Image: From left, Holly, Sarah and Luke Marquis at the Mollydooker winery in McLaren Vale, South Australia.
Oct. 8, 2021 – Sarah and Sparky Marquis, acclaimed winemakers in South Australia since 1994, had $17 left in their bank account after a business partnership with a wine importer to whom they had shipped 120,000 cases was not honored. Literally and figuratively “down under” with two young children to raise, they channeled their rugged Aussie spirit to forge a future. A meeting with their 11 employees in 2005 gave birth to their award winning Mollydooker brand. “I am blessed every day to put the Mollydooker shirt on,” Luke Marquis, 25, Sarah and Sparky’s son, Mollydooker global sales manager, and Chaîne member, said to Chaîne during a March 3, 2021 interview.
After meeting in college and getting married in 1991, Sarah and Sparky produced their first vintage in 1994 under the Fox Creek label. That vintage and those that followed burnished their reputation for consistently producing superior wines. While making wine under seven different labels, they were three time winners of “Best Wine of Show” at Australia’s McLaren Vale Wine Show, a prestigious annual event with traditions from medieval times to celebrate the year’s best wines.
In 2003, Robert Parker Jr., famous wine critic responsible for the numerical rating system, told his readers to “run, don’t walk to get these wines made by Sarah and Sparky Marquis,” Luke explained. Parker would have a pivotal role in the success of the first Mollydooker vintage three years later.
Sarah and Sparky turned the shock of not getting paid for 120,000 cases of wine in 2004 into action to control their destiny from that point forward.
They discussed many names for their wine business before settling on Mollydooker, Aussie slang for a left-handed person. Leigh, Sparky’s father-in-law who was their viticulture manager, suggested the name at that fateful 2005 meeting since both Sarah and Sparky are left-handed. There was no doubt the perfect name had been chosen when seven of the 11 employees at the meeting were also left-handed, an uncanny number of lefties. On average, only about 12 percent of the world’s population use their left hand as their dominant hand.
The Mollydooker team solidified their brand identity and began marketing. Sarah and Sparky remembered Robert Parker was also left-handed so they asked to meet with him in the United States. Financing the airline fares on a credit card, they took Parker two cases of wine for his review. He had just been released from the hospital with a broken leg but held off taking any pain medication so he could taste their wines. Sarah and Sparky returned to Australia with no indication of Parker’s review.
Looking to finance bottling the 2005 vintage for a 2006 release, Sarah and Sparky sought a bank loan but were declined. Bootstrapping a winemaking operation is a daunting challenge so it was back to the drawing board to scrape up enough capital to continue. They routinely paid their bills early but in 2006, they owed tens of thousands of dollars to many contractors and vendors.
Then a miracle happened. Neil Brine, a member of the Board of Directors from the bank that had turned them down, asked to come for coffee at their Adelaide office. Thinking it was a social visit, Sarah and Sparky were more than gobsmacked when Neil asked them how much money they needed to pay all of their bills and bottle their 2005 vintage. After a few calculations, they told Neil they needed $300,000. Neil walked out to his car and returned with a check for that amount without asking for any control of the business or even a contract. He was leaving for an extended stay in Japan so he simply shook their hands and said, “Good luck. Go have fun. I know you’re going to succeed.”
And succeed they did. It takes about four weeks to ship wine from Adelaide to Oakland, California. Two weeks into the trip across the ocean, Robert Parker published his article, rating many Mollydooker labels at the top or near the top of his lists. He awarded Mollydooker’s The Boxer as the “Best Value Red Wine in the World” and their The Violinist as the “Best Value White Wine in the World.” In addition, their Carnival of Love received 99 points. “So now we had every distributor and every buyer in the U.S. screaming for this product,” Luke said. When the ship docked, all 70,000 cases sold in 17 days.
“We started with $17 in our bank account and in 17 days, we sold out of our first ever vintage,” Luke said. “It’s a very emotional story because if it wasn’t for Neil Brine, I would not be here. We would not be here as a business. It was a miracle, a Mollydooker miracle that that situation happened to my family.”
In the busy years that followed, Luke remembers listening to his parents talk about all facets of the business at dinner each evening. Luke and Holly, his younger sister, grew up as Mollydooker matured into a highly regarded and popular international brand that included Gigglepot, named after Holly, and Blue Eyed Boy, named after Luke.
In 2007, Sarah and Sparky purchased a winery and 115 acres of vineyards in McLaren Vale while contracting for grapes on another 150 acres about 22 miles (35km) south of Adelaide. The vineyards and the business continue to blossom year after year.
Current Production and Key Points of Differentiation
Mollydooker today produces about 80,000 cases so they haven’t increased annual production significantly since 2006. That’s just fine with them. Their grapes are in the driver’s seat but the engine is the Mollydooker team, which is led by Sarah, sole owner since 2016 and chief winemaker.
Peter Constantine, vineyard manager, and Peter Tavella, senior winemaker, have been with Mollydooker for more than 15 years.
As global sales manager, Luke has the big picture. About 50 percent of their annual production is shipped to the United States, he said. Leveraging his parents early and lasting innovations in the vineyards and in the winery, Luke is proud to explain to distributors and customers Mollydooker’s three key points of differentiation – use of nitrogen, irrigation, and fruit weight.
Nitrogen is added to preserve their wine to minimize the amount of sulfites needed. They advise customers to give their bottles a Mollydooker Shake once opened to allow nitrogen to escape before pouring.
During peak growing season, they irrigate their vineyards up to eight hours per day so they keep fruit on vines about four weeks longer than other vineyards. This practice gives grapes natural time to develop color, flavor, fruit weight and quality.
Their winemaking team carefully analyzes fruit weight to grade grapes throughout the growing season and winemaking process. They harvest when data on acidity and sugars tells them they have achieved the “Sweet Spot.” On their website, they state, “The Marquis Fruit Weight is our measure of quality. It’s the percentage of your palate (from the tip to the very back of your tongue) that is covered by the velvety sensation of fruit that occurs when a wine’s tannins, alcohol, and acid are all perfectly balanced.”
At 95 percent and higher, the entire tongue is coated with a silky sensation, a rating reserved for Mollydooker’s Velvet Glove label. Their popular Carnival of Love is rated from 85 to 95 percent Fruit Weight.
“We are not guessing. It’s 100 percent consistent,” Luke added. If grapes do not meet established standards, the wine variety is not made that year.
Sip It Forward
Grateful for their own miracle, the Marquis family and business are facilitating miracles for others in need around the world. Cheer and goodwill are bottled with the wine. Mollydooker extends that goodwill to financial support for three charitable organizations – Transform Cambodia that has opened three education centers for children; Mercy Multiplied in the United States to help women break free of controlling or abusive situations; and Hutt Street Centre, which serves the homeless population in Adelaide. Mollydooker donates 30 percent of its group tasting fees to the Centre.
In an Oct. 1 email exchange, Luke said while they are not yet back to a pre-pandemic normal, their MollyClub (Wine Club) has experienced significant growth in the United States and Australia with more than 200 sign ups per month. They just sent the September shipment with a special gift to members.
Supply chain issues have been a problem. Luke reported longer shipping times and even difficulty getting containers booked to the United States. Mollydooker distributes their wine from two warehouses in the United States, one in Ohio and one in California. With supply chain disruption, some labels are out of stock, which is never ideal. Overall, Luke remains optimistic though as restaurant and retail segments of the business begin to come back.
Having survived business and natural disasters to build a brand that Luke occasionally sees tattooed on people’s bodies, the Marquis family and Mollydooker team have forged a very bright future for both left-handed and right-handed wine lovers!
“We make make wines that make people go WOW through attention to detail and commitment to excellence,” Luke said.