Wine maker John Ellis has turned his passion for cattle into a business
MANY around Hanging Rock reckon wine flows through John Ellis’ veins. Over three decades, he and his wife, Ann, have transformed a bare block into one of Australia’s best small wineries, producing award-winning cool-climate wines of exquisite depth and flavour.
So why, given his gift of the grape, has this guru of the fermented fluid suddenly turned his attention to cattle?
And not just any cattle, but a comparatively unknown Canadian white, black, grey spotted and patched breed from Saskatchewan called Speckle Park.
John, ever the passionate rural producer, puts it down to a simple urge, a desire to have a go at something different, maybe creating a new income stream while maintaining Hanging Rock Winery’s emphasis on prestigious wine.
“I have always hankered after cattle,” he admits, revealing that originally he studied veterinary science with the idea of becoming a vet before being sidetracked into viticulture.
“We have run cattle here from the beginning, from 30 years ago, but it was always about mowing lawn rather than doing something serious.”
And why Speckle Parks?
“We’ve got a lovely 250-acre (101-hectare) property here and the tasting notes for Speckle Park are a good match for our wines.”
Despite the apparent speed of the move, it’s something John and Ann and their children, Robert (general manager and chief wine maker) and Ruth (general manager and sales and marketing manager), confess they have been working toward for about eight years.
That’s from back when John and Ann, regular visitors to the Royal Melbourne Show, first set eyes on Speckle Park cattle.
“We always wondered if we ever did make the move, which breed would we go for?” John says. “We vacillated all over the place. We did Shorthorn and Angus and Hereford, we found British White and then we found Speckle Park.
“The story that the Speckle Park breeders were telling us was that it was special. It’s a Canadian breed that is now 30 years old. For 18 of the past 30 years, it has won the carcass section in the Calgary Stampede so as a breed it has great credentials.
“And the guys who were promoting the breed in Australia had done a fair bit of smart legwork. They had chefs Neil Perry and Tetsuya (Tetsuya Wakuda of Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s) endorsing the breed and they had signed up Emirates Airline to take all of the beef it could.
“They had it vertically integrated with the retail and the wholesale and the butchering and the slaughtering and the growing and the breeding.
“We were impressed with the story, so we struck up a friendship with one of the growers up in Holbrook and, urged on by my cousin from Benalla who’s got about 200 head of mostly Angus, we made a move.”
Initially it was just a bull. Next came a few Speckle Park crossbreds.
From barrels to prime beef
Then the Ellises got more serious. “We recognised that you can’t breed up to purebred,” John says. “You have to start with purebreds. So we said, ‘well, we’ve got a bull. How about we get into some purebreds as well. So Ruth and her husband bought five pure-bred heifers and I bought a cow with a calf and she has since had twin females so we got a pretty good buy. Now we’ve got quite a nice little breeding group.”
Late last year the family launched a modest operation, Hanging Rock Speckle Park Stud and Beef, based squarely on Speckle Park beef’s exceptional taste and tenderness. Available only at the Hanging Rock Winery cellar door in still extremely limited quantities, it’s being sold with the sort of tasting notes previously reserved for wine.
For CEO John, the foray into Speckle Park cattle came as the perfect opportunity to release the reins of Hanging Rock Winery a little more so Robert and Ruth could assume greater control.
“I used to be the full-time wine maker around here with the “lawn mowers” (cattle) out there just needing to be rounded up every six months, that sort of thing. It didn’t take a lot of time.
“Now Rob is the wine maker. I remember when I was his age I didn’t need anyone else looking over my shoulder. I needed to do my thing - and he’s a very talented wine maker so I support him totally.
“Yes, it is hard stepping back, but it’s much easier now that I have this cattle project. It’s all part of the rationale. We wanted to do something different and it gets me out of the winery and provides room for Rob and Ruth.
“So I’m now ‘Dad the farmer’, whose job it is to supply the meat.”
While so far there has been minimal Speckle Park beef released, John reports what they have “tasted off the barbecue and out of the oven has been phenomenally good”.
Why so special
Ruth says apart from their good looks, Speckle Park cattle are docile, easily moved and great foragers in hilly country.
“They will happily go up into the hills and graze among the trees, whereas not all breeds are that resilient,” Ruth says.
But it’s their tender, well-marbled meat that draws most praise. “The day that the first two (butchered) animals arrived we got all the staff together and we had a barbecue, a taste-off with different cuts and our reds,” Ruth says.
“It was just awesome. We decided that the fillet steak and pinot noir is the ultimate. And the eye fillet is so tender and juicy with quite an elegant flavour, whereas the porterhouse can handle our big Heathcote Shiraz.”
It’s this easy affinity with the company’s wines that Ruth, the family’s marketing brains, sees as the clincher in getting Speckle Park better known.
“People like to know what cuts they are eating,” she says, explaining their grass-fed animals are two-and-a-half years old when sold as meat and every piece comes with tasting notes and suggested wine matches.
“We are able to say to people, ‘here’s the cattle standing in the paddock - and here is the bottle of wine that goes with it’.
“With wine, people want to know more and more about it, yet with beef you’re lucky to know what sort of cut it is. Even in restaurants in Melbourne, they talk about how long it is hung but they never talk about how old the animal was. It’s very rare that you will get to eat two-and-a-half-year-olds. Most butchers won’t take them because they’re too big and too heavy.
“We were lucky we found an old-school butcher in Bendigo who would handle them for us. Your average beef carcass is about 170kg. Our last two weighed 340kg and 350kg each, so although we only have five head this first season, they’re more like 10.”
Another major selling point for Ruth is the lengths they go to ensure their cattle are as stress-free as possible. “You can have the happiest, most content animal on the planet but if, in those last 24 hours, it becomes really stressed out, or if it’s a beautiful grass-fed animal and it’s put in feedlots and being fed grain, it can really stuff things up.”
Moving in to the beef business created a steep learning curve for the family, admits Ruth. “We have always grown our own animals but to go from that to selling them is something else.
“And when the butcher says to you something like, ‘now, how would you like these 400kg cut up’, I wouldn’t have a clue ... I mean, what do people want to buy, how thick should the steaks be, how much should they weigh, which bits should be cut into steaks and which into roasts? I had no idea.”
Then came the panicky day when Ruth and her wine maker brother found themselves home alone just when a cow was about to calf. “We didn’t know what we were doing so we literally had to YouTube, ‘how to pull a calf’.
Likewise, finding an abattoir and a butcher able and prepared to handle a miniscule number of 350kg animals was challenging.
“That was the hardest task we had by a long stretch,” Ruth says. “You only find these things out once you are in the middle of everything. And if you don’t get it right that’s two-and-a-half years of work wasted.
“It’s really a lot like wine, in that you have to be thinking years in advance. You have just got to go with your gut and think ‘I’m not going to try to do this for commercial reasons but for what I think is going to give the best result’.”
This is a philosophy she learned from her parents. “We make a sparkling wine that spends 15 years on yeast lees. If this place was run by accountants it wouldn’t happen. But we happen to like really, really old sparkling wine.”
Cattle in the genes
While John Ellis set out in life to become a vet, it is wife Ann, from the Tyrell wine family, who claims the greatest cattle links.
Despite being a pioneer of the wine industry in the Hunter Valley, running Australia’s 20th biggest winery, Ann’s father, Murray Tyrell, always referred to himself as a cattle man.
“Eating this Speckle Park reminded me of my father,” says Ann. “He was quite a character and was always out counting his cattle ... and he refused to eat beef that was under two years old.”
HANGING ROCK SPECKLE PARK
Stud And Beef, Newham
Wine maker John Ellis, his wife, Ann, and children Robert and Ruth, run Hanging Rock Speckle Park Stud and Beef, centred on the 101-hectare “Jim Jim” property, home of the Hanging Rock Winery (about six hectares is under grapes) at Newham near Woodend.
Currently about 20 purebred and 40 cross-breed cattle are run at Hanging Rock, with a small number on properties owned by John and Ann’s children, Robert and Ruth, and a cousin in Benalla.
When the first season ended in February, the family had produced just five half-breed Speckle Park cattle for meat sales. It’s hoped this will rise to 10 next season, with progressively more and more three-quarter breed animals being offered.
Animals are processed when two-and-a-half years old at Hardwick’s abattoir in nearby Kyneton and butchered in Bendigo.
Beef is sold via the cellar door at Hanging Rock Winery.
Speckle Park beef is sold in cryovac packs, typically as steaks, roasts and sausages, with a fillet steak costing about $15.
The Ellis family hopes it might one day produce enough Speckle Park beef to supply local restaurants but doesn’t expect to produce enough to supply wholesale or export markets.
THREE DECADES IN WINE
Earlier this year, the Ellis family celebrated 30 years as wine makers. It was an occasion for much celebrating, yarning and laughter and, for John, an opportunity to look back at the highs and lows of an amazing business and to share some advice.
John on a thirty-year celebration:
There’s a lot of pride. When we bought this place it was just a bare paddock. It had no fences ... just a mixture of kangaroos, wild horses, wombats, echidnas and a few koalas. Nothing else ... no roads, no fences, no telephone, no electricity, no buildings, no grapevines - none of that. So in 30 years we can tangibly see what we have achieved and there’s a lot of pride in that.
His best and worst decisions:
At one point we consciously decided we didn’t want to work for anyone else. It was the best decision but it was also the worst really, because it coincided precisely with the share market crash in 1987. We bought this property and realised we had to get outsider funds to create the core business. We had that all lined up when the share market crashed. We ended up in a whole stack of debt and have been wallowing in that ever since. But we’re climbing our way out of it slowly.
The rocky wine road:
As an industry to work in and succeed in, it is a struggle, particularly the past six or seven years that have been awful with oversupply keeping prices depressed. That’s testing everybody’s bottom line and their ability to go on funding their business. We have been up and down in models of size and scope with our products. We have now settled on a smaller model with nine employees instead of 25, with a $2 million turnover instead of $5 million. That’s working a lot better.
Chinese wine market (about a third of their wine goes to China):
One of the issues with the Chinese is that they have no issue with drinking. We have an anti-alcohol lobby in Australia. But they have a culture of drinking. It’s about celebrating. And they have been drinking this incredible stuff. They call it white wine, but it’s actually rice spirit and it’s 50 per cent alcohol and it’s rocket fuel. I really don’t enjoy it at all. So it’s pretty easy to transit them from that to something that’s much better.
Starting a new farm venture:
Either you have the capital to do it or you don’t really. The best advice is that if you rely on borrowed money, (be aware) the next thing could be the interest rate. (It could be) 22 per cent or something like that.
And if you have to find a partner to help you achieve that aim, be very careful about who your partner is. We’ve had the best and the worst partners.
Handing over company reins:
I have put pressure on Rob and Ruth to come up with the plans, all the budgeting and things that you have to do in business. Otherwise you’re flying by the seat of your pants and that’s very dangerous. I’d love to see a space where either Ruth or Rob could go away and do an MBA and come back with more (knowledge) than I’ve got. That’s what Rob has done as a wine maker. He has come back into the business with more than I had to offer. Working around the world in other wineries and having a pretty clear picture of what he wants to do. I’ve never had the experience Ruthie’s had in sales and marketing. I’ve had Annie instead and she’s a natural at that.
Nearly going broke:
We were at the point where I had to get advice as to whether I was solvent or not. That’s how close it was. The answer was, ‘well, as long as the people you’re owing money to are happy not to be paid now, you’re still solvent. So go talk to them. And it mustn’t get any worse’. I had to do that twice in the life of the winery. And both times we put ourselves into virtual administration - but we were the administrators. And that meant we weren’t paying anyone to be the administrator. And we came out the other end of that.
Business and family:
What we’re really celebrating after 30 years is that we have created an ongoing formula and it’s about our family. That’s the best bit. But it’s still definitely a business because it’s got a lot of mouths to feed. The annual payroll is huge. You have got to keep it ticking over.
Whilst most wineries across Australia have packed up their presses and crushers and puts their reds to bed in barrel for the year, here at Hanging Rock we are still in the throughs of vintage. In fact it is only today, 23rd April that I can write this report with any confidence, as we only picked the last of the Pinot Noir here at our Jim Jim vineyard today.
So it is with a great sigh of relief that I can tell you all about the 2014 vintage. For a lot of people in Victoria this harvest started off with a frost that hit right around budburst, which meant reduced crops right across the state. Whilst this means we have had a small vintage over all, luckily, here on our Jim Jim vineyard we are so far behind the rest of the state in vine progression that it didn’t hit us.
In fact I am very pleased to say that thanks to a lot of hard work by the vineyard crew our Jim Jim vineyard has never looked better. For the first time in a number of years we made some Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris.. although mum is very partial to the Gewurz and we only have ½ an acre, so if you want some I would get in early before we drink it all ourselves. My favourite grapes this year is the Pinot. We have 4 clones here, all of which have their own structure, taste and tannin profiles. It makes for a wonderfully complex sparkling and table wine.
In Heathcote we were not as lucky as we were in Macedon. Little to no rain on our dry grown vineyard, meant that we picked a measly 2 tonne off 20 acres. Luckily the fruit we did get was amazing and we have had a lot of fun using winemaking techniques that just aren’t possible with larger parcels.
One of the best parts of vintage this year was our crew. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that out of 9 staff members, 5 of them are qualified winemakers. It means that a lot of love and attention has gone into every step of the process and it shows in the resulting wines.