20Q: Tessa Brown, Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown
Brilliant at her craft, super hardworking, globally aware and not afraid to voice her opinion, winemaker Tessa Brown is a glowing example of why we think Australian wine is changing for the better.
With two decades experience under her belt – including a lengthy stint at Kooyong Estate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula – Brown, together with partner Jeremy Schmölzer, has recently settled in Beechworth to establish her much anticipated operation, Vignerons Schmölzer and Brown.
We recently took five with Tessa to talk about the realities currently facing female winemakers and viticulturists in Australia, the importance of community and her love of hip hop…
1. What do you do for a living?
I grow grapes and make wine with my partner, Jeremy.
2. Where did it all start?
Probably with my dad’s Wine Society and Cellarmasters subscriptions in the early 1990s. Wine doesn’t get particularly fancy when you’re a farmer in Far North Queensland, so the regular dozens that went straight into the cool-room and were enjoyed loudly on weekends had an almost magical tug: proof of a form of agriculture that wasn’t completely defined by commodity market swings, like beef and sugar.
3. Where has it taken you?
Around much of Australia, to New Zealand, Spain, Italy, and as a tourist through Austria, France and the US.
4. When did you know it was time to start your own label?
Serious answer alert! Jeremy and I had daydreamed about the idea of buying land and planting a vineyard from when we first became a couple a decade ago. The idea didn’t get revisited until I started to get pressure for sideways career movement from a boss who assumed, as a woman getting to my mid thirties, that I would start a family, casually abandon winemaking and become a sales and marketing lady. Well, this became a real burr under my saddle, and I was torturing Jeremy about the unfairness of it. I sat down one evening after the boss had said something particularly 1950s-y, to write a list of employee women winemakers with kids: people who weren’t in family businesses or running their own labels. I only came up with two names.
Although I could not be doing what I’m doing now without the all-in of my architect partner, who is loving learning winemaking and viticulture and also supporting these early stages with his architecture business, the reality for Australian women winemakers and viticulturists is that to keep your career and have kids means you almost certainly have to do your own thing. Maybe in another generation it will be different, but for now that’s just life. We planted our vineyard in 2014 and 2015, and we’re having our first bambino at the end of this year – eeek!
5. Why Beechworth?
North-east Victoria was one of the first regions I visited as a Charles Sturt Viticulture student in the late 90s, so I’m pretty fond of this incredibly climate- and soil-diverse zone. Beechworth is the smallest region within north-east Victoria, producing high wine quality pretty much across the board. There are pine mushrooms in autumn, morels in late winter, deer and pigs to hunt in the forests, great waterholes to swim in, and decent rainfall at altitude still. The other sweetener? If you’re on the road by 6:30am, you can be on the first lifts at Hotham when it opens. Jeremy, being half Austrian, is a pretty good skier. I look like an outsized four-year-old when I ski, but I can almost keep up on most terrain now.
6. Who are you fascinated by?
Writers and rappers. Cesare Pavese sketched Piedmont in post-war/fascism colours for me before I visited there for vintage last year, and I can’t even describe how weirdly it pre-familiarised the area. Culture, poverty, wine, conflict, death. Rap is our most accessible poetry – I’m waiting for Clipping’s new album, ‘Splendor & Misery’, to drop.
7. When are you happiest?
In the vineyard, doing vine work and listening to all the forest birds. When the lyrebirds in the forest mimic man-made noises like mobile phones, it’s incredible. Gang-gang cockatoos sound like a cork being twisted in the neck of a wine bottle.
8. What’s the one wine you’re most proud of?
At the moment, probably our first rosé release in 2014. We were so under the pump getting ready to plant the vineyard, whacking posts, preparing soil, running wires. Pretty sure we all worked for six months straight without a weekend off: me, Jeremy and both my retired farmer parents. To be able to release a cheerful, bright little pink thing to enthusiastic support was exactly what our exhausted minds needed at the time. Pretty sure we’re on the right track – let’s keep going!
9. What do you wish you knew about being a winemaker before you got started?
I’m not one for overanalysing anything before I do it. The less I know about something before I dive in, the better. I’m all for working it out as you go. I’m shit at reading the instructions.
10. You’ve got one album to get you through vintage, what is it?
Missy Elliot’s ‘This is Not a Test!’.
11. The biggest myth surrounding wine is…
That those who enjoy it are particularly classy or clever. It’s an everyman’s drink at the end of the day. We just be all fancy about it to make ourselves feel superior.
12. Whose wines should we be checking out?
We rocked up in Beechworth and made friends pretty much straightaway with a whole bunch of north-east Victorian folks either starting wine labels or a few years into them. It’s such a great peer group. Simon Killeen is bringing sexy back to vintage fortified with Simão & Co; Clare Burder’s Eminence sparkling is the best fizz from mainland Oz; Rowly Milhinch is bringing balance and nuance to Durif in Rutherglen; Pete Graham is making seriously sexy Nebbiolo at Domenica; and Chris Catlow’s Sentio Chardonnays show a really Burgundian hand with single-site Victorian parcels of fruit. We drink well as a gang. We’re also good mates with Sierra from Reed wines, who is already Drinks List famous. It’s a bit politically incorrect to describe wines as feminine these days, but that’s exactly the style of elixir Si is making: sensitive, ethereal and feminine Barossa Grenache and Grampians Shiraz. Watch out for when she and the husband plant Gamay on the farm. There’ll be trouble then!
13. What’s you knock-off drink of choice?
Not-too-hoppy beer. We have a keg fridge in the winery, and Bridge Road Brewery keeps us supplied through vintage.
14. Whisky or gin?
I’ve never had a negroni made with whisky, so I’ll say gin.
15. Night or day?
Day. I like getting stuff done.
16. Childhood or adulthood?
Adulthood is working out okay so far. Childhood was over like, snap – gone.
17. Favourite ice-cream flavour?
Oh man, I had my first Messina gelati a few weeks back. Pistachio all the way.
18. Perfect Sunday lunch?
Outdoors in Summer. Bit of shade, nibbly bits, friends, beers and vino. A rope swing and a good waterhole. Someone to drive us all home when we’re sunburned, day-drunk and bug-bitten.
19. What do you do when you’re not doing what you do?
I waste time on the Internet.
20. Tell us a secret.
I’m not really much of a secret keeper. I’ll tell you most anything if you ask.
PHOTO – JAMES BROADWAY