The Notion of Quality, Tradition and Simplicity
Andrew Thomas grew up wanting to be a musician. He studied jazz guitar at high school, and it took him a little while to work out that he wasn’t quite talented enough to make that work as a career. Not only are jazz lovers breathing a sigh of relief, Semillon and Shiraz drinkers the world over are pretty pleased that he came to that conclusion. Because today, Andrew is one of the world’s best producers of Hunter Valley, single vineyard, Semillon and Shiraz – internationally acclaimed and multi-award-winning.
Andrew’s dad, Wayne Thomas, was a winemaker in McLaren Vale, South Australia, and Andrew had always helped around the vineyards and wineries. It could be said that it was in his blood, although there is a sense of a young Andrew not really knowing what else to do but to head off to study a Roseworthy Wine Science degree. As part of that degree, in 1987, he found himself working for a few weeks at Tyrrell's in the Hunter Valley and later that year when a position became vacant, he began working in an assistant winemaker position. He thought he’d be in the Hunter Valley for 3 to 4 years before returning to South Australia, but now, 35 years later, he still calls the valley home.
Andrew’s father had instilled a strong work ethic in the young man, and over the next 13 years, he worked his way up the ladder at Tyrrell's, eventually becoming Red Winemaker. Andrew credits Murray Tyrrell and Andrew Spinaze as key influencers in his career and the development of his passion for the Hunter Valley and its wines.
In the late 1990’s Andrew’s friend and fellow winemaker, Alasdair Sutherland of Capercaillie Wines encouraged him to consider creating his own brand, and so, with just $20 in his back pocket and no backers, Andrew did just that, beginning very small and building solid relationships with local growers. In the beginning, Andrew supplemented his income with freelance consulting work to other wineries.
His brand is based around the concept of quality, tradition and simplicity. He made a distinct and deliberate choice at the beginning of the Thomas Wines journey to specialise in the signature varieties of the Hunter Valley region – Semillon and Shiraz. There is no attempt to produce something for everyone.
“I realised from the very start that if I was going to specialise, what I produced would have to be exceptional. What I learned at Tyrrell's was a passion for this region and the varietals the region is famous for the world over. Of the 140 labels in the region, we are the only one that focuses on just those two varietals,” said Andrew.
This specialisation and need to stand above the competition drove Andrew to source the best grapes he possibly could. As a result, he’s developed an impressive folio of local growers producing world-class, uniquely regional styles over the years.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have strong relationships with awesome grape growers, producing the most high-quality fruit. After all, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can make bad wine from high-quality grapes, so I guess that’s where my winemaking skills come into it.”
In 2017 Andrew took the opportunity to purchase the Braemore Vineyard, giving him long-term access to one of the most significant Semillon sites in the Hunter Valley. The other vineyards he works with are Drayton's Oakey Creek Vineyard (The OC Semillon), Margan's Fordwich Hill Vineyard (Fordwich Hill Semillon); and Pokolbin Estate Vineyard (Kiss Shiraz and Dam Block Shiraz), the Cote d'Or Vineyard (The Cote Shiraz), Sweetwater Vineyard (Sweetwater Shiraz), Ridgeview Vineyard (Belford Shiraz) and Trevena Vineyard (DJV Shiraz).
Most of his range is made as single-vineyard wines, with most named for the place the grapes are grown. His two signature wines are the Braemore Semillon and Kiss Shiraz. The Two of a Kind range are the only wines that aren't 100% Hunter Valley. The range includes a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc made from Hunter Valley Semillon and a Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide and a Shiraz blend with Hunter Valley Shiraz and McLaren Vale Shiraz, which, according to Andrew, is “a beautiful blend of two stylistically diverse Shiraz that create a unique wine together.”
The stylistic diversity of the two varieties is a cornerstone of the Thomas Wines philosophy and business model. With 17 wines in the two varieties available for tasting at the Thomas Wines cellar door, the experience is unique, with 2 or 3 wines in the same variety served at once, side by side. Patrons are encouraged to explore the diversity in the range, to notice the full spectrum from light to medium to full. This is further highlighted by soil samples accompanying the wines, offering a visual perspective on why and how the wines can taste so different. It’s exciting and fun, and according to Andrew, “everyone gets it!”
The Cellar Door is open daily from 10am to 5pm. All bookings and full tasting experience details can be found at www.thomaswines.com.au. There are two experiences on offer – The Discovery, $10pp features 4 Semillon and 4 Shiraz over 45 minutes and The Journey, $20pp featuring the entire range, including a study of the soils that contribute to the unique personality of the wines over 75 minutes.
Over the years, Thomas Wines has received a swathe of awards, both domestic and international. Andrew sees the awards as critical to business – a third-party endorsement that increases brand awareness, but it’s the personal awards that have meant the most to him. Andrew has won Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year in both 2008 and 2014.
“I’m really proud of those [awards] because they’re a recognition by my peers – so it means a lot.”
Andrew loves his job. A typical day could see him out in the vineyard, driving a forklift, on the road, attending to admin tasks, employing staff or winemaking. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, and it’s the diversity of his days that keeps him interested.
He finds it very satisfying to hear someone ordering his wine in a restaurant. He knows he works too much but confesses to secretly loving it (the word workaholic was briefly mentioned) – he gets a kick out of working hard, ticking all the boxes and going the extra mile. It’s this drive and attention to detail that he applies to every aspect of his life that has ensured his success.
His father passed away in 2007, proud of his son launching his own brand and rising to the top of his field. Andrew has four children, all boys, three to his first wife – Dan, aged 23; Remy, aged 20 and Alex, aged 18. Jackson is the youngest with his current partner, aged just five years old. Being a dad again was a surprise for Andrew, but he loves it. His older boys adore their little brother, and the feeling is mutual. It’s not surprising that his oldest sons are already working in the industry. Dan has worked with Tyrrell’s and First Creek, Remy at Brokenwood and Alex, who has just finished his HSC, has worked at Bimbadgen.
The future of Thomas Wines is looking exceptionally bright. Andrew has no plans to grow his business to the point where he loses touch with the day-to-day operations. As the success of the brand has developed over the past 24 years, he has been consulting to other wineries less and less. This year, he committed to give 100% of his professional time to Thomas Wines and let go of the last remaining consulting client. He had been planning to employ a new assistant winemaker but realised that he could now devote even more time to his business, which meant that his new assistant didn’t have to be as experienced as he would usually employ.
It’s a source of great excitement, anticipation and cautious optimism that Andrew was able to employ his eldest son Dan. He was hesitant at first, as he was concerned that working with family could cause friction, but the two have established clear boundaries. While he’s at work, Andrew is the boss, not Dad. Andrew now has the time to mentor a young winemaker who just so happens to be his son. He is relishing the opportunity to nurture Dan’s talent going forward, to watch the growth of his son and the pursuit of his winemaking career. Dan, although green, is like a sponge, wanting to learn everything about the business, and it’s clear that his dad could not be prouder.
Whether or not his other sons will join him in the business is anyone’s guess. Remy enjoys the horticultural side of growing grapes for wine, and whilst there’s not much room in the business right now, Andrew has declared, “never say never! Five years ago, I had no inkling that Dan would be joining me in the business, so we don’t know what’s around the corner.”
One thing we know for sure is that Andrew’s commitment to his craft and the promise of his sons, ensure that the highest quality Semillon and Shiraz wines are available on our doorstep, with no plans for that to change anytime soon.
Visit www.thomaswines.com.au to find out more about Thomas Wines.