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Amateur winemakers tested on reality TV program PlonkMasters
It’s finals week and the atmosphere is tense. The remaining contestants struggle to complete another seemingly impossible challenge.
MORGAN DUNN THE AUSTRALIAN
“Three months to go,” yells Gary, while George and Matt look solemnly on. The amateurs snap to attention; time has clearly gotten away from them again. “If you haven’t finished picking your grapes by now, I would be worried!’
David, an electrician from Brisbane and obviously flustered, looks up from his vines. His knees are filthy with dirt and his hands are purple with the blood of grenache. He’s the favourite but he’s trailing. We cut to him backstage, hair neat and demeanour calm, seated in front of wine bottles and French oak barriques, as he narrates his thinking in the present tense: “I’ve gotta make the time up. I’ve got three months and I haven’t even begun to think about blending. If I don’t get something in the bottle, I’m going home.”
Everyone must have noticed the dearth of quality wine-based reality TV programs. So here’s the pitch: a MasterChef spin-off that focuses on the best amateur winemakers in the country. Presided over by Gary, Matt and George (that’s Gary Farr of By Farr, Matt Harrop of Shadowfax and Stephen George of Ashton Hills, of course), we’d follow 16 hopefuls as they try to ferment, fine and filter their way into the history books.
All your classic personalities would be represented: the hipster winemaker from Fitzroy whose reliance on wild yeast and sulphites ban irritates the judges. The young pinot noir prodigy whose family wants him to study law but who dreams of a career in a Burgundian winery. The unassuming girl who puts up the sexiest chardonnays but breaks down in tears every time the secondary fermentation in her sparkling fails.
The challenges would range from tasting an anonymous wine and identifying all techniques used in its development, to the more difficult crafting of a cool climate riesling, to the near impossible re-creating the 1998 Penfolds Grange.
Beechworth winemaker Adrian Rodda would swing by and encourage the contestants to create vineyard-specific expressions of the grapes. Tom Carson of Yabby Lake would pop in and say things like: “I really respect what you tried to do with the whole bunches here; I just would have liked to have seen more of it.” Steve Pannell, winner of the Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year award, would appear: “It’s a great syrah. It’s structured, perfumed and elegant. And the use of fruit from the Adelaide Hills? Genius.”
And then, like Heston Blumenthal on MasterChef, for seven days the Man himself would be present. “It’s Robert Parker week!” yells Matt in the advert, guaranteeing that everyone in the country tunes in. The famed US wine critic would be in Australia, judging the efforts of the select few who have managed to make it this far.
“Oh. My. God,” says Phoebe from Bendigo, completely starstruck. “Robert Parker is tasting my sauvignon blanc. And he likes it.”
Unlike last season’s critical and commercial failure, the short-lived I’m a Sommelier, Get Me Out of Here, this show would have a deep human element. Viewers would be able to read bios of their favourite contestants online and be encouraged to try some of their recipes at home. There could even be meet-and-greets at local shopping centres.
The great thing about this program is that longevity would be assured. A single season could theoretically last 30 years if you take into account the time it took to produce a single wine for a challenge: there would be no need for fresh ideas for each new iteration of the show.
MasterChef was instrumental in consolidating something many of us in the industry already knew: chefs are rock stars. This show would do the same for winemakers. I recently did a dinner with Justin McNamee, winemaker at Samuel’s Gorge. All evening he swaggered around with a drink in his hand, as cool as you like. He ended the night by raising his glass and declaring: “I’m gonna keep making wine on the top of that hill ’til the day I die!’ Every spine in the room shivered. Bowie couldn’t have done it better.
Morgan Dunn is sommelier at Stokehouse CBD, Melbourne.