So wrote the Napa Valley Register’s Jennifer Huffman ten years ago. She may have covered more dramatic stories since then, but it was a sad day when Napa’s best bottle shop closed its doors.
In the spring of 2012, according to the business reporter, JV’s owners and their landlord couldn’t agree on new lease terms, so that was that for the 30 year-old retailer. The demise of this boozy emporium meant that loyal customers like me were left high and dry, without a full-service, high-end liquor store that also carried a wide range of equally good wines. Since then, it’s turned into days (and months and years) of trash and weeds for the property while its owner has, for whatever reason, let it stay vacant.
With its distinctive, curved façade, artsy spire, and great location at the edge the Oxbow District, JV always struck me as equal parts indispensable and quirky. There certainly were, and are, other places here in Napa to buy adult beverages, along with the internet. Maybe it was for these reasons the store that used to bill itself in both local advertisements and on the sign over its entrance as the place “Where the Napa Valley shops for wine” eventually turned into anything but.
There was, of course, a fire sale before JV shut down. That the process took weeks to complete was a testament to the size and scope of its inventory. In the end, with the wines and liquors thoroughly grazed, all that remained on its shelves were dusty bottles of cocktail mixers, boxes of Franzia, and sleeves of plastic cups.
Over those last weeks, I came home with a bunch of wine treasures, a handful of which—mainly red Burgundy and late-picked German riesling—are still sitting in our wine refrigerator, waiting for the right moment to roll around. Sadly, when I go out to the garage today, the fridge contains no more bottles of the red wine I used to seek out at JV, and managed to clean them out of before they shut down: Hewitson’s Old Garden.
Since he started to produce it in 1998, the South Australia winemaker Dean Hewitson has employed the traditional place name for this ancient mourvèdre vineyard in the Barossa Valley. As its only vintner customer, he has an exclusive relationship with the grapegrowing Koch family who own the hereditary piece of property.
In the context of viticulture, “ancient” is really the only way to describe Old Garden: it has to be one of the longest-surviving vineyards on the planet. One of the Kochs’ forebears put the vines in its sandy soil in the decade before the U.S. Civil War and a half-century before the Commonwealth of Australia came into existence. It could practically be a UN World Heritage site.
“In 1853,” the short paragraph composed by Dean for the back label of his original bottling reads,
Of all the wines and labels I’ve come across over the years, this is probably my favorite name for a vineyard, both for the sepia imagery it conjures and the arc of history it represents. As a thumbnail sketch of a viticultural site, Dean composed a perfectly concise version of a very old story to explain the name behind a place.
The wine isn’t bad, either.
• • • • •
Going back at least a couple of years before the pandemic hit us upside the head, I’d been thinking about Old Garden and how much I missed finding it on the shelf at JV. The guy who turned me onto the wine back in 2001, the late John Larchet, imported Hewitson and a number of other labels into the U.S. through the company he launched in the mid-90s, The Australian Premium Wine Collection. Those were very much the good old days for his, and other, boutique imports.
But by the mid-2000s, things changed. A combination of the Yellow Tail-driven “critter wine” phenomenon at the supermarket level and some high-profile wine critics’ over-hyping of more premium wines—”typically black as pitch, made from extremely late-picked grapes and notably alcoholic,” as Jancis Robinson described certain U.S.-bound, Australian reds in a 2009 Financial Times article—would help kill much consumer enthusiasm in this country for imports from Down Under.
No doubt there were other reasons for the decline. As my friend the Australian wine expert Chuck Hayward put it in an email recently, “leaning on Yellow Tail as the main cause behind the demise of Aussie wines is just intellectually lazy. It allows critics and the trade to not investigate or learn about [them] in greater detail.” He pointed out that most wine-producing countries don’t see their industries defined by the cheap wines they make, citing the examples of fiaschi bottlings from Italy, New Zealand’s Kim Crawford brand, and Two-Buck Chuck here in California.
Yet there was probably no getting around the guilty-by-association aspect of Yellow Tail. Anecdotally, at least, I wouldn’t disagree with Robinson’s observation in her FT article when she wrote, “The staggering success of Yellow Tail with its kangaroo label spawned so many imitation ‘critter’ brands…that at the bottom end of the market, Australia came to be seen as ubiquitous and vapid.”
I can distinctly remember the time during my restaurant buying days, from 1994 to ’04, as a good one for shiraz and company in San Francisco. Gentlemen like John Larchet, Vinmarque owner Sean Ryan, the American expat exporter Ted Schrauth, and my friend Rob McDonald, founder of Old Bridge Cellars, had a captive audience among the Bay Area’s retail and restaurant trade for their offbeat, colorful producers, the makers of delicious and very site-specific wines.
These guys were already several years into building their businesses when Robinson suggested in a 2002 article for her own website that it’s “up to the importers of Australian wines around the world to get off their backsides and make sure their customers are exposed to the best that this extraordinary and varied country has to offer, rather than sit back and take the easiest option, the suave blandishments of the big company representative.”
In my experience, none of these former purveyor friends ever sat on their backsides—though perhaps they were the exceptions to prove the “rule” that Australian wines became a hard sell in the mid-2000s. It’s a scenario that Chuck Hayward could comment on with greater authority than your correspondent, who would prefer not to go down a critter-sized rabbit hole.
Anyway, a vapid Australian wine was never poured into my glass by any of the guys I’ve mentioned, and the closest I came to a blandishment was when a round trip plane ticket to New York arrived in my mailbox after some late-night cocktails with Rob McDonald at a Mission District bar in 1995. I’d told him he would surely need help pouring his Old Bridge Cellars wines over a couple days of upcoming Manhattan trade tastings. I guess he took me as literally as I was taking part, enthusiastically, in his Aussie wine campaign.
Much more recently, in 2019, I interviewed Rob for a Napa Register article on Chris Carpenter, a well-respected vintner working in both Napa Valley and South Australia. I wanted to hear some of his thoughts on viticulture in the McLaren Vale region, from which Rob imported a significant amount of wine, and where Carpenter runs the winemaking at Hickinbotham Vineyard.
We chatted over beers at a gastropub next to the Napa River (there’s a theme here, one might conclude). “The things that are going on with Australian wine are things that have been going on all the time consistently,” Rob told me, which I quoted in my article. “What we do really well in Australia is the creativity around sites, and grape varieties that work in a given spot.”
He was echoing something The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman wrote about John Larchet back in 2010 (though I think Steiman could have been describing any of the boutique Australian importers I’ve been talking about): “[Larchet] strongly believes that the only way to tear down the prejudices against Australia is to think of the wines as varietals first, distinguished by their vineyard sources in Australia.”
In the same piece, Steiman described him as “one of the graybeards” of his adopted country’s industry. To me, Larchet was the Irish-brogued Aussie with a French last name who would come around every so often to pitch Californians his unique products. So I learned a fair amount from him about the APWC portfolio, not least that Old Garden mourvèdre was a singular bottling buried within it.
Of all the wines Messieurs Larchet, McDonald, and their counterparts brought me to taste back then, I remember the majority being shiraz, or else “GSM” blends of grenache, shiraz, and mourvèdre. Other wines—cuvées made from cabernet and merlot and a sprinkling of whites like chardonnay, riesling, and sémillon—rounded out most price lists, as they continue to do today. But bottlings of the classic trio of red Rhône Valley varieties (wine grapes I’d guess the Australian growers and vintners have long considered their own, despite the Mediterranean origins) were usually first out of the salesperson’s bag.
Dean Hewitson’s Old Garden was a memorable outlier among them. I could compare it to the handful of California mourvèdres I was already familiar with and, of course, Bandol from Provence. Even before John Larchet introduced me to the Hewitson brand, another South Australian example of the variety landed on my radar: d’Arenberg’s mourvèdre from the Twentyeight Road vineyard in McLaren Vale. It was a terrific, personality-laden mourvèdre that I remember enjoying as much as Old Garden, though it’s wine I haven’t come across since Rob sold Old Bridge Cellars a number of years ago.
“Right from the birth of the industry, there have been lots of small, independently minded people making really cool wines from different places,” Rob shared during our 2019 interview. “The single vineyards are really a part of it.”
These days, that wine from the Twentyeight Road vineyard is a unicorn. Fortunately, Old Garden isn’t such a rare animal.
“I love going back to San Francisco and driving out to the vine regions.”
Dean told me this over the phone in the spring of last year—his Australian late fall and the end of the ’21 harvest season. “I just it’s a fabulous feeling,” he said.
His recounting of a pre-pandemic trip to California with the marketing group Wine Australia let him briefly relive his days, nearly three decades earlier, as a viticulture and enology student at UC Davis in the early 90s. I’d already jogged some California memories when I emailed him links to my two-part article on Joel Peterson’s Once & Future mataro from eastern Contra Costa County. This far-flung corner of the Bay Area is a grapegrowing region he couldn’t recall visiting, though he seemed to relate strongly to my description of the ancient, head-trained vines of Oakley and the sandy soil beneath them.
“They’re not remotely similar cities in terms of size, but it struck me that the South Australia wine regions, or most of them in the Adelaide city area, are not dissimilar to what’s happening in your neck of the woods of San Francisco,” he said. “You’ve got a city, and then you’ve got vineyards to the north, south and east. Well, we’re exactly the same. We had all those old vineyards that, as the city grew, they became what are now suburban vineyards, like you talked about in Contra Costa.”
Over that initial call, I discovered that Dean’s familiarity with the wine industry in this country was fairly comprehensive—not surprising for a guy with a master’s from UC Davis—particularly in terms of the regions he’d visited while living and studying here. “It was just an amazing experience, because I’d goofed off a bit in my undergraduate, so I really did put my head down and learned so much more,” he said. That included visiting vineyards and wineries up and down the entire West Coast, from Santa Barbara to the Walla Walla Valley.
I could almost picture him shaking his head over the specific memory of his pilgrimage to Washington State’s benchmark winery, Leonetti Cellars. “I think we camped out on the road outside of the vineyard one night!”
Dean was born in 1965 and grew up in what he described as “not really a wine region at all, just sort of a small country town” in South Australia. But his parents and their friends were into wine, albeit at a time of changing drinking habits. When he was still a child, they switched preferences from Sherries and Ports to dry wines. “Not surprisingly,” he said, “mum and dad and a few friends got together and planted a small vineyard in the early 70s. By the age of seven, I was planting vines and picking grapes.”
He told me he even took time soaking empty bottles to collect wine labels in a scrapbook. “So that was my sort of upbringing in wine. And it’s not dissimilar to many other people in South Australia around my age. It was a real turning point in our culture and how we drank wine.”
In the early 80s, the South Australian government launched its “Vine Pull Scheme,” whereby under-productive grapegrowers, including those in Dean’s home region of the Barossa Valley, got paid to rip out their vineyards and leave the wine industry. The plan, according to the wine association Barossa Australia on its website, brought about unintended consequences: the “destruction of a treasure trove of 100 year old pioneer-planted Shiraz and Grenache vines and”—in a scenario that mirrors now-residential swaths of both northern and southern California—”the heightened risk that this historic agricultural region [would] be swallowed up by housing developers and sub-dividers.” Despite his parents’ hobby vineyard becoming one of the scheme’s statistics, he emphasized that “without it, I would never have known the wine industry existed.”
And that Australian industry would have been deprived of one of its future leading lights if, upon graduation from high school, Dean hadn’t been required to make a list of possible career choices. Filmmaking came first, but with the surprise catch that he also needed to know how to dance and sing to attend the film school he’d been accepted to. “But I didn’t have a dancing and singing routine, because I can’t dance and can’t sing,” he laughed. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I’m in the wrong field here.’ And I looked down my list, and I had winemaking in that list as number four out of five we could choose. So I switched over to winemaking.”
He attended a prestigious viticultural and enology school as an undergrad, the Roseworthy Agricultural College (a few years after he graduated, it merged with the University of Adelaide). This led to a cellarhand job under Brian Croser, the proprietor of Petaluma, an important winery in the Adelaide Hills district. “It was a magnificent place to cut one’s teeth in the wine industry. I really couldn’t have thought of a better place,” he noted with obvious pride.
Croser ended up being a major influence on Dean’s career. The renowned vintner encouraged him to explore the wine regions of France. This was in the late 80s, before email or cellphones. Instead, he had letters of introduction that took him to cellar doors all over the country, including Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley, and Bordeaux. “It was a great experience, and I did that for a couple of years. And then Brian actually sponsored me and sent me to UC Davis, where I did my master’s from ’90 to ’92.”
After his time here in California, Dean returned to work for a couple more years under contract at Petaluma. In 1995, his wife, Lou, accompanied him on another French sojourn, this time to make wine for a British supermarket exporter at a chateau outside of Aix-en-Provence. “And then,” he recounted, “I set up Hewitson in ’97-’98, with our first sale being in April of 1998.” To this day, the dry rosé he makes at his winery, a cuvée of Barossa mourvèdre and cinsault he calls “Belle Ville,” is named for the house he and Lou lived in during their Provence stay.
With mourvèdre—Old Garden and otherwise—as the theme of our conversation, I asked Dean what experiences he had with the variety back in 1995. Working near Aix, he explained, there was much more grenache and syrah in his immediate winemaking environment. But his and Lou’s proximity to the Southern Rhône Valley and wine regions along the Mediterranean helped add to the range of grape varieties he encountered. Mourvèdre was one of these, especially as he visited and tasted through the wines of Cassis and the vine’s internationally recognized home, Bandol.
“I didn’t really make any mourvèdre in Provence,” he said, “but I just got a whole feel for that part of the world, that’s for sure.”
• • • • •
When Dean launched his winery brand in 1998, Old Garden mourvèdre was part of the original lineup. The “feel” he’d gotten for the Rhône-Mediterranean category of wine grapes while living and working in France translated directly into Hewitson’s early production: bottlings like Ned & Henry’s Vineyard shiraz and a grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre blend he called Miss Harry were made from Barossa Valley fruit; grapes for another shiraz, The Mad Hatter, were grown in McLaren Vale. I remember these wines—and it wasn’t exactly yesterday—as exciting to taste with John Larchet and his people. That’s the word I’d choose: compared to many of the California and European wines available 20 years ago in the Bay Area, Hewitson and rest of South Australia were exciting—and something quite new and different to me.
“A steady stream of characterful larrikins invaded our shores, shared beers and gossip with key players, and achieved enviable penetration of the mass market,” Jancis Robinson wrote in 2009 of the Australian inroads into the UK. I’d say something similar happened in California, if on a smaller scale, and we were all the richer for it.
As an enthusiastic Aussie wine imbiber and collector before and since I met John Larchet, it’s equally exciting for me to see Old Garden and a number of the other wines I’d gotten introduced to in the early 2000s listed on the “Store” page of the current Hewitson website and widely reviewed out in the wine-search-able universe. They signify an endurance on the part of both the vintner and of the brand itself. 25 harvests on, Hewitson has developed into one of South Australia’s standard-bearing wineries. But the beginnings, according to Dean, were pretty humble.
[End of Part One — More mourvèdre (and a milk factory) coming in Part Two.]