The Drinks Business: Side Projects

Published Wine Times Hong Kong, 21 December 2015.

Chat with any winemaker and you are likely to find they have a barrel or two tucked away dedicated to that special project – a side project – representing their latest experiment and quite often, something rather special when it makes it to the glass.

The notion of a side project although familiar amongst the wine community, is not always seen on the market but there are a couple of winemakers in Australia and New Zealand who are releasing these wines under their own labels for us to enjoy.

As is often the case, the wines are a labour of love and are made in the scraps of free time snatched from the schedule of their main job. For example Dan Buckle and Aaron Drummond produce a stunning range of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and an exquisite Blanc de Blancs under the Circe Wines label whilst also working for Domaine Chandon and Craggy Range respectively.

Dominic Valentine in the Yarra Valley produces a small quantity of top notch Riesling, Valere Riesling, under his own label Crisp Wines, in addition to his day job making wines alongside Dave Bicknell at the acclaimed Oakridge Wines. And keeping it in the Yarra, Steve Flamsteed, Head Winemaker for Giant Steps, together with Dave Mackintosh, release a Chardonnay and a Syrah under the Salo Wines label that are well worth a look.

Across the Tasman in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, Warren Gibson has produced a range of wines under the Bilancia, La Collina and Leheny-Gibson labels that are not to be missed. One can only imagine how busy harvest time is and what a feat of coordination it must be with Warren’s main job as winemaker for Trinity Hill! Staying in Hawke’s Bay, Grant Edmonds who makes wine for Sileni Estate also releases wines under his own Redmetal Vineyards label.

In speaking with these winemakers the motivation for having a side project is as individual as the people themselves. For Dan Buckle at Circe Wines a side project offers “a different kind of gratitude” with the small size offering agility and the potential for “quick decisions and collaborations on projects that are of interest”.

Circe PG
Image credit: Circe Wines

One such example is the Pinot Gris soon to be released by Circe for a number of different restaurants in and around Melbourne. With production kept to approximately 1,000 cases each year at Circe it also helps make harvest more manageable when balancing it with the demands of harvest at Domaine Chandon.

Redmetal Vineyards
Image credit: Redmetal Vineyards

Grant Edmonds of Redmetal echoed this sentiment. After a number of years working for larger commercial operations, the freedom in decision-making offered by a smaller personal venture was too good to pass up. Fortunately Grant has a full-time employee who runs both the vineyard and winery making key times such as harvest rather more manageable.

Side projects also offer the perfect outlet for younger winemakers coming up under more experienced practitioners by providing a balance between learning and working behind the scenes in their day job and stepping forward with a more direct expression of their creativity under their own label.

A personal affinity for a particular grape is also a common theme for most of the winemakers I spoke with, whereas a gap in the market or a frank commercial incentive is rarely the driving factor.

For winemaker Dominic Valentine the motivation behind Valere is a particular affinity with Riesling together with experience both in Australia and the Rheingau in Germany. For Dom, his own label is a vehicle to produce Riesling in a style that is less common in Australia.

Typically the grapes for Valere Riesling are picked later in the harvest reflecting Dom’s interest and experience with Germanic style Riesling. Under the Valere label the site selected each year will dictate both the levels of residual sugar and the portions that undergo barrel fermentation in a bid to produce a textured Riesling from each vintage.

Image credit: Crisp Wines
Image credit: Crisp Wines

At 250 – 300 cases each year Valere can be tricky to find, however it can be ordered online and found in a few select independent retailers – it is a wine that is definitely worth tracking down.

La Collina
Image credit: La Collina

Warren Gibson of Bilancia tells me the idea for his own label was started early in his career, when the demands of a day job, a family and life in general were not at the forefront of his decision-making! Together with his wife Lorraine Lehany, also a winemaker, they explored the idea of creating something that was truly their own and an expression of their own creativity. As it turned out, the opportunity presented itself when Warren joined Trinity Hill and with the support of John Hancock, GM/ Chief Winemaker at Trinity Hill, Lorraine and Warren began working on their side project and that was 20 years ago.

The general consensus seems to be that these projects will always remain on the small side and are prized for the alternatives they offer to the day job – experimentation and exploration of particular interests and wine styles. That being said, the opportunities available from a day job are equally valued and unique to being part of a bigger project, such as being part of a larger team, mentoring and sharing experience with younger team members or having the opportunity to learn from those more experienced in the industry. It would appear that while sleep might be in short supply, particularly during harvest, the opportunities offered by both labels are hard to pass up.

Fortunately some of these wines are available in Hong Kong and the next time you are visiting Australia or New Zealand be sure to look out for that little somethin’ on the side – you won’t be disappointed!

Happy Drinking!

Related Happy Wine Woman Posts

Bilancia: New Zealand Road Trip: Chardonnay – Hawke’s Bay, Syrah – top drops from New Zealand

Circe Wines: What I’ve been drinking, Circe Wines – Mornington Peninsula

Published by Happy Wine Woman

Wine consultant currently based in Melbourne, Australia.

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