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The story of McLaren Vale label Zerella Wines

Publish Date: 11 Nov 2016

Authored by: Casey Warrener

In the wake of Zerella Wines being named one of 10 top new wineries in the 2017 Companion, we catch up with winemaker Jim Zerella to hear the story behind his brand’s success.

When I pick up the phone to Jim Zerella, he’s in the midst of juggling his 20-month-old son and cleaning up around his cellar door. It’s with an easy laugh that he explains this flurry of activity. This is what he knows – it comes naturally. Family and wine have been integral in his life.

Jim has soil in his blood. His grandfathers migrated to Australia from Southern Italy’s Campania in the 1950s and began farming fruit and vegetables under the name Zerella Holdings. This would eventually inspire their grandson to start McLaren Vale label Zerella Wines. “Growing up, I loved the land, I was always down at the farm,” Jim says.

These are the bookends to his story. Jim’s grandfathers, Francesco Zuzolo and Ercole Zerella, paved the way for their family in McLaren Vale, but it was Jim’s father, Vito Zerella, who gave him his start in wine. “Our family in the early ’90s purchased the old growers’ crop in the main street of McLaren Vale and we started the Tatachilla brand. Always following in my dad’s footsteps, that was my introduction to wine.”

A start in Tatachilla – the winery once owned by heavyweight Penfolds and since acquired by Lion Nathan – was a cracking initiation. “My first job was in the cellar working alongside gun winemakers Michael Fragos [now of Chapel Hill] and Justin McNamee [today with his own winery, Samuel’s Gorge]. Following my dad around, who dealt with grower relations, my role became like that of a GLO [grower liaison officer]. Dad would make the deals with the growers and then I’d work between the winemakers and the vineyards.”

This was an important lesson in what it takes to succeed in the industry – a challenge requiring plenty of acumen. But Jim’s love of the land would eventually lead him down a different path and following his passion has paid off. “I decided I didn’t want to work in the cellar, I wanted to work in the vineyard. So I took over managing Tatachilla’s Clarendon site, which produced a very famous merlot,” he says.

“In early 2000, Tatachilla merged with St Hallett and Lion Nathan bought us out. I tried the corporate life for about six months, but it really wasn’t for me. I decided I wanted to pursue my passion for growing grapes, so I started buying vineyards and I now own 68 hectares on five sites across McLaren Vale.”

The Tatachilla days formed a solid foundation for Zerella’s operations. “Working with the winemaking team, headed up by Michael, and the growers gave me the foundation for where I am today,” Jim says. The difference now is that by owning vineyards, Jim has more control over the source of their wines. Zerella’s wines are all estate-grown and some are single vineyard wines, though this isn’t a major focus. Having worked with growers and seen first-hand the freedom that blending grapes allows, Jim sees this as a positive. “Part of the reason I own the different vineyards is that through the knowledge I gained in my Tatachilla days, I did want to grow specific varieties on specific soil types and be able to make single vineyard wines, but also use blending to bring out those individual characteristics in complementary ways.”

Being considerate of the fruit is of chief importance to Jim and lies at the heart of every Zerella wine. “What we do with all our wines is try to show the fruit in its best light,” he says. “We use very simple winemaking techniques, so we’re looking for that classic sense of place. Letting the vineyard, soil, fruit and microclimates do the talking is what we’re all about.”

“We grow grapes with intense flavour and produce wines that are great expressions of that fruit. We do a lot of small-batch winemaking that involves from one- to three-tonne ferments and it would be nothing for our wines to spend up to 20 days on skins,” he says.

In addition to Zerella Wines, Jim has brokerage and vineyard management businesses, so he has remained in touch with the broader industry. “McLaren Vale, although small, is very diverse with its soil types and microclimates. I was very insistent that I wanted to plant arneis on a particular vineyard 360 metres above sea level. I suppose looking around and kicking the soil, that’s one [varietal] I thought was going to be really special. You tend to get a lot of fiano in McLaren Vale, so people have been really surprised to learn that we’re growing arneis,” Jim says.

“I would like to see more of these alternate varieties, although I don’t really see them as being that alternate. I think McLaren Vale is doing a lot of exciting stuff in that space.”

It seems fitting coming from a family of Italian farmers to a place like McLaren Vale as Jim’s lineage, as well as the Mediterranean climate, influences Zerella’s stellar line-up of wines. There are two labels in the range, Zerella and La Gita. “La Gita, which translates to ‘the journey’, is where we produce Italian varieties exclusively,” Jim says. “This is where I get to honour my grandfathers for the sacrifices they made and the courage they had in moving to Australia back in the ’50s [Jim’s grandfather, Francesco, features on the label of La Gita wines]. It’s a real passion of mine – not only the land and the culture, but also being able to show my appreciation to my forefathers for what they did. And to be able to do it in a place like McLaren Vale, which has that Mediterranean climate, is a bonus.”

Does he follow in the footsteps of those who came before him? Not exactly. With each new generation, practices evolve, but the basic principles stay the same. “Some of things that I’ve taken from my grandfathers and father is the attention to detail when it comes to the vines. It all starts in the vineyard. It really does. And having an intimate knowledge of site is so important. But I’m probably more open to technology than they were. In our vineyard management company we bought a state-of-the-art harvester and that’s been a real plus – the increase in wine quality that we’re seeing using that machine is very exciting.”

When it comes to the La Gita range, however, Jim’s winemaking is very much influenced by Old World techniques. “With my Italian varieties, I do look to what the Italians are doing. Our arneis is made in a traditional style. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. A lot of the white wines we make here are crisp, fruit-driven and fresh, whereas our arneis spends four months in oak. We’re really open to doing things differently and experimenting with textural white wines,” he says.

It’s this innovating on the winemaking side that gets Jim excited. “With our small-batch products, we’re experimenting with things like 10 to 20 per cent whole bunches, wild ferments or just inoculating the grapes and seeing what different characters come from the different sites. “There are so many different ways to make wine, but for me being able to do small ferments gives me a really intimate idea of what will or won’t work for fruit from different parts of the vineyard. On the flipside, when you’re making small batches, there’s not much room for error. My learning curve around making the wines has been very steep, but ultimately worth it,” he says.

“One of the wines I’m most proud of is our La Gita Etrurian Sangiovese because sangiovese is one of the harder varieties to get right. I’m really proud of all of our wines, but for me that’s a standout.”

Zerella Wines has a few major plans in motion for the year ahead, including a new cellar door that is expected to open around Christmas. “We’ll have some new wines coming out soon that will share my family’s unique story, the first of which will be called The Market Truck. I managed to track down our first-ever market truck that my grandfather bought when he came to Australia, so there’ll be a photo of that on the label and the truck will take pride of place at cellar door,” Jim says. “We’ll also continue to look at what Italian varieties we can bring to McLaren Vale. We’ve just released our 2015 Fiano and next year we’ll have a prosecco-style sparkling coming out.”

For better or worse, family is what makes all of us, but here it’s undoubtedly the hero. So, does Jim think his son will be the fourth-generation successor to the brand? “Well, no pressure, but it would be awesome,” he says. “He already loves chasing me around the vines, as much as he can at 20 months old, so that’s a good start.”

Next article: read our interview with Dark Horse of the Year Arlewood Estate.

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