You might say that wine runs through the Gilbert family’s veins. Simon Gilbert, owner and founder of Gilbert Family Wines, boasts a winemaking heritage that dates back to the early 1840s.
Simon’s love for the craft was originally sparked from his family’s history and has evolved into the passion that fuels the thriving business he runs today. His mission is a simple one: “to create amazing wines to be enjoyed by everyone.”
A family’s legacy
In 1847, Simon’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph Gilbert, established the first vineyard and winery in Eden Valley, South Australia, and he is recognised as being the first to plant Riesling in Australian soil. His wines would eventually become known for their excellence, receiving extensive international awards.
Driven with a determination to continue his family’s winemaking tradition and armed with an educational background in oenology (the science and study of wine and winemaking), Simon spent over ten years working in all aspects of wine production—from the horticultural side of grape growing to the understanding of how to “take it to the table.”
Then, in 2004, after several years of working as a wine consultant, Simon, along with his son, Will, embarked on the journey of building his own family winery, proud to be carrying on his family’s legacy as a fifth-generation winemaker.
Simon’s winery is located in Mudgee, just three and a half hours from Sydney. Amongst the oldest viticultural regions in Australia, Mudgee is characterised by moderate seasonal temperatures and slow ripening providing the ideal conditions to cultivate a complexity and depth to the flavour and quality of Simon’s wine.
Producing a wide variety of wine, Simon also pays homage to his great-great-grandfather with a unique brand of Riesling, which he proudly labels: “one of our hero varieties.”
An award-winning craft
With distribution across Australia and now internationally across China, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark, USA and UK, Gilbert Family Wines has achieved a healthy balance of slow and steady expansion that has flourished into an award-winning business.
Simon’s marketing strategy is prudent and relies on the quality and integrity of the product to drive growth. He shares, “We’re not out there spending big money on advertising and promotions; one can burn through a lot of money taking that approach.”
Instead, he embraces a more organic style through word of mouth and building a solid reputation. Sara Heslop, head of marketing at Gilbert Family Wines, explains, “We do a lot of direct marketing through tastings or events and fairs to try to get the product in the hand of the consumer.”
She continues, “We’re not mass marketing but being very target-minded with our approach. It’s lots of bits and pieces that are producing great results.”
In addition, they frequently send their product out to wine experts and critics, which has led to exemplary reviews and articles from highly respected people in the industry.
They’ve also participated in numerous national and international wine shows. Simon proudly shares, “Over the last eight to nine months, we’ve been really successful, picking up 7 or so trophies, over 30 golds, and countless silver and bronze awards.”
Fuelling a passion into a career
Simon’s passion for what he does is evident. When asked to choose a few top points about being an entrepreneur, he stresses how much he enjoys being his own boss and states, “We’re in control of our own destiny.”
He continues, “It’s not just about the winemaking. It’s about driving a brand. We’re driving something from the ground up. We’re driving it ourselves, and we plan on growing it—not just nationally but internationally as well—and that’s exciting.”
As with most endeavours, Simon has had to listen to his share of naysayers and push through opposing criticism to stay true to his vision and goals.
For example, when he and Will embarked on creating their own Rosé several years ago, he shares, “We had a lot of winemakers say, ‘Simon, it will never sell. It’s too dry … too pink ... not red enough.’ And now, we are one of the leading smaller Rosé producers in the country.”
The number of staff at Gilbert Family Wines is relatively small, fluctuating slightly depending upon the season.
“We like to employ like-minded people. You have to have interpersonal relationships with your staff and have a good understanding between yourself and your employees,” states Simon.
In addition to fostering good relationships with his staff, Simon also encourages them to speak up. He shares, “We want people to express their opinions, and we’ll sit down and listen. We haven’t got the answers for everything at all; we’re still learning.”
They also host a number of budding winemaker enthusiasts who come from all around, including overseas, to work during the vintage season and gain valuable knowledge and experience of the craft. Simon shares that it’s truly rewarding “to see young people develop a passion for wine that Will and I do and see them grow and move on when they’re ready.”
Most of all, Simon is excited to see Will grow up and exude the same passion and excitement to pursue the family business and carry on the legacy. “I am truly proud to have Will working alongside me in our family business ... to interact with and pass my knowledge onto him, about both our family heritage and the industry,” states Simon.
The Cellar by Gilbert
It’s evident that Simon not only has a love for wine, but also for celebrating the community it fosters. This is truly personified through their tasting room, The Cellar by Gilbert. Here wine connoisseurs from all over the world enjoy a warm atmosphere designed to produce a culture of long lunches with friends enjoying Gilbert wines, fresh local produce, and a seasonal shared-style menu. All this is topped off by the glow of an open wood fire both outside and inside.
Also, those truly interested in honing their knowledge and taste for wine can sign up for various wine masterclasses held at The Cellar. These informative classes explore the basics of wine tasting and cover a variety of topics including pasta and wine pairings as well as wine and cheese pairings.
At first glance, the winemaking industry seems like a romantic and interesting career choice. However, Simon advises that you should have a thorough understanding of what you’re getting into before you decide to become a winemaker. He explains, “You have to have the desire and passion to do things a little differently and really, really well; otherwise, you’ll just be another brand. You’ve got to have a story.”
If you’re seriously considering buying or starting your own winery, he encourages you to first consider your motivation for owning a vineyard. Then, he recommends a careful evaluation of cash flow and states, “It’s a capital-intensive industry, rather like a sponge that requires a lot of cash.”
Additionally, Simon recommends that if you don’t have the technical understanding required for operating a winery and vineyard, you need to be able to invest in that through hiring consultants in the field. And finally, he cautions, “Don’t get too big, too quickly!”
This is sound advice from someone planning to distribute his award-winning wine in at least a dozen countries by the end of the calendar year!