Thursday, June 21, 2012

Drinking to remember - a journey into Australian wine

Skillogalee Vineyard, 1990

It is 1990. I am 22 years old. I’m standing in a small cellar door in the Clare Valley. It’s the first cellar door I have ever visited. And the glass of wine in my hand has just changed my life.

I have never tasted wine like this. It’s so much darker, more voluptuous, richer in flavour than any red I’ve tried before. If this is how good wine can be, I think, I need to try more.

I was an art student from the UK, with an art student's thirst - and an art student’s budget - on a family holiday in Adelaide. A friend had driven us out to Clare and the Barossa to show us his favourite wineries. We went to Skillogalee, Mitchell Wines and Sevenhill, then over to St Hallett, Peter Lehmann and Rockford. For this wine newbie, used to knocking back cheap plonk, it felt like someone had opened a door to another, far more delicious and rewarding world and invited me in.

Fast forward to 2012. Now I’m earning a living writing about wine. And I point to that day in 1990, and the cellar doors we visited, as the start of the journey that got me here.

So, two decades on, I decided to revisit those six cellar doors. I have been back to each of them at various times in the intervening years, of course, for work: vertical tastings, dinners, festivals. But this time I went to talk. To ask the winemakers about what’s changed since 1990 - and what hasn’t. About why and how each of them is not only still there but, it appears, more successful than ever.

I had an appointment, though, before I left for South Australia. I had to talk with Richard Piper, the family friend who unwittingly launched a wine-writing career by leading me through the cellar-door looking glass all those years ago.

Richard Piper
It's all Richard's fault ...

Like the good Yorkshireman he is, Richard has cooked up some black pudding to have with our lunchtime beer. He still drinks a lot of wine, but beer has become his passion. So I’ve brought some Moo Brew Imperial Stout to lubricate the conversation. And now we’re drinking to remember that fateful day in 1990.

“My intention was to get sozzled,” says Richard, sipping and smiling. “You, on the other hand, were obviously up to something else because you kept ... disappearing. I remember after the tasting at Sevenhill winery the rest of us were about to get back into the car but you were still there in the cellar door, hovering, talking about it. You could clearly glean things I couldn’t.”

But why those wineries? How did he choose the cellar doors for us to visit?

“I was flying by seat of my pants,” he admits. “I’d only been in Adelaide three months. But I knew there were certain wineries where there was care and attention going into everything, where there was a sense of history and not rushing too fast, not embracing the commercial aspects and forgetting quality. There was no point taking you to big factories where there are twelve different products on sale in a metal building and you’re taken round by a girl in a uniform.

“I think it’s because I’m English - because we both are. We have that tradition of going round and looking for little pubs that people don’t know. That sense of exploration, of going off the beaten track and finding odd places. That’s why cellar doors like Rockford appealed. It looked cozy.”

Robert O'Callaghan
Rockford: connecting people

“Come on through the rabbit warren,” says Robert O’Callaghan as he leads me past the cellar door and into his small office. His loyal band of staff are setting up for one of Rockford’s regular, legendary lunches outside - a lunch that, regrettably, I’m going to have to miss - so we sit at a big old desk in the cool and talk about the last twenty years. And it soon becomes clear that here, not much has changed.

“Cellar door’s exactly the same as it was in 1990,” says Robert. “In fact, you were a bit stiffed that you didn’t get to stay for dinner then either. Just after I opened (in 1984) my marriage had gone down the gurgler. So the cellar door became my social life. If there were any people hanging around at 5 or 6 o’clock they usually ended up staying for something to eat and drink.”

It wasn’t always quite that social. “Oh, I had days when no-one came in,” says Robert. “But I also had an absolute commitment to not selling through a distributor or retail chains, so I had to stick it out. In the end it was the right decision, but it took ten years to get enough core customers to make it work. And we’re still primarily a cellar door business. Only five per cent export, still no distributor.”

When Robert set up Rockford in the mid-1980s, the wine industry was, to use his own phrase, on its arse. Almost nobody was getting into the game. Most wanted to get out.

“I was against the trend, I gotta say,” he says. “Talk was that the whole cellar door thing was finished, because of the busloads of drunks we were getting at the time. But I didn’t see it that way. I always saw cellar door as a critical opportunity to connect the people who drank the wine with the people who make the wine. Still see it that way.”

Ducking into Skillogalee

Dave and Diana Palmer had only owned the Skillogalee vineyard for a year when I visited in 1990, but the place had been going since the mid-70s, so the tiny cellar-door had a lovely lived-in atmosphere. It still does. There’s a timelessness here. In 1990 I took a picture from the car park looking up the hill. Two decades on, I take another picture from almost the same spot. They could have been shot on the same day.

Skillogalee Vineyard, 2010
The place also feels as though it’s thriving. A steady stream of visitors turns up while I’m there, trying wine at the tasting bench, heading into the small restaurant. But Dave Palmer is quick to burst my romantic bubble.

Dave Palmer
“It’s only recently that we feel that we have succeeded,” he says. “The early years were very hard. We worked seven days a week. Diane cooked seven days a week in the restaurant. It wasn’t until three years after we came here that we went to see our son play footy.”

Yes, there was a time, in the late 90s, early 2000s, when things were booming. The Palmers even bought the vineyard next door. Doubled production.

“But at that point the shock of oversupply in the industry hit us”, says Dave. “Suddenly, we couldn’t sell all our wine. So we had to get out there and sell the story. And, importantly, we kept the restaurant going. We knew that people who come to Skillogalee go on to tell the story for us - about ducking their head into cellar door, and about the nice garden.”

“We’ve worked very hard to bring it all back to a sense of place,” says Diana Palmer. “I love it when we come across people in London who tell us they’ve eaten on our verandah.”

Poetry and bullshit at Mitchell Wines

The biggest change at Mitchells in the last twenty years has been in the vineyard. Since the middle of the last decade, Andrew and Jane Mitchell have converted their estate to biodynamic farming. They’re particularly proud of the small herd of Highland cattle that provides manure for their compost and biodynamic preparations.

Andrew Mitchell and his cows
It’s easy to poke fun at biodynamics: Jane herself likes to jokingly complain to cellar door visitors that “if you’d told me 36 yrs ago when I married Andrew I’d be spending my Sundays shoveling shit...” - but it makes perfect sense to the Mitchells. For them, it’s a way of promoting soil health to sustain their dry-grown vineyards.

“The first irrigation didn’t appear in Clare until 1970,” Andrew reminds me. “Before that, everybody managed to make good wine without it. Some of the vineyards at Sevenhill were planted in the 1860s and they’re still there.”

“In many ways,” says Jane, “we’re basically returning to doing things the way Andrew’s father did back in the 1960s.”

Andrew agrees, pointing out that while a lot of young winemakers make a big deal these days about fermenting with wild yeasts, for example, it’s really just a case of back to the future: “I have a lovely memory of talking to Roly Birks (legendary winemaker at Wendouree) who said it wasn’t until the 1940s that he started ‘putting the ferment in’ - and even then that meant going to Leasingham winery to get a bucket from a ferment and seed his tanks with it.”

And then he quotes from the TS Eliot poem, Little Gidding: “‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.”

Brother John
Sevenhill: a tranquil place

“Welcome to Sevenhill,” says Brother John May, smiling his impish smile and shaking my hand.

“Hello Brother John, are you well?” I ask, a little concerned by the two large skin-tumor scars on the top of head.

“Oh yes,” eyes glinting, glancing heavenward. “Well, except for being de-horned...”

Mass at Sevenhill
On the surface, Sevenhill is different to how I remember it from 1990. The formerly cramped cellar door has been opened up, and audiovisual displays now tell the story of the Jesuit-run winery’s 160-year history. But at its heart, nothing at all has changed. And as Brother John - who started as the seventh Jesuit winemaker here in the 1960s - points out, that’s precisely the point.

Brother John explains that there is a spiritual significance to Sevenhill that people instinctively feel when they turn into the driveway. As well as the visual impact of the church, the vines and the gardens  - “We have all the scripture references,” he says. “We have the vine and the branches. We have green all the year round” - there’s the heritage of having 41 brothers buried in the crypt, and the fact that Brother John is leading the same life as those men were, for the same reason  - “And,” he says, smiling, “for the same pay!”

“It’s a tranquil place,” says Brother John. “It’s not a commercial place. It’s a manifestation of the words of the mass: ‘The fruit of the vine and the work of human hands’. It’s not something you can experience on Facebook.”

Smelling the vintage at St Hallett

The cellar door at St Hallett in the Barossa also has to be experienced first-hand - preferably at vintage time. Recently-installed sliding windows in one corner of the room look over an old but still working fermenting vat: when it’s full of purple-foaming shiraz grapes, visitors can see, smell and even taste the wine being made.

“For me it’s really important that people can get close to what we do and take back memories,” says longtime winemaker Stuart Blackwell. “I remember coming up to the Barossa in the mid-60s, going to Grant Burge’s Wilsford winery and smelling the vintage and that was it for me, career decided. The smell of ferment in the air gets you every time.”

Stuart Blackwell
Back in 1990, St Hallett was a privately owned company. For the last decade or so, it’s been part of the huge, Japanese owned multinational drinks company Lion. For most Australian wine businesses, large corporate ownership spells disaster, but Stuart is positive about how St Hallett has fared.

“A lot of good things can happen by having a big brother,” he says. “Lion leave us pretty much alone in the winemaking, but they have opened markets up for us, and helped us weather the storm of the last few years.”

The storm, of course, is far from over. But it has also forced St Hallett to focus on the important, fundamental things - like introducing cellar door visitors to the smell of vintage.

“We’ve asked ourselves: what do we believe in?” says Stuart. “Does [our wine] have a place? And we believe absolutely in Eden Valley riesling, in Barossa semillon - even though we can’t sell it! - and shiraz. You’ve got to have a reason for being.”

The Lehmanns having fun

It’s a hot afternoon. Peter Lehmann is perched at the end of the big old table in his big old kitchen, watching cricket on the telly. A fan drones. Margaret Lehmann drops ice cubes into glasses of water for us all. Peter lights another cigarette as Australia takes another wicket.

From his start at Yalumba in the 1940s, Peter Lehmann has seen the industry go through many cycles. It was the downturn of the 1970s that inspired him to leave the comfort of a big company and set up his own label. And despite the fact that his eponymous company grew during the 1990s to such an extent that it became a prime takeover target (it is now part of the Swiss Hess Family wine group) he and Margaret are excited by the proliferation of new, vibrant winemakers setting up shop across the region and the industry - winemakers like their sons, David and Phil.

“For visitors to the Barossa, the small winemakers have so much more interest than the big places,” says Peter. “In the long term I’m still pretty optimistic about the future. I see no reason to discourage either of our younger sons to give up their winemaking pursuits. Anything agricultural is a pendulum.”

Margaret’s clearly energized by her sons’ decision to continue winemaking. She’s describing David’s happily chaotic approach to vintage  - “He’ll have 35 ferments going and there he is dancing around like a cat on hot bricks - I love it!” - when, right on cue, he walks into the kitchen clutching a cold bottle of semillon.

Peter Lehmann (l) David Franz Lehmann (r)

Glasses are found. The wine is poured. And soon David Franz Lehmann is talking about the last twenty years. According to him, somewhere along the line, in the late 90s, early 2000s, the wine industry became too serious. Too much money in it.

“But back in your day, dad,” he says, looking across at Peter, smiling as he lights up another B&H, “you guys had a lot of fun. Thankfully, some of that’s come back: come to the Barossa, go down to McLaren Vale, over to the Yarra Valley - there’s idiots pumping out great wine everywhere and having a lot of fun.”

(A shorter version of this story appeared in Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine, April/May 2012. If anyone's interested, I took the picture of Skillogalee in 1990 on an Olympus OM10 and used the same lens to take all the other photographs in 2010 using an Olympus OM1 body. Yes, Virginia, these photographs were shot on film. Old skool.)


  1. Brilliant, Max. Love the interviews, love the photos. Took me back. I was 14 years old and didn't have any fun at all while you were discovering yourself and your future. I'd love to do it again now - especially with you & Richard!

  2. Sounds really intriguing. I love how it has those flavours infused in it, it sounds like it really would be interesting from start to finish. Thanks for sharing this.

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