A legend in the world of wine, David Hohnen has returned to his first career as a farmer, this time of free-range, environmentally sustainable pork.
In the relentlessly self-promoting world of wine, David Hohnen is an enigma. Retiring, shy perhaps, blunt to the point of occasionally seeming taciturn, the man who has been at the forefront of the Australian and New Zealand wine industry for more than 40 years describes himself simply as a farmer.
“My first job was on a sheep station north of Leonora,” he says. “Then I went into wine making, but that is really farming. If the grapes are grown the right way from the start, the wine will essentially make itself. For almost a decade I was a partner in Arkady Lamb with Colin Houghton, whose family has been running Lynford Farm [near Williams in the Great Southern region] for three generations. Along the way I’ve continued to make wine, but now I’m farming pigs as well and I’ve become an accidental smallgoods maker. You could say I’ve returned to my roots.”
David deserves credit for putting the Margaret River region on the map when his Cape Mentelle Cabernet won the coveted Jimmy Watson trophy for Australia’s best new wine two years in a row in the early ’80s. Then in 1985 he turned his attention to Cloudy Bay winery in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sound and started the tsunami of Sauvignon Blanc that turned trans-Tasman drinking habits on its head.
But long before that he recalls growing up as the son of a mining engineer, who lived and worked all over the world. “I was born in New Guinea, but a stint in New Caledonia meant that our family was exposed to food and wine culture before it was common in Australia,” he recalls. “Dad would have [wine merchant] Douglas Lamb send him barrels to wherever we were living.”
So it was hardly surprising in 1970 that David and his brothers, Mark and Giles, established Cape Mentelle winery. In doing so they followed in the footsteps of other pioneering Margaret River vignerons, medicos Tom Cullity (Vasse Felix), Bill Pannell (Moss Wood) and Kevin Cullen (Cullen Wines). Having studied winemaking and viticulture at Fresno State University in California, David was also responsible for producing the first commercial quantities of Zinfandel in Western Australia.
“In a quiet way I hope we are demonstrating that free-range pigs can be economically viable,” David says. “Provided, of course, that the consumer is prepared to pay a premium for a quality product. I have a huge respect for the farming community and I have no issue with big farms. After all Lynford Farm is 25,000 acres. But I hope that we are showing farmers and consumers that it is possible to make a living from smaller parcels and with more natural methods.”
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 20.2. Click here to subscribe to our magazine.
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Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass