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Left: Will Berliner, the proprietor of Cloudburst, doesn't irrigate at all, nor does he plough, till or break the ground in any way, because he does not want to disturb the microbial life of the soil. Right: Hand mulching with shredded canes.

Zen and the art of Australian winemaking

Jun 7, 2019 5:50 AM

Margaret River, Australia

ON a warm, sunny day in February, Will Berliner, the proprietor of Cloudburst, crouched and scuttled under the bird netting that had been draped over the vines in his small vineyard just 3.2 kilometres from the Indian Ocean here in Western Australia.

I followed, ignoring my aching muscles and sore feet.

Some vineyards look barren and inert, the vines awaiting their fate forlornly in dull, sullen solitude. This one, just about three acres, was different. It was alive with the sounds of birds and insects flitting about the sprawling peppermint trees nearby. The smells of fresh earth and green vegetation pervaded the air. If a vineyard can be said to be happy, this one seemed ecstatic.

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About midway down a row, Mr Berliner stopped and turned towards me and sat, cross-legged, on the ground between the vines. I joined him.

"The vines tell you what to do," he said. "So I'm here, looking and listening and trying to respond to what they ask." They apparently communicate pretty well.

Mr Berliner makes small amounts of extraordinary cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and malbec in this centre of Western Australian wine production. If Margaret River had a cult wine producer, it might well be Berliner and Cloudburst.

The wines are priced accordingly. Of the roughly 4,800 bottles Cloudburst releases each year, only a few make it to the United States. They range in price from US$175 to US$250, though if you wander over to Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan you can find the pure, lovely 2013 Cloudburst chardonnay on the list for US$310, not an absurd markup against the US$200 or so you would pay ordering from the winery. The superb 2012 cabernet sauvignon is US$390 on the list, and about US$250 at the winery.

To others in Margaret River, a laid-back beachside town known as much for its surfing as for its wine, Mr Berliner, 64, is a bit of an iconoclast, both for his peculiar ways in the vineyard and for his outsize pricing.

He is an American, for one thing, born in New York, though married to an Australian woman, Alison Jobson. He began to plant his vineyard only in 2005, and did not move to Margaret River for good until 2012.

But he says, with his vineyard and wine, he is just following his muse and doing what makes sense to him.

"I see winegrowing as a 'way', or awareness path, more than as a vocation, and my focus is on mindfulness and listening rather than commerce," he said. "To me, the vineyard is a profound space of ritual, learning and spirit that works on me as I work it. To succeed there requires something of me.

"I'm so grateful and privileged to have a life where I can be outside."

He grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, in the towns of East Rockaway and Woodmere. He was always an outdoors kid, he said, who loved camping, walking through swamps, and collecting bugs and abandoned bird nests.

He was drawn to the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale, graduating with a degree in biology, and afterwards led nature trips while learning about foraging and eating wild foods. He started a company that produced camping equipment. When he sold it, he used the cash to buy 665 acres of forest land in New Hampshire and, in 2004, after three years of searching for a place that spoke to him and his wife, 250 acres adjacent to a national park here in Margaret River.

Back then, he said, he knew little about wine and had no intention of owning a vineyard. His original idea was to plant an avocado grove to block a view of traffic. Local agricultural experts, however, suggested that the rocky, sandy soil would not be good for avocados, though it might be perfect for wine grapes.

Ever the willing student, he found a mentor who introduced him to the classics of wine. He was especially taken, as so many others have been, with the red Bordeaux of Ch√Ęteau Margaux, made largely of cabernet sauvignon, and the white Burgundy of Domaine Roulot, made entirely of chardonnay.

Inspiration in place, he planted his vineyard slowly, one parcel at a time, observing and learning.

This part of Australia is free of phylloxera, the ravenous aphid that preys on the roots of vinifera, the European vine species that accounts for virtually all the classic wine grapes. Mr Berliner's vines are planted on their own roots rather than grafted onto American rootstock, which is immune to the bug.

His viticulture is radically different from that of most Margaret River growers. He doesn't irrigate at all, nor does he plough, till or break the ground in any way, because he does not want to disturb the microbial life of the soil.

He supports a growing way of thinking that views vines not as isolated stalks but as a collective society that communicates needs through root systems and fungal colonies of mycelium. He sees the vineyard as a living organism that has its own sort of intelligence, rather than as a group of individual vines.

"You can actually listen to what's at play," he said. "But we don't listen. We impose our will on nature, and we're suffering the consequences of it."

"I point a finger at that state of mind," he continued, "where people believe they should have convenience over the natural world, and people believe they are more important than it, and know what's best for it. I don't subscribe to that idea."

He prefers not to pigeonhole his form of agriculture as organic, biodynamic or anything else. His idea is not to follow a recipe, but simply to respond to what he perceives the vineyard wants.

"Sometimes it calls for weeding, sometimes a particular form of mulch," he said. "Nature has an ability to bring things to a certain place, if you allow it, if you pay attention. You don't have to work as hard."

His winemaking is simple. He presses the whole bunches of grapes, and the juice ferments on its own, with no added yeast. He adds a small amount of sulfur dioxide as a preservative. That's pretty much it.

The chardonnays are pure, energetic and precise. The fine, focused cabernets are elegant and more floral and herbal than is typical in Margaret River. The malbecs are lovely and complex.

"My biggest effort is to let nature guide how things go, and not my ego," he said. "We're lucky that the wisdom and generosity of Mother Earth is there for us." NYTIMES