We caught up with Bruce and asked him more about his life and Domaine Naturaliste
You have worked as the winemaker at such great names as Francis Ford Coppola’s Niebaum-Coppola winery in the Napa Valley and closer to home, at Margaret River’s Pierro Winery who we also know very well. What did you learn from your time spent at each and how have you applied this to Domaine Naturaliste wines?
Coppola and Pierro were amazing training grounds for a young winemaker. At Coppola I learned that wine is a form of entertainment, coupled with a strong understanding of history and tradition. An example being that as Francis’s neighbours replanted vines on AXR1 root stock, which was considered the “new kid on the block”, Francis wanted to preserve the history of the site and did his replantings on St George root stock. A decade on, and we began to see the failure of AXR1 to phylloxera, while the Coppola vines powered on via the traditional St George selections. Pierro taught me the importance of attention to detail and that the refinement of style and quality was attention to detail on a holistic basis.
How do your Chardonnays compare to the Pierro Chardonnay?
Pierro Chardonnay is considered an icon of the Margaret River region and I would be flattered and honoured if one day my chardonnays could gain the same recognition. I have been very fortunate in my experience at Pierro.
Tell us about your experiences at Niebaum-Coppola winery in Napa Valley. Was Mr Coppola very involved?
After my schooling in winemaking and viticulture at UC Davis, about an hour from Napa Valley and 1.5 hours from San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to work for Francis and Eleanor Coppola for 5 years. I started a three month harvest job and enjoyed it so much it lasted 5 years. The Coppola’s house was about 200m from the old winery which was a carriage house built in the 1860s, so Francis was often in the winery, and he had very clear visions for the wine. The Coppolas along with my direct boss, Scott McLeod, were very inclusive and generous with their hospitality, including me in many tastings and afternoon lunches with journalists at their house.
The Napa Valley is arguably more famous for Cabernet Sauvignon than Margaret River. Have you brought any winemaking techniques from Napa and applied it to your Margaret River Cabernets? How do cabernets in Napa and Margaret River compare?
Scott McLeod, my boss at Niebaum-Coppola, and consultant Tony Soter instilled the importance of understanding the fruit as it was growing, so that at harvest time we were aware of our surroundings and the similarities to previous vintages. We could then apply this understanding to fine tune the wines. History contains the answers to many questions.
You studied agricultural science in Western Australia. How important has this knowledge been to your winemaking? Would you have followed this as a career if you hadn’t become a winemaker?
My training in agriculture instilled a broad based introduction to biological systems and how they interact. It taught me how to critically evaluate information, so that you can make evidence based decisions, as opposed to anecdotal. The training also instilled a strong set of values in sustainability and of our long term responsibilities; quite simply we are the custodians of our land, and it is my responsibility to leave the land in better health for the next generation. If winemaking and viticulture had not fully consumed me, then I may have become a research scientist.
What path lead you to become a winemaker? Was it the science and viticulture that you were initially interested in, or had wine always been a passion of yours?
I was always fascinated by plants and microbiology as a kid, so growing vegetables and making compost were a long term hobby. In grade 5 at school, I would hand-juice table grapes from my backyard, then put the juice in glass bottles on my desk at school. I would watch with amazement as the cloudy juice began to effervesce, and that just fascinated me; as it still does now.
Could you talk us through the specifics and differences between the Flagship, Direction and Discovery ranges? Is there one particular wine that you feel best translates your philosophy?
My philosophy is based on an holistic agricultural approach; to work with cultivars which are well suited to our set of natural conditions. I believe success in agriculture is working with the natural strengths of the farming environment. Cultivars which offer a balanced composition of fruit, which can then be translated to meaningful styles of wine with minimal intervention, are the varieties I work with. I specialise in Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a hat full of Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
Before you began to produce the Domaine Naturaliste wines, you were operating as a contract winery. What prompted the decision to start producing your own wine? Has making wine for other producers given you a broader range of ideas to apply to your own wines?
I love custom crush winemaking as it has provided me with a very hands on journey of terroir in Margaret River. The opportunity of working with numerous different climates and varieties has been a great learning curve, and one which I am still enjoying. I look at my craft as requiring repetition so that I have the opportunity for refinement and improvement. My prompt to establish Domaine Naturaliste, after 25 professional years, was that the timing was right for my family. My boys; Oscar and Tim, were a bit more independent, and my wife Wendy has a bit more time to invest. This also coincided with gaining access to some of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the area, the heart and soul of my Flagship, Morus Cabernet Sauvignon.
Have you ever experienced any winemaking disasters?
Hmm, I look at them as my learning journey. It’s pretty simple to me, great wines often require that you live on the edge, and if you are not living on the edge, you are taking up space! You don’t know how close you are to the edge until you fall off.
Are you creating the kind of wines you love to drink yourself? Outside of Margaret River, what do you like to drink? Do you have an all-time favourite wine?
I have waited 25 professional years to create my wines, so they are the styles I love to drink myself. Outside Margaret River, I still love Californian wines, and at this exact moment, I am in the Loire enjoying Sancerre, en route to Chablis, Burgundy then Piedmont. My favourite wine experiences transcend wine alone, they include people and place. One favourite was enjoying the 1990 Chave Cathelin Cuvée in a small bistro in the Rhône with Todd Stanfield and Jean-Louis Chave, who were classmates of mine from UC Davis in California.
What drew you to Margaret River in the first place? Sun, sea and surf presumably?
My mother’s side of the family were a pioneering family from the Margaret River region, so we always made the 3 hour drive from Perth to visit the relatives a few times a year as we were growing up.
Before my life of wine, I just loved holidays in “Margs” as it has great fishing, world class surf and just heaps of cool things to do, like exploring the subterranean limestone caves. The region is a wonderful balance between farming, native forest and spectacular coast.
I’m sure that you are kept incredibly busy, not only with the Domaine Naturaliste wines but also with the many events that you hold at the winey. When you get a rare chance for a break, what do you like to do in your spare time? Any hobbies or is it a case of just relaxing whilst you can?
I love chilling with family and friends, such as right now. I am on a house boat on the Loire with all my family and with the Warrens, another winemaking family from Margaret River (Marq Wines). I aspire to cook rustic dishes, typically open grilling using local hardwoods such as mallee roots and grape vines.
Describe a perfect weekend at home and away from the vineyard.
The perfect weekend typically revolves around my oldest son, Oscar’s Australian Rules Football game, which is typically late afternoon. My wife, Wendy, manages the Dunsborough Sharks under 16s team, and I am the scoreboard operator. After the game, we often go back to my house, light the fire pit and cook dinner over it with some friends. Simple. Perfect.
The events you hold at Domaine Naturaliste seem an important part of what you do there. Are they about promoting your brand or just bringing people together for a great day?
We often have live music at the vineyard cellar door in Willyabrup on Saturday afternoons. The purpose is to bring people together, particularly the local community as it is simply fun, which is of course what wine is all about.
You run a Margaret River masterclass where you taste your wines alongside other wines from the region including Cullen, Vasse Felix, Leeuwin and Cape Mentelle, which some may percieve as being brave. With your back against the wall, where have you consistently rated against your neighbours?
I will often host Masterclasses featuring various producers from the area, on behalf of the Margaret River Wine Industry association. These classes are typically for groups of visiting international sommeliers or trade. I look at these classes as an opportunity to communicate the story of Margaret River and the unique characters of our fruit. The above producers are definite favourites of mine, (in my cellar) and I am in debt to them for helping to establish Margaret River on a global platform. Domaine Naturaliste is the new kid on the block, so I am working hard to establish my styles. We have been fortunate to get significant encouragement from the likes of Decanter, Matthew Jukes and James Halliday.
Talking of your neighbours, do you have a great relationship with your fellow producers?
Margaret River is pretty isolated, and I think the local winemakers are aware of that. We are also aware that our brand is Margaret River, as such it seems to have fostered an open and collaborative approach, which I really enjoy.
What is the insiders’ story of the Margaret River region? From the outside it looks like a beautiful, relaxed and friendly place to live. How would you describe it?
I guess the answer is like this, a few months ago, a friend’s Dad and 3 of his mates, all octogenarians, were coming back from a morning of pulling the cray pots, and as they were coming into the boat ramp at Canal rocks in Yallingup, another boat pulled alongside and asked as to their success. The crafty old blokes said they’d had a “bad day” as they concealed their healthy bounty of live crays with a towel. Crayfish are saltwater lobsters. Seriously, I love Margaret River and will be happy to refine my art here for the rest of my life.
What is the Wilyabrup sub-region like? Is there anything that sets it apart from the rest of Margaret River?
Margaret River has various subregions. My 21ha of vines are at 160 Johnson Road in Wilyabrup. The combination of the ancient gravelly soils, moderate warmth and my passion for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon make this ideal for me. The fruit in Wilyabrup has generous textures in the Chardonnay and really silky fine tannins in the Cabernet, which suit my current set of values very well. The Wilyabrup region was defined by the father of Margaret River, Dr John Gladstones, who is an amazing scientist specialising in climatology as it related to vines. The definition is based on air drainage lines, soil types, and climate (not a road), so I believe the classification is meaningful. To me, Wilyabrup provides a delightful balance of fragrance and texture to its wines.
With the coast on three sides of Margaret River, would it be right to assume that you can get some amazing seafood there? Is there a local delicacy that you’re particularly fond of? What is the classic wine pairing?
Yes, the seafood is bountiful and amazing. Despite growing up on the coast, fishing extensively, making my own fishing rods, carving my own lures, and loving fishing, I am not a seafood person. I am still trying to work that one out. On the other hand, my wife Wendy loves Margaret River Sauvignon and lightly wooded Chardonnay with her seafood. Her favourite fish is Dhufish.
Is it more common to dine out in Margaret River, or eat at home? Is there much of a local food culture?
The long and gentle maritime climate of Margaret River means that numerous plants can go through their full life cycles, as such we have some awesome produce, such as olives, tomatoes, general fruit and vegetables. This is enhanced by artisanal meat producers, such as David Hohnen, who has amazing pork, lamb and beef. The produce and the area’s focus on quality and sustainability seems to have attracted plenty of world class culinary talent which drives a great local food culture. As locals, we love dining out during the day, and typically stay a bit closer to home at night, to avoid kangaroos as we drive home.
We assume that being a great winemaker gives you a great palate that could also result in creating great food, especially with a scientific approach. Do you dabble with molecular gastronomy or is simple home cooked food best?
Molecular gastronomy has always done my head in, until I dined at Azurmendi jatetxea in Spain a few years ago, when I experienced mastery of the art. My approach, and without the skillset of those amazing chefs, is a bit like my winemaking, that is to concentrate on getting great produce, treating it with respect and to include an open fire and a great bottle.
Vintage variation aside, if you were to describe your wine style to The Vinorium customers, what would you tell them?
I aspire to instil balance, restraint and elegance into my wines as God has denied these characters in me.