Petaluma founder, mentor to winemaking students, and visionary winemaker, Brian Croser is one of the leaders of the Australian wine world. HUON HOOKE meets Decanter’s Man of the Year 2004
As you enter the tasting room, there are rows of bottles and wines in glasses. The host fixes you with a steady, penetrating gaze over the top of his reading glasses. ‘There’s something I want you to understand about what I’m trying to do,’ he says. An hour later you emerge with a new perspective on some detail of viticulture or winemaking that Ben Croser is obsessed with. And you realise you have been Crosered.
Decanter’s 2004 Man of the Year, Brian Croser, is one of the most outstanding, but also enigmatic and misunderstood, figures in Australian wine. He is an introvert and introverts are often accused of arrogance when it’s more often shyness. Croser, 55, is a self-contained, self-absorbed, supremely confident man. It is hard to imagine him searching his soul, wracked with self-doubt. It’s not that he wants to influence you or persuade you to write a story: he is simply way ahead of the pack, and he needs to explain things to the rest of us mere mortals.
Talk to those close to him and the word visionary keeps cropping up. ‘He always knew what he wanted and how to get there,’ says Michael Hill Smith, of Shaw & Smith Wines. Croser has always been a leader, even when he was a school prefect. He’s in a higher league than most of his contemporaries in Australia. He was the first to suit grape varieties to regions and plant his vineyards directly from that premise. Many have followed him, usually just buying grapes from specific regions – Semillon from the Hunter, Clare Riesling, Coonawarra Cabernet, and so on – but back in the 1970s this was quite radical. Quite European.
Traditionally, Australians planted every conceivable vine variety in the one vineyard, and wondered why most of them made ordinary wine, while one or two might have flourished. Croser was the first to commit himself to planting the variety in the region that best suited it, and arguably, no one has done it quite the same way since.
Croser started South Australian winery Petaluma in 1976, and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Coonawarra, Riesling in Clare, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills. From the coolest Adelaide Hills sites, he would make Croser sparkling wine; from the warmer ones, table wine. His first Coonawarra reds were blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but he decided early on that Merlot, not Shiraz, was the better blending grape for Coonawarra because Shiraz didn’t ripen consistently. As well, he began to make a varietal Merlot which was, from the start, one of the best in the land.
His other Coonawarra wine, Sharefarmers, was named after its source, a discrete vineyard in the region’s north which was the chief bone of contention in the Coonawarra boundary dispute. The main fault of Sharefarmers was that it was literally on the wrong side of the track. Traditionally, the land on the south side of the road had been considered part of Coonawarra, the north not. But Croser argued that there was no significant difference between the quality of the terra rossa soil on either side of the road. Sharefarmers’ label now proudly sports the Coonawarra appellation.
Croser’s iron will usually prevails. The hostile takeover of the Petaluma group by drinks giant Lion Nathan in 2001 devastated Croser, who was quoted as saying at the time: ‘I had the future worked out. I had the same objectives for 27 years. Now there’s a feeling of aimlessness when I wake up in the morning.’
Two and a half years on, he is more upbeat: ‘Lion Nathan could have destroyed the dream, but it hasn’t,’ he says. When Lion Nathan moved in, its strategy was to move management, marketing and export business to its Sydney office and roll it in with Lion’s other wine acquisitions. But today, the winery office at Piccadilly hums along much as its did before the takeover, one suspects, with marketing and management still located there, vineyards still under direct control, and the same people running things.
‘They realised you can’t run a premium wine company based in the Adelaide Hills out of an office on the 30th floor of a tower in Sydney. Lion Nathan has empowered our staff. It has latched onto the idea of semi-autonomous wineries.’ Croser still lives in the same house beside the winery, which he owns, and remains chief winemaker and executive chairman of wine strategy for the Lion Nathan Wine Group.
At Petaluma over many years, Croser was a great mentor for upcoming winemakers and beginners, especially oenology students who worked there – whether for several years or just a vintage. The number of winemakers he’s mentored and who’ve gone on to achieve is legion, and includes Martin Shaw of Shaw & Smith, Andrew Hardy of Knappstein and Dean Hewitson of Hewitson Wine.
‘He was my mentor: I learnt everything from him,’ says Hardy. ‘He was terribly influential, especially in the early days.’
Martin Shaw was chief winemaker under Croser for nine years, and recalls Croser as a charismatic man who led by example. A hard taskmaster: ‘If he wanted you to work 10- or 15-hour days, he was doing it himself, too. He was always available to answer questions and always responsive if you wanted to challenge his winemaking ideas.’
Hardy agrees. ‘He’s a great disciplinarian. Woe betide you if you didn’t do things his way, but there was always a very good explanation of why he wanted it that way. We worked silly hours for him. The Saturday morning chat sessions were very precious: we would discuss all the trends and analyse where we were going.’ Hardy admits to having a few stand-up fights with Croser. ‘His self-belief is amazing. He’d be in London telling us we can’t pick Barossa Shiraz in February, but we’ve seen the fruit, it’s 15? Baumé and it’s ready!’
Croser has made an enormous contribution to the Australian wine industry. He has his critics and indeed his enemies, but as president of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia between 1991–93 and 1997–99 he wielded major influence. Most notably, he played a key role in the industry’s fight against a government determined to increase the already draconian wine tax.
He has also made his mark in the USA, by co-founding the Dundee Wine Company
in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with local grower Cal Knudsen, producing mainly sparkling ‘méthode champenoise’ wines, under the Argyle label.
One of Croser’s great assets is his rare combination of abilities as businessman, manager, politician and winemaker. ‘He could juggle wine industry politics, winemaking and the business side, and give you absolute clarity on each one,’ says Hardy.
Croser had great influence on winemakers in the 1970s and 1980s through his roles as educator at Riverina College and winemaking consultant at Oenotec. But he was criticised for an obsession with preserving fruit flavour through ultra-clean and strictly anaerobic techniques. Some say Australia still has the residue of this, a national style of simple, tutti-frutti wines. Croser is unapologetic: ‘Yes, I did that, and I would do it again. Anaerobic handling gives clean wine, and you can move forward from there. You have to understand that there was a lot of bad winemaking and a great deal of ignorance.’ Once the basic, sound practices are in place and the winemaker is in control, he maintains, riskier things can then be tried, such as wild yeast fermentations, no filtration, no sulphur dioxide, and so on.
The timing of Croser’s Man of the Year award could hardly have been better from the point of view of his new venture. Croser has linked up with Bordeaux luminary Jean-Michel Cazes, of Château Lynch-Bages, and his old Petaluma shareholder, Bollinger, in a new multi-regional, multi-national, ultra-premium wine company, as yet unnamed.
The group has begun planting Pinot Noir for table wine on a new, untested piece of land on the Fleurieu Peninsula, south of McLaren Vale, which Croser says is the second coldest place in South Australia. He retains ownership of the Tiers vineyard, adjacent to his home at Piccadilly, and the best of many Chardonnay vineyards he developed in the Adelaide Hills. As well, the triumvirate is poised to buy land in one of the cooler, elevated parts of the southern Rhône Valley to plant Syrah and Viognier. And it has recently bought unplanted land in Oregon for Riesling. It already owns, and has made its first wine from, the original Koppamurra vineyard in what is now the Wrattonbully region, just north of Coonawarra. It’s a 25-year-old vineyard which Croser says is the best in the area, and from which he expects to make superb Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘Small and exquisite’, is the catch-cry for his new venture.
He describes this as the third phase of his career. The first was his stint as chief winemaker at Hardy’s, starting winemaking consultancy, Oenotec, and creating the wine science course at Riverina College/Charles Sturt University in New South Wales.
The second was Petaluma. ‘I now know what to do,’ he continues, then lists a few dos and don’ts. ‘Never rely on growers if you want quality wine. Only certain things work in certain places.
‘There are some truly noble varieties and some that can produce noble results,’ he continues. In the first class he places Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; in the second Merlot, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Viognier.
While the Australian wine industry has been sitting pretty in the global market for some years, and critics, especially in the US, have fallen in love with the voluptuous, high-alcohol Aussie red style, Croser has never been slow to criticise under-performers and encourage his peers to do better.
‘There’s another gear we have to get into, which requires a different level of investment and a different level of thinking. It (the fact that this hasn’t happened) has something to do with the corporatisation of the industry; the pity is, the corporates are the ones who have the resources.’
Croser is notable for his modesty when rating his own wines. Does he think he’s made a great wine yet? ‘No,’ is the unhesitating reply. ‘I’ve made some very good wines, but not great as defined by the likes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château Latour, La Chapelle and Clos Ste Hune. Any Australian winemaker not saying that is challengeable. But I have collected enough experience to do it, given the right circumstances.’