Wolf Blass at 80
The gregarious, metaphormangling entrepreneur turned the wine world upside down
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