THIS month Wolf Blass, one of the great names in the Australian wine story, celebrates his 80th birthday. The Barossa baron invited Stephanie Timotheou to his Adelaide office to catch up over a coffee as he reflected on the 57 years he’s dedicated to the wine industry here and abroad.
The Wolf of the wine industry bears no resemblance to the Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf Blass will be remembered for what he built, not what he pulled down.
When Grapegrower & Winemaker caught up with the big bad Wolf, the man who has spent most of his life in Australia still couldn’t resist a very European kiss on both cheeks – and a couple of laughs – to break the ice.
But beneath the still-strong German accent it is clear age hasn’t dimmed the fires and the man who turns 80 this month is as feisty as ever and pulls no punches – about anything or anyone.
In the world of the Wolf there are no sacred cows, just demands that we all do it better every time.
That was the benchmark of the 27-year-old migrant whose first impression of Australia was a tarmac melting at Darwin airport. He had flown out of -15C in Germany and when he got off the plane thought he had “arrived in hell”.
It was touch and go whether he would turn around right there and get the first plane out of town and get the hell back to the Fatherland.
But he didn’t and the Australian wine industry, and every Australian wine drinker, is better off for it.
Blass recalls he arrived with a degree in winemaking and was driven by the need to be the best he could be.
Legendary for his ability to talk the leg off a chair, after two hours with the fiery octogenarian Grapegrower & Winemaker knew his life story from humble but tough beginnings earning $2.50 an hour to producing 60 million bottles a year with the world his oyster.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Blass’ initial interest in wine began late for a European, at 18, when he switched his drink of preference from heavy German beer to big, bold wines.
After three years studying winemaking and viticulture he passed his first examination and at 23 became ambitious.
“What really sparked my interest was the fact you could make four or five different styles of wine out of one variety [Riesling]. There was a hunger to learn more and at 23 I was obsessed,” he says.
From obscurity in Germany Blass launched his meteoric career with jobs in England and France as a wine chemist.
Which he did so well he scored a contract with the Barossa’s Kaiser Stuhl – which gave him a golden ticket to the land Down Under.
Within three years working for Kaiser Stuhl Blass was making 80 per cent of Australia’s pearl and sparkling wines.
“The number one wine was Barossa pearl and this really changed the social status and structure of our society in Australia,” Blass says.
“It changed from beer drinking to very flirtatious products where women participated socially in the activity,” he says.
“It was a hillbilly issue of separation between men and women in those days.”
Once his contract was up with Kaiser Stuhl Blass turned freelance and completed his first vintage in 1966 using other people’s equipment in their wineries.
After seven years slaving away to help several businesses flourish Tolley Scott and Tolley (TST), one of Australia’s largest brandy distillers, approached Blass to turn its brandy production into Barossa Valley wine.
Before he knew it Blass signed a three-year contract and in that time TST became the most successful red wine producer in Australia.
Not only did Australia present great career opportunities, it also allowed Blass to start his own family with wife Shirley, children Susan, Sharon and Anton and the team at Wolf Blass Wines.
Full article appears in the September 2014 issue of Grapegrower & Winemaker. Grab your copy today by visiting www.winebiz.com.au/gwm/subscribe/