Len Evans Award for Leadership winner 2008: Robert Hill Smith
The head of Yalumba has overseen an era of remarkable growth and innovation. His foresight and generosity of spirit make him a worthy recipient of this prestigious award.
There’s a touch of the lord of the manor about a dapper Rob Hill Smith enjoying the Barossa markets on a Saturday morning, greeting everyone with familiar ease. The style is not a long way from the highly professional, assured leadership that drives Australia’s oldest family winery, Yalumba, and the other entities that fall within Hill Smith’s bailiwick, especially Hill Smith Family Vineyards and Negociants International. Within this large organisation, teamwork is considered vital and decisions are the result of consensus rather than being handed down unilaterally. The low staff turnover is indicative of this leadership style and the generosity of spirit that accompanies it.
Yalumba is one of Australia’s most progressive wineries, engaging in innovative work on environmental sustainability and leading the field in the production of a strange pair: viognier and cask wine. Its Y Series is arguably the country’s most impressive range of budget-priced wines. At the same time, Hill Smith Family Vineyards is among the market leaders in the production of riesling (Pewsey Vale and Heggies) and sparkling wines (Jansz), while Oxford Landing is one of the country’s more exciting sub-$10 brands.
The leadership shown by Rob Hill Smith and Yalumba in releasing their Old Vine and Reserve charters in 2007 is all too rare in the wine industry. By entering the realm of practical philosophy, they sought to promote discussion and address consumer confusion that arose from the loose use of these terms.
The Old Vine Charter suggests the importance of preserving and promoting Australia’s old vines because of “their ability to make wines of great structure, concentration and power – with minimal intervention”.
In tackling the question of Reserve wines, Hill Smith and Yalumba suggest a definition of what consumers might expect: that it has a clear provenance, be available in limited quantity, and that its quality and ageworthiness are guaranteed. Importantly, it clearly details the steps that Yalumba will take so that any Reserve wine it produces matches that definition.
There are numerous other ways in which Hill Smith has shown leadership qualities above and beyond the norm during his time at Yalumba. In some cases, he has continued initiatives that have always been part of the way the family has done business; in other ways, he has been a brilliant innovator.
Hill Smith was Yalumba’s marketing manager in 1983 when Negociants Australia was set up under the direction of Brenton Fry. Initially, its brief was to import Burgundies and Bordeaux into Australia. Today, Negociants International is a multi-faceted exporter of Australian and New Zealand wines to the United States and Britain, and owns California’s Voss Vineyards and Marlborough’s Nautilus. Negociants has been critical to Australian and New Zealand wine lovers as an importer of fine wines from Europe, South Africa and the Americas. At the time it moved into the field, Australia had too few large, well-established importers of the world’s greatest wines.
Behind the establishment of Negociants’ Working with Wine Fellowship, there is a spirit of largesse and a desire to educate the trade by enhancing its knowledge of overseas wines. Set up in 1997 and now operating biennially, it is the most comprehensive wine education program offered in Australia.
A similar spirit underpins Yalumba’s scholarship to the Institute of Masters of Wine which annually enables a second-year MW student the opportunity to visit and study in Australia and “directly experience the Australian wine landscape”.
During Hill Smith’s time, the Yalumba plant nursery, established by his father Wyndham Hill Smith in 1975, has flourished. The first commercial plantings of the Bernard clones of chardonnay and pinot noir were established in 1989 and, from 1995, a collection of new varieties such as nebbiolo and sangiovese. Four years later, the importance of clonal selection was recognised in a program that sought to import clones from outstanding overseas vineyards and to preserve the best old vine material of shiraz, grenache, mataro, riesling and semillon from the Barossa and Eden valleys. Yalumba’s position as one of the two most significant plant nurseries in the country was reinforced with the setting up of its state-of-the-art propogation nursery in 2001.
Furthermore, under Hill Smith’s stewardship, Yalumba has taken a proactive role in driving the premium end of the cask wine market, in particular, with its championing of two-litre casks. A small player just 10 years ago, the casks now occupy a dominant position. Yalumba has also been at the forefront of moves to improve the quality of cask wine, clearly labelling the casks with best-before dates and using varietal names to describe the wine. Most of its casks are now vintage specific. As a result, there has been substantial and continued improvement in the quality of Yalumba casks over the past five years. In these terms, the casks dominate the white wine scene and the reds are moving closer to that position. Although this may not be the glamour end of the market, it still represents 45 per cent of wine consumed domestically.
Rob Hill Smith’s leadership qualities have driven Yalumba to the enviable position it occupies today as one of Australia’s most progressive and successful wine companies. For his perspicacity in looking at the wider industry picture and finding ways that he and Yalumba can contribute to the growth of the Australian wine industry, and for the spirit of generosity that underlies this, he is a worthy recipient of the Len Evans Award in 2008.
TEXT PETER FORRESTAL PHOTOGRAPHY DON BRICE/DONBRICE.COM
This article appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.