Making High Quality Wine Always With Details Focus
Interview with Sam Kurtz and Bernie Kaeding from Rojomoma Wines,Barossa Valley
You know the saying, “one good peach is better than an entire box of bad peaches”.
Today I have learned a lot about a “micro winery” that represents that one good peach.
Rojomoma is owned and operated by Sam Kurtz and Bernie Kaeding. Together they have over 50 years’ combined winemaking knowledge, and a lot of Barossa Family History behind them.
We’ve just opened a bottle of 2015 Rojomoma Red Art Barossa Shiraz to share, and the superb winemaking skills are evident within the first minute…
Glenn: Sam, what lead you into a career in Winemaking? Was it your family history in the Barossa perhaps?
Sam: It’s a bit of a long story, but my family has been growing grapes and making wine in the Barossa Valley for six generations. Every generation has worked in a vineyard or winery environment, but like most children, I was not interested at first. I decided I would go and study engineering, but I hated it and wasn’t sure what to do. There was just not enough creativity in the science of engineering for me, so I got a job filling barrels at Orlando in the Barossa. It was here at Orlando that I woke up to what I was looking for. Here was a job that had all the sciences I liked -chemistry, physics and engineering, but with a creative side. History, geography, creating an art form, so this is when I went to university to study wine making.
Glenn: Is it true that you went on to become a senior winemaker at Orlando in the Barossa?
Sam: Amongst other jobs, yes. I started out as a white wine maker, then graduated into red wine maker, then senior red wine maker, eventually becoming Chief Wine Maker for the famous Saint Hugo wines from Orlando.
Glenn: This must have been a huge responsibiltiy: large volumes?
Sam: Yes some times, huge volumes, but always with a high quality focus.
Glenn: What made you move from making such large batches of wines to then change towards concentrating on making “micro batches of wines”?
Sam: I think deep down inside, most wine makers are control freaks, and they want to control every step of the process. In a large winery enviroment you have control over some aspects, but you don’t have control over all aspects of the winemaking and grape growing. For me, what made it more interesting was that whole opportunity to do everything from planting the vines, right up to selling the product, and everything inbetween. It is a lot of fun to see and control every aspect.
Glenn: Somewhere along your journey, you have met Bernie. Can you tell me how you met each other?
Bernie: (Laughing) It’s not very exciting! We met at work because I used to work at Orlando as well back in those days. I was in production planning and Sam was wine making so we had to cross paths to plan bottling and packaging. We became good friends and eventually this grew into a relationship.
Glenn: But that is exciting! It is lucky that Sam came back to be a wine maker so you two could meet, instead of Sam being a lonely engineer…
Glenn: Bernie, you are a fantastic Photographer, and an Artist, and I hear you have also written a Wine Book. Can you tell me about your publication?
Bernie: In 2015 I published a book called “True Stories: Portraits of Barossa Wine Makers”. It’s a book containing portraits of local Barossa Wine Makers and the stories behind each of those individuals. So to set the scene, I started my project with the aim of doing a portrait exhibition, so it started purely from a photographic point of view, and as I was taking photographs of wine makers, I found their stories really fascinating, funny and entertaining. I asked each winemaker to bring in their Hobby. I didn’t want them bringing in their label or anything to do with their business because I wanted this to be about them personally.
I think this told a better story about who they are and how they make their wines anyway. So many of them brought in weird and wonderful things which was quite hilarious so I thought if I am so close to this and finding it really interesting, then other people would find these stories really interesting as well. So it grew into a book and I had given myself a deadline to finish before Vintage the next year (which was nine months away) with a plan that I would release the book at a vintage festival luncheon at our winery. Im glad I set myself a deadline otherwise I would still be working on the book now. I was quite fortunate to win awards for my book, being the Gourmand International Book Awards ‘Best Wine Writing Book in Australia’ and ‘Top Three Best in the World’.
Glenn: Given your photographic skills and artistic nature Bernie, it looks like you are able to apply this to your wines. I see you are doing photographs on your Red Art Wine collection and your own artwork on your Wild Scarlet Wines, how do you come up with these ideas for your labels?
Bernie: The Red Art labels came about from when I was studying photography and this environment was very inspirational. We studied an artist called David Pulteney and his work involved putting multiple images together to create one image. If you take one picture, there may be elements that are not in focus but if you take many photos of one scene then everything is in focus. I was inspired by this and did our Shiraz label first, showing images of the ground, middle level and sky of our vineyard. The Wild Scarlet labels with my illustrations use a much different approach to what I have done before. I started doodling and then I just went from there until I had the look I liked.
Glenn: Rojomoma won the Wine of Provenance Trophy at the National Wine Show of Australia in 2017 which included three vintages of your Red Art Shiraz. You also received a Trophy for ‘Best Single Vineyard Wine’ at the Barossa Wine Show and ‘Most Outstanding Wine from a Small Producer’ at Barossa Wine Show. Can you explain how the ‘Provenance’ judging process works?
Sam: The Provenance Trophy is a relatively new trophy in terms of wine show awards, but the thing that is interesting is the fact that it is the only trophy judged across three separate vintages. The three wines jugded are a young current release wine, a middle aged wine that is at least five years older than the young one, then an older wine that is at least ten years older than the youngest one. So this involves judging quality and wine style, with longevity over a long period of time, showing whether or not you can achieve consistency of wine style, consistency of wine quality, across time, and the ability to age. For wine makers this is probably the trophy we most want to win. For example at the Hunter Valley Wine show, the Provenance Trophy is announced after the Best Wine in Show category, because it is considered more prestigious than Best Wine of Show. Winning this for us at the National Wine Show of Australia was a fantastic result. The awarded wines were our 2006, 2010 and 2016 Shiraz vintages
Glenn: This is indeed a great result. Does this accolade give wine collectors who like to cellar their wines, a certain assurance of quality and ageability?
Sam: It certainly does. There were a number of Langton’s listed wines judged, that are considered to have ageability potential and cellar potential and we managed to beat all those when the wines were blind tasted so it’s a great way for people who haven’t heard of us to understand what great potential our wines have.
Bernie: I think the National Trophy automatically puts our wines in the category of Australia’s top wines.
Sam: To even enter the Provenance Trophy Award, you need to have already won a Silver or Gold Medal for your wines at a recognised State Wine Show so we were up against some very steep opposition. It shows that our wines have demonstrated their potential at a regional level where a lot of discussion has taken place (by the deciding wine judges) regarding the wines; whether they are worthy or not. To then go on to the National level and go through the entire process again to win, certainly demonstrates the level we are able to achieve.
Glenn: It makes me wonder if there are any of these wines left.. I hope you kept some for yourself to look at in years to come?
Bernie: There is a little bit left – because we are so focused on having some aged wines available for drinking. We are aware that many people cannot age their wines if they do not have a cellar, and it is hard for people to get their hands on mature wines. Bottle shops stock less older wines so we make a point to make sure we have some available.
Glenn: I believe that you have some of the oldest Grenache vines in Australia, how do you look after them?
Sam: The Grenache vines were planted in 1886 so they are 132 years old now. In terms of looking after them, I guess they have been there so long that they are very resilient, they do not get any irrigation at all, they rely one hundred percent on natural rain fall. The biggest problem is pruning them because they are so low to the ground and gnarled so when it comes to pruning you spend a lot of time on your hands and knees doing that job. It’s a very important job when you have a dry grown vineyard to prune the vines back quite hard so you get the right growth in the following year. I look back and think how many generations and how many people have been in this vineyard over the years and it’s a real big responsibility that I feel. I am so glad that these vines were never pulled out by a big company that was more commercially orientated and more obsessed with having a productive vineyard. There was a time when Grenache was not popular as a table wine but Grenache is becoming increasingly appreciated so I am glad our vines have survived.
Glenn: I am lucky to have tasted your Grenache, but you also make a Grenache/Shiraz and a Shiraz/Tempranillo so two things come to mind; can you tell me how these varieties work together and why do you make wines in this style?
Sam: The wine almost dictates the style itself in many cases. Like when it comes to the Grenache/Shiraz some years Grenache can be on the lighter side and we blend only about 20% Shiraz in to give the wine a bit more depth, colour and texture. With the Shiraz/Tempranillo, it’s more about Shiraz being assertive on its own and Tempranillo can be softer, juicier, brighter and its like using ingredients when you are cooking food. Some times really great food can be made with very simple ingredients and very few ingredients but sometimes if you have a few more things in the cupboard to work with, you can make some really intriguing meals. We look at our vineyard, our grape varieties and the way we blend in a similar kind of fashion, so we maximise potential of what is there.
Glenn: What food should we be eating with your Barossa Tempranillo?
Bernie: I think it’s a lovely lunchtime wine, you can enjoy our Tempranillo with Antipasto, chorizo, salami, olives, or any Italian foods.
Glenn: I thought I read on your website that you use wild yeast for your ferments. Why do you do this?
Sam: Wild fermentation is not common in the new world, yet in the old world it is standard practise in many cases. We are using the native flora, the native wild yeast that are growing on the outside of the grapes, as a bloom. That has a whole multitude of yeast that is to our vineyard. You get more three dimensional wine, rather than getting only one strain of propogated yeast doing everything. Cultured yeast and wild yeast both convert sugar to alcohol but with wild yeast you get about one hundred strains of yeast doing the work. Initially this can have some strange aromas during ferment and then the more common yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae) dominates at the end of ferment, so it creates all sorts of layers with different yeasts doing all the work. The end wine has more complex characters and is truer to our vineyard, by using yeast growing here. It is part of our philosophy to be moderate in terms of oak use too, because we want our wines to taste of our vineyard first and foremost.
Glenn: You have a sensational wine named “Raj’s Pick” , can you tell me why you made this wine?
Bernie: Raj’s Pick is named after our Son, Raj, he is now 13 years old. The first Vintage was 2006 when Raj was one year old. He didn’t have too much involvement in this first vintage, but he is getting more involved as time goes on. Raj’s pick is our ultimate wine from our vineyard. It is a Shiraz, however maybe in the future we will have a Cabernet Sauvignon to compliment our Shiraz. During ripening season we are constantly inspecting the vineyard, until it’s ready to pick. We will mark out an area where we think the best parcel of shiraz is, then we pick this separately, and ferment it on it’s own.
Sam: Because we do all our own shoot thinning, hand pruning, we know where all the differences are in our vineyard, which is not really acheivable on a big commercial vineyard scale. We know the soil differences too so it gives us the confidence to pick out one part of our vineyard that is special.
Bernie: Once the wine is fermented, we basket press it, (like our others) and we look for dark deep concentrated flavours and that goes into one new French oak barrel. We do not make this wine every year, only in the very best seasons. The wine has to be released with some age on it, at a point where we think it is ready to drink. We need to be happy with it before it is released. This time may vary as some years need more time than others but it must have a few years of age on it before release. Current release of Raj’s Pick is 2012.
Glenn: Does the cellaring potential vary on Raj’s Pick Shiraz vintages?
Bernie: It is very consistent because this wine has such a strong structure. We aim for great aging potential so minimum of twenty years cellaring is acheivable.
Glenn: What should we have for dinner with Raj’s Pick Shiraz?
Sam: A serious Rib Eye Beef Fillet cooked over coals.
Glenn: How much fine wine do you produce each year?
Sam: We only make about one thousand cases per year so very small scale production, which is the way we like it, at a level where we can actually do everything ourselves. It is at the scale where we can control every part of the process. If it gets much larger than this, we lose elements of the control process.
Glenn: You must be so busy with your work so do you have any time left to run a cellar door in the Barossa Valley?
Bernie: (laughing) Not really! We do our tastings by appointment only in our winery which works best for us, it suits our style which is a more immersive tasting experience. We only book in a maximum of ten people at a time so our guests are right in amongst where everything happens, so they can see exactly how we work and taste through our wines, discussing how we make wine, and they can see our vineyard. People walk away feeling as though they have learned something, so it’s a completely different experience from most cellar doors. Our guests really appreciate the personal experience.
Glenn: Sam, you mentioned that you have been to beautiful China several times, what is your favourite thing to do while you are there?
Sam: I enjoy eating the great food. The thing that really amazed me the first time I went to China was the culinary culture, the diversity of foods across China, it seems like almost every city has different food to each other. The more I visited the more I realised that there are perhaps four main styles yet in between there are many variations. It’s really interesting to see how ingredients can differ between Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu to Guanzhou and beyond. Because I work with wine, I appreciate the work that goes into creating great foods.
Glenn: What should visitors to Australia do when they get here?
Sam and Bernie: You are welcome to visit our cellar door.
Sam: Come to South Australia, not just Barossa Valley. We have some of the best seafood in the world, we have open spaces and such a different lifestyle from bigger cities. Naturally make sure you see Koalas and Kangaroos while you are here.
Glenn: I know you are always busy but what do you do if you get some spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
Bernie: We love to cook and eat. If we are not cooking then we are going out somewhere to eat.
Sam: I agree, cooking is the main thing. Cooking for relaxation. I don’t rush doing it, I like to spend all Sunday afternoon preparing, while having a glass of wine. I like working with different flavours and spices. We like to grow our own vegetables too.
Bernie: We also like to go bush walking, because there are many national parks to explore in Australia.