The Pawn Wine Co. Makes a Cool Move

Tom Keelan driving a truck with his dog by his side
Tom Keelan’s family set out on a mission to support the “small guys” when one of their largest customers wouldn’t take on their grapes. It was the early 2000S and Australia was in a wine glut. Rather than giving up, Tom Keelan and his wife, Rebecca Willson decided to prove that magic can happen when the right varieties are grown in the right place.

Tom Keelan started his career in the wine industry as a viticulturist and grape grower. His family was selling alternative varieties to corporate wine companies and had vineyards in Langhorne Creek and the Adelaide Hills. Tom was used to growing grapes and watching them get sent away via trucks. If he was lucky, he might see them as a finished product on the shelves.

When one of the family’s largest customers said that they wouldn’t be taking any of their fruit on for the coming vintage, they had to pivot quickly. Tom felt like a pawn in the corporate wine game but was determined to make sure his next move would put him back in control.

“We were planting alternative varieties from the northern hemisphere and figuring out how to further them in Australia. It was disheartening to see them getting lost in big blends. Looking back, I’m grateful that some of our grape contracts ended and created the space for us to start making wine.”

Making the leap

The family had been running a small label and there wasn’t much Australian-grown Tempranillo and Sangiovese on the market. Rebecca was also a winemaker, so they took the leap of faith and started making wine out of their grapes.

Tom leant on his friends in the South Australian wine industry for advice while Rebecca applied her experience in small-batch winemaking to get the most out of their varieties.

Celebrating diversity

We should be proud of the people and places that grow our grapes. Why treat grapes like play toys and blend them away when you can celebrate them?

Tom and Rebecca realised that the diversity of Australia’s wine was one of the industry’s biggest assets. However, Australia’s vastness, climate variation, and regional subtleties were hard to translate on the international stage.

There seemed to be one story about Australian wine and it was dominated by corporate voices. As a result, their drive for winemaking evolved from necessity to a desire to celebrate regionality.

Tom says, “We should be proud of the people and places that grow our grapes. Why treat grapes like play toys and blend them away when you can celebrate them? Small wine brands have the freedom to plant new varieties, lean into regional characteristics, and revel in vintage variation. We may as well enjoy it.”

A sense of place

The Pawn Wine Co.’s fruit is sourced from Langhorne Creek and the southern end of the Adelaide Hills. As a result, there is a savoury maritime influence in Tom and Rebecca’s wine. Cool afternoon sea breezes also give the vines time to recover from the heat of the day, resulting in naturally balanced acidity.

Like other wines from the southern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula, their wines are fruit-driven and medium-bodied with soft tannins. They are a delicious addition to Australia’s food-focused culture and a lighter alternative to Barossa Shiraz and Cabernet.

The recipes that Tom’s friends shared with him in the early days are still used because ultimately, the right grape, grown in the right place, and nurtured with the right techniques will turn out to be beautiful.

Artistic expression

Tom’s focus has shifted even further along the value chain to creating wine labels. He has developed new techniques to help his wine stand out, such as holograms which visually tell a story and thermodynamic labels that indicate when the wine is at the perfect temperature for drinking.

Lately, he has been experimenting with AI and using the technology to conjure up images in the depths of his mind. “Visual triggers encourage people to buy wine, so my branding has evolved to capture attention amongst the menagerie of labels on the shelf and behind the bar. I also hope that the tactile experience when someone picks up one of my bottles continues building the emotional connection. Wine is an art form and the label should reflect what’s inside the bottle. Plus, when you head over to someone’s house you want to share something that looks good at the dinner table.”

Camraderie and collaboration

The Pawn Wine Co.’s fruit is still estate-grown and sourced from a small band of growers. Tom and Rebecca are happy to continue producing in small batches and focusing on varieties that faithfully express their terroir in Langhorne Creek, the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula, and the Adelaide Hills.

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