The Leeuwin story began with plumbing
As you watch the tiny yellow-and-black honeyeaters busy in the beautiful scarlet-flowered grevilleas beside the entrance to the Leeuwin winery and restaurant, it can be hard to believe that all his began with a Perth plumbing company.
But that is what Denis Horgan bought back in 1969. An enterprising, occasionally controversial, Perth businessman, married to Trish and with four young children, Denis had also been a surfer who loved the Margaret River waves.
“There was a cattle property with the plumbing business,” he said.
“I loved the area. I bought the company, sold the plumbing and kept …this.”
Many of the trees are 100 years old. Denis knows three that may be a thousand years old.
In 1973, the enterprise took on another dimension. Denis got a call from a solicitor who said two Americans wanted to talk to him. One was Robert Mondavi. A secretary was dispatched to the State Library to find out about him.
“She came back with the news that Mondavi was just about the most innovative man in the world’s wine industry, he’d been on the cover of Time magazine,” Denis said.
They met, a partnership was structured and Mondavi became Denis’s mentor over the next five years. The course of Leeuwin Estate, enshrined in its motto “The art of fine wine” was set. The Horgans went to look at Mondavi’s sprawling mission-style winery in California, its style and elegance, and at other wineries in other parts of the world.
“If you want to compete with the best, you’d better have a look at them. Our emphasis from the start was to combine wine with the arts – we wanted an arena in which arts could happen – and to win international recognition for our wines. That meant more finesse in the style of wine than the domestic market at the time wanted.”
Stan Heritage, an experienced viticulturalists, oversaw the first plantings in 1974. The most available casual labour in the area was surfies, and whether they turned up to plant cuttings depended on the state of the waves. Sometimes their competence was compromised by fatigue or the effects of smoking certain substances. Stan was known to become exasperated every now and then when he found a precious vine cutting in the ground upside down, its roots drying in the sun.
Bob Cartwright, who had worked in both the Barossa and Swan Valley, became winemaker in 1978, John Brocksopp the viticulturalists and they stayed in a successful partnership to get the best things happening both among the vines and in the winery. Like other people making wine in this new part of the world, Leeuwin has had its setbacks, but from the beginning it set targets that Margaret River, indeed Western Australia, had not seen. They developed 220 acres over five years.
Leeuwin’s first chardonnay, the 1980, with a label painted by Robert Juniper, is the only Leeuwin wine to have been entered into an Australian wine show. It won a gold medal in Sydney and in 1982 was judged best in the world by Decanter magazine in Britain.
“We cellar our wines for as long as possible prior to release and are on the market with vintages older than most other producers; we aim for consumers’ appreciation rather than show recognition,” Denis said.
He acknowledges that even now, Margaret River contributes only a small percentage of Australia’s wine production and exports, compared with the Eastern states companies.
“We’re in a different industry to them. But the world is out oyster. All of our increased production should go into the overseas markets.”
Like other Margaret River marriages, the Horgans’ is an equal partnership. Trish has run the concerts since they started in 1985. They had previously asked the WA Symphony Orchestra, Ballet and Opera to perform in their open-air auditorium; none of them did. In 1984 the Director of the Festival of Perth, David Blenkinsop, asked the Horgans to under-write the considerable cost of bringing out the London Philharmonic Orchestra for an Australian tour. They agreed on the condition that the orchestra play at Leeuwin.
Friends thought they were mad.
“One good mate came and said to me he’d been delegated by our friends to try talk us out of it. We’d have 20 people watching the London Philharmonic Orchestra and they’re be outnumbered by the orchestra five to one.”
They were not talked out of it. Over 100,000 people have now been to Leeuwin Concerts, and the concerts themselves have probably taken Margaret River’s name to more people around the world than anything else. They became more eclectic when in 1988 they tried to get the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, couldn’t and asked blind singer and pianist Ray Charles instead.
In 1990, the Leeuwin verve showed its mettle. The concert boasted two superstars, New Zealand soprano Kiri te Kanawa and Irish flute virtuoso James Galway. One the night, it rained buckets. The Leeuwin staff broke out hundreds of umbrellas, as well as plastic garbage bags which VIPs donned over their dinner jackets and long frocks and everyone had a memorable time.
But typically, in case it happens again, Leeuwin now has a supply of plastic ponchos.
“We found that with umbrellas, you might be OK but the person next to you was getting more than their share of water so we’ve tried to find a better answer,” said Denis.
In 1997, Shirley Bassey played two concerts on successive nights, attended by 10,000 people in perfect weather.
There are many other aspects to Leeuwin: the art on its walls and on its bottle labels, international dinners, top-flight wine tastings. Trish is now managing director of Leeuwin Estate, eldest daughter Simone handles public relations. Justin is finance controller, Christian works part-time, Rebecca has been involved in concerts. Denis said he was ‘a consultant’. He spends a lot of time flying internationally to talk about Leeuwin Estate.
But the basis of it all is excellent wine. If the setting is as breathtaking as it is, people who come have high expectations of the wine.