Tom Keelan of The Pawn Wine Co has the perfect job
How many of us are doing a job we love?
According to Upskilled Annual Australian Career Survey,“Self-employed Australians are the happiest group of all, with 92 per cent enjoying their work.”
So it is no surprise that Tom Keelan, winemaker, founder and owner of The Pawn Wine Co. in the Adelaide Hills loves his job. With the popularity of his wines it looks like the consumers love his job too. I went to meet Tom, taste the wines straight from the tank mid ferment and see the winery in action.
Tom knows what his consumers are looking for in a wine which he makes with the right balance of fruit, acidity and structure in all his wines; at each price point. Having studied viticulture at Adelaide University, Tom worked in the wine trade helping to set up wineries and managing vineyards for a number of years before setting up The Pawn Wine Co. in 2002.
The Pawn Wine Co.
The background of The Pawn Wine Co. started after Tom was working at Longview Vineyard in Macclesfield in the Adelaide Hills. It was there he met the neighbours at Springhill Vineyard; David Blows and his family. Initially selling some of the fruit to the big corporates for more than 6 years, both had the idea of making straight varietals from these ‘alternative’ varieties. These varieties; Tempranillo, Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Fiano had never been planted in the Adelaide Hills before. David and Tom saw an opportunity and wanted to show consumers what these varieties could do by themselves so they set out own their own.
The Pawn Wine Co. Range
Today, the Pawn Wine Co. (named after the piece in a game of chess) include three brands; El Desperado, the Revolution range and the top tier Jeu de Fin (French for ‘end game’). Across the range 12,000 cases (of 12) are produced.
The El Desperado is the ‘entry’ level wine that includes:
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Grigio
- Sangiovese Tempranillo Rosé
- Sauvignon Blanc
The second tier is the Revolution range which includes:
- En Passant Tempranillo Montepulciano
- The Gambit Sangiovese
- Austrian Attack Grüner Veltliner
- Sicilian Defence Fiano
The top tier Jeu de Fin includes:
- Jeu de Fin Fumé Blanc
- Jeu de Fin Chardonnay
- Jeu de Fin Shiraz
Speaking with Tom about how he built his business over the past 14 years, it is evident he is passionate about not just his current wines but the packaging, capsules and the hunt for new and interesting varieties. As he says, “it is great as I can do everything that is involved in the development and building of a wine brand.”
Tom explains about the entry level brand, “The key for me for the El Desperado range is to over deliver at that price point (of $20) and to have smart packaging where people will remember ‘that’ label.” The label is pretty funky with a thermal label for the whites and rosé that change colour when the wine cools down to under 16 degrees (the optimum temperature for tasting). The skull then disappears and the leaves turn bright green and the roses red.
With the range of wines Tom produces he explains, “You have to hit the target every year. All the wines are fresh, released early and are drinkable early. There is a lot of work I do in terms of fermentation and oak to make sure they are ready to drink. I like to use European oak on many of the red varieties which adds a spicier element that I love in wines.”
Winemaking techniques at the Pawn Wine Co.
The Pawn Wine Co is created at the shared Winery – Matilda Plains Winery, with his wife’s brand Bremerton. It’s a hands-on modern 499 tonne winery. What does ‘hands on’ mean? Tom adds, “Hands-on when it comes to fermentation is that we don’t just turn a switch and let it pump, we manually do the plunging by hand. This means we can intercept at any point if we can see the yeast is starting to starve itself or there is a sulphide issue. Then when we drop the ferment and go to the press, that is also hands on with the attention to oak required for each different variety.”
For the three brands of The Pawn Wine Co. they source fruit mainly from the Adelaide Hills – 95% (Macclesfield), a small percentage from Langhorne Creek for the Shiraz and for their Jeu de Fin Chardonnay which is the Estate GrownChardonnay, half from the Macclesfield vineyard and half from Geoff Weaver’s stunning vineyard in Lenswood. Macclesfield is very unique in that it has the altitude but also a maritime climate. The lake at Langhorne Creek is 24 kilometres away and provides the afternoon cooling sea breeze on hot days.
The story behind the name
For a young winery and a very experienced winemaker in a competitive industry, making wine that people will continue to buy, must be a hard challenge. I can see now understand how the name ‘The Pawn Wine Co’ is quite fitting with all the small and family owned wineries who feel like pawns in this huge wine game but like in chess, the pawns are needed to play and even win the game.
Asking Tom how he keeps going, he answers; “Having the ability to make decisions on my own with no committees or boards and making interesting, drinkable, clean & real wine.” Tom goes on to tell me that the Blows have just planted a new variety; Matura Tinta which is only found in Rioja. The 2018 vintage is probably the first wine produced from this variety outside of Rioja, in Australia, if not the world. They have only produced 60 dozen but as he explains “those things excite me and it is the fact that I can design a new label and new wine story. It is like a kid in a candy shop, when you can start something new.”
Tom is proud of his business and he has right to be. Since 2002 it has grown from producing just two barrels of Tempranillo and Petit Verdot in 2002 to today’s production of 12,000 cases of 12 across 13 SKUs. The majority of the brand is El Desperado which has a huge following.
Favourite grape variety
As the company initially focused on making straight ‘alternative’ varieties, I had to ask Tom for his favourite grape variety and why. Tom answers, “I will have to say Sangiovese just because in 10 years’ time I think everyone will be drinking it and I think it is the most amazing variety and it ages so beautifully; not just Italian but Australian too. Australian Sangiovese is coming to the fore now; you have Sam Scott, Main & Cherry; we are all trying to make our own mark with Sangiovese. For me, I just love that it goes so well with our food in terms of being able to use food to bolt on flavours to the structure of the wine. I love it as a variety and the smell it emanates as it ferments in the winery. And because we have some unique clones of Sangiovese so it is really exciting to see what it will show every year.”
With regards to how 2019 is looking, yields are down 30-50% as there was not enough rain over the year. However in terms of quality, the fruit looks very good. “We will see beautiful balanced wines at 14-14.5%” Most of Tom’s new vintage releases will be available in the spring.
Tom is a family man working alongside his wife who is winemaker at Bremerton. On his days off when he’s not managing ferments or tasting through every individual parcel for blending, he his hanging out with his two pre teenage children. Chilling on the Yorke Peninsula fishing and crabbing tasting some beautiful wines with his wife sounds like a wonderful way to spend time out of the winery.
Swanny Cellars is a big supporter of The Pawn Wine Co. The Sangiovese Tempranillo Rosé is recommended in the current issue of On the Vine Magazine. Click here to read through for the top 24 wines for the quarter.
Drop in and talk to them about the range of wines they stock from The Pawn Wine Co.
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.