It is quite something to spend a couple of hours with Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago, such is his never ending schedule spreading the word about the brand around the world. But ultimately, as Richard Siddle discovers, it’s all about the quality of the wine and getting the chance to tell its story to the trade and consumers that is the most important.
Penfold’s Peter Gago on winemaking, brand building, teamwork, good management, pressing the flesh and helping to make Australian wine even greater than before.
Considering people are willing to fly around the world just for the chance to do a tasting with him, often spending thousands of pounds to do so, you might expect Peter Gago to have an ego the size of a well-proportioned house.
Let’s face it there are an awful lot of winemakers out there who would give Mariah Carey a run for her money in the prima donna stakes.
But not Peter Gago. Considering how demanding, and in demand, his role as chief winemaker for Penfolds is, you could not meet a more humble, friendly, enthusiastic and genuinely great bloke.
Forget the chief winemaker bit, Gago could make friends and entertain a group of strangers, whether they knew or cared a drop about wine.
For Gago, first and foremost, is a just a very decent fella. The fact he is responsible for steering the great wine phenomenon that is Penfolds, and all the hullabaloo that goes with it, is just his day job.
He would make a great guest on a chat show as his conversation soon veers off on a tangent to another fascinating, often hilarious, anecdote about the non-stop life he leads.
Just step into his shoes for a moment. For half the year – January through to June – he is just like any other winemaker in the world. Working with the rest of his winemaking team, pruning, de-stemming, fixing canopies, fretting about when to pick the grapes, or what sort of ferment to do, and all the other day to day issues a winemaker faces.
For the rest of the year, his itinerary could easily be swapped with a world leader or famous rock star. Jetting two or three times around the world, hosting masterclasses and special tastings with prime ministers, heads of state, billionaires and a black book of celebrities queuing to get into James Corden’s sing-a-long car.
But as he is quick to point out. This is not the Peter Gago show. This is all about Penfolds. Grange. The decades of careful, slow nurturing of a brand, that outside of Champagne, must be the most carefully controlled and positioned wine brand in the world.
His travels are also not all fine dining and mixing with the stars. He is, for example, about to have his hands full helping to host a whole series of Penfolds re-corking clinics in major cities around the world. Including London on September 30.
Unique occasions when anyone, anywhere in the world who happens to have a bottle of Penfolds, that is red and 15 years of age or older, can come along and have it assessed, re-corked and classified. Free of charge. Be it for one bottle or a hundred. (See separate article later in the week on Gago and how the Penfolds’ re-corking clinic works).
Let’s go back to Gago the bloke. We met up last month on the back of another whirlwind trip, when he did not spend a day at home in Australia. Yet he was so happy to chat that after a couple of hours I had to bring proceedings to a close. Primarily because my hands ached from furiously scribbling down his stories, delivered with machine gun-like precision.
Gago’s gift of the gab probably goes back to his days as a chemistry teacher and standing in front of room after room of students.
Or it could go back to his English roots. For whilst he was brought up and has lived in Australia since he was five years of age, he was born and bred in South Shields in the North East of England.
Looking after Penfolds
The Penfolds story is a fascinating one considering this is a brand that has kept, and if anything, built its brand reputation and standing in the world, despite being passed from one big corporation to another. In those circumstances it is only natural that the big cheeses in charge at the time would want to stamp their mark on the brand. But not with Penfolds.
That largely lies in the fact the heart of the winemaking team behind Penfolds has remained the same for the near on the last 40 years. They have quietly, but defiantly, ensured the wine’s values and credentials have remained true, regardless of the pressures that came from those in ultimate control.
“Throughout all that time with Southern, then Fosters and now Treasury we have had the same winemaking team in place. It has been up to us to keep the brand on track,” he says.
That’s not to say they have full control of Penfolds’ destiny. Far from it.
Gago, for example, is quick to praise the role Treasury Wines Estates’ chief executive, Michael Clarke, has played in putting Penfolds on to completely different footing in the last couple of years.
His decision to move the release date for all new Penfolds vintages to the third week in October from its previous date in March has transformed the business.
“It is something we should have done 14 years ago,” says Gago.
It means the business now has a far bigger window to sell the wines in to the market.
It is clear Gago is impressed with what he sees as Clarke, and his management team’s, commitment to long-term, organic growth rather than adopt a “short term reactive management” style that he believes many wine businesses resort to.
For all his international reputation as a winemaker, Gago is quite clear his number one role is to make money for the business. His second role is to ensure the quality of wine it produces can make the first happen.
“You can’t have your head in the clouds. We are after all a wine business.”
All about teamwork
Which is why Gago is quick to stress that, yes, he might be the one who gets to stand up and do the interviews and the big tastings. But he is only one of an eight-strong winemaking team, each as important as the other.
In fact, with 28 years under his belt, he is still well behind other winemakers who have close to 40 years of service with Penfolds.
“I have never signed a bottle of Penfolds. It is always from the entire Penfolds’ winemaking team. It’s not just about me. It’s the team,” he says.
That sense of unity and teamwork is what Gago believes makes Penfolds such a unique place to work.
“We are not a place for high flyers. We want people to come here who genuinely want to work with us and stay with us for a long time,” he explains.
It is also the only winery where Gago, unusually for non-family winemaker, has ever worked. First arriving in 1989 after studying viticulture at Australia’s Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide.
Working the market
Together, or individually, the Penfolds winemaking team will travel the world, spreading the story about the brand. “We all have our own strengths and roles to play,” says Gago.
It is arguably why Penfolds continues to have such success right around the world.
“You have to be out working in the field. Whether it is in India, China, Russia, Europe or the US. You have to be out in the market,” he explains.
“Making great wine is not enough anymore. It is about building relationships, pressing the flesh. You have to be out there talking about your wines,” he adds.
It is also how Penfolds has kept the brand fresh and interesting even though it rarely introduces any new products as such, other than limited editions or new vintages of specific wines.
“It’s very easy to sell something when it’s new. It’s a bit harder when you are selling something that is in to its 58th year,” he says. “It’s more about refining our message.”
Wherever his travels take him the UK is central to Penfolds strategy. “All roads lead to here,” he says. “But again it is all about relationships. It’s pressing the flesh. After all there are thousands of bottles of wine in the world and you have to keep yourself relevant.
“Making good wine is not enough any more. There are a lot of great wines in the world. The key is to be in the market talking about yours.”
Looking after customers
Which is why he always treats every tasting or event, or dinner the same. Regardless of how many he has done, the next one is equally as important, if not more important than the ones that have gone before.
He explains: “I love it. As a winemaker it is the final and arguably most important step in the winemaking process. Your wine is going to the most important person in its journey. The person who is going to drink it.
“Therefore you have to prepare immaculately for each one. Double decant the wine. Taste every bottle. I have poured thousands of pounds worth of wine down the sink over the years because it has got the slightest fault.
“A lot of winemakers don’t realise that it’s just as important as when you pick the grapes, or how you blend the wine. It’s such a great thing to be able to actually serve the wine you have made and see the excitement and the passion in the people’s eyes.”
Which is why he does not understand other winemakers who let other people check and decant their wine before an event. “You have to do it yourself. I taste every wine at every tasting I do. You have to.”
He also appreciates that for many of these events the guests will have spent a lot of money to attend and travelled great distances just to be there.
For some of the tastings it hosts at the Magill winery in Adelaide well heeled guests will fly in from Hong Kong and other parts of Asia just for that one dinner. “For some it is a pilgrimage and you have to appreciate that,” he says.
Penfolds and Australia
Gago also appreciates that Penfolds’ standing and reputation around the world is not just for its own purposes, but for the image of Australia as a quality, premium winemaking country. It’s a reputation, he believes, that Australia has to continually strive for and after a period of time when it was “not flavour of the month” the country has now got its mojo back.
What Australia can now do particularly well is serve all parts of the wine market, claims Gago. “We have very good Australian brands at the entry to medium price level that are getting better every year. We have proved we can do that. But now we are showing we can do deliver the top end as well.”
What it is doing with Chardonnay, for example, has “completely shaken the tree up,” he says.
“I think it’s fair to say that with say Chardonnay we modelled ourselves on Burgundy, but did not know when to stop. It’s now about tweaking and refining our wines, it’s not about creating new styles. It’s also about making better and great wines again. The changes to our white wines have shaken the tree up a bit for sure.”
The exciting thing for Australia is that it is still, after all these years, still discovering the best places to grow certain grape varieties, says Gago. Take Tasmania, which for years had predominantly been used to make sparkling wine. But is now seen as a crucial cool climate winemaking area for a host of varieties.
Whilst Penfolds is clearly in a good position now and for the immediate and mid-term future, Gago is already thinking about the many years that lie ahead beyond that.
“It has taken 172 years to get to where we are now. But it is up to us to be thinking about the next five, 15 to 50 years ahead of us. We have to be the ones planning for the future. We have to be the ones encouraging young people of today to start buying and collecting Penfolds like we did,” he says.
With Gago at the helm the good ship Penfolds appears set to sail in good seas for many vintages to come.
- Later in the week in part two of The Buyer’s interview with Peter Gago, we will be talking to him about Penfolds’ re-corking clinics and why they are so important to him, the brand and, of course, its customers.