John Geber

It was during a morning bike ride in 1998 that John Geber saw it for the first time. He bought it the very next day. “It” was Château Tanunda in Australia’s Barossa Valley, a majestic Bavarian-style Château and in its prime the largest winery in the Southern Hemisphere.

Built 1888–1890 to make and sell wine to a phylloxera-devastated Europe, the Château had the capacity to house a million gallons of wine. In 1994, in recognition of its historic status, Château Tanunda was placed on the Register of State Heritage Places, but by then its glory days were but a memory. By the time John Geber (pronounced “GHEE-ber”) chanced on it, the property’s then owner, wine giant Southcorp, had not received a single call from a potential buyer in over five years. Perhaps not surprisingly, as all the windows were broken, the roof open to the skies and pigeons roosted throughout the 37,674-foot, two-story structure. But it did boast three-foot thick bluestone walls and an imposing 61-foot tower!

Eleven years and many millions of dollars later, Château Tanunda boasts 220 acres of vines and produces a range of 25 wines from sparkling to still, made from over a dozen different grape varieties. The property also includes a magnificent cellar with the capacity to store 1,320,860 gallons of wine, a grand ballroom, a long room, wine store, sunken garden, croquet lawn and cricket pitch.

Geber not only had the vision but was truly hands-on, from laying stones to scouring the area for historic artifacts. In the early stages Geber worked almost entirely alone, sometimes even sleeping at the winery – undaunted by the resident ghosts. “I had some interesting nights,” Geber dryly recalls.

From the outset, Geber knew what was needed for the venture to succeed:

a) Make Good Wine.

b) Sell It!

Wine experience, marketing savvy and money were also requirements and Geber possessed all three. South African-born Geber had been a marketing maven for R. J. Reynolds, with stints spent in Switzerland, where he met his Swiss-born wife Evelyne, the U.S. and Germany, before relocating to Australia. Happy in Australia, he transferred to Stimorol/Tetley Australia, for whom he marketed chewing gum (Stimorol), coffee and tea. Faced with a dismal 2% market share for Tetley’s tea bags, Geber created the “Tetley All-Rounder” tea bag. An instant hit with Aussie tea drinkers, it boosted Tetley’s market share to 30% and was voted “Best Consumer Product of the Year.”

By 1991, Geber was eager to go out on his own, founding the Australian Food & Beverage Group. Australia produced plenty of inexpensive, quality wine and in 1992 Geber set about selling it to supermarkets in Europe. That Geber had sales and marketing expertise was clear, but he possessed another key asset: blending expertise. Thanks to years helping create teas for Tetley, he knew he could create blends of Australian wines tailored to specific overseas markets. The successful brands “Kangaroo Ridge,” “Kangaroo Hills” and “Naturally Australian” followed. By 2000, Geber’s company was Australia’s number one wine exporter to Continental Europe.

In 1993 Geber made his first acquisition, purchasing the Cowra Estate in New South Wales. Home to the oldest Chardonnay plantings in Australia (1972), fruit from the property was used in the 1970s by Brian Croser in his famed Rothbury Estate Cowra Chardonnay and Petaluma Chardonnay.

In 1998 Geber was cycling in the Barossa on a fruit-buying mission when he impulsively purchased Château Tanunda. Soon after, Geber joined a group of friends in developing a shopping center, which proved financially lucrative and helped fund the Château’s restoration. Geber may be impulsive, but he is practical. The business model used to make “Kangaroo Ridge” was modified and applied at Château Tanunda. Relying on contract fruit not only makes financial sense (fewer fixed costs, especially these challenging economic times), but works from a quality standpoint. As with Champagne, where world-famous wines are made by master blenders, Geber sees the entire Barossa Valley as his vineyard, selecting fruit from appropriate parcels for his blends. And like a Champagne marque, the house style at Château Tanunda remains constant, with the composition of a blend tweaked according to the vintage or market needs.

But the market today is dealing with an ocean of over-supply, especially of Australian wine. So what prompted U.S. importer Banfi Vintners to open its doors to an unknown Australian estate? It was a recognition of shared values: family ownership, energy, big vision – not doing anything by half. The parallels between what John Geber has set out to accomplish at Château Tanunda and what the Mariani family of Banfi Vintners has achieved over the 30 years they have owned the Castello Banfi estate in Tuscany are uncanny. Together, Banfi and Geber are betting that historic Château Tanunda is now ready for its U.S. market debut. Based on their track records, the outlook is good.