Folletts' focus switches from cows to cabernet

Lake Breeze expansion an evolution from Follett enterprise

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THE Follett family has been in the business of quenching thirst for more than 140 years - although the manner in which they have done so has changed somewhat through the years.

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THE Follett family has been in the business of quenching thirst for more than 140 years - although the manner in which they have done so has changed somewhat through the years.

For more than a century, they were involved in the dairy industry, as well as growing grapes for the wine industry, beginning their own label, Lake Breeze, in the late 1980s.

Growing up among Langhorne Creek's vines seems to have had an influence on Ken and Marlene Follett's three sons, with general manager Roger, winemaker Greg and vineyard manager Tim all staying on the farm to help build the winery, along with help from Greg's wife Robyn and Tim's wife Dionne.

But the wine industry connection is also there with their daughters, with Andrea Maidment previously co-managing a vineyard and still helping out on the family property, while Julia Helyar and her husband Jamie just opened their own cellar door - False Cape on Kangaroo Island.

The Follett name was first linked with the Langhorne Creek region in the 1880s, when Arthur Follett, who came from a dairy near Blakiston in the Adelaide Hills, married Alice Fairweather, whose family settled there in the 1850s.

Despite being a devout Methodist and non-drinker, it was Arthur who initially planted vines on the property. But rather than going down the wine path, he targeted the dried fruit market.

Alongside the vines, they still maintained the dairy operation, with Arthur and Alice's son Len registering an Illawarra stud under the prefix Bremer View.

In the 1930s, the Folletts made the switch to winegrapes, planting palomino, doradillo and grenache, and selling these to local winemaker Bleasdale for use in fortified wines.

The next big change was in the mid-1960s, when Arthur's grandson Ken married Marlene and together they revamped the vineyard again, planting the shiraz and cabernet vines still in use today.

It was in the late 1980s - a century after vines were first planted on the property - when the Folletts began to look at creating their own wine.

In 1987, after delivering their grapes to Penfolds for use in its Bin 707, they were complimented on the quality of their cabernet grapes.

VANTAGE POINT: The view from the cellar door.

VANTAGE POINT: The view from the cellar door.

"It was suggested 'why don't you have a crack yourself?'," Ken said.

He said they also wanted the chance to put Langhorne Creek on the label, so they put aside some of their grapes, with about four barrels of wine made at Penfolds in 1987.

Marlene says selecting a brand for their label was something "I would hate to have to do again".

After bandying about a range of options, they settled on Lake Breeze.

"The lake breeze (from Lake Alexandrina) is so strongly involved in what Langhorne Creek can do," Ken said.

For the next five vintages they had small quantities of their own wine made by Penfolds' winemakers.

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Dairy still remained a key part of the property right up to the 1990s, with the focus split evenly between the two ventures.

Ken had dairy studs from both sides of his family - the Folletts and his mother Alice's side, the Cleggetts - while Marlene had also grown up on a dairy farm at Bull Creek, via Meadows.

By the late 1980s, they were milking about 45 to 50 cows, across two dairies, with Roger managing the dairy next door.

Marlene said at that time, having about 50 cows was enough to support two families, while they also had about 20 hectares of vines.

In the early 1990s, a decision had to be made about their future focus.

Marlene said they sat down as a family to make important choices about the direction of their business.

"We weren't putting enough work into the cattle or the vineyard, so thought something had to give," she said.

Roger said while dairy and working with cows was a big part of his life, they thought the potential sat with the wine industry.

"It would allow more members of the family to come back to the farm and grow the business," he said.

The dairy herd was dispersed in February 1993 with a newly-built warehouse for wine storage put to its first use as the site of the sale.

Ken said much of the growth of the business had been organic and gradual.

"We could never have envisaged how it would have progressed," he said.

"It's been gradually getting bigger and bigger."

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While middle son Greg studying winemaking seems a logical choice in retrospect, he said there was no plan to return home and make their family's wine.

"Wine wasn't really in the family, it was dairy and grapes," he said.

He began working vintages in the Barossa when he was 17, before heading to Roseworthy and "just found it more and more interesting".

After graduating, he travelled and worked vintages in France and California, in the United States, before returning to Langhorne Creek and working at Bleasdale.

It was then, in 1992, that he took on the Lake Breeze winemaking duties.

"It was the first time we'd really made our own wine from go to whoa," he said.

They made a cabernet sauvignon and some 'Bernoota' shiraz.

"We went from 150 cases of each red to 1500, which was a big jump," he said.

"The '92 is when we first started entering wine shows and those two just blitzed the awards."

In that year, they claimed three trophies and 12 gold medals.

"We started to think, 'hang on, maybe we've do have something here'," Greg said.

His wife Robyn said this also kick-started interest from retailers, who began buying wine by the pallet.

They also opened a cellar door in March 1991, renovating the old machinery and hay shed.

Roger said he often remembers pulling the tractor into the corner where guests now congregate.

Greg said they were ahead of the trend by opening a cellar door in the early 1990s, with many more to follow about a decade later across the state.

After a few more years they reached the "critical point".

"If we had our own facility here, we could have more control with picking and do better, so we took the plunge and built our own winery for the '98 vintage," Greg said.

From its origins with four barrels, Lake Breeze produces about 35,000 cases of wine each year, as well as still selling about half its grapes to other winemakers.

GROWING BUSINESS: Lake Breeze sells wine into eight countries as well as domestically.

GROWING BUSINESS: Lake Breeze sells wine into eight countries as well as domestically.

"It's still very much a boutique winery, but it's a nice size," Roger said.

The wine is sold across Australia, as well as being exported to eight countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, China and the United Kingdom.

Roger said export makes up about one-quarter of their business, which he believed was a good balance.

He said their goal was to try and maximise the value throughout the operation, rather than keep growing larger.

Part of this was a focus on attracting consumers to their cellar door.

"We really want to create that connection here," he said.

"We'd rather people buy wine here than wholesale or retail.

"Someone who comes and has lunch here, smells it, sees and talks to the people here, they're more likely to pick (a bottle of wine) up later on."

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The business has evolved to offer catering for guests beforehand - renovating the cellar door to include food service in 2013, and emptying out barrels in the barrel room for weddings from 2014. They also took a major step in their events in 2014 with the creation of the Handpicked Festival.

Robyn said they had been discussing hosting an event for sometime, inspired by a local vintage party from the early 2000s.

But what really allowed them to go down this path was when Kate Cooper, daughter of Andrea and niece to Roger, Greg and Tim, came back from working event management interstate and took on the challenge.

In its six years, the line-ups have included artists such as Jessica Mauboy, The Veronicas, Potbelleez, Matt Corby, Jet, Amy Shark, Missy Higgins and John Butler.

In 2019, they had the biggest crowd yet, with 6000 in attendance.

Robyn said planning for such an event like was a year-long task.

"Pretty much the week after (the festival), they're working on the next line-up," she said.

"We need to get that right to attract the right audience."

Robyn said as well as bringing more people to their winery, Handpicked was also a great way to promote their region.

"Regionally, it's really important," she said. "We're so close to Adelaide and things like Handpicked do a lot to attract people and create awareness of Langhorne Creek.

"Handpicked put Langhorne Creek on the map, bringing 6000 people here who otherwise wouldn't think of coming down this way."

With Roger moving into the general manager role, the space was there for Tim to take on the management of the vineyards, while his wife Dionne looks after the finances and a bed and breakfast on the property.

"This was more to my liking than any inside job," Tim said.

He said the past two years had been busy as they expanded the vineyard and put in more vines.

Sport is also a big passion of the Follett family, particularly when it comes to the Langhorne Creek Football Club - the Hawks.

Lake Breeze is a sponsor, while Roger served as president for nine years and Tim has acted as head trainer. This passion has been inherited from Ken, who regularly acts as an umpire among the younger teams.

"We're very successful, as a small footy club," Roger said. "It's a big social part of the town."

KEEN COMPETITOR: Arthur Follett showing Clydesdales at the Strathalbyn Show.

KEEN COMPETITOR: Arthur Follett showing Clydesdales at the Strathalbyn Show.

Showing has also been a big part of the Follett family.

Ken can recall his father Len walking cattle to the Strathalbyn Show to compete - a distance of about 16 kilometres.

"He walked the cows to Strathalbyn the day before, then they would show and be walked back that afternoon," he said.

"Then to get to the (Royal) Adelaide Show, we would walk them to Strathalbyn and go by train and get off at the Adelaide Showground station."

An early exposure to the show life started a life-long connection with the Royal Adelaide Show for Ken.

In 1985, he was elected onto the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society's Dairy Cattle and Pig Committee, where he remained for another 33 years.

But even after stepping off the committee two years ago, he remains an honorary councillor.

This membership continued even after the family dispersed the Bremer View stud, but Ken said it was a good way to stay involved in an industry that had formed a major part of his life.

Greg is also involved with the RA&HS, although on the wine side of things.

He has managed the Langhorne Creek Wine Show for about 20 years and in 2011 joined the RA&HS's Adelaide Wine Show committee. For the past two years, he has been chair.

"It's a good way to give something back to the industry, while networking and meeting people," he said.

More than two decades after dispersing the Bremer View stud, the Follett family again became involved in the Illawarra industry.

Greg and Robyn's son Thomas had shown an interest in the stud's history and has restarted it - even using some of the old cow families sold during the dispersal.

He runs about seven cows and heifers, exhibiting at local shows and at Adelaide.

Thomas has also somewhat followed in his family's footsteps, starting an agriculture degree at the University of Adelaide, although he says agronomy and livestock are more likely in his future than wine.

There are also some beef cattle still in the mix, with Ken and Marlene running a small herd of about 25 Angus on the main property, while Greg and Robyn have a second block between Strathalbyn and Ashbourne, where they run a beef herd.

"We've always been around cattle so it still feels really natural to me," Greg said.

Roger said while most members of the Lake Breeze team gravitated to the areas of the business that suited them best, there had also been a lot of work put into the business structure to ensure everyone was able to build on their strengths.

"I think everyone is very passionate about what we do, and proud of where it's going and where it's come from," he said.

"Mum and Dad are not shy about going into things and that's been passed on and given us a great grounding.

"We're creating a business that has evolved, with the opportunity for family to be involved, if they want to."

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