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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
10 Jan 2007


All roads seem to lead inexorably to Frank Mitolo at the moment. See Roger Jones’s enthusiastic advocacy, Mainly Mitolo tasting notes and this thread on members’ forum. And now I have just been sent another contribution, one that is actually entitled by its sender A Lot of Balls - The Frank Mitolo Interview.

 

Mitolo’s PR person in London, David Lindsay, supplied the following. It makes for something a bit more readable than the scores of press releases I receive each week so I think both DL and FM should be rewarded for that by a whiff of the oxygen of publicity, although I have had to use enormous restraint to stop myself inserting sarcastic comments below. I just hope it’s not the start of a rash of such ‘interviews’ .

 

Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning/what motivates you?

 

A: ‘… I’m lucky to say that it’s not the children! I’m normally the first one up in our household, as I like an early start so I’m up by 5.30 or 6am and at my desk by 7.30am. It gives me quiet time to think and plan. I really like what I do, so going to work each day has never been a chore. Everything I do, I like doing.

 

Q: Small potatoes?

     Why when you already had a thriving, demanding, international farming business, did you decide to take on the exhaustive, financially debilitating enterprise of working small parcels of old vineyards to build a big brand new name in wine? 

 

A: ‘…I’ve always liked making things; cooking, working with my hands…I’ve made my own olives, salami and home made pasta sauce..

Back in 1995, a friend who was a potato grower, invited me to join him in a vintage just for fun.I’m not sure that working all hours of the night can always be described as fun, but we enjoyed ourselves enough to do it again, and again; always somewhere new and in the company of a few other friends too. People kept asking where they could buy ‘our’ wine, but it obviously wasn’t set up like that.

I took some wine studies, then in 1999 my wife Simone and I established Mitolo Wines. It’s true that I also had the responsibility of heading the other family businesses, but they were supportive of my personal endeavours.

I first set out to make wine for a challenge and not as a commercial enterprise and I guess if you tackle something with a no compromise approach balanced with careful business planning you have a good chance of success.

 

Our company motto is ‘all or nothing’ – when we do something there are no half measures. We have followed my father Bruno’s early vision – if you see an opportunity, pursue it wholeheartedly, give 100 per cent and don’t accept second best.

 

Q: In a global market, is it not restrictive to be family owned and operated? 

 

A: ‘..How? Excuse the pun but we’re very liquid and are not ruled by accountants, rather we make decisions based on quality judgements, or sometimes simply on instinct, for example I expanded Mitolo Wines significantly before we had even sold our first vintage just based on gut feeling.

 

My parents are Italian and we’ve always seen the benefits of having strong relationships, and that goes for our approach to our staff and the growers who supply our fruit too. So as a business we might be more personal but we’re not less professional than any corporate body.

 

Q: In what ways does your Italian heritage play a part in Mitolo?

 

A: ‘..it seems to run right through the business, in our blood so to speak? I love Italy and go there whenever I can, which doesn’t seem too often at the moment. We have strong links.

 

About 80% of our fruit comes from Italian growers and there is a strong bond. They are proud of their fruit and our wines and we know that we always get the first choice of the crop.

 

We’ve featured Sangiovese in our wines and have now planted some Sagrantino, from the new Chalmers nurseries where a lot of Italian varieties are being cultivated. We’ve also made an amarone style wine in our Serpico; air drying the fruit for 5–7 weeks before fermentation on skins for three weeks. Admittedly our winemaker and partner in the business, Ben Glaezter, is Aussie through and through, so maybe it’s fairer to say that it’s an Australian-Italian alliance?

 

Q: You’d have to admit that some of your wines names are quirky! Where, when, what inspires, or do you and Ben sit down over a cold beer and draw from favourite heroes and moments in time?

 

A: ‘..No, these are down to me and I ponder on ideas for months. The first one was quite easy; G.A.M. represents the first initial of each of our children's names - Gemma, Alex and Marco.

 

The wine name 'Savitar' came about because when we tasted this in barrel, it was a monster of a wine; so big with masses of smoky cedar, plums & berries and yet clean tannins. I felt it deserved an awe-inspiring name and 'Savitar' refers to a mythical dragon-like monster. We like to think through the whole presentation and so appended the legend;

'Sui magna cauda caeli astra verrit eaque ad terram jecit'
'His great tail swept the stars from the sky and flung them to the earth'.

 

The others each have a story to them and I enjoy pouring over the history books to find the right link. 'Reiver' refers to Anglo-Scot border raiders whose allegiance was first to the family, the surname, and not the crown, whether English or Scottish. I feel a bit like that; the cheeky son of Italians, who has ventured into an Aussie territory – making wine in their backyard.

 

Q: You talk about monster wines. In Europe we are moving away from hot, heavy styles of wine and there is a real drive to pull back from wines at 13°alc. +. How will your wines match up to these subtler offerings?

 

A: ‘.. sure, we don’t make delicate little flowers. Our wines are big but a wine can have 14% plus of alcohol and still be complex and beautifully balanced. Complexity is not about alcohol but is about how the climate, the vineyard, the grapes and winemaking all come together in the glass. And I believe our wines have that purity and elegance. We are not afraid of power in our wines; we like it.  They are not at all flabby, jammy or over extracted; that is what needs to be avoided not a couple of degrees more of alcohol.

 

Q: What are some of the bigger challenges that lie ahead for yourselves at Mitolo and Australian wines in general?

 

A: ‘..For us at Mitolo in Australia, it may be about maintaining our reputation and profile for outstanding wines. We burst onto the scene a few years ago and quickly became a winery to watch, so we need to keep getting better and stay interesting.

 

In Australia generally? This has been one of the scariest periods in history in terms of weather patterns and the impact on our agriculture. We have bore water here in McLaren Vale, so the drought is not such a threat but in the Murray they are facing zero irrigation for the first time. That is quite a wake-up call to anyone believing that global warming isn’t their concern. Even if it’s not on your doorstep, at the very least it’s still going to tiptoe up and make itself felt on your supermarket shopping bill.

 

Q: How important is the global market to Mitolo and in particular, the UK?

 

A: ‘.. It’s huge. In fact 100% of our first vintage was exported, to the States. They’d probably still be taking all our production but for a positive move by us to build a distribution network around the world. Our split today is around 71% export, growing to around 75% next year. Of that split the UK represents around 8-9%. The US represents 42% and Australia 21.5%

 

So the global market is very important for Mitolo and we currently sell into around 19 countries around the world. Given that Australia has only around 20 million inhabitants who already drink around 21 litres a head, there is limited room for substantial growth in this market, but being the home market it remains very important too.

 

In the UK, we have moved to Liberty Wines who have turned Jester Shiraz into one of their top selling wines in under two years. Liberty not only have other great brands, but there is a strong Aussie-Italian element, so I feel very much at one with them. They are passionate about wine, and so are we.

 

Q: Biodynamics and organics; any truth or all tosh?

 

A: ‘.. We’re nearly timed out, so it’ll have to be the short answer; it’s not for us. We’re progressive in a lot of our vineyard work but I can’t be doing things by moonlight. There is a much longer answer to be explored here, but it’ll have to wait..

 

10. Given the recent triumph over the Ashes, how might you have played??? Are you a batsman or a bowler, or maybe or an all rounder?

 

A: ‘..I’m more the bowling type. I’d like to be out there seeing off the competition….