More on the Moppity story

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(Construction of Moppity’s new dam)

The Moppity story continues this week. Following last week’s post, from valuer and agricultural consultant Sam Paton about the background to the multi-award-winning Hilltops vineyard Moppity (tastings), the current owner Jason Brown adds another side to this very interesting story.

I’ll let Jason tell it himself.

“I just saw your article on the banking and irrigation background at Moppity – the whole story is quite fascinating and it’s nice to hear it told from another perspective (in this case Sam Paton’s).

 I thought I’d shed some light from the other side here. When we bought the vineyard in 2004 the dam was about as deep as our pockets (i.e. not very). The driller’s logs indicated that the two bores put in by the mortgagees in possession a few months prior (referred to by Sam) each delivered 5000 gallons per hour – ample water for a vineyard of that size. So we went ahead and bought it believing that the historical irrigation problem was sorted.

 Unfortunately this was incorrect.

 It turns out the bores actually put out 5000 litres per hour. We decided not to proceed with any action against the agent or driller. Instead we toughed it out for the first few years with next to no water available for irrigation. In 2006, we had all bores running around the clock – theoretically enough to provide 360 mega litres. Instead we were able to pump a total of 60mL into the dam (pictured in your story). To make matters worse, we lost two thirds of this to seepage and evaporation, in almost equal measures, leaving just 20mL for irrigation. You’ll recall that 2006 was a bad drought year and consequently most of the vineyard was in severe stress. Yields were pitifully small. Some blocks were so severely stressed that the ’07 crop was adversely impacted as well. The vineyard was unsustainable.

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(Jason Brown standing in the new dam)

As a result of this, we continued to drill more bores here each year until 2009, when we finally struck a good one. We engaged Brother Clements for a few of these without success. Meanwhile, we built a new dam in 2007 – fully lined and covered (see picture). It holds 45mL and doesn’t lose a drop to seepage or evaporation. I understand it was one of the first of its kind used in vineyards in Australia. We use 67% less water now than we otherwise would. As a side note, I think there should be a lot more of these in use in a country as dry as Australia.

These measures addressed our water issues and made the vineyard potentially viable. It’s no coincidence that the wines have improved markedly since then. Our soil is more free draining than most in the Hilltops region. This coupled with a now plentiful water supply means that we can grow the crop almost as if by hydroponics – giving the vines just enough water to keep them on the borderline of stress, where I think they produce the best fruit.

When I look back on it, our journey has been far from smooth. Alecia and I came into this with very little money. What we lost through the drought and investment in water infrastructure in the first few years left nothing to deal with the Cooper Coffman collapse*, which happened shortly afterwards.

The bank that I tip my hat to is the NAB and in particular their agribusiness manager Tom Eastlake, who showed so much belief in us. There we were with no money, a vineyard that had sent the previous owners to the wall, no demonstrated ability to produce a good crop (thanks to the drought and bore issues) and now no future revenue stream thanks to Cooper Coffman. The wine industry was seemingly in freefall, the GFC had rocked the domestic economy and the wine export market… It was the perfect storm!

In the eye of this storm, we pitched a proposal to significantly increase our wine production that would require the bank’s additional support. What we did have was a belief that this could be one of the great shiraz vineyards in Australia if we were given time and resources to crystalise its potential. I promised them that within 10 years Moppity would be renowned for making great wines and that the business would be stronger than it ever could be if we didn’t change direction.

That was in 2009. We’ve won over 500 awards since then – including some of the most coveted wine prizes in Australia. Two years later we doubled our vineyard area with the acquisition of the Coppabella (Trallee) vineyard. Last year we bought Margaret River’s Chalice Bridge. Our production has grown 60 fold and every year the wines are getting better. It’s a very rare success story in an industry awash with bad news and littered with the carcasses of failed businesses.

No, it hasn’t been an easy journey so far but I couldn’t think of any other journey that could be more fascinating or rewarding. I can’t wait to see where we are in another 10 years.”

*see my earlier article on Moppity.

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