Wolf Blass at 80

The gre­gar­i­ous, metaphor­man­gling en­tre­pre­neur turned the wine world up­side down

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - MAX ALLEN Dis­clo­sure: Max Allen’s book, The His­tory of Aus­tralian Wine, pub­lished in 2012, was com­mis­sioned and sup­ported by The Wolf Blass Foun­da­tion.

WOLF Blass is telling me sto­ries of his early days as a wine­maker. He’s bounc­ing up and down in his chair, eyes wide and twin­kling, re­liv­ing ev­ery mo­ment as though it were yes­ter­day, not half a cen­tury ago.

“I turned the bloody place up­side down,” he says, with typ­i­cal Blass mod­esty, of his time in the Barossa Val­ley in the mid-1960s. “I was a free­lance con­sul­tant. I worked for eight or nine com­pa­nies, for $2.50 an hour. Jim Barry, Bleas­dale, Tol­leys, Base­dows, Nor­mans, Wood­leys. I was pretty busy. My lit­tle Volk­swa­gen was run­ning around all over the place.”

The young Ger­man wine­maker had mi­grated to South Aus­tralia in 1961, em­ployed by the Kaiser Stuhl co-op to pro­duce sweet fizzy pearl wines that were en­joy­ing enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity at the time. Af­ter that three­year con­tract was up, Blass put out his shin­gle as a tech­ni­cal ad­viser, of­fer­ing his ser­vices to other pro­duc­ers keen to im­prove qual­ity. And he quickly be­gan to cause a stir when the wines he made for his clients started win­ning awards at na­tional wine shows — tra­di­tion­ally the bas­tions of big old fam­ily com­pa­nies such as McWil­liam’s, Lin­de­man’s and Pen­folds.

“That’s when prob­a­bly some peo­ple took no­tice that I was around,” dead­pans Wolf. “But it was a hard bloody road. Rub­ber boots and over­alls, that’s what it was. It was lots of fun, but it was a tough road.”

Th­ese days, of course, Wolf Blass Wines is a multi-mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness, one of the most in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised Aus­tralian wine la­bels, and a key brand in the Trea­sury Wine Es­tates port­fo­lio. The man him­self, with his trade­mark bow tie, his en­thu­si­as­tic mash-up of Aussie slang and al­most comedic Ger­man ac­cent (“my funny lan­guage” he calls it), is still one of the best-known wine celebri­ties in the world. Even now, at 80, in his role as global brand am­bas­sador (he merged his epony­mous busi­ness with Mil­dara in 1991 and the re­sult­ing com­pany was bought by Fos­ter’s, now Trea­sury, in 1996), he still trav­els reg­u­larly to spruik the wines. And when he’s not trav­el­ling, he turns up to work ev­ery morn­ing, five days a week, at his Ade­laide of­fice.

But he hasn’t for­got­ten his roots. The early years, beetling around in his 1957 Volk­swa­gen, mak­ing wine for oth­ers dur­ing the day — and for him­self at night.

“I was prob­a­bly the first one to do what I did — to do some­thing on the side like that,” he says. “Now, a lot of young wine­mak­ers do it. Then, it was ab­so­lutely taboo.”

You can hear traces of the old days still in Wolf’s voice. He pro­nounces many wine words as he heard them from old-timers in the 60s: he calls shi­raz “shi­rarz”, caber­net “car­benet” and mal­bec “maulbec”. And the South Aus­tralian wine re­gion of Langhorne Creek, is in Wolf’s world, “Langhorne’s Creek” — es­pe­cially when he’s rem­i­nisc­ing.

went on the tel tele­phone, h I got on to my mates. I said, ‘Look, I’m un­der pres­sure, vin­tage is com­ing up, they’re forc­ing me to de­cide. Can I crush grapes at your place?’ My friends said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to help you’. And I went back in the board­room ta­ble and I told them to stick it up their arse.”

It was a bold move, but it paid off hand­somely. One of the wines Wolf made that vin­tage — the 1973 “Black La­bel” caber­net shi­raz — won the Mel­bourne Wine Show’s Jimmy Wat­son Tro­phy, at the time the most im­por­tant wine show ac­co­lade in the coun­try. Re­mark­ably, the next two vin­tages of Black La­bel also won the Jimmy — an achieve­ment that turned the bow-tie-wear­ing Ger­man wine­maker into a house­hold name.

I’m in­ter­view­ing Wolf in his Ade­laide of­fice, and we’re sur­rounded by pho­to­graphs chart­ing the stel­lar ca­reer that fol­lowed those Wat­son wins: pro­mo­tional shots from the 1980s, when his com­pany pro­duced Aus­tralia’s top-sell­ing ries­ling and was “on ev­ery bloody wine list in the coun­try”; Wolf be­ing pre­sented with an Or­der of Aus­tralia medal in 2001 for ser­vices to the wine in­dus­try; car­i­ca­tures of Wolf in wine mag­a­zines, with enor­mous bow tie.

There are many pic­tures, too, of Wolf’s en­thu­si­as­tic pri­vate life: on one of his an­nual Euro­pean ski­ing trips with third wife Shirley and friends; lead­ing one of his race­horses in the win­ner’s en­clo­sure; proudly beam­ing from be­hind his enor­mous model rail­way set, glass of red in hand.

And then I no­tice, in a cor­ner of the white­board be­hind him, a mo­ti­va­tional quote: “En­trepreneurs ig­nore the sta­tus quo, chal­lenge the rules and change the game.”

Next on the to-do list for this par­tic­u­lar en­tre­pre­neur is the es­tab­lish­ment of a wine mu­seum, filled with a life­time t of what he calls his “mem­o­ra­bil­ias”, planned for the Wolf Blass visi­tor cen­tre at Trea­sury’s vast Bil­yara win­ery in the Barossa. Wolf tells me the plan­ning of the mu­seum m has been on his mind mh for a long time, so I ask him why it’s so im­por­tant, and he stops and pauses for a long lo time.

“If I’m gone ... what is go­ing to hap­pen to my awards, ev­ery­thing ev I have achieved in my life? You know you can al­most al say I’m the high­est bloody awarded wine­maker in Aus­tralia. A I’m not go­ing to get big-headed or big shoes — but this has to be fos­tered.”

And he’s back to his usual gre­gar­i­ous, metaphor-man­gling self, ex­cit­edly telling me how his “nine­teen hun­dred and fifty seven” Volk­swa­gen has been fully re­stored and will be a cen­tre­piece of the Wolf Blass mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence. Visi­tors will even get the chance to be driven around in the car, re­liv­ing the early days of the young Ger­man wine­maker in the Barossa.

Per­haps they’ll get a glimpse of what it feels like to turn the bloody place up­side down.

main Wolf Blass at home in Ade­laide with his re­stored VW Bee­tle above and left Blass was always happy in front of the cam­era, of­ten in his sig­na­ture bow tie, which he was said to have adopted af­ter his own tie got caught in ma­chin­ery

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