Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Two winemakers; two regions; two decades

Over the past two weeks I have sampled two new-release O'Leary Walker Clare Valley 2020 rieslings.

The Watervale was outstanding; the Polish Hill excellent.

That was no surprise. Over two decades O'Leary Waker have forged twin reputations for both quality and value.


Colleagues told David O’Leary and Nick Walker they were mad when they quit senior winemaking jobs to start their own business in 2000.

Now the O’Leary Walker Wines founders have pivoted to focus on cellar door offerings and exploring new markets in a rapidly changing wine industry environment.

The duo has weathered the ups and downs of the wine business for two decades while forging a reputation for quality from two South Australian regions: the Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills.

The coronavirus pandemic and changing wine tastes have the winery and its two cellar doors evolving fast to keep up.

O’Leary Walker has increased its food focus at its Clare Valley cellar door and last week launched a new website to help it cater to a growing online customer base.

It is also ramping up export efforts and is launching a seasonal release range of progressive varieties to appeal to younger palates.

The winery produces about 14,000 cases a year in the Clare Valley from grapes grown in the region as well as at a 16-hectare Adelaide Hills vineyard owned by O’Leary’s sister, Sue Cherry, in Oakbank

O’Leary said about 80% of the winery’s sales were traditionally to restaurants, placing pressure on its bottom line through coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions in recent months.

“Our sales domestically were down 75%, which was pretty tough,” he said. “It is starting to pick up a little bit again but very slowly.

“One of the unintended consequences was it forced everyone to have a look at their businesses and how they can improve and that has been a terrific benefit to us.”

O’Leary Walker opened its Clare Valley cellar door in 2010 and a second one near its Adelaide Hills vineyard in Oakbank in 2015.

The winery has increased its attention on its cellar doors this year, O’Leary said, following the appointment of a full-tine resident chef and a greater focus on events.

“There’s been a big shift in people’s habits and we still want to get our wines on-premise but cellar door one-on-one is becoming a very powerful tool to show people our wines and sell them direct.

“We also put a lot of effort into our new website, and we’ve been working hard on the food offerings in Clare as well because you need a few strings to your bow in cellar doors these days – people want food and they’re pretty discerning when it comes to the quality.”

O’Leary Walker has had a long-standing national distribution partnership through Negociants Australia that began soon after the business began in 2000.

The winery grows about two-thirds of its own grapes and has enduring relationships with four Clare Valley growers to help protect it against the potential swings of annual grape shortages and gluts.

Walker and O’Leary already had about 40 years of wine-making experience between them when they started their partnership in 2000, making them one of the most experienced duos in the industry.

Now the next generation of winemakers is stepping up to complement the traditional ways of the winery’s founders, which has focused on staple Australian varieties including riesling, shiraz, chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

Emerging winemakers Jack Walker - Nick’s son - and Luke Broadbent have worked in the business for over five years and are now stepping up to expand the range and create some fresh flavours to appeal to younger wine drinkers.

The next generation winemakers have been put in charge of a seasonal release project of emerging wine varieties, which kicks off this week with the launch of a pinotage, a popular style in South Africa.

O’Leary Walker had initially planned 20th anniversary celebrations for this month but were stymied by Covid-19, Now the duo winery is working towards a 21st birthday party in 2021.

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