Winemaker-turned-filmmaker celebrates Cannes vigneron biography win

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Leconfield Winery
Leconfield Winery

Related tags Wine Australia

A fifth-generation South Australian winemaker has achieved what is probably a unique first. As well as having his wines recognised by judges at international shows in Sydney, Perth and Hobart this year, Richard Hamilton has also won an award in Cannes for a film he produced.

Dr Hamilton's documentary tells the story of his father, Burton, and his life before joining the family’s famous winery, Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards.

Fathers don’t tell sons very much about what they did in their youth and sons don’t ask their dads​,” Dr Hamilton says at the start of the hour-long movie, as he begins a journey retracing Burton’s footsteps through the South Australian and Victorian countryside in the years following the First World War.

My father Burton was a huge influence on me, and it’s because of him that I became a winemaker. There are large areas of his life that are shrouded in mystery. At this stage of my life, I want to find out the true story​.”

Fifth generation Aussie winemaker

Speaking to BeverageDaily, the owner of Leconfield Wines in Coonawarra and Richard Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale—named after his famous forebear, a pioneer of the Australian wine industry—said the project had been a labour of love and the natural follow-up to his first film.

Twenty-thirteen’s Wineline​ chronicled the contribution of the Hamiltons to the development of the modern Australian wine industry today. As the documentary flitted through the generations it painted a picture of the key Hamilton figures who transformed Australian wine production, though Burton Hamilton only received fleeting mentions.

Being a fifth-generation Australian winemaker, I have been very conscious of the family history. The story is not widely known, so I’m honoured to tell it​,” he said.

My father was a very modest man, and he didn’t think he had achieved much in his life. He didn’t blow his bag at all, but he was a great figure in the wine industry. He guided me and taught me so much that it was a great pleasure to tell his story​.”

richard hamilton wines inset
Richard Hamilton and his wife Jette

Away from the wineries, Dr Hamilton is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Adelaide, and has no involvement in broadcast. He said his first foray into the film industry came by accident, when he commissioned a local film company to make a short corporate video.

After the filmmakers listened to the family’s story—about figures like Uncle Sydney, who later in his life founded Leconfield winery and was the first person to introduce refrigeration to control the fermentation of wines in Australia—they surprised Dr Hamilton by suggesting doing something more ambitious than an advertorial.

I was really gratified that they seemed interested​,” he said. “I live and breathe my family’s history; it’s something I’m very passionate about, but filming something was very ho-hum for me. But they made some really interested points, like the Syd Hamilton refrigeration and some other things​.”

The wineries today

  • 70% of sales are domestic while 30% go to international markets. Its overseas markets include China, Belgium, UK, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, South Korea, Canada. 
  • The business has distributors in each Australian state
  • Recent accolades include: Trophy – Best Other Red Royal Adelaide Wine Show: 2017 Leconfield Coonawarra Cabernet Franc. 4 Gold Medals: 2016 Richard Hamilton ‘Hut Block’ Cabernet Sauvignon.

'It was like a Russian doll: once you open one of them, out come a load more stories'

The sequel came about four years after the release of the first WineLine: The Hamilton Story​, in a bid to honour Burton. Dr Hamilton’s father was born in 1905, and embarked a life in the countryside after returning to South Australia after the war.

This life took him to the wilds of the state first as a sheep drover, then as a cattleman, and finally as a property owner on the eve of the Great Depression.

The story showed how, like many young Australians at that time, Burton invested heavily in buying a cattle station only for the banks to foreclose on it quickly while the international economy was being hammered—something Dr Hamilton had never known about his father’s life.

Bailed out by his uncle Burt, Burton Hamilton returned to Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards to seek fortune in the family business.

As we started to research Burton’s life, we realised a lot had happened in it​,” Dr Hamilton recalled. “It was like a Russian doll: once you open one of them, out come a load more stories. It mushroomed from a 10-minute documentary to almost an hour​.”

A very good year

History and winemaking go together hand in glove, giving WineLine 2: Odyssey​ an appeal to wine lovers far beyond the subject of one man tracing his father’s past. Dr Hamilton, who also produced the picture, said many New World wineries are looking to portray their own niche of history, whereas his family’s has been there right from the beginning.

This dynasty began with Richard Hamilton, an English tailor and smuggler of French wines, who landed in the colony of South Australia over 180 years ago in search of opportunity. He is credited with being the first wine grower in Australia.

In its heyday, Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards was the sixth biggest wine company in the country, producing over 1m cases of wines and spirits a year. The business closed in 1979, through from its ashes Dr Hamilton has since managed to resurrect the family tradition with his wineries.

I think that the historical thing flows through many areas of the wine business​,” he said. There are so many famous wine families here in Australia—it seems to be something wine families and wine businesses are very conscious of. It gives you that sort of history which a newcomer can’t get​.

We all want to grasp onto this history: it’s not always convincing, but in our case, it goes back to 1837​. My great-great-grandfather was the first person in South Australia who planted grape vines for the purpose of making wine. This is real, this is fact, we aren’t Johnny-come-latelies. Customers appreciate our history—they love it​.”

Away from the silver screen, and the film that won the Silver Dolphin at the ninth Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards in September, and bronze in the New York Television and Film Awards too, Dr Hamilton’s Richard Hamilton Hut Block cabernet sauvignon has gained three gold medals at the 2018 Australian International wine shows in Sydney, Perth and Hobart.

There have been other wine awards as well, but that has been the highlight. We’ve had a very successful year with the wine doing well. It’s been a very good year​,” he said.

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