Book review: Wolf Blass — behind the bow tie

Wolf Blass — behind the bow tie
Liz Johnston, Fairfax Books 2009, $39.99

Old winemakers and merchants don’t retire. They push on past the golden years, working until they drop. At 75 years Wolf Blass remains the man behind the brand, owned by Fosters since 1996 – and out of his financial control since 1991, when Wolf Blass Wines and Mildara merged to become Mildara Blass.

He’s unquestionably one of the most influential figures of our modern wine industry. Wolf both tapped into and led public tastes across four decades, building an immensely successful brand in an industry more prone to disbursing wealth than creating it.

He deserves a book. But what credibility can we expect of an official biography (Fosters owns the copyright) marking Wolf’s 75th birthday, and launched in a blaze of publicity for the brand?

But scepticism is unfounded. Like all things associated with Wolf, there’s substance behind the fanfare. History isn’t rewritten; Wolf’s not canonised. Indeed, Liz Johnston gives us the best wine book in years. Like Wolf’s wine it’ll engage a wide audience.

It starts, of course, with an interesting subject – Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass. He was born into a wealthy German family in 1934, spent an adventurous, at times dangerous boyhood under the Third Reich in Stadtilm, Thuringia; and lived under American, British, French and Russian occupation after the war before settling and training as a winemaker in West Germany.

At age 22 he became cellarmaster for Karl Finkenauer at Bad Kreuznach; moved to England as wine chemist in 1957; and in 1961 emigrated to Australia to become sparkling wines manager at the Kaiser Stuhl Co-operative in the Barossa Valley.

He registered ‘Bilyara’ as a business name in 1966 and made small quantities of wine under this brand, while working full time at Tollana, the wine arm of United Distillers. In 1973 he started Wolf Blass Wines International; floated the hugely successful business in 1984 and merged it with Mildara to form Mildara Blass in 1991.

Fosters bought Mildara Blass in 1996 but retained Wolf as brand ambassador, a role he plays very actively today – travelling, promoting and working with the winemaking team, led by Chris Hatcher and Caroline Dunn.

But the book’s more than just a chronology. It’s a reflective work that puts Wolf and his life in historical context. Some of the most interesting and confronting bits cover his childhood in wartime Germany.

Some of it’s boys-own adventures like pilfering food from German supply trains between strafing runs by British Spitfire squadrons. But other memories continue to disturb Wolf today – for example, as a child he witnessed the beginning of the death marches from Buchenwald prison, located near his home.

Johnston writes of Wolf seeing prisoners shot and the corpses left on the roads – and being told that the victims were criminals and deserved their fate. It was years before Wolf realised what he’d witnessed as an eleven year old.

The toughness of the war years and the period of shortages that followed, though, helped shape a determined and resourceful Wolf Blass.

In Australia Wolf initially made sparkling wine for the ‘pearl’ styles, pioneered by Colin Gramp in the 1950s. But when he moved to Tollana under United Distillers began making the bright, fruity, easy-drinking styles that ultimately made the Wolf Blass brand famous.

The commercial history sprinkled through the book introduces us to other key figures that shaped our wine drinking habits, including Max Schubert (creator of Grange), Harry Brown (a remarkable, Sydney-based wine merchant), Len Evans and Peter Lehmann. But we also see the commercial players, notably Ray King, the man behind Mildara’s commercial success and later, the success of the combined Mildara and Wolf Blass. This was the industry benchmark for return on investment.

King must scratch his head wonder at the destruction of wealth in Foster’s wine division since its disastrous acquisition of Southcorp in 2005.

We learn a lot, too, about Wolf the promoter, the brand builder, the womaniser, the racehorse owner – a colourful and refreshingly frank, politically incorrect commentator. We see Wolf through others’ eyes – notably his wife’s and two exes. Now that is being frank.

It’s a terrific read and will appeal to different people at different levels – the human perspective, the wine perspective and the large wine industry view.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009