An exclusive interview

You studied fashion and anticipated a career in the fashion industry.  What inspired the change in direction towards wine?  What was your first role in the industry?

I didn’t actually mean to get into wine, I had always pursued art and fashion design in high school, afterwards at two different universities and in a professional capacity – it was everything to me. It was never my intention to deviate from that path, but wine kind of crept up on me. Basically, I got a job at a bottle shop (that an old mate of mine was running, at the time) in order to plug some income gaps left by my fashion job (I was a stylist). One thing led to another and my friend pushed me into ordering, which I had no idea how to do… I was flooded. It ignited a thirst for knowledge in me that fashion just wasn’t quite quenching… and pretty soon I didn’t have as much time for fashion anymore. It happened very organically over 6 months or so. Then it became somewhat obvious that I’d already changed careers. I went into that very naively. Jump ahead, and it turns out I have a pretty good palate, so I worked on that, hard – tasting every day, with people who were older and wiser and better at it than me. Practice makes perfect as they say. I’m still practicing…

Are you self-taught or did you have a mentor?

I think anyone that says they don’t have a mentor, or a guide, isn’t looking at it quite right. I had a number of people who were very hard on me from day one, but also very supportive. They helped me grow and develop and also helped me navigate failure and success. The biggest thing, I think, was having opportunities provided to me – doors opened. From there it’s up to no one but yourself. Having said that, without my friends, who keep me real and honest and on track, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I didn’t come at wine from the traditional path, so it’s set me up in a slightly different way – with a different perspective.

What Aussie wine stopped you in your tracks?

There’s been a number. I remember intimately the first time I tried the Standish Shiraz’. The 2009 vintage. They showed me a power and a grace that I hadn’t seen in Aussie wine before… they are quintessentially Australian, but in the context of international Shiraz/Syrah, they’re world class, too.

What is your approach to wine and wine journalism?

Good question. Well… while I care very much about tradition and history, I don’t think that one has to travel on a path set out by others. I get ‘nervous’ when I consider my wine journey, in a traditional sense. I’m not a winemaker. I am not a journalist (i.e. no degree in journalism). I’m not a technocrat. But I’m also not afraid (of people, of stories, of new things). And I’m very much in love with wine and everything that entails. And I work hard. Whenever I feel inadequate (and I’m sure we all do, at times) I bring the focus back to the glass. The vineyard. The maker. Thinking about where it came from – the dirt, wind, rain and sunshine, is all very helpful in grounding me. Because that’s why we’re all here, right? To consider those things? The story of the wine and of the maker emerges from the glass – it’s not something I fabricate for the reader.

 

What makes a good wine writer?

Honesty. Integrity. Vocabulary. Heart. Humour doesn’t hurt. And a damn good palate.

 
 

We are seeing lots of discussion on social media about women in wine and how ‘male-saturated’ the industry is.  What is your opinion on the subject?  Was it other women in the industry who inspired your career in wine?

Firstly, I didn’t even know wine writing was a viable career choice (is it?) until I started in the liquor industry, so no, I had no female role models leading me here. The subject of gender equality is one I feel very strongly about; as a nation and as a planet, we have a long way to go. I would be mortified to think that I got to where I am due to my gender. I want to think it’s hard work, skill, honesty and persistence that got me here. But, I also choose to make a conscious effort to support my fellow woman, because sadly, we still need to do that in today’s world. I’m fortunate to have women to look up to in the wine industry – your very own Jancis Robinson is one of the greatest wine writers on the planet – regardless of her gender.

Many amazing wineries around the world (and some huge stars in WA) are led by women, but wine writing specifically is still very male dominated.  Why do you think this is?  Do you think this particular tide is turning?  Do you often still find yourself the lone woman in a room of men?

Oh yes. I host private tastings and dinners often, and I am almost always the only woman in the room. Certainly, with the older groups (60+). The younger groups (<40yrs) have a little more balance, but it’s rarely 50/50. To address your wine-writer question… the wine industry in Australia is pretty 50/50 I feel - certainly on the winemaking/viticulture side of the fence. Wine-writing is largely a different story. Women are outnumbered. I am fortunate enough to be one of the regional tasters for the James Halliday Wine Companion. There are six of us, seven with James, and three of us are women. I feel like we are fairly represented there, and I’m very proud to be on the team. The tide is turning in this regard, although I don’t see many young female wine-writers coming forward to join the fray. There is a wealth of super talented female sommeliers though, many of whom seem to be dipping their toes into writing here and there, which is cool to see.

 

You mentioned you are now a part of the team at James Halliday’s Wine Companion.  Can you tell us about your role as Regional Taster for WA?

It’s an absolute honour to be part of the team. Each and every one of the tasters are brilliant in their own right, so it is humbling to be listed among them. With regards to WA, I am extremely proud to be able to represent the wines and the people of this great state. I got the best, I reckon. But I am very biased. Obviously, Margaret River is responsible for many of the premium wines from WA, but regions like Frankland River (excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Shiraz and Riesling), the Geographe (Shiraz, Grenache, Malbec, Touriga and Zinfandel), Porongurup (Riesling!), and Pemberton (Pinot Noir) are some of the unsung heroes of the state. To be able to dig deep into the treasure that they are producing and bring them out in the book – it’s a joy and a pleasure. There is a fair amount of pressure, because I want to give every single wine its due – regardless of region, maker, price or variety – so the tasting season was fairly concentrated. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you feel that you receive a different level of recognition in the industry than your male counterparts?

Hard to say! If I said yes, I’d be denigrating the effort and commitment my male counterparts have put into their own careers, which would not be fair to them – they’ve well and truly earned their spots. I’d say there’s a curiosity about me, for sure. It’s up to me to prove that an initial burst of curiosity is rewarded with the discovery of a very serious wine person… but who can say?

 

Can you describe life in Perth for our readers in the UK? (While we continue to wait for spring to arrive
in the wind and the rain…) 

"I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else"

Oh Perth… I so love it here. There was a time when Perth was regarded as boring, the poor cousin of Melbourne and Sydney. But Perth has an energy that I don’t find anywhere else. The sun shines, it’s warm, the air is clean, and the beaches are white. The mining industry, which really underpins the wealth in this state, has created an overwhelmingly affluent tide that has spilled into the hospitality and entertainment industry. Perth is a town of small, considered businesses, relative freedom and for the wine nerds among us – there’s a lot, each week to sink the teeth into. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

 
 

You are a working mum of two boys, how do you survive the juggle of family life with that of a high-profile wine writer?  What particular challenges does working from home present to a career in the wine industry?

Ha ha. I don’t feel particularly high-profile when I’m changing nappies or reading Thomas the Tank Engine books to them. But my boys are the cutest things on the planet (bias is a beautiful thing) so I find a way through. Finding balance between my family and my work is the greatest struggle of my time. I can’t rush the boys, or make the time with them ‘more efficient.’ The only thing they want is me – my time, attention, love etc. And I can’t speed that up to fit inside a work schedule. Nor do I want to. Likewise, with my husband – I can’t fit in quality time with him while I’m working. The two things are non-compatible. So, I try and fit it all in – because that’s the sensible thing, right? The problem is, I love my work – it energises me, it pushes me and the more I work at it, the better I get at it. So sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in a million different directions. But – what else can one do, other than turn to face it all, full on, and go for it?

 
 

" I recently had a 10yr old Chave Hermitage with Ortiz anchovies on toast...  Simple – but epic."

 

Passion for food often goes together with a passion for wine. Are you the cook in your family?  What would be your stand-out dish?  What has been the best food and wine combination to have passed your lips?

I’m the cook in my family, and before having kids that used to be something that brought immense pleasure. Now I cook three different meals every day and it’s become a chore. I always thought I’d be a ‘one meal for all of us’ kind of mum, but kids teach you otherwise. I have very simple philosophies with wine and food. I like the best, but with the food, keep it simple. There’s nothing I don’t eat, but I have favourite combos: Champagne and chips, for example. Or Champagne and Oysters… massive fan of Champagne in general.  I recently had a 10yr old Chave Hermitage with Ortiz anchovies on toast. The bread was beautiful. As was the wine. And the anchovies. Simple – but epic.

Can you talk us through a typical day in the life of Erin Larkin?

No, because no two days are the same. I have no routine right now. The only thing that remains constant each day is that our eldest boy Ari (3), is in the habit of bringing me up a piece of fruit first thing in the morning. An apple, a banana, a mandarin. It’s his way of saying good morning at 6am. He loves fruit. My days change depending on the time of year – we are heading into judging season – I am judging at 7 wine shows this year, 8 if you include a little one exclusively looking at Chenin Blanc in Australia, so when I’m judging my days are consumed by that. During the Tasting Season for the Wine Companion I taste every day of the week. I host private events for clients, organise cellars, judge wine lists (that is just about to come around again) and a number of other things involving wine – all of them fitting around giving the boys breakfast, taking them to the park, taking them to swimming lessons, day care, going to the gym, mowing the lawns… you get the picture. It’s a busy mess right now. I try and do things like stay fit, see my friends, read books and drink for pleasure… laughable really – when you consider all the other stuff.

 
 

Outside of wine, what else are you passionate about? 
Travel, music, film…?

Gardening and sewing. These are the two things I pursue any chance I get. I love my garden and I’ll make clothes whenever I can. I also love reading. I’ve always got one or two books on the go.

 

What brings you solace in the most difficult times?

I have difficult times. We all do. I remind myself how lucky I am to have my friends and my family, I roll up my sleeves, and I get on with it. Going for a walk can help to.

What is your favourite wine book? (Halliday Wine Companion is not allowed)

Tyson Stelzer’s Champagne Guides. They’re monumental works, and since I love Champagne (and drink it whenever I can afford to) I often use them as reference.

 

If you had an unlimited budget to purchase 40 hectares of prime vineyard land in Australia, where would you choose, what would you be planting and what style of winemaking would you pursue?

Southern Margaret River. Chardonnay. I’d get someone awesome to make it for me – I don’t pretend to know how to make wine. It’s an art. I’d ask them to pursue wild ferment, high quality oak (but also a variety of fermentation vessels; amphora, egg etc). I’ll take care of the vineyard – satisfying my gardening love – and I would say ‘If it isn’t great, don’t make it. NOW… GO.’

 
 

If you could send a note to yourself in 2040,
what would it say?

See – I told you it was all going to be worth it.

What the world needs now is...

Oh my God what does the world need… apart from all the serious stuff (more Covid vax, less hate, more patience etc), we’d probably all benefit from higher allocations of Standish Shiraz.

 
 

Your thoughts on Australian wine…

 
 

Clearly, you are a huge fan of WA wines.
What is the specific draw to this region?

WA is a big place, and home to a number of wine regions. Margaret River is likely the one that most people are aware of (famous for its world class Chardonnay and Cabernet, and super smart Sauvignon Blanc), but we also have Australia’s largest GI in the Great Southern, then there’s Geographe, Swan Valley, Pemberton, Blackwood Valley… to name a few. There’s so much to discover, and I am certain we haven’t plumbed the depths of its capabilities yet either. The modern day WA wine industry is very young (the Swan Valley started with wine in the early-mid 1800’s so there is some significant history there, but otherwise WA is just getting started) and so there is a lot ahead of it with regards to vine age and experience. We have a very strong industry packed to the rafters with talented ambitious people, and the soils and climate are about as well suited to viticulture as you could want, so… you haven’t seen the best of WA yet.

 

What makes Aussie wine so special?

There were many years where the Aussies were laughed at in the international wine scene for making clinical, clean, ‘scientific’ wines. We taught the world that clean is good/preferred/the way forward, and in that process, we also learned that artistry, story and nuance is key to making wine that transcends ‘sound’ and moves into spellbinding, charming, breathtaking etc. That’s the pendulum again. We’ve got some of the very oldest vineyards on the planet, which are still producing fruit today (no phylloxera in the 1800s). Australia is striking a balance between pedigree vineyards, precision winemaking and story too. It’s an ever-moving feast of riches.

" Australia is striking a balance between pedigree vineyards, precision winemaking and story too. It’s an ever-moving feast of riches."

 

What can you tell us about the 2021 vintage in WA? 

It was a tough one. For once. There was a dual cyclone that caused some trouble (major rain events) right before and during harvest this year, so vignerons who weren’t on top of their vineyards (canopy management, interrow plantings, diversity etc), or who were carrying too much fruit may experience some troubles with botrytis. The quality is apparently very good/brilliant – of course just too early to know yet.  Given some of the challenges faced with the weather, my prediction is it will be a ‘wheat from chaff’ vintage. Healthy vineyards and sharp eyes will have won the day here – the usual suspects will excel. 

You’ve referred to ‘living in the golden era of wine.’  What do you think the Aussies have got so right at the moment?  What do you think the future holds for Aussie wine?

Every vintage release we see at the moment is an improvement on the last. I realise that sounds clichéd, but we’re a country on the move, we’re fast learners, and our people are thirsty (for quality). I really believe Australian wine is booming right now.

We hear lots from our producers about their differing techniques and farming methods, do you think there are key methods either in the vineyard or winery which nudge a producer into the ‘truly great’ category?

You can’t beat site. When there is a good patch of dirt, planted in the right way, to the right variety – it’s an unbeatable combination. Lay that in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, is sensitive to the seasons and promotes biodiversity and health in both the vine and soil and it’s bulletproof.

" in short, they’re f****** smart. Among the very, very best of what Australia can do..."

We spotted a great picture of you and Dan Standish on social media, clearly tasting through his latest wines and having a great time! What are your first impressions of his latest collection?  We’re super lucky to be ahead of the curve with Standish wines and sampled the 2019 collection back in February. How do your thoughts on the collection compare with ours?

A VERY exciting morning for me. I’ve made no secret about my respect for Dan and his ability to coax nuance and expression from the vineyards he works with… and his staunch approach to working only with Shiraz (ok and a lick of Viognier, but it’s a Shiraz wine) really resonates with me. I wish more producers would make less!

I read your notes – epic words by the way – hard to add to what you’ve written. The 2019 release is bulletproof, and fans should buy AT A MINIMUM one of every one of them without blinking. More if they can. Picking the best is splitting hairs. They’re all exceptional. Again. I spent more time speaking with and listening to Dan that morning than I did committing each wine to memory for two reasons: 1) as I tried each one it was clear they are astoundingly good, ranking them amongst themselves felt unimportant that morning because 2) I am going to film a video, tomorrow morning (Wednesday 26th May) for release on Friday 28th May, so I knew I’d get the chance to do so then. 

Dan and I spent time talking about the shape of the wines, which felt very important when trying them. These are shapely wines, they’re textural, they have line and drive. They’re not just fruit forward, they’re svelte and curvaceous and streamlined – in short, they’re f****** smart. Among the very, very best of what Australia can do (and a fraction of the price of the most expensive – also brilliant wines but…).

 

For years, we have been championing how wonderful Aussie wine is and often, comparable to many of the world’s most celebrated. What is your opinion?

Thank you! You’re right. I often do benchmark tastings, and as far as I can tell, Australia is making Chardonnay that is close to the best in the world (the best of Burgundy is very hard to beat), so too for cabernet. Our best Shiraz is up there with the best of Rhône. Our Rieslings have a way to go, but are evolving into a style that is typically Australian, and when looked at through the lens of the Great Southern – all the hallmarks for brilliance are there – taut acid, fruit power, line… the thing that unifies Australian wine and makes it an unassailable proposition is the value for money – yes, the best they be creepin’ but generally, Australian wine is cheap, the best are world class – and it’s not just one or two producers who are doing us proud. It’s ten or fifteen. Or more. Giddy-up.

What is the most important Aussie wine industry issue we need to address and soon…?

It’s obvious: it’s climate change. It’s not just rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, it’s the ever-present threat of bushfires. Water catchment and management is vital. As is sustainable viticulture – no longer can we just farm without care for land health and biodiversity. We, as humans, must learn respect for the natural environment in which we live, and take steps to adjust our approach to the land likewise. In Australia, the indigenous Aboriginals took care of the land for 60,000 years before white people got here, and they did it successfully. The most important issue facing the Australian wine industry right now is one that has been ever present: respect for the land and creating a sustainable future that will outlast us, our children, and our children’s great grandchildren. Imagine that.

 

Erin walks us through
the 2019 Standish Releases

The Relic 2019 "...this is a ridiculously delicious wine"

The Standish 2019 "That is fast becoming my favourite wine... again"

The Schubert Theorem 2019 "...this is the impenetrable beast of the collection... this is the dark kind of swirling black hole of a wine, and I just love it"

Lamella 2019 "bloody exciting"