Wolf Blass: The man behind the famous label
I recently had the good fortune to attend a cocktail party at a beautiful harbourside Sydney mansion for the launch of the current release of the Wolf Blass luxury collection: the Gold, Grey, Black and Platinum labels.
The line-up of wines was excellent with the sublime Platinum Label Shiraz 2008 Grange-like in the complexity and depth of its bouquet. But the real highlight of the evening was the chance to listen to the entertaining musings of the very dapper 77 old Wolf Blass, who is still a roving international ambassador for the brand.
I went home with a copy of Wolf Blass’ biography, Wolf Blass: Behind the Bow Tie, by Liz Johnston. The book proved a fascinating read. Apart from providing a very entertaining history of a German immigrant generally regarded as “larger than life,” the book offered some very interesting insights into the Australian wine industry and Blass’ very important contribution to its development.
Blass’ business success is legendary. His winery, which began in a Barossa Valley tin shed in 1973, became Australia’s number one wine brand by value and volume in 2003. Today it one the jewels in the Treasury Estate (formerly Foster’s) portfolio with production in excess of 70 million bottles a year.
And by any standard, Blass is also one of Australia’s greatest marketers. The ingenious colour coding of the Wolf Blass range, for example, still sets the brand apart for the ease with which it guides consumer access to high quality products as various price points. Johnston describes Blass’ very German penchant for discipline and order, and indeed the clever branding of his wines reminds me of Mercedes Benz with its A to S Class series.
In a country famous for shooting down its tall poppies, Blass fearlessly embraced self-promotion, proudly wearing the “Australia Cockiest Winemaker” moniker. He was one of the first winemakers to decorate his bottles with trade-show medals, of which he had no trouble collecting. Beginning with the first 1973 vintage, the Wolf Blass Dry Red Claret (subsequently renamed Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Shiraz) won the coveted Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show for best young red wine an unprecedented three years in a row!
Blass’ flamboyant marketing strategies were often complemented, however, with a gravitas designed to highlight the quality and longevity of his wines. In 1979, for example, he held “the biggest wine tasting Australia had ever seen” at Len Evans’ restaurant in Circular Quay. Forty of the country’s most esteemed wine palates, including renowned wine critic James Halliday, tasted 35 Wolf Blass wines from 1966 to 1976. The risky event proved a huge success with Len Evans’ remarking that “If more people made red the Blass way, the industry would sell a lot more red.”
Blass’ contribution to winemaking practices in Australia is equally as substantial as his business achievements. By the time he reached Australia in 1961 at just age 26, he had already gained significant experience as a winemaker in Germany and Britain, where he learned modern winemaking techniques that would prove invaluable for an ambitious young winemaker determined to make his mark on Australia’s fledgling wine industry.
Long before it became fashionable, Blass was a great believer in the idea that the best wine is made in the vineyard. In the early years, Blass worked hard to cultivate good relations with a network of independent growers to secure the best grapes. He always made sure that fruit was picked for optimum ripeness and that harvesting was done in the cool of the night to avoid spoilage. Interestingly, Blass was one of Australia’s first winemakers to insist that the different growers’ batches were vinified separately – a practice that caused early critics to derogatorily refer to him as “just a blender.” Today, of course, batch vinification is considered best practice and the blending skills of the winemaker are revered.
But perhaps Blass’ greatest contribution to the Australian wine industry was his creation of a style of red wine designed for drinking on the day of release. One of the first to recognise the potential of Langhorne Creek to produce full flavoured, fruity wines and keen to develop a red wine that would appeal to women, Blass released the Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 1968. Matured in new and almost new oak, the 70 percent cabernet and 30 percent shiraz blend was unique for its soft tannins and approachability when young. It was the first wine under the Wolf Blass name to win a gold medal and the style became the foundation the brand’s future success. The rest, as they say, is history!