While many people don’t develop an appreciation for fine wine until they’re well into adulthood, Darren Rathbone has fond memories of enjoying small sips of his father’s wine as a child. “It was Dad who first got me interested in tasting wine. Often, on special occasions, when I was young, I would try a taste from his glass,” he recalls. “I can remember one Christmas Day when I was about 10 years old. After lunch, Dad opened a bottle of Grange. He poured me a small glass and I got to have a taste with him.”
Darren’s passion for wine was further fuelled in 1995, when his father Doug and uncle Graeme purchased a property in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, which they named Laura Barnes. After graduating from chemical engineering at Melbourne University, Darren happily got his hands dirty planting a vineyard on the land.
“Dad asked me if I was interested in getting involved in the wine industry and starting a family business,” Darren says. “We saw Laura Barnes as too big to be a hobby, but too small to be a real business. Yering Station came on the market and had so much potential.” When the Rathbones took over in 1996, Yering Station was a dairy farm with a small vineyard and cellar door. However, Darren and his father knew it could be so much more, envisioning a must-visit tourist destination that would showcase both Yering Station’s wines and the Yarra Valley.
While Darren’s science background helped in the winemaking process, he also spent time in California studying oenology. “Chemical engineering is about taking a raw material and processing it to become a finished product. Winemaking is about taking grapes and turning them into wine. There is obviously an art to it, but it’s very much a chemical and biological process,” he explains.
Soon after purchasing Yering Station, the Rathbones partnered with Champagne Devaux in France to create Yarrabank, one of Australia’s finest sparkling wines. “The partnership came together very quickly,” Darren says. “Using their expertise in sparkling wine making, and our facility and connections to the vineyards, we have been able to make a fantastic product.”
Darren and Doug further expanded the business when they acquired Mount Langi Ghiran in Victoria’s Grampians region in 2002, followed by Xanadu in Margaret River, Western Australia, in 2005. While the Rathbone Wine Group has grown considerably, their commitment to quality hasn’t wavered.
“From the start, we said we would not compete in a mass-produced, high-volume part of the market, but instead be focused on quality and making great wine. Our vision statement is to be internationally recognised as a great producer of super-premium wine, to be recognised for the quality of everything we do,” Darren says.
“We own amazing vineyards that produce flavours that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Having great properties where customers can experience our wines at both our restaurants and cellar doors is hugely important. It reflects our commitment to quality and gives us a personal connection to our consumers.”
“We own amazing vineyards that produce flavours that cannot be replicated anywhere else.”
The Rathbone Wine Group also owns Melbourne-based company 14 Degrees Logistics. “Having storage facilities to hold our wine in a central location allows us to freight our products efficiently,” Darren says, adding that their strong partnership with Triangle Logistics Management is crucial to their success.
“Triangle Logistics has been working with us to coordinate all our transport and logistics. It’s a thankless part of the business. Everyone expects it to be seamless and when it works well, no-one notices it, but when something goes wrong, it can be a disaster.”
As Darren looks back on the past 20 years, he pinpoints the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires as one of the most difficult periods. “The Yarra Valley was on fire and it was devastating for so many people,” he says.
“We lost vineyards and substantial crops. Many people lost a lot more. We responded to the immediate crisis by making sure people were safe, and then we worked on how to make the best wine we could from what was left.”
Luckily, the good times have far outweighed the bad, and Darren can’t wait to see what the future holds. “The wine industry attracts passionate people. We have a great team and I love leading them. There are always new challenges and every season is different, so every wine is different, and they all present new problems to solve. I’m continually learning,” he smiles.
“I remember travelling in Spain with my family in 2005. We visited a winery just outside Barcelona and met the family who owned it. They asked us when our family started in the wine industry, and our answer was 1995. When we asked them the same question, their answer was 1325. That was both humbling and inspiring.
I don’t have a 700-year plan, but I want to create something timeless. We are 20 years into building something that I hope will stand the test of time – to be one of the great wine companies of the world.”
Juggling his dual responsibilities as CEO and winemaker has proved challenging for Darren, but he credits his dedicated team with making that easier. “I have very limited time to be hands-on in the vineyard and wineries, but I do spend significant amounts of time in the production side of the business, always working to improve the products we are making,” he says.
“Many members of our team have been with the business for more than 10 years, and some for almost 20. When you are part of a team for that long, you build strong friendships and a great level of trust. I have confidence that when I’m away from any section of the business for a time, I know that what needs to get done will be done very well.”
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