The Joe Chromy story

How often we find migrants excelling at business in Australia: the Myers, the Besens, the Lowys and Abeles spring to mind, and close to home in wine retailing, the Kemenys of Bondi. These people have shown a drive and determination to do well in their adopted country. Perhaps they have found the freedom especially liberating after escaping from an oppressive homeland. Josef ‘Joe’ Chromy is one such person. He is a dynamic businessman who has had a major impact on Tasmanian winemaking and viticulture over the past 13 years.

Chromy fled the former Czechoslovakia post World War 2, which had been subjected to successive Nazi and Soviet occupations. Atrocities were a daily occurrence. In 1950, he and two friends stole across the border which was guarded by minefields and soldiers with dogs. His friends were captured but Joe made his escape into Austria, and eventually to Vienna, which was occupied by the Allies.

He arrived in Australia aged 20, penniless and speaking not a word of English. His expertise was in meat and smallgoods, the family business, and it was in this industry that he first set up business in Tasmania. He built a company called Blue Ribbon Meat Products, which specialised in smallgoods and exporting grass-fed Tasmanian beef to Japan. He sold this business in 1994 and, seeing an opportunity in the local wine industry, bought Heemskerk and its sub-brand Jansz, as well as the neighbouring Rochecombe and another small vineyard, Buchanan’s, all in the same year.

Like many of the people who have made money in the wine industry, Chromy is not a hard-core wineman, but a shrewd businessman who seems to have less of the emotional investment or sentimentality that often dictates the decision-making of people in the wine game. He saw an opening – to streamline and rationalise some of the unprofitable wine businesses in Tasmania, which he did. By 1998 he had on-sold Heemskerk to Pipers Brook Vineyards (it’s now a wine club brand, while the property is home of the Jansz sparkling wine brand which was bought and further developed by Yalumba). Rochecombe is now the home of Hardys’ Bay of Fires.

Meanwhile, Chromy had developed a new vineyard at Kayena on the Tamar River, which he kept. He immediately started building a winery there and this became Tamar Ridge, one of the more successful, high-quality wine companies in the state.

In 2003 he sold Tamar Ridge, after receiving an offer too good to refuse. The buyer was Gunn’s Limited, the large timber and forestry company that the Green movement loves to hate. Within a month he had started again, for the third time in the wine industry. He bought a newly established vineyard at Relbia, just near the Launceston airport. There are at least five vineyards at Relbia now and it’s no secret that the area produces some of the best grapes in Tasmania. Andrew Hood, for instance, has long used Relbia grapes as the foundation for his Wellington riesling.

The 61-hectare vineyard, then called Old Stornaway, became the new Josef Chromy Wines, and Chromy hired as winemaker the youthful Jeremy Dineen, who had worked for several years as Andrew Hood’s right-hand man at his busy and highly influential contract winemaking business, Hood Wines. In time for the just completed 2007 vintage, Chromy built a state-of-the-art $2.5 million winery at Relbia, together with a smart cellar door sales outlet and café among the vines.

And that’s not all. Chromy has just submitted his plans to council for a $40 million wine and tourism development on the 150-hectare property. The resort includes accommodation, day spa, a lake and fly-fishing facilities, and an equestrian centre. A ‘vineyard village’ is part of the plan: blocks of land will be offered on which the buyers will be able to build their own house and small vineyard.

Against this background, Chromy, 76, has had serious health problems. He suffered a stroke two years ago which affected his speech, but patently did not damage his hearing, his intellect or his drive. If anything, it seems to have boosted his determination to continue working towards his ambitious goals.

“At almost 77, I should probably be easing up,” he says. “However, my mind has always been and is still full of business ideas and I will keep contributing. I enjoy both working and taking the time for holidays but I have never understood those who insist on completely separating their work and play.”

Tasmanian wine has benefitted enormously from the energy and big-picture ambition of this enterprising man.

His current brands are Josef Chromy and Pepik (a common nick-name for Czech males named Josef). The rieslings (there’s a reserve and a regular bottling from the ’06 harvest) are especially good, while the Pepik wines are among the best value you’re likely to find in Tasmania, priced in the low-AUD $20s.

In his own words.

The wisdom of Joe Chromy:

  • You need to set high but achievable goals and work step by step to get there.
  • Be alert for, and courageous enough to assess quickly, opportunities that suddenly appear. Some of my best successes have come when I have acted quickly when others are still thinking and planning.
  • You must have great determination but be able to distinguish between determination and stubbornness which can lead to disaster.
  • Employ people who give loyalty, work hard and focus on efficiency.
  • Whatever you plan or whatever you undertake have a second option available.
  • When negatives arise, and they frequently do, search for ways to turn them into positives.
  • You must know when you don’t know, and then ask for advice.
  • You must deliver value for money.

 

*First published in Sydney Morning Herald Good Living on June 5, 2007.

Updates

Heemskerk is now a brand of Treasury Wine Estates.

Josef Chromy’s cellar door sales, fine dining restaurant and function centre at Relbia are well established and among the busiest in Tasmania.

Gunn’s Limited is no longer involved in the wine industry, and Tamar Ridge is owned by Brown Brothers.

Joe is still working every day in his businesses, although his hearing and speech are now both impaired.

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