Yesterday’s blog on Sonoma-Cutrer and its head winemaker, Mick Schroeter, took me back to 1998 when I met Schroeter for the first time.
I was the wine columnist for the Sonoma County Independent, and in April of that year, I wrote a piece about the influence Australian winemakers were having on Sonoma wines.
I used the re-release of the movie “Grease” as a jumping off point for the column. It seemed to make sense since Aussie-born Olivia Newton-John was a star of the film. The topic explored by Schroeter and others is as relevant today as it was 17 years ago.
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The first song my then-infant daughter ever learned wasn’t “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “It’s a Small World” or even “Jingle Bells.” Nope, the first song my daughter was able to sing, word for word, from start to finish, was “Physical,” the somewhat provocative tune performed with breathless yearning by a previously lily-white singer named Olivia Newton-John. Hearing my little 3-year-old sing, in perfect harmony, “Let’s get physical, physical, I want to get physical” is a memory to which few fathers can lay claim.
The re-release of “Grease,” the campy musical in which Newton-John starred with John Travolta, takes me back to my younger days, and reminds me that there’s a lot more to Australia than kangaroos and boomerangs. There’s also Olivia… and fine wine.
Yes, Australia now is the world’s 11th largest producer of vino, and a growing number of its bottlings are truly world-class in quality. Australians are known for being fiercely independent people, and that characteristic has led to pioneering techniques in winemaking and quantum leaps in quality. Even here in Sonoma County, the Australian influence is felt on a daily basis.
It was back in May of 1986 that John Gay, a veteran of the wine business after working years for the Sebastiani family, transformed a room of his home into an office and began marketing the wines of Australia’s Rosemount Estate in the United States. It was no easy task. Californians had developed a taste for California wines, New Yorkers preferred Bordeaux, and hardly anyone knew that grapes were grown in Australia.
So how did Gay approach the monumental task of educating the wine-drinking public?
“I began pulling corks,” he says simply. “I’d call upon distributors or wine merchants that I knew and offer to let them taste what I was selling. Some simply turned me away; they wouldn’t even try the wines. Others were more cordial, liked what they tasted, and soon were carrying our line.”
From a mere 1,800 cases sold in the United States that first year, Rosemount’s shipments to the States this year have swelled to 700,000 cases. That’s significant, not to mention satisfying, growth for Gay, who now operates out of offices just off the square in downtown Sonoma.
Gay located Rosemount’s U.S. headquarters in Sonoma for two reasons: It’s where he wanted to live, and most U.S. distributors come through town at least once a year, giving Gay an opportunity to meet with them and build long-lasting relationships.
From the get-go, Gay believed the two Rosemount wine varietals that had the best chance of selling in the States were Shiraz and Semillon. This surprised members of the Oatley family, the owners of Rosemont, who figured U.S. consumers would more likely prefer varietals with which they were familiar, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
“They probably were wondering, ‘What have we done hiring this guy?’” Gay reflects with a grin. “Especially considering a great deal of quality Shiraz in Australia was just left hanging on the vines to rot each year.”
What was it about Shiraz that caught the attention of Gay’s palate?
“It’s an easy-drinking, full-flavored red wine, and it’s balanced,” Gay explains. “I can’t overemphasize that last quality: balance. It’s the hallmark of Australian wines, and it’s why they’re so versatile; they can be enjoyed either with food or by themselves.”
It took some time and some favorable press, but today Shiraz has become well known among wine lovers — a fact not lost on a growing number of California vintners. Here, the Shiraz grape is known as Syrah — not to be confused with Petite Sirah, which is an entirely different animal — and the number of acres planted with Syrah has been growing enormously.
At one time, Gay eschewed taking credit for Syrah’s blossoming popularity. “I used to be modest about it,” he says, “but what’s the point? If it hadn’t been Rosemount, it would have been some other Australian winery. We just happened to be first in and best-dressed.”
Still, California Syrah plantings remained nearly nonexistent until 1989, when Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville hired Aussie Daryl Groom, the former Penfolds winemaker responsible for the most revered wine Down Under, Grange Hermitage.
“When Daryl showed up, everything changed,” Gay recalls. “Daryl wrote the book on Shiraz. He understands it. And by his example, he lifted the quality of all California wines, not just Syrah, by producing wines with wonderful flavor and balance — wines very similar in style and quality to Australian wines.”
At Geyser Peak, the Syrah bottlings are known as Shiraz, a tip of the hat to Groom’s heritage. And even as Groom’s winemaking duties have been supplanted by management concerns, his style remains intact thanks to the hiring of Mick Schroeter.
“When our growth and the demand for our wines made it obvious that I needed some help, I didn’t want to have to spend hour upon hour training somebody,” Groom says. “I told our board that I knew the finest young winemaker in Australia, and they let me go out and get him. Mick is the person who has really put the icing on the cake for us, and I expect that our wines will just keep getting better and better, as long as Mother Nature cooperates with the weather.”
Is there a style of Australian winemaking that is distinct from American techniques?
“Absolutely,” asserts Schroeter. “We tend not to do extended skin maceration. This helps emphasize the fruit flavors in the wine. And especially with Shiraz, we use American oak barrels as opposed to French, because the American oak provides a certain richness that complements the wine. It’s all about balance.”
There’s that word again. And Groom picks right up on it.
“’Balance’ is part of our vocabulary every time we make wine,” he says. “It comes from starting out in Australia, where, before Australian wines became popular in the States, most wines were consumed at the point of purchase — in restaurants, or at home a few hours after they were bought at a store. The wines had to be good as soon as they were released, and you attain that kind of quality only one way — with balance.”
There’s something else that sets Australian winemakers apart: open-mindedness.
“One of the reasons we’ve been successful is we’re not afraid to try different things,” Groom says. “That goes for blending different varietals, like Semillon with Chardonnay, Shiraz with Grenache, or Shiraz with Cabernet. Our experiments may not always be successful, but there is nothing in winemaking that I would not try to do at least once.”
That goes for food-and-wine pairings as well. What do Geyser Peak’s winemakers like to eat with Shiraz?
“I like it with barbecued food, a great piece of steak, or more gamey dishes like kangaroo or emu,” Groom says. “I love it with slightly seared medallions of kangaroo and a red-wine or Port sauce.”
As for Schroeter, he prefers a dish that is a bit more common here in the States: lamb. “It’s also good with spicy Asian food,” he adds.
And what about Rosemount’s Gay? “This may surprise you,” he says, “but the best food pairing I’ve had with Shiraz is sushi. Fresh, raw tuna and Shiraz is a marriage made in heaven. They work magically together. And it all goes back to the wine being in perfect balance.”
So while we may be hearing Olivia Newton-John singing, “Grease is the word… is the word… is the word…” over the airwaves for the next few weeks, Messrs. Groom, Schroeter and Gay likely will be humming a slightly different tune:
“Balance makes the wine… makes the wine… makes the wine…”