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Phil Laffer – Decanter interview

Phil Laffer is on a mission to improve the cheap and cheerful image of Jacob’s Creek. ADAM LECHMERE talks to the chief winemaker about his quest for credibility.

Phil Laffer has a morning’s stopover in London – he’s flown from Adelaide for a meeting at head office in Paris, heading back to Australia within 24 hours – and he wants to invite Decanter to lunch.

This is typical of the affable chief winemaker at the Pernod Ricard-owned Jacob’s Creek, . Phil Laffer knows I’m working on this feature and – evangelist to the end – he will miss no opportunity for producing one more argument in his wines’ favour. Accordingly he turns up with a bottle of 1997 Steingarten Riesling and the luscious 1998 Centenary Hill in his flight bag.

Phil Laffer apologises that the 1997 is the same vintage he showed me at the winery when I visited last year and then explains the thinking behind the rebranding of Steingarten, which will be on sale in the UK from mid-2005 as Jacob’s Creek Steingarten.

‘We want to make people see there is more to Jacob’s Creek: it’s not just about converting grapes to wine for money. Bit by bit, Steingarten and Centenary will add to the credibility of Jacob’s Creek.’

Laffer is certainly credible. In addition to the 1,500 show awards Jacob’s Creek has won over the years, including 41 trophies and 240 gold medals, he was named 2002 Qantas Winemaker of the Year, and is an Honorary Life Member of the South Australian Wine and Brandy Association.

He also has the respect of his peers. James Halliday numbers him among the great first generation of Australian winemakers, with Peter Lehmann, Rutherglen’s Bill Chambers and Ian McKenzie of Seppelt, and it’s difficult to find anyone to say a bad word about him. In the Australian wine world, that’s an achievement – there’s nothing an Aussie winemaker likes better than to be rude about his colleagues.

Credibility is an elusive quality, and there is the feeling that no matter how much wine professionals praise its maker, Jacob’s Creek does not have the respect it really deserves. While anyone who knows anything about Australian wine takes the brand’s higher-end wines pretty seriously, there aren’t many who are prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder on the barricades with Jacob’s Creek.

Yet the quality is there. The Reserve Chardonnay narrowly missed a five-star Decanter Award in a panel tasting of Australian Chardonnays, for example (see our next issue). ‘That sort of thing happens all the time,’ says Australian wine journalist Max Allen. It is a well-known fact in the trade, however, that Jacob’s Creek is subject to prejudice. Allen considers some of the JC brands ‘blindingly good’, but agrees you’re never going to find it on a serious wine list, ‘unless someone puts it on there as a joke’.

Image Problems

Jacob’s Creek is, quite simply, hamstrung by its name, and by its success as the epitome of easy-drinking, reliable, good quality Aussie wine. Phil Laffer admits this. ‘Maybe we’ve locked ourselves into a niche,’ he says. ‘But if we have, then it’s a challenge.’

And this is where he can seem quixotic. While he’s liked and admired by peers, there are some who reckon he should be careful about putting the brand on high-end wines like Steingarten. One well-placed insider said, ‘Personally I’d call it something like Johann Gramp’ after the founder of the Creek, and suggested even the Jacob’s Creek Reserve range would benefit from a bit of distance, especially in the sceptical UK. Phil Laffer shakes his head at this. ‘Absolutely no way. It was never a decision.’

The son of a vineyard owner and lecturer at Roseworthy Agricultural College, Laffer always knew he would go into wine. Being born into a family of drinkers, in particular wine drinkers – unusual in the 1940s – means wine is in his blood. He was head winemaker at Lindemans, having worked his way up through the ranks, before joining Orlando – the immediate parent company of Jacob’s Creek – in 1992.

He is steeped in Australian wine culture, which makes him uniquely qualified to steer a brand like Jacob’s Creek into its next phase, which is to ‘make people see there is more to it than the stereotype of good, affordable Aussie wine’.

This is not blind optimism. The Reserve range, he says, is proving sluggish in the UK, but is picking up in other markets. ‘It’s working very well in the United States, and we’re getting good publicity in the UK. It’s not going to happen overnight, but now at long last it’s starting.’

Laffer takes the marketing of Jacob’s Creek as seriously as he takes the wine itself. He is at home with sales statistics from every relevant market, and his arguments carry weight. As he says, ‘I don’t win all the marketing arguments, but as many of them as possible.’

He’s also known as an iconoclast. A corporate man who makes one of the world’s most popular blended wines, with a knowledge of the land few dare argue with, he refuses to go along with the ‘regionality is all’ orthodoxy.

Step By Step

‘At the moment I think blends are far more important than going down this regional track. We don’t have the experience to do that, and I think there’s a danger of assuming a level of knowledge and interest that doesn’t exist. I don’t think people really know the difference between Coonawarra and Barossa.’

Here’s the problem, however. He wants to make Jacob’s Creek a serious proposition, to attract wine drinkers from the £4.99 level right up to the top – that is, Steingarten and the Limited Edition wines at the £30 mark. But Steingarten’s USP is its terroir: a windy, stony ridge (Steingarten means ‘Garden of Stones’) in the Eden Valley.

‘We have to convince you guys that it’s worth paying that much. One of the reasons Steingarten is so good is that it’s from Eden Valley. But where the hell is Eden Valley? That’s something we have to work on.’

So is he playing the long game, waiting for the prevailing attitude to change? ‘Yes. It will change, and I won’t retire till it does.’

With this dogged attitude comes a fierce spirit of enquiry. While he doesn’t think the experience is there to go ‘down the regional track’, he knows there is also still a lot to learn about blending. ‘There are levels of compatibility between grapes that we don’t fully understand. There are different reasons Cabernet will work better with a Shiraz than a Merlot, for example. We have an awful lot to learn about that.’

Of course, as Max Allen points out, Laffer’s understanding of blending is inseparable from his knowledge of terroir.

‘It’s because he understands the land so well that he is able to make consistently good blends,’ says Allen. ‘He knows what Langhorne Creek is going to give him each year. He understands terroir.’

Standing Firm

Laffer is no pushover. He was recently told by a major UK supermarket buyer he’d have to make the new Jacob’s Creek rosé a bit sweeter if he wanted them to stock it. He told this representative of one of the most formidable retail operations on the planet there was no way he was going to ruin his wine just to have it on its shelves. What he actually said can’t be printed.

In that short exchange you may feel the man in full is revealed, but of course we’re dealing also with a senior executive of Pernod Ricard, which is far from an insignificant concern.

‘He’s a corporate man through and through,’ says Paul Henry of London’s Australian Wine Bureau, ‘but he’s also a maverick’. It is this maverick part that makes him so interesting. He seems to fit into the corporate world with as much ease as he manoeuvres his gangly frame into his car. He looks as though he’d be more comfortable on a bike.

With his flight bag full of wines, his gruelling international schedule and slightly hectic mien, he seems like some ancient mariner of the stratosphere, dropping into city after city to tell his story. But of course that analogy doesn’t hold. If I remember rightly, the mariner isn’t a popular guest.

Website: www.jacobscreek.com

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