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Even among the elite class of Yarra Valley winemakers, Rob Dolan cuts an impressive figure – and not just because he stands 6.5 feet tall. Affable and enthusiastic, he studied psychology and played footy for Port Adelaide before falling into winemaking in the 1990s, soon establishing himself as senior winemaker at Yarra Ridge Winery.
Fast-forward to today, and it’s Dolan’s own name on the label. After helming the successful brands Sticks – a reference to his footy-era nickname, which his wife Jude still calls him – and Punt Road, Dolan founded Rob Dolan Wines in 2011. Securing 100 acres of green wet zone in Warrandyte South, formerly the home of Hardy’s Yarra Burn winery, Dolan established his name not just locally, but nationally and beyond.
“You build up your reputation over a long time,” says Dolan. “You don’t just turn up. It doesn’t happen in five seconds.” He says of the nearly 30 vineyards he draws from for Rob Dolan Wines, some of those relationships date back to 1991.
Other relationships have been just as fruitful. Gin distillery Four Pillars got its start operating out of Dolan’s space. And because that space is a mere half-hour from Melbourne’s CBD – and thus halfway closer to the city than most Yarra Valley wineries – he’s in prime position to be the first to stop for Melbourne travellers to the region.
Like other Yarra Valley winemakers, Dolan is best known for his pinot noir, which is presented across four styles. There’s the soft and easy-drinking True Colours range, then the single-vineyard (or sometimes two-vineyard) focus of his Black Label range, offering more “grippy” wines with notable tannin structure. The White Label range showcases the top-end vineyards, and the small-batch Signature Series is what Dolan calls “the best of the best”.
Dolan’s chardonnay also thrives across the four styles. But the winemaker thinks he’s actually doing best with cabernet at the moment. He says it’s been the standout from three of the last five vintages, and that’s backed by his winning Best Cabernet/Cabernet Blends at 2020’s Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition. “That shows we can make it at the top level,” he says. With a delicate body and pleasing blackcurrant notes, it sits closer to 13 per cent than 16 per cent, giving it similarities to a bordeaux.
Dolan’s also focused on community and transparency. His brand’s in-house wine club, Huddle Club (another footy reference), sees two groups of 20 people come to the winery each year and make a wine themselves, receiving the resulting case in time for Christmas. The winery also publishes a quarterly newspaper called Quarter Time to keep up that community engagement. And hosts pairing sessions, virtual tastings and charity events.
During the initial impact of Covid-related restrictions and lockdowns in 2020, the winery headed in the opposite direction of many and employed more people, introducing an education focus. Hiring Meg Brodtmann – the first female Master of Wine in Australia – as the head of education at the winery’s newfound multipurpose “cube”, Dolan introduced courses and other forms of outreach designed to make wine more approachable.
“That’s the key to our business,” he says. “I want wine to be immediately accessible right through to the top end of the market.” Rather than offer masterclasses on wine, he prefers to focus on “down-to-earth classes” that help to demystify the process of making and appreciating wine. On that same note, Brodtmann and Rob Dolan Wines’ marketing manager, Mel Gilcrist, started up a popular podcast to continue the enthusiasm.
With the brand now reaching Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and Russia, Dolan is looking far beyond the Yarra Valley. And the winery’s cellar door is operating at a stronger pace than ever, offering guided tastings at the table and cheese-and-wine flights that hero the on-site cheese brand Stone and Crow. Again, it’s all part of sharing Dolan’s decades of experience with everyone he can, coming from a place of playfulness and passion rather than detached expertise.
“We’re trying to get everyone to understand wine and have fun with it,” he says. “That’s been really important. You’re growing with people, and they feel like part of the business.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Victoria.
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