By Fergal Gleeson
I caught up with winemaker David Hohnen who has recently been awarded an Order of Australia. David was granted this honour for “significant service to the development of the Australian wine industry and as a promoter of the Margaret River Region”.
You might expect the founder of world renowned wineries like Cape Mentelle in Margaret River and Cloudy Bay in New Zealand’s Marlborough Region to be a smooth talking tycoon or to allow himself a little hubris but David Hohnen is resolutely down to earth and searingly honest.
“It was gratifying and humbling,” he says, of receiving the OA “I was totally humbled to be honoured along with Dawn Fraser for God’s sake! But I am very grateful!”
After studying winemaking in California, David along with his brothers Mark and Giles established the Cape Mentelle Vineyards in 1970, one of the founding wineries in Margaret River.
I asked him what he remembered of those early days at Cape Mentelle. “Margaret River was a little town and not a wealthy community,” he said “People worked in forestry, in the post office or on a dairy farm. A lot of the kids had to leave to get opportunities.”
“I remember the frustrations of my wife Sandy living in a small community.”
“I remember the workforce of local women who worked in the vineyards. There were very few part time opportunities for women at the time. They were reliable and cheerful whatever the weather! The local women were the backbone of Cape Mentelle.”
One of his proudest moments at Cape Mentelle was winning back to back Jimmy Watson trophies in 1983 and 1984. The Jimmy Watson Trophy is the most prestigious wine award in Australia and Cape Mentelle were the first to win consecutive awards since Wolf Blass in the mid 1970’s. “This was great for Cape Mentelle,” as David says “but it was even greater for the district. It gave Margaret River credibility overnight.”
He considers the acquisition of Cape Mentelle by Veuve Cliquot in 1992 to be even more significant. “This was an endorsement by a great French company of the region and the resources they had took Cape Mentelle to the world stage,” he says.
David has shown great instincts for what customers want, whether it was developing and promoting Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends or later Cabernet Merlot, rather than straight cabernets.
After being impressed by Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on a chance tasting, he became the first non resident to buy a vineyard in Marlborough to establish Cloudy Bay.
“It takes the courage of the individual” he says of taking risks “but also from those that backed me and provided the capital.”
I asked him if it was difficult for him to move on from Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay, two businesses that he grew from literally nothing to global recognition. “It wasn’t hard!” he says modestly “I was a winemaker trying to be a business manager. I didn’t enjoy it and I doubt I did it well.”
Since then he cofounded another Margaret River winery McHenry Hohnen. Now he is working on two other interests.
The first surprisingly is running a pig farm called The Farmhouse Margaret River.
“One of the rewards from the sale was that we were able to buy a beautiful farm. I was given a big red Tamworth sow which we called “Big Red” because of her red hair. We bought a boar and now we’ve got a lot pigs!”
Since then the Farmhouse range has grown considerably to include lamb, beef, sausages and small goods which are available at the McHenry Hohnen Cellar door as well as at the Margaret River Farmers Market every Saturday.
Apart from being arguably Australia’s best known pig farmer David’s other venture is Crackerjackwine, a wine broking business aimed at bringing the wines of south west Australia to the world by linking local wineries with the UK and Irish markets.
I asked him how he assesses where Margaret River is at today. “Western Australia accounts for just 5% of Australian wine production and Margaret River’s is just half of WA’s,” he says “But you have to ignore the numbers to understand the profile. Margaret River is one of the top 5 recognised Australian GIs (wine regions). The Margaret River region has a strong brand and it’s all our jobs to protect that brand.”
More at: www.thefarmhousemr.com.au
This article originally appeared in Your Margaret River Region Magazine. Photos courtesy of The Farmhouse and Cape Mentelle.