If you could create a caricature of an Australian winemaker then David Hohnen, the man behind the iconic Cape Mantelle, Cloudy Bay and McHenry Hohnen brands, would be pretty close to the mark. Blunt, to the point and by his own admission “grumpy looking” but with a sense of humour sharp enough to cut through any conversation. Joe Fattorini caught up with him last weekend on his Margaret River farm just a couple of days before it was announced he is to receive the Order of Australia.
David Hohnen might be one of Australia’s most respected and award winning winemakers, but, as Joe Fattorini discovers, he’s just as happy talking about his pigs and nearly as successful meat business.
Where do you find a man just awarded Member of the Order of Australia for his “significant service to oenology, the development of the Australian wine industry, and a promoter of the Margaret River region”? It’s not in a winery. You’ll find him behind a display case of sausages. And chops. And cutlets. On a breezy Saturday in the Margaret River Farmers Market. David Hohnen is fighting with a bulldog clip, trying to stop the stand’s sides flapping in the wind.
Hohnen loves it. It’s a change of gear from creating and developing some of the world’s best-known wines: Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay and McHenry Hohnen. Then selling the first two in a deal that Jancis Robinson MW said “changed the shape of the global commercial wine map”.
Hohen chats about those days. But first he wants to tell you about his meat business, The Farmhouse Margaret River, and his “Big Red” herd of pigs . The herd is named after his original sow, Big Red. It’s apt. David, and Cape Mentelle, leapt to fame by winning consecutive Jimmy Watson Trophies for the 1982 and 1983 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon. He remains one of only two people with consecutive Jimmy Watson wins. (The other was Wolf Blass in the early seventies). But Big Red was actually a reference to his original sow’s Tamworth Red breed.
Interviewing Hohen last Saturday, you’d not know he was about to receive one of Australia’s highest honours by Monday. “My normal look is grumpy. But I’m laughing on the inside.”
He has a reputation for an extraordinary work ethic. His working life began as a jackaroo on a farm in the remote Western Australian outback. He then tried his hand learning engineering but didn’t like it. So he disappeared with his motorbike on a P&O ship to California to learn winemaking in Fresno. Characteristically, he left when he’d learned everything he needed, rather than doing an extra year to graduate. But he was no slouch as a student. By his final semester he was earning money as a part-time teaching assistant within the school.
Hohen leads a short tour around his smokehouse. It’s filled with impressive – and expensive – machinery. “I always buy German kit. They don’t muck around.” And answers every question with an almost caricature Australian bluntness. How much can the smoker accommodate? “I don’t know… shitloads.”
It’s a long way from Hohen’s frugal early days at Cape Mentelle. In the early 1970’s Hohen and his brothers converted old steel tanks from “The Sunny West Cheese Company” to become storage tanks. The fermentation vats were converted shipping containers from Hardy’s. The joint cost of the all cars they used during harvest was less than half the price of a single French oak barrel.
But they put the money where it would make a difference. And left the legacy recognised in Hohnen’s honour. Cape Mentelle was many people’s first experience of wine from Western Australia. The unique rammed earth building technique of the Cape Mentelle “Shed” may have been a money saving idea. But it has remarkable temperature modulating properties. It blends into the landscape and is environmentally sustainable. Today Rammed Earth buildings are characteristic of the Margaret River area.
And Hohnen’s influence on wine went beyond the Margaret River or even Australia. All supported by his brother Mark’s financial acumen. The Jimmy Watson Trophies brought in money. And eventually enough to begin Cloudy Bay, although it had an inauspicious start. In 1984 The New Zealand Government offered $5,000 an acre to pull vines. And David and Mark had to borrow a million dollars at 24% interest. But they persevered. Mark refinanced. And the wine won fans around the world.
Among them Jancis Robinson MW, who featured an airborne interview with David Hohnen in Episode 4 of her television Wine Course. In which Hohnen recreates the original view he saw at Cloudy Bay, including the outline of Mount Riley, that became the famous label design (you can see the full episode he appears in here which is worth a half an hour trip back to 1995).
Today Hohnen is still involved in wine. Crackerjack is a negociant/broking business selling to UK and Irish retailers. And he still has strong views. He offers them firmly, but fairly. He has little time for the fashion for “skinsy wines” and “won’t drink orange wine”. But he does admire the “spirit” behind them. He doesn’t have a lot of time for the description “natural and low intervention winemaking” either. Not because he doesn’t think it’s right. But because “in the old days that was just what we called wine. It’s just how we did it. We didn’t need to give it a name.”
He’s also a keen champion of women as wine shoppers, influencers and decision makers. From the earliest days David understood the critical importance of women as decision makers in wine. Today he is keen to make notes of female influencers in the UK he should contact and build relationships with. He asks after Helen McGinn, declaring The Knackered Mothers’ Wine Club a work of “genius”. On the other hand, he laments the very poor representation of women in the Australian meat business.
I interviewed David Hohnen on Saturday in Australia. By the time I land in the UK on Monday morning, the announcement has come out that he’s received the letters OA after his name. I drop a text. I say I was sorry we didn’t get the chance to watch the rugby together. And offer many congratulations on the award, finishing, “if I’d known I’d have bowed”. The reply comes straight back, “Steady on Joe. Let’s get real. 5am off to abattoir with eight hogs. The real world. It was a great morning with you. Get the rugby on the itinerary. OK? Dave”.