After their recent success at the 2016 Gourmet Traveller Wine Awards we catch up with Brian Walsh and Brian Croser to talk about their lives and their distinguished careers in viticulture and wine.
Brian Walsh and the art of diplomacy in the Australian wine business
The general consensus in the Australian wine sector is that you couldn’t get a more appropriate winner of this year’s Gourmet Traveller Wine Len Evans Award for leadership than Brian Walsh. After 24 years’ managing a world-class team as chief winemaker with Yalumba, Brian has moved almost seamlessly into a range of sector roles over the past four years, including as Chair of Wine Australia. That wasn’t actually his plan, it must be said, despite valuable past ‘work experience’ as president of the SA Wine Industry Association, Chair of the Barossa Winemakers’ Committee and Chair of the Wine Innovation Cluster at Adelaide’s Waite Campus.
An unsuccessful attempt at retirement
Brian ended 45 years’ as a winemaker (20 in McLaren Vale before his move to Angaston) with the idea of just ‘doing nothing for a while’ and seeing how things unfolded. That lasted about three months’ until he saw an ad seeking a chair for Riverland Wine. ‘I had a crack at that because they had been doing it tough for the best part of a decade,’ he said. ‘I knew a lot of really good people there and I realised the importance of a vibrant wine grape sector to the community.’ Three years on, he’s made his mark and still has a bit under a year to go. A record of achievement and a reputation as a diplomat who gets things done and usually manages to do so with good humour, saw him approached to put his name forward to Wine Australia. He did, got the nod and has enjoyed the challenge. ‘I’ve learned a lot, met a lot of good people and we are in an exciting period now where we are coming up with a plan to potentially spend $50 million in the sector over the next 3½ years,’ he said. In many ways, he adds, it’s not that dissimilar to running a successful wine business. ‘It’s balancing that listening role and trying to harvest all the good thinking; bringing some of your own good thinking to the table hopefully, but also harvesting wide views and then trying to bring that to a conclusion.’
From an Aldinga pub to building Yalumba into global icon
A career in wine initially wasn’t on the young Brian’s radar - even though his dad ran the Aldinga pub south of Adelaide. He was accepted to study physiotherapy but deferred to take a casual lab assistant’s job at Chateau Reynella, and things just took their course. He’s most proud of building a team at Yalumba ‘that I could leave without them missing me’ (though he admits to dropping in now and then for no particular reason) and of his role, while involved with judging at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, in developing the concept of wines of provenance. His final task at was to prepare and present to the board the strategic plan for the 160-year-old family winery.
Family, football and Barossa living
Away from wine, Brian’s life revolves around the Barossa life and family. ‘We’ve got a few hectares and that keeps me busy on the weekends chopping wood and cutting grass. I think gardening would be an exaggeration; Margot’s the gardener. I tend to be the hacker and odd job man.’ ‘I occasionally threaten to play golf. It actually works out once or twice a year and it’s bad golf but I have a bit of fun with my friends. And I tend to hog the TV in winter with Friday night footy. And Saturday footy. And Sunday footy, if I’m honest.’
Brian Croser - an Australian wine innovator
Anyone who knows Brian Croser will understand why one of Australia’s most celebrated winemakers is thrilled to be acknowledged for his work in the vineyard rather than the winery. Accepting Gourmet Traveller Wine’s 2016 award for Viticulturist of the Year recently, he told the audience that of all the awards he had received - and there have been many - this one probably meant the most to him. ‘I know I’m regarded as a winemaker – and a technical winemaker by the way, which I’m not at all – but viticulture is what I’ve always been about,’ he said later. ‘It’s finding the right places and planting them, and managing them in the right way and learning from the experience. So this award really was pleasing.’
Looking for vines in all the right places
For Brian and wife Ann, the ‘right places’ are currently the three South Australian vineyards run by Tapanappa, the company they created in 2002 in partnership with Champagne Bollinger and the Cazes family of Lynch Bages in Pauillac - the Crosers have since bought the Cazes and Bollinger out of Tapanappa. The Tiers Vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley is planted to Chardonnay, the Whalebone Vineyard in Wrattonbully to Cabernet varieties and the Foggy Hill Vineyard on the Fleurieu Peninsula to Pinot Noir. The Crosers also own a vineyard in Oregon (United States) and Brian’s professional eye leads him to believe great things could be achieved with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir around the bottom end of the Grampians region in south-west Victoria.
Destined for a life in wine?
Brian was raised in the heart of the Clare Valley and jokingly acknowledges that a career in wine was probably inevitable. He watched trailers of grapes trundle past his primary school window, then was influenced by a high school headmaster (the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury no less) who had migrated from what was then Rhodesia just to get closer to the source of Australian reds. Yet it was an interest in the underlying science of it all that really was the catalyst. Brian chose to study horticulture rather than specifically oenology at the University of Adelaide because it provided the chance to include biochemistry, microbiology, plant physiology and various natural sciences. He is fascinated by meteorology and geology, could happily have made a living in either, but also offers a third alternative career, architecture. ‘I love buildings and I’ve designed a few houses and wineries in my time. Functional rather than decorative architecture, but still it’s the creative process I’m attracted to.’
Football, farming and the love of a good book
Brian thinks, reads and talks about wine a great deal, including in his current role as Deputy Chair of Wine Australia. Above all, Brian loves to write about fine wine and terroir. At least once a month he takes a media call from somewhere in the world seeking his opinion on anything from wine styles to wine tax or simply the state of play in Australia. Away from wine his main diversions are family, football (the Adelaide Crows in particular) and farms at Parawa on the Fleurieu Peninsula and in Queensland. ‘It’s great to go to go to the beach, walk and read,’ he said. ‘I’m a voracious reader, though only half as bad as Ann. ‘I like travel and history, but not modern journeys; people like Alfred Thessiger and Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming’s brother, who was a great explorer of the middle Asia region.’ The vineyard potential of this region is unknown!
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