Accolade Wines’ Lucy Clements has tasted more wine than a lot of Australians. She has been in the wine business for the best part of two decades in various roles, from being a winemaker, to a wine buyer.
Starting out as an assistant wine maker in 2000, Clements has since globetrotted around the world working in almost all the main wine-producing regions of the world, including the UK, US, and the tipple’s spiritual home, France.
One of her roles was buying for big name supermarket chain Tesco’s in the UK, which resulted in Clements being headhunted by Coles to fulfil a similar role back home in Australia. That led her to come back to Australia more than five years ago where she was Melbourne based. However, 18 months later she decided to move back to her home state of South Australia, where she took up a role with Accolade Wines as the group’s innovation winemaker.
Fast forward just over four years later and she is now the operations director for Accolade Wine’s Premium Wineries ANZ, whereby she now has 110 staff under her, which are scattered around various locations in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New Zealand. It’s a role she was made for.
“I love it. It is almost the perfect job for me,” she said. “I spent three years in the group winemaking role and running the Berri Wine facility in the Riverland’s, which was my first foray into large-scale commercial wine making. I had the time of my life. I had a big team of wine makers with me and we were making some of the biggest selling wines in the portfolio and global brands, like Banrock Station.
Read More: New winery opens in Barossa
“About 15 months ago I was asked to go across to the dark side and run our wineries division as the operations director. I’m not officially in wine making any more but I do have all the wine makers reporting to me. I’m much more about the physical performance – efficiencies, which I love. I am now combining my retail financial background as a buyer with my wine-making skills.”
She said that working with Accolade Wines was a natural fit for her because she had a lot of dealings with the company when she was in her various buying roles. And stepping into the operators director position offers her different challenges compared to making the wine, but they are the kinds of challenges she thrives on. Why?
“Because I get to be in my natural habitat, which is being in charge of everything,” she said, tongue in cheek. “But I also have a budget and so I can make things happen, which is great. It’s lovely to be strategising and really driving our business performance. But the reason I find it to be a blessed position I am in, is that I’ve made so much wine around the world so I get it. There are many people in the office who know the winemakers ways of working and are invested But they also can’t get anything past me because I know what they are asking for.”
Challenging 12 months
Running such a big operation means many issues arise, and the past 18 months have seen a plethora of them arrive on Clement’s lap. Not that she is complaining – you get the impression that this is why she is here – at the coal face getting things done and solving problems. Her first test in the new role involved arriving in the middle of Accolade Wines’ divesting itself of three wineries, two of which were in the premium range. She spent the first six months getting a baptism of fire on the legal elements of the divestment, the corporate elements of the process ,and making sure all was well. She said it was a great experience getting to know her team as they went through the process to hand over the wineries to the new owners. But this was only the entrée – the real tests were to come.
“The biggest challenge was on the 20th of December in 2019 when the bush fires came through the Adelaide Hills,” she said. “We have four wineries in South Australia that I look after and we almost lost one of them, Petaluma – that was pretty frightening and challenging.”
Just as that disaster was averted and the company was in the middle of vintage, COVID-19 struck, which led to another set of issues.
“It was a weird situation going into February and March when we start vintage and having eight wineries in the middle of this, and having to keep people safe. How do we make decent wine without interacting with people?” she said. “We have to think of things like, ‘Do we have one pump per person in the cellar? Do we keep truck drivers out of the winery?’ It was like juggling strawberries. But like most companies have, we had these heart-warming stories come out of this situation because all of our wineries around here are very close to each other. I couldn’t see anybody because I banned them interacting with the company – internally and externally. I couldn’t go and hang in the middle with my guys and support them.”
What they did was adapt to the situation. They had daily phone calls in the middle of vintage for three and a half months. It was challenging for the company to run the vintage week in and week out because it doubled its work force during that time.
A key plank to making sure everything runs smoothly is making sure those that supply the grapes, as well as plant and machinery when needed, are well versed in how Accolade runs. Clements said not only is her team great, but their third-party suppliers and growers are also top-notch.
“The wine industry specialist suppliers we work with are fantastic,” she said. “The likes of Pall Filtration, Laforrt – the manufacturing suppliers all the way to the additive suppliers – all of these guys have been on the journey with us for years. We’ve got an incredibility good team of very highly technical specialised people based in South Australia who we collaborate with internationally in our supplier base who work hand-in-hand in partnership with us to make the best wine in the most efficient way possible.
“From grapeseed from the harvest, to the calibration equipment we use to measure the grapes all the way through to what we do on our packaging lines which are sizable in the business – everybody gives it their all.”
The availability of grapes is the most obvious part of the company’s supply chain that needs to run smoothly. And it is an issue that only Mother Nature can be responsible for, and is out of Clements and her teams’ hands.
“Because we are an agricultural business, we only do one vintage a year, so we have one load of grapes that come in every year. We are at the mercy of the elements,” she said. “From a supply chain point of view that is the most difficult part of our business. Like most wine businesses around the world, we always look to supply as much as we can in grapes. Should there be a position where grapes are not available, we will look to supplement our supply position with bulk wine purchases. We always prefer to do vintage contracts with people we knew because they usually meet our requirements, but if not we’ll supplement them throughout the year from other sources.”
There are some parts of its supply chain where bulk wine is a considerable element, and one of those areas is New Zealand and in its malt business. Because of the shape of its grower base in New Zealand, Accolade Wines has to work more in a bulk wine basis there than it does elsewhere. In the Riverlands region for instance, 99 per cent grapes come through its partnership with CCW, which is a huge cooperative of about 500 growers. The rest of the supply chain is pretty robust and will flex to meet the demands in times of need, according to Clements.
“Most wineries of our scale rely heavily on people growing grapes for them and will have very long-term contracts with those growers. Our viticulture team, our technical team, our grower liaison team, will work very closely with those growers so those grapes are grown to our specification,” said Clements. “We’ve got a number of important vineyards where we grow our own grapes. There are in particular regions of Australia where we need them and we are always looking to purchase more. So we do have our own, but nowhere near enough to meet our needs. We’ve got large vineyards in the Yarra Valley, which supply ultra-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
With the vintage months soon on the horizon, Clements is aware that it can be touch and go between a good vintage and great one. While she is optimistic about how the vintage will turn out, she is also a realist. It’s all about Mother Nature again.
“Our Vintage 20 was a good example where there were a few issues,” she said. “We had considerable impact from drought and we had significantly fewer tonnes coming over the weighbridge than we had forecast so we were definitely in short supply position, as was mostly in the premium regions I look after. In the Riverland’s we still had a good vintage, yet in the Barossa we were 50 per cent below estimates. That was very challenging.
“And also from a supply position we had smoke taint in the grapes. There were fires burning in Victoria, which meant there was smoke affected in grapes in the Alpine Valley and King Valley. We didn’t harvest a single berry in that region, which was a great shame and had a major impact to supply. We had the effects of the fires in the Adelaide Hills, which affected the Barossa Valley because the wind changed overnight and we had smoke in low lying areas. Every year we have something that comes our way. Potentially with this 2021, because of La Nina, we might have a wet vintage, which has additional concerns. We may get very big crops, but could have moss and mildews coming in the door and they have a major effect on wine quality.”
Accolade Wines is a big exporter of wine, with its main market being the UK. However, it sells into the US market, and is making inroads into China, even though the CCP has initiated an anti-dumping probe into Australian wines [which has come to fruition since this story first appeared in Food & Beverage Industry News magazine]. Clements knows that it could have an effect on Accolade Wines’ plans in the region but she is also upbeat about the possibilities of making a splash in the market.
“The threat of the Chinese ban on wine imports could affect us but we don’t have a corporate position on that yet. We do have a sizable position in Asia, but I feel positive what the future holds for Accolade in the region because we have got probably the most diversified channel export strategy of any of the majors,” she said.
“Accolade Wines has a huge business in the UK where we own large bottling lines in Bristol. We have a burgeoning business in the US. We export to 143 countries around the world. The UK for example, and our domestic market, are the lion’s share of where we sell our wine right now.
“Accolade Wines is in a fortunate position. Asia is an incredibly important part of our business. We want to grow Asia, and it might be difficult at the moment, but we are an energetic business and we are going to do everything we can to push through on that one.”