Best’s Great Western – by Amie Sexton

I drove up to Best’s in Great Western on a glorious Victorian autumn day – blue sky, a smattering of clouds for interest, some green grass poking through the brown, and the ever-changing colours of the landscape. Aside from the incessant road works, the trip was wonderful way to assume an appropriate mindset for visiting one of Victoria’s oldest, continuously producing, family-owned wineries.

Best’s is located 20 kilometres west of Ararat. The road takes you through the village of Great Western, crosses the snaking Concongella Creek five or six times before turning into Best’s Road, over Best’s Bridge and arriving at the front gate. An unassuming old-style picket fence marks the entrance but quickly becomes farm fencing. The original buildings dating from the second half of the 19th century still exist (the cottage now houses the toilets) with newer sheds built around them. The scene presents a juxtaposition of traditional Victorian farm with practical new world winery – a strange combination of cows in the front paddock, ringlock1 on the stairs to the cellar and rough-hewn timber beams holding up the roof, with the distinct smell of a winery, grand old barrels that are still in use, traditional silver labels on the bottles and sparkling new wine glasses.

A small pamphlet allows visitors to take a self-guided tour of the winery. It meander past offices and pallets of new wine, a small exhibition of photographs by one of the Thomson boys, and artefacts of the winemaking tradition scattered about. Moving through into the old storage area, the boards are squeaky and uneven underfoot, while cobwebs and century-old graffiti attest to the building’s age. The tour then descends into the cellar where the original white wine storage tank still stands – albeit now used for holding intimate dinners rather than wine – and many of the barrels (still in use) are over a hundred years old. In one of the great rough-hewn posts holding up the ceiling CB 1897 is carved. These are the initials of Charlie Best, the eldest child of founder Henry Best. The Thomson family’s private wine collection resides here alongside the museum collection of Best’s wines dating back many years.

As it was my first official visit to Best’s I was also given a guided tour of the vineyard and winery facilities – external stainless steel vats against a backdrop of 140 year old Shiraz vines.

Viv Thomson is a veteran of the Australian wine industry. Born into a wine-making family, he is the fourth generation to manage Best’s Great Western. After finishing school, travelling overseas and graduating from Roseworthy Agricultural College, Viv returned to Great Western in 1960. Although he says he would have preferred to farm sheep, when he returned from overseas the family winery needed help and he needed work. Now in his seventies, Viv has completed 55 consecutive vintages at Best’s. As well as maintaining and improving the Best’s winery, he has been heavily involved in the Australian wine industry, in an official capacity as president and long-standing judge of the National Wine Show and with the Victorian Wine Industry Association, and informally as a mentor for young people in the wine industry. In 2014 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to the Australian wine industry.

Viv is a humble man, crediting much of his success to the support of his family and colleagues. In the words of his son Ben, ‘he’s not one to big-note himself’ (WBM, Nov 2012) but is a very affable man who ‘is always on for a chat’ (WBM, Nov 2012). He seems very connected to the land and the vines, acutely aware of the influence and capriciousness of the weather. He is conscious of the need to adapt to a changing environment, both the physical and the market, while at the same time he is unequivocally committed to the integrity of the wines and the business. Through hard work and persistence Viv has taken Best’s into the 21st century with the practicality of an Australian farmer and the broader perspective of a global traveller.

On the day of the interview I met Viv Thomson on the stairs to the cellar. With true country style hospitality he had come down to meet welcome me with a firm handshake. I interviewed Viv in his office – a small and very ordinary office that he shares with his son Ben, the General Manager. Viv’s desk is an old, wooden roll-top, which on this particular day was home to a large bottle of cow treatment. Ben’s desk is simply a table with a few papers and a laptop. Ben joined the conversation for a few minutes, but left when he got a message that some cows were out on the road. Both men were dressed in typical farm garb, very low-key and matter-of-fact. Just ordinary people getting on with the job of growing things in an unforgiving landscape.

Viv is a wealth of knowledge and experience, and a very open and generous person. He has a good sense of humour, an overarching view of the wine industry in Australia over the long term, coupled with a good dose of old rural Australia and an aversion to change. Viv illustrated the conversation with lots of stories, which made the interview very comfortable and enjoyable.

Ben Thomson is the fifth generation of the family to manage Best’s Great Western, having taken the reins from his father, Viv, in 2008. Ben spent some of his younger years dividing his time between Western Australian wheat-sheep stations and Great Western vineyards, and would have liked to have been a farmer. He has learnt through hands-on experience and observation, working closely with his father and grandfather at Best’s. Ben’s philosophy is one of simplicity and respect for the natural environment – ‘Make it pretty simple if you can… You start complicating it and Mother Nature will come along and change her mind anyway.’ In addition to managing Best’s winery, Ben owns a grape harvesting business that operates in Victoria and South Australia.

Ben is often described as quiet, retiring and reluctant to talk, however, despite this reputation Ben seemed more than happy to be interviewed and talked at length about his experience, Best’s and the wine industry in general. He describes himself as a bush boy who would rather be outside in the vineyard than in the limelight. Recent recognition of the quality of Best’s wines with trophies and prizes has pushed him into the public eye, but he prefers to leave that role to Viv or others in the business. Ben has an palpable connection to the land and vines that he has spent most of his life caring for and his primary concern is to make wines that representative of that place.

Stephanie Cairns was the Customer Relationship & Brand Manager at Best’s from January 2012 until January 2015. She is a young and energetic woman who completed a Public Relations degree and had worked in tourism before entering the wine industry and is now working in a different field. I first met Steph at the Grampians Simply Shiraz wine tasting event in Ballarat. I had been trying for some time via telephone and email to get a response from Best’s about participating in the research, but it was meeting Steph in person that opened the door. Her role at the winery began with implementing a new customer database system and grew to include brand management, monitoring how and where the Best’s brand is seen.

I interviewed Steph at the winery. She began the visit with a tour of the cellars and the vineyard and we then moved into the shared office for the rest of the interview. It was somehow quite fitting that this fashionably-dressed, young woman was showing me through the old, dusty cellars and agricultural landscape. Perhaps due to her enthusiasm, Steph spoke incredibly quickly and at length. It was clear that she was conscious of the image of the winery and customer and trade perceptions of the brand and she was able to discuss it in detail. This was a very informative and useful interview to begin with at Best’s at is gave me, as an outsider, a good overview of the winery as a whole.

1 A typical square wire fencing used on Australia farms.