Hubert Burda Media

Growing up Wine

St Hugo’s SAM KURTZ chats with Lauren Tan about the importance of family legacy, camaraderie and the breathtaking South Australian region he calls home

Sixth-generation Barossan and chief winemaker of the winery his great-great-great grandfather Johann Gramp founded, St Hugo’s Sam Kurtz initially planned to channel his youthful energy into a civil engineering career. But while working as a cellar hand one vintage — filling oak barrels with Cabernet Sauvignon at a local winery — Kurtz realised his destiny was with the grapes he had grown up with.
Upon completing his winemaking degree at Australia’s leading wine institution, Roseworthy Agricultural College, he travelled the globe to develop expertise, landing first in California’s Sonoma Valley before taking on a winemaking assignment in Hungary. In 1993, he returned to his home town and is today the man behind his label’s famed Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Barossa Shiraz.
You are the sixth generation of your family to live and work in the Barossa where wine is the trade of entire region. What’s that like?
I don’t think of it as being out of the ordinary. One of my close friends is David Lehmann, the son of Peter Lehmann. My son and David’s son are friends. And you’ll hear them both go: “My dad makes this wine” and “my dad makes that wine” — that kind of thing. It’s quite funny to listen in on their conversations. We sort of take it for granted that this is the norm. We’re all a product of our environment. If you grow up in a city like Singapore, your experiences, of course, are going to be different. For me, I get annoyed when I’m driving to work through kilometres of vineyards and I get held up by a truck that is ahead of me. Someone else who lives in the city might have to commute for an hour to get to work. It’s a different experience, but it is similar in that it is what you are used to.
Were you always involved in winemaking even as a kid?
A little bit. But not very closely because my dad worked in the logistical side of the company, such as warehousing and bottling. But my grandparents on both sides grew grapes. So as a child, I would go out and play in the vineyards and get into trouble for eating the grapes off the vines. Occasionally when my dad would make home-made red wine, we’d go to my grandparents’ place to pick grapes and foot-thread them.
Home-grown and home-made — that’s very different from what we’re used to.
The Barossa has always had this culture of growing your own food and of being self-sufficient. My grandparent’s property used to have every fruit tree imaginable and they also had chickens. It’s a great way to grow up. It’s only later that you realise that you live in an unusual environment.
What seems to stand out about the Barossa is its sense of community. Why do you think this is so?
It’s the legacy of the early settlers who came in the 1840s. The Barossa was a little piece of Germany in Australia. My great grandparents who lived through the late 1800s, for example, only ever spoke German. They never spoke English in their lifetime. So a lot of the settlers were isolated by language and also isolated by the fact that they were self-sufficient. And because they were self-sufficient, everyone traded with each other and helped one another. “I’ve got too many chickens; you’ve got too much lettuce. Why don’t we trade?” That practice carried on into the wine industry as well. Winemakers cooperated with each other rather than competed against each other. The practice was to talk up each other’s wine — and that helped the community in general and influenced the food and social culture of the Barossa.