Mike Bennie: Shifting the Landscape
While the northern hemisphere is busy with harvest, things are no less in movement Down Under. Diving into the Australian wine scene with the multi-hyphenated wine globetrotter with Czechoslovak roots.
You know me, I like to mix things up, cross-pollinate, and talk to people from different backgrounds and fields. Mike Bennie, the ultra-versatile Australian wine personality seems to have a similar knack for diversity and exchange in life.
He's a man wearing many hats (or more precisely, baseball caps), from wine writing (How to Drink Australian, a hefty guide to the contemporary Australian wine scene that he co-authored, is just out), running influential wine & drinks shops in Sydney (P&V Wine Merchants) to making his own boutique quantity of wine in Tasmania with his friends Joe Holyman and Peter Dredge. Most importantly, Mike does all that with humour and inclusivity, bringing up serious topics without taking himself too seriously – my favourite kind of person.
Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Images courtesy of Mike Bennie
You're a journalist, author, winemaker, event organiser, wine shop owner, teacher and lecturer, and probably 80 more things we forgot to mention. To you, what are the pros and cons of being a “split wine job personality”? Are there any roles you enjoy more than the others, or is the joy being able to switch between them?
I like the diversity of my work and all are equal in their merit. It is a huge juggle, of course, but the breadth of experience makes for a really interesting work-life, albeit a very consuming one. I think sharing knowledge is probably the best thing about such a reach, though I still have lots to learn myself.
I see you as an ambassador of good and beautiful things, doing things with dedication and depth but also a lot of humour, which I think is very important. For fear of sounding sycophantic, I'd say that every country should have its Mike Bennie :D Do you have a network of such people around the globe?
Kind words. I am lucky to have a very diverse array of friends around the world who continue to be great influences in my life and share insights about their own global experiences. It’s not so much a network but a collegiate gathering of people who like spending time with each other or keeping in touch to share knowledge and experience to hopefully enhance a broader community.
You have roots in Central Europe, was that part of your childhood?
My mother is from the town of Lucenec in Slovakia, though our family has ties to the Czech Republic and Hungary too. My mother, uncle, and my grandmother fled Slovakia in 1969 to come to Australia. Our house growing up was like the Tower of Babel with Slovak, Czech and Hungarian (and at times Russian) spoken between relatives and friends, with a lot of our childhood in Australia spent amongst the varied cultural elements of those places.
How has the Australian avant-garde wine scene evolved and developed in recent years, according to you? Do you feel that this evolution is fundamentally different from what you see elsewhere / in the Northern Hemisphere?
It’s a tandem thing in Australia, with so many new producers in the community. There are those making fun, party wines from bought fruit and attracting the new cohort of wine drinkers and there are those who have evolved or pitched at a more serious, ‘fine wine’ paradigm within this ‘avant-garde’. It feels like there is a similarity globally, though every region in every country, and every winemaker's approach and mores and ethics is different, of course.
The scene in Australia is explosive in its growth and the appeal of ‘avant-garde’ wines is growing at a rapid rate, though of course, this is mostly limited to urban areas and those engaged in value systems that support such a drinking culture. Recent years have seen a larger volume of wine producers emerging, and big companies and big retailers also taking cues from this shift in winemaking approach.
Is it actually necessary to call it avant-garde? Is this still a time when it is necessary to define and label oneself as natural? I feel like we're living in a moment of an important shift, at least in our part of the world, a lot of things have changed… Basically, what do you think the future of natural wine is?
This is a huge question which requires a lot of detail. Perhaps too much for a pithy answer, but the essence is, labels give some cues to drinkers to make a binary decision about their choices which can add some value. Avant-garde as a label is without definition as well, but can be of convenience at times. The future of natural wine is hopefully about supporting real diversity and positioning equity into better foundations of labour forces, real grower-producers, less status signalling and more legitimate small-scale farming that benefits the environment, culture, broader and more diverse communities, and by virtue of that a reality in connection to land and people.
Pre-covid, Australia seemed like a place where natural wine was booming just as everywhere else.
It still does. The domestic market is really strong here and it’s great to see such widespread support for natural wine and such interest in it.
One of the features of this boom that I perceived while there was the arrival of wines using the natural wine tropes (“cloudy wine in a transparent bottle with a funky label”, to put it clichély) yet actually coming from inorganic grapes. Now, I know that in Australia buying grapes is more commonplace than the winemaker=grower tradition in Central Europe or France, even for guys who are working naturally. But still, it kinda felt as if some producers were trying to exploit a trend rather than having an actual connection to the soil or will to actually become farmers in the near future. Would you say that this changed somehow? Or is that an inaccurate view of the situation?
This continues in Australia as it seems to continue in many parts of the world. There is a small upswing in producers who are shifting to or who have committed to growing their own, and by virtue of that, inspiring others to do so.
You used to organise the infamous Rootstock Festival back in the day – any plans to resurrect it somehow? Or has this energy poured into other events?
Rootstock Festival was a beautiful thing throughout its lifespan. It was a not-for-profit organisation from day one, a true charity, and in that found limitations in its continuation. That, and the need to police those not using organic-farmed grapes was an issue and a difficulty for us. Likewise, we felt that through the festival we managed to shift the landscape in Australia significantly and that most of our ideals in educating and creating enjoyment around natural wine were met, so the lifespan of the festival was done.
We didn’t want to end up commercialising a wine, food and culture festival in the way many global examples had done. Our festival was way more than wine, with farmers, artists, musicians, chefs, bartenders, cultural groups, Aboriginal cultural group involvement, talks programs, farmers’ markets, and more. By finishing Rootstock it has allowed us to pursue other festivals and events that have shifted the conversation in different ways and evolved the conversation similarly.
You also make wine yourself – in Tasmania and previously also in Oregon.
Our three-year stint in Oregon was interesting and rewarding but Covid and logistical challenges meant that Tasmania returned to full focus. I started making wine in Tasmania in 2010 with my friend Joe Holyman, a small-scale vigneron in the north of Tasmania. In 2012, our winemaker friend Peter Dredge was regularly visiting Joe’s farm and we made two barrels of experimental wines that became our label ‘Brian’. We continue to make a small volume of wine together, which is a lot about friendship, but also pushing boundaries in terms of wine styles in Tasmania, and making things we like to drink ourselves.
What are the regions (or even winemakers, if you can name them) to watch? Any rising stars?
There are old wineries and new producers that share equal space in this answer. It’s a huge list, but Central Victoria, Great Southern, Tasmania, Gippsland, Mount Gambier and Swan Valley come to mind for clusters of exciting wines in Australia. Of course, Adelaide Hills continues to have huge currency too.
Actually, how about Aboriginal and Torres Islander rising stars? Australia is still reckoning with its complicated colonial past and history of violence towards the First Nations, the vines grow on land once taken from them… so I wonder if any of these inequalities are being worked on. I suppose it's tackled in the How to Drink Australian book, too.
Mt Yengo Wines and Munda Wines are Aboriginal-owned and operated wine brands that are adding a valuable narrative to Australian wine through the lens of Indigenous people. Sue Bell from Bellwether is also Aboriginal and makes wines based out of Coonawarra, and she is quiet in respect to her background but an awesome human and a force for good.
The inequalities are hardly being addressed but a small base of winemakers are reaching out to Aboriginal communities around them for more meaningful engagement and education, which is hopefully something that grows rapidly and with positive approaches and commitment to financial benefit to Aboriginal communities on whose land they occupy or source grapes from.
Australia is traditionally seen as a rather hot climate (although obviously, given its sheer size, this is a very reductionist view). How would you say climate change has affected that? Are any measures being taken, such as moving vineyards to higher elevations / other exposures, different vineyard management, or shift in varieties grown? Or does the climate change raise different issues there?
The traditional understanding of Australia is unfortunately limited, with many cold climate wine regions, moderate climate wine regions, maritime wine regions and high country wine regions fleshing out the conversation on regionality in Australia, but climate change is impacting all. Bushfires, drought, floods and wild vagaries in growing season conditions are a reality and have a growing impact on grapes and wine.
Rethinking vineyard management is paramount in Australia and among some of the most topical conversations and actions, including considering new and different varieties that are hopefully mitigating the impact of a warming world - this is already in action in Australia, and growing as a force. There is a broad scope of grape varieties (over 160 and counting) in Australia and many are being worked into considered viticulture.
Do you see wine as art?
Of course, and a whole lot of other things.
And the must-have question, what's the story with these legendary black slippers you became synonymous with?
It's very simple - they’re the ultimate in comfort!