There is no question that the ‘natural wine’ movement in Australia has polarised opinions within the Australian wine community. On one side, there are conventional grape growers and winemakers who have been inspired to take onboard some of the techniques practiced by those who have tied their colours to the natural wine flag. On the other side, grape growers and winemakers have had their existing opinions on natural wine styles reinforced by tasting wines they see as faulty and unpalatable. No matter which side you’re on (and you may happily sit in the middle), you can’t deny that natural wines are gaining a lot of traction.
Natural wines in Australia
The natural wine movement has also generated an enthusiastic debate amongst wine consumers, with some falling in love with the wines as others pour the same wines down the drain. Sommeliers have been accused of favouring natural wine styles over the more conventional, buying and pouring the wines they love rather than giving the people what they want. Amongst all the kerfuffle, commotion, preaching and pontification that has surrounded the natural wine movement, it is possible to find plenty of people on both sides of the fence who aren’t fussed about how others do things. They respect how others grow their grapes and make wine, growing their grapes and making their wines how they want to. Dane Johns is one such vigneron. Dane is producing wines that are turning heads while staying true to his philosophy and his desire to always make wines that he loves to drink. In our latest Wine Australia story, we meet the former barista who is carefully and considerately brewing an exciting new life in wine in the beautiful Gippsland region of Victoria.
‘I’m just trying to make wines as pure and as clean as I can, without adding anything at all. That includes sulfur. I kind of like the constraints of not using sulfur… I guess it’s like farming organically, it instantly ensures you can only do things gently and in small batches. It’s not a philosophy that I think everyone should be using but it works for me, allowing me to adhere to more simple and gentle practices.’
Dane Johns: From barista to winemaker…
Stereotypes: Sometimes they can be useful to increase our understanding of, or empathy for certain groups of people. As might be expected, there are stereotypes associated with the members of the natural wine movement. Vignerons associated with the movement, names like Anton van Klopper, Brendon Keys, Pat Sullivan and Dane Johns, may have copped a few light-hearted hippie/hipster related insults over the years, but it is nothing compared to the grief that bearded, hipster baristas have copped.
From Saturday Night Live to Portlandia, they have become the punchline for many jokes. As a barista turned member of the natural wine movement with a brilliant beard, you could think Dane Johns slots right into the stereotype. But even a short conversation with Dane or a quick taste of his wines is enough to prove that stereotypes are just lazy and misrepresentative. Momento Mori Wines are serious wines made by a seriously passionate vigneron.
For more than twenty years before he became the passionate vigneron he is today, Dane worked as a barista. The last ten years of his life as a barista were spent working with some of Melbourne’s top coffee importers and roasters. Melbourne is renowned around the world as one of the great coffee towns; with quality and attention to detail as high as anywhere. Roasting and making coffee taught Dane how different aromas and flavours work. This work trained Dane’s nose and palate to understand and recognise balance, whether with roasted coffee beans or in a cup of espresso. These skills have been transferred directly to his work with wine, allowing him to have a head-start on others who might be coming into the wine game with an untrained nose or palate.
How an approach to music became and approach to winemaking
While he was learning the skills that would serve him well when it came time to making wine, Dane was also a keen musician and occasional sound engineer. In fact, Dane originally moved from New Zealand to Australia to pursue a music career. While music was his first love, you don’t need us to tell you that playing keyboards, drum machines and electronic synthesizers rarely pays the bills! But making music has had an important influence on him and has helped to shape Dane’s winemaking philosophy.
“I used to be a musician… I started making electronic music and then took the step to do everything with analog gear and not use digital gear at all. I guess I’ve adapted that philosophy to winemaking.”
Music and wine: Keep it simple
By eschewing the dizzying array of technology available when producing music using digital equipment, Dane found a new kind of freedom. Instead of being frustrated by the restrictions that analog equipment presented, he found that he loved having less options and less tools at his disposal to overcome any issues that presented themselves. It’s easy to see how this philosophy translates to the vineyard and the winery. Simply substitute digital music production software like ProTools or Ableton Live with the array of chemical and modern mechanical tools available to grape growers and winemakers. Take these away and you’ve got no option but to fix problems with elbow grease and low-tech techniques that have been available to vignerons for hundreds of years. Some would find this ridiculously frustrating, just imagine Justin Beiber trying to craft his next hit on analog equipment. But Dane, like Jack White from the White Stripes, loves the results he gets from following an analog philosophy.
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Let’s go back a step or two. After getting a passion for wine, Dane decided to gain winemaking experience by working several vintages with the innovative Adam Marks at Bress Winery in central Victoria. He then headed to Europe to work with more of the wineries that he admired, absorbing their knowledge like a sponge. With each passing day Dane’s passion for wine grew and grew and after some time working in wine retail he took the plunge and released the first wines under the Momento Mori label. While he’s working towards planting or owning vineyards, for now Dane has been working with growers in Victoria who share a similar philosophy. The resulting wines have included a Moscato Giallo, Fiano and Vermentino blend called ‘Staring at the Sun’ from the Chalmers family vineyard in Heathcote and a field blend from the Yarra Valley called Etcetera Etcetera, both made in miniscule quantities. Despite the tiny quantities and Dane being relatively new into the wine making business, these wines have showed great promise, winning Dan admirers wherever and whenever the wines can be found.
Dane Johns: What’s next?
After establishing Momento Mori with these initial vintages, Dane is now working towards the next phase of building his future in wine. Gippsland has long been home to some of Australia’s finest wines, with Bass Phillip Pinot Noirs the obvious example of the exceptional potential of this area. High rainfall, a diverse range of soils and a growing band of vignerons sharing a similar philosophy to Dane made Gippsland the perfect place to settle.
While the dream of vineyards and a permaculture farm on their own idyllic property is still a way off, in the meantime Dane and his partner are already exploring all the region has to offer. They’ve even spent time in the past year reviving a derelict Pinot Noir vineyard in the Cardinia Ranges. If there was ever a way of proving your passion and dedication for making it in the wine game, then reviving a vineyard that has not been touched for five years with elbow grease, copper and sulfur could well be it. Just the kind of dedication that marks Dane and his Momento Mori Wines as Australian wines to watch in the years to come.
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