This month, budding winemaker Tillie Johnston had a chat with journalist Samuel Squire about her start in the industry, the challenges she overcame in starting up her own brand, while weaving yarns about the travels that influenced her decision to come home to the Yarra Valley and set up shop.
Natillie Johnston, or Tillie J for short, is a self-proclaimed “dread headed wine gypsy” who has settled back in her home region of Victoria’s Yarra Valley to start her own wine label, Tillie J Wines.
Tillie is a nature-appreciator, an avid gardener and ‘fur mum’ to a 10 month young kelpie/collie cross, Max, who’s her right hand man in the vineyard.
After beginning her wine journey in the Yarra Valley nearly a decade ago, Tillie says she spent the better part of four years globe hopping to gain as much experience with winemaking as possible, in as many regions around the world as she could, before bringing it all back home to apply this to her own brand.
However, working in wine wasn’t a clear beaten path for Tillie. But good family experiences and growing up in the Yarra Valley, she says, certainly helped that decision unfold.
“My first experience with wine would have been with family over dinner, however my curiosity grew as I realised what was on my doorstep and I began to explore the Yarra Valley in my spare time,” she said.
“Wine was never a clear career path for me, but a good bottle of red with a Sunday roast around the dinner table with family was a tradition. Mum is a great cook and Dad had a knack of choosing just the right wine to match. I have always been part of a family that is very curious about wine, how it’s made and its sense of place.
“Living just on the doorstep of the Yarra Valley, I set my sites on cellar doors for casual work as soon as I finished school to supplement my income while studying my undergraduate degree.
“This was where the dinner table banter took on a more serious and meaningful direction as I could see what the winemakers were crafting in the cellar and could relay that information back to my family and customers. This is truly where I think the seed was sown and my love for wine blossomed.”
Originally, Tillie went to study a degree in sports science, and while she says she will always hold a passion for this subject, she was captivated by wine.
Tillie studied a graduate diploma in oenology and viticulture at the University of Melbourne. She says her fondest memory of that time was going to residential school at the Dookie campus which was always so much fun, not to mention a “time warp” visiting such an historic campus.
Initially it was family’s influence and familiarity that Tillie says peaked her curiosity about winemaking as a career path. However, once she got a closer look, what she saw was the fanaticism and dedication that goes into making a wine from those already working in the industry.
“Vines are such an interesting crop to work with. Each vine is so unique and has its own story to tell and memories stored,” she said.
“The interaction with soil, rainfall and sunlight was just so fascinating to me and, as I dug deeper into the chemistry that allows a Chardonnay to possess the lemon rind characteristics that it does and the Pinot display bright cherry aromatics, my love for this industry flourished.
“Don’t get me wrong, I loved my studies in sports science,” she said, “I will always have a fascination for human movement and nutrition, but I was shown an opportunity in the wine industry that captivated me and took me down a path I am still eagerly travelling, hungry to learn more”.
“Feeling a little unsure about my next move after completing my bachelor’s degree in sports science, a colleague and winemaker suggested I take a gap year and try something different to widen my lens on life and see what else is out there.
“This change in course came in the form of a vintage laboratory assistant role at Coldstream Hills as part of their 2012 harvest crew.
“Golly, this experience opened my young eyes to a crazy few months of lifetime friends from all over the world, high emotions as grape juice flew around the cellar 24 hours a day and end of vintage celebrations I will never forget.
“Not to mention my palate grew exponentially in experience. I loved what I was finding myself involved in, and never looked back.”
So, on that advice from her colleague at the time, Tillie packed a bag and went on a trip to the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal and completed an 18-day trek to Mount Everest Base Camp as a post-harvest ‘break’.
Tillie said it was while she was on that trek that she realised she wanted to pursue a career in wine when she got home, and the best place for her to start that journey was in her home, the Yarra Valley.
A brand of her own
When she arrived home, she went out on her own and started her own brand, Tillie J Wines. The first harvest under her newly founded label was a “rollercoaster”, as she puts it.
“Working a harvest season is like going on a rollercoaster ride,” she said, “In the best possible way”.
“You come out [of harvest] having learned a bunch of new skills. Think long days, maybe even night shifts, moments of elation when you’ve cleaned the cellar and all the jobs are done for the day, or conversely, moments of doom when a bin of fruit hits the deck.
“This look into a career with so much variation was enticing and the fact that you could sit back and laugh about it all with a beer in hand around good mates at the end of the day just solidified to me that this was the career path I wanted to follow.”
In the early days of setting up her business, and throwing herself in the deep end of winemaking, Tillie says working in the wine industry has shaped her in so many ways, and has taught her some valuable lessons too.
“It has allowed me to meet many amazing and interesting people and to travel the world,” she said.
“From these experiences and interactions, the wine industry has provided me with the confidence to make decisions based on my knowledge and to back myself.
“It’s also very easy to become wrapped up in the energy and chaos of harvest and it’s important to have fun and don’t take life too seriously. There’s always an opportunity to sit back at the end of a long day, reflect and learn.
For Tillie, the people make the industry what it is, whether it’s a person who has never met a winemaker, to the contract labourers out in the vineyard at harvest.
“When I meet new people, they are always so fascinated to meet a winemaker,” Tillie said, “The comment ‘I’ve never met a winemaker before’ usually follows shortly after an introduction”.
“I just reflect so fondly upon the fascinating and great people I have met on my travels working harvests around the world.
“It’s a game that attracts all walks of life, from the contract labour out in the vineyard to the folks who have jumped ship from a career in law to get their hands dirty in a fermenter. There are so many colourful characters out there and we’re all there to play a part.
“I love the level of fanaticism [that goes into winemaking decisions], like when choosing the right oak barrique or the shade of pink in the pursuit of the perfect rosé.
“Most folks I know in the wine industry are invested at geeky levels and that’s what keeps me coming to work every day.”
Tillie J Wines is all of Tillie’s travels and experiences to date in a bottle. She says she has always maintained a passion for cool climate varieties and has pursued jobs in regions around the world working with these cultivars.
“The opportunity to make a small volume of Pinot Noir presented itself in 2019 with a small urban winery in the heart of the Yarra Valley called No.7 Healesville,” she said.
“This provided the perfect platform to launch my brand and create solid foundations to build on as Tillie J Wines gained momentum.
“Now three years into production I am about to add a Chardonnay to my range. I feel like the sky is the limit from here!”
Tillie says she loves working in the Yarra and chose it as the base for her brand because “it’s just such a beautiful place to work”.
“I have worked in many different regions around the world – from Marlborough in New Zealand to Rheinhessen in Germany and Okanagan in Canada – and I’m still blown away by the fact that the Yarra Valley is just on my doorstep,” she said.
“There are just so many little pockets and microclimates within the region and all come with their own unique qualities. From the red soils and cooler temperatures of the upper Yarra to the sun-drenched fertile soils of the valley floor. There’s just so much to offer.”
Tillie says the 2020/2021 growing season was a huge step for her brand. The season gave its challenges, but with the help of those around her, Tillie’s most recent season was a success.
“The acres of Pinot Noir were in my hands. I was tasked with seeing my plot of Pinot from winter pruning right through to harvest and what a learning experience that was,” she said.
“With the help of my agronomist partner, we provided the vines with nutrition and the response was lush, healthy, and vigorous growth.
“Late season rain proved to be a small challenge and just the right amount of leaf plucking was needed to open those canopies for air flow and sunlight.
“Harvest day was a community effort with a small army of 30 friends, family, hospitality and industry enthusiasts alike all pitching in to lend a hand.
“I am so thrilled with how the wine turned out; I think it is a real testament to the love, attention to detail and community contribution that went into crafting it.”
Tillie says that, if she could sit down over a glass or two of wine with her younger self, she would impart a few nuggets of wisdom.
“First, I’d tell myself to travel as much as I can before settling into a full-time role,” she said.
“Secondly, I would suggest to find vintage positions in big cellars as well as the smaller ones. There is so much to learn about large scale production. Larger ferments and larger volumes of liquid have their own logistical challenges. They may not be the romantic winemaking experiences I would have been seeking, but they are crucial skills to have in your arsenal.
“However, above all else, I would encourage any young winemaker or budding viticulturist to build relationships with strong mentors and experienced people with common values,” she continued.
“Finding multiple mentors worldwide has provided lessons, networking links, unique insights and nourished my curiosity in the industry.”
Photos courtesy of Ashley Ludkin