John Casella is a busy man. Looking after Yellow Tail, Peter Lehmann, Brand’s Laira and Morris of Rutherglen would be like Kitty Chiller looking after 422 Aussie athletes in Rio, the only difference being John does a good job and his stars win more medals.
On Wednesday Qantas announced the biggest annual profit in Australian aviation history. I emailed John’s gatekeeper, Frankie Harding, asking for a phone chat with him about buying Morris. The Flying Kangaroo was coughing and spluttering just a few years ago; so was Casella, the Aussie dollar rather than fuel causing Yellow Tail to go into a tailspin. Frankie said she would try. “Please send through your questions.” Standard for Casella. Success! She said John would phone at 11am the next day; he phoned at 11.01am. He speaks softly and seems even-tempered; says what he has to say and shuts up. Did he use his heart or his head to buy Morris? He said something interesting: the Morris family gave John’s father a small loan in the sixties to get by. “I think it was a small loan to get over a difficult period,” John says. “It was important because my mother mentioned it more than once.”
How does it feel to own a wine treasure like Morris? “I only feel like I’m looking after it,” John says. “The reality in life is that you never really own anything; it always moves on past your disappearance. It feels good to be in a position to enhance what someone else created. It’s sad my parents aren’t here to see it.” Must be good not having to go to a board with these things? John laughs. “That’s one of the nice things about a family-run company,” he says. “You can make a decision on the run, virtually, and deal with it afterwards. This iconic brand was about to be dismembered. That wasn’t going to happen while I had the means to save it. But we will make it work commercially; the result will ultimately show it was a good financial decision.” John bought Morris at five minutes to midnight. They had held a tasting for local winemakers as the sell-off loomed. “David was negotiating in the background while the tasting was happening,” says John, who recently visited Morris for the first time in 30 years. He had a little something with David to celebrate. What? “The Rare, I think they call it… it won a trophy in Sydney.” That would be NV Old Premium Rare Liqueur Topaque.” What was it like? “Fantastic,” he says. “Utterly fantastic.”