With a degree in literature it’s fitting that Gary Mills approaches vineyards like they were authors. Each vineyard writes a new tale with each vintage.
At their finest, Australian wines are as much about the mind as the mouth. They are works of beauty that have tales to tell; tales of the place from which they were created and tales of the people who created them. With a degree in literature it’s fitting then that Gary Mills approaches vineyards like they were authors. Each Jamsheed vineyard writes a new tale in an evolving odyssey with each vintage. Gary’s job is to translate the story from the vineyard to the glass, editing the text as little as possible along the way. While the stories these vineyards tell may be elegant, expressive and timeless, the books that Gary enjoys in his spare time are anything but…
Completing a degree in literature takes dedication and years of pouring over classic works. Investigating such texts with a fine-tooth comb, dissecting miniscule details can lead to burnout, so today it’s trashy sci-fi from authors like Neil Stephenson that scratch his literary itch. This, however, leaves Gary’s ample creative and critical faculties room to explore Australia’s unique terroirs and to produce wines that are winning fans across the world.
Field of dreams
Gary Mills was born in Western Australia, one of the most isolated places on earth. It may come as a surprise then, that his first true passion in life was a game that is the national sport of a country on the other side of the world, baseball. The game has been described as America’s national religion and it’s a game that Gary still loves to this day. If his youthful dreams had come true he would have had a successful career playing in the big leagues in North America, paying Major League Baseball for the Yankees, the Red Sox or even his beloved San Francisco Giants. But like many of us, our dreams of playing sport at the highest level remain simply that, dreams. When it was clear that this dream would never come true, Gary enrolled at Curtin University to study a degree in literature.
Upon completing his degree, Gary headed to Japan – a country that shared his passion for baseball. He’d learnt Japanese as part of his degree and had a keen interest in Japanese literature so found work as an English teacher. But while he enjoyed his time in Japan he was already starting to think that the life literary wasn’t for him. Gary returned to Australia and started working in restaurants and bars. This was soon followed by a move to London and a gastropub/wine bar not far from Harrods. It was here, whilst working as a bar manager, that his nascent interest in wine started to blossom. For it was there that he was exposed to some very, very good wines, wines that piqued his interest and sowed the seeds of a new, all-consuming passion.
Gary Mills – from tour guide to vineyard hand
The weather and the cost of living in London soon took their toll on Gary Mills and he headed back to Australia. He could have easily settled for more work in bars and restaurants, but instead he decided to put his Japanese skills to good use. He moved to tropical Cairns, nestled in stunning rainforests close to the Great Barrier Reef and worked as a Japanese speaking tour guide. For a couple of years, the money, the weather and the lifestyle were enough to keep Gary happy, although he was never truly fulfilled. He wanted more from life but he wasn’t sure what the more he wanted was. Something had to change.
It was while Gary was chatting on the ‘phone to his dad who was living in Margaret River, that he had an epiphany. He was tired of what he was doing and wanted to take some time to be a bit of a beach bum. Returning to Western Australia he filled his days with surfing, chilling on the beach and a bit of casual work to pay the bills. Gary asked his dad, ‘Do you know anyone who has got some part time work?’ As our old friend fate would have it, one of his dad’s mates had a vineyard down the road and had some work going. It was time for a new chapter in Gary’s life to begin.
A new dawn, a new day, a new life…
Gary Mills took to vineyard work like a duck to water. He loved learning about and experiencing first-hand the lifecycle of the vine and his education continued when he moved from the vineyard to the winery. In what was becoming a recurring theme, he quickly fell in love with the winemaking process and the circle of love from vine-to-glass was complete. But Gary was yet to completely leave his former life behind, in fact it would be essential to the next stage of his life in wine. Thanks to the fact that he could speak Japanese he was offered a five-week position at the venerable Ridge Vineyards in California – five weeks’ work that turned into a two-and-a-half-year ‘apprenticeship’ for under the legendary winemaker, Paul Draper.
‘Everything I know about winemaking comes from Paul Draper… He set me on that path of… authentic wines with great integrity that are single site, old vine and not messed with.’
…And back to a land down under
On completing his on-the-job training, Gary Mills returned to Australia. He’d came back armed with the knowledge he needed to make wines inspired by those he loved to drink. Wines from the Northern Rhône, the Loire and areas like Morgon in Beaujolais. Was there anything in the way these wines were produced that he could use in making his wines in Australia? A philosophy of minimal intervention and two specific winemaking techniques stood out: whole bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration. When he started his wine label, Jamsheed, in 2003 these were techniques that were shunned by the vast majority of Australian winemakers.
But trends and tastes change and looking back Gary has to be seen as a visionary as these winemaking approaches have become vital to the evolution of Australian wine. Complimented by the rise of minimalist winemaking philosophies, these methods have exposed Australian wine to a more diverse audience. Gary has been central to smashing preconceptions of Australian wine around the world, sharing terroir-driven wines that speak of time and place. As a result, he has helped inspire many in the Australian wine community to do the same and is now widely respected as one of our most influential winemakers.
‘I’m trying to get the grape from the vineyard to the bottle by doing as little as possible. The hardest thing to do is not play with the wine, not try and fix it. I don’t make perfect wines. There’s all types of wrong with it but it’s a unique drinking experience that is representative of that vineyard. And that’s all we can hope to achieve.’
Gary Mills – still hitting it out of the park
It’s been a long and winding road for Gary Mills to find himself where he is today. From teaching English in Japan to working as a bar manager in London, in the vineyard in Margaret River to studying under a winemaking legend in California, each step along the way has helped shape his winemaking philosophy. It’s a philosophy that helps produce wines that are shining a light on exceptional vineyard sites across Victoria. It’s a philosophy that is making people smile with wines that range from a super slurpable Cabernet Franc from the Yarra Valley to a beautifully brooding Syrah from Beechworth. Legendary San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays once said, ‘In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated.’ Gary may never have fulfilled his dreams of being a professional baseball player, but thanks to his focus and dedication to the craft, his wines are knocking it out of the park like Willie Mays used to hit them out of Candlestick.
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