Sarah Crowe - Yarra Yering Interview



Interview with Adrian Read, Originally published 21/12/16


Yarra Yering’s Sarah Crowe is James Halliday’s reigning Winemaker of the Year.

Crowe moved from Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley to join Yarra Yering late in 2013, inheriting a Yarra Valley icon that was still coming to terms with the death of its celebrated owner and winemaker, Dr Bailey Carrodus, in 2008.

Carrodus was a pioneer of the valley’s winemaking revival, founding Yarra Yering in 1969.

Crowe recently led the Langton’s broking team through a tasting of Yarra Yering reds both old and new, and Newsfeed’s Adrian Read caught up with her afterwards…

Congratulations. Has life changed since you became Winemaker of the Year?


I haven’t been home much! Both domestic and international sales trips and wine dinners. While all the time keeping an eye on the wines sleeping in the winery.


How do you feel about being the first woman to win the award?


If it encourages other women to stay in the industry when it can be tough going sometimes then it’s a good thing. It has highlighted how uneven the gender balance is (just under 10% of Australian winemakers are female) but this is not unique to the wine industry. There is a lot of awareness currently of the gender imbalance in many professions, agriculture being just one of them. Without even starting on topics such as equal pay! We need to actively change the gender stereotypes we have grown up with, that women are less capable than men. We can start by changing our language around our acceptance of women in certain roles. I am not a female winemaker, I am a winemaker.


You’ve spent most of your career in the Hunter – was it hard moving to the Yarra?


The Australian wine industry, particularly the Hunter Valley, is like a big family. It was difficult moving away from my friends there, but we catch up regularly at industry seminars and events, wine shows and on social media. The biggest challenge was probably not letting everyone make me nervous in the new role. ‘They’re big shoes to fill’, was a pretty common comment, and: ‘You must be nervous’. But to be honest, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of making wines from the Yarra Yering vineyard.


You are seen as an industry leader. What are your own aspirations?


I like to live by the saying that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. If we work collaboratively, we are all going to benefit. This is my life, I love what I do. It’s pretty simple really, I aspire to make the best wine I can each year and working together as a region and an industry is to the benefit of us all – and to the consumer!


You’ve said the spirit of Bailey Carrodus – his ghost, perhaps? – remains part of the fabric at Yarra Yering. Isn’t that a bit intimidating?


In the past the Yarra Yering brand was very much intertwined with Bailey Carrodus and his personality. Most people I encounter have a story to tell about this one time when they met him. I have much respect for what he did in creating Yarra Yering and in the evolution he took it through in a very different time. He is rightly considered a trailblazer and ahead of his time. HHHe was doing the best with what he had available to him, and doing it very well. The important thing to remember here is that Yarra Yering grew and evolved over 40 years. To try to stop that process and tread water in the same place as we were when he died would be foolish. We have to move on – the future’s more important. I have the freedom to look at the past and learn from it. All I want to do is make better wine, year after year. That might sound disrespectful, but it’s not, because that’s what all winemakers want to do. And finally, I’m probably lucky that I never actually met Bailey Carrodus – I don’t have any emotional ties.


You’ve introduced screwcaps – how did that go?


There are only a handful of long term customers who insist on cork, along with export markets of Asia and USA. Otherwise we have had nothing but praise from the vast majority of customers and particularly domestic trade. In our first release to our members, 10% wanted cork and 90% took screwcap, and the number is now even higher.


How do you deal with wine traditionalists? Are they mostly men?


We are a little different to the majority of Australian wine businesses in that we have a majority male membership. (Most wine purchases in Australia are made by females.) I usually point out that change is inevitable – there has been constant evolution to get to where we are today. You are right though, often men think they have more interesting things to say than I do. But I talk about what I know which is wine and each year my knowledge of this vineyard and its history deepens. I don’t have much time or patience for men who prefer to talk over the top of me. Those days are behind me – now I’m usually the one with the microphone!


You’ve learned winemaking on the job, coming to it from vineyard work – do winemakers need formal qualifications?


I have a Bachelor of Applied Science in Viticulture from Charles Sturt University, which I did while working full time at Brokenwood as a winemaker. I came to it from a horticultural background. Winemaking is a second career for me. My study was always focused on the vineyard while working in the winery. My thought is that if I can influence the quality of the grapes then the winemaking is easy! I don’t think you do particularly need formal qualifications. For a long time in the Yarra Valley, ironically perhaps, Bailey Carrodus was the only one with formal winemaking qualifications.


What is your vision for Yarra Yering?


It’s a long term constant vision to make better wine every year. We have a lot still to do here in terms of the vineyard and winery. We get to play a long game. We were lucky to inherit a philosophy to not be in a hurry and don’t push our wines to market, and that in itself is quite unique and refreshing. The vineyard here is very special and I want to continue to make these wines respectfully considering both our history and our environment.


What are your great wine experiences? What was it that drew you to winemaking?


I had many great wine experiences while working at Brokenwood where there is a philosophy of wine education and people constantly visiting with vast experience and knowledge to share. I was also a scholar at the Len Evans Tutorial in 2010 – a week of wine sensory overload, never to be repeated blind tastings spanning five days. I can also recall my first Yarra Yering, the 1998 Dry Red Wine No.2, at a lunch in the Hunter Valley with a bunch of girlfriends in the industry, playing wine options. It stopped me in my tracks...


What’s special about Yarra Yering?


One thing is that it’s a fairly warm site in a cool region and this is probably why both Shiraz and Cabernet do so well here. What’s distinctive about Yarra Yering wines, I think, is a real graphite, ironstone minerality, nicely balanced with fruit and acidity. It’s an underlying minerality – I know that can be a difficult word – savouriness might be another way to put it.

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