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Q&A: Wes Pearson, Dodgy Bros.

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In reviewing my email interview with Wes Pearson, a former Winnipegger now making wine in the McLaren Vale under the Dodgy Bros. label, I realized I had a lot of good stuff that couldn't possibly fit in the dead-tree version of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Pearson had lots of valuable insight into making wine in Australia, how he got into wine and his Winnipeg connection...

Did you have any interest in wine while living in Winnipeg, or was it not until you moved to Whistler that you caught the wine bug, so to speak?

I moved to Whistler at 18, so to be quite honest I was completely clueless about wine when I left. I think I had tasted Baby Duck or Hochtaler (I remember these great commercials with lederhosen involved I think?) once or twice. Certainly wasn’t my drink of choice at the time.


Once you caught the wine bug, when did you decide you wanted to be a winemaker?

I worked in the restaurant biz [in Whistler] for about five years before I started to figure out that there was something to this wine thing, and so after that I started to pay attention. Another five years later and I was well on my way to becoming a sommelier, working in some of Whistler’s nicest restaurants. But I always thought that the restaurant business wasn’t for me, it was just a means to an end — working nights allowed me to play in the snow during the day. But as I got older I was less interested in snowboarding and more into wine, so my wife and I decided that we would pull the plug on the Whistler thing and I’d go back to university. So we picked up, moved to the Okanagan and I enrolled in UBC and did a degree in wine biochemistry.

It had always been a mandate of mine that when I did choose a career it would be one that I loved to do, not one that just paid the bills, so everyday I’m thankful that I make a living doing something that doesn’t feel like work at all.

How did working for an Okanagan Valley winery (Tantalus) shape your ideas about making wine?

It was absolutely fundamental to my education in wine. The winemaker at the time (Matt Holmes) was very helpful. He was not only extremely knowledgeable winemaker but he was also very practical and a good winery manager. Working with him definitely put me on the path to where I am today.

And what did you take away from working in Bordeaux?

Bordeaux was incredible. It was my first job out of school so to go to a situation like that where you’re living in this Chateau making wine and there is no expense spared and the attention to detail borders on insanity was pretty cool. To give this some perspective: my first job in Australia was at a winery [Pirramimma] that crushed 1500 tonnes of grapes a year (just over a million litres of wine), and we had about 15 staff. In Bordeaux [at Château Léoville-Las Cases], we crushed 1/4 of that, and had 150 staff. It was so over the top. But to be immersed in that culture, with all that history, and everything that goes along with it, was simply magical. It’s a very special place.

Was there a particular reason you chose McLaren Vale over other Aussie regions?

My wife and I decided that if we were going to move to Australia, we wanted to be able to experience the "beach culture" that is an integral part of life here. And while the Barossa Valley may have a slightly larger reputation than McLaren Vale, it’s at least an hour and a half from a good beach. Here in Willunga (five minutes south of the Vale), I can be on the beach in 10 minutes. In the end we thought that it would make a better home for us. Looking back I don’t regret the decision one bit. I’d be much worse at surfing than I am now if we lived in the Barossa (but to be clear I’m still bad).

What kind of misperceptions are out there about Aussie wine?

That all we make is big, jammy, over-oaked Shiraz? When you think about the size of Australia versus the size of France or Italy, for instance, either one of those countries could probably fit in any one of the states in Australia. And look at the diversity of the wines produced in those countries. It’s no different here. There are so many different regions, sub-regions, micro climates, etc. here that the diversity of wines produced domestically is astounding. There are so many small producers making interesting, delicious, and affordable wines. It’s just a shame that a lot of them aren’t exported.

Other than McLaren Vale (presumably), what are some of your favourite Aussie and/or international wine regions?

Without taking away from all the wonderful regions elsewhere in Oz, South Australia has all the bases covered: nervy, cool-climate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Adelaide Hills; Riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys; Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache from McLaren Vale and the Barossa; and everything in between. Tough to beat for me.

Internationally: for obvious reasons Saint-Julien in Bordeaux is my all-time favourite — I just can’t afford to drink them very often. The Mosel in Germany, the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, Priorat in Spain, Bolgheri in Italy, Washington State. I could go on and on. That’s part of what makes wine so interesting, its always so different everywhere you go.

Are there any other Aussie winemakers playing hockey Down Under?

No, I’m afraid I’m the only hockey-playing winemaker around in South Australia. There’s a wine rep from Detroit that plays, and there is a guy studying wine marketing from Ontario who is a good player, but I’m the only winemaker out there. It’s a better league then you’d expect — lots of Canadians of course.

Any plans to expand beyond the one red blend you currently have on the market?

For 2012 we will likely have very small volumes of a Shiraz from a single vineyard about 50 metres from my house that we think is pretty special. We’ve also got a Bordeaux-style blend of Cab Sauv/Cab Franc/Petit Verdot we’ll be releasing, as well as our GSM. Hopefully all three will make it to Manitoba.

How did it make you feel to get your wine into the Manitoba market?

It felt great. Manitoba is definitely a big part of who I am. To have buyers taste my products and tell me they love it and want to sell it feels great, whoever and wherever they are. But to be able to do that in Manitoba is extra special. It’s a cliché but it’s like giving back. It’s the first (and so far the only) place we’ve exported to. I hope that I can be more involved in the local wine scene in the future as well. Then I can tie in a visit with my family too.

In the Dodgy Bros. blog you are pretty honest about the 2011 vintage, and caution not overblowing a particular vintage about how good or bad it might be. On that note, looking back now a month after that blog was posted, how do you see 2013 shaping up?

Really good and consistent quality. Every year (including this one) you hear people say "best vintage ever!" It’s not in my nature to get too excited about anything, so I’ll say this: It’s not the best vintage ever, but it’s really good. The Shiraz ripened very fast, which is sometimes a worry, as the grapes can be "sugar ripe" but not "flavour ripe", so patience was paramount. In the end though, quality is excellent and very even. They’ll be some fantastic wines from 2013 for sure. We’re very happy with what we’ve got.

Is there a particular grape you'd like to try growing that you're not right now? If you could make a wine in another Aussie region, what would it be?

Tempranillo is a very intriguing variety for me. I think it has enormous potential in South Australia. There are already some fantastic local examples around. I’m hoping to make some more Mourvèdre as well and perhaps release it as a standalone wine. It’s such an interesting variety, so unique. McLaren Vale doesn’t really grow the white varieties I’d like to make very well, so perhaps Riesling or Gewürztraminer from Tasmania. One day, maybe...

***

For more on Dodgy Bros., check out their website. I'm hoping to do more interviews like this with Winnipeg ex-pats — if you know of any or have any ideas along those lines, please let me know.

Twitter: @bensigurdson

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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