Welcome to the Meet The Maker series.
It seems like a basic concept, but something that we often forget to do, is to celebrate and showcase those salt of the earth winemakers who are the driving force for the love potion that ends up in our glass.
Aptly timed for his recent release of wines, our first guest maker is James Erskine.
After finishing high-school, James Erskine (@Jauma) trained to become a specialist in cookery with the ambition of one day starting his own restaurant. A bit of exploration, a few twists and turns down the track, James is now producing some of the most laid-back and playful organic wines in Australia. Fiona Wood, James’s business partner and organic vineyard consultant also plays a pivotal role in maintaining strong agricultural practices across the farm.
We sat down with James for what turned out to be a solid chat.
Hey James, how are you going?
‘James talks in the background’ – Hey guys I’m just going to be talking to someone on the phone for a bit…
Sorry, today is my day on the phone, it’s so funny.
Everyone wants an interview. I was talking to someone in Thailand.
You and Fiona Wood work closely together, she takes more ownership over the grapes and you’re focused on the cellar. Is that still the case?
I started in 2010, buying grapes and already had met Fiona. I realised straight away she was good at what she does. So anything that had a home, that she was looking after for other people, as a viticulture consultant for her business, I said ‘yep, I’ll take it’.
So that included her dad’s (Ralph) Grenache and Shiraz in Clarendon. Peter Birdsey’s Cabernet Franc. Slowly, anytime we took over a new block to rent and farm she would be on as a consultant. I always work with her.
I was running more vineyards myself until I got divorced in 2015, and just pulled out totally from all hands on management. I did some stuff, but way too much. Essentially, now, I just do the winery and she runs all the vineyards.
I also work with another consultant, Dave Gardelman, he actually works together with Fiona quite a lot.
You were at hotelier school, then you became a sommelier and then took some time to do vintages overseas and now back in the hills, What inspired this transition?
I worked overseas for about 5 years in-between restaurants and making wine and schnapps. I came back to Australia wanting to study winemaking as a mature age student at 23. I did the first year of oenology, the science of wine and it was exactly what was offered. But I was like wow, I’m a bit more romantic than A plus B equals C for wine.
I loved chemistry and biology, so I kept doing the degree but I actually did Agricultural Science and specialised in soil chemistry, so I did that for four years with an honours thesis. I always worked at the same time. I needed money. I was the sommelier with Magill estate, Penfold’s premiere restaurant.
I had the dream job. I was studying full time and then I had 5 nights a week work as a wine waiter, getting $25 an hour, a staff meal and working 17:30 to 22:30. I sort of was debating whether I was going to continue on with a PHD. A good friend actually talked me out of it and said ‘look you’re actually really good at what you do and we need good sommeliers, so do that’.
I had a year in America…where I actually ran into organics for the first time. It was pretty cool.
So you came back, worked full time as a sommelier in a restaurant in Adelaide…
At that time I said to my boss ‘look I’m not that excited by the wines in South Australia, they’re good but they’re homogenous’ and we were an Italian restaurant. So I said ‘look there’s a new wave of Italian variety wines being made, I want to make wine and I need money and I’m going to sell it in your restaurant and you’re going to make the money’.
He gave me a $20k start and I promised him $80k plus. So I went out and bought grapes from three different wineries and made wine with them and sold it at the restaurant and had this really heavy focus on Italian varieties grown in Australia.
I started doing wine competitions at about the same time because the court of sommeliers were actually coming to Australia for the first time so you could assess yourself. In that year I duxed the sommelier competition for all of Australia and I created a bit of a storm because Adelaide is not famous for where sommeliers are and I was an absolute nobody.
At the same time I won a scholarship with Negociants (Yalumba’s distribution in the UK and in Australia) … to go overseas… 3 weeks in Burgundy and 3 weeks in Northern Spain. Just visiting amazing producers and getting our head around that part of the industry.
I came back to Australia and I was powered up… and actually teamed up for 6 months with an American company that was distributing and really created the market for new wave Australian wines in America. Australia was huge in America, in the hay day of Robert Parker, we are talking late late 90s early 2000s.
I was working with Chris Ringland… probably the most influential winemaker in Australia in the last 50 years. Big call but he used to be the maker for Rochford and he schooled all of them. Chris created this new wave of Barossa style wine, uber opulent, early pressed off, sweet fruited, new oak Shiraz. This was such a hay day.
Working with (Chris) him and Bill Downie… two of the greats at the time…Bill (Downie) was the Enfant Terrible of the Australian winemaking scene. He had the first few releases of the Bill Downie Pinots out and he was highly influenced by the natural winemaking movement out of Beaujolais and Burgundy. He planted quite a lot of seeds in my head.
I was making cider at the time and he said to me ‘dude what the f*** are you doing, start making wine’. I was already mates with Anton (Lucy Margaux)… and I was like ‘hey I’m going to start making wine, I want to make wine without any additions’. And Anton was really spot on with making wines already, without yeast and without acid. He was still filtering his white wines, not his reds, at the time and using sulphur. He said save your cash, keep your money, use my equipment and give me a hand. I helped him for a while on his farm before harvest.
Tell us about the ‘Voice of the People’ project…
We decided to set up a joint project together, Tom Shobbrook and another colleague of ours from Sydney, Sam Hughes.
I wanted to make wines in kegs and I wanted it to be cheap and sitting on bars and be preservative free and organic. Anton liked the idea, but he wanted to do it in glass demijohns. The ‘voice of the people’ project.
We hand painted 23L glass demijohns… what you got was 23 litres of living wine with another wooden platform for the demijohn to sit on the bar, a stainless steel siphon with a little tap with a cherry wood or Applewood handle. Basically you paid a $100 deposit for the kit and the wine was cheap. It was like $9 a litre. We would ship that to you and then we would drive to Melbourne and drop a 500L replacement barrel off to Blackhearts & Sparrows…and they would refill it for us.
Did there ever feel like a breakthrough moment?
Anton Tom and my wines got picked up in 2011 by a major natural wine importer in London. Sort of really kicked off the natural wine scene in London 15, 16 years ago… in Australia at the time to export your wine, it had to be, A - chemically analysed, and B - tasted by an expert panel. The expert panel rejected the wine and we already had like a full down payment, full payment for the wine and it was so funny and Anton loves a good flight.
Wine Australia are based in Adelaide and…Anton rang up the guy and he's like, ‘I'd like to know why our wine was rejected’. And he said, ‘Oh, it was cloudy’. And, I jumped on the phone and I was like, Hey, where are you from? And he's like, Adelaide. And I'm like, yeah, cool. Me too. Do you drink beer? And he's like, yeah. And I said, do you ever drink Coopers? He was like, yeah. And I was like, it's cloudy, isn't it? Have you got an issue with that? You know, it Corona better than that because it's filtered.
…(Gary Mills – Jamsheed Wine) his wine got rejected as well and he kicked up a fuss and between the two of us, we actually broke the system where from then on your wine only to have chemical analysis done to make sure that wasn't excess sulphur or whatever.
At the same time I'd taken over, what was a small wine show in South Australia as the chief judge and created like a natural wine category and defined that. There was live music with judging, there was food cooked on site for all the judges by the most interesting cooks of the day. Instead of judging things as like a bracket of reasonings from the Eden Valley, you'd have Eden Valley light aromatic white wines, so that the taste that didn't go in with a preconceived bias of what they were going to taste and therefore the best wines to class would shine. And that was not heard of before. We went from having, like 300 wines to 1,900 wines very fast. I was having an absolute hoot.
So it was this crazy time of momentum. It was a really influential time and I'm not blowing wind up my ass. It's just like we were just doing what we wanted to do and didn't give a shit what anyone else said and had like so much pie thrown in our face and survived. Um, and all those projects really just went harder and crazier for a couple of years and maturing internationally.
And we had like a band, it was crazy. And then Sam died in 2013. He took his own life and that was a massive, massive loss for Australia and for Sydney. He was just this beautiful human who introduced another way of looking at wine.
It seems like you were sort of doing the thing right. Trying to evangelise a new style, a movement.
Exactly. But we knew … all the classics, we knew how to taste wine, we knew the chemistry. And so we were pretty much unchallengeable on all fronts… soil chemistry through to viticulture, art, some physics, like this amazing group. But unfortunately… when Sam took his life, the band split up, [but] the movement had already started. The Other Right had already started in my shed. Gentle Folk had already started in my shed, Yetti and the Coconut had started, Anton and Tom kept touring internationally together. I was working a lot more in Asia. They were working a lot more in Europe. We had about two or three years break as a team and then we came back together really solidly, in 2016. More and more now, especially that we all own farms and we are all really pushing for farming without chemicals.
Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you face when trying to farm organically?
We’re pretty lucky, we've bought a farm that is organically certified already by NASA for 12 years. This is the 13th year and it's a cherry farm with 15 varieties. And I bought the farm with the intention to take all the cherries out and quickly realised that's a really stupid thing to do. Cherries don't make anywhere near the money that wine makes. But why do we need a monoculture? Why are we not creating a polycultural system?
For me managing, empowering and focusing energy within my body system. I don't see it any different to the way I see managing land. But the only way to do that is to calm the mind. And the only way to calm the mind with farming is experience. But my dream is really different to where anyone else's is. I'm coming at it with not “how do I be an organic or a BD farmer”, but “how do I farm without chemicals?” And there isn't anyone doing it. The guy I bought the farm from experimented with chemicals and not chemicals and sprays and not sprays. And he really got this the farm to a non- spray system. But I'm taking it to the next level now. I've got my cuttings here. I'm planting my cuttings out now that I finished all the soil work last week.
And this is where we differ from others, I want to go down a path which is really set out by permaculture.
When you have a single crop, let's just talk wheat and you plant it in soil. Let's say low rainfall and not the best soil, you're not going to get the best crop. So the theory has been since the industrial revolution of agriculture, [is] to use nitrogen based fertilizers, to get things to grow fast. And the problem is when you get things to grow fast, they're weak. If things are weak in any ecosystem, that's when the predator comes and removes them. That's just the way of life. The permaculture system basically says there seems to be a tipping point with co-cropping.
If you have four different types of plants planted with your wheat, you've got better drought resistance, better disease resistance, almost creating a forest ecosystem, different levels of growth above and more importantly below ground. So different root structures working their way into different levels of the soil.
If you see a mushroom on the side of the road, you would have seen a mushroom or if you haven't, keep your eyes open. Mushrooms will push open bitumen, you know, they’re insane. And what I want to do is this system where the root and landscape underneath the soil is all those different plants chosen for different things. There's infinite amount of nutrients available even in what are defined as poor agricultural soils. It's just that the life isn't available in those poor agricultural soils because it's been poorly farmed in the past and all of the organic matter has left the system
What seems to happen is we put out a ridiculous amount of different things ‘cause we don't know what our tipping point is to get gene activation where you actually have crazy gene disease resistance. And if you look at a forest, you don't really see disease. You see a little bit of disease here and there and it gets consumed by the plants, by fungi or something like that.
So by putting out like preventative copper and preventative sulfur sprays, you're killing all the life that's on the leaf system. And the leaf, like your gut, has its own biome, and the more diverse your gut biome, by eating good, healthy, not processed, you will have a better health system. You'll live longer, you'll have less stress, it’s exactly the same for plants
I think we don't accept disease as part of life. And I might eat my words, but I'd love to.
We want to hit down that process where I'm happy to work reactionary with sulfur. I'd like not to work with copper at all… I really don't like copper.
When you talk about keeping a larger variety of plants and seeds in the soil, do you mean quite literally plants planted between vines?
All between the vines, all between the cherries and everywhere. It'll look a bit of a mess… definitely won't look pretty, but also look insanely beautiful in my eyes.
Favourite wine maker/region?
For me it’s who made it. I didn't give a shit where it's from, but I love drinking wines from people I've met in a natural world because, as soon as you don't add things or take things away, the wines are so resonating of the human or the team that made them. Mr.Tsuyoshi Kobayashi in the Shion Winery in Yamanashi, Japan. It was because they work with their own varieties and they don't try to be French. They tried to make Japanese wines from Japanese grapes. That influenced me so heavily.
Can you tell us about the Catalan name Jauma and what it means to you?
Thank you for asking. So I won that scholarship, right? I was at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, I was at La Flave, Château de Beaucastel, Vega Sicilia, all these cult wines. And you know, we had brilliant barrel tastings, amazingly well looked after and great introductions. And at the end of my tour I wanted to visit a Gratiot in Catalunya to have a look at Clos Mogador. I was really interested in this warmer climate red wines that were spicier and lighter. I met this young wine maker and his name was Jauma. And I was like, ‘I can't understand your name’. And he's like, ‘ it's your f***** name in Catalan’ … we'd just been eating foie gras, all the fancy wineries are always trying to fill you with fanciness. And we came to this guy who just cooked us toasties or something. And we just had such a real experience … I was like, fuck the people of Catalunya… they're so dynamic and full of flare and they're trying to create their own or preserve their own culture without the Spanish people overtaking them. So it means to me… an honourable fight with compassion.
What's on the roadmap for the Erskine family farm?
Winery field this year. Moving the winery here…getting married if we still can in October and putting in another big veggie patch. We want to do more and more events, if people want to have a corporate escape and come up to the hills for a day or two, we can do whatever it is, but we just want all the food to come from the farm and we've got a really good veggie patch already. But we want to really increase that. I want people to be able to come here and have a real experience and go away somewhat more awake.
I think people who are going to enjoy your wine and the people who appreciate how you make your wine, would want these real experiences.
I hope so. Yeah. And the real experiences can become confronting because especially with yoga, it's a lot of breath work and really challenging. We’ve got a really good teacher and we just want to keep passing on what we're learning, just let the farm grow with diversity. We've got this beautiful dude working with us who had his own restaurant. He's a chef, Andrew. He's been working with us for almost two years now. And he's starting to thrive as well and just let him express himself more and more through the farm. What natural wine making taught me, everyone is to let go of control. We have no control. You can set out with a general direction of which way you want to head, but it's going to hit in a different direction, you know? And if you try and hold and fight against that, then you're just wasting energy benefit. Better to go with it. And it's really cool to see him growing and adapting and giving him more opportunity to run things the way he wants to do it for his part of the farm.
I've got one more thing. I've been doing a bit of touring, recently showcasing wines without preservatives from 2014 2015 2016 just to show people. Because people often ask do they age and it's just an assumption that because they don't have preservatives, they don't age. And also crown seals don’t age. So I've just been trying to show people, well, Champagne ages their wines under crown seal for 10, 12, 15 years before they put a cork on it. It’s actually the best closure, but I'm really looking forward to doing that more with Tom (Shobbrook) and Anton. We've really uniting a lot more again now and with more than a decade of experience each. That's 30 years of experience just in the winemaking and farming, let alone all the other shit behind it. So I really look forward to traveling a bit more and doing some more education work together with those guys.