TORB’s Tenth SA Tour Diary (The May 2008 South Australian Tour Diary)

 

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Chapter Seven – Thursday – McLaren Vale

 

Feeling great! I have finally gotten over my cold completely. Any healthier and I would be dangerous. Can’t say the same about Brian; he was feeling the way I did on Sunday morning, ready to die. Needless to say, he was not in a good frame of mind, but having felt like that myself, I finally have sympathy for him; well about as much as he had for me! I asked him not to die until after he had finished playing chauffer and got home. I also didn’t want drive, and I didn’t want the hassle of having to explain a dead body on the plane. But most of all I would be afraid of having to explain what happened to Andrea; she might get mad at me and that would not be good. Not good at all. That’s a fate worse than death! (Brian: I was actually feeling a little better, but was going through tissues at a rapid rate.  The main reason I was grumpy  was that I wasn’t in any condition to keep my long-arranged appointment to have a tooth implant operation due the next day. After calling to cancel, I knew it would be another couple of months before I could another appointment.)

 

Breakfast was at Koffee and Snax. They do it well. The eggs were cooked to perfection and tasted like eggs. The bacon was salty but it was the best breakfast of the trip, even without the medicinal, healing qualities of a poppy seed streusel bun or poppy seed Danish. In fact, I think that’s why Brian got sick and it’s his own fault that he is taking so long to recover. As soon as I hit the poppy seed goodies, I started feeling better and continued to improve. He doesn’t eat properly on these trips. A diet that is high in pies and low in poppy seed goodies is the wrong shaped food pyramid. (Brian: I could make a comment about Ric’s waistline, but that would be rude, so I won’t.)

 

We had two appointments scheduled today. The second one was a flying visit to Oliverhill Winery that had only been arranged the day previously. As this was a quick stop, I will include it before the Second Bookend.

 

From the time I first met Stuart Miller, I respect his honest approach to winemaking, and his preparedness to be open when talking about the wines he produced. That honesty is reflected in his wines too. There is no trickery or flamboyance. It's plain old-fashioned, good, honest winemaking. These wines are well regarded in both Australia and the US, where they have a solid core of regular buyers.

 

Every good winery should have one! ..........................................

 

Oliverhill 2006 Clarendon Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet shows bright, floral notes with violets, plums, blackberry, milk chocolate and spice. Silky, powdery tannins combine with pure, deeply-seated fruit to form a muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency, and a well developed complexity. The palate is earthy with cherry, chocolate, red berry, cassis, and liquorice flavours that finish well. The persistent is excellent and the fresh acid leaves it bright and clean. An eminently drinkable wine, by this winery’s standards, it's heading in an elegant direction and it is rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value; it should be in its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2018.

 

Oliverhill 2006 Jimmy Section Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet shows lots of spicy characters, mocha and mushroom oak, as well as noticeable plum. Drying, dusty tannins combine with deeply-seated, pure fruit and crisp, lively acid to form a muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency and an agreeable complexity. A big wine, it's a bit more subtle than previous efforts but I'm not sure if the fruit will outlast the tannins. It's approachable now, but may improve. Cherry, dark chocolate, mocha, plum and eucalyptus flavours finish with good persistence. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, it should be in its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2018.

 

Oliverhill 2006 Durif sells for $30 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet shows blackberry/current, eucalyptus, and loads of spearmint; it is certainly attractive. Copious quantities of dusty tannins combine with strong, deep, persistent fruit to form a full-bodied, very-firm, rock-solid wine with an agreeable complexity. The fruit gets the thumbs up and delivers black cherry, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and mocha flavours that finish very long, linear, and crisp. The tannins completely coat the mouth. A good wine that only needs time, it's rated as Recommended with *** for value, but the rating should improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2016 and 2026.

 

I must admit that although there was absolutely nothing wrong with Oliverhill wines, in the past I would have struggled to drink more than a glass of many of the wines they produced. Mind you, whenever I have tasted their wines it was usually about two and a half nanoseconds after they had been bottled, and many years before they would be in their peak drinking window. That said, it looks like Stuart is starting to strive to get a little more elegance and subtlety in the wines, and they are more user-friendly now. They are still big, solid wines but they are no longer bombastic.

 

The Second Book End

 

The Second Book End 

 

This Tour Diary has been framed by two bookends. The first is at the start of Chapter One and covers an exclusive interview with Drew Noon of Noon Wines. This, the second one will close this Chapter and Tour Diary.

 

These Book Ends are stories about two unique individuals and their wines. The subject of this Book End has been interviewed many times, but the resulting articles only scratched the surface of this person’s story. When I set up this interview, he knew that I was going to ask the hard questions, the sort of questions that had not been asked. The personal stuff. I wanted to find out what makes this guy tick.

 

Why is he so interesting? Well for one thing, he and his wife are Australia’s most controversial winemakers. Everyone has an opinion about their wines, and not too many people sit on the fence when it comes to them, even though many of his critics have not even tasted the wines. That’s the reaction the wines generate. Yet there is far more to the man than the public persona, as I found out over an extended interview.

 

If you haven’t already guessed, this Book End is about Sparky Marquis and the Mollydooker Wines. Mention Mollydooker on any wine forum, especially those in the US and it creates a series of passionate responses that no other winery in the world can generate. In the US, the wine flies off the shelves faster than a space shuttle launch. It’s popular. But it’s also despised. This wine generates ferocious passion, on both sides of the divide. We will find out why later.

 

There are two sides to Sparky. The public normally only sees one of them. The effervescent, larrikin who has made being a southpaw into an art form, and has been able to turn it into the foundation stone of a multimillion dollar business. The joker who always shakes hands with his left hand, and gives you a business card with his wife's name on it, because he says she is the boss, and makes all the decisions. His public persona is a happy, carefree, layback ocker; or to use his own words, “just a couple of kids making wine” (he and his wife Sarah). But during the early stages of our winery tour, I started to gain glimpses of a deeper side. His comments were presented in such a light hearted fashion it is very easy to miss the depth and real sensitivity behind the public persona. That public persona is not phony. Although he is known as a bit of a larrikin, a man who does things his own way, and is a bit out there in terms of his ideas, he has been known as Sparky since he was six years old. Sparky was christened Njal which is Icelandic in origin. His primary school mates didn't give him the nickname Sparky because he was an electrician. The kid was a livewire. Even then! He was destined to go places.

 

I don't know whether he has become the public persona or the public persona has become him, but which ever way it is, it's not fake. However, underneath that happy go lucky exterior, there is a very serious man. Looking back on the interview, for the first two thirds of it the answers rolled off his tongue almost before I had completed the question. These were easy questions; the ones he had been asked a thousand times before. And then we got to one particular point when all that changed. It got very serious, and it got personal. That was when I knew I had captured the real Sparky, the serious man underneath the public persona, the complete package.

 

We arrived a little early for the appointment. I knew this winery well because I had visited it many times under its former ownership. James Halliday rated Mollydooker as a four star winery in his 2008 Companion, but his comments are worth repeating here. "After 10 years they took the final step, launching Mollydooker Wines with Robert Parker their number-one ticket holder. Everything about their wines and their business is bigger than life, with a 65,000 case virtual winery having no credible challenge from within Australia…. As the tasting notes will make clear, the primary market for the wines will be in the US and that market should add five points to each of my own scores."

 

Reading between the lines, it seems that Halliday is not a fan. One of the constant criticisms, made by many people who were not fans, was that this operation did not have its own winery, or even its own vineyards. All that changed late last year when they spent well over $10 million buying the Classic McLaren Winery, and its one hundred and sixteen acres of vineyards. Since my last visit, it's easy to see some superficial, but quite costly changes that have been made since the winery has changed hands. The trees in the driveway have been trimmed, the garden has been mulched, and these touches add a more complete feel and a little polish to the property. A large staff car park has also been added.

 

When I made the appointment, I saw that Sparky had appointed his mother General Manager of the company. It screamed of nepotism, and whilst we were waiting for Sparky, his mother Janet came out to greet us. Nothing she said at that point changed my opinion. She comes across as the typical sort of mum that everyone would like to have. What the hell was she doing being the General Manager? Was she here as an ornament, or like an Uncle Tom from Rumpole fame? We chatted superficially whilst we waited for Sparky to arrive.

 

I had never met Sparky, but I had tried and enjoyed Sarah and Sparky’s Fox Creek wines. I had only tried a couple of their other wines, and nothing recent, so I had no opinion about Mollydooker wine. That just about made me unique.

 

When Sparky arrived, the first impression is not one of a quiet, shy, retiring fellow who is short of a word - or six thousand. He looked a bit like a cartoon character with a band-aid over his nose which accentuated the clown image. He told us that a skin cancer had recently been removed from his schnoz and he had been left with a 14 mm hole (prior to the skin graft.) Sparky said it was his new secret weapon as he could now smell more accurately with three nostrils.

We took a wander around the winery. The first impression is that the guy is passionate about wine, Australian wine, and his little spot in the wine universe.

 

He started off by saying, “There are three houses on the property. I intended to bulldoze all of them and put up something else instead. Preferably something serious, like a go-kart track. Mum was living near us in Adelaide at the time. For about two months Mum was telling me “how cool” the main house on the vineyard was, and I finally got the message and asked her if she liked it. She said yes and what’s more, we need someone living on the property. So for the last six weeks I have been telling everyone I have put Mum and Dad in a home. People are saying, ‘Gee that’s sad.’ ” That’s typical of Sparky’s humour.

 

Sparky is one half of the team. His wife Sarah is also a winemaker. Their first well known venture together was at Fox Creek. Fox Creek is owned by Sarah’s parents. Fox Creek and the Marquis’s shot to prominence when Parker discovered them in the late 1990’s.

 

They started making wines with $1,000 in the bank. They had no assets. No winery, no winemaking equipment and no wine. They used the excess capacity in their friends’ wineries. In those days, most of what they did they did in the dead of night, when no one needed the equipment they were using.

 

They were making their wines at the back of Scarpantoni, then they moved to Maxwells, and then to Warren Randall’s place. Every time they grew bigger than the people who they were friends with, they had to move to their next biggest friend. Finally they ended up leasing their own winemaking area at Boar’s Rock.

 

Funnily enough, there wasn't a conscious plan to buy the Classic McLaren winery. The owners were more interested in renting it out, rather than selling it. While Sarah and Sparky were touring the winery in 2006, they are asked about the vineyards and were told that they were under contract. The proposed rental deal fell flat because the owners were not ready. Things change and in 2007 the owners were prepared to talk turkey about renting the property again. However, when Janet crunched the numbers, she worked out that it would cost them as much to buy the winery as it would for them to remain at Boar’s Rock. After many months of negotiation with Janet, the owners agreed to sell.

 

They have come along way from those early days when they had $1000 in the bank. According to Sparky, the intrinsic value of what the previous owners of the winery did was phenomenal, but the way they operated is very different to Mollydooker. Classic McLaren used to process small batches at the crusher; often as little as three or four tonne. Mollydooker works in semitrailer loads; that’s 25 tonnes per shot. You can’t do that with a small fruit receival bin. Sparky said, “The receival bin is the most inefficient piece of equipment in any winery. In a conventional receival bin, as soon as you put the grapes in, the juice starts running down the hole. You have to have your crusher on, you have to have your pumps on, and everything ready to go straight away. Why the industry continues to use these things I don’t know. I have been in many wineries where they are more grapes on the floor, than in the crusher because it hasn't been working fast enough.

 

We put this Taylor’s bin in. We found it lying in a paddock in Orange. It was excess to requirements. It would cost $105,000 brand-new, but we picked it up $15,000. And it was only one season old.”

 

The way Sparky told me this story, it reminded me of the joy and glee my dear old granny, who was an old aged pensioner, got in telling the whole family, whether they wanted to hear it or not, the fantastic bargain she had chased down at the supermarket that week.

 

Sparky continued, “The grapes arrive in semitrailer loads. That's twenty-five tonnes of grapes at one time. The Taylors bin is completely sealed and that means, once the grapes are dropped off we can go away and do whatever we have to do; important things like having a cup of coffee. We are in no rush to do anything with the grapes. That's a key part of our philosophy. I keep telling the team, don't rush. We don't have to get it all done today, it's more important to do it properly.

 

Before next season, we will have a second one of these 25 tonne Taylor bins which will give us even more time to decide what we want to do.”

 

We then moved inside the winery and had a look at the fermenters. I was quickly starting to get a very different impression of the scale of the Mollydooker operation in comparison to the Classic McLaren operation.

 

Sparky continued, "When we bought the place, they stated that these were ten tonne open fermenters. I did a quick calculation and worked out we had two hundred tonnes of fermentation space, and would probably crush about a thousand tonnes. That means we could do it in five or six weeks. No problems. Only, after we bought the winery, we found out they were five tonne open fermenters.

 

So the way the previous owners worked was, they would come in with their four tonne tipper, have the crusher going and drop the grapes into the crusher and then transfer the wine to one of the five tonne fermenters; add the yeast and away you go. That would have worked well for them. Only we are thinking in twenty-five tonne lots. It would only take us four semitrailer loads to fill the whole place up.

 

My God! How the hell are we going to handle this?

 

Back when I was at Fox Creek, Zar Brooks made me a challenge. He told me that a huge amount of winemakers can make a small amount of exceptionally good product. He said, “What you should do is make commercial quantities of exceptionally good product.” Since Zar gave me the challenge, that has been the whole focus of everything we have done. Let's face it, anyone can make one barrel of exceptionally good material. You just select your best one and go for it.

 

We put some new fermenters in, and in a hurry. We now use twenty-five tonne trucks, twenty-five tonne Taylors bins and twenty-five tonne fermenters. We have added six times the fermenting capacity.

 

When we moved in, we were really excited about all the different tank sizes. It looked like it was going to be fantastic. There was one fifty thousand litre tank in the place, and the rest were all smaller.

Only challenge, our Boxer blend is two hundred and fifty thousand litres. So the question was how are we going to blend this wine. We settled the purchase on the winery three days before Christmas, and vintage was just around the corner. We needed some big blending tanks as the wine from the previous vintage had to be blended and bottled in March.”

 

I wouldn’t have liked to have been in Sparky shoes when he bought his dream winery. It was a top-class winery, with all sorts of good equipment, and had a stack of room; the only problem was that it was geared to a much smaller production. A number of large equipment additions had to take place pronto. You can't hold back vintage, it's like a pregnant lady. What’s going to come is going to come in its own time, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You are either ready, or you aren't. If you're not, not to put too fine a point on it, you are in deep shit. In a very compressed time frame, Sparky had to install a new crushing facility, new fermenters, and some bloody big blending tanks. If you think that is a bit of work, it turns out that Murphy was indeed an optimist. And boy, did it go wrong!

 

The back, or the western side of the winery was a blank canvas and it was decided some large tanks could be erected out there. They didn’t want a Wirra Wirra style tank fall over, so the construction and the slab were going to be done properly. When I said they were under time pressure, I wasn't kidding. The workers were excavating on a Saturday night, when all hell broke loose.

 

Sparky received a phone call telling him they had struck water. Sparky couldn't see why that was a problem, they need water. The engineers explained that was not the sort of water that Sparky wanted. It was gushing out from underneath the winery. Sparky's initial reaction was they must have cut a water pipe. The builders were convinced they hadn't.

 

Sparky arrived at the winery the next morning to see that the pit they had excavated was completely full of water. That was not what he wanted to see. A few four letter words were no doubt quietly muttered; probably at about 120 dB. Five hundred tonnes of wine in tanks sitting in that position was starting to look like a mega problem. The deadline was looming, and the water was rising.

 

A hole was excavated under the winery. A big one. All the drains were blocked and Sparky was spraying water across the floor. The engineers were under the building looking for the leak. Suddenly there was a shout, “Stop. We are soaked. What the hell did you do? Don't do that again.” 

 

Sparky, never a man to do things by halves said, "All I did was hit the wall with water from a fire hose. They came inside and had a look at what I had done. The floor had not been sealed between the inside and the outside wall. For the last four years, when they washed out barrels, the water has gone down the side of the wall and under the floor of the winery. It was literally floating!

 

They dug a drain under the winery that was over five foot deep to allow the water to run off. The prediction is it will take a year for the water to squeeze out from under the winery.”

 

Sparky was warned not to fill all his tanks at one end of the winery or the whole building may tip/slip under the weight. The tanks have to be filled in specific places so even pressure is maintained and the water can be squeezed out. (Just to put this in perspective, when the new slab finally went in, twenty-six supporting piles, each two meter square, and sunk to who knows what depth were required to support the structure. The retaining wall alone required one hundred and forty cubic metres of concrete.)

 

Needless to say, those five hundred tonnes of wines in their tanks were not going to be in the planned location for the March deadline. Bugger! An alternative solution had to be found, and quickly.  It was already February!

 

It was then the first serious philosophical statement came from Sparky. “Sometimes I think that challenges are benefits that you have not become aware of; and we were certainly challenged with not having those 100K tanks out there available for blending. They had been built and were awaiting pickup. We needed them desperately.

 

One day we were sitting in the winery and Gary, who used to be the Maintenance Manager at Hardys before he joined us in December, asked me how tall are the 100K tanks. I responded 9.6 meters. Gary then asked me how tall is the roof. I didn’t have a clue, but it’s tall. So we sat there with laser beams and took some measurements, and it looked like they may just fit.”

 

Sparky and I climbed up the temporary staircase to the top of the tanks and surveyed the winery. Sparky continued the story. “We got the crane engineers in and they took a look at the door and said, I don’t think so. I told them we have to get them in. They said they may be able to get the crane in, but if they made a mistake, we would have huge holes in the roof. I told them, well don’t make even a small mistake.

 

To make it fit, we had to make the plinths six inches shorter than recommended so that people working up here won’t touch the roof and the space above the tank is OH&S compliant. That’s how tight the fit is.”

 

Getting the tanks in had been a huge challenge. The sort of challenge that most of us can do without. From all accounts, Sparky took it all in his stride but the main thing was that they were installed in time to do the blending. No sooner than the tanks had been installed and filled with wine, a record breaking heatwave hit much of South Australia, including McLaren Vale. For days, and then it stretched to a week, and then to two weeks, the temperature did not drop below 35C (95F). If the installation of the tanks had gone according to plan, they would have had 300,000 litres of wine outside, and to make matters worse, the tanks would have caught the mid and afternoon sun. The wine would have been cooked. Completely stuffed! Four hundred thousand bottles of wine, even at $8 a bottle would have been a revenue loss of 3.2 million dollars. Sparky freely admits that the loss would have put them out of business. No if’s, no buts; they would have been broke.

 

What started out as a massive problem that was made significantly more critical due to the time constraints, wound up stopping the business going belly up. Makes one pause to think; doesn’t it? But as we were to find out, that was not the first time that Sarah and Sparky had someone looking after them.

 

After we handed back our luminous safety vests, we moved into Mum’s house/office to continue the conversation. I don't know why they keep giving the damn things to me. They are always build for anorexic short ass people, and with my chrome dome I don't even need one! 

 

Sparky’s interest in wine started off at an early age. Whilst he was growing up his parents owned the historic Ozone Hotel at Queenscliffe in Victoria. There were 450 wines on the wine list, ranging from flights of Grange to a representative selection of top international wines. The family, of course, had to sample the wines with meals!

 

Sparky first career was photography and he loved it. He had his own business and was doing well for himself. However, his parents established a vineyard and shared winery at Pipers Brook in Tasmania, and bribed him to go and learn winemaking by promising that he would inherit it. The wine bug had well and truly bitten, and he couldn't ignore his true calling. He decided to shut shop and go from having an income of $80,000 a year in 1985 (which was a lot of money at that time) to becoming a college student again. He had given up a lot to go back to college and study winemaking, so he was damn serious about the course. In 1986 he entered Roseworthy and completely focused on absorbing as much information as he could, and learning as much as possible. He graduated Dux of the College, winning every award and prize on offer, in 1989.

 

Readers are going to find this really amusing, Sparky told us, "My goal at that time was to make the best Pinot Noir coming from Australia. Part of the reason behind that was the fascination of the low yield, dry grown, old vineyard story and how to make it work. I did a huge amount of research.” Later in the story, we will examine the results of that research.

 

Sparky was getting the wine prepared for us to taste and proceeded to do the Mollydooker Shake™. This action, which defies the notion that wine is delicate has Sparky pouring a small amount out of the bottle and then turning the bottle of wine upside down and shaking the $hit out of it. When olde-worlde wine lovers see or hear about this, it causes them to have apoplexies. But like many things that Sarah and Sparky do that seem “out there”, there is sound logic and reasoning behind the idea. The Mollydooker Shake is a great example. Many people are concerned about sulphur in wine, and Sparky is cognisant of this factor, so he tries to minimise the use of sulphur and loads up the wine with nitrogen instead. The Mollydooker Shake is designed to disperse and break up the nitrogen bubbles. According to Sparky, "If you think about it, if you open a bottle and pour it into a decanter it's just like the Mollydooker shake.” Critics may argue the shake is significantly more robust than a gentle decant, but two additional points need to be considered. Firstly, their wines can take it. Secondly, I have frequently seen respected Australian wine makers put their hand over a glass of young wine and shake the hell out of the wine in order to get some air into it quickly.

 

View from the top of the tanks ............................................

 

They don’t filter the wines during the bottling process because according to Sparky, filtration changes the wine. In many cases, the winemaker looks at it just prior to filtration and bottling and likes what they see, but after filtration they have a slightly different wine. Instead they “polish filter” the wine using a platinum gauze.

 

I asked Sparky if he was concerned about reduction. He admitted they were and that some of the early Henry’s Drive wines they made went reductive after about twelve months in bottle. Since then, they have done a huge amount of research to see how best to eliminate it in the production process. He said, “I always laugh when people talk about micro-oxidation because we use macro-oxidation.

 

We use a three month oak cycle. After that time, if there are any slight reductive characters in the wine, or if the structural elements of the palate are separated, we transfer half the quantity of the barrels into tank with no protection against the air. Before the wine is protected with C02, it has already taken up 15ppm oxygen. That takes away the reductive element. If the wine is both reductive and has separate structural elements, we will drop all the barrels contents into tank oxidatively.”

 

When it’s getting close to bottling, they have a tank to tank process that will add 5ppm oxygen to the wine if necessary. Where ever possible, any necessary big changes are done as early as possible.

 

“Fruit weight” is an expression you will hear used frequently at Mollydooker. It refers to the silky sensation on the palate or if you will, the velvet glove effect that Sparky hopes you will find before you notice the structural elements. (I would describe it as “consistency” e.g. silky tannins.) According to Sparky wine is made up of two main things.  One is fruit, and those characters can only come from the vineyard. The other is structure, which is acid, alcohol and tannins. Once the grapes have been picked, the winemakers’ job is to keep the structure in balance. Sparky’s objective is to have the structure in balance as the foundation so that he can overlay the fruit on top of it. From his perspective, the less you can see of the structure and the more you see of the fruit, the better the wine.

 

Sparky was recently in the US and said to a group of people tasting his wine, “We like to measure the fruit weight; we measure it as the velvet glove, or the silky sensation that starts at the tip of your tongue, and how far back that sensation goes before you see the prickly sensation of the structure. We only measure it in percentages and not in inches because some of you people have got longer tongues than others!”

 

They estimate the Lefty Wines are between 65% and 70% “fruit weight.” This "fruit weight” idea is not something that Sparky pulled out of thin air or dreamed up after consuming too many bottles of his own hooch. The roots of this idea go back to the time he was Roseworthy. When he was at college, he was told that the only way you could make ultra-premium wine was to have dry grown, low yield, old vines as your starting point. Sparky looked at this premise and thought that it made sense; however, once he started making wines he didn't have access to old vines. So what does one do about that problem? I have always been a fan of lateral thinking, and Sparky, if he is nothing else, is a lateral thinker.

 

He said, "We started with the end result of how we wanted the wines to look, and then designed the path which would get us back to where we needed to begin. Many people start off on a path and end up somewhere, but not necessarily where they want to go. To work out how to solve this problem, I asked myself why you needed low yielding, dry grown, old vines. The next step was to study low yielding, dry grown, old vineyards as part of understanding the whole picture.

 

Here is the thing that that confused me most about it. When the winemakers talk about it, they talk about it as though they were three things. Old vine. Low yield. Dry grown. However, I found it is actually one element. If you have a dry grown vineyard it is always going to go into survival mode. If it goes into survival mode it will always be low yielding. Old vines come about because grape vines have a memory. Our crop for next year is already set in the vineyard now (May.)

 

I worked out that growing a grapevine was like growing a weed. Depending on the availability of water in the soil, there are three phases of growth. If you have a lot of water going on to the grapevine, it grows canopy rather than anything else.

 

If you think of weeds, when the water dries out and there is nothing left, the weed shrivels up and finally dies. That's the survival mode.

 

In between those two extremes of growing a canopy and dying, the vine flowers and reproduces. We found all vineyards (including dry grown old vineyards) start off with winter and spring rain which enables them to grow the canopy. As we go into late spring and early summer, the water starts drying up out of the soil. The canopy goes through a reduction in growth and it starts to flower. (See red arrow on Chart below.) At this time, and through this phase, the entire focus on the vine is on reproduction. As the soil dries out, the tips start to burn off; the laterals stop growing, the tendrils go soft and fall off (blue arrow.)  Once the soil moisture gets closer to the survival line, all the leaves protecting the fruit go yellow and fall off. For us, around about Christmas Day, we reach the point of most stress (black star).
 

 

Chart One

 

Once the vine gets to the survival point, if it doesn't receive water, it goes ‘Bugger the fruit. I am just going to try and survive’. It starts cutting off fruit and reducing its crop level, until it has enough water that the big man throws down (rain) to survive. This is where old vine, low yield, dry grown vines come from. If it survives with 3 tonnes to the acre this year, it will only set 3 tonnes for next year, but if not it will keep reducing its cropping level, sometime down to ½ T/ acre, until it can survive. It takes about ten years for the vine to get its exact balance. What we have  found is that right as the vine gets to the survival point, if we put some water on at that time, we could totally changed the viticultural process for the whole year.

 

However, some grapevines although they may look like it, are not actually on the point of survival. Let me give you an example that you may be able to relate to. If you have an indoor plant and it lacks water it starts to droop. As soon as you water it, it springs back. That is because it is not at the survival point. It's the same with grapevines. If you put a little bit of water on them and they spring straight back, they were not at the survival point

 

It's taken us 20 years to design our programme to this point. Now, we put a two-hour test watering on. Those vines that spring back straight away are put back into the torture chamber and we dry them out again, until they get right to the survival point. Once we know they are at the absolute survival point, we give them eight hours of drip irrigation.

 

Once I understood how this worked; it totally changed the efficiency and the dynamics of the vineyard. We manage 250 acres of vineyards external to our own 116 acres, and all of them have got drip irrigation. We go out into each vineyard twice a week. My dad runs the programme. He is an engineer, so he has got sampling rows in all the blocks. We check leaf temperatures, internode growth, golf balling (dimpling of the grapes if short of water) - about 10 different things. It may sound  like a load of touchy feely stuff, but it is scientifically based, and tells us about soil moisture about 24 hours earlier than a probe can do it.

 

             Sparky imitating a dried out weed! What sort of weed has he been smoking!

We had to write a computer program to manage the analysis of the data we collected. What happens over the eight hour watering is incredible. All the leaves rotate and start catching the sun. The fruit immediately fills out. It's an absolutely incredible transformation. (Green line on Chart One.) It now has a huge amount of energy. As soon as the water level in the soil gets above reproduction, the grapevine thinks ‘I am not going to grow grapes anymore; I am going to grow the canopy’. But, because we have sealed the canopy already and it can't grow any more this season, it takes all of that excess energy and pumps it into the trunk and into the cordon. It then runs it into the new shoots and then starts to ripen the new shoots.  This sends ripe tannin signal to the grapes, which starts to ripen the seeds.

 

Once the vines have stored all that new energy, we turn the water off again.  When the water level in the soil goes back into that reproductive zone, all that stored energy then gets dumped into the grapes. As soon as it dumped, and it's really easy to watch and see it, we turn the water back on again. And then we turn it off. And then we turn it back on again, all the way through to harvest. (Light blue line on chart which should be lots of ups and downs.)

 

Once harvest is completed, we go into a post harvest management program. We don’t heave a sigh of relief and relax until it’s time to prune. Instead, we go into our maximum care and rehydration phase. By doing so, we can get the root zone to grow 30 cm deeper in the three weeks post harvest. After that time, the root growth slows down. From there on, the remaining carbohydrate energy goes into storage for the next year's growth. That is why we spend as much time in the vineyards directly after harvest as we do when they are in their peak grape growth phase.”

 

Sparky then told us their aim is to over deliver on quality and they don’t make their wines to an accounting budget.

 

Right, I thought to myself. That’s either total BS, marketing propaganda or they don’t know how to run a business. My initial suspicion was that it was propaganda. Then Sparky’s mum Janet threw her oar in. Last year they rejected four thousand cases worth of finished ‘The Boxer’ wine because it was not good enough. That little “joke” cost them over a half a million off the bottom line. A half a million dollars commitment is not hype.

 

Janet continued and started telling us about some of the “hard times” Sparky and Sarah and the rest of the crew had endured. Whilst they were involved in their court case against Dan Philips and the Grateful Palate over the Marquis Philips partnership that went bad, the financial screws had been applied. They went to their growers, who were already feeling the pinch and told them that they could only pay $200 a tonne initially because that was all the money they could afford. They fully expected all of them to say sorry, no can do, but every grower who could afford it, stuck with them.

 

When we were talking about the “Enchanted Path” that Sarah and Sparky have had on their journeying through their wine wonderland, Janet quietly told us about one of their experiences. The date was March 2006. They were knee deep in a court case, and even more worrying, up to their necks in debt.  Sarah and Sparky had all of a whole $17 left in the bank. They also had a bloody great big heap of bills to pay, as well as the payroll being due before the end of the month!

 

They were owed them $3 big ones – million that is! The court case was in progress, they expected to win and when they got the money, they would sort the finances and look after their growers. Trading when you are insolvent in Australia has serious ramifications and could result in a stretch behind bars; and I didn't mean the local hotels'. Then they discovered that if they were unable to pay their way and if they went belly up, their court case would disappear in a puff of smoke.

 

They were devastated. They had absolutely no idea that someone could essentially send them broke, and not have to face the music. They also had exactly no idea of what they were going to do. They were in a state of numbed shock. Word of their plight spread like a bushfire. In no time at all, an advisor of theirs said he had a business contact who may possibly be interested in helping them, and the advisor set up the meeting quickly.

 

They met with a gentleman, somebody who they hardly knew from a bar of soap, having only met him in passing, once, but he had heard about Sarah and Sparky’s story and their business. He asked Sparky to fill in a few blanks. Janet then said, "A few minutes later Sparky walked into my office and there were tears streaming down his face. He said to me, you will not believe what happened. The guy has just written a cheque for $300,000 on the spot. No guarantee; no anything. He said he was going on holidays for a couple of weeks and we could sort out the paperwork when he got back. It was a miracle.”

 

When I heard Janet telling us about their good Samaritan, I started to realise that there was a lot more to her being General Manager than just being Sparky's mum. There was a depth of real intelligence behind the maternal facade. This was confirmed later in further exchanges when we were talking about some of the things she had been involved in with the business. I guess that probably also means that Sparky's father knows how to grow grapes after all, and it is not just the job for the “old man.”

 

Sparky then continued, "Mum and Dad mortgaged their Langhorne Creek property and lent us the proceeds, and Sarah's parents lent us money too. ,.

 

Then one of our business advisors came to us and said they had a bit of money and they were quite happy to lend it to us. I said, I really appreciate your comments and wanting to help us, but we really need some serious money and I don't think you are going to be able to help us. He said, "No; no. I have $200,000 in the bank.”

 

I said, yes that will certainly help, but I had to explain the facts of life to him. If we were to go broke, he could lose the whole lot. When I told him that, he said, "You are not going to go broke; this is a blip. It's just a bump in the journey." He is a very smart cookie and had saved and invested all his life. He was in our finance team and knew that we only had $17 in the bank. So that was a very big boost to our confidence.

 

A couple of weeks later he came back and told me he had another hundred thousand and I could have that as well.  

 

We paid all the bills and the payroll in March. We struggled through April and May but we were still on the breadline. Mollydooker did not exist; we had only come up with a name for it on the first of March. Most of our assets were tied up in the 2005 inventory, and the $3 million that was in dispute. When we had the Mollydooker label designed, we had to pay for it in instalments.” This was only two years ago.

 

By May, they had started the process of forming their own US import company, Mollydooker International, they had the distribution plan just about nailed down, and Sparky was ready to go to the US. His plan was to sell 49% of the business to the distributors in order to raise funds. If the distributors weren't interested, he was prepared to sell forty nine percent to anyone with cash. They were still desperate and on the brink of receivership. On the ninth of May, Sparky was walking out of their designer's office and he received an unexpected phone call from the ANZ bank. The guy on the other end of the phone asked him if he was going to America the next day, and if so, why he was going. Sparky explained that the bank had seen their business plan and were aware he had to get some funding or else sell forty nine percent of the business in order to survive. The guy on the other end of the phone, who turned out to be the State Manager for the ANZ bank in South Australia, told Sparky that he had talked it over with the other guys in the bank and whilst they weren't convinced, he was the one that made the final decision. He then said to Sparky that he was prepared to write him a cheque for $1.5 million that night, and would that change his plans to go to the States the next day.

 

The Golden Rule! Make sure the plug is in or you will have 25 tons of run away juice................

Sparky continued, “Only totally! That gave us the breathing room we needed and on the seventeenth of July, we released the 05 wines in the US. The Lefty Wines sold out in nineteen days. We released the Love Wines on the first of September and no one had reviewed the wines. They sold out in a week.

 

In 2007, we released 15% of the 06 vintage through our USA website which we opened on the sixteenth of February. In the next eight days, we sold $1.5 million in the US from our site.

 

By the end of the year, we were able to repay all the money that had been lent to us.”

 

Up until now, the answers had flowed easily from Sparky. He had probably been asked most of my questions a thousand times before. It’s easy to be a showman and raconteur when you have had the practice but suddenly it all stopped.

 

I asked Sparky a very simple question, one that he had never been asked before. “You are undoubtedly Australia’s most controversial winemakers and inflame passions like no one else, especially in the US. What is your reaction to that?”

 

There was a very long silence. Embarrassingly so. I interjected a comment to break the strained silence, and after that the silence continued. According to the tape, the silence lasted a total of twenty-nine seconds. As the tension built, and built, it seemed like twenty-nine lifetimes. I could see the tortured mental cogs trying to mesh with the gears and the brain rubber burning.

 

Sparky eventually responded, “I am not sure what to say about that one. Most things I have an answer for, but I don’t have an answer for that question.”

 

As he thought about it again and started to respond, he got into the flow, but it was clear he was speaking from the heart. This was not vintage Sparky. This was the deeper side, the man behind the persona speaking.

 

He said, “What we have done has challenged the establishment. (Long Pause) But from my heart, I believe that was never our intention. Our intention was to have fun doing what we are doing. (Another long pause) I don’t know. (Still another long pause) I followed the controversy on the Parker Forum last year and, at the same time, the comments on TORBWine. I thought that Parkers comment was just great when he said it’s just wine. Wine is meant to be about fun and enjoyment. 

 

We do look at those comments and see if we can use them to become better; to see if there is anything we need to focus on; or if there is anything we need to change, but we tend to be purpose driven. We know what it is that we are trying to achieve. Part of it is fear that we will never sell a bottle of wine again and have to drink it all ourselves, although Mum and Dad would help; that’s guaranteed. We have never tried to be anything other than what we are! I have had the opportunity to spend time with some of the people who have made amazingly weird and sometimes cutting comments about Sarah and I, and what we do. I have taken the opportunity to ring some of those people, or send them an email, although I try as much as possible to ring people. I have also tried to meet with them in the US. These people have been amazingly different when Sarah and I have met with them and they realise that we are not trying to kill everything they believe in, and that we are only trying to do what we believe in, and that if they prefer to drink what they enjoy, we are not against that either.

 

I have noticed that a lot of people, both in the wine industry and outside it, look for the fault in wine before they look for the beauty in the wine, and I think that conflicts with life’s normal model. We are sort of glad that not everyone likes our wine because we don’t make enough anyway. We only have about fifty percent of the 07 production because we wrote off 5,000 cases of The Boxer; it was 5,000, not 4,000 Mum although 4,000 does sound better from the accountants perspective (big laugh.) That means there will be a lot of people angry, frustrated or annoyed, especially the retailers, because they can’t get the wine and its money in the bank for them.

 

In terms of controversy I know that we have been in it, but hopefully it wasn’t us; I am OK for our wines to have caused controversy.  We see wine as being about enjoyment and excitement and friends. That’s why when I talk I always talk about our family being involved in the business.” (Back to vintage Sparky.)

 

I then asked Sparky for his reaction to the comments that state his wines are hot, alcoholic, over-ripe, blackberry oak-shakes.

 

Again we have some silence and a reflective Sparky whilst he thinks about his response. He starts off hesitantly but then quickly gains his normal momentum.

 

“The interesting test is when you put our wines in front of people when they are masked, and then you ask them what alcohol percentages they think are likely to be; the most common response is 13-14%.

 

Chart Two

With the work that we have done, we believe that our job as winemakers is to get the structure perfectly in balance and lay the fruit over the top. When you have a look at most other wines, they are actually the other way around. They have more structural components than they have flavour. The two things that winemakers look at when grapes are ripening are the acid curve (brown curve), which falls off over time, and the second is sugar (dark blue curve) which increases. (See Chart on left). Structure is made of acid, alcohol, and tannin so these are the two main structural curves. What most winemakers don't do is have a look at the third curve, flavour, (red curve) which is totally independent of the other two. The sugar and acid curves are totally dependent on weather. They are also totally independent of the cropping level. The hotter it is, the more the area between the dark blue and yellow curves contracts, and the cooler it is, the more it expands out. In terms of Australian conditions, let’s say you decide to pick at 15 Baumé (left-hand light blue line) the sugar and the acid may be close to being in balance, but the flavour development is way behind. Our ongoing research into low yielding, dry grown, old vineyards shows us that if we can move the sugar curve back, we could overlay the sugar curve on top of the flavour curve. We are not concerned about the acid because we can adjust that at the crusher. What we are doing is adjusting the structural balance to fit the flavour curve. This enables us to have the foundation of our wines as structure, but over the top of that, we have flavour. It takes a huge amount of work to achieve. We push the sugar level back, we get a hot day and it jumps. We push it back; get another hot day and it jumps again. And so it goes on. The more we can get the structure behind the flavour; the better the quality of the wine. (It's pushed back by our Vineyard Watering program.)

 

We never set out to make blackberry concentrate that can be poured over ice cream, as some people claim on the blogs. It was about creating as much flavour as possible. Many people have got used to tasting a wine and finding that they taste structure and not fruit weight. That's particularly the case in Europe.

 

I don't ever study alcohol. We study the three structural components of acid, tannin and alcohol as one, as all three work together synergistically. If you have a higher alcohol wine, you need to have lower acid levels and a lower tannin structure. By the time we harvest, the alcohol levels are set. The acid levels are pretty well set by the time we go through the crusher. After the wines have been through malolactic fermentation, we monitor the oak level until the structural balance comes into perfect synergistic balance. Our winery cycle is normally ten to eleven months.

 

Our wines have got 15 to 16% alcohol. Yeast is a real bugbear. Yeast has become more efficient which is a nightmare. In France, they need yeast to be more efficient. In Australia, we need yeast to be less efficient, but it's not. For every Baumé, we are getting between 1.05 and 1.1 percent of alcohol. It used to be a ratio of one to one. Now you can get a wine at 15 Baumé and wind up getting 16.5% alcohol. That means we have to modify our acid and oak regimes.

 

So how did this philosophy come about? Sparky's thesis when he was at college was Canopy Management for Pinot Noir (which became how to leaf pluck Pinot Noir). It turned out that it drove him insane. (Bloody hell! Can you believe he went from Pinot to blockbusters?) He decided he was not going to spend the rest of his life plucking leaves. He needed to find a way of getting the vines to do what he wanted them to do. He ended up forcing the vines, using what he believes are correct watering techniques, to get rid of the leaves themselves.

 

When I asked Sparky what he wanted to be doing in five years time, I didn't expect the response I received. Bear in mind, although this is the sixth brand they have been involved with, it launched out of the blocks faster than the space shuttle. Their first brand as winemakers was Fox Creek. Then up until 2003 they made the Henry’s Drive Wines. They have also been the winemakers behind Parsons Flat, Marquis Philips, Shirvington, and now Mollydooker.

 

Basically the answer was exactly what they are doing now. By limiting themselves to 70,000 cases, they can manage it themselves and still have a life. Having the new winery has given them a sense of control that they never had when they were renting space at Boar's Rock. Sparky did mention that he thought his mother had “fudged the figures” when convincing him that it would be as cost-effective to have their own winery as it was to rent. Janet looked horrified and said, "It was nothing of the sort. I didn't fudge the figures. It was creative accounting.” That was when I really knew! She is a smart cookie.

 

In an odd way, it was quite fortunate that when they were first entered into negotiation to try and rent the property in 2006 that the owners were not prepared to consider leasing the vineyards to them, and were determined that they would never sell either the winery or the vineyards to anybody.  Looking back, had the owners being prepared to sell, Sparky realises that he wouldn't have had the money to buy it at that time. Once again, something that at first sight appeared to be a problem turned out to come back to them, in the right way, at the right time. Talk to Sparky long enough, and you will hear more of these incidents that turned out well in the long-running and understand why he truly feels blessed.

 

Here is another wonderful example. In 2003 Sparky flew in to the US to meet with his partner Dan Philips. They had just finished crushing enough grapes to make 70,000 cases, which stretched their team to breaking point. They figured with work they could realistically get to 100,000 (and maybe 120,000) cases, but in a fit of optimism, Sparky decided to do a budget for 250,000 cases. He had spent eight weeks working out how he could possibly get to that level. Shortly after he had met with Dan, Dan’s accountant said won’t it be great when we get to a million cases.

 

Shock horror!

 

Now anyone who has met Sparky and even many people who haven't, know that the guy is an optimist. It's hard to find anyone more positive. However, when he heard that million case number, he was totally gobsmacked. He said to himself, "A million cases. That's fourteen and a half thousand tonnes. We had just processed twelve hundred tonnes and it has damn near killed my whole team. And we don't even have a winery. How the hell are we going to do it?”

He looked at the bean counter and said, "Are you sure we are not on a different path here? Where did million cases come from?”

 

Philips’s accountant told him that Dan and he had been talking about it for the last six months. That was when Sparky realised that the two of them were on a different journey.

 

As it turned out, it is just as well he didn't commit to the million cases, because if he had, he would have sold his wine making soul. In my opinion, his financial problems in 2006 would have also been absolutely massive. There would have been no recovery from them. Not a chance in the world; not even one in a million.

 

So in five years time, basically Sparky wants to be in the same place doing the same thing. He loves it. He hopes that as each year goes by he can make the wines slightly better. Their children have been a part of the journey and understand when their parents have to work, there is no alternative, however both Sarah and Sparky are cognizant of the fact that life needs to be in balance, and their children now deserve some of their time.

Finally it is time to get to the tasting notes.

 

They mainly use superfine grade American Oak. The wines are acid adjusted at the point of primary fermentation to a pH of 3.5. Any additions after fermentation are done according to taste.

 

The entry level wines, which all cost $25 a bottle in both the US and Australia are called the Lefty Wines. Sarah and Sparky are both southpaws. In fact fifty percent of the company are left handed. The label on The Violinist Verdelho is Sarah playing the violin as a kid; left handed. The second is a pictorial of Sparky racing a scooter in Victoria when was twenty.

 

Mollydooker The Scooter 2007 Merlot will sell for $25 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The wine was matured in 20% French & 80% American oak, 40% of which was a medium toast, new oak. The bouquet shows lifted alcohol with ripe, plummy fruit, dark chocolate characters and black fruit notes. The silky tannins are well matched to the lively acid and the pure, deep, strong fruit. The palate is very intense with rich chocolate, plum, and loads of coffee on a warm and cuddly, persistent finish. It's a full-bodied wine with a supple consistency, a solid structure and an agreeable complexity. Certainly a love it or hate it style, it’s rated as Recommended with **** for value.

Very strange! Their pussy cat needs TV reception! ............

Mollydooker 2007 The Maitre D' Cabernet Sauvignon will sell for $25 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet was broody but varietal and showed vanilla and mint. Smooth, very fine tannins combine with fresh acid and deep, strong fruit to form a muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency. Intense blackberry, iodine, and liquorice flavours will appeal to those that enjoy black wines. It shows a little warmth on the palate, but it's not objectionable. Rated as Recommended with *** for value, it's ready to drink now.

 

The Maître D was so named in remembrance of Sparky’s job as a waiter whilst he was trying to pay his way through college to become a winemaker. The Two Left feet are named after Sarah and Sparky dancing. If it was me with Sarah it would be three left feet.

 

Mollydooker 2007 Two Left Feet will sell for $25 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The wine is a blend of Shiraz 66%, Cabernet 19%, and Merlot 15%. The broody bouquet is attractive with cedar, mocha, and Cabernet notes. This solid wine has been cunningly constructed and sits pleasantly in the mouth. Silky, drying tannins combine with fresh acid and strong, deep fruit to form a muscular-weight, soft wine with a seamless structure that has a harmonious nature. The palate is a combination of abundant, strong flavours from both the fruit and the oak. Coffee, blackberry, dark chocolate, and plum flavours finish crisp. There is some warmth on the palate, and it's also a love it, or hate it, style. Rated as Recommended with **** for value.

 

Mollydooker 2007 The Boxer Shiraz will sell the $25 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The wine was matured in 100% American oak, 65% of which was new and 15% had a heavy toast. The bouquet is interesting with attractive violets, intense blackcurrant, plum, vanilla and coffee. A good balance has been achieved with the combination of pure, deep, strong fruit and crisp, fresh acid that are framed by very smooth tannins. A muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency, solid structure and harmonious construction, the palate shows lots of oak influence. Coffee, black fruits, aniseed, mint and mocha flavours finish with excellent length. The best wine tasted so far, there is some warmth on the palate but it is well-balanced. Drink over the next seven plus years, Rated as Recommended with **** for value.

 

The next three wines are known as the Party Wines.

 

Mollydooker 2007 Giggle Pot Cabernet Sauvignon will sell for $55 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The wine is a combination of McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek fruit. One hundred and sixty cases have been produced and the wine was matured in 20% French oak. The bouquet is attractive and exudes pleasant, floral aromatics, vanilla, mint and eucalyptus. This is a more serious wine with ripe, juicy fruit that is sweet on the uptake with blackcurrant, and then the oak kicks in; it’s followed by mint and milk chocolate and finishes on very long tannins. A solidly-built, tightly-structured, muscular-weight, supple wine that is backed by loads of dusty, drying tannins and fresh acid; the complexity is well developed. A very drinkable, big red with reasonable varietal characteristics, it's a quality wine with loads of fruit and is rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, and the rating will probably improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2011 and 2018.

 

Only hundred and sixty two cases of the Giggle Pot have been made. That goes completely against the grain of only making commercial quantities of wine, but there is a good reason for it. The Blue Eyed Boy features their son Luke on the label, and so their daughter, Holly did not miss out, even though they didn't have as much quality Cabernet available as they wanted; they still made the Giggle Pot with what they had. It would be hard to explain to a young girl why “her” wine had suddenly not been made.

.

Janet must very hospitable. As soon as the cheese came out,

  so did this visitor. And the cat must of been watching TV!  

 

Mollydooker 2007 Blue Eyed Boy Shiraz will sell for $55 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The grapes were sourced from Padthaway, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale. It was matured in 75% new oak and 25% one year old oak. The bouquet shows intense floral aromatics with loads of mint, menthol, plum, violets and coffee. The palate is intense with delightful, deeply-seated, pure fruit that delivers blackberry, blackcurrant, aniseed, mint and loads of mocha flavours that finish with excellent persistence. They are solidly backed by velvety tannins that completely fill the mouth and are supported by crisp, fresh acid. A full-bodied wine with an excellent structure, the consistency is silky and it's tight. A big wine that will last, it's approachable now but will improve. Rated as Excellent with *** for value, drink between now and 2020.

 

It was around this point that John came up with another one of his brilliant observations. He said to Sparky, “Since you have a bandaid covering your temporary third nostril, I don’t know why you bother sniffing any wine; all you are going to smell is Brett.

 

The next two wines are known as the Love Wines. The Enchanted Path has been named after Sarah and Sparky's journey through the wine industry. Whilst their journey has not always been easy, it has certainly being enchanted, and blessed. At this point, we found out that nepotism is alive and well here. Sparky's dad is vineyard manager. The youngest brother is also involved in the operation, and Sparky was trying to get his sister involved too. And of course, his mum is general manager. When I mentioned the nepotism aspect to Sparky he said, “It's funny! People do mention nepotism, but I believe it is a fundamental strength of our business. Also, two of my best friends, Peter and Russell have worked with me for years. Half our cellar team are like our best friends. Yes, we do have staff challenges because we are human beings. But we spend our time solving those and moving on, and we don't get bogged down with them. Families fight, solve it and move on.

 

The Carnival of Love is that celebration of the love of life. It's the place everyone wants to be and where no one wants to leave.”

 

Mollydooker 2007 Enchanted Path Cabernet Sauvignon will sell for $90 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet is serious, broody but exudes delightful aromatics. The structure is just as serious with unobtrusive, ultrafine tannins that perfectly support the pure, strong fruit. A muscular-weight wine with a silky consistency, and almost seamless and tight structure, it also has a well-developed complexity. On the palate the bright fruit is just lovely and delivers blackcurrant, blackberry, mocha, and milk chocolate flavours that finish very long, with excellent persistence, and crisp acid. An eminently credible, quality wine that is approachable now but will improve, it is rated as Excellent with *** for value, and should be in its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2022.

 

Mollydooker 2007 Carnival of Love Shiraz will sell for $90 when it is released in September and is sealed under screwcap. The fruit is all sourced from McLaren Vale and the wine was matured in a hundred percent new oak. A solid, well structured wine that is driven by intensely ripe fruit, possibly too ripe; it produces a black flavour profile that combines with coffee oak and finishes dry and crisp on long, silky tannins. A full-bodied wine with a supple consistency and a solid, tight structure the wine has an agreeable complexity. It's approachable now but will be better once it has had time to soften and integrate further. Rated as Highly Recommended with * for value, it should be in its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2020. Not for me, but many people will love it.

 

Mollydooker 2007 Velvet Glove Shiraz will sell for $185 when it is released in September and is sealed under cork. When I was told this wine had been treated with 200% new oak, I didn't know what to expect. Fearing the worst, I was pleasantly surprised to find the bouquet screams quality. It oozes pristine, plummy fruit over quality oak and creamy tannins. An unashamedly full-bodied wine, it has loads of everything but has managed to maintain fantastic balance, and is seriously well structured. The plum, blackcurrant, aniseed, mocha, vanilla and coffee flavours take off and then seem to finish some time late that afternoon. The ultra-fine, silky, tight tannins are very long and beautifully support the deeply-seated, strong fruit. The acid is fresh and crisp. It's approachable now but will soften and improve. Rated as Excellent with *** for value, the rating will improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2015 and 2022.

 

When Janet saw the mouse picture she sent me an email saying she didn't have mice anymore thanks

to the latest addition to the family, Mollydogger. That wuss wouldn't hurt a fly, let alone a mouse!

 

Mollydooker 2006 Goose Bump Sparkling Shiraz sells for $50 and is sealed under cork. Surprisingly, this wine is lighter in weight than many other sparkling Shiraz in this price bracket. It's a good wine that is well supported by sneaky tannins that slowly creep up on you and enable the wine to linger well. Flavours of blackcurrant and milk chocolate are well judged, as is the level of sweetness. Rated as Highly Recommended with ** for value, it’s a good wine but needs time to show its true potential.

 

The Velvet Glove comes from seven year old vines. Although many people may not like the style there is no doubting the wine’s inherent quality. Sparky told us that when they put the first eight hour of water on in December, the basal leaves had all fallen off and the fruit was totally exposed. At that time the fruit was green, hard and nuggetty. Three days later it was pink, three days after that was red. Three days later and it was purple, and three days after that, it was black. The Velvet Glove was watered for 18 hours a day for two weeks prior to harvest.

No matter what people think of the way Sarah and Sparky make wine, even though it is in many ways unconventional, for the style of wine they are trying to make, their way of making it, makes a lot of sense.

 

Speaking about a lot of sense, Janet’s final comment was a good one.  “The wines we make here are full of joy and yummyness, and who doesn’t like joy and yummyness.” Yes Mum! And that’s what it is all about in the end, drinking wine you enjoy and no one has the right to dictate what you or anyone else should or should not enjoy. Something the self appointed arbiters of wine taste have failed to understand.

 

When I walked out of this winery, it was hard to remember they only settled the purchase six months ago on the 21st December 2007. The journey, not only during this period of time, but from the time they first started making wine at Fox Creek has been incredible. In many places it has not just been rocky; it is being strewn with bloody great big boulders but despite the odds, the Marquis family has grown from strength to strength and have overcome all the obstacles in their path. No wonder they feel truly blessed.

 

 

The Second Book End 

 

 

And on that note, we say goodbye to the May 2008 South Australian Tour Diaries, but before I do I would like to thank those involved in this epic. Firstly, to my good mate, travelling companion and editor, I would be lost without the help of Brian Handreck (aka Red Bigot, aka Mr Grumpy) who devotes so much time and effort to assisting with the Tour Diaries. To The Pie King, John Davis and his long suffering wife Sue, my grateful thanks for opening your house and lives to not only me, but all the readers of this journal. You certainly bring a dose of “real life” to the party. Finally, to my manager, publicist, parents and the viewers who voted for me….. Oops, wrong speech. Time for another drink! Bye for now.

 

Got something to say about this Chapter? Click here to submit your comments

 

 

Sparky Comment: Mum is deluded. How can Mollydogger do the cats' job when she cant even get through the door. I know I am all for nepotism and having the family involved in the business, but this girl had better not be on the payroll.

 

From John Mulholland: Thursday 14 August

This was truly an amazing interview and I'm really happy that you took the time and trouble to do it. I suggested to Sparky a couple of years ago that he should try to meet you and I'm glad that it finally happened.

I was very lucky to have met Sparky at a Grateful palate tasting in DC in 2003. We have become very good friends since. I am very fond of the whole family and was again fortunate to be able to spend some time with them as they brainstormed about life after Marquis-Philips. Janet is surely a character. In addition to being a smart cookie, she also learned to sing opera and has a great voice. I didn't hear you say much about Sarah, but I've learned by watching her at tastings that she has a great palate. Sparky always emphasizes that she is a major part of the operation and is involved in the finished blending process.

I really enjoy Sparky and Sarah's wines, not matter what some of the self-important people and so-called wine experts on the Parker Bulletin say. I'm also a big fan of Aussie wines, especially Shiraz.

Lastly, I do enjoy reading your wine reviews and hearing about your travels through the wine country. And, you always call a spade 'a spade'. Keep up the good work!

 

TORB Responds:

John, it was your last email suggesting I visit them that was the impetus to visit. Somehow the timing had never seen right before, but I guess it was just meant to be that way because by waiting, I wound up getting a far better story.

 

From Arnie Boyaci: Thursday 14 August

What a great article (chapter) Ric. I always wondered what was behind the label of Mollydooker.
 

Also the details of how they obtain the balance in the wines and the result wine is fascinating, I thought I was in a wine making class as I was reading it.
 

From Deborah Gray: Thursday 14 August

I think you did more than show Sparky’s deeper side; you might have shown yours too! Just when we were thinking you were all hard edges and sharp angles, you went all mushy on us. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think this was my favourite Tour Diary. Living in the States, and working in the wine industry for many years now, I’ve only been privy to the extremes of opinion on Mollydooker from afar. Whether you love or hate the wines you have to enjoy the revealing, down home look at the guts of the operation, including Mum and the menagerie, alongside some technical and very interesting wine information. Well done!

 

From Gavin Trott: Thursday 14 August
Loved the Tour diary story about Mollydooker and the wines.

It had balance and an open minded view, without any bias, and you seemed to get Sparky to talk frankly.

Well done!

So much bovine excrement goes on around those wines on various forums (including mine, but especially E Bob) that it drives me mad.

Anyway, good story, and well done.

 

From John Pollard Friday 12 September

Absolutely loved the Mollydooker story. I had heard all sorts of ‘stories’ on the GP / MP split, most being in the negative. Your Tour Diary storey painted the picture that needs to be heard (and read!) and is presented in a most generous and intimately revealing manner. It’s only when we see the real character of the wine maker that the storey can be told as it should be. Whether I drink Mollydooker wines or not your article has provided a personal glimpse of Sparky, Sarah and family that befits the people they are and the passion they have for what they do. More power to them! And to you, you old softy, a great piece of work – Rated as Excellent with ‘*****’ for value.
 

 

 

 

 

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