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When Chris Hatcher arrived at Wolf Blass to take up a position as winemaker, he expected to stick around for four, maybe five years. Already a white wine and sparkling specialist, he figured he’d stay just long enough to pick up some pointers on how to make great reds, and then be on his way. That was in 1987. This year, the celebrated Chief Winemaker and head custodian of the WB brand celebrates 34 years with Blass.
Well, things don’t always work out the way you’d expect.
Ask any devoutly abstemious parent whose promising young offspring ends up a self-professed Pleasure Maker – with a penchant for provocative curves! (More of the latter later.)
WD: Thanks for agreeing to talk to WineDown, Chris.
CH: It’s my pleasure. WineDown is one of the most interesting and best-written wine columns I’ve ever read.*
*To be fair, there was some static on the line. It’s possible that he actually said: “That’s OK, I didn’t have much on this afternoon anyway.”
WD: You were born in the City of Churches in 1952. What was it like growing up in Adelaide in the 50s and 60s?
CH: Well, my experience probably wasn’t like most people’s. I grew up in a strict Methodist family – in fact my father went through the Methodist ministry, so it was a very, very straight upbringing. No alcohol...
WD: Not at all? Ever?
CH: Not in my family. There was a bunch of people on my mother’s side of the family who used to have parties where they served strange beverages, and everyone seemed to have a very enjoyable time, but it didn’t happen in my family.
WD: So, winemaking isn’t exactly the family business, then.
CH: Well, no. But then again – yes! I didn’t know it until years later, when I’d actually started working in wine, but my great grandfather, Alf Vesey, was the first winemaker at Penfolds. One of his young trainees was Max Schubert, who went on to create Grange.
WD: Blood will out! Alf would have been good for a few tips...?
CH: He would have been, but sadly, he died in the year I was born. But I do have one of his old decanters, and some of his lab equipment...
WD: OK... you hadn’t been exposed to wine at home, and you didn’t know about your winemaking heritage until you were well on your way... So how did it all start?
CH: I guess, like most young people growing up, I wanted to test out my parents’ beliefs. Not to be rebellious exactly, but more just to have a closer look at things... My parents taught me not to gamble, not to drink, and to live a moral life. So, two out of three isn’t so bad, I guess.
WD: Where did you taste your first wine?
CH: I had a friend from Sunday School... from church... whose family drank wine, and it was through them, really. And I just... liked it. And then, in my uni days, it was a helluva lot easier to take a bottle of wine to a party that lug in half a dozen beers.
WD: What was your go-to wine back then, in the early 70s?
WD: I’m sorry, I thought you said Starwine.
CH: Yes, Orlando Sparkling Starwine. You’ve gotta start somewhere! Actually, Starwine was quite a good well-made sparkling, and that style introduced a lot of people to wine in the 1960s and 70s. People like my family...
Between the end of the 1960s and the end of the 1970s, wine consumption in Australia more than doubled, going from nine litres a head to almost 20. Echoing the national trend, the senior Hatchers softened their stance on alcohol to allow a little wine into their lives – on special occasions!
CH: If you went to a restaurant, it was a big deal. It wasn’t something you did every week. It was special. And people would choose things like Starwine as their celebration drink – especially if they weren't really into wine. They’re Transition Wines – the kind of wines that people drink when they’re just starting to move away from beer or spirits or sweet drinks. Now, some people will never migrate out of that style of wine, and they’re quite happy staying there. But then there are people like you and me – it becomes your hobby and fascination and, obviously, for me, I made a career out of it.
WD: So you never wanted to do anything else?
CH: Oh – I actually wanted to be a doctor, but I messed around in my matriculation and didn't quite get enough points to get into medicine, so I did a science degree. I ran out of money in first year, and my parents decided not to fund my freewheeling student lifestyle, so I took a year out to earn some dosh. The job I got was at the Australian Wine Research Institute, and that really got me interested in wine. I decided to go back and finish up my degree in and get into the wine business.
WD: You scored your first job with Kaiser Stuhl?
CH: That’s right. I started out in Research and Development, but then moved into winemaking, with responsibility for Whites and Sparklings. I had a fair bit of success in wine competitions very early on, and it was a really exciting time. Our industry was exploding in terms of growth and volume – and most of the senior jobs were actually taken up by very young people. After five years at Kaiser Stuhl, I was headhunted by Orlando, so there I was, in my mid-twenties, with one of the most senior winemaking jobs in the country. It was unreal.*
*Not unreal as in untrue. Unreal as in the 1970s word for awesome.
WD: So, at the tender age of 27, you’re heading up Orlando. Did you get to make Starwine?
Hatch kindly ignores WineDown’s faux pas. (The Senior Winemaker essentially oversees the entire portfolio)
CH: Well... I was in charge of the chap who made Starwine, so I suppose, in a way I did, yes!
A face-saving change of subject...
WD: You did a stint in California?
CH: Yes, at an outfit called Simi over there in the Sonoma Valley – just next to Napa. It was the mid-80s and Chardonnay was absolutely booming here in Australia – but they were big, fat, oaky wines, and I was interested in doing something a bit more refined. Simi was doing really interesting things with Chardonnay, and I wanted to check them out.
WD: But you were still actually employed by Orlando?
CH: Yes, but not for much longer. Wolf had been asking me for years to come and work for him. Wolf Blass had a phenomenal reputation for red wines – they totally dominated the wine competitions – but they weren’t so strong in whites. Which was funny because they actually sold more whites than reds at the time.
WD: So Wolf finally wore you down?
CH: He’s a hard man to say no to, year after year. And I was getting a bit bored at Orlando, so in 1987, I became senior winemaker for whites and sparklings at Wolf Blass. My plan was to work there for a few years, learn the secrets of his success with reds, and then take off.
WD: The best laid plans…