The two men who started Rosemount Estate in 1974 are back in business together.
Bob Oatley, now 80 years old, and Chris Hancock, 67, have seen the ups and downs of the wine world, come out of a turbulent phase bloodied but unbowed, and now are betting that America is ready for the bright, juicy wines of Mudgee, where Oatley owns almost 1,200 acres.
Mudgee, west of Sydney, sits in the low mountains that separate the temperate coast from the hot interior. At 1,100 feet, they are considerably cooler than Hunter Valley, the best-known wine region in New South Wales. No wineries there have earned widespread renown, but the big wine companies have extensive vineyards there. Oatley recently bought a 700-acre vineyard and winery that used to belong to Orlando.
But we're getting ahead of the story.
Oatley, a wealthy coffee merchant, started Rosemount as a vineyard company in Hunter Valley in 1969, and started making wine in 1974, when he had too many grapes to sell. He hired Hancock as winemaker, and together they created a fruit-forward, easy-drinking style that eventually found favor with American consumers. The privately-held Rosemount made some great wines, and grew into a big company. In one of the strangest and most ill-fated arrangements in corporate wine history, Southcorp, a public company that included Penfolds in its portfolio, bought Rosemount in 2001 and put the Rosemount brain trust in charge. Trouble ensued.
Their four-year stewardship eventually ended in 2005, when Foster's (formerly Beringer Blass) acquired Southcorp. The buyouts were generous, and within a year Oatley, his son Sandy, and Hancock had put together Oatley Wines. Their first efforts, a brand called Wild Oats, named after Oatley's series of successful racing yachts, was a hit in Australia on release last year.
"We didn't think Wild Oats was right for the American market," Hancock told me as we visited in San Francisco earlier this week. "At the price (around $10 to $15) there's too much competition. I'll tell you one thing, we're not getting into that under $15, cheaper is better, game again."
The first Robert Oatley wines, a Chardonnay from Mudgee and a Shiraz-Viognier that's mostly from Barossa, are due here this fall. Price has not been set, but it sounded to me like they're aiming at $20 to $30.
Eventually, Hancock hopes that Mudgee will provide the heart and soul of the Oatley wines. But much work remains to tweak the vineyards. They produce naturally crisp, vibrant wines, but Hancock and I have had long conversations in the past about how weedy and meager the reds can be unless conditions are just right. He thinks he has the answer, something to do with lower yields, canopy management, soil amendments and watering regimens, and needs a few vintages under his belt to prove it.
It's impressive to me to see a couple of wily veterans not content to take their big corporate payouts and sit on the sidelines. They want to get a bat in their hands and start hitting the ball (a reference just as apt to their cricket as our baseball). Let's see how many runs they can score.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — March 7, 2008 4:22pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 7, 2008 4:32pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — March 8, 2008 12:51am ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — March 9, 2008 9:02am ET
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