June 5, 2020

Weekly Crush: Dennis Parker, Saracen Estates

By Angela Oemcke

Meet Cellr’s Weekly Crush: Dennis Parker from Western Australian Winery, Saracen Estates. Saracen Estates is a family owned business producing multi-award winning Margaret River Wines. No cellar door? No worries! We were lucky enough to get to chat to Dennis about his family’s winery, which is virtually managed from the Perth headquarters, about everything from marketing and distributing wine without a cellar door, as well as award winning wines, establishing their business, their charity work, their gentle giant and more…

Continue to follow the Saracen Estates story on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Linkedin and Facebook. Also head over to their website to learn more and check out the delicious wines in their online store

Let’s start off with the hardest question, do you have a winery dog?

Bernard is my family’s much loved 10 year German Shepard/Border Collie cross.  We thought he was going to be a medium sized dog but he’s a big gentle lovable boy. Bernard loves to dress up so we’ve been able to put him in Saracen Estates gear on many occasions.  He is 10 years old and is really excited when we travel down south to what we term as dog heaven, as well as partaking in our many gatherings with family and friends enjoying Saracen Estates wines. 

So Dennis, tell us what got you interested in wine in the first place, and talk us through what it means to be the general manager at Saracen Estates?

Maree Saraceni is my sister and I was working with her and her ex-husband, Luke Saraceni, in the capacity of Saracen Group Asset Manager when the decision was made to locate a vineyard property in Wilyabrup for the purpose of building a cellar door to grow the Saracen Estates wine brand. I had always enjoyed a good wine but this was a whole new education which I enjoyed from the outset. 

The Caves Road vineyard was originally a blue gum farm so the vineyard needed to be built from scratch and investigating how to do that was very exhilarating and at times, frustrating.  Saracen Estates head office was based in Perth at that time so I spent a lot of time going back and forth. Viticulturalists were employed through a consulting vineyard management company to work alongside Bob Cartwright who had been employed as a Consultant Winemaker at that time.  

The philosophy was to employ and consult with a team of the best in the wine industry and learn from them as we moved through the clearing, sourcing, planting, etc… 

That was just the beginning as we then began to plan what facility we would build on the vineyard.  It was a baptism of fire as well as a very busy, but enjoyable time.  I’ve learnt so much since those early days and it is true what they say “wine becomes a passion” and I’ve become very passionate about our wines and the Margaret River Wine Region. We produce excellent wines from one of the world’s renowned wine regions which really enhances my job as General Manager.

Saracen Estates winery is unique in that it has been operating as a virtual winery from your Perth office since 2013. Tell us a little bit about how this works?

Saracen Estates had naming rights through a lease with another Saracen Group entity which owned and managed the Caves Road vineyard property.  That Saracen entity built what we understand was the first combined craft brewery and cellar door in the Southern hemisphere at the time. Visitor numbers to the facility were huge from the time it opened in late 2008. Saracen Estates head office was in Perth and had been since its inception in the early 1990s, but it was rented and ran a cellar door through the Caves Road vineyard.

We parted ways with our brewery partners in 2013, the decision was then made to close the Caves Road cellar door and run a Virtual Winery from our Perth office.  The vineyard property had been sold prior to that time so the Saracen Group were no longer managing that property. 

The virtual operation of the business is exactly as it was when we had a cellar door, apart from having daily walk-ins for tastings, which also enabled us easy access to new members for database purposes.  When we had the cellar door, we always sourced our fruit from either the Saracen Group vineyard or other Margaret River vineyards and still do today. We owned the fruit at harvest and at that time Consultant Winemaker Bob Cartwright and now Consultant Winemaker, Clive Otto, would (and still do) make our wines under contract in a Margaret River winery.  We never had a winery on the vineyard property, our wines were always made at a contracted Margaret River winery. We now store our wines in a temperature controlled warehouse in Margaret River instead of at the vineyard property. 

Dennis (right)  tasting current vintages in the lab at Fraser Gallop with Consultant Winemaker, Clive Otto (left).

The major difference between a cellar door and a virtual winery is having walk-in consumers through the cellar door, as well as being able to market and distribute your product through the cellar door.  Since opening the cellar door Saracen Estates has always handled the wine distribution Australia wide, there is no middle man. Our wines go straight to the consumer from the cellar door, and now the Perth office.  Having had such a fabulous facility we had built up a large database, already established our social media presence and knew that we needed to build and retain these to convert sales.

We make regular visits to the Margaret River region to source harvest, meet winemakers, see how our wines are progressing (tastings and tweakings), bottling, stocktake, etc.  Marketing our product is done via social media, private tastings, food and wine shows and through distribution to boutique restaurants/bottle shops who are looking for a premium wine that is local, boutique and not available everywhere.  We have managed to maintain a very good and loyal database through these methods. Our exceptional wines continue to sell and are delivered Australia wide; distribution is through our Perth office which our customers seem to love; they like the feeling of being looked after personally by the owners.

Before Saracen Estates Owner/Director, Maree, asked your winemaker, Bob, to join the team he had spent many vintages in Margaret River with Leeuwin Estate. Here he contributed to crafting one of the world’s most highly regarded Chardonnays in the Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series (also Marees favourite varietal). Bob has since gone on to make award winning wines under the Saracen Estates label, talk to us about the wine you think best represents the Saracen Estates brand, and also your favourite wine in the range.

A barrel tasting of Saracen Estates reds with Dennis and the Assistant Winemaker at Fraser Gallop which is the contracted winery to make our wines

That’s a difficult one as we’ve had so many remarkable award and trophy winning wines since our first Gold Medal winning 2006 Chardonnay made by Bob Cartwright.  We knew of the wine varietals Margaret River had received Worldwide recognition for (Cabernets, Cabernet Blends, Chardonnays and White Blends) and we became aware that Bob Cartwright was going to practice as a consultant Winemaker. We loved and knew of Bob’s success with Chardonnay styles, a wine variety synonymous with Margaret River.  It is my white wine of choice and as Bob will tell you; Chardonnay is wooded. There is no such thing as a Chardonnay that is unwooded; it is a Chablis. 

Chardonnay is a variety that has copped a lot of flak over the years because some winemakers back in the day over used the malolactic fermentation process.  I’m thrilled that a very well made Chardonnay is now coming back into vogue as there is nothing better as far as a good white wine goes.  Thanks to Bob, and now Clive Otto, Saracen Estates has produced some superb Chardonnays since our first from the Caves Road vineyard in 2006.

Even though our Chardonnay is my favourite white, I prefer a red to a white and would have to say that  my very favourite of our range would have to be our Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which has always been highly awarded since our first vintage in 2006.  Our current 2012 has been awarded Gold at the Decanter Worldwide Awards and was a finalist for Winestate Magazines wine of the year, as well as receiving many other awards and accolades. I love nothing better than a very good steak accompanied by a good glass of red and the 2012 Saracen Estates Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the last of our reserve wines by Bob Cartwright, is exactly that.

Maree and Dennis at Winestate Magazine’s headquarters in Adelaide when they received the Trophy for our 2010 Shiraz, which was judged the Winestate’s best wine in 2012. They also took out a couple of other trophies for best varietal at the same presentation.

On the Wine Market… We asked Dennis to shed some light on his experience in the wine market, as a big part of what we do at Cellr is make true direct to consumer marketing easy for producers. 

In the absence of a Cellar Door, what channel have you found is the best way to directly engage with consumers, and what channel have you found drives the most sales? Why do you think these channels are effective?

Our database is extremely important in engaging consumers and we do a mail out at least monthly offering fabulous wine or several wines at great savings and advising of any Saracen Estates news. We use analytics to track our audience and the response to our latest mailout.  We also post wine news and advertise any wine specials using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Linkedin. We personally visit and deliver to our regular restaurants as well as deliver to our local customers. We have found that personal contact is the best way to look after customers and keep a loyal database.

Food and Wine events, private tastings and sponsoring fundraising events also provide us with the opportunity to introduce our wines to new customers and achieve new members for our database. We attend several of these events throughout the course of the year with great success.  Although 2020 is going to be different so we’ll have to wait and see what transpires for the rest of the year. 

You have a solid fan base across your social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest), how do you establish it and engage with an online audience?

Technology and more technology- these days everything is done on the phone whilst on the move so we have found social media is the best way to engage the next generation of wine consumers, as well as those loyal customers who already follow us through  social media platforms. We find keeping things personal is the best way to engage an Australia wide audience. We encourage our consumers to get in touch with photos or anecdotes whilst enjoying our wines, and we try to include that input through our social media platform as well as keep them informed of any Saracen Estates news, sales, etc. We use analytics to track audience interest and visitors to our website. We personally follow up on any comments or interest shown via our social media sites and website.

What are the limitations Saracen Estates faces when it comes to direct to consumer engagement and what do you think could help overcome them?

Our biggest limitation –  the glut of wine on the market since the GFC with overseas product landing at incredibly cheap prices, and now with the pandemic a lot of massively discounted domestic products have become available. With cellar doors around the country shut down, we are all relying on our online presence. We are very boutique, producing small quantities of each varietal, so to produce, bottle, market, distribute our wines can be very costly. There is so much cheap wine around because it has been produced in bulk, or bulk purchased from the Eastern seaboard, NZ or overseas. Therefore it is challenging to compete with the incredibly cheap prices offered online through various wine clubs, etc. 

To maybe overcome these issues, we like the idea of a Margaret River, or even West Australian, online co-operative of small producers banding together to offer a variety of incredible wines. Maybe that way we would attract a wider market.  We also have some ideas for a Saracen Estates wine outlet, but we will have to wait and see what 2020 brings before going down any new paths.

On Authentication and Supply Chains: We asked Dennis about his views on authentication and his current supply chain management. At Cellr we want to understand how producers feel about the current systems in place and make a packaging solution that is consistent with what they need

What sales and distribution channels do you currently use? Do you feel they provide you with a clear line of sight from the moment the bottle leaves Saracen Estates?

All sales are made through our Perth office. Mostly online through our website or phoning us directly. Either myself or Maree will take and process the order. We distribute direct from our Perth office using Australia Post to deliver Australia wide, free of charge. We will personally deliver to our locals and restaurants, which is an unusual touch having the owners deliver your wine order. We have complete control unless a case goes astray in the mail which can happen from time to time. Our customers are usually very understanding, and happy with the service we provide. 

With the global explosion of wine fraud pushing into the mid/premium brackets due to sheer volume, how important is it for wine consumers to be able to identify your (legitimate) products via anti-counterfeit measures?

It is extremely important.  We value, and are very proud of, the Saracen Estates brand as it is known to produce award winning wines, as well as being a very affordable premium boutique wine brand. To have all that we have created and worked for affected by counterfeiters would be detrimental to our brand, and no doubt would have an impact on our consumers if they were to purchase an inferior wine that purported to be produced by Saracen Estates. It would definitely impact our sales.

Talk us through some of the charity work you do, what are the causes and what drew you to them? (please include any photos)

Maree and I lost our older brother to brain cancer 12 years ago so when a very close friend approached us to sponsor Charlie Teo’s Brain Cancer Research Ball a few years ago it was an immediate yes. Brain Cancer is a debilitating disease that affects so many young people and we hope that the small part we play will someday help find a cure. 

Charlie Teo and Ray Jordan guessing the varietal at the Cancer Research Gala Ball.

We have always had the philosophy of being involved in community based charities, so when the opportunity to be the wine sponsor of the WA Young Achievers Awards came up we jumped at the chance. It’s amazing to be inspired by the next generations and know that the future is very promising indeed. We support many local charities and community clubs but the two that I’ve mentioned are a massive commitment that we are proud to be a part of.

Dennis and Matt Tinney presenting a winner with a case of the 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at the Young Achievers Award.

Other than Leeuwin Estate and your own, who’s Chardonnay in Margaret River are you drinking?

There are so many amazing Margaret River Chardonnays. I’m very parochial and will always look for Margaret River wine when out and about, and if not available then a West Aussie wine.   Fraser Gallop, Thomsons, Amelia Park, Pierro, Xanadu, are a few other exceptional Margaret River chardonnays I enjoy.

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