The Pleasure of Drinking
The Barossa Valley’s RICK BURGE talks toabout the harsh realities of making and appreciating wine – and why it’s like liquid sex
FROM HIS MAVERICK Burge Family Winemakers estate in South Australia, a mere 10 hectares nestled in the little Barossa Valley hamlet of Lyndoch, Rick Burge produces some 3,500 cases a year – but sometimes will make none of his signature wines should a particular harvest go awry. He’s achieved 32 vintages now, yet his fortunes might have been quite different had not a certain Robert Parker scored one of his wines, the 1998 Draycott Shiraz, a remarkable 99 points, sending its price soaring (to US$500 a bottle, at one point) and capturing the attention of oenophiles.
Burge, who says “I’m pushing 60 but still feel 37,” often reacts wryly to what he calls “the Parker thing.” One year he self-effacingly made a wine called A Nice Red (“for those people who visit my cellar door asking, ‘Do you have a nice red?’ ”) and he’ll react with mock horror whenever he’s mistaken for his cousin Grant Burge, also a famous Shiraz maker whose much bigger, 356-hectare estate lies a wine berry’s spit away in nearby Jacobs Creek.
One of the first in Australia to specialise in single-vineyard wines (of which the Draycott and Olive Hill blocks remain best known), the Burge Family company spans three generations – grandfather Percival, who founded it in 1928, father Noel and Rick – a lineage reflected in G3, the company’s most outstanding wine, a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvèdre that uniquely reinterprets the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style of the Rhône valley but is made only in conducive years (2002, 2007 and 2009 have been the only G3 vintages so far). Ensconced in The Fleming in Wanchai, the boutique hotel he favours whenever he’s here, Rick Burge shares his views on several issues and once more attempts laying to rest the long shadow of that Parker endorsement.
Robert Parker made you famous, thanks to your Draycott Shiraz. How do you feel about that connection now?
We’ve also had three or four 96-plus scores from Parker. It has opened so many doors and got me into so many places, so it was a lucky break. But for me, it was like a double-edged sword. Life is about trying things, learning about stuff. It’s about the journey. The 100-point scheme – if I could be king for a day, I’d eradicate it so that people would actually read the reviews. They should be asking themselves questions – like, “Is it full-bodied?” and, “Is it tannic?” and, “Does it need cellaring?” – rather than saying, “I’ll buy it because it’s Parker 97 points.” It’s a lazy way to do it. I know some of my wines are in cellars as a blue-chip investment type of thing, but it should be about the pleasure of drinking, not investment.
I understand you even surprised [Hong Kong-based Master of Wine] Jeannie Cho Lee.
Yes, Jeannie Cho Lee last year, and a Japanese journalist three years ago. At the end of a tasting, they both said the same thing to me, “I really like your wines and I didn’t think I was going to.” The Japanese journalist, she actually told me, “Mr Parker likes your wines and I usually don’t like the wines Mr Parker likes, so I’m saying I really like yours.” And Jeannie Cho Lee said, “I really love your wines – they’re nothing like I thought they would be.” That’s why I hit the road and travel, you know, to try and change the Parker thing.
Your father’s death made quite an impact on you. Can you talk about it?
He died on June 1, 2009 and it was a relief, since he wasn’t in a place he liked being in. He’d also had a stroke and had lost some of his memory and he couldn’t eat. He was in the palliative ward, and to see him was to see him deteriorate. I remember the last night – I’d been out to a blues concert and I decided to see him on the way home. I told him I loved him and he squeezed my hand, which was the only reaction I got from him, and the next day I got the phone call. I felt a psychological chill wind, because it hit me that he was gone. I was never close to him because he was a very private man, and now I open up books and see things he’s written, like old records on fortified wines that he had meticulously kept and some magical historical stuff, like how my great-great-grandfather was a tailor who had done a lot of work for Buckingham Palace and he had spent all his holidays in France, which was how he got his love of wine. His cousin wrote to him and said, “We’ve set up this winery in Lyndoch, you must come out and help us.” And he did. He came out with his son, brought his family out and bought property and settled down in Australia.
Looking back, could you have chosen a different career path?
Oh, quite easily. I did the Roseworthy course [an oenology degree from Roseworthy Agricultural College], but I couldn’t get a job in South Australia for a long time. I started out as a cellar hand for one vintage at a winery in Nuriootpa [in the Barossa] and then got a job in Melbourne, managing a 100-year-old wine merchant called WJ Seabrook & Son, working in the retail marketing side. I’d only been there three months when Brown Brothers in north-east Victoria offered me a job. I thought, “Bugger, I’ve just started here, I can’t leave now,” and I said no.
What happened then?
Nine months later, they rang me again – they knew more than I did, that my employer was finding things difficult – so I accepted and went to Brown Brothers, managing their cellar and learning a lot from John Brown, my mentor. After my third month there, they told me they’d just bought a vineyard 40 kilometres away and wanted me to manage that as well. So off I went, but I was handling two vineyards and getting home at nine o’clock every night and it was just doing my head in. It was then decided that I would manage only the new vineyard, St Leonards. Looking back, those six years at Brown Brothers were my learning years. You tried things and they worked. So, wow, you felt like you were bulletproof.
But you ended up back in the family business anyway.
Yes. The family wine company was at a crossroads and the banks weren’t willing to lend any more, so my cousin Grant called and made me an unrealistic offer to buy me out. Nine months of tense and protracted negotiations later, I bought him out instead and moved my family back to the Barossa, which made my dad happy since he didn’t want to retire. I was borrowing at 21.5 percent interest from the bank, however, and it was very difficult. The vineyards needed a lot of work, the trellises were broken down, and I used to do a lot of replanting on weekends. We experienced two hailstorms in my first two years, 1986 and 1987, and I wondered if I had incurred the wrath of the wine gods.
That must be so crushing to people who think winemaking is glamorous.
I’ve seen them come and go, people in the Barossa Valley and the Adelaide Hills, who buy these properties and are now whining. Someone said the best advice is to tell these people, “Go and do a couple of vintages first, because you might need to know what you’re in for. And if one of those vintages happens to be a difficult one, see what it does to your marriage.” They call them “wine widows” – there are a lot of breakups and a lot of stressful marriages.
Has winemaking affected your marriage?
Sure, but I’m the luckiest guy in the world. My wife and I have been married 36 years now. We’ve separated twice – we even lived apart for one year, at one stage – and all I can say is she’s very tolerant. She understands that I’m pretty impulsive. When I get my teeth into something, I don’t let go. You know, you might not want to go to that function or that child’s birthday party because you’ve got this tank of Shiraz that you know is going to be the best you’ve ever made. And so you want to do another pump-over or you want to press it off rather than say, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Because you want to press it off there and then and put it in those brand-new French barriques, and so on. There’s a lot of pressure on family life at harvest time when you’re a small operation.
Will your kids join the business, since you’re called Burge Family Winemakers?
I don’t know. It’s still a work in progress. I’ve sort of scared them a little bit, I think, because they’ve seen the hard work needed. Initially, I had to work 200 percent to get 90 back, and I still hand-pick and hand-prune everything. When it rains during harvest, I’m thinking about whether my Semillon berries are going to burst or is it enough rain that I can’t get the tractor to pick and I’ll have to deal with mud on my hands trying to get the fruit off. This last harvest, 2011, was extremely hard, and I’d say the last 18 months have been easily the most difficult of my whole career.
You’ve been distributed in Hong Kong by Altaya Wines for 10 years now. [Altaya founder and Managing Director] Paulo Pong told me he visited you in Lyndoch, liked what he drank and made you an offer. Was it as simple as that?
Paulo came through my cellar door one day when he was just starting his company, back around 2001. At that time, no one was distributing me in Hong Kong, and this happened the same time the Parker legacy came in. I tend to go on people’s auras and their energies, and I found Paulo a man of stature and style. I was very impressed with his professionalism and we clicked instantly. I started dropping by to visit him on the way home from my trips to my distributors in Canada. I’d stop by in Tokyo and then Hong Kong before going home, and we built a relationship over time.
What’s your view of Hong Kong as a wine market?
Hong Kong is already turning into quite a mature market but what’s holding it back, I think, is having enough sommeliers or wine people – people who really know wine, who can taste something and can say, “Hmm, that’s medium-to-full bodied, it’s got beautiful long fruit with some lovely, tight tannins at the end.” It’s that confidence that comes with having tried Barolos with massive tannin versus Pinot Noirs with hardly any tannin, knowing them as two extremes. I’ve talked to sommeliers here and caught them rustling the paper, to look and see what Parker’s given it. I want to challenge them and say, “But what do you think?” They’re not yet confident enough and still need a Western wine critic to assign points or tell them.
I like your idea of wine being more about pleasure than investment. How did you arrive at that notion?
From experience. I remember the good times I’ve had, like once when I was in Tasmania drinking with a friend a bottle of 1996 Château Latour and, once in Toronto, a 1921 Château d’Yquem – I thought it was just liquid sex. To me, quality wine is the best fun you can have with your clothes on.
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