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Keeping the vision for Chateau Tanunda

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John Geber could talk the shell off a snail. This thought slid into my mind while he was talking about money. He’s one of those rich people who talks about money a lot.

Sometimes he talks about how hard it is to spend because it just plain hurts to see it go, other times he talks about how hard it is to spend it properly. Enjoyably. Like he talks about always flying economy, and he flies a lot. He’d rather spend the money when he gets there. “It’s only 20 hours on the plane,” he said.

John Geber. Photo supplied

John Geber. Photo by Philip White

In 1998, on a whim, John bought Château Tanunda. Having kicked off in diamond country in South Africa, he made a lot of money in the tea business and sought a new challenge. When he rang his Swiss wife Evelyn to tell her he’d bought a château, she asked how many bedrooms it had.

Little did she know.

The enormous Château had been allowed to run down to an almost terminal degree, and Southcorp/Penfolds (as it then was) trashed a container full of its priceless historical documents. All the history. All the records. Typically, that pre-Treasury Penfolds regime regarded this jewel of the Australian wine world as an unfortunate liability. It just wasn’t shiny enough.

At one stage it was set for demolition; at another it was to be converted to a posh hotel.

John wanted it to do what it was designed to do.

Ch Tanunda 125th 17 1200x600

Chateau Tanunda. Photo supplied

The story of how this incredible building came to be is breathtaking in its audacity and vision. It is a telling reflection on the bull-headed types of folk that set this colony on its feet. It silently boasts of the way men like John Geber were smart enough to see a chance, and rambunctious and rich enough to give it a proper go. Long may Bacchus bless them.

In the 1880s, the vineyards of Europe were still dying from the dreaded phylloxera root louse, and eager Australian wine businessmen saw an opportunity for export. The wine industry, however, was mainly small of scale and disorganised, with many peasant-sized growers – 560 in the Barossa – but little strong uniting leadership. Vineyards were expanding, but many grapes were left to rot in the good years. There simply wasn’t the winery space to use them.

In 1889, in The Inheritance in the Hills, George Sutherland suggested: “The great thing that is needed for the advancement of the wine industry is a large increase in the cellarage or storage. Any new investment of capital having this object in view would be gladly welcomed.”

In her forensic 1980 work, Winery Buildings in South Australia 1836-1936, the architecture historian Katrina McDougall offers perhaps the best source to discover the secrets of our old wineries. She explains that in 1888 Beaumont winemaker GF Cleland amalgamated his winery business with that of William Jacob of Moorooroo, Barossa, and went on to form GF Cleland and Co Ltd, which lured big investors and wine pioneers Sir Samuel and Lady Davenport, Dr and Mrs ED Cleland and CJ Horrocks. Together with many smaller investors, led by Barossa growers kingpin John Basedow, they raised £38,700.

That was an enormous amount of money. Especially when you consider that Australia was tumbling into a terrible depression. Foreign investors were tired of sinking money into the wild blue yonder down under for little quick return, and were recalling what was left of their money. The Great Maritime Strike was followed by the Australian Shearers’ Strike, and banks and building societies were beginning to fall like cards.

Fortunately for Cleland and his mates, the resultant unemployment supplied a lot of extremely cheap labour: the Barossa was populated by men who were handy with stonemasonry. The building supervisor was Basedow. They dug the schisty bluestone they needed from the quarry Bethany Wines now inhabits, and erected brick kilns at the front of the site they chose at the highest point of the Barossa Valley floor, overlooking some of the first Barossa vineyards.

Basedow and his men completed that vast edifice, the biggest building in the Southern Hemisphere, in 11 months. Builders of today take note.

The identities of the designer and architect, if there was one, went into that Southcorp skip. Whoever drew it, the plan was not only massive, with walls a metre thick at the ground, but ornate for factories of the day, and very easy, if mighty, on the eye.

Where the Flemish gable flourishes came from is anybody’s business; they add a strange but easy counterpoint to the austere Tudor arches. For some reason its brick-and-bluestone form reminds me of the much more decorative Model School architect Edward John Woods designed in 1872. Like the Château, it’s after the Roman villa form via the Gothic revival style of the day, and miraculously survives on the corner of Grote and Morphett Streets.

As far as winemaking technology went, the Château was a mixture of ancient and modern. Grapes were taken by steam-driven elevators to the destemmers and crushers before falling by gravity to the slate or timber fermenting vats and thence further down to smaller wood. The winery could handle 100 tons of fruit per day and held a million gallons. By 1902, exports totalled 80,000 gallons of Château Tanunda brandy and 700,000 gallons of wine at £1 per gallon.

John Geber’s fastidious restoration has seen the top floors converted to tasting and spacious, lofty entertainment areas, while downstairs it’s all winemaking apart from the cellar sales shop. The grounds have been exquisitely landscaped and planted, the courtyards cobbled with blue British basalt that came to Australia as ships’ ballast.

With all the waste concrete and stuff he cleared up, John filled the slope below the winery and made a full-sized cricket oval. Great battles are fought there by ancient cricket tragics, many of them very famous practitioners of the sport.

With typical mischief, John’s next plan is to build a pizza oven into the base of the omnipresent  chimney which provided exhaust for the boilers which in turn provided the steam to run all the factory’s engines and stills. This, he is convinced, will be the world’s tallest pizza oven. As it’s octagonal, its eight sides should make those pizzas highly popular among Taoist Chinese, who revere the bagua with its eight trigrams.

Which leads me to the wine. Holy Bacchus and Pan. This joint’s got it covered.

For starters, they make five red bargains exclusively for Dan Murphy’s. The cheapest ($15) is the Chorus Tempranillo Garnacha, made after the Rioja style. But there are bargains to be had at the winery: beautiful Riesling ($15); and all manner of reds, blended or straight. There are wines of many varieties over all price ranges, up to the ravishing 100 Year Old Vines Semillon ($49) and truly glorious The Everest Old Bush Vine Grenache ($195).

The crowning glory is the 150 Year Old Vines Field Blend, a tantalising bottle of Grenache, Mourvedre and Malbec grown, picked and fermented together from the vineyard David Randall established at his South Rhine Estate east of Springton between 1858 and 1873. This is one of the truly great and rare Australian treasures.

Speaking of vinous treasures, John Geber has every reason to talk. He is a fair dinkum wine king. I bow.

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