The name of Tash Webster’s Empire of Dirt label is part homage to the distinctive territory of the Geelong region and part reminder of tough times past. Webster makes a vintage sparkling, citrussy Bellarine chardonnay and a gamay and shiraz that are built to highlight the power and flesh the Moorabool Valley can bestow on red wines.
Webster didn’t move to Geelong to pursue a career in wine, instead she came armed with a Bachelor of Science (Microbiology and Molecular Biology) and a Certificate 3 and 4 in Veterinary Nursing. In fact, she was a veterinary nurse for a decade, specialising in surgery nursing and anaesthetics. It was somewhat later that she completed her bachelor’s degree in wine science, with distinction, and as the Dux. Bright one, that.
“I moved to Geelong with my young family when I was still vet nursing and popping out kids. A winemaker lived across the road, and when I started going stir-crazy doing the stay-at-home mum thing, he asked me to come out and wash some barrels. The rest is history,” she says.
Since then, Webster hasn’t strayed much from the Geelong fold, making wine with some of the region’s brightest lights. She worked with Doug Neal at Paradise IV, at Del Rios Winery when legendary Western Australian winemaker John Durham (Cape Mentelle) was the winemaker (he also fostered an enduring passion for sparkling wine in Webster), working her way up from cellar hand to assistant winemaker, and was also assistant winemaker at Austin’s Wines.
Webster first struck out on her own making wine in a partnership in 2017, but the business ran into issues and she decided to go solo the following year. “My label Empire of dirt wines came from the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’, which was the soundtrack to a pretty dark period in my life, but also represents my ethos of building a label respecting the soil and vineyards I work with,” says Webster. “Currently I have a vintage sparkling, chardonnay, gamay, and shiraz. This year, I am returning to my love of pét-nat making, and I’m looking to make an aromatic white field blend.”
And though Webster has had to alter course, one thing she has no intention of changing is her location. “I love making wine in the Geelong region, as it’s a bit of a dark horse. Everyone tends to look to Yarra or Mornington, but we can make some really interesting wines without huge public pressure to conform. Most of my fruit comes from the Moorabool Valley where you get a lovely rich voluptuousness in the reds. My chardonnay comes from a single vineyard on the Bellarine peninsula, and I love the citrus drive that it displays.”