Tony’s Aussie Blog: From Barossa to McLaren Vale

The drive from Barossa to McLaren Vale is beautiful. It is also like going from Germany to Italy. You leave behind the super-successful, teutonic-efficiency valley and arrive in arty, laid-back-Latino land. That’s how it seems to me anyway.

No massive oil-refinery-winerys in the Vale just yet. More of your family outfits and sheddists. It was the natural place for the RedHeads movement to start.

And a ‘movement’ is what it is. The guiding light is a set of beliefs rather than a business plan.

You start ventures, I find, and they soon get a life of their own. THEY decide where they are going. Not you. You just try and keep up. Of all the ventures I’ve helped start up there’s been nothing harder to keep up with than RedHeads.

It’s not a generally known fact but I’ve been doing wine a damn long time. It IS a nice world but after a few decades you can find yourself flagging. You suspect you might be getting boring… even more boring than before.  Post millennium I got that way. Then came the RedHeads. All raw, brash, sweaty, manic, late night, heavy metal, boozy. With this 60-year-old Bordeaux-educated Brit in the middle of it wondering “What the……? But it sure rejuvenated me.

Two big pictures tell the story:

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Redheads photo

Why did I do it? Because I just loved the open honest fearless way Australians do wine… but had become worried that honesty was being lost. Aussie wine was the Big Success in the 80’s and 90’s. From nowhere to almost top. But then, of course, the Big Money poured in. Most of the small hardworking family outfits we worked with were bought from under their owners. Became part of massive conglomerates. Or worse; brewers. And what brewers have ever understood about wine would fit on a beermat. One side. Production got moved to mega-wineries. Good wine but samey; no individuality. Badge engineering.

At the same time, wine making became cool and trendy. Rich and successful people from other industries moved in and built up their status with fancy boutique wineries. Our skilled winemaker friends who had to work for these newbie, ‘in-comer’ bosses, called them (quietly) the ‘re-treads’. I, as a wine ‘lifer’, love that term.

The ‘edge’ was going out of Aussie wine. And it didn’t help that 80% of Aussie wine went through just two supermarket groups. But RedHeads and what sprang from it helped and are still helping to bring back individual edginess.

There isn’t an actual RedHeads shed in McLaren Vale this year. It’s in Barossa. But the Vale now has at least a dozen RedHeads graduates in sheds of their own.

We arrived first at Philbo’s. Phil Christiansen is now, to his great embarrassment known as the GOS; the Godfather of Shed. In fact there’s a label (which he did not create and does not like, featuring his face with Brando’s pouchy cheeks added on). But quiet Philbo truly was the inspiration.

Made redundant by Hardy’s when the family lost the business. With no job and hardly any money he rented a sheep-shed on Chalk Hill. Lined it with tin foil and with scavenged old equipment (old barrels, water butts, garden hose, and a redundant milk chiller) – made terrific wine.

The not-so-quiet Justin Lane; a Flying Winemaker who had worked all over for us in European wineries took me to see Philbo’s shed and it got me all excited… RedHeads was the result.

Justin now has a bar, the ‘Cantina Sociale’, doing his wines on tap in downtown Adelaide. Philbo still has a shed but now it’s a Buckingham Palace of a shed. No frills still. But making much more wine. He contract-makes wines for quite a few famous names. But his own Longwood is getting quietly famous itself.

Adam ‘Hoops’ came by to drop off a carton of Cooper’s Ale. That’s the currency amongst the old Heads. “Lend us your de-stemmer? Press? Pump? Pick-up?” ” Sure”. No discussion. No problem. “That’s a case of Coopers, then”.  Wineries here could not function without South Australia’s finest brew-with-bits-in.

Hoops bought the old RedHeads building from us. He rents it out as a restaurant and makes his growing range of  ‘Curio’ wines in the old Back Shed.  He again has a new lady in his life; one of our finest Wine Advisors who upped and left us in the UK to fly all that way just for ‘Hoops’!!!! – who looks increasingly like someone from ‘The Musketeers’.

Adam Hooper

Adam ‘Hoops’

Eternal bachelor Nat – ‘the other’ McMurtrie (we also have one in the UK who runs our firm, so he says), comes for a BBQ lunch by Mrs Philbo who is a nurse.

Nat McMurtrie

Nat McMurtrie

Bottles from the early days are produced. God, these big wines age so well. Wish I’d kept more.

Later we met Elena the Bulgarian who worked as unpaid labour for Hoops in the early days, now mother of two and with her own range of Dandelion label Wines. Big Andrew Pieri turned up in the evening when we were at Steve’s Shed or sheds or Shed Estate and Steve had the pizza oven going.

Gorgeous Jess Hardy was plunging her caps so of course she’s the one I took a picture of. I mean the others are nice but photogenic??? Mmm?

Jess Plunging

Jess, plunging

The ‘Doc’ was working. Shame. Works too hard. Actually this year we’ve bought some of his fruit for our amazing Esulé.

On the way out saw a sign to the Lazy Ballerina Winery… yet another ex-Head.

It feels good to have helped get these boys going. They now have their own sheds and do very well in the Australian market. They should get better known here in the UK and the US.

But that’s up to them. They are launched. RedHeads did that. Now, they are RedHeads Alumni.

Its been hard lately with the Aussie exchange rate pushing up all the prices of what are never going to be cheap wines. But RedHeads fans fear not. Now the rate has got better a whole raft of excellent RedHeads wines is on its way…

COME AND SEE/TASTE THEM AT THE VINTAGE FESTIVAL WHERE WE ARE PREVIEWING SOME BARREL SAMPLES OF 2012/13 STUDIO WINES

The VF is on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th April at Old Billingsgate, London.

Look for a seething mob Heads fans.

See you there.

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About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!