Introducing a very special
What was the main catalyst for swapping a comfortable life for hardship in the vineyard? Please tell us your personal story and journey, including any highlights and perhaps some hurdles you have faced…
For me (Paul) I had hit a point in my life where I thought, "Is this it? Am I going to become an averagely successful person in London, maybe living in the Home Counties, constantly lamenting how much a season rail pass costs?" It all seemed faintly depressing. I'd always wanted to go into the wine industry but the idea of becoming a vigneron never really occurred to me until I wrote down the industries I was interested in (cricket and wine) and then the types of things I wanted to do for work (outside, artistic but technical, working with my hands, owning my own business, doing every role from sales to growing, something small but awesome, etc, etc.). It was kind of a lightbulb moment. Then it was about working out how to get to where we wanted to be. I knew Gilli didn't have a specific idea of what she wanted to do and I just felt it was something that would excite her so I convinced her to come to the Languedoc and do a harvest with me. From the moment we started walking the vineyards with the owners and hearing their thought process on when to harvest, she was hooked. That harvest also disabused of the romantic image of winegrowing. It was hot, hard work but the result was inspiring.
After visiting and working in many vineyards across the continents, how did you end up in Tasmania? What was the main reason for establishing your dream winery there?
We loved Pinot Noir and the idea was that if you change your life you may as well make it as hard as possible. 'Great' new world Pinot Noir in a pioneering (aka affordable) region seemed like an appropriate challenge. We initially started with the idea of learning about lots of different varieties, growing methods and winemaking techniques. So we started broadly but always with one eye on Pinot Noir. We studied oenology and viticulture at Curtin University in Margaret River in Western Australia and at the same time got as varied experience as possible. We were very focused on learning and absorbing information. We worked with big producers, small producers, conventional and biodynamic, lots of different varieties, hands-off winemaking versus wines of artifice, etc. We also knew we'd be in a new area without much support so we learnt about different vineyard equipment and how to fix them. In the winery it's all very well doing harvests here and there but that's just one part of the process, so Gilli spent 4 years working in one winery to understand the ebb and flow of the work. The Pinot Noir side was where we did our overseas harvests. These were in Oregon in 2007 and Central Otago in 2008. By 2010 we'd identified an emerging region (the Huon Valley) in Southern Tasmania. We then went to work for a contract winery near Hobart to see fruit from all around the state and confirm that the region we were interested in really did produce amazing Pinot Noir. It did, so here we are 9 years later!
What would you say has been most rewarding about your journey? Any memorable moments / best pieces of advice received?
Whenever there has been a steep learning curve and we've coped with it. From the initial leap into the unknown to Gilli being dux of her degree, and from resurrecting a neglected vineyard, to winning the Jimmy Watson trophy as winemakers for another local producer... it's all been about challenging ourselves to be the best we can be and so far we think we've achieved that. None of this has felt like hard work though because it's what we love doing. We've lived and breathed this for the last 13 years. Pretty glad we didn't take Robert Joseph's advice when we asked him if he had any tips on how to establish a vineyard/wine business - he said, "Yes, don't do it"!
Are there any winemakers, past or present, who have had a profound influence on you?
Glenn Goodall from Xanadu is an exceptional winemaker and fantastic person. He challenges your thinking but supports you too. Mike Etzel from Beaux Frères is an incredibly thoughtful person and guided us in terms of hands-off Pinot Noir winemaking and the dedication to growing great wine. The Watson family of Woodlands helped us to understand the importance of vineyard site and then understanding where your wines sit in a global context.
How exactly did you come up with the name 'Sailor Seeks Horse'? and what does it mean?
There was a handwritten sign on the wall at the Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet, our local coffee and cake respite from the Tasmanian weather. It said, “Sailor Seeks Horse” and went on to explain that the author had sailed solo around the world and ridden across the US from coast to coast and back again. On a mule. He’d then decided he wanted to travel around Tasmania by horse but didn’t have one. So, was there anyone who would lend him one? If they didn’t have a horse then a pony would do.
It was an idea that resonated with us. Here we were, trying to do something a little bit crazy, without much money and requiring a little bit of help to get to where we wanted to be.
We loved the use of language and the rhythm of the wording and for some reason it stuck with us. When it came time to naming our vineyard, Sailor Seeks Horse just felt right. For us, it’s about not being pigeon-holed in life, it’s about doing something you really want to do and seizing the moment and just doing it.
So what happened to Bernie Harberts, the sailor who sought a horse? Well, no-one lent him a horse in the end and he ended up buying a $10 bike from the local tip-shop and off he went around Tasmania. That’s the other thing. He didn’t just give up, he got creative and down here in the Huon, where there aren’t too many other vignerons around to help, sometimes you’ve got to get creative
What's the story behind the label?
We’ve spent the best part of two years trying to come up with a design for our label. We’ve asked the help of three different designers and each one of them came up with some great designs but you know what? None of them were us. None of them made us think ‘yep, that’s it, they’ve nailed it.’ We never really felt an emotional connection with any of them. When you’re so close to your product, when you’ve spent so much time and energy on getting something inside the bottle just right, you don’t want the outside to be an afterthought. You want it to be perfect (in your own mind). And clients seeking perfection? Not the kind of clients we’d want if we were designers…
I used to do marketing back in the UK. I worked with a lot of designers and we developed some interesting ideas but there was always time pressure to get things done and there was always this tiny part of me that…shock horror…didn’t care that much, so you got it done on time. Of course I cared. I really thought I did. But when it’s your label and your identity, it’s just different, you care more. You care to the nth degree. I used to lecture an ex-employer that they should go fully organic. I didn’t get their reticence. Now I understand that tiny whisper of doubt when you’re so emotionally, financially and physically invested in something. You think it’ll be that much easier if only you were in charge but it’s not like that. You question every decision you make and you worry all the time that you’ve made the wrong one.
This one had us stumped. There are so many options and paths you can go down with labels – traditional, avant-garde, ‘natural’, amusing, artistic, clean, colourful, etc. Each one says something about you and what you’re about. If naming your wine is like naming your child, then these are the clothes you dress them in and even when people say, “I hate brands and how clothes look isn’t important, we just get them from the op-shop”, that’s still branding. That’s still what you want the world to perceive you as – ‘the eco-friendly op-shopper who HATES BRANDS’. It’s a bit like the South Park episode where the Goth says, “If you want to be one of the nonconformists all you have to do is dress just like us and listen to the same music we do.”
A cliché is to never work with children and animals. Sometimes people add family into that equation. Gilli’s brother and his partner have right-hemisphere brains, so the idea of asking them to have a think about our label, and if any ideas popped into their heads, then perhaps they could run them past us, wasn’t a bad one. In hindsight, we think it was a great one. When you’ve been so heavily invested in something and so committed to it, often the only people who are going to get what, where, how, why you’re doing what you’re doing are your family and friends. They watch and listen, offer support and help you through the bad times whilst celebrating the good ones. You can give a 100-page brief to a designer but they weren’t the ones we were speaking to the day after wallabies decimated the vineyard, or the late, severe frost in October 2011. They weren’t the ones who helped us pick our first, tiny crop in 2012 or planted 15,000 vines into what felt like concrete. Our families and friends were.
A day after we asked for their help, Andrew nonchalantly sent a text with an image on. I think I just said, “Yes.” It was remarkable how, when all seemed somewhat lost, that someone could throw the proverbial life-saver to you. We’re playing and tinkering with it now but we think we’re almost there. The finish line is in sight. We hope that people like the label, we think it reflects us, the area and what we’re trying to do down here. But you never know. It’s like our name; sometimes people just look confused and ask what it’s got to do with wine…
With the growing amount of wineries in Tasmania, is there a good sense of community between the winemakers? Do you exchange views/experiences and swap wines?
There used to be in the pioneering days, then it fell by the wayside a little as people focused on their regions and their businesses (Tasmania is a relatively divergent island and vineyards can be quite far apart geographically). The vast majority of wines were made in a couple of contract winemaking facilities for a long time. Recently some younger winemakers with a wide range of experience have started to move to the island and are making their own wines. Some are buying fruit, some are focused on their own single-vineyard wines and there is a lot of exploration of sites and winemaking styles. This has made it a pretty dynamic state and we're seeing a lot more wines coming through that appeal to a younger or more international palate, with earlier picking, more whole bunch and a focus on elegance and longevity rather than fruit-driven, dry-red styles.
Do you feel that Tasmania’s potential as a premium wine region has only just begun to be tapped? How do you see the region developing?
The state is very diverse in terms of climate and soils so there is still a vast amount of exploration to happen. We're starting to see a fair amount of vineyard expansion which will provide both opportunities and challenges moving forward. Our own region, the Huon Valley, has been overachieving for its size (there are only really 5 notable vineyards down here) but the limiting factor is land. The Huon used to export apples to the UK and it was a massive industry but when the UK signed to the EEC this market shut down overnight. The impact was devastating and the vast majority of orchards were grubbed up and then subdivided so there are very few north-facing sizable plots of land left that are a commercial reality for investors. We won't see the 100 hectare investments that are starting to go into other regions of Tasmania so this should provide a point of difference.
What are the highlights of your wine journey so far?
There have been so many it would be hard to pin down one. It's mostly about the wonderful people we've met along the way and those who have shaped our journey. Of course tasting the single barrel of 2012 Pinot that we made and bottled but never released was just amazing.
What do you drink after a long, hot day spent working in the vineyard?
One of our great neighbours is a serious home brewer who's just turning professional right now. Kicking back in his shed, covered in dirt, stinking of sulphur and drinking his super-fresh NEIPAs or Session Ales are the best way to end a day in the vines.
Do you have any exciting plans or projects lined up in the background which you can share with us?
Any interesting experiments? On the vineyard front we've planted another hectare and a half of new clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It's a tough hill and the grass doesn't even like growing there so we'll see how it goes. We've also planted some Trousseau and hopefully we'll be importing some Poulsard in a couple of years and planting that. On the wine front we're starting to explore the site a little more and are releasing some single barrel wines as well as a new Chardonnay that focuses on a particular clone that has some Musque characters. We're doing the hipster thing of trialling amphorae so we'll see what happens with that!
Finally, would you like to pass any message to our world-wide customers?
We're super excited to be getting our wines into the wider world and showing people what the edge of Tasmania is capable of.
Sailor Seeks Horse Chardonnay 2017
98-99 points Stuart McCloskey "Marine, saline, oyster shell with touches of green apple, orchard flowers and a lovely streak of minerality on the nose. The palate is medium-bodied, bright, alive with a slight chalkiness. There’s a lovely fabric to this wine. Tightly knit with subtle fruits interwoven with a tension which I find difficult to express in words. More a sense of completeness. The simplicity is quite breathtaking and rare to find these days. Tensile, reserved and unapologetically a personal expression of Paul & Gilli who are obsessed with producing wines which they love, rather than following fashions. I believe this to be one of those wines which will create much argument. Those edging toward flamboyance may show disdain, whereas those wishing to seek out ethereal balance and gracefulness will be swooning. I would argue this must be one of the greatest exponents of Australian Chardonnay I have come across and cannot wait to see how this individualist wine unfolds over the coming years. Regardless of which camp you stand in – May I suggest you, at the very least, try a Tassie Chardonnay which flirts with perfection (if only once). Decanted for 20-30 minutes and served using Zalto Bordeaux glassware (as essential as the wine!)"
98 Points – Magdalena Scienkiewicz "You know you are in the presence of something special straight away… Pristine colour and beautifully crystalline. Elegant aromas of sea minerals interwoven with notes of Sicilian lemon and a only a very delicate touch of oats. The palate is super fine and yet incredibly appealing – there’s freshness and precision which is quite magical. Indisputably Tasmanian and ‘cool climate’, it’s simply delightful and certainly not ‘lean’ in any sense. It carries an ethereal presence, which broadens in the glass as you keep coming back for another sip. Clearly, it will develop in the bottle too, if you have the patience... Do not serve too cold or, allow the temperature to come up slightly. Full of fresh sea minerals and an invigorating zestiness. Superb. Sampled in Zalto Bordeaux glass."
£44.50 per bottle
or £209.10 per case of 6 In Bond
Sailor Seeks Horse Pinot Noir 2017
98+ Points Stuart McCloskey "The aromas waft from the glass with consummate ease… Touches of smoked, grilled meat, redcurrant, liquorice, dried orange rind, blood orange, spice (black pepper & cinnamon) and rose hip. Very Burgundian. The palate is medium bodied with tannins as long and fine as one could imagine. As with their Chardonnay – This wine shows an amazing level of control. Not a millimetre is out of place. The fruit conveys a cool-climate, saline elegance which is far from sparing. Unfurling, charming, precise and certainly built for the cellar (5-10 years). There are two Aussie Pinot Noirs which I go to and this is one… Such is the brilliance, Paul & Gilli should pay Burgundy a tutelage visit. For now, I award 98 points but I believe this will increase over the coming years. This is a fantastic Pinot Noir and a benchmark against which other Aussie wines should be measured. Decant for one hour and serve using Zalto Burgundy glassware"
£44.50 per bottle
or £209.10 per case of 6 In Bond