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Josef Chromy: A life in wine & food (Part 2)

The Wine business and JAC Group years

The Blue Ribbon float enabled Josef to form another group of companies, called the JAC Group, to invest in other industries within our economy. In 1994 the JAC Group waded into the Tasmanian Wine Industry, buying Heemskerk, Rochecombe & Buchanan Vineyards as well as establishing a completely new vineyard at Kayena. The Jansz sparkling wine was part of the acquisitions. Josef’s Heemskerk Wine Group effectively became the second major participant in the industry in Tasmania, with production ranking with the famous Pipers Brook Vineyards Limited. Many have enquired as to the reasons for Joe taking on another big challenge which the fledgling wine industry was. His response is that the wine industry in Tasmania, like the meat industry before it, was undergoing rationalisation where many participants were undercapitalised and unable to achieve the economies of scale necessary to take full advantage of wine making with Tasmania’s premium cool climate fruit. Joe had 30 years experience in creating scale, quality, yield and new markets and wasn’t about to waste it. The Rochecombe acquisition is a good example. Founded in the late 1980’s by Swiss vignerons, four out of its first five crops failed due to frost damage and it was in receivership. With the liquidation auction scheduled for late April 1994 Joe stepped in, and probably saved the vineyard from being “grubbed”. Within 6 months he had built a huge dam and installed a water sprinkler system covering 24 hectares to protect against frost. Big money spent but more than 10 years later the vineyard has never again been significantly frost affected. Joe was not a wine connoisseur but in the years prior to entering the business his palate had come to appreciate the distinctive quality of wines made from genuine cool climate grapes. Sparkling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all shine in Tasmania when given the right care and attention through all facets of growing the grapes and making the wines. A favourite wine? Joe maintains a cellar of the many award winning Tasmanian wines from his and other brands. “My favourite depends on my mood, the people I am sharing it with and the accompanying food”, Joe said. “95% of my favourite wines are Tasmanian”, he added.

In 1997 Josef was awarded the Medal of the Order Of Australia for services to the meat industry. 1997 also saw the Heemskerk Wine Group’s Heemskerk Chardonnay (1995 Vintage) awarded Winestate Magazine’s “Chardonnay of the Year”, beating 841 Chardonnay’s from Australia and New Zealand. The same year the US President Bill Clinton was sipping the 1993 Jansz sparkling wine for the whole evening at one of his dinners while visiting Australia. After several years of rapid expansion and innovation, using the best industry expertise available, the Heemskerk Wine Group was sold to Pipers Brook in early 1998 for $11 million as a prelude to that Company’s listing on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Testimony to Joe’s ability is the subsequent history of the main vineyards Joe bought and improved: Rochecombe first became the home of Pipers Brook Limited’s “Ninth Island” and is now “Bay of Fires”, the Tasmanian base for industry giant BRL Hardy. Heemskerk remains the home of the famous “Jansz” sparkling now owned by the prestigious Yalumba Wine Company of South Australia. Kayena evolved into the extraordinary “Tamar Ridge Wines” whose story evolves below. Josef retained his vineyard at Kayena which had been established under advice from one of Australia’s foremost viticulturalists, Dr Richard Smart who recommended the “Scott Henry” system of trellising, as yet untried in Tasmania. The 1998 vintage showed great promise and the decision was taken to expand again in the wine industry by building a winery under the new name Tamar Ridge Wines. During the period between 1998 to 2000 Joe also made significant investments into premium properties around Tasmania including the historic and architecturally significant Custom House in Launceston. After many years of relative neglect the Federal Government renovated the property to a high standard in 1998 and when it came on the market Joe purchased it to ensure it’s preservation into the future. The latter purchase brought to three his Heritage listed properties. Trinity House in the Glebe, Hobart, an 1842 convict built property which after starting life as a rectory fell into disrepair and then vacancy, was purchased in 1995 and renovated as serviced apartments. The JAC Group offices are also late victorian, having originally been built and occupied by members of the Gunn family. “I do love old buildings, Joe says, but they must have commercial as well as heritage value to be considered for purchase.”

Drawing on the undisputed potential Tasmania has as a true cool climate region, Tamar Ridge focused on production of premium and super-premium quality wines. This combined with the strategy to provide value for money for its customers saw the brands of Tamar Ridge Wines reach sales of 9,000 cases within the first twelve months from its launch in October 1999. The success of Tamar Ridge in the marketplace did not go unnoticed by the media and was captured by Chris Shanahan (The Canberra Times) who described the Tamar Ridge brand as “…. surely one of the most stunning, complete and instant wine-brand creations in the history of Australia’s wine industry.” The 1999 vintage for Tamar Ridge and its contract winemaking clients was processed through a newly built state-of-the-art winery. In March 2000 Josef Chromy experienced one of the most memorable moments in his life when he had the privilege to lunch with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at a table of ten during her visit to Tasmania. In 2001 the Tamar Ridge brands entered the prestigious portfolio of Tucker Seabrook, Australia’s largest independent wine distributor with over 150 years of experience. In his 2003 edition of the Australian Wine Companion noted wine writer and judge James Halliday elevated the winery to 5 stars, the highest rating, defined by Mr. Halliday as “an outstanding winery regularly producing exemplary wines”. The winery was only three years old!

In March 2003, Joe Chromy sold Tamar Ridge Wines to Tasmania’s largest company – Gunns Limited, in a bid to allow Tamar Ridge to achieve goals he always hoped and strived for and that are only attainable with the level of financial backing and business experience that a large company, such as Gunns Ltd, can provide. At the time of sale Tamar Ridge Wines had, over four short years, won 12 Trophies, 20 Gold, 36 Silver and in excess of one hundred Bronze medals in competitions around Australia. The vineyard spanned 65 ha under vines and the state-of-the-art winery was capable of processing 1200 tonnes of grapes per vintage. The company had also started to build export markets and shipped its wines to countries such as Canada, UK, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and many others.

Not long after the sale of Tamar Ridge Wines in July 2003, Josef acquired another vineyard dedicated to the growing and supply of grapes to other Tasmanian wine producers. Glenwood Vineyard, as it is currently called, includes 60 hectares of vines and is located on the southern outskirts of Launceston at Relbia. In receivership at the time of purchase, this is another carefully considered investment. Joe knew the potential of site through making wine from its grapes under contract and because of the excellence achieved by the few small vineyards nearby such as Bundaleera, Sharmans and Jinglers Creek. The site was also magnificent with the vineyard overlooking picturesque small lakes and out over White Hills to Ben Lomond. With all this only 10 kilometres from the city centre a new direction for Joe’s wine interests is planned – a boutique winery fronted by a magnificent cellar door/restaurant/function centre. Accommodation units around the lakes will complete the picture.

Approaching his seventy sixth birthday, Josef suffered a stroke in August 2005 which severely affected his speech. “At 80 years of age I perhaps should be easing up.” Joe said. “However my mind has always been and is still full of business ideas and I will keep on contributing. I enjoy both working and taking the time for holidays but I have never understood those who insist on completely separating their work and play.”Joe is still the driving force as Chairman of The JAC Group of companies and continues to focus on expansion and the introduction and implementation of new initiatives. Asked why all of his property investments were in Tasmania Joe replied “I came here with nothing but hope and ambition over 50 years ago. Tasmanians welcomed me and, with their help, I have been rewarded for the challenges and risks I have taken on in both the meat and wine industries. Loyalty is a quality I value highly and this definitely affects my investment decisions. We do at times look elsewhere but so far there has been sufficient quality opportunities in this State that I love.”Strongly supported by Alida, his wife of 55 years, Joe is not stopping yet.

Click here to find out more about the wines of Josef Chromy in British Columbia or click here for Alberta 

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