The High-Pressure Life Of A Famous Winemaker And His Wine: Peter Gago And Penfolds Grange
Regarded as one of the world’s finest wines, Penfolds Bin 95 Grange also serves as the iconic wine of Australia. Collectors pay impressive sums (upwards of $850 for a recent vintage) for this exquisite Australian Shiraz. However, unlike most of the world’s ultra-premium wine labels that only change hands in the rarified air of the one percent, Penfolds also makes pop and pour entry-level wines to be enjoyed every day. Indeed, the winery produces roughly 40 different wines annually which gives you a sense of the impressive amount of work for their Chief Winemaker Peter Gago and his team. Whether you are spending $12 or $450 on a bottle, you are opening a wine from a winery with a deep bench of serious winemaking talent and more than 170 years of winemaking heritage. Consider this: Bin 95 Grange is a heritage wine protected by the National Trust of South Australia; it’s practically a national treasure. Given Penfolds’ storied history, global stature and worldwide acclaim, it’s easy to appreciate the cummulative sum of pressures that Mr. Gago feels each year.
Certainly the steady stream of award-winning, high-point-scoring wines has earned him the right to walk with some swagger. Yet, he’s the most humble of winemakers. When I met up with him at a recent tasting event I had to navigate capacity crowds of collectors and enthusiasts all wanting a chance to talk about wine with him. Compact and fit, with a head of dark curly hair and an engaging manner, Gago is humble and self-effacing, quick to share all of the credit and quick to own his shortcomings—I liked him instantly.
We were one stop on his 30-day tour of the world–literally hopping from city to city, across scores of time zones. During our chat he confessed to terrible jet lag and pointed to a spot where he’d cut himself shaving, noting with a laugh that he was busy “worrying about the wines.” We discussed everything from his wife’s pioneering political role as the first female Leader of the S.A. Upper House to one of his favorite American cities (Nashville). Jumping from topic to topic with ease, he opened up about what it’s really like to make one of the world’s most sought-after wines.
Does the pressure ever get to be too much making a wine such as Grange? Yes and no. Our winery history goes back to 1844; only eight years after the colony of Australia began. Hence, we have a seriously firm safety net and generations of support because of that. There is a culture of succession as well—you’ll notice, there is not a signature on the bottle. That is intentional; it is very much a team effort. Essentially, having all this structure in place is awfully reassuring; it lessens the pressure on me.
Are there sleeper vintages we should know about? The 1999 Penfolds Grange is a sleeper vintage– everyone talks about the 1998 vintage, and the prices reflect that, but both of those vintages are lovely. Look at the 1971 Grange—everyone talks about it, everyone wants it, and poor St Henri, that wine is equally gorgeous. Who knows why one wine took off and the other did not, both are exquisite to my mind. Our St Henri wines can last almost as long as Grange, but that label flies under the radar while Grange gets all of the love.
What do you do with a poor harvest? If you make a bad wine it stays with you to the grave. We can’t afford a bad wine. If the quality isn’t there, we don’t make the wine.
How do you select the next generation of winemaker? It becomes self-evident, we have both school-trained and cellar-trained individuals and after time it is clear who is a good fit for our team. We don’t lean towards the individuals who talk about “their goals” but more towards the team player. Right now we have a team composed of winemakers (one with 37 vintages under his belt).
Talk about the experimental Cellar Reserve wines: We can be clever with things but in the end we still need to make wine. Sangiovese is one of our ongoing successful experiments. Some of these wines are rarer than Grange. We are deemed a traditional wine house but there is always a spirit of innovation. We encourage it; you must make mistakes to make progress. Either way you are increasing your knowledge base. The cellar reserve is a playground; it is the one place there are no rules, but you have to have accountability.
What have been some of your favorite Cellar Reserve wines? The Grenache was one of my favorite wines from that line; the Tempranillo and Sangiovese as well.
What is the book The Rewards of Patience About? The book is a detailed account of Penfolds’ wines, vintage by vintage. We are in our 7th edition of that book. It has been going on for a long time. No one else in the world publishes such a thing–we give a select tasting panel full access to our museum of wines and they assess where they are in the aging process.
What are you reading now? Right now I am reading Freakonomics—when I have a spare minute, which is not often.
What cities have you most enjoyed visiting in America? Nashville was one of my favorite stops. I love that part of the world.