Leah Clearwater dreamt of being a famous painter before discovering that a career in wine had a much stronger calling. She first trained as a viticulturist before moving into other various industry roles which has now seen her become the new manager at Happs Wines in Margaret River. This is her fabulous story!
When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?
I studied Fine Arts in Sydney straight out of High School and had visions of becoming a famous painter and wearing colourful kaftans in a studio somewhere. However, after various trips to the Hunter Valley on weekends I realised my true calling was the wine industry. I felt a sharp pang of envy every time I saw someone working in the cellar door, winery or out in the vineyard. I knew I just had to change the course of my career so that’s what I did.
Where has your career taken you so far?
I completed my undergraduate degree in Viticulture and Oenology in NZ and a postgraduate degree in the USA. This lead to various roles in NZ, USA, Italy and now back in Australia. I have worked as a Viticulturist, Lecturer, Distributor, Export Manager and Sales & Marketing Manager. Managing export markets has given me amazing opportunities to travel to various parts of the world.
You are the new Manager at Happs Wines. Can you tell us the story of why, when and how this happened?
I had been studying and working in the USA for some years when I met Erl and Ros Happ at an American Journal of Enology (American spelling) and Viticulture Conference where both Erl and I were presenting research papers. I remember walking up to him after his speech and saying “it’s so bloody wonderful to hear an Australian accent!” We have been friends ever since. Erl and Ros had been asking me to come and work for them for some time as my varied roles and experience have provided me with a big-picture view of wine business management.
What is the philosophy behind Happs Wines?
Happs Wines is a brand for the people. We fly in the face of convention in terms of how many wines we make and what varieties we make them from. Our pleasure is found in providing a wine for every palate and we have built a portfolio to achieve this. Erl has never been interested in following fashions, “sommelier snobbery” or industry norms and I really like that about him. Happs is warm, rustic and down to earth.
What grape varieties do you make wine from at Happs Wines? And where are they sourced from?
We have two vineyard locations; one in the Yallingup sub-region of Margaret River where our cellar door is located and the other is our Three Hills vineyard in the Karridale sub-region. This gives us the flexibility to source fruit from two very different sites and climates. We grow over 35 different varieties and our extensive portfolio includes straight Petit Verdot, Grenache, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
What are your personal favourites from those you produce, and why?
I’m predominantly a red wine drinker and I love our Three Hills Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Charles Andreas Bordeaux blend. These are all bold wines in their own right for different reasons. I also enjoy our iSeries Pinot Noir – it defies the general acceptance that Pinot Noir doesn’t work in the Margaret River region. Our cooler Karridale vineyard does the job perfectly.
Within the business – what’s a typical day like for you?
Every day is completely different and this suits me perfectly as I get restless doing the same thing over and over again. I could be designing some marketing materials (my art background comes in handy), managing day to day operations or out on the road with a distributor.
How does your overseas experience translate to your day to day work?
My overseas experience has given me a broad perspective on the myriad ways that things can be done. There is no one right answer, just the answer that fits best with your brand and story.
What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?
Most of my favourite food and wine memories have occurred while travelling. I think the romance of being overseas heightens the enjoyment and persists in your mind. I’ll never forget scoffing a simple dish of spaghetti with clams in Italy served with a crisp Soave. I’ve tried to reproduce this at home but it’s just not the same.
As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?
Yes, mainly when I was working as a viticulture consultant. The company I worked for would send me out to see a new client and they would ask where the consultant was. When I explained that it was me, some men of a particular era had difficulty accepting it. I would just laugh it off and after an hour out in the vineyard they’d get used to the idea.
In your experience, do women think about or talk about wine differently than blokes do?
To be honest, I’ve never really noticed a difference. Every person’s palate is unique regardless of gender. I’ve heard men speak about wine in quite feminine terms and women discuss wine in a very clinical way. It depends on the person.
What’s your number one tip for tasting wine?
If I am technically appraising a wine, I prefer to sit somewhere quiet and close my eyes after I’ve assessed the visual criteria. Removing these two distracting senses allows me to fully concentrate on what I’m smelling and tasting. If I’m tasting in a group, I avoid being influenced by other people’s perceptions. Tasting wine is a very subjective process.
If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?
Don’t let wine snobbery impact on your enjoyment of wine. At the end of the day we all need to remember that it’s fermented grapes and drinking wine is meant to be fun!