Through sheer force of character, this German-born winemaker turned a few hogsheads of Australian wine into a multi-million dollar business of international renown. Max Allen pays a visit to the 80-year-old dynamo...
The year is 1960. A young German winemaker called Wolfgang Blass is working in the cellars of Averys wine merchants in Bristol when the phone rings. ‘It was a fella from the Australian Farmers’ Union on the phone,’ remembers Blass. ‘They were selling a lot of Australian wine into the UK at the time, a lot of bulk wine from the winery co-ops. This fella said: ‘I’ve got a job in Australia; three-year contract. They want someone who knows how to make sparkling wines. Would you be interested?’
The young German winemaker was very interested. But he knew nothing about Australian wine or the industry. So he got on the train to London, went to Australia house on the Strand, and tasted a selection of the Australian wines then available in the UK. ‘They were bloody awful,’ says Blass. ‘Oxidised whites and reds made from pure pressings. i thought: i can’t go wrong – i can make these wines better. So I took the job.’
Fast forward to 2014. I’m sitting at the boardroom table in Wolf Blass’ office in Adelaide, South Australia. The walls are covered in awards and photographs charting the winemaker’s career: there’s Blass receiving a trophy at the international Wine & Spirit Competition in the 1990s; being presented with an Order of Australia medal in 2001; toasting the camera alongside celebrities and politicians; leading one of his racehorses in the winner’s enclosure. And there, in the corner of a white board, a motivational quote: ‘Entrepreneurs ignore the status quo, challenge the rules and change the game’.
Blass turned 80 this year, but is showing little sign of slowing down. he still travels the world in his role as the ‘global ambassador’ for the popular high-volume wine brand that bears his name, and he is in demand as a guest speaker, wine judge and media personality. When he’s not travelling he still comes in to his Adelaide office every day and is heavily involved in the work of the Wolf Blass Foundation, which is currently planning a wine museum and developing a university scholarship for students of wine management and marketing.
Despite living in Australia for half a century, Blass’ German accent is still thick; his conversation is energetically peppered with ‘bloody this’ and ‘bloody that’; he gleefully mangles metaphors and chews through clichés. it’s all part of the Wolf Blass shtick – a larger-than-life, energetic, bow-tie- wearing persona that has helped the man promote his brand so effectively for so long.
He must have made a big impression, this ambitious, enthusiastic young German, when he arrived in South Australia’s sleepy Barossa Valley in 1961 to start work at the Kaiser Stuhl co-operative. Even more so when, after his three-year contract was up, the 30-year-old, newly naturalised (he says ‘neutralised’) Australian citizen established himself as a freelance ‘technical advisor’. Consultants are now familiar figures in the wine industry, but back then Blass’ career choice was a novelty.
‘I turned the bloody place upside down,’ he says, eyes twinkling with the memory. ‘i worked for eight or nine companies, for AU$2.50 an hour. Jim Barry, Bleasdale, Tolley’s, Basedow’s, Normans, Woodley’s. i was pretty busy. My little Volkswagen was running around all over the place.
‘And then these wine companies started getting awards at national wine shows and that was unheard of, because it was the big old family companies – McWilliam’s, Lindeman’s, Penfolds – that always took all the medals. That’s when probably some people took notice that i was around. But it was a hard bloody road. Rubber boots and overalls, that’s what it was. it was lots of fun, but it was a tough road.’
By 1966, Blass had the urge to start making wines for himself. So he bought some Shiraz from Langhorne Creek, south of Adelaide, and blended it with a hogshead of Malbec from Best’s Great Western in Victoria – a wine he’d tasted and bought at the old winery on the drive back from watching an AFL (Australian Football League) Grand Final in Melbourne. (Blass still pronounces many wine words as he learned them from old-timers back in the ’60s: so when he tells me about this first wine he describes it as a blend of ‘Maulbec’ and ‘Langhorne’s Creek Shirarz’)
By the early 1970s, Blass had started selling his first vintages while working full time for Tolley’s. Again, this is now commonplace: some of Australia’s most exciting young winemakers have day jobs at big wineries and make wines under their own label on the side. But 40 years ago, it was ‘absolutely taboo’. So Tolley’s gave Wolf an ultimatum.
‘They said, “Do you want to keep making your own wine, or do you want to work 100% for us?” I said, “Give me one hour.” So I got on the phone and got on to my mates. I said, look, I’m under pressure, vintage is coming up, they’re forcing me to decide. Can I crush grapes at your place? My friends said, “Yeah, we’d love to help you.” So I went back in the boardroom and told them to stick it up their arse.’
So, in 1973, with an AU$2,000 overdraft, in an old shed on a hectare of land in the Barossa, Wolf Blass Wines was born. And the very next year, the winemaker shot to national prominence by winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy, still one of the most important wine show accolades in the country, with his Black Label Cabernet-Shiraz. He went on to win the same trophy the next year. And the year after.
Speaking his mind
Business boomed for Blass over the next couple of decades. He explored export markets in Asia in the mid-1970s, many years before other wine companies did. ‘I found it very easy to sell to restaurants in Asia because so many of the sommeliers and chefs at that time were Austrians and Germans,’ says Wolf. ‘I had a good media following there – shit, did I have a good media following!’
In the early 1980s, Wolf Blass also dominated the then-enormous Australian market for ‘Rhine Riesling’, selling close to two million bottles a year: ‘We were on every bloody wine list in the country!’ he says, thumping his boardroom table. The business grew and grew. When Wolf Blass Wines went public in 1984, it was valued at AU$15m. When it merged with rival company, Mildara Wines in 1991, the resulting Mildara Blass Ltd was worth AU$125m. When giant brewer Foster’s bought the merged company just five years later, they paid AU$560m.
Today, Wolf Blass is one of the most important brands in the AU$3 billion Treasury Wine Estates portolio (Foster’s changed the name of its wine arm to Treasury in 2010). And Blass himself is still there, promoting his wines, speaking his mind. But not in Australia: his promotional activities are restricted to export markets. Why?
He pauses for a long time and sighs.‘I’m very critical,’ he says. ‘There have been too many controversial decisions since Foster’s took over. Huge changes of management. It was the greatest disaster of all the time when they thought their beer people could sell wine. That was the downfall. So I think it’s better if I go overseas.’
Blass recently sat down for a chat with Treasury’s new boss Michael Clarke – the seventh CEO he’s dealt with since Foster’s took over. It was a long and frank discussion – liberally sprinkled with the Blass charm: ‘I said to Michael, if you want someone to help with your finance, you should get me!’
It’s not just his own business he’s critical of. Having lived and worked through quite a few boom-and-bust cycles since he arrived in the early 1960s, Blass says the Australian wine industry’s current woes – lack of leadership, low profitability, a cheap image overseas – are the worst he’s seen.
‘It’s a big, big diabolic problem,’ he says. ‘We are no longer in a position to extend awareness that we are a great and quality wine-producing country. We are now being seen – with all the bulk wine shipments going overseas – as a cheap, plonky country, and we have to stop that, change that cheap image already sitting in the mind of different nations.
‘This is a non-sustainable situation considering that 70% of Australian wine grape growers and winemakers do not make profit at this point in time. That’s a fact. That’s been established. There will be a huge fallout for the next two or three years. A lot of small wine companies will disappear and we are going to have a voluntary vine-pull scheme. That’s on the cards.’
On a lighter note, now that he’s 80, I ask him whether he ever thinks about retiring. ‘This has not crossed my mind,’ he says flatly and Teutonically. ‘Because I cannot imagine spending 24 hours in the kitchen with my wife.’ Boom, boom.
And then, with a laugh, he says: ‘My doctor is retired, my solicitor is retired, my dentist is retired. All my close business associates: all retired. And me, idiot, turning up at the office every bloody Monday morning, ’til Friday, keep working. And I love it. I love it!’
Max Allen is an award-winning wine writer based in Melbourne. His book The History of Australian Wine, was commissioned by The Wolf Blass Foundation
Written by Max Allen