The Reinvention of Grant Burge
"Meshach’s son Percival, Grant’s grandfather, established the Wilsford Winery near Lyndoch in 1928, making fortified wine as was the usual thing in those days. His sons, including Grant’s father, didn’t want to make the change to table wines, which meant Grant had to go his own way."
IT takes a very special sort of winemaker to buy, sell and buy back three times the winery at which he first made his reputation – along the way losing the right to use his own brand name, but still maintaining a larger-than-life name and reputation along the way.
It makes Grant Burge sound almost like the Kerry Packer of the wine industry, though there are far too many Packer characteristics that don’t fit either the Burge character or his career.
It has, nonetheless, been an extraordinary roller coaster ride for this fifth-generation winemaker that started when he teamed up with Ian Wilson to start Burge and Wilson in McLaren Vale in the mid 1970s and took off when, on his birthday, January 20 in 1978, they took the keys to Krondorf winery that was being sold off by Dalgety.
Of course, Burge might well argue that it all started back in 1855 when tailor John Burge migrated to the Barossa from Wiltshire in England, with his wife Eliza and their two sons. John worked as a winemaker at Hillside Vineyards and his love of viticulture was passed onto his son Meshach, who continued the tradition making his first wine in 1865, while becoming a prominent community leader.
Meshach’s son Percival, Grant’s grandfather, established the Wilsford Winery near Lyndoch in 1928, making fortified wine as was the usual thing in those days. His sons, including Grant’s father, didn’t want to make the change to table wines, which meant Grant had to go his own way.
Burge sold his stake in Krondorf winery to Mildara in 1986, bought it back again in 1999, sold it again in 2015 to Accolade Wines – who put it on the market in December last year as part of a rationalisation of their production strategy, only to see it bought for the third time this year by Grant Burge and his family company, Burge Barossa.
Apart from any practical, sentimental or business reasons for wanting Krondorf back, it’s right next door to his sprawling house on Lily Farm Road and surrounded by a fair chunk of the 400ha of vineyards Burge owns in the Barossa, Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills. After he sold Krondorf for the first time to Mildara he was reported as saying he’d trained his children, Trent, Amelia and Toby, not to go in there. Now they plan to use it as they make a new generation of Burge wines.
Burge’s path to becoming one of the most respected and innovative forces in the Australian wine industry really took off when he, aged 27, and Wilson, 25, first bought Krondorf. Two years later the pair won the Jimmy Watson Trophy which, Burge says, “really launched the brand.
“The first year we sold 11,000 cases, the next year we sold 22,000, the next was 44,000, then 88,000 and after eight years we were nearly up to 200,000 cases of wine. Then in 1983 we went public, and we raised $8 million to fund that growth.”
As a public company they were also at risk of being taken over. By now the share price was so high Burge couldn’t fend off Mildara. Cleverly he retained a first option to buy the winery back if Mildara ever wanted to sell which, as Mildara Blass, they did 13 years later.
Along the way Grant and his wife Helen had gone against the prevailing sentiment at the time and started adding to their vineyard portfolio. Vineyards generally were losing money at the time, but Grant knew that the best wine would come from the best vineyards and that eventually the market would turn: “People thought I was mad at the time,” he says.
This was also when Burge had a stint in the corporate world, working for two years as technical director for Mildara Wines while at weekends he would manage his own vineyards. Finally, he’d had enough of that and determined to have his own business, resigned from Mildara and started Grant Burge Wines.
Burge was going to build his own winery but the late Doug Lehmann, then winemaker at Basedows, a 3000-tonne winery in Tanunda, suggested he use Basedows facilities instead. In 1993 Burge bought the winery, now named Illaparra, and Grant Burge Wines went on to become an internationally renowned brand making 750,000 cases annually and turning over $70 million.
The decision to sell the Grant Burge brand to Accolade was a difficult one for Burge: “We decided we had too much debt and wanted to clear the decks a bit,” he says. “We only sold the brand and the wine; we didn’t sell any real estate basically.”
And that is what has underpinned and extended the Grant Burge heritage. Now aged 71 and as full of ideas and energy as ever, Grant and his wife Helen have now been joined by their three children in a diversified wine conglomerate Burge Barossa.
It has privately-owned Barossa vineyard holdings second in area only to those controlled by Warren Randall from his Seppeltsfield base; two wineries – Illaparra, now with its own bottling line, and Krondorf – and a wine logistics storage and distribution business operating out of Illaparra servicing mostly smaller regional wineries.
The Illaparra winery is basically set up for red wine production, while Krondorf was set up for white wine production, which was something Burge Barossa needed for its expansion. And, of course, it’s nice for Burge to be able to walk out his front door and across the garden to the winery he first owned more than 40 years ago.
“The only difference now is that I have to do all the work,” jokes Burge. “I used to have 180 people working for me at Grant Burge!” Typically tongue in cheek, he doesn’t really have to do it all by himself, with a workforce of more than 70 people employed in his vineyards and winery. With energy to burn, there’s no way Grant Burge plans to fade away any time soon.