A winemaker needs to be an entrepreneur, an innovator, a sales rep and a designer. Sam Berketa was born for the role, he has recently taken over the reins at Alpha Box & Dice in McLaren Vale. Balancing the logical and the creative Sam is keen to bring the techniques and collaborative ethos back home to the Vale. Daniel Whyntie reports.
TRANSFERRING OUT of a Bachelor of Science in Molecular and Drug Design, Berketa felt his creative drives pulling him toward a career in the Visual Arts, lucky for wine lovers he found another way to express himself.
“I wasn’t really enjoying the career path that was leading me down, so I actually considered chasing a degree in a completely opposite direction,” Berketa said. “However, I ended up splitting the difference and choose winemaking, as I saw it as being a marriage of art and science my two academic passions. Since walking into class on that first day of winemaking, I haven’t looked back.”
It is the contrasts between these two ways of seeing the world; the analytic and logical left and the creative right hemisphere of the brain; that makes Berketa a unique winemaker despite his relative lack of experience.
“I love art and all things creative and I include wine in the category of art, most of the time. So, I like to think I have some sort of artistic talent. Brewing has being my creative outlet as well for the last couple of years.”
Berketa does his home brewing on the kitchen stove. Though he says it’s nothing serious he’s been using the differences to strengthen his winemaking.
“I’m pretty crappy at the moment, still on my learning curve. It’s so different to winemaking, wine making is by-the-seat-of-your-pants, with beer you’re following a recipe,” he said.
“But doing things in the formulaic manner has helped me learn things like record keeping and strictly following recipes.”
Berketa took over the reigns as head winemaker from Alpha Box & Dice winery founder Justin Lane, earlier this year. This will be only his eighth vintage and by far his biggest challenge; though Reh Kendermann in Germany tested how ready he was to step into the main role.
“It’s been a baptism of fire, but that’s the best way to learn,” he said.
“My last job was in the Mornington Peninsula, I was assistant winemaker at Queley wines with Kevin Mcarthy but I’ve never had this much responsibility. Germany came close, I spent three months doing a vintage in a contract winery.
“We just dealt with what came in so I didn’t have to work with the growers or any of that stuff. I was given some room to play but really had a fairly small box.”
He also spent some time at Mac Forbes in the Yarra Valley and a few stints around Mclaren Vale but it was on a trip to Barolo, Italy, helping out a friend that he crystallised the type of winemaker he wants to be.
“It was incredible, I learnt so much about winemaking and marketing. The way that they collaborated together to aid the growth of the region during that time was particularly inspiring, with collusion among the winemakers for the benefit of the region as a whole.
“I also learned a few new techniques to apply in the vineyard and cellar, and it’s got me super excited for the 2017 harvest.”
Berketa has just returned from the region that is among Italy’s best known and home to some seriously expensive wines; though it has historically being synonymous with fierce acids and harsh tannin. This was until a group of young winemakers, ditched the long maturation techniques being used and introduced the use of French barriques for faster maturation, much to the dismay of the elders.
“I worked with Chiara Boschis at E. Pira & Figli who’s an incredibly talented organic producer. She was one of the 20-odd modernists involved in the movement of Barolo who kick-started the huge growth of Barolo wine in the 90s. They were all from the same crew saying you do this, you do that. So they still had that aspect of individuality but all working to better quality,” Berketa said.
“Basically it was a group who all left uni at the same time; then got back together for tastings and started asking why burgundy was more expensive than Barolo. They started trying things like reducing crop yield, new things with trellising, with fences, they had pristine vineyards and were just being open to new things.”
To those who thought about Barolo in traditional sense some of the developments were blasphemy, like the use of a rotary fermenter. But by acting together as a region and looking for the practical over traditional the modernists have won over the region and become the norm.
“The rotary fermenter made a whole lot of sense, when some of the winemakers were pushing 60 to then manually rotate, it’s not as easy as for young people,” Berketa said.
“Seeing how people work together it is certainly something I want to try with all the young guys finishing uni and starting their own labels. Alpha box is already established but playing with different things, seeing what works in terms of viti, less times on skin etc.
“Right now it’s a bit of both people I know and people I want to meet. I want to reach out and just say ‘how you going’; I have the people I met at uni and others I meet at tastings. There are some jaded people but mostly everyone is open and friendly.”
SALES AND MARKETING
As a former muso in the band Half a Smile, Berketa knows the value of promotion. To learn and be involved with that side he travels to trade and events with his sales reps and works in the Alpha Box cellar door on Sundays, though he does it incognito.
“The cellar door lets me see what they really think of the wine as it’s the consumers not critics who decide wine sales. I don’t tell them I’m the winemaker though; I don’t know why, maybe a bit embarrassed, or maybe it just sounds arrogant. Sales is as important as making the wine and getting to know your consumer is fun and important,” Berketa said.
Berketa instinctively understands the importance of networks and connections, even selling his wines to his old band mate’s bar. He hopes to use these skills to bring some of the collaboration he saw in Italy to his whole region but his own plans are more modest than challenging Burgundy.
“On a personal level, the dream is to one day own and produce my own brand from my own managed vineyards, but for the next little while I’m super happy with my job at AB&D,” he said.
This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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