It’s a long way from Gippsland to Burgundy. It’s an even bigger leap from doing highlights in an upmarket Melbourne hair salon to being crowned winemaker of the year by France’s most respected wine magazine.
For Jane Eyre, it took 23 years of long days in vineyards and late nights balancing the books before the pay-off arrived on a grey day in January this year.
A decade after starting her own winery, Eyre was named négociant of the year by influential wine trade magazine La Revue du Vin de France.
“It’s been unbelievable,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for the reaction. I’ve just been trying to keep up with emails and people ordering wine, new importers, new sommeliers.
“I never, ever thought I would get to this level.”
A négociant is an independent winemaker who doesn’t own their own vineyard, instead buying grapes direct from growers.
Normally La RVF’s top honour goes to French négociants with rich pedigrees. Eyre is not only the first Australian, but the first woman, to break that record.
“I’m very small compared to a lot of négociants,” she says. “I started off with one wine and five barrels — about 1,500 bottles — whereas the big houses here in Burgundy make millions of bottles.
“I don’t even make 20,000. It didn’t even cross my mind that I would get something like this.”
Making a name for herself
As for her literary name, Eyre says she has no idea why her mother chose it. Despite owning eight copies of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work, she’s never actually read it.
But now she’s making a name for herself, and her achievements are even more impressive when you consider where she started.
“My dad’s idea of a cellar was a couple of boxes of wine stuck in the corner of the chicken shed,” she says. “But we used to go up to Fall’s Creek for skiing and in summer, and we’d always stop off at Brown Brothers.
“I was generally more interested in the bowl of cheese than the wines.”
After dropping out of school, Eyre got a hairdressing apprenticeship in a South Yarra salon, which she enjoyed but wasn’t passionate about.
She developed an interest in wine, and ended up doing vintage in Burgundy in 1998 after a chance conversation with a client who was married to wine writer, Jeremy Oliver.
Once back in Melbourne, Eyre did a wine science degree at Charles Sturt University and got a job at a wine store in St Kilda.
“That’s where I really learnt about wine,” she says. “We had sommeliers from all the restaurants come in and do monthly masterclasses.”
In 2004, Eyre made the permanent move to Beaune, a town of about 25,000 people that is the heart of Burgundy, a few hours’ drive south-east of Paris, between Dijon and Lyon.
“We’ve got good shops, a fantastic fresh produce market, loads of great restaurants and lots of international people,” she says.
“It’s definitely a bubble. It’s not like living in a little winemaking village.”
‘It would be nights, weekends, lunchtimes’
She first worked for celebrated vigneron Dominique Lafon, and later as assistant winemaker to Chris Newman at Domaine Newman.
While she dreamed of making her own wines, it wasn’t an easy dream to realise in Burgundy.
This small but mighty wine region is known for producing some of the most expensive pinot noir and chardonnay in the world.
In 2019, a single hectare of grand cru vineyard cost, on average, €6.5 million (around $AU10 million) — if you could find one for sale in the first place.
It’s one reason Burgundy now has dozens of négociants, which makes for fierce competition to nab the best grapes.
In 2011, armed with a barrel donated by Newman, a €6,000 loan from a friend in Melbourne and encouragement from Benjamin Leroux, a Beaune-born superstar of Burgundy wine, Eyre made the leap.
It was a tough slog, especially as she was solo parenting her toddler daughter, Stella.
“Like everything, it’s had its challenges,” she says. “Salaries aren’t particularly good. And I really started from scratch, without any money, and then got divorced in the process of having a very new business and a very young child.
“It would be nights, weekends, lunchtimes, just whenever I could fit it in … It’s been tough, but I chose it so I can’t complain.”
Eyre uses Dominique Lafon’s sorting and pressing equipment to this day — it would otherwise cost around half a million Euros to buy — and shares a space with him at Chateau de Bligny Les Beaune, about five minutes from her house.
“It sounds far more glamorous than it really is. It’s a 14th-century chateau but I’m not sure which bit is left from the 14th century because it looks like it was built in the seventies.”
The princess of pinot
She has been called “the princess of pinot”, but these days Eyre makes around half a dozen different wines in Burgundy and Australia. And there’s nothing remotely princessy about her.
“Jane’s very humble,” says Andrew Nielsen of Le Grappin wines, a fellow “Ozgundian” who does tastings with Eyre in the UK.
“She’s been in Burgundy a long time and her jobs in the vines and winery mean she’s learnt a lot,” he says. “She’s put that into finding great vineyards to work with and making beautiful wines.”
But Eyre deflects suggestions that she has any sort of rare gift: “I don’t have any particular talent that I couldn’t name in 20 other people that I admire and who do an amazing job,” she insists.
Jim Chatto, who makes pinot with Eyre at his winery in Tasmania, thinks differently. The two met when Chatto and his family went to Burgundy to work the 2019 harvest.
What struck him most about Eyre was her deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the terroir of her adopted home.
“What makes Jane so special is her ability to respect local traditions, whilst making truly unique, and delicious, interpretations of the vineyards she works with,” he says. “Jane has nurtured strong, collaborative, relationships with her growers. She is meticulous with her approach, but still open to new ideas.”
When pushed, Eyre says her only secret is working with great growers, and being particular about the fruit she puts in the tanks (“And then I pretty much just leave them alone,” she says).
Still, she’s very hands-on, keeping in regular contact with growers to know when the best grapes will peak.
She picks them (with help from friends and family), sorts them, and of course oversees the slow journey into the bottle, even dipping the corks in wax and applying labels herself. Then there’s the tastings, meetings with buyers and distribution to manage.
While a number of women have taken over family domains in recent years, it’s rare to find solo female négociants. Most come as part of a couple.
“As far as being a female without a partner, who started from scratch — I honestly can’t name anyone else. There must be, I can’t imagine that I’m the only one,” she says.
‘Everything’s gone crazy’
When France introduced its first COVID lockdown a year ago and all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops closed, most of Eyre’s revenue streams dried up overnight.
“Obviously there was no more restaurant trade, and all of the importers, everything, just went on hold,” she says.
She had little financial padding to cushion the impact — she’s still yet to pay herself a salary.
“As a négociant you buy fruit every year and you have to pay for it in three instalments — at the end of December, the end of March and the end of June,” she says.
“You’re not selling the wines for 12 to 18 months, so cash flow is always a problem … I’m always living on the edge because each year I grow. All the money goes back into the business.”
Eyre decided to offer the most expensive wine in her cellar to some private clients en primeur, explaining that she needed the money to pay her obligations.
Private clients “are happy to help when it’s a small business”, she says of the decision, adding it “actually worked really well”.
But it also planted the seed for a different kind of problem to arise when demand for her wine skyrocketed this year. “I thought, if I don’t make as much wine this year it’s not so bad as I have stock that’s already sold,” she says.
“So I didn’t make so much, and now everything’s gone crazy and I’m going to run out of wine. But it’s certainly a better problem to have.”
Eyre muses about eventually buying a small vineyard as a legacy for her daughter. But for now her plan is simply to have a plan. Her early backer from Melbourne, a “successful business man”, will be happy to hear it.
“He said to me the other day, ‘Jeez, your wine must be good, because you’re really useless at business’,” she says. “I’ve managed to bumble along this far, but there needs to be a plan now to grow. To make it so that I can actually live on it.
“You know, I don’t want to be the biggest person in Burgundy, but I just want it to be big enough that it makes me a bit of money.”