Where did you grow up?
I was born in London in 1969, but we left when I was five months old. I was pretty much raised in Bondi [in Sydney, Australia]. I went to Japan when I was 15-16 years old as an exchange student. It was the greatest experience of my life and made me what I am.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Lots of sun (as a kid I was always surfing and didn't wear sun cream); a few too many excesses; someone whose energy is not what it was, but who would still like to think of himself as not having much shame when it comes to letting it all out.
Where did your relationship with wine start?
My parents were – and still are – very good cooks, so there was always wine around the house. Whether it was good stuff or not, I have no idea! I didn’t think wine was anything unusual. When I was an art history student at university in Paris, my peers were rich American kids and most of them were drinking spirits and beer because that’s what Americans do. But I found myself able to drink two beers and that was it. I don’t drink hard spirits either. Inevitably, being in Paris, I started drinking wine.
How did you end up embarking on the Master of Wine course?
After many years' working in New York as a sommelier at Veritas, I ended up in Japan. A girl left me in New York and I knew I needed to get out, and at the same time I was offered a job buying wine in Japan for 65 restaurants. I was suddenly thrown from a high-end restaurant in New York and put into a corporate world.
I found myself twiddling my thumbs in a big corporate office, waiting for the next wine tasting to extricate myself from the office. I had so much time on my hands. I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald and the BBC to kill time and I thought, 'I’m going to make this time more productive.' I had a huge foreign expense account to source wines and I took that expense account and used it to go anywhere salient for the MW course.
Tell us about your own label
I have my own wine label in Japan called GOOD WINe, with a small 'e.' I never realized my surname was an obvious branding opportunity until two years ago; when I couldn’t think of a name for the brand, my mate told me, 'Call it GOOD WINe, you idiot!'
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
A sommelier in Los Angeles called David Rosoff. He was the wine director at Michael’s in Santa Monica. I walked into the interview looking for a waiting position. He asked me to be his assistant sommelier and I said no, but then it appeared quite obvious that it was my calling when I was reading wine books on the toilet. He was the first person to convince me that wine was my passion and make me understand that it was okay to follow that path. We're still friends, and he’s now with the Mario Batali [restaurant] group.
What regions are most exciting to you in the wine world?
Burgundy is not the most exciting place, but it’s the place that excites me the most. I have been moved by Burgundy more than any other region on Earth but I wouldn’t say it’s the most stimulating in terms of experimentation. Certainly in the New World, there’s a lot of extreme envelope-pushing in the Yarra Valley, with stems and large-format neutral oak.
What’s exciting in the Japanese wine scene?
There is exciting stuff, but the Japanese, being Japanese, tend to follow the status quo. It’s a repressed society. When they become extremely loose you see this iconoclastic weirdness and that translates into it being a large market for radical things like orange wine and low-sulfur wine, or Japanese-made wine from the northern Rhône.
Are there any good wines being made in Japan?
There are a couple of producers in Hokkaido – it doesn't experience the disease pressure of Honshu. There’s a young guy at Domaine Takahiko with experience in the Jura region [who's] making whole-cluster, low-sulfur, large-format oak wines from gamay and pinot noir. They are good, but expensive. But there is still no sense of Japanese-ness about these wines. They are more like Jura than Japanese. I don’t believe that if you took them abroad, people would give them the light of day.
What are you looking for in wine?
It's an easy-to-use catchword but I'm looking for drinkability. The Japanese have a word, "nomiyasui," meaning easy to drink. I hate the term because the Japanese overuse it when they don’t know what to say about wine, but if you get down to it, it’s a loose translation of drinkability, and what I’m looking for.
A wine is really great if I want to have a second or third or fourth glass and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s profound, but it means there’s fruit weight and structure. You have these wines that hit that sweet spot. Sadly, throughout the New World there is a lot of sweet fruit but not enough structure.
Where would you like to be buried?
I’d like my ashes to be scattered over Bondi Beach. It’s the greatest love of my life, along with my wife and kids. The moment I saw it as a six-year-old I fell in love with it. I loved surfing on my crappy foam board and eating ham-and-pineapple pizzas.
What would you want your last wine to be?
Just for the sake of nostalgia – because it made me love wine like no other – it would be the 1976 McWilliams Mount Pleasant Old Paddock and Old Hill Shiraz. I was in my 20s and it showed me how beautiful old wine could be.