Bob’s Blog: The 60’s and the start of the Boutique wineries
“To know the vineyard is to know the wine”
When Max Lake took his spade and bucket to dig up soil samples before settling on the block we know as Lakes Folly, he was digging up more than soil, he was turning the sod for a whole new generation of wine drinkers. In the early sixties he wrote “Top Hunter wines are the end result of Valley soil, grapes and 130 years of effort to perfect the product.”
Andre Simon in the introduction to Max Lakes book Hunter Wine said “wine is no luxury but one of the necessities of life”. Of course that was from a European perspective and it was not till after the Second World War that wine became a popular drink in Australia although from the days of the first fleet the interest was there. What occurred in the 60’s, to some extent, was a worldwide phenomenon with an awakening in the USA (particularly California) in South America, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Even in Europe the industry was changing. Italy saw the removal of mixed cultivation, where olive trees and vines were often in the same row! New planting of vines was occurring in a more ordered manner, the south of France saw new plantings and the Spanish were not far behind and really took off when allowed to irrigate their dry regions.
So what we were seeing in Australia was not only a worldwide phenomenon, which included the recovery from the war, but also the influence of European migration- escaping the traumas and looking for a new life. In years past, in Europe particularly, wine and beer were safe drinks unlikely to be contaminated, unlike the drinking water, but now in a more affluent era they were morphing into products of enjoyment rather than necessity.
Visiting California in the 70’s, and subsequently living there, it was interesting to see how much wine education was part of the experience of visiting a winery. No way could you go straight to the tasting, first you needed to know the history, the wine making process and what made the wines stand out. The mission in common with all of the producers was to open the minds and palates of their visitors to the uniqueness of Californian wines. This was at a time when hard spirits were the beverage of choice in the USA.
‘Visit the Cave’ was the sign often seen in those days when touring the vineyards of France, the awakening was just starting and competition was urging the producers to open their doors as wine tourism emerged. Identifying the land, the valley and the hills with the wine was part of the promotion. No longer was it just the Negotiatians who promoted the wines, although villages in wine growing areas were still the hubs of the tasting experience. Not much in the way of education more appreciation by osmosis. Indeed self-guided tours of the cellars still remain a feature of many Burgundy producers!
So we in the Hunter were part of this world wide movement and had the great fortune to have people such as Max Lake and Len Evans leading the charge. After Lakes Folly came Belbourie in 1964 with Jim Roberts (a pioneer of mail order wines!) then Hungerford Hill, Rothbury Estate in 1968 and James Halliday and partners leading the development of Brokenwood in 1970. Of course the survivors of the earlier vineyards such as Tyrrells, Lindermans, McWilliams Mount Pleasant, Draytons and the Tullochs were the backbone that supported the newcomers.
1967 First wine of the vineyard DRY RED TABLE WINE Cabernet Sauvignon 100%,
I purchased this wine at the cellar door from Max Lake who kindly showed us around and made it a memorable visit. We were medical students at the time and had decided to enhance our education! A great tutorial on the science behind winemaking and some of the complexities of taste followed.
So as the wave of excitement spread, the Hunter was ideally suited having a long established reputation for fine table wines and a history to go with it. Max Lake really didn’t know what exactly drew him into the wine business. The study and enjoyment of wine for him was a great attraction. In his student days he was influenced by Dr Gilbert Philips, friend of Maurice O’Shea and founder of the wine society, and his wine loving friends. Like many people starting off in wine it was the sweeter table wine Rinegolde, made mainly from Hunter Semillon, that got him in! His experience of fine European wines, while developing his surgical skills in the UK, was his real awakening, particularly a month visiting the great Vignobles of Burgundy.
It was his thirst for knowledge that drove him to experience the wines of the Hunter, linked in with the Wine and Food club, Rudy Komon, John Walker and others. Max said he never “ceased to wonder at our good fortune in having only a few hours’ drive to the source of such marvelous wines’!
Max Lake channeled his interest in wine initially by publishing A Multicoloured Map of the Hunter vineyards, paid for by himself, as the wine industry was not prepared to support it. (Have things changed when it comes to regional support?) Next he wrote Hunter Wine and the growing interest in wine was reflected in it being reprinted six times in the first six months!
The author, Gregory Blaxwell, helped him on the editorial side and said Max did everything with passion and expected those working with him to show the same level of passion. Insisting Greg go with him as often as possible to the Hunter he introduced him to the most famous winemakers all of whom “thought Max was mad ( he’d planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and not Shiraz and Semillon after all) but at best, he was just a crazy, enthusiastic amateur”. Of course there were few remaining wineries then, none of whom saw the changes coming at that time. It was the start of the Boutique Winery although those involved at the time were unaware of its impact.
Well this crazy amateur applied the scientific training he had, selecting the sight, planting relatively new vines to the district, spending “endless nights checking temperatures and sugars and diligently plunging the cap, for colour and cooling.” His choice of Cabernet Sauvignon was driven by passion to make his “ideal wine” and became world famous. Serendipitously Chardonnay was planted with a view to making a house sparkling but when the connoisseurs liked it he changed direction and bottled it as a still wine. Much of the Chardonnay was sold to the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The Chardonnay revival had begun.
I had dinner with Max Lake at Greg Blaxwell’s home not long before Max died, a great night of stories about the 60’s experiences and beyond. Max also said he regretted not retiring earlier from surgery as there was so much more to do beyond surgery – a point I kept in mind in deciding to hang up my own scalpel!
Max Lake was truly a leader and in time Lakes Folly would become one of the most successful Boutique wineries in the world. His example can be seen as the start of the 60’s renewal in not only the Hunter but as part of a worldwide change in wine interest and consumption.
My thanks to Gregory Blaxwell and Max Lakes Vine and Scalpel for insights in this blog.