Mark Brewer, a wine man to his soul, found out the hard way just what’s really important in life. And the silver lining in the Chernobyl cloud.
Getting a serious illness will do that – and now, he’s connecting and sharing his knowledge in the wine industry. Being there for his students, the wine industry and Tasmania, is his driver and the industry is all the better for that.
Diagnosed with a significant heart problem at 32, Mark embarked on a journey that lasted for 17 years until he fortunately received a heart transplant. Yes a new heart! That was 10 years ago and it was the push for Mark to focus on the important things in life.
Originally from Victoria, Mark had been at Pipers Brook Vineyard, Tasmania, since 1986, in the brand new role of vineyard manager, under Andrew Pirie. There were only three fully commercial vineyards then – Pipers Brook, Heemskerk and Moorilla. But where did his passion for growing wine grapes start?
Armed with a Diploma of Agriculture and coming from a rural background, in Victoria and NSW, Mark early on, travelled far and wide. He worked in Montana as part of a rural exchange, on a wheat and cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains. It was “country America at its best”. He then did a stint on a dairy and arable farm in Cheshire in England, which was different, and enlightening, then a couple of years in Saudi Arabia setting up a 10,000 Ha centre pivot irrigation project, growing wheat in a desert. As things tend to be in the Middle East, this was an enormous project, and it taught Mark about irrigation, crops and soils.
Not content with general agriculture, Mark wanted something different. By the mid ‘80s producing wine in cool climates was new, and the role at Pipers Brook beckoned in Tasmania. For Mark and his wife, it was a two year plan to come down to join the Tasmanian wine industry, and they’re still here 31 years later. Mark’s wife’s brother married a Tasmanian, and they settled in Pipers River. Seemed like a good place to go, and so it was.
It was Chernobyl. That tragic melt down in early 1986 affected the European wine industry, so all of a sudden, those loyal European wine drinkers turned to the Antipodes.
Andrew Pirie was the pioneer of cool climate viticulture and when he decided to expand his Pipers Brook vineyard operation Mark was soon responsible for several vineyards and a growing labour force. Driven by a need to build on his new career and a thirst for more knowledge Mark undertook external studies in Viticulture at Charles Sturt University. Mark reflects that it was an exciting time and the future of the fledgling Tasmanian Wine Industry was looking bright!
For those wine newbies here, growing grapes successfully for wine is a huge challenge. It’s a very complex horticultural crop in many ways, and Mark found the challenges suited him, his broad spectrum of skills and experience, and his love of detail.
From 1986, the Australian wine industry started to take off. Mark fills in with a little history here – a global accident that was to have far-reaching consequences for many years. It was Chernobyl. That tragic melt down in early 1986 affected the European wine industry, so all of a sudden, those loyal European wine drinkers turned to the Antipodes. They wanted the security of clean Australian wines. It was the start of a 20 year boom in Australian wine production!
Once a net importer of wine, Australian wine export dollars reached $100 million by 1990 and went to a $3billion export industry by 2007. On the back of this, the demand for Tasmanian wine has grown. Ironically, global warming has improved the quality of our fruit. We don’t have so many challenging seasons now. We don’t want it to get any hotter, but people are now more prepared to pay for good wine – to drink quality rather than quantity – and this growing social phenomenon played into hands of our small Tasmanian producers.
In a way, Mark says he, “fell into the industry, but when I became ill I had to reassess. In late 1993-94 I had to find something less physically demanding. Tim Barbour from Horticulture at TAFE needed a viticulture teacher. This door opened up beautifully for me, as I had the qualifications, knowledge and skill. They were grateful to have me available, I was grateful to still be in the industry, giving back to our future. The timing for us all couldn’t have been better.”
“Within a few weeks I was running two Viticulture courses, out of Hobart and Launceston, and we developed a new vineyard at Lilydale to train students. We also planted one at our Alanvale Campus, which was more of a demonstration vineyard. Over the years our courses have been very popular – so many students have gone into the industry who now own vineyards and most of my focus has been on viticulture.
I did more studies, in wine science, so now we make our own wine at the college itself called, “8 Rows on Campus”, pinot and chardonnay and sell it in the Drysdale Restaurant in Launceston. Students pick the grapes, make the wine, bottle it and take some home at the end of their course. It’s a great concept.”
Mark gives us an overview of the now:
“The Tasmanian wine industry is strong – demand is still high – grapes still get great prices, and what’s produced in the state is in demand. Wine prices are creeping up, and our quality is recognized worldwide. With the expansion of vineyards that’s happening in both area and production, I see a great future; the demand for our wine outstrips supply, which is very positive. “
Mark continues, “We’re still only less than 1% of Australia’s production, and through Wine Tasmania, growth and demand is being managed carefully, with controlled expansion, so we’re able to maintain the profitability in the industry. “
“Tourism numbers keep growing, and a lot of wine is sold through cellar doors – it seems to work well for the small producers, leveraging off the foodie tourism boom while maximizing profits. When I did leave Pipers’ Brook, I also started working as a consultant helping people set up vineyards and providing viticultural support. I was involved in the development of what is now the Josef Chromy Vineyard, and so happy that’s been one of our industries biggest success stories.”
The state government is working hard to promote wine tourism but there are challenges, of course, and Mark can see careers for students particularly in cellar doors. He says the hurdle is to get young people to see the opportunities in the Tasmanian Wine Industry. The cliché is that it’s an ‘older person’s industry’ but Mark says that there are roles in the vineyard, wine production, sales and marketing at all levels for young Tasmanians.
“The opportunities will only increase. It’s a broad industry, with so many different areas. Happily, in some of the smaller vineyards you get to work across all the areas. It’s an exciting industry and it’s only going to grow. The obsession with food and local producers only enhances what the wine producers are doing. It’s a win/win.
In Tasmania, we have an industry where people can still buy their own land and grow their own grapes – growers can be profitable on a small scale. What a bonus that to be a wine producer is still accessible if you have the dream. I’ve really enjoyed helping other people achieve their dreams and succeed.
Instead of being a producer I became a catalyst. It’s been very satisfying for me, to see the success of many of my students. The first courses I took were in 1994, and many of those students are still in the industry in the north and south. I’ve even run a couple of one year courses on the east coast with farmers back then who went on to become wine producers.”
Mark sits back, contented. He has a lot of memories to look back on, and many more to make, I’m sure. While he’s not exactly digging the dirt every day anymore, his contribution is valued far and wide, as his students leverage his knowledge, skills, and generous nature.
For the Tasmanian wine industry, Mark’s trajectory has been serendipitous, in spite of the heart condition that nearly finished him. And like all great teachers, Mark’s impact will live on far beyond anything even he could have dreamed. Like Chernobyl every cloud has a silver lining, and Mark has certainly found his.