Wills Domain won the 2015 Regional Restaurant of the Year award in the West Australian Good Food Guide. Situated in Yallingup, it’s a winery in the South West of WA with a restaurant serving fine cuisine. Below is a story of the winery and the owner who runs it.
Spend a day in the life with owner of Wills Domain winery in Margaret River, Darren Haunold, and discover what drives this enigmatic, passionate winemaker, staunch advocate for the region and lover of all things outdoors.
From the time he wakes up at 6am to check on the vineyard to the simple pleasure of tasting the grapes on the vines, Darren Haunold’s day is filled with moments most of us will never come across all in the search of making that elusive perfect wine.
A DAY IN THE LIFE WITH VINEYARD OWNER DARREN HAUNOLD
Becoming a vineyard owner and winemaker isn’t exactly the obvious choice for a guy in a wheelchair — by Darren Haunold’s own admission — but for him it was simply what hewanted to do. The rest of it was just detail.
It took only one summer working free for a friend on a vineyard to convince Haunold that winemaking was for him. Figuring out how he could make that happen with the limitations of his wheelchair was an afterthought.
The brief back story to Haunold was at the age of 13, just as he was showing a promising career in sport, he fainted while assisting a painter and fell off the roof of his family home becoming a paraplegic.
Many would easily have given up on dreams they had but for Haunold it just changed his direction. He has never let anything get in the way of what he has wanted to do.
He led a full life at school, played for the State and national mens’ wheelchair basketball teams and worked his way through his family’s business, progressing through the financial sector and ultimately being offered a promotion to company accountant.
However he declined the offer and travelled the country instead. Not wanting to pursue a career behind a desk he took the opportunity to open his eyes to the wider world and during this journey realised he wanted more than what an office job could provide. That was when he returned to WA and looked for his “sea change”.
“I was looking at real estate options down south around Margaret River to possibly develop premium holiday accommodation because I saw a gap in the market,” he said. “I had, in fact, looked at several properties and was close to buying a series of blocks overlooking Dunsborough and Busselton when we came across the now Wills Domain site. It was an amazing site, very aesthetically pleasing and aching to be developed but it already had established vines and I thought to myself ‘Could I do this? Could I make wine?’’’.
He decided to spend that summer with his now vineyard manager, Ernie Lepidi, and fell in love with the vineyard life.
“I spent the season pruning with Ernie on my four-wheel bike and then helped him establish a new vineyard,” Haunold said. “I really enjoyed it and felt I was good at it. It grabbed my attention as a physical job. I just loved working out in the vineyard, I’d happily go for weeks not having a day off and really, that’s what a vineyard demands. The vineyard doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t rest, it waits for no-one.”
So that was that. The Haunold family bought the property, began developing the vineyard, then built the restaurant and the rest is history.
These days rather than racing around the vineyard pruning, harvesting or tending to the grapes he is refining the profile of his wines with winemaker Bruce Dukes, strategising, networking and building his business to be one of the most recognisable wineries in Margaret River.
Every day is different and he has to wear many hats. He has to have a thorough understanding of many facets of wine business from vineyard operations, wine-making, restaurant staff training and general management, marketing, sales and promotion. The life of a vigneron never stops.
A DAY IN THE LIFE…
6am — Typically Haunold is up checking on weather patterns early — a constant source of concern for any winemaker.
6:30am — Swim squad with his son Oliver who Haunold says is a a champion in the making.
8am — Breakfast with wife Suzanne and the kids, getting ready for the school run before a busy day ahead.
9am — On the drive to Wills Domain after school drop Haunold starts his business day making and answering calls from distributors, sales people, staff and tourism partners.
9.30am – He meets with his vineyard manager Ernie for a coffee with wine dog Bob overlooking the Gunyulgup Valley and discusses the health of the vineyard. It is a tenuous time just before harvest as the timing is so dependent on the weather, keeping the grapes disease free, keeping animals away, controlling the amount of water in the vineyard and getting the grapes at just the right stage of ripening. It is a year’s culmination of work that comes down to a window of just a few days and it keeps everyone nervous. The pair are often moving through the vines and tasting grapes from each varietal to identify exactly where the optimum fruit lies for their best wines.
10.30am — Front of house meeting with his head chef and restaurant and events manager to make sure the week ahead is on track and everything is in hand for the wedding being held in the restaurant on the weekend. They might even try a new dish chef Seth James is looking to introduce in the menu.
11.30am — He tours around the restaurant chatting with staff and welcoming some of the diners as they sample wine in the newly built cellar door before rushing off to his next meeting.
12 — Haunold takes a phone call from Bruce Dukes, chief winemaker, they discuss whether the flavour profiles of their next pick are hitting the peaks they are after and what they should do to capture the optimal fruit character — they decide to hand pick that night. This last-minute decision puts Haunold out in the vineyard on his four-wheeler helping put buckets across the rows of vines.
2pm — He then heads out to the processing plant to take a group of overseas wine buyers, in conjunction with the South West Development Commission, through to explain the wine-making process. He is passionate about wine-making and the Margaret River region and with more than 15 years experience is a great advocate for the area.
3:30pm — School pick up and then he heads back home to work where he says he is “more productive…it’s easy to get chatting to people, I could do it all day, people are so curious about thewine industry, I’d never get any real work done”.
8pm — After some games playing with the kids and dinner it is back to the computer to lock in more distribution contracts, secure a radio advertising campaign and confirm an important networking dinner with Wine Australia with VIP guests to educate them on the brand so they will potentially become international advocates and promoters for Wills Domain. “There is a constantneed for conversation, to stay at the forefront of people’s minds,” Haunold says. “But at some point my wife does tell me to put the phone down!”
1am – check on the weather again!
“The vineyard doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t rest, it waits for no-one” — Darren Haunold