Third generation viticulturist Melissa Brown grows grapes biodynamically at Gemtree Wines – in tune with the land and nature – acknowledging that there is a relationship between the sun, the moon and the planets. Gemtree is more than a business, it’s a lifestyle and a philosophy based on Melissa’s consciousness about the environment and living healthy and clean.
When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?
In 1994, I returned from an 8 month long backpacking trip around the world to attend my brother’s wedding. I had taken extended leave from my job as an Office Manager in the Education Department. Upon returning home I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to a boring office job so I asked my dad if I could do some work in the vineyard. He agreed to take me on but said I wouldn’t last more than 2 weeks because I’m too soft. That was 23 years ago! Two weeks after I started working in the vineyards I met my husband Mike Brown and our passion for wine and each other has continued to this day.
Where has your career taken you so far?
In 2000 and 2001 I travelled to France with Mike where he had vintage winemaking roles. Although I didn’t work in the vineyards in France I visited many and studied their techniques. We also travelled to Italy and Spain and visited many vineyards and wineries there. I have travelled to the UK, Holland and Sweden on sales trips with Mike. These days I prefer to stay at home with my own vineyards and my children and I’m happy to let Mike do all the travelling.
You are a Biodynamic Viticulturist at Gemtree Wines. Can you tell us the story of why, when and how this happened?
I joined the management team for my Dad’s vineyard management business in 1997, 3 years after I joined the company and whilst studying for my degree in Science majoring in Viticulture at Charles Sturt Uni. I studied part-time via correspondence whilst working. The vineyards were high input, big tonnage, high irrigation users when I joined the company. My focus was more on quality which was always a bone of contention between me and my dad. In 1998 my brother, Mike and I launched the Gemtree wine brand with our first production of 500 cases of Shiraz.
In 2005 I attended a health retreat on Kangaroo Island which was a life changing experience for me. From this I became an advocate for organic products and food. It didn’t make sense that I was living my life by this principle and going to work and nuking my vineyards! I started playing around with organic production in 2005. In 2006 we decided to trial the biodynamic method of production. Once we had proved that it worked we launched biodynamics across the whole vineyard in 2007 and we haven’t looked back since.
What is the philosophy behind Gemtree Wines?
Our philosophy is on sustainable production with minimal intervention – letting nature do its own thing. I am a third generation grapegrower. My grandfather was a market gardener from Marion who planted a vineyard in Willunga in 1969, the year I was born. Our business is family owned and we hope to continue that tradition so I want to make sure that the land I pass on is in better condition than when it was passed on to me.
I am concerned about the state of our planet and how messed up it is. I do my best to keep the environment in mind and not contribute to its demise in all of our business activities.
What grape varieties do you make wine from at Gemtree Wines? And where are they sourced from?
Nearly all of our fruit is estate grown. We grow Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Savagnin, Verdelho, Grenache and Mourvedre. We have 2 vineyards – a small one in McLaren Vale which is close to Maslins Beach. Our big vineyard is in McLaren Flat which is a higher elevation than McLaren Vale. We farm 330 acres of vineyard using biodynamic practices and to the best of my knowledge I think we are the largest biodynamic grower in Australia.
What are your personal favourites from those you produce, and why?
I have a soft spot for our Tempranillo because we were one of the first vineyards to plant the variety in McLaren Vale in the late 90s. It took me a few years to get my head around growing the variety and how to get the best out of it. We had looked at Tempranillo in Spain and thought it would grow well in our climate. Our Tempranillo blocks are always picked on a fruit day according to the astro calendar.
Within the business – what’s a typical day like for you?
There isn’t one! As the seasons change so does my role. I get involved in all facets of the business from running the vineyard, to overseeing the look and feel of the cellar door, to managing the human resources, preparing budgets and decision making with the Gemtree Wines management team. I would like to be more hands on in the vineyard sometimes but really don’t have time with all my responsibilities.
How does your overseas experience translate to your day to day work?
Every experience is important – good or bad – in shaping who you are as a person and building upon knowledge.
What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?
Wine and cheese, especially blue cheese. I think it’s so decadent! I don’t think we should get too hung up on what’s meant to be right and wrong. If the experience is enjoyable then go with it.
As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?
In the early days when I was young and a newcomer to the family business I did encounter some gender bias and downright rude behaviour from some of the older tractor operators. However for the most part I have always had support from my male peers which has helped give me the confidence I need to deal with ignorant males.
In your experience, do women think about or talk about wine differently than blokes do?
What’s your number one tip for tasting wine?
Appraise the aroma, flavour and after effect.
If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?
Wine should be enjoyed and enhance the dining experience. There is a lot of hoo ha out there about what constitutes a good wine. If you enjoy it, then it’s good.