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Winemaker interview: John Retsas of First Drop Wines

We speak to the Barossa winemaker about the importance of fresh ideas in an industry known for its insistence on tradition.

Barossa Valley winery First Drop Wines calls its cellar door The Home of The Brave, and it’s no exaggeration. After all, one requires some amount of courage to present a largely unheard-of approach to marketing wine by embracing distinctive, quirky labels and working with uncommon grape varieties – all back in 2004. Started by winemaker buddies Matt Gant and John Retsas, First Drop is perhaps best known for its Mother’s Milk Barossa Shiraz, a made-to-be-drinkable-now wine that balances being “slurpy” with enough acidity and character to keep you going back. There’s also a large number of Italian grapes in their portfolio: the Vivo, a delicious Arneis (a Piedmontese white grape that makes floral, refreshing wines) that punches above its price point; and a couple of Nebiolos. Then there’s the premium stuff like The Cream, a barrel selection Barossa Shiraz that’s made to play with the greats – stuff that’s made for cellaring and patience. The Peak speaks to Retsas about making a wide variety of wines, and the importance of creative marketing in the wine industry.

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You guys have some of the craziest labelling and packaging around. Was it a conscious decision from the start to give each wine a unique look?

After many years in the wine business working for wineries, I realised that the big ones were very adamant about dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s. Everything had to be in the right place – which I found to be very boring. We wanted to make wines with personalities. It’s a bit like clothing. We made a very conscious decision from the outset to brand the wine like this – each wine has its own label and design that reflects its story; and we only put a small brand stamp on the label or screw cap to show where the wine is from. We work with different designers for each wine because we don’t want to have a house style.  

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The label for the Craneford single-vineyard syrah Cold Sweat is especially interesting (a metal cage wrapped around the bottle) – how did that come about?

We took a drive to Eden Valley – where the vineyard is – and we found that there were all these rocks that punch up from the ground, looking like broken bones. Eden Valley has one of the oldest soil profiles in the world at about 700 million years old, and after the wet winter months, a greenish moss starts to grow on them. It looked like metal corroding, and that was our brief to the designer. The metal label on the Cold Sweat is made of copper – which will age, and continue to oxidise and get a green patina – like the rocks. 

The labelling on the First Drop Cold Sweat Craneford Syrah

That can’t be cheap to produce.

They’re not. They’re expensive. At the end of the day, packaging is part of the core image of the wine. Nothing good is cheap. 

The labels are all quite “fun” even though you’re making some pretty serious wines; are you afraid of people passing the label off as gimmicky and not giving the wine a chance?

We’ve noticed that consumers buy their wines with not just their palates, but their eyes as well. This is especially true with a new wine. Younger, more savvy consumers that quality wine doesn’t necessarily mean a chateau on the label (and vice versa). 

First drop works with quite a few varietals done in a range of styles – which wine has been the most challenging to make?

Viticulture is always the hardest part of winemaking. We have a great love of nebbiolo and barbera – which are relatively new varieties in Australia, so there’s a bit of challenge in terms of getting out the right flavours. For the other grapes, the core Australian varieties (like Shiraz), most of the hard work has already been done by our predecessors. Both Matt and I have travelled the country to look for the right sites in order to grow [the grapes like nebbiolo]  and get the best out of the fruit. 

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What is the roadmap you have for the winery in the next 10 years?

We’ve spent the last 12 months redesigning some labels just to keep things fresh and funky; but we’re also exploring making wine with more new varieties to Australia. I have greek heritage, so I want to look at the Greek grapes like Assyrtiko and  Moschofilero. But again, like with the Italian grapes, it;s a process of finding the right spot (in Australia) to grow them, and to be true to the variety. We played with Barbera for seven or so years to get it right. 

You guys started in 2004, and you’re a relatively young winery that isn’t really held back by rules and tradition like many winemakers are. What is the legacy you want to leave in say, 50 years?

The legacy hopefully will be that we’re the guys that played a part in changing the game in Australia. We want to be known as ones who positively reinvigorated the business in terms of introducing different grapes, making wine that people haven’t even heard of, and fresh marketing ideas – all fundamentally underscored by quality. We were also one of the first to do tasting videos with notes. I believe we were trailblazers then, and hope the next generation continues to improve and do better. It’s basically the story of Australian winemaking. Many years ago, the country predominantly produced fortified wines (in the 19th Century), but now we make much more dry wine – and are constantly innovating, like scientifically making clean wine without brettanomyces. It’s incumbent upon us as winemakers to try and improve and innovate and push the envelope. 

 

First Drop’s wines are available in Singapore from Malt & Wine Asia