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Interview: Punt Road winemaker Tim Shand

Publish Date: 06 Sep 2016

Authored by: Campbell Mattinson

Winemaker Tim Shand suddenly has Yarra Valley winery Punt Road kicking goals from all angles. Campbell Mattinson catches up with the talented winemaker to find out the secret to his success.

When Tim Shand was 30 years old, he spent a vintage working at the McWilliam’s winery at Griffith in the New South Wales Riverina region. There are a lot of fancy things a winemaker can hope to do, but at Griffith, Tim’s tasks were entirely proletarian.

On his first day, he walked into an oak trial, where he had to taste his way through more than 100 sample wines and make decisions on each. It set the tone. He spent the following months tasting and tasting, and blending and blending, and if he got it wrong on large-scale wines, the sales would plummet. It was a job of considerable responsibility; it would either break or make him. The result was that it supercharged his ability to bottle wines in a condition and style he was certain everyday wine drinkers would like. It provided the freedom of a clear direction.

“There are no excuses,” Tim says of the task. “The customer is always right. If they don’t like what you serve up, they’ll stop buying it. [McWilliam’s] was a fantastic experience. And you can’t go the other way: you can’t start at a boutique [winery] on the Mornington Peninsula and then go and get that experience. I tell all young winemakers, ‘Get to the Riverina and work at the biggest winery you can.’”

If you’re looking for the perfect top-and-tail experience, this might just be it: Tim walked straight from McWilliam’s into work at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley. Suddenly, it wasn’t so much about scaling the heap; it was about soaring above it. Quality – extreme quality – was the mantra.

“[At Giant Steps] there was a focus on single vineyard wines, but you really cut your teeth whacking out pinot noir that had to hit the shelf at $24 and have complexity and interest without hitting the inside of a barrel. It was the dream job to walk into a place like that – from every angle.”

Tim spent three years on the good ship Giant Steps before being poached by fellow Yarra Valley winery Punt Road. It’s been game-on ever since.

Taking it on

Punt Road, it’s not unkind to say, was in desperate need of him at the time. It had launched with a splash in the early 2000s and while the quality of its wines had always been there or thereabouts, by late 2013, its business model had accumulated more than its fair share of flesh wounds. When Tim arrived, the place wasn’t rudderless, but it didn’t really know where it was going either. Stock levels had started to accumulate to dangerous levels. The wines, as a result, didn’t always look as fresh or as vibrant as drinkers might have liked. Major surgery was required. Tim, now 37, had his winemaking scalpel sharpened and ready.

“I walked in raring to go to have my own crack at things. And it was all here, that’s the thing. It’s one of the oldest sites in the valley, it’s a 30-year-old vineyard with an interesting mix of varieties and I had the freedom to do what I want. Even better, we had a distributor who was screaming for us to make more interesting wines.”

He’s made it look easy – the Punt Road wines, in quality and sales, are now flying – but it only looks so in hindsight. “It was terrifying walking into here. There was no crutch. People were so pejorative towards the label, there was no free kick. If we were going to get anywhere, then people had to actually taste the wines and like them; there was nothing else to get them over the line,” Tim says.

“The first thing we had to do was decide who we are and where we want to be. It’s a workhorse vineyard. We’re not [the region’s famed] Applejack or Lusatia Park. It’s our challenge to make good, flavoursome, interesting wine. We’ll be $22 to $29 most of the time and we’ll be really good drinking at that. Basically we want to be the people’s champion of the Yarra Valley.”

So, what did they most need to work on? “There was a disengagement between the vineyard and the winery. We’ve never really been single vineyard. We are now. We’ve done a lot of work in that regard. [Punt Road’s owners are] fruit growers. They believe in sound, clean fruit and it’s up to me to make something of it.” And indeed he has. The turn in Punt Road’s fortunes since Tim’s arrival has been dramatic. One of the things he’s done is throw out the concept of ‘price’, or more particularly, its importance in winemaking decisions. The focus couldn’t be more simple – what do people want to drink?

“Instead of taking all our grapes and making them the same, how about we try to make some interesting things? So we completely nullified the idea of premium and budget,” Tim says.

“I hate afterthought winemaking and wine brands. I hate ‘second labels’ that are just what’s left over. I like to do everything optimally. When the grapes are right, we get them in. It doesn’t really matter if it’s $10 or $50 a bottle – if there’s no reason to filter, fine, add too much sulphur or whatever, then there’s no reason to do it regardless of price."

“A lot of winemaking tries to tick too many boxes. I like to tick five boxes, that’s it. Don’t overcomplicate it. The Dan’s [Murphy’s] customers have a few boxes in their mind. We tick them and we’re done.”

One of the main things Tim believes is that wine drinkers want their wine delivered with its freshness wholly intact. “Getting the release times of your wines right is so crucial. It means many things, but you need to get your volumes right, you need to be super organised.”

A perfect example is the estate’s pinot gris – released just a few months after vintage. “We’re not trying to make it like chardonnay,” he says. “The brief is ‘I don’t want to see this in 12 months, I want it all gone. I want it lovely and fresh.’” As a result, Punt Road was already selling its 2016 Pinot Gris in early July. “It’s fantastic. We’re not short-changing anyone. The wine’s good. We’re happy, customers are happy,” he says.

As for their other varietals, Tim says they can’t keep up with demand for their chardonnay and pinot noir, as well as their pinot gris. “They’re going gangbusters. I reckon Yarra pinot noir or cool climate pinot noir in general is entering the realm of Barossa shiraz and Marlborough sauvignon blanc,” he says. “And if you want to buy it in the $20s, then the Yarra can do it better than most regions. I honestly think pinot noir [as a category] has just entered the commercial realm.”

The winning approach

This brings us to another secret of Tim’s success: flavour. It’s the one thing in wine that will never be out of favour, regardless what anyone says or tries to peddle. It means Tim is always asking the question: What can we do to create flavour without using oak?

“Why do we all have to sing the song that ‘We don’t have to do anything, it’s all in the vineyard?’ Why can’t we create flavours [in the winery] that people like? We find skins and bunches help us with that. People like overt flavours, particularly people who are spending $8 a glass in a bistro,” he says.

“We’re trying to take people’s minds away from variety and give them a style. I look at Europe and how easy wine is in that culture. I’d love to get to the point where we don’t have to talk about wine all the time; where it’s just about hitting a style, and that’s the start and end of it.”

Find out what a day in the life of a Halliday Wine Companion reviewer looks like, read about the Winefront website being ripped off, or go to Barolo with Jane Faulkner. 

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