If there’s one phrase that gets bandied about the CELLARDOORS.CO office a lot (aside from ‘who’s for wine?’) it’s ‘this industry has a million and one stories’.

Whether you know a lot about wine or not, one of the most endearing things about visiting a winery is hearing the stories behind the vines.

Winemakers love telling tales, especially about their first experiences with wine, the first wine they made and the first medal they won. Here are three of our favourites.

The first taste is the sweetest

Peter Leske is a well-known South Australian winemaker (La Linea) who has had a varied career including wine consultant and wine judge. 2017 is Peter’s 10th year as senior judge for the Australian and New Zealand Boutique Wine Show under the chairman ship of Huon Hooke. You don’t last in that role unless you are from the top of the winemaking tree.

When asked to recall the first time he opened a bottle of his own wine, Peter closed his eyes, and fifteen years after the occasion he could still recall the taste.

“I was helping Jean-Pierre de Smet develop Domaine de L’Arlot in France and it was the 1987 Clos de L’Arlot Premier Cru Blanc Chardonnay. I have vivid memories of pressing the fruit, racking the juice, starting the ferment, putting it to barrel, nurturing it through ferment, blending, fining, filtering and bottling it. Its quality was like any other wine, but it was mine.

When I visited them a few years later, Jean Pierre took time to show me an article in the British wine press in which he had carefully acknowledged my early input into the wine styles, winemaking philosophy and winery design at L’Arlot. His primary responsibility was to build his and L’Arlot’s reputations, and he didn’t need to acknowledge me, I’m still grateful for his generosity.”

An inauspicious start

Ralph Fowler’s winemaking career started in 1971 with Tyrrell’s Wines in Hunter Valley and he was one of the key people in the development of the now famous Tyrrell’s wines.

Ralph has just one piece of advice for aspiring winemakers. Don’t play rugby league the day before you start a new job. At nineteen, he was “absolutely beaten up” in the NSW Country Selection Rugby League Trials. He’d postponed starting a job at Tyrrell’s winery to play in the trials, and then set off for the Hunter Valley in his car, which promptly broke down. After a long hitchhike to Newcastle, Ralph was advised by a mischievous bystander to catch a train (note: there’s no train line to the Hunter). When he asked directions from the stationmaster, Ralph found himself the source of much hilarity.

Hitchhiking again, he became lost in the dark on a lonely back road. When at last a truckie picked him up, Ralph again found himself the subject of mirth when he told the driver he was headed for Tyrrell’s.

“What’s so funny?” he asked the truckie.

“See all those drums in the back?” he replied. “They’re Mudgee shiraz going to Tyrrell’s. And you must be the new bloke who was supposed to start three weeks ago.”

After 30 years in the industry, Ralph and his wife, Deborah bought a property in the Mount Benson region, planted shiraz and viognier and has finally decided to release wines of their own emphasising terroir, structure, elegance and finesse. Since the release of his first wine (1997 Limestone Coast Shiraz), Ralph has won many accolades from wine writers including Huon Hooke, James Halliday and Robert Parker and has done much better in these trials than he ever did in League.

Henschke Hill of Grace for $7.50 a bottle

Thirty-two years ago, Robert and Maryanne McLeish embarked on a tree-change from Sydney to the Hunter region, set up residency in a caravan on their newly acquired, undeveloped 16-hectare property on DeBeyers Road, Pokolbin.

Remembers Bob McLeish, “I was first influenced to drink wine when I was working as an engineer in Adelaide in the mid-eighties. The water and the beer were terrible quality so I turned to drinking Henschke Hill of Grace at $7.50 a bottle.”

They may have been novices, new to the game but they took to winemaking like ducks to water. “Maryanne and I were weekend farmers at first and camped in a caravan before building our home and settling permanently. We planted semillon and chardonnay and sold the fruit to Brokenwood for the first six or seven years. We thought we were on a really good thing having Brokenwood purchase our grapes because they had a good name and were winning medals. It was a few years later after we started bottling under our own label that we realised that it was Brokenwood who had been on a very good wicket as our fruit quality was outstanding.”

McLeish Estate winery has since asserted its position as one of the most highly acclaimed boutique producers. With success on the national wine show circuit in recent years, the winery was awarded the trophy for World’s Best Semillon at the London International Wine Challenge in 2016 for the third time.

These are just three of those million and one stories. Stay tuned and subscribe to this blog for many, many more.