James Halliday needs no introduction to anyone in the wine industry, as one of the world’s most renowned wine critics, who has been at the forefront of Australian wine communication for over 30 years. Amanda Barnes interviews him on his career in wine and why, after writing over 150,000 wine tasting notes and 70 books, he is now focusing on a new business, Junovate, and looking at how AI can push forward the industry. He has been an Honorary Life Member of the Circle since 1990.
How did you first get into wine? Did you have an ‘ah-ha’ moment when you knew you’d make a career in wine?
It didn’t really happen this way. I began seriously tasting wine in the second half of the 1950s, but purely focusing on the Hunter Valley. [This was] partly because our family walk-in, wooden-racked cellar was exclusively stocked with Lindemans Chablis, White Burgundy, Hock and Riesling, all made from Semillon with no use of oak, and fermented the same way, as well as Claret and Burgundy (both from Shiraz). The first wine trips I made were also to the Hunter Valley, simply because it was the only region I could reach by road from Sydney (a 2.5 hour trip in those days). By definition, the wines I was tasting all came from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
While I was at Sydney University for six years from 1956-61, as a resident of St Paul’s College, my contact with wine increased and moved slightly beyond the Hunter Valley through the college wine cellar. When I came back to Australia in ’62, I started to accumulate a mini-wine cellar, again almost entirely Lindemans in the first instance. But over the ensuing three or four years to ’67, I became interested in wines from Victoria and South Australia. Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland were not yet in the frame.
In 1966, I became a partner in what was then a Sydney law firm that has since grown to cover all [state] capital cities. It was this that gave me the income to buy and drink good wine. My cellar expanded to my sister’s house (a primitive cellar), my parent’s house (obviously a good cellar) and my own home. In 1968, I met Len Evans, changing my wine life forever, but [it was] still not in any sense a career. Coincidentally, at the time he was starting Rothbury Estate in the Hunter Valley, he also gave wine lectures that I attended, and also opened his combined restaurant and wine retail section (Bulletin Place) and by ‘68-’69, I was starting to buy significant quantities of French wine from Christie’s.
In 1969, I married and built a house with a cellar carved out of sandstone that had a capacity of 5,000 bottles. It was also a time when I and two long-term legal friends and wine drinkers decided we would plant a vineyard, build a winery and make wine in the Hunter Valley. The first Brokenwood vintage followed in ’73 – 175 dozen bottles of wine were made, some sold. It was also at this time that I was asked to write a wine column for Epicurean Wine Magazine, the small payment absolutely immaterial. I was still a long way from making a career in wine, expenditure relevant, but income effectively zero.
Brokenwood was inspired by my perceived need to have an interest outside law, which had to have an element of irrevocable commitment to spending every weekend and all holidays devoted to pruning, picking, maturing, bottling, etc our wines. This was not a commercially driven decision.
My career in wine became a step closer when I moved from Sydney to Melbourne in 1983, ostensibly to grow the Melbourne office of my law firm for five years, which I did, but also to move closer to the Yarra Valley, a one-hour train trip from Melbourne’s CBD (Central Business District). In ’85, it took a further step with the establishment of Coldstream Hills, and into full flower in ’88 when I retired as a lawyer and had to find ways and means of earning enough money to feed myself.
As a writer who has penned over 150,000 wine tasting notes, do you have any pet peeves with tasting notes?
I’ve written over 72 books, countless newspaper and magazine articles, most of which have had a strong tasting note foundation. I suspect it may be significantly more than 150,000, because until 2014, I was making 10,000 tasting notes per year for the Wine Companion alone. Yes, I do have pet peeves, notably the endless descriptions of all manner of non-vinous things such as tar, linoleum, chilli, etc. And then the full garden of vegetables and fruits, leaving you to wonder at the end of 100+ words what the taster actually thought about the quality of the wine. And no wine should ever be referred to as Savvy or Chardy. And no-one should be labeled passionate.
You are now taking a step back from wine reviewing for the Halliday Wine Companion and are going to focus your energies on developing technology in the wine sector with your company Junovate. What do you think is the most pressing issue in Australia today?
I am delighted to guide the development of Junovate, a leader in advanced technology solutions for the wine industry. The company has built a conversational artificial intelligence (AI) platform and consumer insights engine trained in wine, drinks and food, and last year we launched James Halliday’s Top 100 virtual assistant, Juno, a first of its kind. The ability to explore and retrieve information, especially about wine, via a voice-powered AI assistant has moved us all into a more competent and interesting future.
Junovate also recently launched the ‘Cellardoor Challenge’, an initiative to support wineries when the Coronavirus pandemic severely affected their hospitality, tourism and export sales, after a summer of bushfires and drought. We wanted to inspire wine consumers’ commitment to smaller wine producers and give wineries another way to reach, connect and engage with a broader audience of wine consumers.
I’m not aware of any environmental crisis affected or caused by viticulture and/or winemaking. The most pressing issue is population growth, and management of what has always been a water-starved continent.
And how do you think the industry at large can begin to address rising concerns of bushfires and continued drought?
There is no question that in most, but by no means all, Australian wine regions, there has been warming, and some earlier vintage dates than 25 years ago. However, warming, coupled with rises in CO2, is 100% beneficial for plant growth. If the climate were cooling by the same amount (actual or forecast) as warming, we would be in real strife. Adaptation is a key to dealing with climate, and you can find means to cool intra-canopy temperatures, or modify the incidence of sunlight interception to ameliorate heat, but there is very little you can do to warm a climate that is too cool to adequately ripen grapes, white or red. Hunter Valley Chardonnay, Semillon and Shiraz are experiencing a 20-year run of good to excellent vintages, although in 2020 smoke taint of red wines is a viticultural risk, similar to hail or frost in my beloved Burgundy. There is no single incidence yet of winemakers moving from ‘warmer’ to ‘cooler’ regions, leaving the warmer behind. Alternative (Italian/Mediterranean, etc) varieties account for less than 2% of the Australian crush. Certainly, Tasmania is in a situation of power for Pinot Noir, but the area of the state that has adequate access to water is far smaller than many people realise.
Bushfires and drought have been a recurring feature of the Australian landscape since the country was first colonised. The incidence of harm is increasing simply because of far greater population pressure. If Covid continues on its merry way, it’s quite possible we will see a sufficient decrease in population to slow anthropogenic warming, which is in any event only part of the total climate equation.
Earlier this year, you auctioned some of an incredible DRC collection from your cellar. Is there anything in your cellar that you would never auction or part with? What’s your most-cherished bottle?
I made the decision earlier this year that I should sell all of the bottles of DRC currently in my cellar without fear or favour. I have never previously sold a single bottle of DRC, and will not be buying any more. DRC understandably intensely dislikes those who trade in its wines, lining up for a cherished allocation and hot-footing it to the auction houses of the world. So, without beating my chest, I hoped that as many people as possible would buy some of the bottles, and that younger winemakers would form syndicates to buy two, three or more bottles, and share the tastings thereof with others.
And what sort of wines would we find you enjoying on a regular Tuesday night? Do you have any guilty pleasure wines?
I have a glass of wine most nights, and Pinot Noir in all of its manifestations ranks high. I open a 750ml bottle, decant 500ml into a bottle of that size, with a screwcap of course, and drink the remaining 250ml. I repeat that process the next night, splitting the 500ml into two x 250ml bottles, drinking one and keeping the other. At any one time I may have two or three different wines at various stages of this reverse solera system. There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure with wine when you are 82 years old, nor a second glass when the wine blows my mind.