Picking grapes on a hot summer’s day may not be everyone’s idea of therapy, but for this group of Canberra-based veterans, it’s a regular chance to meet up and check-in with one another.
“Not everyone has a great run after coming home from deployment, so vintage is a really good excuse to come back together each year and make something we all love,” says Alli, a veteran and founding member of We Happy Few Wines.
The wine initiative was born in 2014 from a conversation between veterans Doc and Deano at North Bondi RSL during a trip to Sydney. They wanted to find a fun hobby to do together after their deployment in Afghanistan.
What they came up with was simple but different: create a wine they liked to drink and support veterans along the way.
“We all like wine and whenever we met up we would talk about wine so now we’ve got an even better reason to do both,” says Doc.
The name We Happy Few is taken from the famous St Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V and represents that while these veterans have undergone loss and adversity, they also look back on their service with fond memories.
However, there was one small problem in the early days – these veterans had a tonne of military experience, but no-one knew how to make wine.
Luckily, they were mates with Bill Crowe of Crowe Wines in the Canberra wine region who was happy to teach them how to make wine in exchange for digging in the trenches at vintage time. So the apprenticeship started.
The crew was and continues to be there from vine to glass: from sleeping in swags in the vineyard to moving the grapes as soon as they are picked and getting their boots dirty in the winery.
Making wine each year provides these veterans with an escape from their day jobs and a safe environment to talk openly about mental health.
“It’s been very rewarding in terms of relationships outside of the group with other winemakers,” says Doc. “Now we are among a second band of brothers, particularly through bushfires, COVID-19 and hail storms. I’ve really seen winemakers in the Canberra region come together and reach out.”
We Happy Few Wines also supports veterans nationwide by donating a portion of every sale to organisations such as Commando Welfare Trust, the Special Operations Engineers Regiment Association, the Australian Intelligence Corps Association and Forge Through, a rehab program that uses blacksmithing to help people living with post-traumatic stress.
“It’s good for the universe and just because we were lucky, doesn’t mean others were,” says Doc.
Their first wine, the 2015 Dog Tags Shiraz, quietly surprised the veterans and they decided to expand the hobby into a business. The team went from making one tonne of wine to the current volume of 10 tonnes per year.
We Happy Few Wines started selling through word of mouth between veterans, family and friends, but soon the wine was stocked in clubs and pubs along the Australian east coast, in soldier and officers’ messes nationwide, and several boutique bottle shops.
Veterans worldwide have also helped to spread the word by wearing We Happy Few Wines merchandise while on operations.
“We set out to make something we love to drink and are proud to have grown a community of consumers around what we have created,” says Deano.
As We Happy Few Wines grows, its founders hope to provide employment opportunities at the winery and during vintage to veterans struggling to return to the workforce.
The brand also has a long-term goal to establish a 100 per cent veteran-run supply chain, with the vision to hire veterans right along the production line, from bottling to photography.