A Margaret River producer has done what many would like to. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Local opinion on Will Berliner, 65, founder of Cloudburst with its record-breaking prices for Margaret River wines, varies. Rob Mann, award-winning grandson of the iconic Western Australian winemaker Jack Mann, is an admirer and loves the fact that Cloudburst’s wines, costing up to AU$500 a bottle, have given the green light for higher prices for any decent WA wine. Other Margaret River wine producers dismiss the Cloudburst phenomenon as ‘an American thing’ because that is Berliner’s nationality, prime inspiration and principal market. Garlanded winemaker Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix says, ‘The price is controversial but I believe that beautiful little vineyards nurtured by hand in an organic and biodynamic way are worthy of high prices.’ Another seasoned winemaker says, ‘There’s nothing that special about the wine. What’s special is the man. He’s a salesman. We can either take the piss out of him or take a lesson from him.’
I must admit I had never consciously heard of him until I received an email from him in September saying, ‘I’m sitting in Pomerol with Fiona Morrison [a fellow Master of Wine married to the owner of the world-famous red bordeaux Le Pin] who is urging me to connect with you when I am in London this coming Monday.’ He is certainly a master networker. I took the picture above at our meeting at 67 Pall Mall. Tasting notes from that meeting are some of the many in Some stars of Western Australia published this week.
One of his wines had been included in a dozen I’d just tasted that had been assembled by Australian wine luminaries Andrew Caillard and Mike Bennie to exemplify the country’s ‘future wine icons’ at a London event organised by the generic body Wine Australia. Caillard, a specialist in Australia’s fine-wine market, is quoted as saying that Cloudburst wine ‘has helped correct the expectation of price for quality wines in the region – an emphatic statement about fine wine and confidence in Australian winemaking'.
So how has this outsider and newcomer managed to achieve prices so much higher than any of the established names grown on estates that may be half a century old, in what is arguably Australia’s finest region for Cabernet Sauvignon? My favourite Margaret River Cabernet, Cullen Diana Madeline, can be found for about £60 or AU$80 a bottle.
The key may be Dana B Street, the owner of Fore Street restaurant in Portland, Maine, who introduced Berliner to fine wine, and the sort of prices they fetch. Street also introduced him to New York’s influential sommelier community, which made key introductions for him and his wines. These have played an important part in generating the more than 70 articles about Berliner and Cloudburst linked to from the section on the Cloudburst website called ‘Praise’. Not bad for someone with barely a hectare of vines making just 6,000 to 8,000 bottles a year.
Berliner still owns a farm in New Hampshire but decided to move with his second wife, a teetotal nurse from Sydney, to her homeland. They eventually ended up building a house on a property about two miles from the Indian Ocean in the idyllic countryside of Margaret River on the southern tip of Western Australia.
When I met him in London he struck me as extremely charming, but a restless type, so it was not so surprising that, surrounded by wine estates, he thought he’d have a go himself, and planted his first vines in 2005. He chose well in shadowing the exceptional owner-winemaker of Woodlands winery Stuart Watson, and took a long-distance course in oenology (winemaking) at UC Davis, California’s best-known wine school.
His land, in a sandy stretch between the cluster of celebrated wineries in the Wilyabrup district and the cluster south of the little tourist town of Margaret River, is not obviously prime vineyard country. In fact one of the region’s most experienced vine growers described it to me as ‘a funny little block on a creek too close to the coast’. But, with such a small area to look after, Berliner has been able to manage the land with exceptional care and attention. Organic methods (though no certification), unusually close planting to guarantee a low yield of super-concentrated grapes per vine, and close attention to each plant.
He doesn’t irrigate, and doesn’t till the soil in order to encourage a rich diversity of the microbes that are increasingly recognised as a vital element in influencing wine quality. His team of pruners follow the fashionable, sap-conscious techniques advocated by ‘the pruning guys’ Simonit & Sirch. (Many of these attributes also apply to his alma mater, although Woodlands’ stunning equivalent of Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, the wine that was priced at AU$500 a bottle and is now sold out, is closer to AU$60. Woodlands Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is listed at £50 a bottle by The Sunday Times Wine Club.)
When Berliner welcomed the pro-organic New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov to the vineyard, he stopped in the middle of a row of vines and settled on the ground cross-legged, inviting Asimov to do the same to ‘listen to the vines’, assuring him ‘my focus is on mindfulness and listening rather than commerce’.
That may well be the case but he has proved extremely successful commercially. He built his reputation by selling Cloudburst wines initially to a band of well-heeled American wine lovers whom he calls breezily ‘the cult’ and still sells to them direct. Most of them are on the east coast but, apparently, ‘there’s some Chicago action too’. His wines have long featured on the wine list at the influential Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York. But what propelled him into the spotlight in Australia was convincing success in the Margaret River Wine Show in 2010.
His wines – clearly artisanally made, pure fruit bombs – really are showstoppers, and very different from the more restrained style that so many Australian winemakers are now aiming for. As Berliner says of his own taste in wine, ‘I taste very widely in the region but I’m still a sucker for Napa, whose wines have a generosity of fruit that I like.’
Until 2017, Cloudburst wines were made in Woodlands winery and since then in a purpose-built space Berliner shares with another winemaker. But his wife is none too keen on the night driving necessary on roads so popular with the local kangaroos. So Berliner is building his own small winery next to the house, planning to make it as innovative and low-energy as his vineyard.
Berliner’s wife still practises as a regional nurse and apparently keenly approves of his engagement with this new pursuit and all the outside physical work involved in nurturing a vineyard. But she has little time for her husband’s evening wine-tasting sessions. ‘She thinks wine talk is silly', Berliner told me. ‘She sees us get silly and she doesn’t like that.’
Notable Margaret River producers