Vale Wayne Stehbens (1955-2017)
Tuesday, November 14, 2017 in News
Winemaker Wayne Stehbens, who died recently at the relatively young age of 62, was an important figure in the modern Australian wine industry. As the longstanding chief winemaker of Katnook, he steered through a fine wine agenda that will leave a lasting impression on the Coonawarra landscape. His career spanned the most exciting, yet challenging four decades of Coonawarra’s modern history. After great promise during the 1890s, the region suffered significant setbacks until after world war two, when investment in vineyards and infrastructure finally allowed Coonawarra to express itself, especially during the 1960s.
Wayne Stehbens moved down to Coonawarra with his family in 1968. His father Ray Stehbens, an ex-Queensland cane cutter, was the general manager of the Coonawarra Machinery Company and was responsible for the first plantings at Katnook. In 1979. after a knockabout life working on oil rigs, building sites and studying winemaking (initially by correspondence, at Charles Sturt University at Wagga) Wayne Stehbens secured a job at Katnook helping his father in the vineyards and winery. Although he worked vintages in the Hunter Valley and Leeton, he only ever made wine in Coonawarra after joining Katnook. Nonetheless, his longtime career on a single estate is a valuable narrative about nature and nurture. All the best winemakers in the world seem to have had a life-long dedication to their vineyards.
Wayne Stehbens enjoyed significant wine show success throughout his four-decade career and many of these wines serve as way points in Coonawarra’s rise from viticultural backwater to an internationally recognised wine region. He won several trophies, gold medals and accolades in his lifetime, more than most winemakers would ever dream of achieving. He won two Jimmy Watson Trophies (1987 & 1998) – the first before he reached his 35th Birthday.
The race for vineyard ownership particularly on terra rossa soils during the 1970s and 1980s led to Coonawarra becoming the most fashionable fine wine region in Australia. Wine show success including several “Jimmy Watson Trophy” winners propelled the regional narrative for quite a while. Wayne Stehbens was a major player in building Coonawarra’s fine wine credentials. Nonetheless, the ugly battle over the Coonawarra boundary during the early 1990s set winemakers against winemakers. Some observers saw protection of regional identity as the establishment of a cartel. While not a protagonist, Wayne Stehbens was a strong proponent of “terra rossa” Coonawarra and although the boundary fight excluded some perfectly good vineyards, there is a strong argument that the final decision was right for Coonawarra. But Coonawarra’s reputation suffered in the eyes of wine collectors with not a single Coonawarra wine achieving Exceptional status in Langton’s Classification until 2014.
I first came across Katnook Estate when I was a young student at Roseworthy Agricultural College during the early 1980s. I had no idea who Wayne Stehbens was, but the radically different Katnook Sauvignon Blanc was a go-to wine because it possessed such exciting aromatic complexity, vitality and freshness. I can still remember exactly the heady perfume, beautiful richness and acid cut. For a little while, Katnook Sauvignon Blanc enjoyed a cult following, until Sauvignon Blanc in Australia lost its blue riband to New Zealand.
Wayne Stehbens was a Wagga graduate winemaker and hence fell in the orbit of legendary winemakers Brian Croser and Dr Tony Jordan. His technical skills were honed through their pioneering consultancy firm Oenotech, which had a long arm into Australia’s nascent boutique wine industry. Dr Tony Jordan, particularly framed his perception of wine quality and philosophy. This connection was maintained during the early 1980s and gave Wayne Stehbens a prodigious technical virtuosity that was in tune with the expectations and zeitgeist of the times. He was one of the golden boys of the 1980s that built Australia’s profile in export markets especially the UK. Although in the slipstream of more powerful exporting wineries, especially Penfolds, Lindemans and Rosemount, Katnook enjoyed an early leg up as one of Coonawarra’s leading wineries, on the back of Wayne’s huge wine show success. His rugged charm and ambition to improve the reputation of Coonawarra was appreciated by the international media and Australia’s growing base of consumers.
I didn’t know Wayne particularly well although I came across him several times during my career. I remember chatting to him outside the old John Riddoch woolsheds in the early to mid 1990s, and suggesting to him that he should plant Viognier in response to the dwindling Sauvignon Blanc market. At this stage, Langton’s was struggling to survive and hadn’t really achieved much momentum. But I remember him for listening through the argument and then telling me why it wasn’t a great option for Katnook. Interestingly Wayne had an interest in other varieties particularly Tannat, Carmenere, Merlot and Petit Verdot, although Cabernet Sauvignon will forever be interconnected with the Stehbens name. But that meeting set up an intermittent conversation with him throughout my career as a wine auctioneer.
Like most winemakers of his generation, Wayne Stehbens was a tinker of all trades with an ability to build things and make things happen. A bush engineering talent is a valuable asset in an isolated region like Coonawarra. This skill also extended into his love of motorbikes and cars, particularly the Australian-made Bolwell sports car. He also played Australian Rules Football and enjoyed outdoor sports including waterskiing, further illustrating his all Australian country bloke image.
Katnook’s presence on the wine auction market gathered pace during the 1990s. Although the Australian wine auction market has never really embraced singular show medals in any meaningful way, Katnook enjoyed a strong currency because of its ever-present profile in the primary wine markets. There is no question that Wayne Stehbens was the man behind this reputation. At the time there was a common belief that anything under the Katnook label would be “good” at a minimum – but often achieving more than this. Like Penfolds there was reliability, a feature that underpins all ultra-fine wine brands. By 2003 Katnook’s “newish Tete-de-Cuvee” The Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon had hooked a strong domestic following with the 1998 vintage achieving “a ton” at auction during the second half of the season. From a Langton’s perspective, we had identified this marque as an emerging Classic with a great future with collectors.
In 2004 Langton’s held its first Rich Rare and Red wine auction with the Coonawarra Vignerons Association. This project was actually quite difficult because the concept of special barrels conflicted with our vision for Langton’s Classification. The auction project was conceived by the Coonawarra Vignerons as a way of highlighting and celebrating Coonawarra Cabernet and the craftsmanship of the region’s winemaking community. Wayne Stehbens steered this project like a 19th Century navigator and ploughed through the politics and challenges of the time with a fairly stubborn approach! Control freaks and auctioneers are similar in one way but mix like water and oil as it turns out.
Throughout the 2000s and into the present day Katnook Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon has achieved a buoyant response from collectors on the secondary wine market. With its pristine fruit, superb volume and dense chocolaty tannins, it evokes an impeccable combination of natural Coonawarra terroir and the intuition and flair of Wayne Stehbens and his dedicated winemaking team. In 2001 Freixenet, the famous CAVA wine producer, based outside Barcelona, Spain acquired the majority shareholding of Wingara Group, the parent company of Katnook. From an outsiders perspective, this investment pushed forward Katnook as an international brand. Wayne Stehbens continued to lead the winemaking agenda.
Wayne Stehben’s will be best known for building Coonawarra’s reputation through making some of the best cabernet sauvignon wines of the region, particularly over the last two decades of his life. It is this variety that truly sings from a secondary wine market perspective. Wayne Stehbens once said that he thought about going into the building trade because “he liked building structures that lasted”. It seems appropriate that he had a lifelong affinity with Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety with very high natural tannins and potential longevity. Classified “Outstanding” by Langton’s, Wayne Stehbens’ Odyssey epitomises the best of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. The style suits long-term cellaring and many vintages should last for decades to come.
Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Shiraz, all of which are well thought of in the commercial wine markets, further underpin his reputation as a man of great versatility and skill.
Wayne Stehbens epitomised the Aussie winemaker of his generation with his brash handsome looks, classic country manners and practical approach to winemaking. He led from the front, rattled the branches of mediocrity and propelled his vision of Coonawarra forward into eternity. He will be remembered as a pioneering force behind Coonawarra’s resurgent reputation during the 1990s and 2000s. Most of my generation will also remember him as a good bloke true to the cause of Coonawarra and Australian wine. Wayne Stehbens’ hero was Neil Armstrong, a modern-day Odysseus; “One step for Coonawarra one leap for Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon” may well be the best way to describe his legacy.
On behalf of the team at Langton’s and Endeavour Drinks Group, I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to Wayne’s wife Michelle, family and friends.
Andrew Caillard, MW
Fine Wine Principal