John – What’s so good about being a Winemaker?
I first became interested in studying “Wine Science” when I was about 15. Attending a typical Christian Brothers school it was clear that the point of your education was to accumulate maximum marks to get accepted into the university course offering the best career prospects. Unfortunately I didn’t have any commercial instincts and I was most interested in a course where I could pursue my fascination for organic chemistry. It also sounded like a pretty practical course where you learnt to “make” something, as opposed to alternatives like chemical engineering.
So off I went to Roseworthy Agriculture College from my home in suburban Sydney at the age of seventeen. Lots of young kids start courses only to discover they didn’t know much about it and it’s not for them. Well I didn’t know anything about wine or vineyards, even to the point of not realising there were no wineries in Sydney! But I loved it. We had a small class of about fifteen, it was practical, you did make things, there was so much to learn, and I pretty soon developed a taste for wine.
I love wine. Most my friends are winemakers, I love collecting and drinking wine, I read wine magazines and books. I love walking through the vineyard, crushing the grapes, tasting the ferments, blending the wine, bottling it. I like long discussions on the merits of different styles and approaches to making wine. I love wine’s endless complexity – you can never know about every winery, every region, every wine. It’s beyond a hobby or a profession, it’s an obsession.
I think most wine tastes great. I don’t like the taste of cheaper wine like casks, but everything else is pretty good. I like champagne, also fruity white wine, full bodied, aged, and sweet white wines. I like reds – young and old, sherry, port, liqueurs, and brandy. It’s all good! I like really great wine that almost takes your breath away, as well as solid flavoursome workman-like wines. The only wine I won’t drink is wine on my own. The enjoyment of a wine is linked to the occasion – the company, the mood, the food, the weather – and the wine’s origins, rather than just the technical quality. I love new wine styles I haven’t experienced before, and I love the styles I’m used to. No two wines taste the same. There is a large element of discovery about wine – whether a new maker, new variety, new region, or new vintage.
Making wine is always interesting. It’s like a continuous problem solving exercise – when to pick, how hard to press, what temperature to ferment, how long to leave in oak. There are never enough tanks, barrels, pumps, people or hours in the day. Decisions are based on experience and gut feeling, and occasionally referring to textbooks and scientific journals for some background information. A wide range of experiences and willingness to experiment is necessary to expand one’s repertoire. Despite the increasing understanding of the science behind winemaking there are still a lot of practical things we don’t know. I can safely say that no winemaker can be sure just how any given wine will turn out. This is where blending is so important – if one has a range of different wines available to blend together, the outcome will be more predictable. Making single vineyard wines with few blending options such as at Faber really puts the pressure on.
A real challenge for all winemakers is to avoid shortcuts and compromises. This inevitably results in lower wine quality. When I’m tired, when it’s frantic, when the pressure is on, it would often be easier to pick the grapes next week, not pump over one more time before going to bed, just blend the two batches together to save on tanks. I always feel better when I avoid such compromises – I can see the finished wine and picture how it is better because I resisted temptation.
Winemaking needs team work. The vintage is always a great time because of the hard work and commitment the team puts in. This year at Faber it was four guys – John, Danny, Josh and I.
Vineyards sampled, crates of grapes carted, weighed, tipped, washed, the press loaded, all those fermenters shoveled out, barrels filled, tanks washed. It’s a real challenge with long hot days and
no respite until the last grapes are in. It is amazing to see the first wine bottled and know that we just crushed those grapes 10 weeks earlier. You try not to think that in another 40 weeks it will all start again!
A winemaker’s job is pretty hands on. At Faber I do vineyard jobs like training and pruning and tractor driving, winery jobs from washing crates to filling barrels, to cleaning tanks, filtering, driving the forklift. We also test the wine and taste the grapes, juices, ferments, and wines. I like working with the machinery such as the pumps and crusher and press. I love barrels, even if they are heavy and very expensive – they are an incredible link to a time past. Then of course there is the time spent planning – harvest, blending, bottling. And the endless paperwork – ordering materials, paying bills, keeping records. Whilst not the most exciting part of winemaking it is always satisfying to be on top of the paperwork.
Having your own business also means promoting and selling the wine. There is a lot of satisfaction to be had from showing off one’s wines and receiving positive feedback. Let’s face it there is plenty of good wine around so it is a challenge to get winelovers to seek out our wines. We’ve tried to promote our wines in a manner that we are comfortable with, so that has tended to be casual and friendly. I’ve enjoyed promoting Faber because it’s as simple as saying “I grew this, I made this, I put my heart and soul into it”.
I like the fact that winemakers don’t have to dress up to go to work. I normally wear old King Gees to work, though I did wear jeans when I was at Houghton. It’s fun to dress up too. I like the chance to go to the glitzy award nights and wine shows. The best party night of the year is after the Perth Wine Show. I figure if you have to put your work out there to be judged like that then you can relax and unwind afterwards. I have a love hate relationship with wineshows – love wining, hate missing out.
I reckon I’ve made some great wines – probably the 1995 Houghton Jack Mann was absolutely the best. But I don’t really measure success that way, it’s more about exceeding expectations, overcoming obstacles, changing perceptions, or just having fun. I could make a long list of wines in this category, but suffice to say I pretty much enjoy all the wines I make. And yes, I do remember most of them!
I like living in the country – I was a city kid, and whilst I like cities it’s great to live in the sticks. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to travel and work in different places. Work has taken me to America and Europe, and interstate plenty of times. Winemaking is certainly one profession where it is important to gain a wide range of experiences, including overseas stints. I’ve really enjoyed working in historic wineries with a strong culture that embraces their traditions and achievements. These include Lindemans Ben Ean winery in the Hunter Valley where I did my first vintage under the famous Karl Stockhausen, All Saints in Rutherglen built in the 1860s, and Houghton here in the Swan Valley.
What’s so good about being a winemaker? Hard to say really, but after twenty five years of it, I’m enjoying this glass of shiraz and I’m looking forward to work tomorrow!