Despite losing Petaluma to Lion Nathan, Brian Croser is still the Australian wine industry's leading light, writes JOHN STIMPFIG
Brian Croser will never forget the moment he lost control of his beloved Petaluma Group. It was September last year and he’d been invited to a breakfast meeting in Adelaide with Gordon Cairns, chairman of brewing giant Lion Nathan. A year previously, the brewers had expressed a strong interest in Petaluma, but Croser never imagined they would attempt a hostile bid. Unfortunately he was wrong. The first thing Cairns said was that he had to read from a letter constructed by his lawyer. ‘At that point, I knew it was all over,’ says Croser.
Even now an uncharacteristically subdued Brian Croser still hasn’t come to terms with Cairns’ bombshell takeover. ‘At the time, I felt sort of numb and anaesthetised about what was going to follow. I accepted what was said, but didn’t want to think through the implications.’
Instinctively, Croser wanted to fight. But when that proved futile against Lion Nathan’s superior firepower, he had to decide whether to stay or go. He took two agonising months to decide whether to accept the offer of chief winemaker. ‘I thought long and hard about whether I could watch over the shoulder of someone else making decisions about my assets. But, in the end, what brought me to the table were the 300 or so people in the company. Equally, having invested all that time and effort into these irreplaceable vineyards, I just couldn’t bear to be separated from them.’
Which is why he’s still at Petaluma, sort of running the show but not really. When I ask him about the new role he replies diplomatically ‘let’s say, I’m learning to cope with ambiguity.’
But you can tell he’s gritting his teeth. And who can blame him after such a glittering career. Indeed, it’s arguable whether anyone has done more for the Australian wine industry as a winemaker, entrepreneur, consultant, lobbyist, visionary, educator, academic and strategist. And that includes his old mate, the mighty Len Evans.
After a degree at Adelaide and postgraduate studies at Davis, he began as head winemaker at Hardy’s in the early 1970s. In 1976 he quit to establish a Wine Science and Viticulture course at Riverina College and set up Petaluma. Two years later he found Petaluma’s first ‘Distinguished Site’ in the Piccadilly Valley and turned the company into a joint venture with Evans. He also created a new consulting company with Tony Jordan called Oenotec which specialised in offering technical advice to wineries and helped kickstart and sustain the Australian wine revolution.
Ironically though, the point of Petaluma was to produce vineyard-specific wines that spoke of terroir rather than technology.
‘People called me a technocrat because of our work at Oenotec. But on the Petaluma side, we’re really quite low-tech. Yet we have a lot of scientific insight into each step of the grape growing and winemaking process. That way, you can still make the correct decision to be non-interventionist.’
Petaluma thrived during the 1980s and 1990s based largely on this philosophy. Its Clare Rieslings, Piccadilly Chardonnays and Coonawarra reds continued to garner praise and sales. In 1984, Brian Croser produced its first sparkler and bought the historic Bridgewater Mill. Then in 1985 Bollinger came on board as a shareholder, bringing extra capital and expertise.
Thereafter, press releases announcing new brands, distribution arrangements and winery purchases came thick and fast. In 1993, Brian became executive chairman of Petaluma and saw the company through its stock exchange listing.
With the money raised came further acquisitions: Tim Knappstein, Michelton, Smithbrook and Stonier. Finally, in 2000, Brian Croser and Rollin Soles sold Argyle, their brilliant operation in Oregon, into Petaluma.
Croser admits he never really enjoyed the business side of things. ‘It becomes necessary to achieve all the other things like selling and re-investing. I got locked into that cycle. I don’t think I’m terrible at it and don’t regret it, but it’s not my forte,’ he says. Nonetheless, in 1994, the Australian Financial Review picked him as Chief Executive of the Year for South Australia and in 1997 he was chosen as the Rabobank Agribusiness Leader of the Year.
But Petaluma is only half the story. There is no doubt that Croser’s dynamic vision and leadership has fundamentally changed the direction of the Australian wine industry. Perhaps this is because he has sat on virtually every industry committee, forum or strategy group going (some of them he even created).
For instance, as President of the Winemakers Federation of Australia he virtually camped out in Canberra for 65 days to resist government proposals to increase the wholesale tax on wine. He was a member of the 1995 Industry Commission Inquiry and, along with Evans, conceived the 2005 strategy document.
Of course, his mantelpiece is heaving with silverware. Apart from the business gongs, he was given the Maurice O’Shea Award in 1997 and in 2000 was made an Officer of the Order of Merit for service to the Australian Wine Industry.
AWAY FROM THE PUBLIC EYE
Brian Croser claimed to have left all the high-profile public stuff in 1999 when he became deputy chancellor of the University of Adelaide. ‘It’s vitally important work but much more low key,’ he says. However, his efforts to remain out of the limelight are somewhat hampered by his role as acting chairman of the National Wine Center, which he is passionately in favour of. It seems he just can’t help himself.
But now he’s not so focused on Petaluma, the big question is what will Croser do next. ‘I’m only 54 and people keep telling me Mondavi restarted his business at the same age. My problem is that I’ve only ever had one central goal and vision, which was Petaluma. When you remove control of that, it leaves a big gap on the horizon.’ Yet as Croser admits, he has lots of choice in life, a fair bundle of cash and control of the great Tiers Vineyard (owned by his wife).
He also acknowledges that there are other upsides of the takeover. ‘The financial pressure’s off and Lion Nathan has a lot of capital. Plus it means I can think more academically and develop some of the opportunities for Petaluma that now exist.’ Perhaps most of all, he’s relieved that Lion Nathan has so far broadly adopted the company’s core values.
‘The trouble is I won’t be in control,’ he says. ‘So I’ll do something else in parallel with Lion Nathan or independently.’ As you might expect, the phone has hardly stopped ringing with offers and ideas.
But Croser isn’t giving away his game-plan. ‘I’ve never been attracted to the mainstream. In Clare we went for Riesling, which was unfashionable and in surplus all over Australia. When we bought Michelton, it was on its uppers. Goulburn Valley is one of the great areas for Rhône varietals, but again, it’s not mainstream. Similarly, we chose Pemberton not Margaret River. And Oregon not California.’
Your guess is as good as mine. But Croser did say he might like to put a unique spin on something conventional, maybe Old World. ‘Aaawww, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel all the time. You can get a lot out of polishing something that has languished. It’s something I’ve never had the pleasure of doing,’ he says with a glint in his eye and a grin on his face.