Curious to learn how technology and winemaking come together? Join me and David Bicknell, recipient of the Gourmet Traveller WINE (GTW) Winemaker of the Year 2017 award and Chief Winemaker at Oakridge Wines for a live Zoomelier session.
We will explore the use of technology in the winemaking business, cover trends and observations during COVID-19, as well as go over some fun recommendations for these interesting times we live in.
Welcome, David Bicknell. We've been really looking forward to having you on Cloudflare TV.
We've had a couple hiccups with that because actually the main thing Cloudflare does is speed up and protect things connected to the Internet, not broadcast all the time.
So I guess we're learning as we go. Before I get started, I just want to tell folks, David was the winemaker of the year in 2017 in Australia.
He is at Oak Ridge and we're very, very privileged to have him on for our show, which is Zoom LEA with Oak Ridge or What to Drink with Tech.
And I just wanted to let you know that I had a nice evening last night.
We had people over and I can't get the full range of product here.
And with my backdrop, not everything shows, but if I put it right in front of my face, you can see that we enjoyed a very nice bottle of Oak Ridge Chardonnay last night.
So David, let's kick off. You know, when I first met you, you told me a bit about your background.
You come from a seafaring family and here you are in the middle inland in a vineyard.
Can you just tell me a bit about growing up and how you even got to Australia since I think you didn't start out there?
Well, you know, we're all convicts here. So I was transported to the colonies.
You're not quite old enough, I don't think. I don't buy it.
No. But you're right. My family, a seafaring family. My father was a ship's captain and master mariner.
His twin brother was as well. My grandfather, great -grandfather, great-great-grandfather.
So there are actually five generations of seafarers, merchant, navy.
Dad saw the opportunity to take a job out in Australia back in the 70s and so we moved out.
So my parents are Scottish and Anglo-Celtic, you might say.
Part of the family originated in the Orkney Islands back to the 1400s, we've traced them.
And the other side of the family were, in fact, farmers in Somerset in England.
So the farming thing is there, but it's a few hundred years old.
Anyway, Dad, being a seafarer, got the taste of wine. So he went to sea during the Second World War and he travelled a lot between Europe, through the Mediterranean countries, to England, to New York and down to Argentina.
And he got a taste for wine.
So being a Scotsman, he always drank whiskey, but he never really was a beer drinker.
So when we grew up as kids, there was always wine at the table.
And it never occurred to me growing up that you could actually study winemaking and learn how to make wine.
And a friend of mine who comes from one of the old winemaking regions in this country, up in Rutherglen, when I was around 20, said, you realise you can go and study this stuff.
So we used to go and buy a lot of wine together.
Were you already in Australia by then, or he told you that in Scotland?
No, no, that was when I was there. Because your family had moved to Australia, right?
Got it. Yeah. So we lived all over the UK growing up as children and then we moved to Australia.
So that's why I've got the outrageous Scottish accent as well, as you can pick.
That's been well and truly beaten out of me at school here.
Survival of the fittest and all that. And I was destined to be, you know, to go to sea and be an engineer.
And that's what the old man wanted. But, you know, I rebelled and I dropped anchor inland.
And how did you, so you went to study wine and then, how did you get to where you are now?
You told me some story about hanging off on a lawn with the decontolerator, which I'm not sure I'm saying right, so maybe tell us that anecdote.
No, that's exactly right.
So I had actually enrolled and I studied in medical sciences and I was going to be an ambulance driver.
And that's when everything changed. And once I went to Roseworthy, which is the oldest agricultural college in Australia, where pretty much all the old winemakers in the country went, I went there and did well at college.
And when I was a student, I dropped in at Dvortoli, who are here in the Yarra Valley, Italian family who've been in Australia since the twenties.
And I met Steve, the winemaker, and we sat on his lawn and then we moved up to the restaurant.
We sat at the table and we tried all these wines and drank all these wines.
And next thing, the phone rings and it's his wife. She was about to have a baby.
And he just said, well, can you shut the restaurant, take all these bottles? And I just said, well, what about a job?
And he said, yeah, yeah, yeah, you got a job.
You know, as soon as you finish college, you see you come back. And it all sort of moved from there.
But you're right, the drinking side, I guess you're always bigger in your life.
You're good at something. And, you know, again, that Scottish heritage where there's some pretty good drinkers on my side of the family.
So we were always good at it, but you never know how good you are until you really get into it.
So how long did you work? I mean, did you in fact go to, I know I'm saying it wrong, to Dvortoli after college?
And how long did you stay there?
Yeah, well, I was, I worked for the family for nearly 10 years and they gave me a lot of opportunities.
So while I was working for them, I went and worked in Burgundy and I went and worked in Alsace.
And I spent time in the Rhone Valley. And, you know, they were really supportive of fast tracking my career.
And then the opportunity came up at Oakridge.
And Oakridge at that time was probably the worst house on the best street.
That's probably the most accurate way to describe it.
And it was an old family company started in the 70s and it got into financial difficulty.
And it had been bought by one of the large corporates. And they headhunted me from, from on the other side of the river.
And that was, I don't know, 18, 20 years ago nearly.
And we've turned it from it being the worst house on the best street to being one of the best houses on the best street.
And do wineries not, you know, in the tech world, and we'll come back to tech and wine in a minute, sometimes there are non-competes.
What happens in the wine world when you go from one winemaker to another?
I know the grapes are different and the terroirs, I guess, are slightly different, but how does that work?
Does anybody mind when you go across the river?
Yeah, sure they do. And it can lead to all sorts of problems. And one of the things I'd like to think that I did when I came over here, though, was that I left all of that behind.
So while the business here needed to find some new growers and do some new things, I worked with the existing roster that we had, if you like, and just maintain that professional respect for the de Bortoli family, because they had invested a lot in me and they were disappointed when I left.
But they didn't put any non-competes.
I mean, I said to them I'd never hit on any of their growers or try and steal any of their business away.
In fact, when I first came over here, we took business to them because I knew that we would get better results by getting them to help us.
What does that mean to take business from one winery to another?
Does that mean buying their grapes or what does that actually mean?
Well, the winery here was in a fair bit of disrepair, and it couldn't really do the things that I wanted it to do to get the right outcomes.
So we took, instead of bringing the grapes into the winery here, some of the grapes we sent over to the de Bortoli winery and we looked after it over there.
So I was working between two winery sites in that first vintage.
So it was back in 2002. And once we got on top of things later in the year, then we brought everything back in here.
But it really sort of gave us a footing and it helped to start to cement the quality aspect that we really wanted to get out of this place.
And tell me a little bit, somewhere in between there, I think you said you wrote for or with James Halliday, who for people who may not know if you've spent any time in Australia and probably any time with wines, you know, he's one of the most famous wine writers in the world and puts out a compendium every year on what to drink and the number, the score he gives you is really meaningful.
So I think he's not only reviewed your wine, but you write for him.
Am I correct? Just tell me a bit about that.
Yeah, well, that came a bit later. So I'd known James for quite a long time. And there's an institution here called the Len Evans Tutorial.
And it's a, if you like, it's a finishing school at the top end of wine.
And I went to the tutorial in 2005.
And James is one of the founding members of the tutorial and runs it. And I duxed the course in 2005.
And we, I guess I want to just tell I'm not sure what everybody knows what duxed is.
If I hadn't lived in Australia, I wouldn't know. And really what that was about was, again, a little bit of fast tracking into wine show judging in particular, which is what it was set up for.
And, and James had been for a number of years, one of the most important, you know, wine critics and wine show judges in the country.
And so I really moved into that fold of that elite level with James as a mentor.
And at another industry function, we were just talking, you know, one afternoon.
And he said, you know, I've seen your wine notes and your wine writing, and it looks really good.
Do you want to have a go at it? And I said, Sure.
Okay, well, send me some wine. And I thought he'd send me, you know, a couple of boxes of wine to write a few reviews, and then boxes and boxes and pallets, and hundreds and hundreds of wines turned up.
And I ended up spending, you know, all of my spare time writing for James as well.
And I did it for one year, but it's something that, while it's nice to do it, you really have to have your head in that game the whole time to do it, I think, to do it successfully.
But it was a lot of fun, because I got to see a lot of wine and be quite critical of, you know, my peers, including my local peers.
And ironically, I got all the De Bortoli wines as well, which...
I was going to ask you, is there no conflict of perceived conflict of interest when you're doing that and working as a winemaker?
Yeah, well, when they turned up, I thought, well, this is not going to end well, because we live in the same town.
And we bump into each other. And we're still friends, you know, we go out together.
So anyway, they were quite pleased with how I reviewed their wines and understood it.
But on that wine show, judging, I guess I have to face that.
I face it every year as I used to be the chairman of the Melbourne Wine Awards, used to chair the Brisbane National Wine Show, and I'm the chairman of the National Wine Show of Australia.
So when people enter those wine shows at that top level, it's my name that underscores all of the results that come out of the show.
So there's a bit of pressure on with that. But it's one of these things that when you've, you know, when you've clocked up that, you know, 10,000 hours of experience or so, you can either do it or you can't.
And when you can do it, I don't think you tend to...
you take a more holistic approach and you don't think about those things.
Because really, it's the discipline of doing the job and finding the right result.
So I'm quite... So I'm quite comfortable with how the results pan out now.
And I also get letters from, or letters, emails from producers who aren't necessarily happy.
But that's life. That's life as a critic. You will always have an opposing view from someone on what it constitutes.
So can you tell us a bit about tech in the winemaking business?
What kind of technology do you guys, you know, just to make this vaguely relevant to tech, what kind of technology do you use to pick grapes or to gauge when to pick them or in the winemaking process?
Yeah, well, it's starting to move a bit quicker now.
But the technology in winemaking is, you know, we refer to horse and cart all the time.
A lot of winemaking is very simple, very basic stuff.
And a lot of the most common operations really haven't changed much in a couple of hundred years.
And the tech is mostly being used, devised and propagated by the larger wineries.
And we often refer to, there are two types of wineries in the world.
And there's the handcrafted boutique type wineries like ours, which is still very much in that rudimentary horse and cart realm.
And then a lot of the technology has been in the, what we, you know, deride as being the factory wineries.
You know, it's all about processing and efficiency rather than time and quality being driving factors.
But having said that, we've just moved to a cloud-based operating system here.
So we have all of our tanks, our barrel storage and the environment in those barrel storage, our trade waste, our refrigeration system, which is a glycol system that's remained around the winery, is all controlled through a program called FermiCraft, which is a cloud-based operating system uses a Steemans product called MindSphere, which connects all the product and plant systems together.
And it allows us to extract data and use that data to really drive some analyses on what we're doing.
So we can basically dial up how we would like a fermentation to run in a particular tank.
And through the temp control system with the glycol, we can control that fermentation, the rate of fermentation and altering the rate of fermentation can produce profoundly different results.
And also, you know, just the atmospheric conditions in our barrel rooms, levels of CO2 and oxygen that are in there, we can look at all of these things, relative humidity in tanks, we can look at specific gravity.
And so there's a fair bit of tech. And the best thing is, like what I'm doing now, I'm just having this meeting over my phone, I can run all of that off my phone.
So you don't have to come into the winery anymore.
I wish. The great thing about wine is it's very tactile. And in the end, it's, you know, the ability to taste and determine where the interventions are required that really drives it.
So there's a fair bit of tech there. The stuff that really turns me on now, though, is more of the vineyard operations where robotics are starting to play a big part in future design.
We're not quite there yet. But a lot of vineyards require so much input of labour.
And we still handpick everything here and we hand prune everything.
But I'm, you know, watching, and I've had meetings with a couple of companies to discuss how they might design some robots to take over the pruning.
And so we can get it done, you know, 24 seven rather than in daylight hours from eight till four at the moment in the middle of winter.
So there's a lot of tech coming on. I don't know, do the robots demand wine, free wine after they pick?
Well, that's a good thing. None of them drink. They're all teetotals.
You know, all you got to do is charge them up with a battery and off they'll go.
So they're a lot more efficient than the general sailor hands that we have who kind of operate on, you know, a couple of different systems of reward.
So I'm sitting in front of Cloudflare's well known lava lamps, at least a picture of them that we use for encryption.
But you seem to be sitting in front of things that look a lot more fun and less toxic to drink.
So can you tell us where you are right now?
And then we'll get to talking about your wines. Yeah, well, I'm sitting in our Selador tasting facility, which unfortunately with COVID is obviously it's been closed now for a number of months.
And so it's almost just become like a packaging and dispatch area at the moment.
But the shelves behind me here, you know, what we're currently we would have on text in Selador, and we are currently selling.
So mostly from vintage 18 and onto vintage 19 now, with a number of different varieties.
So, you know, we tend to, we specialize in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. That's about 70% of what we do.
So we've got three minutes left. And I'd love to just get you to tell me of the Chardonnay and the Pinots, if I give you four categories of things that can happen in technology that involves us.
So one is being on zoom calls or video conference.
One is an engineer probably headphones on coding.
One is when you're under attack, something bad is happening to your system. And one is when you've just upgraded a system and everything's working well, and you're celebrating.
So what wine do I drink with a video conference? I'd almost be drinking gin out of a teacup.
So it looks like you're drinking tea, but you're actually drinking gin.
However, I'm actually drinking Chardonnay. And that's probably the answer to the next question about, you know, when you're geeking out and Chardonnay, such a multifaceted, faceted complex wine, that's forever changing.
And it's one of those wines that for me, anyway, it kind of, it turns my brain on.
And, you know, really helps you to concentrate, I reckon. You know, I often take work home at nighttime and, you know, a glass of wine, perfect.
All right. And what about the bad side of things when things are going wrong, and you're a little bit stressed out?
Which wine do you have with that? Do you need something sturdier?
Or do you, what do you, what do you do? You're freaking out instead of geeking out.
Yeah, the stress for us all happens during the harvest period. So every good decision and every bad one happens in a, pretty much a 12 week period.
And those are long days. They're often, you know, 18 hour days. And they're the stressful days.
But they're bookended by two things, coffee in the morning and beer at night.
So that's probably where the stress valve, so the coffee gets you going, the beer.
And when you, when you're drinking beer during harvest, you know, the day's over and it's done.
And that's when all the stress goes away. That's interesting.
Okay, last one, big celebration and saving up for years, everything's going right.
Or, you know, my system's installed, no bugs running perfectly.
What do I, what Oak Ridge wine do I use to celebrate? Well, that's easy. I've got it right there.
864. 864 Chardonnay. Yep. 2017. Yep, 2017. And that's a wine that's done extremely well.
Great reviews. It's in the, we have a classification system in this country.
And it's one of only three Chardonnays in the classification.
And it's probably our most important wine. All right, well, can I ask you to save me a bottle?
I'll get down there when COVID is over and purchase it if there are any left.
David, thank you so much for being with us. This was so much fun.
And, you know, for those of you, I've been to Oak Ridge once or twice, and it's beautiful.
So for those of you who are locked down in Victoria, the rest of us can't get in right now.
But others of you, well, I guess you said the cellar door isn't open.
We can buy it. I know we can even buy it in Singapore. So and I know there's others.
So thank you again. Congratulations on being winemaker of the year and you make beautiful stuff.
Thanks, Aliza. Thanks for having me. And if you are looking for wine in Singapore, Dairy Farms, they import our wine.
So it is available.
And if you're stateside, K&L in California, they import our wine as well. So they're pretty important partners for us.
Great. See you, David. Thank you so much.
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