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Drew Brent-White, Windance Estate, WA
Name: Drew Brent-White
Place of birth: Nedlands, Western Australia
Professional experience: 8 years viticulture. 32 years in business
Current job title, winery & region: Viticulturist, owner and sales manager for Windance Estate, Yallingup, Margaret River, WA
What made you decide to become a viticulturist?
I have lived in the Margaret River region for 27 years and have watched the wine industry grow around us. My family has always had a farming connection with 10,000 acres at Jurien Bay. Although we owned 160 acres here we couldn't afford to develop it, but when my mother gave me 100 acres on Caves Rd, Yallingup, I knew I could sell one to develop the other into a vineyard and cellar door sales.
Which are your favourite varieties to grow?
My wife Rosemary and I love red wine so that narrows the field a lot. Cabernet is my favourite to grow because it is a tidy plant and is easier to control than Shiraz. I find if I prune for low yield we also have a less dense canopy which allows for good air flow through it, therefore fungal diseases are not an issue. I also admire Shiraz for its ability to produce consistent crop quantity and its liking for less moisture and ability to handle heat - not surprising seeing it originated in Iran.
What is your least favourite variety to grow?
Merlot is my least favourite, only because it seems to have one year on then one year off with yield! It looks green and majestic with bigger berry bunches but we find it inconsistent.
Do you have plans to expand the growth of certain varieties or plant any new varieties?
We have planted more Semillon because the demand for Margaret River SSB (Semillion / Sauvignon Blanc) Australia-wide is growing rapidly. People love the crisp, grassy flavours of Sauvignon Blanc then add the tropical fruit flavours of Semillon and you have our best selling white wine. Voignier is starting get my attention as a blend for Shiraz with a floral touch.
Can you remember the worst vintage you've ever been through? What was the problem and what did you do to solve it?
2006 has been our most difficult year due to a cool summer. The white wine was excellent with more elegant flavour but all harvesting was at least a month later than normal leaving us exposed to autumn rain. Less alcohol all round was good but the reds were more medium-bodied and some vineyards south of Margaret River didn't harvest their reds. Windance reds turned out quite good because the paddock faces north-east, has a nice 5-7 degree slope and we are in the northern part of the region. Cabernet was harvested on 25 April (25 March is normal) and Shiraz was harvested on 10 April (15 March is normal!)
Is there a stand-out season for you, when everything ran perfectly?
2007 has been a stand-out harvest! There has been little to no rain and the harvest has been three weeks earlier than normal. Cabernet came in on 8 March, Shiraz on 26 March. An easy year but with lower yields, should be great quality. Everyone can have the holiday they deserve a bit sooner!
What is the biggest challenge you face growing grapes in your region?
We are very lucky, Yallingup has a unique micro climate - it is drier and warmer than Margaret River (which is 25km south). Cape Naturaliste deflects the summer rains inland from tropical lows that move South. Thanks to nets the birds are a minor problem. I think kangaroos are our biggest problem - they love grapes and eat them a bunch at a time and are capable of devouring 1 tonne in 10. We also love them and would prefer to scare them away, but some persistent ones do need to be culled.
If you had an unlimited budget available to establish your existing vineyard again what would you do differently?
I would plant 50% white and 50% red instead of at present 15% white and 85% red.
Then I would raise the grow wire higher to 1100mm instead of 900mm to save my back from bending, but that's all.
What is your most important piece of machinery in your vineyard?
My wife! I couldn't survive without her.
Failing that, I think it's my SAME 85 tractor. I've made sure comfort rules for late night spraying, so I have a/c in the cab, a radio and CD player, and a special seat with air suspension and a 45 degree swivel for looking backwards. I think my netwiz deserves a mention too.
Have you learnt any tricks of the trade you can share with your colleagues?
I have quite a few tricks which must be kept secret as we won Wine of the Show 2006 in Margaret River! But I'll give one away - I don't use acidic fertilisers. They destroy the 'life force' of the soil by killing microbes and earthworms. Molasses is microbe food, so use it.
If you could remove one vine pest or disease from the face of the earth forever more, which would it be?
Fungus. Nearly all farms are fighting fungi, starting with wheat right through to grapes and even roses. If they could solve this problem and the cost of living would be much less for all of us.
What do you do when you're not tending vines?
I spent 35 years living on the Swan river or living by the Indian Ocean. I've raced yachts, surfed my heart out, dived for fish and crayfish, windsurfed in big waves, played AFL footy locally until 45. But now I'm 53 years old life is slowing down and I'm still growing, so my hobbies have changed to beach walking, swimming in blue dams, shooting foxes and sitting on the front verandah having a home brew in summer or a glass of full-bodied red in autumn and winter. I'm saving golf and lawn bowls for later…
What keeps you awake at night?
I tell my wife I'm in charge of repairs, worrying and finance and she must look after the rest (except vineyard management.) Repairs don't keep me awake and finance is under control, that leaves worrying. Weather makes me worry especially when I've got important things to do. But that's farming!
What sends you to sleep?
Sleep comes easy for me. A glass of red wine and a read or one hour of TV then I'm gone. Waking up is no problem either, I wake up whistling (much to my wife's disgust) at 5.30-6.30am, then I advance to singing by 7am with a new song every day.
Do you have a mentor who has influenced you or you direction in viticulture?
We have been interested in organic methods and philosophies, more on the soil health side than the complete disuse of herbicides and fungicides. I believe they can be minimised by using sheep and maintaining optimum plant health with excellent natural foods. The use of herbicides such as Roundup Bio without surfactant (never use pre-emergents) mixed with molasses can help neutralise their bad side.
Nutri-Tech Solutions has given me some great knowledge on soil life force and the use of organic and colloidal plant foods.
I admire Vanya Cullen for her use of Biodynamic farming at Cullens and believe it is the future.
Which areas of grape research do you find of most interest and most practical benefit to your work?
Again soil health is plant health, and I enjoy reading about methods to improve the soil. The over-use of nitrogen in vineyards can cause a reaction of urea and alcohol making Ethyl Carbamate in wine, a dangerous compound that gives people headaches and is also a carcinogen. It is of great pleasure when people say they can drink my red wine but not others because of headaches. Healthy plants have greater resistance to pests and disease.
What do you think is the number one problem facing today's industry?
Overproduction! Go for less and receive better quality and price. I would like to see the big players stop fighting for market share by driving prices down below the cost of quality production costs. The quality is remembered while the price is forgotten!
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