Martin Gillam - December 2006
An injection of talent and passion for the vine has helped nurture the agricultural rebirth of a sleepy Australian town turned gourmet produce and tourism hot spot.
It was only three years ago that Philip Shaw was the most powerful winemaker in Australia, with the ultimate responsibility for every bottle labeled Penfolds, Rosemount, or Lindemans. But today you'll find him on an isolated mountainside, making boutique wines from a place the world has barely heard of.
And he can hardly stop smiling.
Shaw has realized his lifelong dream, and it's a world away from big labels and executive boardrooms. "I'm not a corporate person in any way, shape, or form," he explains, recalling his long and sometimes tumultuous years with Australia's biggest wine companies. "I trod on a lot of toes, no doubt. I've always taken issue with the idea that people in management necessarily know more than a winemaker—and there are too many managers with big egos who want to be the winemaker."
Shaw, 58, knows the big business wine world as well as anyone. He began at age 15 with Penfolds and had long stints as winemaker with Lindemans and Rosemount before reaching the top of the Australian winemaking tree in 2001. That's when Southcorp merged with Rosemount to create what was the world's biggest wine conglomerate, and Shaw was given the job of group winemaker, overseeing a myriad of brands, including all those mentioned above and many more.
It was rough going for all concerned—the merger was badly handled, profits and market share fell, and there were all manner of internal company jealousies. By 2003 Shaw had had enough; he left to follow his own path. (Southcorp has since been taken over by the Foster's beer company.)
"Although I've worked in big companies, I've always had a small company mentality. I was getting no hands on winemaking experience, and it seemed like a good time to go and chase this longtime dream."
Long time indeed. Shaw had already begun laying its foundations in the 1980s, searching all over Australia for the right place to plant his own vines. He considered many promising regions, but none was quite right. Then came intervention from above.
"I was on a small country plane in 1987 when we started running out of fuel," he remembers, counting his luck. "The pilot diverted for an emergency landing, and he flew across a place I'd never seen before." That place was the sleepy town of Orange, 155 miles west of Sydney, probably best known as the birthplace of bush poet "Banjo" Paterson, who wrote "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Man From Snowy River."
While most passengers would have been preoccupied with survival, Shaw was fascinated by the new landscape opening up below. Orange is apple growing country—the forbidden fruit thrives in the high elevations and rich soil, next to an extinct volcano. "Cool climate?" Shaw thought. "Volcanic soils?" He was on to something.
"The very next weekend I went back (by car this time) for a closer look, and was very impressed. The soils are a nice mix of limestone, shale, and volcanic ash—they drain well for the vine. And the region is about 3,000 feet above sea level, so you get the right blend of warm days and cool nights. I was hooked almost immediately."
Within months, Shaw bought 116 acres, gave the property an Aboriginal name "Koomooloo" ("I don't know what it means, but I like the sound of it"), and began planting. It was quite a risk, because winemaking was almost unknown in the district. Although table grapes had been grown a century earlier, no one had planted a wine vineyard in Orange until 1983, when Sydney amateur winemaker Stephen Doyle took the plunge and established Bloodwood Vineyards on 20 acres.
"I remember when Philip first came to Orange to look around," says Doyle with a hearty chuckle. "I was hosting a wine tasting when in he walks unannounced, and my eyes widened. I mean here's a guy with awards all over the place. [Shaw is the only man to have twice been named Winemaker of the Year, in 1986 and 2000, at the London International Wine and Spirit Competition.] It was like Picasso turning up at a kindergarten finger painting session.
"He tasted a Cabernet and a Chardonnay and asked me, "Did you make this?" When I told him I had, he said, "Gee, imagine what a real winemaker could do with this fruit!"
"I thought, ‘You bastard!' But it was the start of a great friendship. Having Philip come here has helped put us on the map."
As well as planting his dream vineyard at Orange, Shaw also built his family home on the property. Because he was still chief winemaker for Rosemount at the time, he arranged to sell his fruit to his employer, then personally fashioned it into a new line of Rosemount wines. His faith in the district proved justified—his Rosemount Orange Chardonnay won the "Prix d'Excellence" at the 1998 VinExpo in Bordeaux.
Shaw and Rosemount kept the arrangement going until 2003 when Shaw quit Southcorp to go solo. Now he uses all the fruit for his own eponymous label, Philip Shaw, beginning with the 2004 vintage.
But that's only part of Shaw's Orange adventure. Thanks to kismet, a whole new chapter has opened up.
"The day I left Southcorp I got a phone call from an insurance company, Assetinsure, that was looking to buy a big, established vineyard (1,255 acres) at Orange. They wanted my opinion on the property. It had potential, so I told them to buy it."
Things quickly snowballed. Assetinsure bought the vineyard, made it the lynchpin of a new wine company called Cumulus, and hired Shaw to get it up and running. As well as tending his own small vineyard, Shaw found himself managing one 10 times as big. But he relished the chance to find out, on a grander scale, just what Orange could achieve.
"We retrellised the vines, cut the yields in half, helped design the new labels—it was a chance to use a career's worth of knowledge." Shaw also brought in a new management team, both fellow alumni from Southcorp days. Keith Lambert, former Southcorp CEO is now Cumulus chairman (and has bought a 51 percent stake in the company) and Southcorp's former European president Jeffrey Wilkinson is the new Cumulus CEO. Cumulus will distribute the Philip Shaw label.
For Shaw, it's the winemaker's equivalent of being a kid in a candy store. With his own vineyard and the Cumulus site (divided into two labels, "Rolling" for the lower slopes and "Climbing" for the higher reaches) Shaw says each grape variety can be matched to its own specific terroir of soil, aspect, and temperature. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc lead the whites, with Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon the main reds. Other promising varieties are Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc.
The thing that strikes you when you taste Shaw's wines is their sheer elegance—a purity of bright fruit that makes them taste almost European rather than the blockbuster Australian style that the world has come to know. Shaw says the main reason is elevation: at around 3,000 feet, Orange has the highest vineyards in the country.
"Every three hundred feet you climb means a temperature drop of about two degrees Fahrenheit. That's a lot when you consider that the difference between southern France and northern France is only about eight degrees," Shaw explains. "Elevation gives us the style we're looking for—finer, elegant, less alcoholic."
Not that he's against the full-bodied Australian style. After all, he used to make Rosemount's McLaren Vale stentorian Shirazes that one critic called "Henry the Eighth style" and Hunter Valley Chardonnays so fleshy they were nicknamed "Dolly Parton wines."
"I'm not saying our wines in Orange are better, just a different style. It's the elegance I'm looking for." He's particularly proud of his results with that bane of New World winemakers, Merlot. His Merlots have a definite affinity with the right bank of Bordeaux, a rarity in Australia and California.
"Merlot is a very touchy grape, just like Pinot Noir. It's hard to make great wine from it, but it's worth the struggle when you get it right. In Orange, I think we have the chance to make Australia's best."
With Shaw helping to give the district both credibility and visibility, Orange has come in just two decades from having no wineries to having more than 35. With his wines and those of his neighbors beginning to find markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Shaw says he's as excited now as when he began in the industry as a 15 year old.
"To make my own wines again and get my hands dirty, it's wonderful. You realize how much you miss it as part of a big company. You can get lost in the system and lose your enthusiasm—I've seen it happen to more than one winemaker.
"But this place," he says, sweeping his hand across the Orange landscape, "has such enormous potential, and we're only just getting started. Life is about overcoming hurdles and achieving something. That's what keeps you young."