Press on, Mike … and buy up!

The buzz about the Mike Press wines has been around for a few months – all the praise is well-deserved – and there’s still some of the cabernet sauvignon left for sale. Tyson Stelzer reports on how the wines came about, and just how good they are …

The tentacles of the grape glut are far-reaching, and they seem to have a different effect on everyone they touch. But few could claim an impact like that experienced by Mike Press, the man who stole the show at the 2006 Adelaide Hills Wine Show. If it weren’t for the glut, it would never have happened.

\I hadn’t heard of Mike Press before I read the show results, but two days later I was standing in his kitchen near Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills, enjoying the view of his picturesque vineyard and listening to one of the most remarkable stories of show success that I have heard.

“I just wanted to grow grapes,” he told me. “When I planted the vineyard in 1998 I had no intention of making wines.” After more than forty years in the wine industry, including long stints as Chief Winemaker for both Seppelts and Mildara Blass, Mike enjoyed the change. “I have relished the opportunity to establish my own vineyard, nurture the vines and produce a quality product without having to worry about the marketing hype and commercial pressure.”

But the honeymoon was to be short-lived. Adelaide Hills grape prices plummeted from between $1500 and $2000 per tonne to well below the feasibility line. No longer able to make a return on his fruit, Mike instead put much of it into cleanskin wines which he marketed by word of mouth and personally delivered to Adelaide homes for $75 per case. “Just enough to make a fair margin,” he explained.

Still selling some fruit to the larger wine companies, Mike became disgruntled about the low-grade classification that it received. Set to prove otherwise, he began to enter his wines into shows. The results have had the industry buzzing and Mike ecstatic. Out of three shows, his three 2005 reds now share two trophies, seven top golds, a silver and a bronze medal.

The trophies were awarded to his Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz in the 2006 Adelaide Hills Wine Show. Had a trophy been allocated to the Merlot class, he would have taken it out as well.

“I got the phone call from the show saying they needed stock for the tasting and lunch following the judging, and I went into a bit of a panic,” he said. “The stock was all in Mildura and we didn’t have a label – it was just a cleanskin, after all. We organised for it to be overnighted to us, and my wife designed and printed the labels just in time. When I delivered it to the lunch I had no idea of the results and I was surprised that everyone was so quick to congratulate me.”

As he recounted the story, the success didn’t make a lot of sense. Until I tasted the wines. The spicy, edgy Shiraz was a precise expression of Australia’s answer to the northern Rhone. The fleshy, juicy Merlot showed purity and fine structure. But the real surprise was the textbook tobacco and blackcurrant concentration of the Cabernet Sauvignon. This is Cabernet like the Adelaide Hills has rarely seen. Has Mike Press simply fluked a brilliant wine? Or has he set a new benchmark for this variety in the Hills?

It’s the kind of success story we love in Australia – the story of an Aussie battler who overcame the adversities of the elements and the markets and showed the big boys how it’s done. But what are the wider implications?

The next few years represent a defining era for the Adelaide Hills as a wine region striving to establish its identity. It needs to be more confident than ever in selling its strengths to an increasingly competitive market. It needs to open its doors – more doors and more often – to create sufficient critical mass of cellar door locations to confirm its position as a serious wine tourism destination. And it needs to jostle itself into a place on the retail shelves and on-premise lists that does justice to the quality of the product that it offers.

In this context, what does it mean for the Adelaide Hills that the three wines judged to be its best Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot sell for $6.25 per bottle? And should such concern even be raised at all? Perhaps all that needs to be said is a hearty congratulations to an innovator who has courageously done things his own way – and achieved a remarkable result.

The Wine Front | 27 July 2007