsford was a place of family involvement and Noel and Colin’s wives took an active role in the running of the business. This meant that as a child, Grant lived at the winery.
As he remembers, “Even when I was two years old I was in the winery playing while my mother was bottling. When I got train sets I’d set them up in the winery; it was my playground. When I got a bit older I used to roar home from school so I could get out to the pickers, then drive the tractor back.”
A future decided
Unsurprisingly, Grant says he always wanted to be a winemaker. While the natural progression would have been for him to join Wilsford, Grant’s mother had other ideas. “My mother wouldn’t allow me to join the family firm because she could see I’d try to turn the place upside down and that was just going to cause a huge conflict. She wanted me to do my own thing.”
As a result, after Roseworthy, Grant went to McLaren Vale where he worked for Southern Vales Co-operative. While, he says, it “wasn’t all that sexy”, Grant credits his experience there with giving him a solid start. “It was an incredibly good place to learn and anyone who showed ability got promoted. I started as a lab boy and within three or four years I was making wine.”
It was also at Southern Vales that Grant met fellow winemaker Ian Wilson with whom he went on to have a very successful business relationship.
During the mid 70s things started going backwards for Southern Vales so Grant and Ian saw it as the ideal time to go out on their own. With their company, South Australian Vintners, they took advantage of the market transition from fortifieds to table wines and were able to secure a large customer base.
Initially they only made red wines, using facilities at Ingleby Wines in McLaren Vale, but the market was soon calling for whites. The problem was finding a winery to make them.
Thanks to a connection at his cricket club, Grant was offered the opportunity to make their whites at the Krondorf winery in the Barossa and they gladly took it up. A few years later Krondorf came on the market and with the backing of businessmen from Pioneer Homes, Ian and Grant jumped at the chance.
With plenty of eager customers, the duo had no problem growing the business. As Grant recalls, “We had phenomenal sales: we sold 10,000 cases the first year, reaching 160,000 just a couple of years later. So by about 1983 the working capital requirements were horrendous and we needed to raise a heap of capital. We decided to go public and raised $8 million.”
A new direction
The thing with going public though, as Grant came to realise, is, “It’s either successful in making you money or you’re successful in getting taken over.” Much to Grant’s disappointment it was the latter, with Mildara taking the reins in 1986.
However, life’s let-downs often provide the impetus for change and the takeover gave Grant and his wife Helen the push they needed to start Grant Burge Wines in 1988.
Then, 11 years later, at a time when they needed to expand their facilities, the opportunity arose to buy back Krondorf. Grant managed to secure the Barossa winery and today it’s to become the site of their new expanded cellar door complex incorporating a café and private tasting and function areas.
Having steered his company on the Australian wine industry rollercoaster, Grant Burge remains hands-on. While passion for his product spurs him on, he also isn’t afraid of the tough times.
“I’m pig-headed to the point where I’ve just forced myself to learn ways of actually making it work.”
Another motivator has been his three children. While eldest son Toby has worked his way up to be vineyard manager, daughter Amelia and youngest son Trent are undecided about where their futures lie. While he’d love to see the Burge name continue, Grant has always told his children, “As much as I’d be disappointed if you’re not interested, you have to be passionate about your business. I don’t want you to do it to make me happy because you’ll never be any good at it.”
Whatever happens with Grant Burge Wines, the Burge name, starting with the pioneering John, has made an indelible impression on the landscape of the Barossa.