“PASSION HAS GOT TO come first,” Peter Gago assured me in 2007, when we first met. “This isn't a job you can sustain because it's sexy or romantic. Many parts of this job are just plain, hard work.” Choice words, coming from the English-born Australian, who joined Penfolds in 1989 and has been for the past decade its chief winemaker and jet-setting, majordomo brand ambassador (“dispatched around the world regularly to beat the drum for Penfolds,” as the wine writer Jancis Robinson observed of him, in a 2008 Financial Times piece), further extolling the vaunted virtues of its high-end wines such as the celebrated Grange, St Henri Shiraz, and the artisanal Bin series (especially the “Baby Grange” Bin 389 and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon), all collectible and prized by the wine cognoscenti.
So it was all in a day's work when Gago went to Shanghai in 2011 to launch the rare 2008 Bin 620 (a wine last made in 1966), and to Hong Kong in November 2012 to present his single-vineyard 2004 Kalimna Block 42 in a gorgeously hand-blown glass vessel, the Penfolds Ampoule – only 12 made, each costing a cool A$168,000. Hence this meeting over lunch at Petrus at the Island Shangri- La, where we would be drinking a vertical cavalcade of Grange he'd chosen, specifically the 1983, 1991, 1994, 1997 and 2007, aptly over wild amadai and beef tenderloin. Over the years, Wine & Spirits magazine has bestowed on Penfolds 23 Winery of the Year awards, more than any winery in the world, affording him the platform to wax philosophical with me about his amazing career.
How did you feel last March, winning the prestigious Winemaker's Winemaker award for 2011?
Very humbled. But I also felt a little bit guilty, because I had to leave our harvest and fly over to Düsseldorf to accept the award. I flew Adelaide to Sydney to Heathrow to Düsseldorf and then back again, but I had to be there. It's a big award, from winemakers all over the world, like you're the “footballer's footballer”. The Institute of Masters of Wine put it together and Drinks Business magazine out of London too, so for Australia it's such a wonderful thing. It's only the second time the award has been given – Peter Sisseck got it for Pingus the first year so it was the “old world”, and now it's an award for the “new world” the second year.
You were Wine Enthusiast magazine's “Winemaker of the Year” in 2005, and your travel schedule has been a bit mad since, hasn't it?
Three weeks ago, I was in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne, and I then flew to Stockholm, did some work there, and then flew to Zurich and then worked in Geneva. From Geneva, I flew to Los Angeles to speak for 15 minutes at the Wine Spectator Grand Tasting. I think that if you're selling wine around the world, you've got to do this global thing. But I still am hands-on winemaking between February and the end of April – it's my no-fly zone, and that's what keeps me sane. What I love most about it is it doesn't matter how busy you are during the day, because every night you sleep in your own bed. And that's a huge bonus. You know what it's like, sleeping in hotels.
You once told me that when you're on the road, you've sometimes found yourself musing, “It doesn't get better than this.”
Absolutely. I mean, here we are on a Friday at Petrus, overlooking one of the great cities of the world. Last Wednesday, I was with Prince Charles and Camilla as our guests at an expo of South Australian food and wine, with Penfolds acting as the host. Penfolds has been making wine for 168 years, and we've got to be more community-minded and more magnanimous. It's less Machiavellian and more about the longer term. We are citizens of the world and people who buy our wine want to know about it, not just what's in the bottle but the history and the tradition and the culture. Anyone can read a book, but to actually engage with people, you know, you can't put money on that.
Speaking of money, each Penfolds Ampoule costs A$168,000. When does something stop becoming wine and become a trophy?
Some people will buy the 1951 Grange, which is now over US$50,000 a bottle, purely to complete a set of wine and they're not going to drink it. Some buy it because they were born in 1951 and they're going to open it, and some have it as a trophy on a mantelpiece. Now, it's not for us to say, “I'll sell it to you but not to you, and this is what it's for and you can't do that.” When people buy wine, they can do with it what they will. Money is just a relative thing. I started off in wine as a wine collector and a wine lover. I became a winemaker much later. So when things are expensive, I personally lament it. I have a very large cellar, which keeps me a bit broke, so I don't like anything that's too expensive, speaking selfishly.
So then, isn't this the real question: How do you put a price on pleasure?
Well, I live in the real world, so I realise why a Ferrari costs a certain amount of money and a locally made car costs a certain amount of money. Both go from A to B, both use a certain amount of fuel, but one is a lot, lot, lot more expensive than the other. For the Ampoule, the feedback we've received is, “Gee, that's a very expensive wine!” But there actually haven't been too many complaints about the pricing. Most people like the look of it, the technology, and they see the whole thing as a work of art. Now, they're all sold – all the Ampoules are gone, with one exception – so I think the big story will be when the first one goes to auction and sells for a quarter of a million dollars. Some people are going to say, “Gee, if only I had bought it at A$168,000!”
In your previous life, you were a chemistry and mathematics teacher, so is all this an extension of your pedagogy?
Yes, all my educational psychology and teaching skills, they give an order, a lovely base. Not everyone engages at the same level, or has the same retention or the same background. If you speak to a group of 40 people, you don't want to disenchant and bore the top two or three percent, and you don't want to lose and confound and confuse the bottom percent, so you have to oscillate in the middle there somewhere. But this is quite gruelling, the work I do. Is it very healthy? Probably not. Is it very enjoyable? Immensely. Is it very important? Profoundly.