What is the definition of being successful? Is it making more money than you know what to do with? Is it having letters after your name that people aren’t even sure what they mean? Or is it simply being happy? When Mike and I decided to enter the wine business, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road. We were realistic. We understood that we would neither be an overnight sensation, nor ever be as recognized as Robert Mondavi. That’s not why we entered the business. We entered the wine industry because we love wine and it was our dream to own a winery. We chose to not just wish or dream about it, we made a conscious decision to make it happen. We chose to Pursue Our Passion.
It’s a scary thing chasing down your dreams, but if you don’t enter the race you are never going to win. One of my favorite sayings about Pursuing Your Passion was made by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He very eloquently stated, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” He knows you need to take risks. You need to leave the safety net that tethers you to your comfort zone so that you can experience what happens next.
In this, what has become a monthly tradition, a guest blogger will tell you their story of how they pursued their passion in the wine industry. These people understood what Van Gogh meant by “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
Mike and I love Cabernet Franc! That can’t be a surprise to anyone who knows us. We chose to produce Cab Franc because we love it, and it really isn’t that prevalent. The creation of Dracaena Wines and #CabFrancDay is like a fairy tale.
As is true with every day we go wine tasting, no matter where it is, we look for the elusive Cabernet Franc. One day, we came across Brecon Estate in Paso Robles. We decided to head over to Vineyard Drive and check them out. On our visit, we were greeted by Amanda Grindley and their dogs Louie and Roy. As we sipped, we became more and more impressed with the wines. Amanda called Damian and soon the four of us were drinking wine, sitting outside, while I threw the ball over and over for Roy. Damian offered us the opportunity to go down to the barrel room and taste his Cab Franc. An offer we couldn’t refuse!
We have been returning to Brecon ever since and have never once been disappointed. So when it came time to look for this month’s guest Pursue Your Passion, he came to the forefront of my mind. I even gave him the option to back out since it was harvest and I knew how busy he is. But he was gracious enough to find time to answer my questions. I hope you enjoy! And make sure the next time you are i Paso Robles, you head over to see their award-winning tasting room and taste their exceptional wines. Especially their Cabernet Franc.
Looking through your bio, you have lived in many places. You were born in Wales, went to University of Reading near London for Horticulture and received a Graduate diploma in Oenology from the University of Adelaide. Additionally, you traveled the world for at least a decade. Where is your favorite all time place? Where’s one place that you haven’t visited that is on your bucket list? Why?
I tend to be pretty happy wherever I lay my hat. Prefer working my way round the world. Meeting the real people rather than just traveling. I have many fond memories as they represent a time and a place in my life. Winemaking in Scandinavia, trekking in Himalayas, bumming round the Greek islands, studying Enology in Adelaide or exploring caves in Transylvania. Many of my friends are well-traveled and finding somewhere none of us been, and would want to go, is pretty challenging. Madagascar is probably next on the list.
A degree in horticulture, must certainly help in the vineyards. Your first job was as a landscaper. What your career aspirations were when you were in college?
I had green fingers as a child but got a little bored during my Horticulture degree so the switch to Landscaping enabled me to have enough motivation to finish my degree with honours. I had aspirations of Botanical Garden Management. Ironically the Horticulture ticket did later enable me to get into winemaking school. (Dept of Horticulture, Viticulture and Enology). It also enabled me to skip a bunch of viticultural classes and concentrate on the deeper aspects of winemaking.
I love that you say, you “stumbled” into the wine industry. I love stories of wine finding people who weren’t necessarily looking for it. What was your work days like when you were working for Majestic Wine Warehouse?
It was a wholesaler of wine to the public. The sort of place where Opus one was open to taste against certain 1st growths from Bordeaux. So you got a very international palate very quickly. It was hectic work in a rapidly expanding company. Gave me excellent sales skills and they did encourage you to do the precursors to the master of wine qualification.
Why did you choose Australia to complete your Masters of Winemaking? What classes did you have to take and what was your favorite aspect of the program?
The top winemaking schools in the world are arguably in France, Germany, South Africa, USA and Australia. South Africa was a little unstable at the time. My French and German would not have passed muster at a postgraduate level and I had not visited Australia but had been at the forefront of selling great Australian wine into the UK. So Australia it was.
In all honesty, I think you had the coolest job ever, to pay the bills for your winemaking education. I was in awe the first time you told me, and I still am. Please share with our readers. Is it as cool as it sounds?
I suspect you mean surveying caves under vineyards so the machinery would not fall through into the voids below. The pay was in fact rather limited. We made money-making pretty framed surveys for them to buy. It did however get me known with every great grape grower in the District. Giving me access to some stunning fruit straight out of winemaking school.
As you progressed through your career, you worked with both large companies and small ones. Which did you prefer and why?
I loved both for different reasons at different times. Larger companies are great for fast tracking experience, the career opportunities, the professionalism, the travel and weekends off! They are a little like dog years in that each years experience in a big company can be compared to seven in a smaller environment. More boutique wineries really satisfy the artisanal spirit, the sense of creating something from the ground up. You tend to be no less busy just wear many more hats.
I’m kind of a spur of the moment type of person. I am known for concocting an idea, and jumping in with two feet. I figure if I’m determined enough and want it enough, I’ll make sure it happens. What was going through your mind when you finally decided to go out on your own? Was it an arduous decision?
Not really, it was time. I had seen so many folks make a pigs ear starting a winery. In a way I had learned how not to do it from watching other people’s attempts. In addition a few economic cycles had come and gone and I came to the conclusion it was much better to be in the controlling seat in such a downturn rather than be at the whim of a corporate accountant. Unromantic maybe but a certain cool collected logic to it. Buying in at the low of the real estate market was part of the plan.
Tell us about your first vintage as a winemaker. Were you nervous? Excited? Terrified? All of the above? Has those emotions changed over the years?
I was certainly super keen and very technically/logistically competent. However very naive in terms of what is expected from the job in terms of the type of person a winery needs to be able to represent their brand. I was not so good then at walking the walk and talking the talk. Winemaker stress comes on the runup to harvest with the rushing to clear the desk before harvest hits. Once it arrives it is a bit of a relief as all the pesky paperwork stuff and endless meetings just fall by the wayside. The fun can then start.
Brecon Estate? Where did the name come from? How and why did you come by Paso Robles? Is Brecon your first personally owned label?
Yes Brecon is our first wine label. I had always said I was not stupid enough to own my own winery but the opportunity came along and now I wish I had done it years ago. It is named after the Brecon Beacons National park in South Wales. A wonderfully wild and windswept place, underlain by limestone riddled caves. The name linked in my heritage our caving exploits, Paso’s limestone soils and most importantly of all it was a short strong name that was not trademarked in the USA!
We found you because of your Cabernet Franc! Tell us about those beautiful vines that produce amazing wines!
Our Cabernet Franc were grafted onto own rooted chardonnay at one stage making them Cabernet Franc on Chardonnay rootstock. Most plantings these days worldwide are actually made up of the varietal you actually want grafted onto a rootstock. The rookstock is generally resistant to such things as nematodes and phylloxera. Grafting can also be used to convert one varietal to another. This can be for a number of reasons but mostly because the variety has become unpopular or is underperforming in that area. The viticulturalist is assuming he can make better wine or make more money from that site by grafting one varietal over to another varietal
What is your favorite grape varietal to work with? Least favorite? Why?
We love all our children of course . Even the ones that go through a painful adolescent. All have their place. I think the most exciting thing is trying a varietal planted in a new place for the first time or exploring and understand the myriad of expressions a varietal might have in a district depending on subtle changes in terroir. The least favorite winemaking chore is to make wine from a varietal clearly planted in the wrong place. I am thinking Pinot’s or Sauvignon Blanc’s in hot climates.
Not only has your wines found critical acclaim, but your winery has won awards! Congratulations! Please share what it’s like to design and build an award-winning winery.
Who knew winemakers had such good taste. Indeed we ended up whole bunch of design awards for the renovation and were in the running for the international interior design award. Paso Robles is not really acclaimed for its architecture. My father was an Architect as is our partner’s wife and I had a grounding in Landscape design. I suspect this really came to play in selecting Aidlin Darling Design for the project. Just a few weeks after signing them up they won Smithsonian Designer of the year. They were fantastic to work with taking on board a lot of suggestions of both my wife and myself.
Please fill us in on the story behind one of your most popular wines, 42. Mike and love that wine and always look forward to its release. I must admit though, I always assumed it was named after Jackie Robinson and then I recently read it wasn’t. OOPS! Share the story of how 42 came to be.
Radio 4 in the uk has a long running series book at bedtime. One of my most memorable radio adaptations was the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams. A silly space odyssey. A trilogy of four books all about trying to find the answer to life the universe and everything. After many may eons a planet sized supercomputer, called deep thought, finally spat out the answer; which was 42. It really can be the answer to life the universe and everything sitting under our shady oaks sipping what is quite a mysterious blend.
One of our tag lines is “Pursue Your Passion.” You obviously have passion for wine. If you were to give advice to someone entering the wine industry in order to pursue their passion, what would you tell them?
The wine industry has been good to me. As an industry many people have a fantastic lifestyle but it is unlikely place to make a fortune. I used the wine to travel the vinous world and for many years was experience rich, but asset poor. However it is those experiences that have held me in good stead in later life.