How the coronavirus reshaped this family’s wine business

By Indira Laisram
Rohit (left), Shashi (middle) & Devendra

When Shashi Singh started making wines at her Red Hill Estate property in the Mornington Peninsula nearly two decades ago, she toiled for years to finally produce great quality wines and expand their delivery footprint throughout Australia and overseas. Most of all, Shashi never imagined, not even in her wildest dreams, that ‘as a female Indian’ she would be making wines, growing grapes and owning a vineyard.

With the help of her husband Devendra and son Rohit, who also has a career in accountancy, she founded the labels Avani and Amrit. Made with the philosophy of minimal intervention, her brands hit the market and were received well by key sommeliers and stocked in a number of reputed restaurants in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. They were also exported in small batches to the UK, Hongkong, Shanghai, Osaka to name a few.

Indeed, 2014 onwards was a time of acceptance and growth with production at over 50 per cent. Rohit, who works part time with Shashi, says it was a growth trajectory they wanted to keep.

However, with the coronavirus pandemic, the Singhs have had to have a rethink on how they are going to do the business. It was in March when things appeared scary, says Rohit. And that is the time when work gets busy at the vineyard. Traditionally, the vineyard has always had a team of people working regularly but then came the realisation that there could be no casual staff as infection and transmission of the virus were real and they had to keep everyone safe.

Accepting the reality of what was to come, the Singhs decided to provide accommodation and have people who could commit themselves for five-six weeks at a stretch. They also took it as an opportunity to employ friends who wanted wine experience and also hired an Indian student who had lost his job. “It was very different experience and put everything in perspective,” says Shashi.

Shashi & Rohit

But apart from weathering the current crisis, they also faced a difficult growing season this year. Vintage started late March this year and finished by April end. That was due to the climate with periods of sunny days followed by torrential rains. “It meant that the ripening period kept getting longer and longer,” says Shashi.

From the quality perspective, though, long ripening means good quality wines. But while they got the ripeness, the quantity of fruit was lower. “It is one of those years when the quantity is down by 40-50 percent on our vineyard,” says Rohit.

With all things considered, the quality of 2020 wines that they are seeing in the barrel is cause for happiness. Shashi reflects that God works in different ways, the fruit was less and so they managed with few hands during this time.

Since May when they came out of vintage, the situation arising out of the virus was still evolving and traditional distributors were not able to do much during the lockdown, so they had to adopt the strategy of pivoting online unlike the past when they did not push their sales online.

“We introduced isolation wine packs that people could buy directly from our website. We created some special packs in batches of three, among them is the Syrah batch of 2017 which hadn’t been released to date, the 2015 vintage and our 2014 vintage, which was a unique year for us. It’s the wines you won’t find anywhere else and we are doing free deliveries in Victoria and New South Wales,” says Rohit.

The 10-acre Red Hill Estate property

How fast individual markets are able to sell and push the wine is important as business and life reopen haltingly from area to area. Which is why the Singhs re-looked at distribution and, luckily, saw new business coming through from a lot of other wine shops and restaurants that were doing things a little different during this period.

“But to be honest it has been hard because a majority of our clients are restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney. In Melbourne, it’s still a challenge, Sydney has opened up a bit more than normal. It’s still a bit challenging as we are down from our revenue,” admits Rohit.

It is as if the whole year has been besieged by an enemy. The Queen’s birthday in June, which is a huge Mornington Peninsula wine weekend, was cancelled but what Wine Australia did was enable people to go to cellar doors and restaurants with 20 patrons in one venue. They also changed the way people could do wine tasting. So instead of going to the bars at the wineries, there were only sit-down tasing.

It was a weekend in which Shashi thought they could elevate the wine tasting experience and saw an uptick in their ability to convert their wine sales as well.

“We actually thought that was a good thing because it allowed people to spend a bit more time with us,” says Rohit. “Going forward, whatever changes happen we are going to continue with that focus on sit down approach to wine tasting.”

But behind the worry of an uncertain future, there is optimism. In Shashi’s experience wine-making is a love affair, something that has her heart and soul in it.

She immigrated to Australia in the early 1980s to join her husband who was in the hospitality industry in Mornington Peninsula and has seen the wine scene burgeoning in the 1990s. When the opportunity arose and drawing on her farming heritage, it was a happy coincidence when they were able to buy their property to dedicate it to wine making.

Wine barrels

Prior to that, Shashi, a Master’s degree holder in Chemistry from India, enrolled at the Charles Stuart University to complete a double degree in wine, science and viticulture. Alongside her studies, she also worked as an apprentice winemaker for eight years with Philips Jones, owner of Bass Phillip Wines, and reputed to be Australia’s foremost maker of Pinot Noir.

Not many wine growers on the Mornington Peninsula are able to grow super cool climate Shiraz. This is where Shashi’s winemaking technique and working with Phillip Bass marry well. Today, her 10-acre property is dedicated to Syrah.

From 2009 through to 2015, Singh was focussed only on making Shiraz through its popular label Avani, the grapes of which are grown in the estate itself. In the past five years, she has expanded her production to make Amrit, her second brand, which includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and skin contact Pinot Gris—all from grapes they bring from other sites in the Peninsula. But the winemaking is consistent across both brands and made with little intervention at the property.

It is all very thoughtful craft.  “The biggest decision that I take is when to pick the grapes because I want to preserve the natural acidity of the wine. That is important. I use natural acidity, no filtration, no addition of commercial enzymes,” says Singh.

With the family’s commitment to ethical hard work, the Singhs have a niche position with their wines as an expression of the land on which it is raised. They are proud products of regional Australia. The forbidding nature of COVID-19 is, hopefully, just a temporary stumbling block to their business.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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