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Life Is Good for Clarendon's Bratasiuk

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 15, 2006 2:43am ET

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.

Anthony Clapcich
September 15, 2006 6:52am ET
Somebody who cares as much as he does about his wines, and is willing to stake his reputation on a bottle, should step up to the plate and go corkless-- that's the mark of a true leader. He may even go down in history as the person who turned the corkless tide, instead of "the rich guy who wants to capitalize on somebody's divorce or cancer." If I were selling bottles for $325, I would do everything I could to deliver an age-worthy product. Marquee vintners around the world are waiting for the first Big Switchers-- and the rest of the world is left holding the tainted cork.
David A Zajac
September 15, 2006 1:42pm ET
Sorry Anthony, have to disagree with you. Although cork may have flaws, for me its still the closure of choice for cellarable wines and those that I have had using synthetic corks or screw caps, to me, just don't taste as fresh or lively as one with a good old cork. Don't get me wrong, wines for drinking over the next few years SHOULD have a screw cap, but give me my Clarendon Hills, Lafite and Harlan with a cork.Also, for whatever its worth, the wines of Clarendon Hills, Torbreck and Greenock Creek are great examples of what Australia needs to be doing instead of the monsters so many are making.
Tom Fiorillo
Denver, CO —  September 15, 2006 3:07pm ET
David, were the wines with synthetic corks or screw caps that aren't as fresh or lively tasted blind alongside the same wines finished with cork? Now this would be an interesting experiment, ala the old Pepsi Challenge. Any interest Harvey? That is, if you could find enough control samples.
Anthony Clapcich
September 15, 2006 4:24pm ET
David-- emotions aside, do you have any objective, scientific data that proves "cork-closed" wines taste fresher? There is, however, tremendous evidence for TCA tainted wines when one uses cork...depending on who you survey, anywhere as much as %5-10. Your hypothesis that "screw-cap wines will taste less lively and less fresh" is flawed. Let me ask you a simple question: If you had to bet the mortgage of your house on a cork or screw-cap to keep your bottle safe for 40 years, which would it be? I know corks can be romantic, but the scientific evidence is against them.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 16, 2006 2:18am ET
I opened a btl of Pinot from a new vintage of Rodney Strong and that musty smell seemed to pop out and up at me just as quickly as I pulled the cork. At another tbl I opened a Caymus Special Select. w/ that really long clean soft cork. It made me think back and realize that I have never opened a tainted Caymus Spc. Is it possible that if a winery spends enough to prevent it, they can? Testing and using a quality supplier of cork. I still think screw cap is the way to go. Yesterday's Hero Old Vine Grenache, topped beautifully w/ a thick classy look. The screw cap created some conversation but was quickly forgotten as the talk immediately turned to the full-on aromatics, velvety, silky texture and subtle spice of the wine. This was all in one night of serving wine. Again. Screw cap is alright by me.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 16, 2006 2:25am ET
Even Two Hands must feel the pressure to maintain image as evidenced by this afternoon's tasting of their Bad Impersonator under screw cap and the cork-stopped super-expensive Ares(Branson Coach House is also theirs and also cork) Both delicious and both as different as cork and screw cap. It almost made me wonder if Twelftree and Co. are just testing the $$ limit to screw cap vs. cork. The Bad Impersonator is listed at $45 while the Ares is listed at $120. Maybe he's trying to see if he can use screw cap up to $50 then next vintage $60 and so on.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 16, 2006 12:05pm ET
I, too, am puzzled by an assertion that cork-stoppered wines are "fresher" than those under screwcaps. My experience is exactly opposite. Logically, if corks allow some air into the bottle (as their proponents insist), wouldn't that mean the wine would oxidize faster?

It is more complicated than that, of couse, but I am happy to see the beliefs about cork starting to crumble.

In all fairness, I should say that the perfect cork is the best seal for wine. The trouble is, only about one in 20 corks is perfect. The rest affect the wine adversely in some way, from negligible to blatant.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 17, 2006 4:54am ET
I really do not understand the resistance to the screw-cap. My previous comment about testing the upper pricing limit came to mind again tonight. I open what seems like hundreds of btls table-side a night and precious few people even pay attention to what I'm doing. Many seem downright uncomfortable w/ the whole process. There are a minority that get into the whole ritual. I'm all for good glassware, proper temp, decanting, etc but I don't put much stock into the "romance" of the cork. Personally, I save many corks from btls that represent a special time(this means even a casual conversation over a btl) but most guests do not. I have heard that winemaker's have to make some adjustments to their process if they choose to use screwcaps. You alluded to that. Can you expand on it.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 17, 2006 12:21pm ET
Apj, what it boils down to is that screwcaps faithfully preserve what winemakers put in the bottle. Not to get too technical, but this means they can't expect any oxidation through the stopper to ameliorate excess sulfur, sulfides, or reductive character once the wine is in the bottle. Screwcaps (and glass stoppers) reward good, clean winegrowing practices.

Screwcap opponents currently are trying to make a big deal out of this issue, arguing that screwcaps cause stinky, reductive wines. That is patently untrue. Screwcaps just punish winemakers who put stinky, reductive wines in the bottle. For most, it is simply a matter of getting the amount of disssolved oxygen right at bottling, and all is well.
David A Zajac
September 19, 2006 4:33pm ET
Fortunately or not, most of my experience comes from only a few American wineries that started using artificial cork (not screw caps) some time ago. The one example that comes to mind for me is Behrens & Hitchcock, to me, their wines taste better very young than they do at age 6 or 7, and simply put, with the wines they are making, that should not be the case. They have even admitted as much and have decided to go back to using regular cork closures because they believe their wines show better with age with a cork than an artificial closure. All of the wines of theirs that I own, going back to about 1997, were finished with artificial corks, so unfortunately I don't have bottles with corks to compare with, but they apparently have done this experiment and believe corks are better for their wine. Their wines are fantastic young, but I prefer them before age 6 or 7, and normally I prefer my wines (Cabernet) with some age.

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