Winemaker of the Year - Peter Gago

Penfolds' chief winemaker strives to prove that there is no "I" in Team.


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Peter Gago

Winemaker of the Year Award

Peter Gago has been making wine at Penfolds, arguably Australia's most famous winery, for 16 years. But he has been responsible for several of the country's most iconic wines only since 2002, when he was promoted to the post of chief winemaker.

So when it comes to taking credit for the likes of Grange, Penfolds' world-renowned Shiraz, and Bin 707, one of Oz's top Cabernet Sauvignons, he's quick to praise his three predecessors in the job, while simultaneously heaping accolades on his current winemaking team.

"My only goal with respect to Grange is to somehow improve on the great ones from before my time. The '53 and '55, the '62 and '63, and the '71, '76 and '86 were the wines that made Grange's reputation. Penfolds has been around for 161 years. This is not a young winery and I am not trying to rewrite history," says Gago in an accent that's mostly out of Melbourne but bears a trace of northern England—Newcastle, to be exact, where he was born and lived until the age of six.

Polished and endearing, modest yet confident, and married to a member of Australia's parliament, Gago, 48, is a man with a job he says he wouldn't trade for anything. He oversees what he calls the best winemaking team in Australia, headed by Steve Lienert on red wines and Oliver Crawford on whites. He has access to literally thousands of acres of vineyards throughout South Australia. And he works with hundreds of independent grape growers so proud of their relationship with Penfolds that they have formed memberships such as the Grange Growers Club and the Yattarna Growers Club (for Chardonnay).

In Rarefied Company
Holding the title of Penfolds' chief winemaker in and of itself puts Gago in rather rarefied company. Only three other men have held the post at the winery, which was founded in 1844 in Magill, South Australia: the legendary Max Schubert, the creator of Grange, who served from the early 1950s to 1973; Don Ditter, who held the post from '73 to 1986; John Duval, who had the title from '86 to 2002, and now Gago, Wine Enthusiast's Winemaker of the Year for 2005.

"My position today isn't so much about evolution, as it is preserving, and hopefully improving on, what always has been. It's about driving Steve and Oliver to do their best. It's about being an ambassador for Penfolds, a mediator, and an interfacer," Gago says, Less bluntly stated but just as important, Gago's other priority is safeguarding Penfolds' golden reputation during a time of rampant corporate takeovers. Penfolds was an independent winery when Gago came aboard in 1989 out of Roseworthy, Australia's most prestigious wine college. Not long into his tenure, the winery was purchased by a big brewery holding company. By 1994, it had been rolled into an entity called Southcorp, which would acquire wineries including Coldstream Hills, Devil's Lair and ultimately Rosemount. Finally in 2005, Southcorp was gobbled up by Foster's Group, one of the world's largest brewers.

Through the tumult, Gago, who started at Penfolds as winemaker for sparkling wines before moving on to reds circa 1993, has done his best "to put up the razor wire, build a moat, and stay as independent and dedicated to wine as possible. That is something we have achieved," he contends.

These days, Gago runs the show in hands-on fashion at Penfolds' Magill winery, located just north of the city of Adelaide. This is where components for Grange, RWT and St. Henri (the latter two also high-end Shiraz) are made and blended. He is also intimately involved in the emerging Cellar Reserve line, which includes a Barossa Valley Shiraz and Grenache, an Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir, and a Traminer, better known to most as Gewürztraminer. And his two babies, if you will, are the recently bottled 2004 vintages of the Block 42 Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Bin 60A Cabernet-Shiraz blend, a pair of inky high-fliers scheduled for release in 2007 at a cost of $225.

When to Interfere & When to Stay Away
"I would not say that my style is particularly evident in the winemaking, although I'm a firm believer in no filtration or fining, natural yeasts, open-top fermenting and other noninvasive techniques," he says. "For me, it's about knowing when to interfere and when to stay out of the way."

As a result of this approach, Gago is not tampering with the recipes that have made wines like Bin 128 and Bin 28 Shiraz, or Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz, the touchstones of Australian winemaking that they are. "It's all about sustaining culture and tradition, and fostering a team approach. Sustaining the right dynamic is very important. I want the best young Australian winemakers to want to come to Penfolds because they want to be part of a great team and a great tradition," says Gago.

If you work for Peter Gago you will not see him day in and day out. From January to May, the prime growing season in the Southern Hemisphere, he will be on the ground, shuttling between Magill and the Barossa Valley, or checking on new vineyards in places like Bordertown and Robe, near Padthaway and Coonawarra. "That time of year is my no-fly zone. But with one in two of the 3 million bottles we make leaving the country, part of my job is servicing the markets. I probably travel as much in one year as Max Schubert and Don Ditter traveled in their careers."

And while he's on the road, be it in Beijing or Zurich, Gago's greatest pleasure comes in seeing a Penfolds wine being poured. "That's why this award is so important to me. It's really a testament to the fact that we are appreciated and respected on the other side of the world. I may be the individual receiving the award, but it will serve as a great morale boost for the team. Because that's who deserves it."

See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.

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