Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, Editor in Chief for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com and the publications’ critic for the wines of Australia and New Zealand, kindly set aside time for an interview with Liv-ex. This was ahead of the London Matter of Taste Event, which took place at the Saatchi Gallery at the end of February. The interview will be published in two parts. In the first, Lisa discusses her entry into the wine industry and the wines of Australia. In the second, she discusses the Wine Advocate and its future.
How did you get into the wine industry?
I was a struggling playwright in London, fresh off the boat from America (coming the wrong way probably) and living in Brixton. I had a friend who was managing a wine bar in Pimlico and I needed to make some money to pay the rent, so he asked me to do some waitressing and part-time bar stuff. I knew nothing about wine at that point: I was a JD and coke kind of person. After I’d been working there a few weeks my friend was leaving to take another job, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. The owners were Eldridge Pope, the big pub group, based out in Dorchester. Somehow I managed to blag my way into the job. The incentive was it came with an apartment over the wine bar in Pimlico – for somebody coming from Brixton it was awesome. I stayed there for six years and had a great time. I very quickly learned about wine to match what I’d said in the interview, enrolled at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, went through all the courses there and eventually did my diploma.
Then after one really bad Christmas of office parties – mopping up, all of the brawls – I decided I was out of catering and I wanted a job in the wine trade. I was purely a wine bar manager, but I had a book on the wine trade and I went through it and wrote to every wine merchant in London. Corney and Barrow invited me in for an interview. Andrew Gordon and Adam Brett-Smith did my second interview which was highly intimidating. “You know, we’ve never had an American work for us at Corney and Barrow….”
Did you have a suit?
Well, I quickly went out and got a pin-stripe suit! They hired me to do on-trade sales. And I had the huge task of looking after their wine bar group and being their wine merchant liaison. The people who were in charge of the bars at that time were the scariest people I’d ever met. I had the task of smoothing things over between these two companies who didn’t really like each other very much. It was a lot of fun – I could write a sitcom about it…
Do you still write plays?
No, but I’ve just written a book, about wine: Taste Like a Wine Critic. It was really fun to write because I was able to use a bit more of my creative style. I initially came to London to study Shakespeare. When I first went to Corney and Barrow I was still producing a play at a little fringe theatre called the Finsborough Arms, and it had a guy with full frontal nudity in it. People from Corney and Barrow came to see the play and they were like: who have we hired?
What happened after you joined Corney’s?
I was with Corney’s until 1998 and then I went to work for Thierry’s Wine Services, and then Paragon Vintners for a while, and then after that I moved to Tokyo. That was because of my husband, who works in banking. He’s British. I met him at the wine bar – he was a member of staff, just about to go into banking, and looking for a part-time job.
When I was in Tokyo I worked as a wine buyer for a wine importer. Honestly, I thought it was going to be career suicide moving to Tokyo but I’d never been to Tokyo and it was one of those experiences you can’t really say no to. I actually found a job very easily because in Tokyo at the time – and certainly around other parts of Asia – there was a real shortage of wine experts, for people not so much with book-learning but real experience of working in wine companies and wine systems. A lot of wine companies in Asia are quite new and not used to basic things like logistics or even sales techniques. On the weekends I’d teach in the Academie du Vin, Steven Spurrier’s project, and one of the biggest wine schools in Tokyo. It was so much fun. Japanese students are a real treat to teach: they’re so engaged and so passionate. I’d do a ten week course: they’d be very quiet for the first two or three weeks but after you went out and got drunk with them they’d open up.
Why has Californian wine done so well in Japan?
The California explosion happened while I was there. It had a lot to do with the dollar plummeting and the yen getting strong: all of a sudden it became very cheap to bring in Californian wines. Additionally, Arnold Schwarzenegger – governor of California at the time – was really gunning for more Californian wine exports, so there was a lot of money going in to promoting Californian wines in places like Japan. It wasn’t really stylistic gravitation or choice, it was more opportunistic. For the most part it had been pretty classic French. The Japanese were Burgundy nuts before anyone else in Asia, and Champagne has always been popular.
You then moved from Japan to Singapore – was this another banking move?
Yes. I came back to the UK for about a year, after Tokyo, then I went to Singapore. About the time I was going back to Singapore Bob [Parker] said, “Why don’t you come and do some writing?” I first met him in Japan. He was coming over to do some tastings and I was working with him to put together a tasting list for his tour.
You cover Australian and New Zealand wines for the Wine Advocate. Why are these wines so big in Asia?
It has much to do with proximity. A lot of people go there on holiday and it’s amazing what impact this can have on people’s experience of wines. When you see a winery first-hand it brings it to life for you, like a Henschke Hill of Grace: you look at those 1860s vines and the solemnness of the church standing there in front of you and it’s a magic experience.
There’s a legacy of Australia making big fruit bombs: is that still the case? And if Australia is changing its style, is that because of global demand?
It isn’t any one factor. There has been a lot of pulling back on those big, high-octane blockbuster wines that we saw in the mid-2000s. People are looking not just for a bit more finesse but also more of an individual signature, and really excelling. One of the most exciting things is that they’re trying to express a sense of place and a sense of vintage and a sense of person. All of these things – it’s almost like an epiphany moment for Australia – is about understanding that the most correct wine is not necessarily the best wine. Having something that is unique and special to you, that is authentic, has become very important, even amongst the regions that were probably the most famous for doing those big overripe styles. The best winemakers realise they can make a really good wine even it’s a medium-bodied peppery Shiraz.
Why has this change happened?
I think the biggest factor has been survival. It’s been about finding a point of differentiation: of being able to say “This is me” and being able to communicate that, not just with marketing and a clever label, but with what’s in the glass. And getting out there and doing the hard sell as well. It’s become incredibly important. Australia’s gone through a real rough patch.
Are you seeing great emerging winemakers, or are the big names such as Henschke still the best?
The big names have got history behind them, and have weathered this difficult period, mainly because they have always stuck to their guns. They’ve never chased a particular style, they’ve always been true to their roots. I see them as solid as ever. At Henschke they’re very good at doing subtle changes, mostly in improving the vineyard. It’s been terrible recently – they’ve had some weird weather patterns, a lot of bush fires coming through the major regions, difficulties in the vineyards. It’s almost good because it’s made them focus even more so on what is most important. The Australians can be too good at winemaking: they need to pull back a little bit and let things happen.
Is there an influence coming from Europe?
The winemakers are usually home-grown, actually. You see them spend some time working in vineyards in Europe to get another perspective and that’s great. Certain institutions have been really good in terms of giving winemakers in Australia a great scientific background. The AWRI are just brilliant, I never fail to be fascinated by their new reports and research and findings, from handling Brettanomyces to using reverse osmosis to get rid of smoke taint. But you can take it too far. You get to a point where people start saying, “This is ripeness,” and everyone is chasing that. Ripeness is subjective: every winemaker should have their own take as part of their vision of the wine. In terms of every single stage of winemaking there shouldn’t be a magic answer. These are the sort of things that tend to produce these cookie-cutter styles, and squeaky-clean wines that are frankly boring.
Do you therefore see Australia as having gone through a “frankly boring” patch, and that exciting things are happening now?
Every time I go over there I get more and more excited about the new things I’m seeing: people testing boundaries and limits, playing with use of stems, ripeness levels, how far you can take it. For a while we were getting these ultra-lean Chardonnays and Pinots coming from Victoria, and on my last visit I was happy to see people pull back from that. It’s not an exact science. Every single vintage is going to be different. You can’t sit back and make wines by formula, you’ve got to be there with a vision. And your vision is going to change: your variables are going to be different so what you’re going to do will be different. Those are the winemakers that will stand the test of time. Those are your Henschkes.
Who are your favourite emerging winemakers?
I just came back from Victoria so that’s in my head at the moment. I’m increasingly impressed with some of the young winemakers, for example Tom Carson. He’s somebody I’ve been watching for many years from when he was at Yering Station. Now he’s over at Yabby Lake, and he’s got his own vineyard there. Where he’s got to now is so exciting. The most recent release is his 2012s and 2013s and they were incredible.
One region I wish people would go out to more is the one that Bass-Phillip made famous, Gippsland. Out in the middle of nowhere. There are a few little pet projects going on out there. Marcus Satchell is doing a project called Dirty Three, which is already in its early days producing some very exciting wines. Mornington is another region that’s starting to produce exciting wines, maybe because of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. They were really contrasting: 2012 was cooler, a more elegant style, 2013 was more crowd-pleasing, with a richer, bolder style that really shows off the fruit. Then you come around to Geelong: Bannockburn’s been there for some time and you’ve also got Gary Farr doing By Farr. He is on fire.
These are all parts of Australia with a cooler climate…
The great thing about Victoria is that it’s got both. I also went to Great Western, and all around the Grampians, then over across the Pyrenees and Heathcote. They’ve had some very dry vintages – there’s been a horrible drought up there – but I look at people like Best’s and I am in awe of the Thomson Family Reserve. Seppelt still does great things: it’s owned by a big company but it’s micro-managed by its own people and it’s got some incredible vineyards. Then we go cooler climate again up to Henty, and the Pinots, Rieslings and Chardonnays there are just incredible. Heathcote went through a patch of those uber-ripe styles but they’re finding their middle ground now. They’re never going to make Pinot-esque Shiraz but they are making these really nice, muscular, medium to full-bodied wines.