John Bird or Birdy as he’s commonly known, has completed…
On any special occasion in our house, our go to ‘Aussie Sparklers’ are either Arras ‘Grand Vintage’ or Deviation Rd ‘Beltana Blanc de Blancs’.
My partner in life Anne Marie belongs to quite a serious Champagne group, expertly organised by the inimitable Kaaren Palmer, Champagne editor for Galaxy Guides.
When Kaaren was away on a recent writing sabbatical in Champagne, Kate Laurie stepped into her shoes. Together with the only male in the group Jim Smith, one of the first Australian ‘Vin de Champagne’ Award winners, Kate provided excellent insight into the wines, reported Anne Marie.
I first met Kate at one of these gatherings. I had known her husband Hamish from the days when he ran Hillstowe wines in the Adelaide Hills. Here’s her story.
What’s your current role ?
Between my husband Hamish and I we run ‘Deviation Road’ together. I’m the winemaker, and Hamish grows the fruit and runs the business. We have our own vineyard here at home above the Cellar Door where we get our reds from and we lease the vineyard on Deviation Road. And I’m a mother – we have three daughters, who luckily for us are very independent.
You grew up in a wine family – what was that like and how did it influence your choice to be a wine maker ?
My father Syd Hooker was an engineer with a passion for wine. He and my mother Sue planted vines in Manjimup in Western Australia back in the early 1990s. They were very much pioneers. He still has the winery over there called Stone Bridge.
I suppose because it is a small family winery I got to experience all aspects. I was involved in everything, helping in the vineyard, helping to make the wine, marketing and designing the labels – everything from go to whoa. Early on this taught me how hard it was to be in the wine industry. It was a good lesson. There were no illusions when Hamish and I decided to start our own thing!
While I was studying in France (95 – 97), I flew home to help dad with his first vintage. We made our first sparkling in 1996. I was very lucky to have had this experience so early on in my learning.
How do you balance family life and winemaking ?
We do it all together. In the frantic periods, like vintage, disgorging or bottling, it’s a question of just being organised.
Luckily we live on site and the kids are getting to an age where they are able to look after themselves, they are very independent.
My mum has moved over here and lives up the road in Mylor, she helps a lot. The kids love to come down to the winery and help but it’s just too dangerous. So between us we get them off to bed in the evening and then can walk the 50 metres back down to the winery to finish things off. During vintage the fruit goes off site for pressing. That helps. I’ve also had a cellar hand on and off over the past couple of years which is a luxury!
You studied in France, what was that and your first vintage in Champagne like ?
It was an absolute hoot. As a 19 year old Aussie chick, I was a real novelty for the French. For my six month ‘Stage’ (work experience) I purposely chose a small winery called ‘Champagne Doyard Mahé’ in the south of the Côte des Blancs in Vertus.
Plenty of physical work, but I was used to that, it was great. For the three years I was studying over there, all my friends were sons or daughters of winemakers. I spent plenty of time with them at their parents’ wineries where I got most of my experience and made some great friends.
I had studied French at high school, so after completing first year of Ag Science at the University of Western Australia I deferred to go and live in France, and by chance was invited to live with a family in Champagne. (They weren’t offering an oenology degree in Perth back then so I ended up learning more about sheep and wheat and feeling like I wasn’t getting where I wanted to go.)
The school was the Lycée Viticole d’Avize situated in the Cote des Blancs. It’s actually a high school with an adult campus on site to do an Advanced Diploma of viti/oeno. The course I did was straight viticulture and oenology – so I was finally knee deep in what I was wanting to learn. At the end I had to write a thesis – my topic was comparing Champagne and Australian viticulture sites for producing fruit for quality sparkling wines. (Or words to that effect!) Plus we did lots of course and lab work over the two years. The school makes 120,000 bottles of champagne a year. You don’t do anything other than wine at this course.
The school now puts out a fabulous champagne guide run by the marketing students and one of my old lecturers. I still catch up with him when I go to France. The great thing about this guide is that it is not about scoring the wine, it’s about giving factual information and the characteristics of the wine, and an introduction to the person who made it. It’s more descriptive, gives a sense of time, a place, a person. Nick Ryan writes in the same style. He does not score wines. He tries to help educate you on the wine and the person who made the wine. I think it is more interesting to read and more positive for the industry.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Champagne region is the way the big houses and the growers work with each other. They need each other. The big houses have access to some of the best fruit, they spare no expense in the winery, so they are respected for making some of the best wines. The growers are respected for giving new personality to the styles. It’s not dissimilar to the Adelaide Hills! You have Penfolds sourcing and producing world class Chardonnay alongside smaller amazing producers like Barratts or Lobethal Road.
Hamish and I and took the girls back to Champagne for six months in 2013 and lived in Villedommange, near Reims. The girls went to school. Unfortunately just as they were picking up the language we came home.
Wine making has been described as both an art and a science, How do you see it ?
It is both, but I’d also add the physical and social aspects.
There are not many careers, where you get to be physical, intellectual, creative and social. As a winemaker you can. I work in the lab and enjoy it, and it can be very creative. But for me I definitely need to know the science behind it all. I’d get into a real mess without the knowledge base.
Favourite wine styles ?
I know it sounds boring, but I like textural wines. Cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. I’m always eating when I’m drinking, I need that textural balance in the wine, I like tension down the middle palate.
Chardonnay’s like Kooyong, or the Penfolds Adelaide Hills Bin series. Hamish and I shared bottles of 2013 Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay the other day. It was exactly what I like.
Memorable wines along the way ?
This was as much from the experience as the wine.
I had an incredible tasting there with the ‘Wizard’, Mr Reynaud.
He was sitting outside on the porch with a friend when I arrived. I stuttered out some terrible French asking for a visit. He said nothing, stood up, nodded towards the door and we went inside. We were walking through his old cellars and tasting from barrels with broken glasses.
He showed us a Shiraz and in all my wisdom I commented on the peppery notes it had. He shrugged me off and said ‘I don’t eat pepper!’ I figure what he was saying to me was don’t waste time on the minutiae, but enjoy the whole experience. I found him more inspirational because he just focused on doing what he loved.
At the end of the day it’s only a drink. It’s not the wine thats always memorable, often it’s where you are and who you are with.
Who are the winemakers that inspire you ?
I’ve been really lucky and met so many people along the way who have taught me so much. Pam Dunsford has been a huge inspiration to me.
She helps me make decisions. I am prone to worrying too much! Make a mistake in a small family winery and it can be very costly. Pam helps me be decisive. I have never worked under a senior winemaker, and Pam’s worked in big wineries. She shares that knowledge with me.
Tony and Lita at Wendouree have always encouraged me to stay true to myself.
Other passions ?
I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes six years ago – it came on during my third pregnancy. I now spend a lot of time working with a group called Type 1 Voice. We are an advocacy body offering support for people with diabetes and assisting research into health policy. You don’t really know what some people live with day to day until it hits you personally.
Other than that, my biggest passion is without a doubt my three daughters. Cliché I know, but true!
Last supper ?
Have to be on the coast somewhere. King George Beach on Kangaroo Island is very special. Hamish’s father has a place over there, when we have time we go over. I’d line up as many champagnes as I could, in particular some I’ve never tasted. It would finish with the 95 Heidsieck Blanc de Millenaires. All time favourite of mine.
Why do you do what you do ?
I like hard work, I like a challenge. You have to in this game!
We started this ourselves, Hamish and I with a bit of help from the bank. It’s been 15 years now, it’s been very challenging. We’re very proud that we are still here 15 years on and through some of the toughest times the industry has seen. Now we have built a cellar door, have great distribution and get to meet more people. It is very rewarding.
It’s the people in the wine business I like as well. There is a serious level of camaraderie around that I love. I’ve been invited to judge at this year’s Adelaide Wine Show. That’s quite an honour, I’m excited about that.
Anything else you would like to say ?
I think people experimenting with different wine styles is the way to go, we need to keep experimenting.
And on a lighter note, choose your flutes well ! A lot of work goes into making the bubbles, and it’s so disheartening when you see your sparkling being poured in crappy flutes with a rim as thick as a coffee cup and that were washed in detergent. If you can, invest in some with the nucleation site at the base. It is worth it for the constant bead it gives!