John Glaetzer saves growers’ bacon

John Glaetzer, former Wolf Blass winemaker, says he saw it coming: the day that bigger companies might pull back on grape supply. And come it has, with a vengeance, as Canberra growers contracted to Hardys learned a few weeks back.

Driving from the Barossa Valley to Langhorne Creek with John in late September, the gentle weather, and spring blossoms suggested confidence and new life. But for days John had been taking calls from distressed Langhorne Creek growers, some with supply contracts stretching back to the sixties.

Each had the same story: thanks very much, but we don’t want your grapes in 2007. Like growers in many Australian regions they’ve been crunched by the surplus of both wine grapes and wine – and the ensuing squeeze on winemaker returns.

Old hands like Glaetzer, seeing the crunch coming, moved early to find new homes for soon-to-be unwanted grapes.

He says that just few years back he and partner Bill Potts sold about five hundred tonnes of grapes a year from their 30-hectare Langhorne Creek vineyards to Fosters. In 2007 they’ll sell nil
Increasingly, the fruit has gone to Heartland, a new wine brand, created by a group of South Australian industry veterans, and made by John’s nephew, Ben Glaetzer.

Heartland — sourced from Langhorne Creek, on the northern side of Lake Alexandrina, and the vast Limestone Coast Zone, stretching from the Lake’s southern shore to the Southern Ocean, just south of Mount Gambier – seems to have hit the spot with the wine trade and consumers.

With more fruit looking for a home, John recently established Gipsie Jack Wines in partnership with fifth-generation Langhorne Creek grower, Bill Potts, engaging Bill’s son, Ben, as winemaker.

Bill and Ben already had the upmarket Ben Potts Langhorne Creek brand ($30 to $35 a bottle) on the go, so the new venture moved this grape-growing branch of the Potts family into the commercial winemaking mainstream as Gipsie Jack sells for a more modest $16 to $18 a bottle.

The first two Gipsie Jack wines (the brand, incidentally, comes from John Glaetzer’s Jack Russell, Gipsie) arrived in Canberra a few weeks back and apparently appealed strongly to the trade, assuring reasonable distribution.

The consumer appeal of brands like Gipsie Jack and Heartland springs from the exceptional value they offer. And that, in turn, comes from the provenance of the grapes, the winemakers and the personalities behind the brands.

This fusion of small growers and makers can be seen in many Australian areas, driven partly by the necessity born of surplus and partly as entrepreneurs seize opportunities created by rationalisation.
Restaurateurs and independent retailers are open to new, well-priced, exciting wine brands. These provide an escape from price comparison with the well-know brands sacrificed in the big retailer discount wars.

And big retailers, to resist being wagged by a handful of suppliers and for respite from the discount wars, look to the more sizeable independent makers as alternative, higher margin source of supply.

Throw clean skins into the mixture and probably an increasing volume of cheap, opportunity-driven labels, and we can be sure of a tumultuous, interesting and good value period ahead for wine drinkers.

The real gems, and probably the most durable, will be those like Heartland, Ben Potts and Gipsie Jack that spring from real pros with long-term commitment to particular regions.

Gipsie Jack Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 $16 to $18
What’s a Marlborough, New Zealand, wine doing in a Langhorne Creek portfolio? Well, fifth-generation Langhorne Creek grower, Bill Potts, helped Marlborough grower, John Webber acquire a vineyard in Langhorne Creek. Later, John returned Bill’s favour on the warmer northern side of Marlborough’s Wairau Valley. Hence, the first Gipsie Jack reflects this distinctive sub-regional sourcing with its predominance of passionfruit-like aromas and flavours – a contrast to the more capsicum-like character of those from the cooler southern side of the valley. This style is at its mouth watering best when served crackling cold with salads, grilled fish and other light, fresh foods.

Gipsie Jack Langhorne Creek Shiraz 2005 $16 to $18
At Langhorne Creek recently and in Canberra a few weeks back I caught up with the team behind Gipsie Jack: former Wolf Blass winemaker, John Glaetzer, Langhorne Creek grower, Bill Potts, and his son Ben, a winemaker. This is a formidable combination, bringing together generations of grape growing experience with forty years’ winemaking expertise. The resulting wines hit smack in the sweet spot for both quality and price, giving them a real chance of success even in this crowded market. The 2005 shiraz offers plenty of bright, fresh varietal flavour and satisfying, drying, savoury tannins. Local retailers embraced the wines at the Canberra tasting, so distribution is under way.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007