Above: Alpha Box & Dice owner Justin Lane.
NO PAIN, NO gain. Even in wine. Just ask the recently-singed Justin Lane, who knows how to pull more than a rabbit out of his hat when it comes to making wine, selling wine, celebrating wine and even spilling a few of those precious drops.
Alpha Box & Dice is short two vowels and a fistful of consonants.
Big deal. Justin Lane, the man behind the brand, is talking so fast you would have no hope of knowing.
This guy is literally jumping out of his skin with excitement about his wine, the wine of his friends, the wine he spilt last week, in fact any wine.
His own wines were originally planned to fill an alphabet – like a traditional special bin range but without the numbers.
He got from A to G, then scattered a couple more across the alphabet, and the rest is a work in progress.
So you won’t be surprised to be told Lane adopted somewhat of a maverick approach to this most august and ancient of industries.
No study for him. No time.
A child of the Hunter Valley – but not from a family vineyard or winery – Lane has got where he is by, as he so cleverly puts it, “a road less travelled”.
While many of his peers were slaving away at universities Lane was bouncing from one vineyard and/or winery to the next.
Around Australia and around the world.
CELLAR DOOR EPIPHANY
Joining the cellar door at the fledgling McGuigan Wines back in the early ’90s Lane knew he was “home”.
“I went to school in Sydney and during the holidays would go jackarooing with mates whose families had farms,” Lane said.
“Where I discovered a career which could be both lonely and underpaid at the same time,” he laughed.
“But a vineyard and a winery – you’ve got it all. Farming, production, lots of people, marketing, selling.”
Nowhere near as lonely as jackarooing but still underpaid.
If you want to keep up with Lane, who by now is going 20 to the dozen, you have to lean into the conversation, at which point you’re in danger of getting a good clip around the ears as he waves his arms around with wild enthusiasm.
When Grapegrower & Winemaker caught up with him Lane was sporting a searing scar across his forehead, the result of getting too close to a downlight while trying to juggle a barrel at Cantina Sociale.
Hang on. Cantina what?
No, it’s not a hangout for Marxist agitators. At the quiet end of Sturt Street, in arguably the quietest corner of Adelaide’s CBD, this Energizer bunny has the local crowd hopping and bopping.
With business partners Angie Bignell and Georgie Rogers they have opened a veritable hole-in-the-wall wine bar.
Above: Alpha Box & Dice’s cellar door.
DARLING OF THE ONLINE CROWD
Seating just 35, with a pyramid of nine barrels from floor to ceiling at one end, you would miss it if you blinked.
With no signage of note, it has still become the darling of the online crowd.
Opening from 4pm on Wednesdays to Sundays, Lane is religiously there three of those days every week.
Which is when he is not scouring the 19 blocks of the 13 growers at McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Kuitpo, the Adelaide Hills and, of course, the Barossa whom he has contracted to supply Alpha Box & Dice.
“I am a field man. If the fruit is not right no amount of science and trickery in the processing is going to give you a truly beautiful wine,” Lane thundered.
“That was rammed into me during my ‘apprenticeship’ in the south of Italy, hammered into me in Bordeaux and not even escaped in Moldova,” he said.
“Look at this,” he said waving those deadly limbs around the room causing regulars to grab their wine glasses and well-practiced staff to duck and weave across the small room.
“No pretence, no branding, no labels. Just nine barrels of full-blooded, earthy wine.
“None of the wines in these barrels is available for commercial release. When each one is gone that’s it. And we replace it with another.”
The essence of Cantina Sociale is not as a shopfront for Alpha Box & Dice. The wines in those nine barrels come from all over the shop.
They are all barrel-fermented, no filtration, no fancy tricks. And many of them are genuine one-offs because the rest of that vintage has gone into blends in other wineries.
“It’s as close as I can get our customers to the traditional wine business, but I am going to have a real crack at it during the Adelaide Festival.
“On the banks of the Torrens we are going to turn on a real lesson in wine history when we stage a Babylonian wine-making exercise, right down to amphorae.”
It’s hard to know what slows Lane down enough to get a good night’s sleep.
Clearly the cogs are always whirring; in those rare moments of hush in Cantina Sociale you can almost hear those changing gears.
“This city is changing so fast,” he said.
“For a long time it was so quiet and now all of a sudden things are happening everywhere, and happening so fast.
“Although my hands might be a bit full running a winery, running a bar and raising three boys (and staging a fitness club at Heyward Park two mornings a week, much to the chagrin of the local council’s sticker licker who could no nothing to stop Lane’s gang of reprobates because it was a social, not commercial, gathering),” he added.
Next minute his hands were full again – of a wine glass and a tea towel – so fidgety after being still for about 30 seconds.
“Look at this,” he enthuses about the press of humanity in Cantina. “Wine does not discriminate. We get every demographic here. They don’t care about pretence either; they are just here for the wine.”
Lane makes for a fascinating study.
Take Alpha Box & Dice bottle D.
D is for Dead Winemakers Society. And Dolcetto, the black Italian grape originally from the Piedmont region, from which it is extracted.
Although whether there is any historical link between the wine and the translation of dolcetto – “little sweet one” – is lost in the mists of time.
Not surprisingly, Lane is also an office holder in the society of Dead Winemakers, which he said started as a lunch club in Australia.
“But its founder was US wine critic Josh Raynolds,” Lane admitted.
“Who has a fair slice of his cellar in Long Island devoted to wines made by people who are, well, dead,” he said.
“Spooky, yes. Tasty? Absolutely.”
With one ear still stinging from an accidental slap, and struggling to find enough questions to catch up with Lane’s answers, one thing needed to be resolved.
Alpha Box & Dice.
Well there is no doubt Lane is something of an alpha male but personally he is more enamoured of Box & Dice.
“It sort of covers everything we do,” he said.
“With all the things we are running we’ve got the whole box and dice.
“And being in the wine business, well that’s always dicey isn’t it?”
Not only did he get in the last word, he got in the last question.
Contact: Justin Lane. Phone: 61 410 487 739. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org