It’s been an extraordinary year for Devil’s Lair winemaker Ben Miller, filled with both unexpected challenges and causes for celebration.
In January, the Margaret River winery held special event for its 30th anniversary, with past winemakers and staff tasting through 30 vintages of Chardonnay and Cabernet.
“It was a privilege as well as inspiring to hear of those early years while working our way through some outstanding back vintage wines,” Miller recalls.
Little did everyone in the room know how much their lives would change in March, when COVID-19 lockdowns hit.
Border closures and other restrictions have proven to be a mixed bag for the Margaret River region. Devil’s Lair and its fellow Margaret River wineries are facing skilled labour shortages, which Miller said “are a real concern for the 2021 harvest” that will require industry and government support.
“The WA hard border is also re-defining how winemakers approach interstate sales promotion and key relationships activities,” Miller said.
“Online tastings and events are becoming the norm, which is not necessarily a bad thing, you just need to pivot and adapt quickly.”
However, Miller said there has still been plenty to celebrate during the winery’s 30th year.
Margaret River is experiencing a hospitality boom as border closures and international travel bans lead locals to spend up big at home.
“Most cellar doors are reporting increased visitation compared to the same time last year, particularly over the winter months,” Miller said.
“Accommodation in the region is also experiencing strong demand, particularly over weekends and school holidays, which is great to see. Those businesses that rely more on interstate or international visitors are still working hard to attract visitors, but we consider ourselves very fortunate in WA that the restrictions were lifted relatively quickly so we haven’t been impacted as badly as other states such as Victoria.”
Changing spending patterns during COVID-19
Miller said the current landscape has created two very different dynamics in wine purchasing habits.
“We have noticed there is a pool of people that are either having to drop their average price spend on wine due to financial restraints, or at the other end of the spectrum, are spending more as a way to indulge at home – almost being able to justify it because of the money they would normally spend out on food and wine,” he explained.
“There are also people spending more on wine to cellar for when the times comes when they can entertain and enjoy it among friends and family.”
His premiumisation observation echoes a recent article in The Age, with one Cottesloe restaurateur noting the past four months had been “completely flat out” with bookings full for lunch and dinner almost daily.
“People who would usually be spending their spare money on holidays and going away and the like can’t at the moment, and the entire industry in the western suburbs are getting swamped with people eating out,” he said.
“And normally these people might spend $30 on a bottle of wine with dinner. Well now they’re looking at $50-60 options.”
Miller agreed: “We have noticed that people are tending towards more established wines that they trust and are familiar with and that is where they will invest.”
The wine winning the price war
When it comes to value for money, Miller said the 5th Leg range is hitting the spot with consumers.
“Our semillon sauvignon blanc is a category leader and very popular throughout the country,” he explained. “It’s affordable, easy to drink and pairs well with a lot of foods.”
Fortunately, COVID-19 hasn’t dented the booming appeal of Margaret River Chardonnays.
“Devils Lair Chardonnay is our most recognisable and most successful wine,” he said. “There has been a real revival in Chardonnay, so our Margaret River Chardonnays have been in growth for the past couple of years and it’s great to see the growth hasn’t changed this year.”
What makes Margaret River special?
Devil’s Lair is named after the one of Australia’s most significant archaeological sites, The Devil’s Lair Cave.
Located a short distance from the winery, the cave contains evidence of some of the earliest records of human life. The ancient soils in which the Devil’s Lair vines flourish today were forming thousands of years ago – centuries before Margaret River was named and well before anyone dreamed of growing wine in the region.
Miller moved to Margaret River nine years ago to join the Devil’s Lair team.
“It’s a very inclusive and collaborative wine community, who are very passionate about taking Margaret River to the world,” he said. “The wines inherently have a lovely freshness and balance. It’s also a pretty good place to live and play as well!”
Devil’s Lair wines are available from leading wine retailers nationally.