I first became aware of James via his podcast, The Vincast, and then later through his Let’s Tase series of YouTube videos. I struck up a friendship with him when I started my role at Glenguin, a friendship that I’m delighted to say has outlived my time at Glenguin!
James is not only a really great guy but, as it turns out, a heck of a winemaker. Despite very little in terms of ‘classical’ Australian winemaking knowledge (to the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t have a winemaking degree from any of Australia’s top wine universities), he has been churning out really solid wines since 2016.
Not only that, but the current releases are starting to garner serious critical acclaim – and not without merit. I’ll have a tasting note up very soon but the tl;dr of it is this: the wines are good. Seriously good. A whole bunch of 90+ points from an eclectic array of critics can’t be wrong, after all.
A couple of months ago, and from a COVID-safe distance via email, I ‘sat down’ with James to see what makes him tick, and why he makes the wines, Italian varieties solely, that he does.
PJ: Ok, so first question, because I just had to start this off the way you used to do with the podcast (which only seems fair), what was the wine moment – either a single wine, or a specific episode – that made you look at wine in a different way and started off this whole wine journey?
JS: The experience that got me interested in wine was taking the Liquorland wine course that was run by Gage Lassiter. I was a full-timer and wanted to know more about wine, and was introduced to all the variables that influence wine, different grape varieties, regions, winemaking techniques. It was such a great foundation and I realised there was so much to know and interpret.
My epiphany wine experience that cemented my career path was eating dinner at Ezard for my sister’s 21st birthday, and my parents let me select the wines. At this point I was working in the cellar door at Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley, and I enjoyed the experience talking with the sommelier. One of the wines I selected was a 1997 Yeringberg Pinot Noir, and I’d had virtually no experience with aged wines, and it was fantastic. Also a fantastic accompaniment to the dish which was a Chinese-style duck dish.
Secondly – how are you doing? COVID-19 has had a pretty devastating effect on our industry, but it’s affecting each part of the industry differently – how are you coping?
It’s certainly been challenging. My full-time position as a sales representative for a wine importer was made redundant due to the closure of all hospitality venues, as it lost 90% of its business overnight. Similarly sales of my own wines took a massive hit, at a very difficult time as I was committed to processing a certain amount of fruit. It was certainly a blessing in disguise to have the distraction, and the wines so far all look fantastic; the best yet. I’m glad to be pretty much through vintage bar getting whites through ferment, as now I can focus on my family [Ed note: James and his wife celebrated the birth of their second child in late June], and to spend some time hopefully working on my brand for the inevitable return to a somewhat normal life.
Give me an overview of your history in the industry – what’s the Intrepid Wino origin story to today?
I started working at my local Liquorland store after missing out on a place in postgraduate education. I thought it would be temporary while I worked out what I was going to do. I decided that I wanted to work in the wine industry, and at that point the only interaction I had was with wine reps. Thus I contacted the distributors I knew asking to be considered for a position as a wine rep. In hindsight that was a fairly naïve proposition, but I got some good advice.
At my grandmother’s 80th birthday I was introduced to the assistant manager of the Domaine Chandon cellar door, and she told me they were looking for extra staff for summer. That started a four year tenure at Australia’s premier sparkling wine producer in the Yarra Valley, the latter two-and-a-half years as the Marketing Coordinator.
In an effort to further my wine marketing career I started a masters degree in wine business with the University of Adelaide. I finished up with Domaine Chandon in early 2010 partly to focus more on my studies, and until I finished my degree I worked at King & Godfree in Carlton as the wine buyer.
Once my studies were complete I went on a round the world wine trip in North & South America and Europe for 16 months. I visited almost every major (and also plenty of minor) wine regions in the U.S.A. Canada, Chile, Argentina, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal. During my travels I blogged every day of my wine journey on my blog The Intrepid Wino.
After I returned home I started The Vincast podcast at the same time as I started working as a wine rep, which I have been doing for almost seven years until recently. In 2016 I started my own winemaking project working exclusively Italian varieties called Vino Intrepido.
You’ve got an obvious affinity for Italian varieties and wines – firstly where did that start, and, in your mind, what are the varietals or regions that Australia (or indeed the world) doesn’t know much about but really needs to get to know?
My affinity for all things Italian originally came from my mother (who lived in Italy for four years in her 20s and has a masters degree in Italian and linguistics) and my step-grandfather who migrated from Lazio when he was 14 before WWII. I started to get interested in the wines and varieties of Italy when I worked for King & Godfree, but my true passion came having spent over three months of my 2012 trip in Italy learning more about them.
While I travelled there I marvelled at the freshness and the texture of the wines, and how their natural acidity and drought resistance would make many of these varieties so well suited to Australia. I think the southern Italian regions like Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily are still underappreciated, misunderstood and underrepresented in the world. Similarly many of the varieties grown here are even better suited to Australia, like Negroamaro, Nero di Troia, Aglianico, Fiano, Falanghina, Greco, Nerello Mascalese, Carricante, Frappato and Catarratto.
Talk to me about Vino Intrepido – has winemaking always been something that you’ve wanted to do, or was there a moment that sparked the idea? And what are your plans for the next few years – are you looking at scaling up when things settle down, or just happy to keep doing what you’re doing? Are there any new wines in the pipeline?
In fact I never intended to be a winemaker, feeling that my skills were better suited to translating and communicating to the consumer to help them better understand and relate to wines. My goal has always been to demystify without dumbing down or generalising and subsequently confusing people. I guess I decided to conceive of the idea of Vino Intrepido when I felt that whilst quality of Italian varietal wine was very good, stylistically they were missing what made them so good in Italy, they looked more like classic Australian varieties like Shiraz and Chardonnay.
My idea initially was to better communicate about the uniqueness of Italian wines and how they could be a good reference point for Australian styles, but felt that maybe I would be better off trying it out myself to show people. Thus in 2016 I bought a tonne of Heathcote Sangiovese (in my opinion still the best example of an Italian variety showing the character of a region in Australia) just to see what would happen. I had so much fun, and was happy enough with the results, that I decided to make more (volume and varieties) in 2017, then again in 2018, and in 2019 took things much more seriously.
I’ve been incredible blessed with having some fantastic advice and influence, and been introduced to some amazing growers. It’s been fantastic putting my theories to the test, and seeing things throughout the whole process has given me so much appreciation and understanding for wines in general, not just those made from Italian varieties. Introducing my wines both to the trade (mostly in Melbourne) and also direct to consumers has been very important to get feedback that influences my decisions and directions.
So with the current situation and having my job made redundant, I can now focus much more on my wine project. In previous vintages I’ve had help looking after things when I couldn’t be there due to work commitments. This year the start of vintage coincided with COVID-19 taking off, so I was a lot more available to be at the winery every day. Luckily I got my forklift license at the start of the year so I could be even more useful, and it was such a fantastic opportunity to learn so much more. The last two vintages I’ve made about 850 dozen and I’m hoping to scale up next year, hopefully as the business takes off a bit more. The new variety for 2020 is Sagrantino, a variety found almost exclusively in Montefalco Umbria, grown by Chalmers at their Heathcote estate. Tannic to be sure, but I’m thrilled with the freshness of it.
A couple of years ago now you were nominated for Digital Communicator of the Year in the Wine Communicators of Australia’s annual awards – what was that experience like and what are your thoughts the future of wine communication more generally? Do you expect to get the podcast back up and running at any future point?
It was certainly very flattering and encouraging to be nominated for Digital Wine Communicator, particularly as I was not a full-time communicator, I was doing it completely on my own and I was not deriving any kind of income for it. It’s been interesting to see more traditional wine media lose some relevance, particularly with younger wine consumers, as tasting notes and scores (not to mention wine show results) have very little meaning to them. Social media and sommeliers/bar staff are going to increasingly influence wine trends. That being said the majority of wine is being purchased in large retail (even more now), and brand familiarity and sales programs will still be very important to most consumers.
I’d like to get the podcast going again, but I have some restrictions at the moment on my space and time due to isolation and sharing a house with a pregnant wife and a three-year-old. My wine brand, as it generates me a measurable and fairly dependable income, will be my focus moving forward, but time permitting I’d like to get back into more communication, perhaps even some writing. [Ed note: since this interview, James has released a couple of new episodes of The Vincast and more are in the pipeline – check it out on your podcast player of choice.]
Lastly, where can people find you and how can more us purchase your wines?
People can find out more about Vino Intrepido on the new (and evolving) website, www.vinointrepido.com where you can also buy the wines. I’ve also got a list of stockists, but I encourage people to get in touch with their favourite retailer and recommend the wines!
A tasting note on the 2019 Spanna in the Works Nebiolo will be on the website later this week.