Jenny Semmler – 919 Wines

Jenny Semmler is the co-owner of 919 Wines, and oversees the marketing, bottling and administration of the company. She is a talented influencer and a tireless advocate for the Riverland wine region of South Australia. All this AND the winner of the 2016  Australian Women in Wine Owner/Operator of the Year Award – what a fabulous woman of wine!

When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?

Some relatives decided to plant a vineyard in 1986, and as I had an interest in microbiology and chemistry, I enrolled to study a Bachelor of Applied Science (Wine Science) at what is now Charles Sturt University by distance education. I started in 1989 when my daughter was only a few months old, and by the time I graduated I also had a son. I was the first Honours student to graduate in wine science from the university.

So I entered the industry setting up a vineyard in the Strathbogie ranges of Victoria, and as an student did my first vintage at St Huberts in the Yarra Valley. That was particularly hard as my (now ex-) husband insisted I look after our daughter during the day and then do the afternoon/night shift at Coldstream. We made sparkling base, whites and red. I fell in love with Marsanne, as they had a small patch of it in their vineyard. This will be the variety I plant for my retirement project.

My second vintage I did was with Steve Morris of Pennyweight Wines. I worked for him at his own winery and at Fairfield in Rutherglen. He was an amazing man, with a passion for the old fortified wines of the Rutherglen region, always ready to teach, patient, and with profound knowledge. He is a true gentleman of the industry. He really sparked my interest in fortified wines. While working for him I was exposed to pre-phylloxera Durif, a variety for which we are pioneers in South Australia.

Where has your career taken you so far?

I started as a pharmacist before switching to the wine industry. This gave me a grounding in the rigours of science and maths, and also people management and the dark arts of retail. I brought all of that with me when I moved into the wine industry.

I took a job with BRL Hardy as quality manager at their Berri Estates site, which made me responsible for the integrated risk management of quality, food safety, OHS and environmental management systems, as well as site quality management  for winemaking, packaging and logistics, and two laboratories.  As  BRL Hardy morphed into Constellation Wines and later Accolade I spent a significant proportion of my time visiting other sites within the company in NSW, Vic, WA, SA and Tasmania. As the company grew internationally I travelled to Surrey and Bristol (UK) and Lodi (California) to work with teams on packaging related issues. I also presented at two international symposiums in France and Australia regarding specialist wine packaging issues.

As proprietor of 919 Wines, I have been much more domesticated, however we have recently been looking abroad. I’m looking forward to going to London later this year with the Australian Women in Wine Awards and The Fabulous Ladies’ Wine Society!

You are Proprietor of 919 Wines. Can you tell us the story of why, when and how this happened?

My husband (who is also a winemaker) and I felt the region we were living in was not well represented for the quality it is capable of producing. After my experience with Durif in Rutherglen, we planted a pilot plot of this in 2000, which quickly escalated into a full-blown vineyard of our own. We share a love of fortified wines, and so naturally our vineyard concentrated on varieties found in the hotter parts of Spain, France and Portugal. Eric left Constellation in 2007 to concentrate on producing our own wine, and I followed in 2008 when it became apparent that it was a two-person enterprise. We continued to grow, and now own a second vineyard about 20km away.

People ask us how we derived our name. We wanted a name that described the geographic location of our vineyard, without resorting to cliches or stereotypes. After we had slaughtered many cases of wine for the cause, and had performed uncounted trademark searches, we decided that our Crown Title uniquely described our location. Voilá! 919 Wines was born.

What is the philosophy behind 919 Wines?

We believe in sustainable business. This encompasses the way we farm, the way we make wine, through to the way we deal with our clients and customers.

Sustainability is an overused word these days, however this is such a fundamental philosophy to our business that we don’t even think about it, we just do it.

Our vineyards are both certified organic. We concentrate on growing hot climate varieties that produce amazing high quality wines of great flavour depth and structure. We established our vineyards to have minimal irrigation, and native/indigenous vegetation blocks and buffers. We believe our soils are as precious as water, so we cover crop to provide a green manure, to shade the soil and lower its temperature, to conserve moisture, hold the soil in high wind, suppress weeds, increase friability, reduce compaction and provide fodder for our kangaroos. As you can see this is pretty important to us.

Our winery is old-tech and manually intensive. The building itself is constructed from straw bale, which is amazing insulation against the baking heat of summer and the blazing cold of winter. We try to balance excellent winemaking with reduced waste and inputs, and all the requirements of good manufacturing practise. Our people have a diverse range of backgrounds, skills and abilities, and we try to tailor a person’s strengths to the tasks available.

We believe that sustainable business is based on strong relationships with our customers, suppliers and consumers. We work with our consumers to find their preferences for the experience they have with 919 Wines. This includes running surveys to ask their opinion on our brand compared to other beverages, our presentation, how they enjoy wine and the styles they like the best. We like to include our customers in our landmark events, such as celebrating seasons, awards or significant milestones.

We work closely with our winemaking clients, mentoring them if required so their own businesses can grow. We collaborate with other small producers, and have run a number of events under the banner of “The Three Wise Women.” The 3WW have a shared focus on alternative variety organically certified wines. There is strength in standing together.

We work closely with our suppliers so that we are preferred customers when we ask them to go an extra step for us, in design, supply or their time. We believe in dealing ethically with our grape growers and our workforce because respect is a two-way street.

Our local community is an important part of our business. We sponsor local arts groups and events, and also our local bike team who raise money for charity every year.

Our relationship with our customers is supportive, and we do invest time to train front of house staff in wine service and recommendation, believing that well trained front of house staff can be fantastic ambassadors of our brand. We have entered a co-operative agreement with a local business where we share customer demographics so we can mutually promote our businesses. We avoid unsustainable business, such as deep discounting, dealing with unlicensed wine producers and responding to the requests for “free” wine for events. At the end of the day, we are a business, and cash flow and profit is essential to remain in business.

What grape varieties do you make wine from at 919 Wines? And where are they sourced from?

We grow most of our own grapes in our two vineyards, however we do purchase some varieties from local growers. We have had to expand our plantings to assure supply and meet product growth projections. Our original vineyard in Glossop is the source of our Reserve Shiraz, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Durif. It also grows the grapes for our fortified portfolio. Our second vineyard in Loxton grows our Reserve Sangiovese, Ella Semmler’s Orchard Chardonnay and Shiraz, and Latin Collection wines. We have “top up” patches of Durif, Tempranillo and Muscat here, and some varieties which are not yet on stream. We purchase the grapes for our Reserve Vermentino and Petit Manseng, plus some “top up” components from trusted and valuable local growers.

What are your personal favourites from those you produce, and why?

This is like asking which is my favourite child! It changes according to how they are behaving and the mood I’m in.

My favourite squeeze at the moment is the 919 Reserve 2015 Touriga Nacional, which is layered and elegant. It is a wine you have to seduce with air and warmth to bring out the depths of its flavours, and it goes my favourite dish, duck with brown lentils.

If I’m after comfort, I’ll drink the 919 Reserve 2015 Tempranillo, which is plush with cherries and chocolate. I drink our 919 Reserve Pale Dry Apera on hot days, chilled ice cold before dinner, either neat or mixed with Angove Blind Tiger gin, or as a fruit cocktail with lemon, lime and orange.

The Limited Release Vintage fortified is our celebration wine, always present at the party. It goes with chocolate – need I say more? And the 919 Reserve 2014 Durif – Durif was my first love, my last love, and always welcomes me home with open arms and forgiveness when I stray.

And as for Marsanne? I haven’t planted it yet!

Within the business – what’s a typical day like for you?

I am a woman of many hats, and only one head! While the “seasons” are cyclical they overlap to a large degree, so agility is key to keeping it all together.

In production season I undertake the production scheduling and logistics, organising labour, materials, freight and warehousing. I herd the winemaker, the clients and the suppliers all to a common goal to ensure that we meet our production schedule. Boring stuff, but it means that we are not bottling during vintage and making wine while we are meant to be marketing.

Our marketing schedule is drawn up every year, incorporating a mixture of off-site, on-site and on-line campaigns. We aim for a solid mix of high margin/high loyalty direct-to-consumer sales (cellar door, consumer events and web sales) with high volume/high reach second and third party sales (on and off-premise, distributor and third party web sales). We are in the process of trying to establish an export market to supplement domestic sales. While Eric and I share the marketing, I am the most common face to the customer, whether in person, on the phone or internet or via social media.

I run the day to day business at a higher level, setting business and marketing strategy, business and marketing plans and budgets, and regulatory compliance. This includes intelligence gathering and analysis of business data, reporting, and the dark art of forecasting. Since mid 2016 we have had an advisory Board to assist in finding innovative and creative ways to undertake our business strategy.

Interspersed with the above I regularly sit on the Board of Destination Riverland and as an observer to the Marketing Sub-committee for Riverland Wine.

Running my own business is simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, stimulating, scary, fun, challenging, overwhelming and rewarding.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How does your overseas experience translate to your day to day work?

I have developed a deep appreciation for the way business is done in different cultures. For example, the Americans dive right into business discussions, the English sidle in gently from the start, but the Europeans do a lap around everything else before gently leading you to the starting line. This has taught me that there is more than one way of making a sale.

What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?

This would have to be duck with brown lentils paired to our 919 Reserve Touriga Nacional. Or maybe our Limited Release Vintage fortified with Black Forest Cake?   Or perhaps 919 Reserve Petit Manseng with caramelised onion and blue cheese pasta? Oh, I can’t decide!

When matching food and wine together look for a balance of wine crispness with rich creamy dishes, big tannic wines with protein-rich dishes such as meats, legumes and eggs, and complementary wine and food flavours. Don’t get too fussy about it, however. Wine and food pairing is like making music: the rules always work but can get boring, so at the risk of a few bodgy notes, mix it up a bit for a bit of an adventure.

As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?

I think I have been blessed with being an older woman who has benefitted from the feminism of the 1970’s before the misogynistic backlash of the naughties and later. On the whole I have found I have been taken on my own terms (I expect nothing else!) and that I have been respected and listened to by others. I have been acutely aware that there were only a handful of women in the industry when I started, but I’ve never felt intimidated by this, or isolated, left out or invisible. The greatest difficulties I have had have been as a sole parent while trying to develop a career. This can be tough, character-building even, and I’m grateful to those along the way who have been flexible with parenting issues in the workplace. I hope that I can repay that kindness to those I deal with in my own business.

There have been two times when gender has been an issue. A young man from the bank needed some signatures but directed the whole conversation to my husband – despite the fact that at the time I was the sole owner of the company. He is young and will have learned this is unacceptable, especially when his female boss passed on my complaint.

The second was more serious than irritating, and was intimately bound with site culture, which was brutal and uncompromising. I had been the only female departmental manager in the history of the site (to the best of my knowledge), but was never given the opportunity for promotion despite my broad, complex and high level responsibilities. Other sites in the company had a higher proportion of female managers who were well respected on their own sites but decried as unreliable, unrealistic and not to be complied with by the site I worked for. Ultimately the site culture cost me my mental health. It made the decision to resign and go into business for myself just so much easier, in the meantime taking all the wealth of my knowledge with me.

Finally there are those who today don’t like talking with women about business, but they are just assholes and come across as shonky, unethical and not to be trusted. So Eric and I don’t do business with these people.

In your experience, do women think about or talk about wine differently than blokes do?

I don’t see a gender divide. I see an attitude divide.

There are those who try to create a tribe I’ll call Experts. These people speak in their own jargon, specifically designed to keep other people ill-informed, or to imply they are more knowledgeable, or have access to more exclusive wines than others. They brag about their rare wines, their cellar of ageing cork-ravaged vintages and how much they paid. They don’t really care if you don’t get it.

Then there is the tribe I will call Drunks. They are the people who post pictures and e-cards on Facebook, always with a glass in their hand, or always with an excuse for a drink. If they belong to the industry they openly drink while serving customers, which is highly unprofessional. They refer to customers as “Punters” (which I find derogatory – we should respect our customers!) and can patronise those who don’t have the same attitude.

The Life-stylers enjoy a glass of wine with their meal, or when their friends or family gather together. They like the familiarity of their favourite brands and will try something different if someone they trust recommends it. They are uncertain of their taste experience as they feel intimidated by the Experts and the Drunks, but given the freedom to express their perceptions in their own language they are as astute and articulate as any of the professionals.

The Novices are just starting out on their great wine adventure and are happy to learn, although they may still be exploring the fruity, easy to drink styles. They care more about what they are experiencing than how anyone else describes it, which can be a great way to introduce them to the wonderful world of wine. They use simpler language such as “smooth” or “sharp” to describe their perceptions if pressed, and with prompting they can start to come up with other descriptors such as “floral” or “fruity”.

And finally there are the Quiet Tasters, those who have an amazing palate, and the ability to speak about it in the language of their conversational companions. These people are true gems in the wine world, and I include both Jane Faulkner and Tony Love in this category. They tailor the words they use so they are as inclusive of the newest Novice as they are of the most hardened Expert.

What’s your number one tip for tasting wine?

Don’t wear perfumed deodorant, makeup or scent while tasting wine, as your heightened senses will be swamped with other aromas.

Closely followed by: drink what you like because you like it, not what anyone dictates to you by advertising, awards or expertise.

If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?

Don’t wait for anyone to give you pearls. The world is your oyster. Go ahead, open it, because you will be rewarded for your effort with a pearl without price. And every oyster needs Champagne.