By Steve Leszczynski, QWineReviews.com
Turning and looking me straight in the eye, Andrew Seppelt gestures with his left hand, motioning across the table.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” before switching his gaze to his lovely wife Vanessa.
With his right hand firmly curled around a glass of Mataro, we continue to chat.
There was a buzz in the room from chatter among guests and some groovy music playing in the background, but all I could hear was the raspy tones of Andrew’s voice.
The more we spoke the more I realised this was a man who was hurting, yet through sheer determination and a good dose of human spirit, he had come out the other side and was shining like a beacon.
In a dimly-lit restaurant in Brisbane’s inner east, I caught up with Andrew at a wine dinner where he and owner Brett Hayes were showcasing their new release Hayes Family Wines.
Life had come full circle.
Only a few short years ago, Andrew’s life was ticking away beautifully.
As a husband and wife team at Murray Street Vineyards, Andrew made the wine and Vanessa was charged with marketing and front-of-house duties.
Yet, in the blink of an eye, their world was torn apart.
Andrew was made redundant and had to leave the property.
The tenancy of the house in which they lived on adjoining vineyards was removed.
From this point a downward spiral took hold.
In the lead-up to vintage, a talented and revered winemaker was left with a gloomy and uncertain future.
In an effort to pick himself up, Andrew went about creating his own label – he needed income from somewhere and Andrew Seppelt Wines was born.
But the rebuild of his self-esteem saw the first of many generous acts of friends and industry colleagues.
Without a vineyard or growers to call upon, parcels of fruit and the odd barrel were donated to keep the man and his family afloat.
Doing the best he could in the circumstances, Andrew went about blending and bottling varieties such as Shiraz and Primitivo.
Despite all this and some seemingly positive momentum, the stress and events of Murray Street were all too raw and too hard to sweep away.
Andrew’s weight ballooned, the appearance of a ring through his left brow and a hipster long beard with salt and pepper trimmings all came to the fore.
Not willing to see their good mate sink further, Paul Heinicke and Stuart Bourne could sense things weren’t right.
Seemingly without any employment prospects on the horizon, Paul raced at the chance to employ Andrew as an assistant winemaker at Soul Growers.
Completely over-qualified for the job, the intent was to keep the man busy and surrounded by friends in a comfortable environment.
“The more we recognised the isolation, the more we saw the signs. Being attuned to him over the years, I knew it was time to act,” says Stuart.
The key for Paul was simply just to listen. Engage conversation and just listen.
“Andrew acknowledged early on he had an issue. He made himself vulnerable.”
And it is this vulnerability that has propelled him back into the light. Being able to recognise internally and discuss issues such as depression openly is the way forward.
Stuart pauses before telling me, “Millennials have ensured people are now talking. Prior, it was frowned upon to discuss your weakness, whereas we now know it’s okay to not be okay.”
The agriculture industry has a higher rate of mental health issues and a higher suicide risk in the country per capita than in the city. Low crops, drought, inherited farms, unemployment to name a few, but support networks can provide the road out.
Flanked by his mates during the day, the work was easy, smiles were aplenty and the conversations were meaningful at day’s end over a glass of Riesling.
Andrew once again had that sense of belonging.
Although the workday was covered, Stuart was still conscious of what may be happening after hours and on weekends.
Active in the Barossa community, he became a mental health trainer at his beloved Angaston footy club some years ago.
His training helped him see the signs, yet also armed him with solutions.
“Never tell a depressed person what to do but try to find things for them to do and support them in that way,” Stuart says.
Then came the day of his great idea.
“You’re coming out to play cricket,” he said to Andrew.
“I haven’t played for 27 years,” was the swift response. This was no request, mind you, Andrew didn’t have a choice.
Stuart, himself a cricket tragic, is known affectionately among his teammates as Cymbals. Picture his hands crashing together at lightning speed to catch a ball as he stands behind the stumps as a wicketkeeper.
In years gone by, Andrew enjoyed listening to stories of old man cricket, but the time had come for him to don the whites of the Angaston Fifth Grade team.
This was a special team.
Affectionately described as the worst team in the worst competition, this group was all about camaraderie and socialisation with a little bit of bat swinging and bowling tossed in for good measure.
The success was in the mateship not on the scoreboard.
A few hours of banter, poor co-ordination and pure luck was all that was needed every couple of weeks to make Andrew an addict.
Cricket made him feel welcome and part of a group, and again, feel that important sense of belonging.
Stuart goes on to say, “Being needed, wanted and appreciated is a catalyst to come back from the ‘black dog’ and cricket was something he looked forward to.”
Andrew cannot praise good mate Stuart enough for the role he played over the years.
Enter Brett Hayes.
Having recently retired from the corporate world, Brett had already come to know Andrew from his trips to the Barossa in the late 1990s when he was working at Torbreck and then Murray Street Vineyards. A relationship and rapport were established over a period of time from various tastings, long lunches and promotions.
Quite the driven and a visionary type, Brett was about to launch into the wine industry with his Hayes Family Wines label.
Needing a winemaker, Andrew was approached to make the first wine, an Ebenezer Shiraz, while he was working at Soul Growers.
Another leg up, things were moving in the right direction.
In quick time, Brett purchased a property on Mattiske Road and a winery and cellar were built with organic certification also taking place in recent years.
Living on the property, Andrew was in his element, embracing organic viticulture, his Indian runner ducks and the bat boxes all contributing to a sustainable vineyard.
Producing wines of elegance and freshness, his ability to make Grenache, Mataro and Shiraz sing, speaks volumes for his talent.
Given the choice to pour something into a glass, though, he will have Mataro every time.
Not one to rest on his laurels, either, Andrew is also giving back, assisting students at the University of Adelaide with their work on yeast trials.
Brimming with anticipation, Andrew now sees a glimpse into the future, which energises him.
His eldest son has been working hard at university with the aim to embark on a career in gaming and software while son number two has been accepted into marine biology.
“Seeing the excitement in their eyes as they embark on their respective journeys is awesome,” Andrew says.
I recently caught up with Andrew again.
He is on the balls of his feet and he has found his mojo.
We drive to his beloved Greenock Hotel for lunch.
So passionate about his local district, he orders an icy cold ale brewed from around the corner yet heckles my choice of Melbourne Bitter.
With bellies full and sore cheeks from too much laughing, we head back to the winery along Seppeltsfield Road in the ute.
Windows down, the breeze hurtles its way into the cab with the rattle of the tray reminding us we are in the country.
Absorbing the vista, we hit Radford Road when Andrew says, “I love this place.”
You can hear his passion for the district right there.
After a pause, he goes on, “This is my home.”
We follow the turns of the road and pass the Seppeltsfield Mausoleum.
“My family are all buried up there,” Andrew says, gesturing to the beautiful stone building as we whiz by.
“But you won’t find me there any time soon,” he adds, turning to me with a wry smile.
Andrew Seppelt is back.
Although sharing his story wasn’t easy, Andrew Seppelt has done so to encourage others feeling the scourge of depression to step forward and confront their demons in the company of those they love and respect the most. With his ever-supportive wife by his side and a group of loyal friends, he says there is always help available if you reach out.
• This article appeared in the March-April issue of WBM – Australia’s Wine Business Magazine. Subscribe here.