American Inventor Sets Sights on Remote Region in Australia As Cabernet's Next Hot Spot

On the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, 500 miles from the nearest vineyard, Les Case believes he's found a little bit of Napa.
Apr 10, 2003

Nundroo is a rest-stop town on the road that skirts Australia's Nullarbor Plain, known as the world's longest stretch of nothing. Until recently, it was 500 miles from the nearest grapevine. Now, Nundroo has 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot surrounded by thousands of acres of sheep-grazing land.

When American inventor Les Case, who lives in Newfields, N.H., saw pictures of the arid, mostly treeless land, somehow it reminded him of Napa Valley. He had the soils analyzed and found sandy loam, rich with limestone. Well water in the area tested cleaner than the water typically found in Australian vineyards, he said, and he has access to reverse-osmosis machinery to desalinate water from the Great Australian Bight, a wide bay that the property abuts.

Case, 72, formed a trust to buy a 50,000-acre spread in South Australia and planted the 10-acre test plot earlier this year. Next, he wants to add some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The first crop won't come until 2005, but he is betting that the resulting wine (which he expects to sell for $25 a bottle) will outshine other Australian Cabernets and give Napa a run for its money.

"The Australians don't know what they're doing," sniffed Case. "Their Cabernets are wimpy. I hired some viticulture consultants, and they just wanted to treat the vineyard like they do in McLaren Vale. I hate McLaren Vale Cabernet."

Case has no prior experience growing grapes or making wine. He is a chemical engineer with four degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds more than 20 patents, and his current big project is to get a catalytic fusion plant working. That's right, cold fusion. His process involves converting heavy water to helium using palladium and carbon as catalysts.

Case's enthusiasm for this untested wine region rests partly on advice from winemakers and nursery-vine growers in California. "Dave Rafanelli thinks the soil is just great," Case said by telephone from New Hampshire.

However, Rafanelli -- a grower and owner of A. Rafanelli winery in Sonoma County -- said he has never seen the site, only sample data sent to him by Case. "He offered to fly me there, but I don't have time for that," said Rafanelli. "He really thinks he has found a piece of California in Australia."

Despite hurdles, such as finding qualified vineyard workers 11 hours from the nearest wine district, Case believes he is on to something in Nundroo. "If we don't make an equivalent of Napa Valley Cabernet Reserve," he said, "the whole experiment is a failure."

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