Interview - Ben Glaetzer

interview, ben glaetzer People & Places Articles
  • Friday 23 January 2009

MARGARET RAND finds a window in Ben Glaetzer’s masochistic schedule
to hear his plans for remoulding the admirerd Australian family dynasty

The word that springs to mind, talking to Ben Glaetzer, is ‘treadmill’. His life seems to be that of a squirrel on a wheel, imprisoned by the need to do everything himself. He’s in charge of the winemaking and he does the blends; he wants wines that express their terroir yet puts ‘by Ben Glaetzer’ on the labels, as though he can’t quite trust them to speak for themselves; and he spends six months of the year travelling to sell the stuff.

I can’t imaginehow he finds time to count his airmiles, let alone have a life.Yet he says he enjoys it, and he did findtime last June to get married to Lucy,whom he met at the London International Wine Trade Fair, an event not normally thought of as conducive to romance (or perhaps it is, and I’ve just been missing out all these years).

The example of his father might explain some of it. He and his father Colin don’t look alike – Colin is forelocked and bearded, while Ben’s head is smooth and glossy as a billiard ball – and Colin is a countryman who doesn’t like doing tastings or sales trips. ‘He assumed people would just knock on the door’ to buy his wines, says Ben. But Colin too is a winemaker – it was he who started Glaetzer Wines – and this is where it gets complicated.

Bear with me while I run through the formalities. It all centres on Barossa Vintners. The group was started as a processing plant by a clutch of 10 shareholders – all winemakers, apart from one accountant and one engineer – for them to use as a place to make small batches of wine that they couldn’t make in their own wineries: they might want to do longer skin contact than they had the capacity for at home, that sort of thing.

Barossa Vintners is the home of both Glaetzer Wines, which Colin set up in 1995 while he was working at Barossa Vintners, and Heartland, set up in 1999-2000 to make less expensive wines from Langhorne Creek and Limestone Coast, ‘both of which were under the radar at the time’, according to Ben, who is the winemaker for both.

Then there’s Mitolo Wines, which focuses on McLaren Vale, set up in 2000 by Ben and horticulturalist Frank Mitolo. Glaetzer Wines has just two: shareholders: Colin and Ben, so is technically the sole family company, and a good example of what happens when families don’t breed quite the right talents. Abundant talents, certainly: just not ones that are going to get Ben off his treadmill any time soon.

Colin Glaetzer spent his career at Tyrrell’s and Seppelts before starting Glaetzer Wines. He also has a twin brother, John, who had a parallel winemaking career but, many would say,

never quite got the recognition he deserved for his part in the success of Wolf Blass wines. Not to worry. These days, John has a role liaising with growers at Heartland, and after Foster’s (which now owns Wolf Blass) dumped some of its grape suppliers, John swiftly signed the best up for Heartland.

Ben has two siblings, both of whom are in wine. Older brother Sam is one of the heads of operations at Foster’s. ‘In time I hope he’ll want to come back when he’s done the global challenges he’s set himself,’ says Ben. Younger brother Nick is making wine in Tasmania. Ask Ben which of the family is the best winemaker and you get a predictable answer: ‘We’re all very stylistically different.

In Mum’s opinion she’s the best.’ (His mother actually studied marine chemistry until she realised she got terribly seasick. Now she teaches physics, chemistry and maths to adults.) Is Ben a better winemaker than his father? ‘Yes. He’s quite rustic, a lot of American oak. It’s a style I don’t like, though it’s classically Barossa. I like more savoury, textured wines.

Though he’s made some great wines.’ Is Ben a better winemaker than his brothers? ‘I’ve never tasted a wine that Sam’s made. He’sinvolved in blends, not really in winemaking. Nick is doing really well with Riesling and Pinots – he’s got an eye for that style. It’s his first vintage this year, so I’ll taste it at Christmas and see if he’s as good as he says he is.’ None of the three actually started out wanting to be winemakers.

Sam and Nick embarked on various forms of engineering to begin with. And Ben wanted to be a pediatric surgeon – ‘I wanted to have an impact, but I didn’t want to fix sick people all the time.’ But the smells and sounds of the winery at vintage drew him back. ‘I’d been working vintages for 10 or 12 years. I came from a pretty ordinary medical lecture

and walked into the winery and thought, it doesn’t get better than this.’

He switched to studying at Roseworthy, Adelaide University’s agricultural college, worked at Tyrrells for a bit, did some travelling, and took over at Barossa Vintners in 2000, and at Glaetzer in 2002. Bruce Tyrrell says he ‘was always going to have his own business and label. In the winery he had great attention to detail, and a top palate.’

Hectic schedules

That palate, and his exposure to the wines of the world, has turned him away from the traditional Barossa style of his father; a style which he describes as ‘a definitive Australian style, derived from secondary characteristics: toasty oak and vanilla.

It’s the style Wolf Blass had in the early days, those full-blooded, fullmalolactic Chardonnays of the late 1980s and early 1990s.’ But of course that massively rich, oaky style isn’t really all that traditional. ‘Barossa has only really been exported in the last 30 years; that’s a miniscule amount of time on the global market.

We have some of the oldest vines in the world, but they went into fortifieds or to the domestic market.’ Many wines have adjusted their style to changing times and tastes; it would be remarkable if they didn’t. ‘Barossa is going towards more pure fruit, especially the smaller producers.

People are heavily into regionality. We’re in Ebenezer, which is a small region in the north. The characteristics of Ebenezer are a generosity of palate, savoury tannins, a phenolic backbone, good colour – we have low yields, and thick skins – and a balance of texture and richness.

There’s a seamless character; a rounded structure with no sharp edges.’ In the vineyard this means, for Ben, thicker, denser canopies to protect the grapes from sunburn and the oily effect that sun exposure can create. It also means precise picking times: ‘I’ve got the ideal window of harvest down to two to three days.’

And in the winery it means oak ‘as a structural component, not as a flavouring component’. But he plays around with different techniques every year. ‘You need to evolve constantly. I’m not making the same style year in, year out. It’s nothing that hasn’t been tried before –

extended maceration, cold ferments.

It’s never the same one year to another. I don’t plan; it’s spur of the moment.’ What does he think he might do in vintage 2009? ‘If it’s like ’08, I’ll probably employ 100 people with umbrellas to keep the sun off!’

Glaetzer’s schedule seems ludicrous. How can he make the wines and be out there selling them? He does it by blocking off mid-January to mid-May for the vintage, and all of August for blending. He’salready worked out the blends, and everything is organised

and ready to go. ‘Nothing happens when I’m not there.’

His cellarmaster – with no formal training, but 30 years experience – acts as a second palate. If he had to choose, he says, he’d pick winemaking over selling, ‘but I can’t be seen to be dumping the market’. And then there’s the fear that if you slow down you’ll be seen as old hat, while somebody newer and less jet lagged grabs the attention.

But it must be a strain.

‘Just before I came away this time there’d been some rain, and I thought it would be nice to plant a vegetable garden – but then I thought, I’m going away tomorrow…’ He organises trips around his five-year-old son Wilbur, who he sees every second weekend, and then there’s family, friends, and cooking – Thai food especially. ‘I’m not one for throwing a steak on the barbie.’ Thai food is not an obvious a match for his wines, is it? ‘I don’t really drink my own wine at home. I drink 90% Italian, 5% Champagne and sparkling, and the rest is a mix.’ At least he takes a break from the treadmill sometimes.

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