Clarendon Hills makes some of the most expensive wine in Australia. Owner Roman Bratasiuk only makes single-vineyard Syrah (he won't call it Shiraz), Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. Astralis, his signature Syrah, goes for $325. Other single-vineyard Syrahs (plural) are $100, most of the Grenaches $61. So what does he do with all the money he is raking in?
For one thing, he bought a vineyard, called Rockleigh, which he has planted to 35 acres of old-fashioned head-pruned vines, on their own roots, in 1.5- by 2.7-meter spacing. The property, on a steep hillside littered with granite, slate and shale — "just like Hermitage," he says, smiling — had been used for grazing beef cattle. It is less than a mile from his winery in Clarendon Hills, across the Onkaparinga River from the Hickinbotham Vineyard, from which he buys grapes.
Bratasiuk dropped that nugget about the vineyard over lunch in San Francisco earlier this week. When I arrived, he had already ordered and opened a bottle of Mongeard-Mugneret Nuits-St-Georges Premier Cru Les Boudots 1999 from the restaurant's wine list. Life is good when your wine sells in triple digits.
But it also says a lot about Bratasiuk. He didn't care about showing off his own wines to me. He brought no bottles, and in the course of lunch he only got a 2003 Syrah off the restaurant's list. He prefers to drink French wine, has little appreciation for the wines his Aussie competitors make, and puts his money where his mouth is.
We talked about a lot of things, including his pricing. Last year, Clarendon Hills changed importers and bumped up its already high prices by almost 50 percent. The 2003 wines were great, as usual, but the prices stunned everyone. Now the import firm has been absorbed by the giant Gallo empire, and the prices are down on the 2004s by about 10-15 percent. That’s still about one-third higher than the 2002s, but it’s an improvement, especially given the quality of the vintage. (The 2004 wines, which I tasted last spring, are even better than the ‘03s. Overall, the newer vintage feels more balanced, fresher and livelier.)
"I buy Tronçais oak barrels, I pay an full-time vineyard manager to work with all these growers, and I pay top dollar to get them to keep the yields down," he said. "To do that, you have to get top dollar for the wines."
It's hard to be angry at someone who cares as much about quality as Bratasiuk does, even if he does hang hefty price tags on his wine.
One thing he's doing with his money is saving up to buy some of the vineyards that have provided consistent grapes for his wines. "Someday, I want to acquire all of the vineyards we currently work with," he said. "There are two vineyards that are going to have to be sold in the next couple of years, one because of a divorce, the other because the owner has cancer. We just have to grab them."
As we finished our main courses, we reminisced about Len Evans. The Welshman with the big personality, who had such a profound effect on modern Australian wine, died recently, and Bratasiuk wanted to toast him with one of Len's favorite wine types, something from the northern Rhône. He ordered a bottle of Jaboulet Côte-Rôtie Les Jumelles 1998, but it tasted kind of flat. I smelled TCA in it. We got another. "Even worse," he sighed.
So, Roman. How about something other than cork on your wines?
"Can't do it," he said, "and still maintain the image." I groaned. Finally, he asked for a bottle of Jaboulet's Hermitage La Chapelle 1997. It was gorgeous. Somewhere up there, I think, Evans was doubled over with laughter.
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