Family owned and winning awards after 30 years
Although Ed Tomlinson has been making wine on the Lenton Brae family property in Margaret River for just over 30 years, you wouldn’t know it by speaking to him. He is a very grounded and modest winemaker.
Their most recent accolades in August include a Trophy for the best ‘Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon blend’ at the Winewise Small Vigneron Awards (limited to producers making 250 tonnes or less) for the 2019 Lenton Brae Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. It is the second year in a row they have received this award for the same wine, recommended in the current issue of On the Vine.
Other awards include James Halliday (5 Star Producer), Ray Jordan’s recommendation in his 2016 Wine Guide, Perth Royal Show and Margaret River Wine Show.
Ed didn’t plan to become a winemaker but during his teenage years, his parents set up Lenton Brae in 1982. It was another 5 years until they had a commercial vintage and the following year was an even larger vintage. Being the youngest with three siblings, it was just Ed that would help out with pulling weeds and planting on the weekends.
His parents did not have any experience in wine or wine making before they bought the land. However his dad in particular had a passion and a drive to build a wine business. So when there was the opportunity to buy the 18 hectares of land next to Moss Wood, owned by the Pannell family and a recommendation that the soil was just as good, they purchased it. As Ed explains, his dad knew nothing about growing grapes and there was lots of trial and error and “we are still learning today.” They planted Pinot Noir initially and then started to explore more of the Bordeaux varieties where they found their niche, in particular for their Sauvignon and Semillon blends which they have been making since 1987.
After school Ed started a degree in economics but he soon came to realise that he didn’t want to pursue a career in finance. It was then a chance meeting when Ed met Virginia Willcock (now Chief Winemaker at Vasse Felix), who described her first year studying Wine Science at Roseworthy so enthusiastically that he decided to change his degree. Ed then ended up being in the year below the likes of Virginia Willcock, Reid Bosward (Kaesler), Peter Gago (Penfolds) and Steve Pannell (SC Pannell Wines). Back then living on a campus and having only thirty Oenology students per intake I can only imagine it must have been a wonderful community and a great opportunity to learn.
Studying & travelling
While studying part time, Ed worked a vintage for a winery which helped cement his learnings and as he highlights, really put Lenton Brae into perspective. He then spent time doing the vintage in the Hunter Valley and then in the cooler Coonawarrra during 1991.
Before graduating at the end of 1992, Ed worked a vintage at Lenton Brae then headed off travelling. It had always been the thought of travelling that had kept him going through his studies. Over the following two years, Ed worked at a number of wineries including Villa Maria in New Zealand, Delheim Winery in Stellenbosch, then in California at Geyser Peak in Alexander Valley and Sonoma-Cutrer in Russian River Valley as well as returning to the Hunter Valley in NSW.
From January 1995, Ed has been working full time as the winemaker at Lenton Brae with a few vintages overseas in Spain (Rueda), Bordeaux (Entre-Deux-Mers), Italy (Trentino Alto-Adige) and back to the USA (Napa Valley).
Perspective from travelling
When asked what travelling has meant for Ed, he explains, “It has given me perspective on Wilyabrup and Margaret River; what we can do well and what is our point of difference. We used to make a varietal Sauvignon Blanc but after travelling, we decided not to take on Marlborough.”
As I was speaking to Ed, he told me about his plans to drive from Seattle down to San Francisco with his daughter just before Christmas. It sounded like the perfect way to enjoy the start of the holidays and to unwind before vintage starts mid/late January. As well as exploring the National Parks, Ed will be looking forward to visiting and tasting in Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. He feels there is opportunity with varietal Merlot in Margaret River and wants to continue to explore Pinot Blanc and who knows, he may even find a winery where can work a vintage in a few years.
In the vineyard & sustainable vineyard practices
In the vineyard, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc is grown. Here, at the cellar door which overlooks the vines they have about 7 hectares of vineyards which produces 5000 cases a year. They also source Sauvignon Blanc from Warner Glen and Karridale and some parcels of Semillon and Cabernet in Wilyabrup.
There is meticulous planning that goes into what is required over the coming months and working with the growers to source the extra fruit. No doubt, over the past 30 years Ed has built strong relations with his growers.
In the vineyard, there is minimal intervention with fungicide spraying only when necessary. They also use the rain water collected from the roof in the winery and surface water for vineyard. Irrigation is for the white varieties and only when required. Non stressed vines are healthier, higher in flavour and result in more vibrant wines.
Family owned and proud
Margaret River is no doubt a special place. For me, having moved away, I do miss it. I ask Ed what he loves about Margaret River. “The wine,” he says. “And the natural beauty of the region. What is not to love about Margaret River? I don’t surf but I like the ocean. It’s calming and a great place to come back to after the all-action-stations of travel.” I have to agree and I surf.
What do you love about your job?
Ed replies right away with, “The variety.” He continues, “It is never boring. It’s farming, manufacturing, marketing not to mention all the other little roles necessary in a small business. I also enjoy (almost!) all the people in the wine industry I engage with and especially our customers and suppliers. I have awesome staff here too.”
Plans for the future
Lenton Brae remains a family run business. Unfortunately Ed’s father passed away five years ago but his mother is actively involved working at the cellar door. Although his two brothers and sister do not work or live nearby, they are strong supporters and enthusiastic consumers of the brand.
Ed and the small team of 5 (including Ed) at Lenton Brae are keen for it to remain a small and authentic producer. They could increase production slightly more, up to about 7000 cases if they grow more vines at the property and source more fruit.
As Ed states, “At Lenton Brae, you taste the wine in the cellar door surrounded by the vineyard that produces the fruit. Our customers like the fact that we are family owned and operated which is becoming rarer.”
Having made wines for over 30 years, their largest market is Perth. As Ed explains, “We have been selling wine in Perth since mum would stuff 20 cases of wine in the back of her car until we found a distributor. So Perth has been no 1 market and I can’t see that changing. Especially with good people in Perth like Swanny Cellars.” Lenton Brae wines are mainly sold in restaurants and some retail outlets. A small amount is also sold in the UK and sporadically in China.
Days off and free time
I imagine Ed doesn’t have a lot of down time with the demands of a growing business and a small team. But when he does, you’ll find him at the golf course and spending time with his daughter. When he can, he likes to travel as he is always on the look out to try wines from different regions as well as the styles of wines he makes.
Swanny Cellars is a big supporter of Lenton Brae. The 2019 Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon Blanc is currently recommended in the Summer issue of On The Vine.
Text written by Ruth Turnbull, Swanny Cellar’s Roaming Reporter.
About the Roaming Reporter:
Ruth Turnbull is the Roaming Reporter for Swanbourne Cellars. Having studied the WSET Advanced Certificate and WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, Ruth has worked in the wine trade in both London and Perth for over 15 years. While living in WA, Ruth was a regular Panel member on the Liquor Barons Panel and managed the digital marketing for Swanbourne Cellars. Now based in Adelaide, Ruth focuses on meeting the winemakers and the people behind the brand in order to highlight and share their story on the Swanbourne Cellars blog and social media channels.