By JOHN HALL
MEET Rob Drew, ‘jack of all trades’ and master of two – producing quality wines that have won acclaim overseas and inventing a timber splitter that has been sold around Australia. Not bad for a man who left school when he was 13.
“It just shows you don’t have to go to uni to be a real achiever,” said Rob’s wife Debra as they relaxed at their hill-top home in Tea Tree, where on a clear day you see right up the Derwent Valley as far as Mount Field National Park.
Rob, now 66, is owner of Drew Wines, an integral part of the expanding winemaking enterprise in the Tea Tree region. He was one of the first local residents to see the potential for producing cool climate wines – primarily pinot noir and chardonnay.
Rob is a laid-back fellow, but setting up the vineyard back in 1992 was no easy task. Much of the 26-hectare property was peppered with rocks – and on just one hectare of land 2500 tonnes of rocks were removed.
The vineyard has expanded from less than one hectare to six hectares, and Rob is now growing shiraz, cabernet, merlot and riesling in addition to pinot and chardonnay.
A large shed near the house is where he crushes his own grapes and also those of several other local vineyards. It is a pristine environment for winemaking – an ultra-clean concrete floor, stainless steel vats and barrels of French and American oak.
“The secret to successful winemaking is to get it right in the vineyard – good grape-growing means success in the bottles,” Rob said.
“For us, 2013 was a crook year – a lot of fog and sleet resulted in poor flowering. We usually produce around 40 tonnes of grapes each vintage – in 2014 we produced only 12 tonnes and we’ve been out of pinot for some months.”
Drew Wines retail around $28 a bottle. They were being sold in Europe, California and Hong Kong, “but it became too much trouble with agents, shipping etc.”
Now Rob’s wines are sold in Tasmania and on the mainland, with strong interest from restaurants in Victoria and Western Australia.
For most vintages Drew Wines has an excess of grapes which are sold to other local wineries.
“Initially I had no intention of growing grapes,” Rob said. “I just wanted a bit of land.” And on that land he’s been raising deer – which are also a preoccupation for Rob, the farmer, and also for Rob, the hunter.
In his wine-tasting room he has, at rough count, 18 heads of deer he has trophy hunted, mainly in mainland Australia. Another two adorn the living room – but Debra suggested to Rob that two in the house was perhaps two too many.
Rob was schooled in Campania – educated more on how to succeed in life, rather than academically. As Rob explained: “If you found a job the Education Department would let you go. ”So at the age of 13, he was employed in a shop in Campania.
He then worked at a supermarket in Sorell until he was 17 and then, in 1966, he worked at the Renison Bell tin mine on the west coast where, with overtime, he was earning 100 pounds a week.
Rob returned to his parents’ home in Brighton after one year on the west coast when his 18-year-old sister Marianne was killed after getting off a bus. “That was a tough time for the family,” he recalled.
He found a job closer to home – as a crane driver at the Boyer newsprint mill. “Generally the workers were a lot older than me. They were a clicky lot – they worked harder at getting out of work than actually doing work.”
He then was employed by the Electrolytic Zinc Works in the cell room – “very unpleasant conditions … I worked there for 12 months to the day!”
Rob was jack of all trades at Hansen Yuncken building company for three years, then sold tractors for John Deere for another three years.
He then went shooting hares, possums and roos for the fur and pet trade. “The most money I’ve ever earned in my life was financially able to buy a house in Downie St, Brighton, for $12,000.”
He then moved to Tea Tree. “Dad had a property but someone burned down the house. So I built a house on the land and lived there until we moved to where we are today.”
Rob and his first cousin Maurice Barwick, who died recently, got into the logging business and Rob recalls cutting timber on a property which a farmer had cleared using Agent Orange, infamous from the Vietnam war.
While in the logging business, Rob invented a log splitter, made from recycled grouser plates, the metal treads on bulldozers and excavators. The big splitters were powered by a 250hp diesel motor and could split 200 tonnes in a day.
“It took me seven months to get the first one to work,” he said. “I charged $7000 for the first one I sold and I have since sold 53 of them – some are still being used in Western Australia, some in Victoria and some in Tasmania. I’m now building one for the family.”
Rob and Debra have three sons – Dale, 26, a brickie, and Brendan, 23, a plumbing apprentice, are from Debra’s first marriage. Their son George is 13 – the same age that Rob was when he left school.
“Already he shows a lot of interest in the vineyard – and perhaps one day he’ll be taking over the business.
“But unlike me he’ll be finishing his secondary education before he joins the workforce.”