There are very few winemakers who would readily admit that in the early days they were literally making it up as they went along. But that’s very much the approach that self-taught winemaker, Tim Wildman MW, took when he first had a go making pet nat wines in Australia. Now on the verge of his fifth vintage he is really beginning to make a name for himself Down Under and can claim to be the biggest importer of pet nat wines into the UK. He tells Richard Siddle what started out as a dare has resulted in him completely changing his wine career to become a bona fide winemaker in his own right.
His Astro Bunny pet nat wine brand sounds like the kind of cool cat wine a character from a Quentin Tarantino film would drink. It’s certainly the kind of “cool booze” that Aussie wine bars and merchants can’t get enough, says winemaker Tim Wildman MW, as he now looks to bring his pet nat wines to the UK.
For some reason a lot of people think they have a “book in them” and given the opportunity they could easily knock off 90,000 words plus and call themselves a novelist. The same applies in wine. The idea that with no formal training you could turn the right kind of grapes into bottles of wine good enough to drink.
Tim Wildman MW is one of those people. Not because he’s arrogant and has no respect for the skill of a winemaker, but because, by his own admission, he has a loud mouth and made a bet that he could not back away from.
The story goes something like this. “I knew the theory of how to make wine through my MW and have worked a couple of vintages. I was once a cellar rat for a harvest in Spain. But it was when I was living in south Australia and working on my James Busby business that I started shouting my mouth off about making wine myself. So it started out as a bet about whether I would do so or not,” he explains.
The result is his very own range of pet nat wines made in South Australia. What might of started off as a dare that went too far has now become a full time new career for Wildman. Better known by many in the trade for his days buying and selling wine for Les Caves de Pyrene, making his educational videos for MW students, and running wine tours across Australia for leading buyers and sommeliers under the James Busby education and travel business.
Just giving it a go
Now Wildman’s winemaker credentials are still very much at the fledgling stage, but what makes him and his approach so refreshing – and probably unique – is that he is having so much innocent fun doing what he is doing. His enthusiasm and passion for making wine is infectious.
Nothing new there. What makes him really stand out is he’s also brutally frank about his own limitations. Have you ever met a winemaker who admits he is not far of making it up as he goes along? Who says he does not know for sure how his wines are going to react or taste like when he opens his first bottle after ageing?
“I had nothing to lose. I was just so excited to be making wine and probably far more open than a trained winemaker would be,” he says.
What’s more rather than making his mistakes behind closed doors in the winery, Wildman actually goes out of his way to record and broadcast them live on social media. Warts and all.
If you follow him on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter you’ll be quite used to seeing him film himself, Louis Theroux style, either in the vineyard, winery or walking in off the street seemingly ambushing wine merchant or restaurant staff and asking them if they would like to taste his wines. There and then. Live on Instagram. But his passion and friendly nature means he gets away with it.
He admits it’s an approach that comes naturally to him. It’s certainly not contrived. Imagine doing the same? It’s exhausting and nerve wrecking to watch. Like wine’s equivalent of a live reality show. All that’s missing is a phone number to call to either vote for or against Wildman and his wine.
He first started off writing a behind the scenes blog about becoming a winemaker, at www.pet-nat.com. “I wanted to record the whole journey in every detail, including all the successes and the failures. But I was doing everything by instinct. I had no reputation as a winemaker, so I was able to do all my experimenting in public.”
So when the winery one year where he was fermenting his tank of pet nat needed more space, he had to up sticks and drive the tank by van to another winery down the road – it was all recorded and broadcast for the world to see.
As a PR move it has been a masterstroke. “It’s been amazing. People all over the world have seen it.”
One of the biggest breakthroughs he had was introducing a hand applied wax seal to every bottle. A bottle he then asked each wine merchant or prospective customer to try and open whilst Wildman filmed them live on social media.
“It went viral and I was able to get so many listings off the back of it, he says. Which only tells half the story as Wildman also posted weeks of failed attempts and exploding bottles and wax seals that would not set, open or do what they were supposed to do.
But it’s one thing having all the talk, you are not going to get very far if your wine isn’t very good. Over the last four years Wildman has shown he can also walk the walk as a winemaker. Production has gone from an initial 600 bottles in year one, to doubling each year, up to 4,000 two years ago.
“2018 was the game changer,” says Wildman. “That was the year that I really started to know what I was doing and I took production up to 13,500 bottles in order to be able to fulfil my allocations in Australia, but also started to export as well.”
It’s when he says he “moved from diapers” up to long pants” and now has his wine made in a contract winery facility in the Adelaide Hills. For he is now got to the stage where he can’t afford to be making mistakes in public and needs his wine to be spot on.
As a result more and more wine shops, merchants and restaurants have signed up to receive his wines and Wildman is now selling his wine in seven countries around the world including Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Denmark, Canada, US and UK.
Thanks in the main to his all his social media activity. “The distributors I have are largely because they had been following what I was doing on the blog and on social media,” he says. “But it has been really important to me to grow but only by keeping all my Australian customers happy.”
Wildman also has the added advantage of having taken so many leading drinks buyers, distributors, and sommeliers from around the world to Australia as part of its James Busby tours. Many of whom have been willing to take on his wines.
After trialling and failing with Grenache in year one, Wildman says he now mainly looks to source and work with three key grape varieties – Vermentino, Nero d’Avola, Zibibbo from the Riverland, south Australia – as he believes they give him the natural acidity he needs to work with the pet nat style. “Even in the heat of the summer Nero D’Avola will you give amazing acidity,” he says. “After all you can only get natural acidity in the vineyard. But you learn lessons every year.”
Of which the Vermentino is picked early at around 9.5% alcohol and the Nero D’Avolo is there to give the lovely pink colour. The Zibibo comes from neglected old vines in the Riverland and has the added advantage of being very cheap to buy – A$350 a tonne vs A$2000 a tonne for Nero D’Avola.
Driving pet nat
He can also claim to be the biggest supplier of Australian pet nat to the UK with 2,500 bottles up for grabs in the market this year. Having spent the last three years selling every bottle personally, he has now joined forces with Indigo Wine to do so with a more focused, strategic approach. Both in London, but also key cities around the country.
So why pet nat? It might be flavour of the month in the coolest bars in Hoxton, or downtown Melbourne, but it seems a brave style to go for. Particularly as it is a wine, that on paper at least, seems such a hard wine to make, especially for a novice winemaker.
But then as pet nats are notoriously hard to pin down and come in so many different styles then it also makes perfect sense for Wildman’s maverick approach.
He says there were three main reasons why he decided to make pet nat wine: “First of all I like the style and like the wines I have had from the Loire and Italy. When you are a small winemaker then you have to make a wine you love. Otherwise why do it?
“The second reason was more philosophical. I was based in south Australia which is the big company wine state. It was 2014 when the debate around natural wine was at its infancy and there was quite a lot of negativity about whether you could make a sulphur-free wine. But I had worked for Les Caves de Pyrene and knew that the pet nat style was the safest way to make wine that have zero sulphites as the bubbles, the CO2 in the ferment, protect the wine.
“And thirdly I had a point to prove. I was not a trained winemaker and the pressure was on. But I also felt I had an obligation to do something more experimental.”
He was also a “pom” – an Englishman making wine in the heartland of Australian winemaking. Which is brave enough in itself.
Welcome to Astro Bunny
As well as being a natural story teller on social media, he also knows a thing or two about how to come up with names for wines that both grab your attention, and sum up what he is trying to do.
As pet nats sit outside the traditional wine market they also tend to have names that you would normally associate with craft beers. So Wildman has come up with two crackers for his wines: Astro Bunny (50% Vermentino, 25% Nero d’Avola, 25% Zibibbo) and Heavy Pétting (99% Nero d’Avola, 1% Zibibbo).
“I wanted names that you don’t need to know about wine to enjoy. I wanted names that summed up what it’s like to taste them. All it says on the label is Astro Bunny and pet nat. Most wine names are all looking backwards to how the wine was made and where it comes from,” he says.
One day whilst walking through Melbourne he came across a piece of graffiti on the wall of a bunny rabbit sitting in a space ship. He thought there must be a name he could use around that.
So he wrote ‘Astro Bunny’ into the Subject bar of an email he sent to one of his suppliers to explain what he was trying to do. When it struck him. That was the name. Astro Bunny.
The design on the bottle is a picture of the actual graffiti from the wall in Melbourne.
Playing catching up
The pet nat scene in Australia is also far more advanced than it is the UK, says Wildman. Even London has not really caught the pet nat bug in quite the same way.
Give Wildman his way and it surely will in time. “In Australia pet nat is a recognised wine category in its own right,” says Wildman. “There’s a whole pet nat scene there. Bottle shops will have separate areas for all their pet nat wines. It’s very much part of the trend amongst people to want to drink cool booze, which is connected to how natural wines have done so well.”
It’s also why we have seen such an emergence of a coffee culture, that is alive and kicking in major cities like Melbourne, and craft beers and ciders.
Australia has also not had the same level of “Prosecco bomb” dropped on it as the UK has, and is therefore more open to different styles of sparkling, home grown wine.
“They are also used to paying a bit more for their fizz. So whilst an average pet nat might retail for A$30-40 in Australia it would be closer to A$20-30 in the UK.”
But then go back to 2014 when Wildman made his first wine there was, he says, only six other winemakers in Australia making pet nat wines. There are now over 200.
“It has done so well in Australia because I think people just love the fact it is clean and refreshing. It’s not on the typical natural wine spectrum.”
New, different and fun
The one word that keeps coming up when Wildman shows the wine to customers from Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan where English is not their first language is “fun”.
That’s the way he wants to position it. To be a wine category that does not take itself too seriously. Like Wildman himself. “Look at craft beer with all its sour beers and harsher flavours. It’s a great for people who want to enjoy themselves when they are out and that’s where I come from.
It might be a little longer before English winemakers go down the pet nat route so Wildman is well placed to stake his claim and and make a name for his wines now and the coming years.
He is certainly doing what he can with an impressive roll call of stockists already including: Pull The Cork, Love + Labour, Bottle Apostle, Dvine Cellars, Vinoteca, The Sampler, Remedy, Trinity, La Trompette, Spiritland, Philglas & Swiggot, Seven Cellars, Quaff, Quality Wines, Sager + Wilde and Noble Rot.
“I am pleased to say I have had a 100% hit rate in the UK so far,” he says. But whilst in the Australia merchants and restaurants might be willing to take on 100 or 200 bottles at a time as they know there is a demand for it, in the UK it is more likely to be orders for case.
“It’s exciting to be part of a movement and it’s only just starting here in the UK.