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Small Fry Wines, Australia (Barossa) – Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder

April 15, 2012

Suzi and I both grew up on vineyards and after trying a few different things elsewhere it was to vineyards that we returned. A fundamental desire to have a safe, healthy and happy workplace lead us towards organic growing but when we were bitten by the winemaking bug the desire to produce more interesting and soulful wines started us on our biodynamic journey. The dramatic improvement in soil structure, vine balance and fruit quality has encouraged us down the path and now we would struggle to farm in any other way.

We had always practiced minimal input viticulture and began farming biodynamically in 2007; change has been progressive as we have gained confidence and experience. Our experience in corporate viticulture has left us very disillusioned with chemical farming and big corporate solutions to human sized problems in general. Our soil management is based on using mineral supplements where necessary, zero tillage, and strategic mowing to encourage native grasses as ground cover. An intensive program of Horn Manure during the early stages of conversion helped smooth the way with the inclusion of compost preparations via combined soil prep and cow pat pit. Winter grazing by sheep keeps ground cover low and manures the land. Disease control is based around using milk whey solution and our own Casuarina tea supplemented with copper hydroxide and wettable sulphur in higher disease pressure years, cultural controls include shoot thinning and wider planting spacing. Thankfully the Barossa is close to ideal climatically, which helps us along considerably. We haven’t felt the need to control insect pests over the last few years but if we do it would be using BT sprays. Our epiphany came in 2010/11 growing season. The highest disease pressure year in a generation really tested our resolve but we were able to bring in our most successful harvest to date without resorting to easy options (thus keeping our halo intact). Five generations of grape growing heritage in this region helped a lot. I spent a great deal of time talking to my father about the lessons learnt in the 1974/75 growing season which was quite similar. We began certifying our vineyards in 2010 with Australian Certified Biodynamic.

From our first vintage in 2006, winemaking has been as natural as possible. For our red wines we rely on wild yeast for fermentation, no DAP, no enzymes, no tannin, no fining or filtration and only minimal acid adjustment if necessary. We use SO2 only after spontaneous malo/lactic fermentation. Next step is to try a no added SO2 wine. Most white wines are a bit more textbook due to less tolerance in the market place for funkier wine styles; we have of course played around with natural techniques in small batch wines and intend to have a more textural style white in our lineup sometime soon. Other general practices used to reduce our footprint on the earth include recycling building waste to make roads and buildings, renewable energy generation and energy efficient buildings for production. We regard earth-friendly living not as series of boxes to tick, but a philosophy by which our whole life is lived.

The balancing act in our chosen life is to maintain day-to-day viability while we wait for our longer term work to come to fruition. We don’t have a benefactor with deep pockets to help us out if things don’t go right so we need to temper our dreams and ideals with some cold hard pragmatism. In order for us to be here in 5 years time we need to get through the next financial quarter. Managing growth is a challenge all businesses have to deal with but to do so without quick fixes and bandages is more difficult. Whilst we hope that the good work we do will see benefits in increased sales and value for our wines, we still have to sell the majority of our grapes as non-organic product to other wineries to keep our bank manager happy. There is a fair bit of hope and hype surrounding Biodynamic and natural wines and we believe this will manifest itself over the next decade but will never override the imperative to produce good quality wine.

That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and the single event that came close was the 2008 vintage heat wave. We were at our most vulnerable, it was the first vintage from our newly purchased Vine Vale vineyard so we were incredibly stretched financially and the sheer battle to get through harvest, vinification and then selling wines that had the “bad vintage” taint on them was a struggle we would prefer never to repeat again.

We are happy enough with the choice we have made to follow this path in life, and there are many family/lifestyle advantages to working as we do. Ultimately if we are to judge this venture as completely successful we will be handing on a viable, attractive and vibrant life/career option to our children and this is yet to be secured as a lot of it is outside of our control. If our choices have been good ones we will be happy, if the greater economy goes down the gurgler and some assumptions we made turn out to be wrong then I guess we will be less so. This lifestyle is not for everyone, hard work needs doing and sacrifices certainly have to be made, sometimes the rewards are not that tangible and through it all everyone involved must remain happy and content if it is to be worthwhile. The Ahrens family have been farming grape vines in the Barossa for 5 generations since 1842, much of the original land is still in family hands, that this continues is not an inevitable outcome, in fact the odds seem to be stacked against it sometimes with so many external pressures, let’s just say it is a work in progress.

It has been said that organic and biodynamic farming will return to being the new normal and that chemical based farming will become the exception. As a part of this process wine production has a potentially leading role to play as consumers are prepared to pay a considerable premium in some cases for perceived quality compared to say potatoes. Ultimately for organic/biodynamic farming to be successful it will need to be accessible by the general public pricewise, hence our goal: to make quality wines that do not cost any more than their chemically grown counterparts.

Wayne

website: www.smallfrywines.com.au

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