To satisfy the curious, and perhaps confirm some theories, it is probably best to mention from the outset that this unique wine company is comprised of three separately owned vineyards – and that they are each located not very far from the other.
The Ten Minutes by Tractor Wine Company is the result of an example of outstanding cooperation between three family vineyards at Main Ridge, the most elevated part of the Mornington Peninsula.
Peter and Elizabeth Wallis had started planting their Flinders Ridge Vineyard in 1992. Andrew and Vivienne McCutcheon planted their nearby Peninsula Ridge Vineyard in 1994. And James and Kerry Judd took over the already established Splitters Ridge Vineyard, just up the road, in 1996. Each has about six hectares under vine.
One thing that soon became apparent was that running a viable vineyard was more of a drain on resources and labour than anyone had really conceived. “I don’t believe there are many small vineyards of our size that are viable grape growing or wine producing businesses – I don’t think you will find many people who would argue with that,” James Judd says. “You’ve got to get to a point where you’ve achieved a sort of critical mass of fruit and efficiency in your operation.”
Independently, Andrew McCutcheon had conducted a benchmarking study with the agricultural department, through the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, on the cost of wine production, from growing the grapes through to the end product. “And I came to the conclusion that you had to put some acreages together to get more efficiencies – and also to get a bit more clout in the market,” he says. “That’s when we got together with the Judds and the Wallises and got their agreement to work together to try to get the benefits of that.”
Being almost neighbours, and pursuing a kindred calling, the idea of clubbing together seemed to have a lot of merit. ìIt allowed you to buy labour saving equipment that you couldn’t afford on your own, and things of that sort,î says Andrew. And although each family owned their own vineyards, they agreed to employ one viticultural manager to look after the day-to-day running of each of them. “He would go from one vineyard to the other, usually by tractor,” says Elizabeth Wallis, “and each vineyard seemed to be 10 minutes away from the other. So that’s where we came up with the name.”
At that time, about three years ago, Ten Minutes by Tractor only existed as the shared viticultural company. But what started as an economic imperative, to share and defray the costs of vineyard management, soon started to show other benefits. “We had moved towards getting our wine made by a contract winemaker,” says Andrew. “And again if you have more grapes you can cut the costs of winemaking per unit down, because you’re doing larger quantities.” So the next step that the three vineyards took was to pool their grape resources as well.
The wines from each individual vineyard had been receiving accolades and gold medals in their own right, but the efficiencies to be gleaned from cooperating together seemed too good to pass up. It was not just for the wine making itself but also to reach a quantity that would enable them to explore other markets that they would not have otherwise been able to look at. “It made it all possible,” says James. “All this would be very daunting to do on your own.”
So, having decided to produce under the one label, the McCutcheons, Wallises and Judds set about trying to decide what that label should be. “We may have mulled over that for about a year or so, trying to decide what we were going to call it,” says James. In the end of course, the name they finally agreed upon was under their noses all the time – Ten Minutes by Tractor.
It is certainly not a name one can easily forget, and is distinguishable from all the “creeks”, “hills” and “ridges” that many other wine labels sport. And as James says: “Why not? The name is individual, it’s interesting – and it’s directly related to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. In the end we’re all very pleased with what has come out of that decision,” he says.
“It’s quirky and it’s memorable, and it makes people curious,” says Andrew. “Last February I went on an Austrade mission for wineries to the USA, to introduce us to importers of boutique wines over there. It was rather amusing because our name attracted people to the tastings, but I had to say ‘well it’s a great name, but I want you to see that it’s a great wine’.”
A hotelier from the UK walked into the cellar door recently, keen to build up his wine lists, and offered to take some of their selection. Ten Minutes by Tractor is now exporting limited quantities to the US, Britain and Hong Kong. “So it happens in different ways,” says Andrew, “but the point is, if you’re making enough wine then you have the ability to diversify your outlets. And you’re not dependant on any one particularly. We have done very well. The wines have been very well received.”
As a business model, the Ten Minutes concept is certainly unique. It would be more usual to find that most vignerons are very competitive, and unlikely to cooperate with each other. To take that level of cooperation to the extent that vineyards give up their individual right to their own label, and say they will have a single label, could be deemed by some to be remarkable. It is also a situation that is unique because, as Elizabeth Wallis puts it: “It’s just not easy to do this – to have a wine company that is run by three distinct families,” she says. “And to be in a position in life to be able to afford the folly of owning a vineyard also means that you have come to this stage of life with very firm ideas of how things should be done.”
The three families get together on a fortnightly basis to talk over arrangements and make decisions. Are there ever any disagreements? “Well, I guess you can get into trouble, just as you can in a marriage. But we happen to have got on very well,” says Andrew. “I think there’s also a determination, as is necessary in a marriage, to make it work. And so if there are things that need to be looked at or examined or re-examined, we’re prepared to do it.” And of course there is a lot of social interaction between the families – “which is enjoyable,” says James. “You might even get a bit of work done at the same time.”
One of the advantages of this coming together, let alone cost, labour and marketing efficiencies, is the different talents that each is able to bring to the table. Peter Wallis is a pathologist, and Elizabeth is a science teacher and accomplished winemaker. “They have both got quite a good understanding of winemaking,” Andrew says. For a time, Andrew was the Victorian Attorney General under the Cain government, and otherwise has a background in architecture and is also a winemaker. He has a lot of experience in public policy, is a member of the board of the Victorian Wine Industry Association, and knows his way around the industry in a way that can be very helpful to a growing company. Vivienne McCutcheon is very active in public affairs. Kerry Judd is a clinical psychologist and James is a barrister, and understands all the contractual side of things and the business arrangements. “So we’re a fairly diverse bunch of people,” he says.
The Ten Minutes by Tractor arrangement has worked from a business point of view, but it has also worked in terms of the final product. “There are things about our vineyard and its fruit that are quite different from the McCutcheon’s or the Wallis’s vineyards,” James says. “And of course that allows the winemaker a lot of scope, and an unusual scope, to produce something exceptional.”
There were also regional challenges thrown in their way, as working in a cooler climate seemed to impose greater demands of care and attention to the task of growing high quality fruit. “I think really one of the significant things is the growing awareness that cool climate wine regions are producing more and more of the outstanding wines in Australia,” says Andrew. “It’s quite often much harder to grow high quality grapes in cool climate areas – it’s just a lot more work to look after your fruit and your vines. But I think the cool climate areas are hitting their straps and they’re starting to make quite an impact in the market.”
Ten Minutes by Tractor has been such a success for all three families that there seems to be nothing but optimism looking down the track. But what exactly is around the corner seems to be a hard call to make. “:We are feeling our way along,” says Elizabeth, “and really we are still starting up, and just now have no firm plans to expand.”
As with a lot of wine companies, Ten Minutes by Tractor has just come out of a very bad year. But rather than just having more shoulders to cry on, the level of cooperation and confidence of the greater Ten Minutes family seems to point to them rolling up the sleeves, revving up that tractor and making the best of the situation they find themselves in.
This story first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine