Are winemakers the new celebrity chefs? Nah. They’re far more fabulous! Here are the 2017 finalists for the Winemaker of the Year Award.
This award recognises a female winemaker who has made an outstanding contribution to the Australian wine industry over the last 18 – 24 months.
This award is proudly sponsored by
Jo Marsh and Alex Phillips, Billy Button Wines
Jo studied an Agricultural Science (Oenology) Degree at the University of Adelaidein 2001. She graduated winning the SA Wine and Brandy Commission Silver Medal, R.H. Martin Memorial Prize for Sensory Evaluation and the Hyatt/Advertiser Award for highest fourth year aggregate. Off to a good start, then.
She secured a position in Southcorp Wines’ (now Treasury Wine Estates) Graduate Recruitment Program, working at Penfolds Nuriootpa, Rosemount Denman andLindemans Karadoc over a period of two years. In 2003 she was appointed Assistant Winemaker at Seppelt Great Western. In 2005 she was promoted to winemaker and took on responsibility for the traditional method sparkling wines, notably Seppelt Salinger and Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz. In addition to managing operational winemaking for red and white table wines. In 2007 Jo crossed the Pacific Ocean and worked a vintage with Beringer Wines in the Napa Valley. After vintage the following year she was promoted to acting Senior Winemaker, managing all aspects of winemaking on site.
In 2009 she won the Graham Thorp Memorial Scholarship as winemaker for the Best Sparkling Wine at the Sydney Royal Wine Show with the 2005 Seppelt Salinger – the very first sparkling wine Jo produced. And in 2010 Jo worked a vintage with Frédéric Magnien in Burgundy.
The year 2011 was a big one for Jo. She won the Member’s Choice and Sommelier’s Choice at the Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year Awards and was selected to participate in the prestigious Len Evans Tutorial Scholarship. But with a heavy heart, that year Jo made the difficult decision to leave Seppelt and went on the hunt for the next big thing. Turns out that thing was to join Feathertop Wines in Porepunkah as Head Winemaker, and this is where Jo fell in love with the Alpine Valleys. Jo elevated Feathertop to a 5-star James Halliday-rated winery and realised her dream of making exciting wines with exciting varietals in this gorgeous cool-climate region of Victoria.
After a few great years in Porepunkah, Jo began to think big. She departed Feathertop and in 2014, it was time to step up and realise an even bigger dream – to create her own wines under her own label on Alpine Valleys turf. And thus, Billy Button Wines was born.
In her spare time, Jo is a regular show judge at Royal Melbourne Wine Awards and Sydney Royal Wine Shows among other regional shows. She also organises the North East Victorian Wine Challenge and is a committee member of the Alpine Valleys Vignerons Association
Alex studied an Agricultural Science Degree with a double major in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Graduating she was awarded with the South African Society for Enology and Viticulture best academic student 2013 and the Prof van der Bijl medal awarded annually to one of two best students who obtained the degree BScAgric. She also scored an invitation the Golden key International Honours Society.
Starting her practical career under the mentorship of Adam Mason at Mulderbosch vineyards, Stellenbosch, she then decided to travel, coming to Australia in 2014 for an extended harvest at Kirrihill in the Clare Valley. Enjoying the Aussie experience Alex decided to spend some time travelling and working in rural Victoria, ending in the Alpine Valleys.
After a stint back home and a harvest at Steenberg Vineyards in Cape Town the travel bug bit again and a harvest at Girard Winery, Sonoma California, followed. The North east was calling though so in January 2016 she made her way back to the Alpine Valleys to pursue the exciting opportunities Billy Button and the region has to offer.
Jo and Alex work well as a team. Together they produce 22 single variety wines for Billy Button alone, covering a diverse range of winemaking styles and techniques every season, handling over 25 varieties. Each parcel of fruit is treated individually and divided, where possible, into smaller batches that are later blended. They are hands on winemakers involved in every action from start to finish, enjoying to get their hands (and sometimes feet) dirty in the name of good wine.
Being small batch winemakers every step of the process from deciding when to pick to stirring barrels and dispatching orders relies entirely on them and they meet the challenge with enthusiasm. It is a team effort that neither could do alone.
Shavaughn Wells, Saltram Wines
Shavaughn grew up on a vineyard in Victoria’s Merbein; her grandfather was a Winemaker and Managing Director of Mildara Wines who introduced Shavaughn to a world of wines – both catalysts for her early affinity for wine.
Completing an Oenology degree at the University of Adelaide, Shavaughn followed in her grandfather’s footsteps undertaking her first vintage at Mildara in Merbein in 1997. In the late 1990s she moved to Mildara’s Coonawarra winery, and in 2000 made sparkling wines at Yellowglen.
With a move back to Victoria in 2001 Shavaughn worked for Yarra Ridge and St Huberts, with a vintage in-between in Limoux in France. In 2003 she joined the white wine team at Wolf Blass, until 2005 when she started at Saltram and has proudly remained since.
For the past decade Shavaughn has been on the Barossa Wine Show Committee and is currently its co-Chairman.
Shavaughn’s contribution to the Australian wine industry and winemaking talent continue to be recognised. In 2017 she was inducted as a Baron of Barossa for her outstanding contribution to the Barossa wine region. In 2016 she was awarded the title of Australian Winemaker of the Year by Winestate Magazine – an honour given to the winemaker who produces the largest number of high ranking wines over the course of the year. In 2013 Shavaughn won Winemaker of the Most Outstanding Red Wine at the Adelaide Wine Show for the 2010 Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz, and in 2008 she received a coveted invitation to participate in the Len Evans Tutorial.
Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix
“Make the wines you love to drink” is Virginia’s philosophy. “As winemakers we scour the world to find those rare and precious wines we will most love. So at Vasse Felix, with our pristine environment and historic vineyards we must strive to make just that. To hone a distinctive style that is unique and special, that people all over the world will look for.”
Virginia Willcock is an overtly passionate winemaker who has now spent 26 vintages in Margaret River, mixed with international vintages in Italy (Tentino/Alto Aldige, Sicily and Abruzzo), Albania and New Zealand (Marlborough).
She has been Chief Winemaker at Margaret River’s founding wine estate, Vasse Felix, since October 2006. During this time, she and her wines have received extraordinary accolades in major wine markets Australia, the UK and the USA. Virginia is known for her meticulous and unwavering attention to detail in the winery. She has an insatiable curiosity about the role microbiology in grapes and vineyards play in making more environmentally expressive wines. This has driven the revolutionary development in winemaking style at Vasse Felix and served as inspiration for many other producers around Australia – especially her work with wild-yeast fermentation in Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. “Letting go has been the focus, over giving it a go,” Virginia says.
Virginia is driven to tell the world about Margaret River Cabernet and Chardonnay with no holds barred.
Virginia is one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia, having been named ‘Gourmet Traveller WINE Australian Winemaker of the Year’ in 2012 (she was also a finalist in 2010) and ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by The West Australian Good Wine Guide 2013. Virginia was also nominated as ‘Winemaker of the Year’ in Wine Enthusiast Magazine USA’s 2014 Wine Star Awards and the ‘Winemaker of the Year’ in the ASVO (Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology) Award for excellence 2016.