The wine industry often involves head-first plunges. Seldom, however, is a novice winemaker asked to present their first ever vintage for scrutiny and auction before the public and their peers. Now in its second year, Wine: Baptism of Fire is a unique competition that sets its contestants the ultimate initiation challenge: make an award-winning wine.
The six teams of rookie winemaker pairs come from a range of professions, from restaurateurs, bar and cafe owners to publishers and bloggers. The contestants are a pair of rival Sydney bar owners – James Hird and Matt Swieboda – who’ve joined forces; Salvatore Malatesta and Matt Perger from St ALi; Rockpool’s Wiremu Andrews and girl-about-town Jess Ho, former Australian bartender of the year Chris Hysted and publishing gun Sheridan Wright; Bellota’s Jacqueline Turner and Meg Power; and Michael and Ricky - Gen Y fashion and food bloggers.
The teams have been led by winemakers Steve Webber and Sarah Fagan (De Bortoli), Gilles Lapalus (Sutton Grange), Matt Harrop (Shadowfax), Mac Forbes and Timo Mayer, so it's clear these will not be simple home brew wines. The teams have been supplied with 500 kilograms of Shiraz grapes from vineyards in the Yarra Valley and the Grampians. These grapes from the 2014 vintage will produce roughly one barrel of wine per team – a seriously limited release.
The contestants have faced real challenges. Apart from the learning curve (none of them have any experience with winemaking), the teams must deal with the limitations inherent in balancing winemaking and their day jobs. All this and the expectation they will bring a fully realised product to market.
Organiser and panel judge, Rory Kent, says the competition is a taxing and laborious experience for the contests. Much of their journey in creating a wine has been documented on camera, the point of the footage being to share with a general audience the ins and outs of winemaking. Or, as Kent puts it: “Baptism of Fire blows the dust off the bottle, off the process, off the industry.”
The auction night is the final test for the teams. “The real fun is that it is wine-lovers who have made the wine. Six months ago, they’d never made wine, and on August 4 they’ll be pouring a wine they’ve made for the very first time.”
At the newly reopened Savoy Tavern, the teams will face the public and their peers. Barrel samples will be tasted by the public and then auctioned. The final decision will take into account all of these factors, and the preceding months of winemaking.
“The judges are not only looking for the quality of wine the team has produced, but also their vision, their concept, the execution and their commitment to the task.”
It’s also a chance for consumers to engage with an uncommon method of purchasing wine. Kent compares the event to the en primeur tastings of Bordeaux, where the wines are purchased based on barrel tastings, several years before they will see release. He’s being cheeky though – these are nouveau style wines that will be delivered in two months.
“We believe creating a fun culture is the best way for people to gain further appreciation for wine. We see a world where people discuss and consume wine as comfortably as they do any other interest.”
Upon release, the bottles will be graced with labels by six different design firms, completing each wine as a fully realised product. The auction will be presented by Stuart Gregor and Andrew Caillard MW and proceeds will go to SecondBite.
For the baptised and the congregation alike, it’s sure to be an enlightening evening.
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