Tag: McLaren Vale

RIP Ben Hammerschlag and the End of an Era

RIP Ben Hammerschlag and the End of an Era

The past weekend saw the passing of two Australian wine industry luminaries, an occurrence all too common these days. Wayne Stehbens, the legendary winemaker at Katnook Estate in the Coonawarra, was the more well-known individual, recognized in both Australia and America. Ben Hammerschlag, the visionary behind Epicurean Wines and maybe not as well known, was no less important in his role as the US importer for a number of Australian wines. Both men left us way to early.

Ben was an early supporter of Australian wine back in the day when he was a wine buyer for a Seattle supermarket. I still remember his hand-written piece of paper for The Jug Shop‘s Aussie mailing list and noting that Margaret River was his favorite region. Years later when he started Epicurean, he was instrumental in bringing Barossa producers like Ben Glaetzer, Dan Standish and other Barossa Valley outfits to our shores. And that’s not to mention Penny’s Hill and Mr. Riggs from McLaren Vale. He never forgot Margaret River where Moss Wood remains in the portfolio today.

While the future of his import company is currently uncertain, there is no doubt that his passing also represents an important turning of the page with respect to the future of Australian wines in America. Much of the Australian wine segment in the US market 57eee24556cd6464023933_square_ffffff_346today was built by a small group of importers that identified brands overseas, created their import and distribution networks in the States and then set about to build the demand for Australian wines in America.

Starting with Old Bridge Cellars, (created in 1990 by Rob McDonald), what followed was a succession of Aussie wine importers that were founded by dynamic personalities possessing the charisma and drive needed to energize consumers and the trade in their efforts to build the category. OBC was soon followed by John Larchet (The Australian Premium Wine Collection), Ted Scrauth (Old Vines Australia) and Dan Phillips (Grateful Palate). Ben’s Epicurean Wines collection entered into the frey in 2000. As the Australian wine category exploded in the States, these independent importers worked alongside and in competition with importers like Negociants and Southcorp which were mostly aligned with the Australian wineries that owned them.

Ben’s passing represents the closing of this important chapter in the history of Australian wine in America. Of all the original independent Australian wine importers that helped create the category in the States, only Old Bridge Cellars remains and even they have moved on a bit as they expanded their portfolio to include wines from other countries. Today, it’s just a bit sad to realize that many of the individuals and personalities that helped to build the category are no longer around.

Indeed, times have changed. There are new narratives and perspectives that frame how Australian wines are viewed by consumers and the trade today. And after over more than a decade where Australian importers were in decline, new specialist importers focused on Aussie wines have sprung up and embarked on their own efforts to bring the country’s wine into the States.

The new importers are mostly regionally based in their distribution or started off that Website-header-1-rev-2015-960x440way. Hudson Wine Brokers and Little Peacock are the largest of the new entrepreneurs to start nationwide distribution while smaller scaled importers such as Red Earth and H. Mercer ply their wares in corners of the country. Interestingly, these new importers are all Australians whose stated purpose is to expose Americans to the wines they drank at home but could not find in the States. Of all the original Aussie wine exporters that exposed Yanks to wines from Down Under, only one (Rob McDonald of OBC) was born and raised there.

The American wine market these new importers will face is quite different than what Ben and his fellow evangelists encountered back in the 1990s and the early-Naughties. For many of today’s consumers and members of the trade, the Australia wine bashing that brought about the malaise in sales over the last 10-15 years happened quite some time ago. The negativity attached to the category is not something heard as much today as critics now write about the “New Australia”.

I noticed this recently when showcasing Hunter Valley semillons in a series of masterclasses across the country. Back in the day, semillons suffered from poor corks which ensured that purchasing a good bottle a dicey proposition. The screwcap has revolutionized semillons today with each bottle now fresher and no longer affected by cork. Today’s consumers have only enjoyed semillons in that fashion. Referencing to a past problem they never encountered was a wasted exercise to many in the audience.

A similar distance from the past exists with Barossa shiraz. The hyper-critical view of the region’s wines as overly large in scale now seems to not even be in the rear-view mirror for the latest entrants into the wine market. Today, the big Barossa wine style is just one example of the diversity of styles made in the region, a style that co-exists with many other approaches to growing and making wine. The richer expressions shown today are appreciated for their balance, length and purity of fruit expression as well as their intensity of flavor. Once again, there seems to be little gained by pointing out the stereotypes that critics lashed onto wines in the past. Everyone today is ready to enjoy the wines as they are presented with no need to rehash the challenges or stereotypes that came before.

The Aussie wine market in the States today is more diverse in style, from a broader range of growing regions and a wider variety of grapes. To those few in America who have been working with Aussie wines over the past 20-30 years, it would seem that the new importers have inherited a significant gap of time where selling Aussie wines was not a priority and that difficulties would surely lie ahead.

But the groundwork laid by those who built the Aussie wine category in the States now seems to be but a chapter that has now been concluded. The new importers start their enterprises upon the shoulders of those who worked before them but they don’t necessarily know who they were or how they operated. And maybe they don’t need to. They have their own ideas about how to build the category in the States. And so begins a new chapter, to be written by them.

But to Ben, as well as to Rob, John L., Dan, Ted, and John G, thanks for writing that first chapter. I’m sure it will be read, and re-written, in the years to come.

 

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

At a masterclass on his wines a number of years ago, Clarendon Hills owner and winemaker Roman Bratusiak was asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. “When you are at home,” she queried, “what Australian wines do you drink.” Roman, who is known for his somewhat brusque demeanor, huffed and said, “I don’t drink Australian wines. I drink Burgundy.” And that where things were left. With the 16 ton weight pervading the room.

Besides ruffling the feathers of the poor gal who innocently asked the question and leaving those in attendance wondering what kind of person would harrumph like that, the reference to Burgundy resonated for some time. His comments came to the forefront a few years later when I made my first visit to Clarendon Hills. When our group headed off to dinner, he brought along two cases of some pretty nifty wines (the second case contained duplicates in case of cork taint). They were all burgundies. You can’t fault a man for being true to his word.

That declaration about burgundy really got ahold of me the next day tasting through some barrels and current releases. Over and over again, I was impressed with the sense of restraint, the compact shape of the fruit, the emphasis on structure. More importantly, they stood in stark contrast to the descriptions offered by Robert Parker. These were not high-octane, gloppy wines devoid of focus. Here was length and line, classically compact in shape. Let there be no mistake, his wines were concentrated and intense but not what I expected given how Parker had often described his wines.

hickinbotham-grenache2
Old vine Hickinbotham Grenache (picture from winery website)

Indeed, there was a Burgundian sensibility being expressed here. The use of French oak and little of it new. The search for expressions of terroir in the hills of McLaren Vale and bringing these subtle nuances to the forefront. Small volumes of wines made from individual plots of old vines, bottled separately.

These thoughts came back to me as I recently ensured that a bottle of 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache would fulfill its intended purpose. McLaren Vale grenache is one of the ultimate expressions of the grape to be found anywhere. It’s here where the classic chocolate-laced kirsch aromas and flavors are revealed in abundance. Mouth-filling yet showcasing that pinot-like presence on the palate, grenache from the Vale is usually a bit more substantial than what is found in the Barossa.

The Hickinbotham Vineyard is located over 800 feet above sea level in the rolling hills north of McLaren Vale village. The altitude helps to moderate temperatures a bit during the hot summers providing that finesse that is typical of fruit from the area. Roman’s parcel of grenache was planted in 1920 and these old vines contribute to the power lurking within the wines from this vineyard.

Older bottles of Hickinbotham Vineyard shiraz and grenache have proven to be among the most rewarding and cellar worthy wines in the Clarendon Hills portfolio. What made the 2004 Hickinbotham Grenache true to form was that classic kirsch bouquet, open and fragrant with woodsy spices lying underneath. The palate had softened yet still maintained that lifted, primary fruit. The wines from this vineyard, no matter the varietal, always have a firm, structural foundation and this wine followed that rule if a bit softer and broader now thanks to its age. The final observation fell to the wine’s balance and elegance, how after 13 years, this was a wine true to Roman’s approach. Here’s to Burgundy!

Thanks to Dino Stephanos for sharing this wine with me.