“This dyin’ business is fuckin’ killin’ me …” These were…
If you read the local wine press you’d be aware that leading Barossa winemaker, Rick Burge, is putting his business, Burge Family Winemakers, on the market.
Rick was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. He got the all clear a year or so ago.
Unfortunately the cancer has returned.
He says pump overs at midnight and getting up the next morning at 5am to pick, have lost their appeal !
Reckons it’s time to concentrate on his health and his wife Bronnie’s future.
Rick’s a great mate of my brother Micks. I’ve know Rick for many years and am a real fan of his wines, especially the Semillon, Draycott and the Garnacha. To use an old Australian term, he’s a nice bloke….
The family business was established in 1928, Rick’s been at the helm since 1986.
Pretty exciting, I loved scouting and regarded myself as a master of tree house building.
I had three elder sisters, so I sort of had to amuse myself. I was the third generation of my family to go to Lyndoch Primary – my grandfather, my father and myself.
Mum was pretty crook, and because she was in and out of hospital it was decided that I should go to boarding school when I was twelve – so off to St Peters I went.
I enjoyed it, especially the sport ; when you are on your own you can’t really play cricket much. I loved the sporting angle – they had about 9 ovals.
I came in contact with guys from all different walks of life.
My last years were fairly traumatic though – Mum had died in my year 11 – October 1970 – and I can remember my sisters had arranged for us to go for a short trip up to Singapore on a half cargo half passenger boat.
I went to the headmaster to ask if I could leave school 10 days early, he bellowed at me and said
‘Well you would want to have a bloody good excuse son.”
I thought, ‘you prick’ … and said,
“Would the death of my mother be good enough ? ”
To his credit he immediately changed his tone, jumped back from behind the desk, held my hand and apologised.
He kept saying, “Why wasn’t I told ?”
After St Peters I studied Ag Science at Adelaide University. Whereas St Peters college had the over arching approach of …
“You will do well and we will look over your shoulder”.
At University there was no one there to tell you what to do, it was entirely up to you, but gee whiz it was fun.
After I passed about two and a bit years out of four, I dropped out of Uni, licked my wounds, came home and worked initially on the family vineyard, before joining Orlando, under Bob McLean in Cellar Door.
What’s the history of the family vineyard ?
We’ve had vineyard since about 1855 when my great, great Grandfather John came out from England on the advice of from some cousins who were already out here.
He was a tailor from Wiltshire but worked a lot in London, amongst his clients were Buckingham Palace.
On holidays he used to travel to the south of France and go through the wine regions – that’s where he really got his love for wine.
These cousins, the Springbetts, who were already settled, wrote over saying “We’ve planted a vineyard in Australia – you ought to come over and have a look” . He immediately prepared to sell everything and bring his family over.
He was obviously a man of means and took up land straight away. It was mixed farming – he started to grow some grapes and made a little bit of wine.
My grandfather, Percival Norman Burge, re-commenced winemaking in 1928.
He used to take grapes up to Chateau Tanunda …. leaving at five in the morning with an ox and dray and probably getting back at 3 in the afternoon, and clearing only 10 bob a ton after all expenses.
He started getting letters saying – “we might not be able to take your grapes next year”.… So it was a case of either letting them rot, or learning how to make wine.
He dug out 6 little underground concrete tanks, got them plastered and waxed and bought some second hand equipment – that was here at Wilsford in 1928.
The label was ‘P N BURGE and Sons’. It was mostly fortified in those days.
I’ve got old receipt books from the ‘30s showing customers that had come in for a gallon of sweet white, muscat, port – or tawny port which was pretty special because it was aged in wood.
Every now and then you had a half a gallon of dry red. Percival retired in 1950. My father Noel had been working for twelve years at Berri Estates and when he left to come home – Brian Barry took his spot.
In 1965, the family wine business incorporated and became ‘WILSFORD WINES’, named after the village of their forebears in Wiltshire.
In 1986, I returned from a wine stint in Victoria and after quite some negotiation, purchased the shareholding held by my cousin Grant’s family.
How long were you in Victoria ?
After Roseworthy it was really hard to get a job in South Australia. Everywhere I applied, the 2nd or 3rd question they would all ask was – “when are you going back to the family business ? ”
One weekend in the Weekend Australian there was this job in Melbourne for a retail bottle shop ‘WJ Seabrook & Son Wine Merchants’.
I applied for it, got flown over for the interview and got the job.
Bronnie and I were newly married, had just been overseas and were pretty skint, so it was great offer.
Turned out that the owner of the business, Hermann Schneider was the famous Melbourne restauranteur from Two Faces.
I was there nearly a year when Hermann sold his retail license to Coles – that was when Liquorland and Vintage Cellars were starting up. Coles were buying all the licenses they could get their hands on as they were setting up the discount chain .
Anyway, Hermann did that without telling me, and I wasn’t very happy about it. However I met some amazing people and learnt a lot though Hermann.
In the first few months at Seabrooks I got a phone call from Ross Brown saying,
“we hear you’re doing great things… would you consider working in the country for Browns.”
My first reaction was ‘I’ve only just come over, I can’t do that!’, so I said thanks but no thanks.
Later that year, when Hermann sold out to Coles, Ross Brown rang me again. It was a long weekend and he said,
“Look come up and be my house guest”.
I liked what I saw that weekend, so driving back on the Hume, I said to Bronnie, “what do you reckon ?” and she said, “you’d be mad not to.”
So I was back in a winery, managing Milawa cellar door, the busiest cellar door in the country.
Browns was owned and run by four brothers and while sometimes it felt like working for a 4 headed boss, each of them had that tremendous ‘can do’ attitude.
I loved Northeastern Victoria – Mt Buffalo, the lakes the rivers, Beechworth…. I just fell in love with it.mI had only been there 6 weeks and Ross Brown called me into his office and said
“We’ve just bought a small property at Wahgunyah near Rutherglen, and we’d like you to manage that as well.”
My first reaction was ‘you’re getting rid of me already!’ but I said
“What? …you’re not happy ? ”
and he said
“No we’re very happy.”
I was working very long hours, doing everything.
About 6 months later, in May, I said “I reckon I can get St Leonards going, everything is there, it’s a beautiful property”. So we shifted from Wangaratta to the beautiful St Leonards homestead on the banks of the Murray – it was a slice of heaven.
I was 6 years at St Leonards and took it from virtually nothing to 8,000 cases, marketed direct, no middle men !
The previous owners had read in a book that Chardonnay was one of the varieties used in Champagne… and they loved Champagne, so they planted a sizeable acreage of Chardonnay – we are talking 1976 / 77.
Browns bought the property because there were 30 acres of established Chardonnay, and we planted more !
James Halliday had our 1980 St Leonard’s Chardonnay as his top Australian Chardonnay in late 1981… the phone just about melted.
Next year in 1982, our 81 was also his top Australian Chardonnay.
I happily admit James Halliday put St Leonards on the map, you do get lucky breaks sometimes.
By early 86 however I felt pretty burnt out, and an offer came up one day to buy a half share in a pub, the ‘Poacher’s Paradise’ in the Main Street of Rutherglen, so I left Browns. ….talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire !
It was a lovely pub – a little coachhouse that we were going to turn into a bottle shop. It was fun, we had the best beer in town and Bronnie was cooking there. We got into The Age good food guide in about 3 months flat. We did a whole lot of wine and food groups…we were going places.
Then in mid 1986, we left Victoria to go back to the Barossa, to sort out the family business.
Why wine ?
I’d been doing it since a kid, I knew most of the winery practices, pumps, crushers etc from a very early age.
I might have been a bit lazy… I didn’t know anything else, and I reckon I was still smarting from the fact that, even though I passed Uni Chemistry and Maths… I was always a bit guilty that I didn’t have had that university degree.
But I also thought I’d developed a good palate.
George Sutherland-Smith, of nearby All Saints once accused me of having a populist palate and I thought,
“if that helps me sell wine George, that’s good”.
I liked working at the coalface and still do. I love to talk to people that are buying and drinking wine.
I think it is essential.
I learnt that from Bob Ansett, who always used to make his managers work one weekend a month at the front desk, and I thought how bloody clever because if you lose that contact how can you stay in touch with what people like or don’t like.
Wine styles you like ?
I was spoilt rotten at Seabrooks, I got to try some pretty impressive wines with Hermann.
When I went up to north east Victoria at Browns I also liked a lot of the wines from the area.
I love the Rhone, wines like Chateau Neuf du Pape…to me they are the wines that talk to you.
I love that generous yet balanced nature and I think the good Barossa wines are not that dissimilar.
By generous – I mean wines that can keep you company for an hour or two.
The Barossa Valley has generosity of fruit. I’m so lucky and my experience came right back to Seabrooks – it’s a case of recognising that ‘less is more’ .
I remember a British journalist saying at a big wine show, “these wines are easy to taste but hard to drink – the trophy wines that is, but if you said, OK guys grab a bottle, it’s lunchtime – those trophy wines stay there – because people can’t drink them, they are often too big”. I’ve always remembered that, the wines I make are the wines I like to drink.
I often say to people when describing my wines, this Shiraz came from the vines on my plot at Lyndoch, I made it my way – if you like it that’s fine; if you don’t that’s also fine.
I’m not saying it’s the best Barossa Shiraz, but it’s what I like to make.
Barossa winemaker making a Tassie Pinot ?
You get very good fruit in Tassie and I love Pinot.
I had a bit of a play in a joint venture in 2013, we got half our fruit from the Derwent and half from Coal River.
But it was bloody hard making wine by telephone and I’d just been diagnosed with cancer, so I packed it in…. didn’t need any more stress in my life.
Robert Parker’s ‘Draycott Reserve’ review ?
The infamous Dan Phillips stuck some of our wines under the nose of Parker and we got a couple of 95+ points.
All of a sudden I was on the express, the ‘Wine Express’ train – and fuck it was a ride… I don’t reckon there were any brakes on that train.
That was the ’96 Draycott Reserve – it came out with 95 points.
Then the 98 vintage got 99 points !
Back then we had old thermal paper fax rolls, and I would come into the office some mornings thinking we’d been broken into during the night.
There’d be a complete roll out on the floor and an empty fax machine… you’d put a new roll in and out would roll another ten orders.
Antarctica and Africa were the only continents we didn’t get enquiries from.
That really opened up the US for us, then Asia, Canada and even the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the UK.
I was travelling for 2 – 3 months a year just going to all these swanky places and I could almost imagine this red carpet rolled out to me because I was a Parker high pointer.
He came here to the winery in June 2002 .
He was coming here at ten o’clock on morning. I was shitting bricks all night. I woke up at 5 in the morning and put the heater on to make sure the room wasn’t too cold or too hot. It was about ten to ten on the day and I thought I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea …we had no milk… so I raced up to the house to get some.
When I came back, there was this guy in shorts playing with the dogs.
He said, “You must be Rick….” and we hit it off.
He was just the nicest bloke, he sat where I’m sitting, and was here for three hours.
He had a reputation for liking really big ballsy over the top wines and Draycott is none of those….neither are a lot of the Burgundies and Bordeaux that he likes.
When he was sniffing one of our Draycotts he said,
“I didn’t know these wines existed ?” – not just Draycott – but that style of wine.
I was at a tasting in Japan and this young wine journalist came up at the end,
“Mr Burge” she said ” I really enjoyed your wines – and I didn’t think I was going to…. Mr Parker likes your wines…I don’t usually agree with him – but I really liked yours”
“Thank you that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had.” I replied.
I stopped making Draycott Reserve because I couldn’t communicate with many of the people who wanted to buy it.
They would come rushing through the door and the exchange would be pretty much like this-
“Have you got ’98 Draycott Reserve?” –
“How much can I have?”
“How much would you like?”
“How much can I have ?” …
I might say,
“You’ve never bought from us before – I can let you have a case”
“ Can I have two?”
“ Keep going like that, and you can have 3 bottles !”
That kind of customer exchange didn’t interest me. I’m sure most of it was on-sold at two or three times the price. Another reason I stopped releasing a ‘Reserve’ label , I was sick of the flippers !!
The label, ‘A Nice Red’, what was that all about ?
Over the years at cellar door, the most asked for wine, has been a nice red.
So I decided to have a bit of fun, make one and label it a ‘Nice Red’.
A real middle-of-the-road Aussie barbecue red, well made and priced sensibly but great value. 20 % of people thought it was hilarious, 80% just didn’t get it.
Halliday thought it was pretty funny, but most of the other wine journos thought I was crazy.
I did two vintages and then bought out the ‘Mangalanga.’ label.
Same story… I was having a bit of fun.
We decided to pull out all stops, on both front and back labels, to highlight the hyperbole and specious wine terminology that was creeping into everyday use.
So we decided to create a super-ultra-mega-uber red vintaged from equal quantities of Shiraz, Syrah and Shyrazz (the Rutherglen pronunciation ! ).
I felt we had to make a statement on the front label initially so we used every cliched brand-name and coupled with them an imaginary sub-district – Mangalanga – from the West Warpoo region in the Southern Barossa.
Once again a lot of journos didn’t think ‘Mangalanga’ was very funny either.
Awards and the ‘Hot 100’
I like the Hot 100 system. In the most recent judging we were at #9 with a ‘Wilsford Old Liqueur Muscat’ in the top 100.
One year I won a gold medal at Rutherglen with our ‘V.O. Tawny’ – I was pretty pleased with that.
For me that was an absolute triumph, to go to Rutherglen, the hardest fortified show in the land, with a wine I was pretty proud of…. Dad had been dead and buried for a while but I’d kept the blend going, freshening it regularly, that was a massive award for me.
Making music is a lot like making wine.
I got bitten listening to Ry Cooder’s original soundtrack to the movie “Paris, Texas”.
One day in the 1980’s Charlie (Melton) had a musician playing at his place, this guy could play really good slide and I was hooked.
Someone suggested I should hear Chris Finnen.
Chris was generous with his time and we struck up a friendship. I went on to record a number of CD’s with Chris.
The first one was ‘Live at the Vineyard’, I remember it well, it was the weekend of the Port Arthur massacre April 1996.
Your brother Mick did a phenomenal job of the recording, it was fun because there was only one Burge in the recording industry.
We ended up getting an Australian Blues Music ‘Chain Award’ at the Goulburn Blues Music festival in 1999 with ‘From the Kitchen Table’.
I had a modicum of success, except for the fact I never got paid or made any money !
The biggest buzz when I was recording my daughter’s band – seeing your own flesh and blood playing, that was a real hoot.
I call it ‘Blues Roots’ with an Aussie twist, not dissimilar to a well-made Barossa Shiraz or a GSM to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Music you can warm to…the Keith Richards style, just sit down, shut up and listen, no bullshit music.
I love Keith’s books.
Music is all about complexity and balance , just like a good wine.
You know that wine where you pick up different nuances in each mouthful – then you enjoy it with food, and it’s that wine that you want to open a second bottle of while listening to some great music.
You wake up the next morning with a bit of a headache and realise that you did open that second one, but you really enjoyed it.
Good music and a bottle of red is more effective than any psychiatrist.
Like one of those old quotes, “A day without wine is a day is like a day without sunshine”
I’d add music to that quote.
There have been many, but three individuals stand out.
Firstly Big Bob McLean in 1975 when as a Uni drop out, I went to work with Orlando.
Bob used to say, “this isn’t just a bottle of wine – it’s 750 ml of happiness”.
Secondly Hermann Schneider, I was privileged to work for him because if your eyes and ears were open – you learned a lot.
He may have seemed hard at the time and I may have thought I was hard done by, but later I realised it gave me certain skills.
I probably had the best wine job in Melbourne at the time. Herman had been a highly successful restauranteur for 25 years, he was very clever in trying to integrate Two Faces restaurant with the wine shop.
His idea was that you would drink the wine at Two Faces on the Friday night and then come in and buy a case at Seabrooks on the Saturday morning.
Finally John (Graham) Brown, a humble, lateral thinking leader – he made you think differently- if you couldn’t buy something, you made it or got it made.
In fact all the Browns were cut from the same cloth.
I also really came to respect Rutherglen as a region, especially the characters that forged its reputation.
It was a privilege to break bread and share special bottles at the monthly wine makers’ dinner with the likes of Mss’rs Morris, Gehrig, Killeen, Campbell, Brown, Buller, Jones and Sutherland-Smith and hear their many yarns about the region.
I wasn’t even 30 !
These guys gave me a hard time for the first six months but then they accepted me. I learnt a lot.
And finally, of course my wife and best mate Bronnie.
I’m probably the luckiest bloke in the world.
Any tips for lovers of good wine ?
The advice I give to young kids 25 to 35, when they are getting an interest in fine wine. …
Join a local wine group, or form one yourselves, get some knowledge and get a palate through repetitious tasting .
When you’ve got a good palate, you will never pay too much for a wine.
When a trendy wine comes out for hundreds of bucks and you get to try it, you’ll probably know at least 20 wines that are as good for $50 to $70.
Memorable Wines ?
There have been so many, too many to name.
But one night in Toronto with my Canadian agent and his father we had the most amazing night’s collection of wine (see below).
Four wines that have stood out over the years have been a 1921 D’Yquem, 1985 Ponsot ‘Clos de La Roche’, 1961 Chateau Lafite and a 1980 Balgownie Cabernet from Bendigo.
When I first drove past and saw the For Sale sign out the front it was a very difficult moment.
I sat there for a while then turned around and went back in to Lyndoch.
I spoke to my mate at the supermarket and the guy at the garage, both of whom I’ve known for thirty years.
Told them both,
“Just so you don’t hear it second hand. I’ve been re-diagnosed and we’re putting the place of the market.”
I knew as soon as the sign went up, the rumours would start…
“Rick’s gone broke and had to sell.”
My initial reaction was that I was pulling a plug on 90 continuous years, but with the illness, my hand was forced.
I don’t know who’s gonna buy the place. I’d love it to be a husband-and-wife winemaking / viticulture team who can take over what I never got to finish.
I’m selling it as a winemakers’ vineyard, It’s not just 25 acres of Shiraz you pick in two days.
It’s got these other varieties, like Souzao, Tinta Cao,Tempranillo, and six rows of a heritage clone of Barossa Shiraz that I just planted.
Selling in the middle of vintage is not the best, but couldn’t be helped.
Pumping over at midnight, then getting up at 5.30am to pick the next morning, and winter pruning in the cold have all lost their appeal right now !
Production, interview & photography : Milton Wordley
Transcript & edit : Anne Marie Shin
Website guru : Simon Perrin DUOGRAFIK
* The wines from Rick’s one night in Toronto with his Canadian agent and his father
A TORONTO TASTING – OCTOBER 31st., 2009 : CAPITAL THEATRE, YONGE ST, TORONTO
THE WINES not in this order.
1929 Mouton ( not a first! )
1929 Latour ex mag.
1929 Haut Brion
1929 Jaboulet ‘La Chapelle’
Set the mood for the night – 2 birthday boys, one born 1929, his son 1959.
Other wines tasted, not in order, from 6 pm till midnight:
Jaboulet ‘La Chapelle’
Rom. St Vivant 1976
Vosne Rom. 1999
Dujac ‘Clos de la Roche’
2001 all fantastic!
1959 ex mag.
1961 ex mag
1997 ex 6 litre!
Ch. Haut Brion
Ch. Cheval Blanc
1947 ex mag. corked!!
Ch. Leoville Les Cases
Ch. Ducru de B.
Ch. La Mission Haut Brion
1961 ex mag
La Sizerane 2004
L’Ermite 2004 ex 6 litre Fantastic – very fresh!
Clos Vougot 1964 ex mag
Richebourg 1949, 1961
We did have some whites ….
1976 ex mag
1978 ex mag
1976 ex mag
Batard Montrachet 1992
Wines of the night!
1921 Ch d’Yquem 750 ml
1985 Ch. d’Yquem ex double mag (3L) – mind numbing!
last wine, at midnight, a 1827 Madeira – special.