Let's start with your vital statistics.
I was born on the 25th of May 1954, married Rosa Dalfarra in 1982, and we have had two children together – Hayley and Matt.
Is your wife also from the wine world?
I met her first when she was doing her final year at Swinburne University in Melbourne and doing graphic arts, but we met again when I was working at Mildura Wines. Her parents had vineyards, but not grapes. They grew fruit for sultanas and gordo blanco [muscat].
Where did you grow up?
My parents lived on the property at Tahbilk so the estate has always been my home. But I was sent to board at Melbourne Grammar School as a 9½-year-old. In those days we had three terms and only one exeat per term; we were effectively full-time boarders. And when I was at Roseworthy Agricultural College I had even less time – I was off with friends and exploring the world.
But when you do get home it can’t help but wash over you, and especially a place like Tahbilk, with all the water and natural beauty that accompanies it. As a kid, it was real Boy’s Own – out in the canoe and fishing and hunting – so it imprints itself in your subconscious.
What is the origin of the name?
The origin is indigenous and Tabilk-Tabilk means “place of many waterholes.”
Did you ever have any doubts about joining the family business?
I originally aspired to a career in politics following my great-grandfather, Reginald, who was a member of the House of Commons. But sanity prevailed and I decided at the end of 1971, after completing my Year 12 exams, that winemaking was to be my choice.
If you had gone into politics, what would you have hoped to achieve?
At 17, the world’s your oyster and you think you can change everything. I had a very close relationship with my grandfather; he was very worldly wise and well connected politically in Australia, and at boarding school my friend’s father was a minister in the government. So I was getting access to these people reasonably regularly.
I felt at that stage, backed up with conversations with Grandfather, that there was a lot to be done to take self-interest out of politics and make Australia a better place. So I was very idealistic. But when the reality set in – that it doesn’t pay very well, and what’s the incentive for doing it with little experience – I thought that perhaps I would revisit it when I was older and more mature.
And will you?
I got fully involved in the wine industry and took out my interest in politics by getting into wine industry politics to a degree, which solved it for me.
You were the inaugural chairman of Australia's First Families of Wine. What were the concerns that led to its launch?
In 2006, some disturbing negative articles were starting to creep into the international press on the subject of Australian wine quality. For example, the French were saying, 'Australia only makes industrial wine, whereas we make agricultural wine with a sense of place.' But more disturbingly, some quite well-known and well-respected press people were coming out with comments like, 'Australia only makes sunshine in a bottle,' and about a lack of regionality or high-level flagship wines. So we discussed what we could do to nip this rubbish in the bud.
By the time we got to the launch in 2009, the negative commentary was growing and we were really concerned about the damage that was being done. Of course, turning around this Queen Mary of negativity takes time, but we’re working closely with Wine Australia and [now] we’ve pretty much realigned those negative views with reality.
What was the cause?
I think part of it was our fault in the Australian wine industry, because a lot of the small winemakers, in particular, are able to sell their best wines here in Australia. So what we were exporting was not a true picture of the diversity we can produce. Wine Australia have been urging the smaller winemakers to be more active with their export activities and helping them to source quality importers, so that has had a positive effect.
It must be a great responsibility, trying to ensure the continued success of a 150-year-old winery?
It is something that is obviously close to the hearts of my father, sister, brother and me. And as a family, we put in a lot of time and effort communicating with the next generation to ensure they feel connected to Tahbilk – in the hope that some will choose the wine industry as their long-term career choice.
Your daughter Hayley now works for Tahbilk as well?
Correct. She currently manages the Tahbilk Wine Club, cellar door and café operations.
There’s a noticeable disparity worldwide between the numbers of male and female winemakers. Why do you think this is so?
When I began at Roseworthy College in 1972, there was one female student, Pam Dunsford, who went on to become a great winemaker and role model for other women in our industry. Then, it was absolutely male dominated, but this has changed a lot over the last 40 years, which is very pleasing. I would guess that in Australia, about 25-30 percent of winemakers are female, which is significant.
Hayley has already got to know many females who work in our industry and she’s also met the next generation of Australia’s First Families of Wine members – of which, around 35-50 percent are women. It is these women who will one day be the leaders of these multi-generational companies.
Do you think great wine is made in the vineyard or the winery?
Both. You have to have great grapes to begin with and then the winemakers have to reflect that potential in the winemaking process. And don’t forget that the potentially great wine then has to be professionally bottled or all those earlier efforts are for nought.
Do you make wine for the people, the critics, or yourself?
Tahbilk’s red wines have a pedigree and style that was in place before I joined the company in 1978. Grandfather worked hard to make mid-weight, fruit-driven wines of intensity, finesse and elegance, made in a more European style. I’ve tried to be true to the pedigree but have endeavored to improve decade on decade. The wines are very food friendly and definitely made with the wine consumer in mind, but to a predetermined Tahbilk style.
What is your view of awards?
They’re necessary on two counts. Firstly as a benchmark to compare our wines to other Australian winemakers, and secondly as a marketing tool
And the Robert Parker system of ranking wines?
If we are talking about the 100-point system, it's fine by me. Given that most of the world’s wine writers, including James Halliday, are using the 100-point system, I believe that Australia should change from our current 20-point system – so that our Australian awards have more relevance overseas as a marketing tool.
What have been your best and worst achievements/experiences in the wine industry?
The most satisfying winemaking and marketing achievement is that Tahbilk has put the variety marsanne on the wine consumer map; it’s now very well established in Australia and internationally. The worst experience is enduring the current industry crisis – some of which is of our making and some of which is beyond our control (e.g. currency strength). It has, and will, lead to massive restructuring, financial pain and hardship for many individuals. Our industry is in the eye of a perfect storm.
What impact is the recession having on your business?
We have been affected, as has almost everyone in the Australian wine industry, but we’re fortunate that the Tahbilk Wine Club accounts for around 60 percent of total branded sales, which gives us some insulation during these very hard times
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
Len Evans and Brian Croser. In my early days in the industry, they had a great impact on my thinking regarding industry affairs and winemaking styles. Len was always on song with his message: forget about volume, it’s always about great regional wine; never skimp on what’s needed for great fruit; and drink widely.
Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.
I love old wines and drink them regularly. The oldest fortified wine in my cellar is a 1900 Henriques & Henriques Century Malmsey Madeira. The oldest table wine is a 1943 Richebourg Domaine Leroy, which should be a great wine when drunk. The oldest Tahbilk we have is a 1948 Shiraz, which Grandfather made on his return from the Second World War.
What do you drink on a ‘school night’?
I try to drink as much of our competitors’ wines as possible to ensure that I don’t develop a “cellar” palate.
What do you most dislike in a wine?
Over-oaked wine, particularly if it is American oak. High alcohol is another pet hate.
How important is the glass you drink from? Tumblers or Riedel?
I use Riedel (and there are others who are making good glasses) in the laboratory, the winery and at home.
Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change? If not, do you anticipate you’ll have to?
Not in my lifetime. Climate change, or at least the 13 to 14 very dry years we had from 1997–2010, actually improved our red wines, and the decade 2000–2009 was our best ever in the history of the company.
If you’re not drinking wine, what are you drinking?
Gin and tonic, brandy and Coke, and beer
Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?
Lamb chops, mint sauce, red currant jelly, roast potato and salad, with an old red wine of choice. Simple but delicious.
During harvest, who or what do you pray to?
I don’t pray, but I fervently hope that the 'Rain God' holds back until we have at least broken the back of vintage.
What would you want the last wine you taste to be?
Where do you want to be buried?
I don’t want to be buried, but rather cremated, so it’s a question of where my ashes will be scattered. I actually haven’t made up my mind, but it will be on Tahblik. My grandfather’s wish was that his ashes be scattered in the 1860 vines and that was done. His brother Jack and my grandmother Jean also requested that their ashes be scattered on the property. So that’s where I want my ashes: returned to the earth of the place I love the most. I will certainly be nominating that in my will.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
Family and close friends make up the fabric of my life, and I’m at my happiest when we get together for some terrific food, great wine and lots of laughs
What do you think would make the world a better place?
Terrorism, religious belief, nuclear weapons and global poverty are the four fundamental issues that threaten global stability and peace and need to be addressed as urgently as climate change. Take away poverty and to a great extent terrorism driven by extreme religious beliefs is diluted. Less angry young men looking for a cause to vent their anger.
Also, the world would be a much better place if all developed and developing countries agreed to contribute financially each year to underdeveloped countries to help raise the standard of living. It’s complex, yes. Hard to achieve a global consensus? Yes. Hard to administer? Yes. But it has to be done or our great-great-grandchildren may not have a world to live in, which makes a mockery of all that is being done to solve climate change.