Chris Hatcher – an inside track

Chris Hatcher & car 150x150Wolf Blass President’s Selection is for many people, the wine of choice for special occasions. About fifteen years ago, Ireland drank more of this level than any other country in the world!  I was lucky recently to spend an hour with Chris Hatcher, the winemaker behind Wolf Blass for the last 25 years. In 2013 he was named International Red Winemaker of the Year, at the prestigious International Wine Challenge in London – a fitting reward and testimony.

Chris started off at Orlando and Kaiser Stuhl in the Barossa, and then Simi in California. As well as heading up Wolf Blass wines, he is highly regarded as a senior wine show judge. He is a big fan of Chardonnay, in all its guises, which I believe really shows through in the Wolf Blass range. He was responsible for white wines at Wolf Blass for his first ten years.  He loves Burgundy and Champagne. He is married, with two children, and loves Jaguars (he has a Mark 2 which he has been restoring for some time). At work he is legendary for his attention to detail, and whoever he meets is struck by what a genuine nice guy he is.

I had met him a couple of times already, and knew a bit about him.  I thought I would ask a few slightly more personal questions, and Chris was happy to chat away:

Your first memory of wine: a bottle of sparkling wine sitting in the cellar for years, which my sister won at a raffle. My family were Methodists – non-drinkers, so there was no alcohol. I guess that got me curious about wine.
What prompted you to study winemaking? I was studying science, and was lucky to get a year with the Australian Wine Research Institute. One day I as I was topping up barrels in Penfolds, I knew that winemaking was what I wanted to do.
Best part of your job? The first time I saw my wine coming off the bottling line. Every time I see people drinking my wine I get a buzz. My daughter in London sent me a text to say Wolf Blass wines were in her gym.
Worst part of your job? Years ago, working 100 days straight during the vintage was the norm. I didn’t see my kids. I was lucky that my wife looked after them. Kids now aren’t that lucky.
Is your nose insured against loss of smell? No!!! I can work through colds, but I get hayfever, and that makes me more sensitive. I tend to stay clear of people with colds.

Who in the wine world do you admire? Wolf Blass – he took on a stuffy old-fashioned wine industry, and turned it on its head. His idea was that wine was there to have fun. He was pro-women, having come to a male-dominated Australia in the 1960s, and made wine appealing to women, who at the time, weren’t allowed in bars.
Also, Max Schubert (Penfolds winemaker). I only realised that my great grandfather was the winemaker after Dr. Penfold. Some guys were talking about a winemaker who worked for 69 years, and I said, “Yeah, that’s my great grandfather on my mum’s side.”
What are the qualities needed for a winemaker? Attention to detail. Attention to detail. Attention to detail. Funny, many of the best winemakers are women – perhaps because they are more fussy about details, and see things better. Good planning too, which is part of that.
If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be? I’d be interested in genetics. I’m amazed at how genes influence people’s make up.
Within a large wine group like Treasury Wine Estates, how do you decide who gets the pick of the best fruit? Best returns – it is a business after all. But there’s a lot of historical arrangements. Can it be a contentious issue? – Absolutely!

Tips for enjoying wine? Good wine, food and people.
Who would you most like to share a glass with? My wife. After 40 years, the answer is still my wife! Any famous people? I’m not all that interested in famous people.
Pet hates in wine? Wine snobs. People should never put others down. “Wine should be fun” is what Wolf Blass himself always believes.
Favourite food & wine pairings? When I go to a restaurant, I read the wine list first, then the menu, but I am not normal! For me, Shiraz and barbecue is great, and Chardonnay with right about anything! A Friday night favourite for years was pizza and Pol Roger champagne. I tend to put on weight very easily, so when I am travelling and eating out every night, I will order chicken, seafood and salads, and watch my weight.
Most unusual place to see Wolf Blass wines? In Ghana, rat is a delicacy. I saw Wolf Blass wines being served with rat, while visiting my brother there, a geologist, who was working there.
French wine? I love Burgundy, and Rhône wine. Is French wine better? The French wines are good at selling luxury brands, and part of that is years of history. Wine is a good example of that. Australian wines are like fine dining – it used to be stuffy, with good food, now fine dining is about enjoying your food, with casual surroundings and less fuss.

What’s new and interesting? How do you keep Australia interesting? … what about Malbec? That’s a hot topic of mine! Malbec was in Australia two years before Argentina. I saw what an influence it was making in Canada 6-7 years ago, and got really excited. Wolf Blass’ first wine was a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Malbec. We’ve always included Malbec in our Black Label. We are introducing a Yellow Label Malbec in the UK this year.
Outside that, Estates of the Barossa is now being released. We’ve a new White Label, Single vineyard wines, and more regional wines on the way. We’re celebrating Wolf Blass’ 80th birthday this year with some retro releases. We’ve had more happening in the last 18 months than the last 15 years!

How do you feel about last year’s award & where do you go from here? Awards are great. It gives a great boost from cellar hands throughout the whole company.
Continuity is important in a company like Wolf Blass. I read Bernard Arnault’s book, about LVMH… You need new things all the time to sell things you always sell… You see great brands – take Ferrari for example – it has definitely changed, but you will always recognise a Ferrari. It’s like recognising a painting before you see the signature. That’s how Wolf Blass should be.

Final word? “Wine is not like any other drink – it’s food and people too. Other drinks just don’t have that.”