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WINE I GROW UP
© Anita Ryan 2002

If the “soul of wine” is the sum of a winemaker’s experiences, then Cliff Royle’s years of adventuring in America, New Zealand and Thailand should have added a depth and character to his Tom Price Sauvignon Semillon Blanc that would brand it uniquely his. But all I can detect is a herbaceous nose and an assault of fruit on my palate.

Which is exactly the soul of the wine, he tells me. And it’s one that the 35 year old Margaret River winemaker is very proud of. Especially with only five years’ winemaking experience under his belt.

Thirty minutes north of Margaret River, Capel Vale’s Nicole Esdaile is in a similar situation – the 36 year old is responsible for producing 150,000 cases of wine for sale to twenty countries having graduated from winemaking only a couple of years ago.

Both winemakers are under immense pressure to perform at a level that would normally take a winemaker years to achieve. How did they end up in this situation?

Investing time and effort in increasing worldliness for one thing, and the courage to return to University as a mature age student for another.

It was Royle’s stint as a bottle-shop attendant 15 years ago where he first caught the winemaking bug. With mentoring from Voyager Estate’s then winemaker Stuart Pym, Royle decided winemaking would eventually be his career.

During his subsequent years of cycling the American west coast, hiking the Anapuna and Lang Tan Trails and backpacking in Thailand, he remained focussed on his dream to make great wine and upon his return to Australia enrolled at Charles Sturt University.

The road to a winemaking career was similarly convoluted for Esdaile, who followed her parents’ advice and initially qualified as a pharmacist. But when an equally disenchanted pharmacist friend died of cancer, Esdaile decided to quit complaining about reduced profitability, white walls and grey zip-up shoes and do something proactive about changing her life.

“I went to the first Wine Australia expo in Sydney in 1996 and I thought wow, the place is buzzing, everyone loves doing it. So I went back to Uni and did first year without setting foot in a winery. I didn’t know much about what it even involved. I did a year totally cold, not knowing anything.”

Having life-experience and worldliness as part of their credentials, both Royle and Esdaile were promptly employed upon graduation, their rise through the ranks a dream come true.

Esdaile worked vintages in the Hunter Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Germany and was in the Sonoma Valley (California) when she was offered the job at Capel Vale. Upon her return to Australia to take up the position, she found herself immediately responsible for 20 wines from 14 varietals across vineyards in six different geographical locations. “I was very fortunate I had so much support from the vineyard manager and we did the biggest vintage ever. It went up 50 percent and I basically did it all by myself but with fantastic support.”

Likewise, it wasn’t all easy sailing for Royle when he was recruited to Voyager Estate to work under Pym in 1996, eventually to take over in 2000. “I had a fair few knockers when I first took over this job, in particular where there were a lot of people who said I didn’t have enough experience, I was too young, I’ll choke, I won’t be able to handle the pressure…”

Raising his glass to toast his knockers, he shrugs. “I did the hard yards, I’ve done the apprenticeship and I deserved the chance. James Halliday consistently rates this in the high 90’s.” The quality of the wine speaks volumes in Royle’s favour, a tangible product of his unwavering belief in himself.

A winemaker’s life certainly does entail hard yards. Revolving around climate and seasons, a winemaker needs to be flexible enough to cope with any demands nature throws his or her way. 

According to Esdaile, it is not a job she would be able to do if she had children, in which case she is in a fortunate position. Summer means every waking hour is consumed with vintage – harvesting the fruit and preparing it for fermentation.

“During harvest I am lucky to get three hours’ sleep a night,” says Esdaile. “I may have to get up in the middle of the night to race back to the winery if I think I’ve forgotten to turn something off. I never know what time my day is going to end, it depends on so many things, whether things have gone smoothly, whether the transport has turned up… I could be home at midnight and back out there at 5am.”

While some may consider it a drawback to write off four months of their life each year, the offset is that in winter, winemakers get a chance to work vintages in the northern hemisphere. It is a practice Esdaile recommends in order to “get lots of vintages under your belt, to get as many as possible in a short amount of time.” The financial and time investment in Esdaile’s case translates to her salary being quadrupled in the last three years.

The thing Royle loves most about winemaking is that every single day of every single year is different. “I love that nature is in control, and I get to craft a great wine out of what nature gives me in her fruit. Sometimes the fruit is so perfect the wines will make themselves, but other years I have to ride the wines all the way to the bottle.”

I picture him sitting astride a French oak barrel whipping it into action. But what he really means is that he has to work to restore finesse to the wine, tinkering with it to complement and enhance the fruit in order to create something he can be proud to put into bottle.

It seems like a lot of work for a product that the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC) says 84 percent of Australians spend less than $10 on, with only one percent of wine drinkers spending $50 or more on a bottle of wine.

But for aficionados like Royle, the greatest reward is watching consumers enjoying learning about the wine. At a restaurant in South Australia, he recalls seeing a couple laughing over dinner and a bottle of the Voyager Estate 2001 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc.

“For me that’s the best thing about the whole process. I mean, a lot of work goes into getting it into bottle, but the greatest enjoyment is watching people actually drink it. Because that’s what it’s all about.”

His observation supports the AWBC prediction that the Australian lifestyle shift towards wine will continue as consumers choose to accumulate experiences over material possessions. Where once wine was a ‘special occasion’ beverage, it is being redefined as an ‘everyday’ product, with more being spent on wine as quality improves and more flavoursome and sophisticated wine becomes available.

Esdaile supports this theory, her belief being that the majority of people drink wine to enjoy the experience, not to analyse the bouquet and palate.

“When you work in a winery our size, not a big company style, you are making a product for people to consume, to make people go ‘yum’. Sometimes you do get a wine that is, putting it simplistically, orgasmic. You can sit down and go ‘wow’. You can’t explain why it tastes so good, it just hits you.”

She raises her glass of Mount Barker Shiraz to illustrate her point. “This wine has personality. It has spunk. It’s different every time you drink it. It evolves while it sits in the glass. It’s not manufactured, typical varietal wine. That to me is interesting, it’s worth talking about and yes it has soul.”

The winemakers’ commitment and passion for their craft is just as infectious and forward thinking as each other’s. Neither subscribe to the traditional wine jargon that puts wine out of reach of the everyday Australian. Rather, wine is a product that, according to Esdaile, “should be interesting. It should be flavoursome, it should serve the purpose of the time of day that you’re drinking it. It should be refreshing when it’s hot and sunny, when you’re thirsty. After dinner it should be interesting so you can sit around and talk about it more.”

Having just returned from a day of judging wine at the Sheraton Wine Awards in Perth, Royle says his future goals are to get more involved in promoting Australian wine in general, getting involved in wine shows and the next level of education.

“I’d like to see more fun come back into wine, because it shouldn’t be taken seriously. And the one thing wine does, if you drink too much of it, is create a lot of fun,” he laughs.

While Esdaile’s only regret is that she didn’t get into the industry five years earlier, Royle has the view that life doesn’t afford us the opportunity for regrets. I am disarmed by the infectious smile that spreads across his face as he toasts the four great things in his life – great food, music, love and of course, great wine. Cheers.

END

Reviews

This is fabulous writing. I do so enjoy reading quality pieces. Janne

 

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