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HOME » Hot Features » Meet Your Maker » Meet your Maker – Sam Kurtz

Meet your Maker – Sam Kurtz  


Sam Kurtz is the group red and fortified winemaker for Australia's Orlando Wines. Orlando Wines encompasses such award-winning wineries as Jacob's Creek and Wyndham Estate.

He was recently in Hong Kong to launch Wyndham Estate's George Wyndham range and I sat down with him over a glass or two of his latest creations to learn more about him and the Australian wine industry.

What does a typical day involve?

Sam Kurtz

I don't really have typical days. One day I might be out in the vineyard checking and tasting the grapes or I might be stuck in front of a computer doing management work. At other times I will be tasting all day and at others travelling to promote the wines. I also spend time working with the various teams – sales, marketing, finance, viticulture.

The variety is the best part of the job because it keeps things interesting, which is good because I'm easily bored.

The most relaxing part of the job is being out in the vineyard on a beautiful morning and getting in touch with the terroir itself.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Making people happy – making the end user, the consumer, happy when they drink my wine, especially if I blow them away and surprise them by how good it is.

What is the most challenging?

Maintaining my vision for the wine and convincing others of the the vision, to support it, and that it will be worth the effort to go the extra mile. A winemaker is always passionate about getting the other elements/members of the company (particularly those on the financial/business side) onboard.  It is important to maintain a house style so that the consumer stays loyal to the wine and the winemaker is the guardian of that style. So sometimes it is a battle between style and quality against business pressures.

I have read that you have your own vineyard and that this has given you further insight into the challenges growers face, what are those challenges?

Second guessing the weather is a big one. The current water restrictions and its impact on wine quality is another.

I have also come to understand how hard it is to get it right, getting the best quality, especially in the early days. The experience has taught me a lot and I can use this first-hand knowledge and pass it on to others. It also helpful because growers always want to get feedback from the winemaker not the viticulturist.

I now make a couple of barrels of wine a year, which I share with friends. It is nice to have my own supply of wine and I also increase my knowledge. I grow a few grape varieties including Shiraz, Cabernet, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Teroldego. 

According to some Australian wine industry forecasters the Australian wine industry is in crisis, and out of the approximate 7,000 wineries in Australia 1,000 will be forced to close this year mainly due to the drought. What are your views on the industry?

I don't think it is as doom and gloom as that. Water is definitely a big issue and will be for some time to come so wineries will need to adjust to using less water. For those focusing on red wines using less water than in the past has actually improved the wine's  quality.

The demise of some small wineries will not just be because of the drought but because of their size or poor quality wine. At the top end there will always be space for specialist growers but not for someone with only 10acres in a hot, irrigated location.

At Wyndham Estate last year's grape supply was tight but we did have surplus and are currently in a sustainable stock position. Our reds benefited from using less water, developing a more intense style.

The upside is that because 2007 was such a low yield year the glut of cheap wine will end because these makers normally use the leftovers and in a low-yield year there are no leftovers. Even though 2008 was a higher yield year than expected I hope it it is the end for these cheap wines as it is not healthy for brand Australia, the growers or longterm sustainability of the industry.

What is your favourite varietal to drink?

It depends on the weather and the situation. For example, when the weather is hot and dry a Riesling or Semillon Sauvignon Blanc is refreshing. When it is cold in winter and I am enjoying a steak I would have a Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.

Sam Kurtz

What is the most memorable bottle of wine you have drunk?

It was in my early days of drinking wine. It was a Peter Lehmann's Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 1984. A stunning wine that epitomised all that is great about Australian wines.

Do you think your wines pair well with Chinese food?

Yes, I think that arguably Chinese food is better suited to white wines but many Chinese wine drinkers prefer red wine so that can present a challenge.

For duck, any dish that is soy sauce driven, or spicy cuisine such as Sichuan I would recommend a Shiraz or Shiraz Cabernet. Seafood dishes are harder to match with reds.

What can wine lovers in Hong Kong expect from the new George Wyndham range?

The range gives wine lovers a new level of Wyndham Estate wines. I am proud of these wines and I look forward to hearing people's feedback.

Interviewers note: After trying all the wines in the new range Sam and I enjoyed some more of the Shiraz Grenache, which has already won awards...a wonderfully surprising wine, with vivid raspberry notes. Delicious on its own or pairs well with spicy, rich or salty dishes. For further info on the range and tasting notes see the article on Wyndham Estate

(link “Wyndham Estate” to www.womguide.com/program/feature/feature54.php)

What three tips would you give to the novice wine drinker?

Drink what you like, don't be put off by what others say.

Always buy wine in screwcap bottles as the wine will taste the way the winemaker intended every time. Out of every 12 bottles of wine with a cork one of those will be substandard in some way, buying screwcap wine removes the doubt and allows the drinker to really know if it is a wine they like.

Try a lot of different wines and decide which you like and then start to understand the wine and its themes – varietals, region, country. This will open your eyes to lots of possibilities.

by Vicki Williams
August 2008

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