Australia's Ben Glaetzer
Elevates Amon-Ra Again
These past five years have been good to Australian winemaker Ben Glaetzer, and better still for the American consumer of premium red wine. In concert with brash importer Ben Hammerschlag of Epicurean Wines, the young and talented Glaetzer has managed in a short time to introduce U.S. connoisseurs to a class of Shiraz and red blends heretofore rarely associated with Australia.
In the wake of a landmark collection of 2004 releases, anticipation of the 2005 Glaetzer creations was widespread. At last, they are here, just in time to become cherished Holiday gifts for the red wine connoisseurs in your life! His '05 Amon-Ra Shiraz from vines 100+ years old in southern Australia's Barossa Valley is heralded by Robert Parker Jr. as "profound" and "a superb example of cutting edge winemaking ... on ancient Shiraz vines." This follows on the heels of the widely acclaimed '04 Amon-Ra Shiraz. Meanwhile, the 2005 Godolphin proprietary red (80% Shiraz) is in Parker's estimation "a beautiful marriage of power and elegance." These home runs are happening more and more out of the Glaetzer camp. For rising-star winery owner Frank Mitolo, Glaetzer crafted the 2004 G.A.M. Shiraz, accorded 97 points by Parker.
Glaetzer, 29, and Hammerschlag, 34, blew into Chicago (upper left, along the city's famous Michigan Avenue) in late summer, joining Hinsdale Cellars' Steve Woodward for lunch at the classic Shaw's Crab House, where oysters and beer rule. Chicago was only one stop on Glaetzer's lengthy, five-week North American itinerary, a tour coinciding with the '05 releases. The two Bens are a study in contrasts to be sure. Glaetzer is reserved, congenial and, like many of his countrymen, prone to modesty. He resides in rural splendor. "Hammer", as Glaetzer labels his star importer, is a bit more tightly wound, impatient and, like many Americans, tends to be opinionated. Hammerschlag's business is based in Seattle but his East Coast roots have pulled him back to a permanent New York address in Manhattan.
But they share a passion for spreading the news about premium Australian wine around the world, as well as bloodlines long tied to the wine business. Glaetzer's ancestors arrived in Australia from Germany in the late 1880s and were among the earliest viticulturalists in the Barossa Valley. Hammerschlag's family was in the retail business in New York, pre-Prohibition Era, operating numerous Flagenheimer's wine shops in the early 1900s. There was a gap in that heritage until Ben Hammerschlag proclaimed himself an Australian importer, though only in his late 20s. Glaetzer met "Hammer" by chance in a Barossa Valley restaurant ("There are only three," Hammerschlag playfully reminds us) after Hammerschlag began importing wines in 2000.
In Chicago, over sushi, gumbo, Malpec oysters and crab legs, we talked about the dramatic emergence of Glaetzer and his wines ...
Hinsdale Cellars: Ben and Ben seems like the perfect storm.
Ben Hammerschlag: I was drawn to Australia. I don't know why. I felt it was the future. I thought these were the kinds of wines Americans would want to drink in the future, so I wanted to go check it out.
Ben Glaetzer: At the time, Ben was importing my uncle's wine. My father is a winemaker. My uncle is a winemaker. Older brother a winemaker, younger brother a winemaker. Sister-in-law is a winemaker. My father was a winemaker for 25 years for a company called Barossa Valley Estate. He started up the family business (Glaetzer Wines) in '96, and I took it over in 2002.
BH: His father (right) and his uncle are legends in the wine industry in Australia.
BG: And they are identical twins, and, if you've seen a photo of my father, that's not a good thing! But I was pretty fortunate in that I basically grew up in the winery. I always had aspirations to be a pediatric surgeon. I was enrolled in medicine at the end of Year 12 (high school) but then I decided, no, I want to be a winemaker.
BG: I finished (grade school) pretty early. I was 15. Then I finished the four-year degree in winemaking, which is basically organic science, chemistry, and got out of university when I was 19. I worked overseas for a couple of years, then worked in the Hunter Valley in Australia for a couple of years.
HC: How do you explain the success you have had in the U.S. market?
BG: There are a lot of different factors. If you take it from the ground up, it's good fruit, good wine. The packaging's good. On my side it is sort of there, ready to go, because we are organized enough to make sure the product is available. On Hammer's side, he's spent a lot of time with the distribution channels, and he has distribution in various states, some of them big states like Illinois and New York, California. But he also has spent the time to go into the smaller states.
BH: For me, setting up the company, that was the most difficult thing. Finding the wines, that was sort of natural. It was easy for me. But setting up the right distribution with the right partners -- with distributors it is sort of like being married. When I first got started it was sort of like climbing a mountain. It was hard.
BH: I am hungry! I want to eat!
BG: We're doing an interview.
HC: I wish this was television. It would be great. Are you early in the game, penetrating markets outside Australia?
BH: The wines of Australia are intellectually stimulating but also very giving at a younger age than, say, Bordeaux. The 'Wow' factor is there early on. That's kind of the American style anyway -- immediate gratification. These wines will age, but Australian wines are flattering in their youth.
BG: I am at the moment on this whirlwind trip because we are releasing the 2005s. They've all just been bottled. The reason I release them so young because I want people to have this sort of snapshot of flavor that I tasted in the barrel. As Hammer said before, they are very approachable when they are young. They do have an opportunity to age as well. If somebody buys a six-pack now, they can drink three now and have three to lay down (in a cellar). As soon as it hits the shelf or the wine list someone should be able to pull the cork out, or unscrew the screwcap, and drink it, enjoy it. I don't see any point in selling a product where I say, 'You have to leave that in the cellar for eight years before you can touch it.' That's just bull.
HC: Compare 2005 to past vintages.
BH: The '05 is a cool vintage, a long vintage ... similar to '02, maybe. The wines seem to be slow starters. Tasting them six months ago they seemed to be like compacting, kind of closed. ... It has been eye opening just in the last couple of months seeing how the wines have really turned the corner and have become so much more expressive.
BG: If you compare (the '05 growing season) to '04, '04 was just a gift for winemakers. No major heat spikes. No major rainfall events. It was just almost too easy. The wines basically made themselves. With '05 in general we had a bit of rainfall, a slower ripening process, so we have all the facets of '04 but a bit more muscular. (The '05s) will need more time to settle down. They're quite big.
HC: What does it mean when your bio says you use "traditional winemaking techniques with a modern flair"?
BG: In terms of that modern flair, or whatever, I guess I've traveled quite a bit and adopted quite a few techniques from Italy, from France, from everywhere else and have implemented those in Australia. It's not so much me taking (stealing) the technique, but just saying what (the Italians) do in terms of making wine makes sense. I am trying to make wines that are expressive of the regions but also world scale, so that they go well with food, have a nice savory texture. Not just big and over-the-top. Hopefully, we are seeing the new wave in Australian wine.
BH: These (crab cakes) are good ...
HC: Do you want to be known for making a uniquely Australian red wine or an "international" red wine?
BG: Very much international. I mean, I want it to be reflective of my vineyards but I don't want anyone to (taste it) and say, 'It's got to be Australian,' based on the fact that most people's perception of Australia at the moment is big, overblown, jammy fruit. And that is exactly what has been presented to the marketplace. So it's pretty much that I want (Glaetzer) wines to be known on an international scale.
HC: So you are kind of a pioneer?
BH: He definitely is.
BG: We have appointed distributors worldwide. We export to 35 countries. A lot of the importers are very much like (BH) in that they are driven, young, and want to get out and make it work. The saying in Australia is, 'They've got their nuts on the line.' If it doesn't work, then they go down. So they've got this pressure to make sure it works.