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Kaddy Exclusives

The restless Peter Dillon of Handpicked Wines talks exclusively about the power of sustainability, Pinot infatuation and why he still loves vintage

April 28, 2023

Harvest is the single most stressful period in any wine producer's year. It's when all of the small decisions you've made over 12 months come to fruition - good and bad. For Peter Dillon, Director of Winemaking at Handpicked Wines, the stress level is amped up even higher as he manages six different vineyards across three states (and makes wine from around the globe). Yet chatting with him, you get the impression that this is someone who revels in the excitement - that the challenge is worth it.

Handpicked Wines is a fascinating operation - founded by businessman William Dong; it has morphed from international negociant sourcing finished wines into a regional and terroir-focused Australian powerhouse, with a suite of certified sustainable vineyards that have all been purchased and reinvigorated over the last decade.

The jewel in the Handpicked crown is the Capella Vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula - the first-ever certified sustainable and organic vineyard in Victoria and source of fruit for a string of Mornington Peninsula Wine Show trophies in recent years. Dillon (who is also on the board of the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association) has been the chief driver of Capella and, indeed, Handpicked's success, with a revered focus on making vineyard health the focus of the business.

Kaddy Community caught up with Peter Dillon recently, fresh off the plane from picking grapes in the Barossa, to talk not just about wines and vintage but about how the joy of vineyard sustainability.

This exclusive chat with Andrew Graham was lightly edited for flow.

Peter Dillon in the Handpicked Winery. Source: Instagram.

Kaddy Community: So, let's start with the origin story. Where did it all begin for you?

Peter Dillon: Well, my grandmother grew up in the Hunter Valley as a part of the Lindeman family. So sitting on her lap, I was treated to stories of her crossing flooded rivers on flying foxes to the Cawarra homestead and all those sorts of things. So, you know, that was probably the romantic introduction. And then through school, I was a humanities sort of student rather than a science boffin. I had a couple of years off between school and uni - I was actually enrolled in psychology - and I spent that time working with a bunch of people in Kangaroo Valley in corporate training.

In those two years, I spent all the time in between programs eating amazing food and drinking amazing wine. And that made me realise that I should be exploring the winemaking option. I ended up at Adelaide Uni, and the stone started rolling down the hill! In my first year, I was doing vintage d'Arenberg and had a ball. I loved uni and had a great bunch of people there, and the next thing you know, it's 25 years later, and I'm still in the industry.

Wait, so, if you're South Australian and how did you end up basically falling in love with Pinot? That's not in your blood? You should have been falling in love with Grenache.

Well, I'm not a South Australian. I was born in the Victorian High Country and grew up in Canberra. But it's a good question (about Pinot). I was working at Edinburgh Cellars during uni, and Pinot Noir was always one of those things that I was mildly infatuated with.

But for me, there were two paths - there was Pinot, and then Western Australian Cabernet and Chardonnay!

I did about ten years originally with BRL Hardy in WA, starting at Houghton in the Swan and then ran a few sites down in the southwest. But I realised that Pinot was the monkey on my back that I really needed to pursue. And sure, there was some great Pinot to explore in WA - I was making some wines out of the Porongurup, and it was really interesting, but I wanted to see what else was out there. And unfortunately, I have a winemaking wife who also has a passion for Pinot, so she was in agreement when I raised the idea of exploring further afield.

So you came back to Victoria just before the purchase of the Capella Vineyard?

Capella was bought in '13. I came on board just after vintage '14. And we saw things sort of blossom and unfold from that point onwards. Gary Baldwin was involved in that early stage as well in the winemaking sense (and then Peter took over). And the team has grown over the last ten years, but we've been really fortunate we've got some of our key players like Karl Roberts, who is our Vineyard Manager now, but in the early days, he was on the tools, driving a bobcat, planting the lines and all those sorts of things, so that knowledge and experience is obviously immeasurable in terms of where we are.

Picking in the Capella Vineyard. Source: Instagram.

What was it like then to walk into what effectively someone else's vineyard (given Capella was purchased by William Dong in 2013 as an established property) and try to mould it as your own? Where do you start?

It's a good question. In many ways, you get a sense when you walk into a site whether it's going to excite you or not. And I think that's an important part of exploring the idea of great sites and where good wines come from. The DNA has to be there to some extent. Sometimes it's palpable - I remember when I first walked into Wombat Creek (Handpicked's renowned Yarra Valley Vineyard) and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was just like, 'whoa, this place has got potential'. I think Capella was a similar thing.

I think you can sense it - where you taste fruit off the vines, walk up and down rows and question, 'Is the DNA there or not'? And I think a big part of what we're trying to do is be a bit sensitive to a site. We're not necessarily trying to make (our vineyards) all the same or use that same black-and-white sort of management technique - it's not a cookie-cutter approach across every site. We've got to work out what makes them tick and what we can fine-tune to allow those vines to really respond. For us, the thinking goes that soil health is going to equate to vine health too, and optimising those steps somewhere like Capella will then help us optimise quality at the (wine quality) end of the spectrum.

Having now six different vineyard sites, how do you manage it? How do you spend your time?

It can be hectic. And you're talking to me in the final stages of this year's harvest. So you can potentially see a few extra grey hairs, as it's not been an easy vintage! I think the reality is that I've got some awesome people in the team, and, for want of a better description, at vintage time, it's a bit like being the triage nurse at the ER where you're just trying to work out who needs to be where and when. I've got crew like Ben Bussell (Handpicked' Senior Viticulturist) and I who are spending a lot of time bouncing back and forth between Victoria and Tassie. And then in the winery, I've got Rohn Smith and Lucy Adam, who are obviously making sure that their home fires are still burning and everything's kept as it should. But still, I literally just got off the plane from the Barossa couple of hours ago because that's where we're kicking at this point of harvest.

In recent years, you've basically turned all the Handpicked properties more sustainable and then converted Capella to organic - that seems like such a huge process! And I guess it also means changing mindsets.

Very much. We wanted that concept of 'treading lightly' and making those sites better for the future inherent to how we want to operate. And one thing is talking the talk, but how do we demonstrate what we're doing and show people that it's genuine and it's real? So much of the marketplace is having these conversations at the moment about sustainability, and I think the danger is that level of greenwashing is in the background, where everyone can say it, but who's actually doing it?

It was probably timely because Sustainable Winegrowing Australia came out on that national stage, and we thought that would be the perfect opportunity to align what we're doing with an accreditation system. And the organic side of things? That really started in those early stages with that concept of soil health and that question of how we can make a dramatic step to improve quality. For us, we pinpointed that herbicides and chemicals may not be necessary to function, and by eliminating them, we could improve overall health and balance.

So (with organics) it's the accreditation process again, and we thought we'd do it at the same time just because, well, it was probably like going to the dentist - if you're going to get all the paperwork done, you just want to get it done and out of the way! There is a huge amount of paperwork on the sustainable side because it's a continually evolving process and covers every facet of the business. Yet the organic side of things is very black and white. Having done both, I understand why we were the first in Victoria to have both accreditations! It's a big commitment.

Peter Dillon talking organics in the Capella Vineyard. Source: Andrew Graham

Do you think it's an advantage, though? To be able to sit there and go, 'Hey, we're sustainable, and we're organic'. Do you feel like that's an advantage when you talk to consumers?

It's an interesting question. I think it's (an advantage) that we can actually show it now, particularly with the new labels coming through. We'll have the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia badge and the organic badge. I think it'll be really interesting to see. There are not a lot of those yet on shelves, but I would hope that's going to resonate with the consumer. I mean, it's a bit like when you walk into a bottle shop, and you see those little tags that say, 'I am vegan, I am organic,' etc., etc. I think in our minds; it is probably that overlap in terms of perception and authenticity with the consumer.

Why do you think there aren't more organic producers on the (Mornington) Peninsula?

There are others, but they're not certified as organic or certified organic but not sustainable. And I think that's because philosophically, they would share our views, but they are probably not keen on the paperwork!

So, obviously, what gets you out of bed at this time of year is vintage....

And coffee.

But what's exciting, though? What do you find exciting at the moment?

Oh, look, I think winemaking would be a different world entirely if we didn't have that excitement of vintage. What I like about it is (that) every season is slightly different, and in a creative sense, you have to come up with new solutions to new problems to get to that same sort of endpoint.

I mean, a year like this, with the La Nina weather patterns, it's been really challenging. It's probably one of the mentally hardest (vintages) I've had in terms of just trying to get the best out of all our different varieties, blocks and sites. You can look at six different weather forecasting channels, and they'll all give you a different forecast about what's going to happen in the next week.

I've got this block of Pinot that's very close to ready in Tasmania. When do I have to pick it? What's the worst-case scenario? And you know that we've just got to kind of roll the dice a little bit and work out when the rains coming. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong, but it's an incredibly rewarding and exciting time, especially when you get a little bit of luck down, and you have done the best thing by those blocks.

Handpicked's Auburn Road Vineyad in the Tamar Valley, Tasmania. Source: Instagram.

One thing I want to know is that the historic legacy of Handpicked Wines was about just handpicking different parcels from around the world. How do you resolve that now with Handpicked doing the opposite and talking about place, site and owning vineyards?

I think that concept of handpicking special sites is obviously still in place. There is this uniqueness and specialness to all of them, be it the Barossa with 75-year-old bush vine Grenache, which on a global stage is a rarity. Or Wombat Creek, which is the highest site in the Yarra. Or Capella on the Mornington Peninsula, which sits in one of the smallest wine regions in the world, I would imagine. I think we're still handpicking what is an extraordinary array of really special sites, but where does it go in the future from here? I think wait and see! I don't think William has finished yet, and I'd say he's keen to do some more - especially now that we've probably come out of COVID.

I was going to ask what's the next thing. What's next for you (besides just trying to get those last couple of blocks in)...

Well, at the moment, there's probably been a little bit of consolidation going on because we've come through what is almost like a generational change from a vineyard perspective. That's particularly so in the Yarra, where phylloxera has been sort of spreading its wings. I mean, we've got Highbow Vineyard down the bottom of the valley in the heart of the phylloxera zone, with our vines on own roots. This has meant a vineyard we acquired 10 years ago vineyard with 35 odd hectares, and now have planted close to 25ha, but we've still got only 27ha! So that's kind of been a bit of a reset phase, but exciting because there is a complete redesign of row orientation densities and clonal and varietal selection.

For the first time this year we've been making a blend of Mencia and Gamay off first crops just because they were tiny crops this year. We did a carbonic fermentation and made it in, for want of a better description, sort of Beaujolais style. That turned out amazing, really fascinating.

Then there are two sites we picked up in Tasmania a few years ago, they were five hectares, and now they're 10. And that sort of thing, that's what's next for now.

What about more broadly for the industry? I mean, there's a whole lot of people out there who've got lots of juice to sell this year. What do you see the outlook for the industry this year?

It's a really complex one, I think. Prior to this season kicking off, we had the Australian Technical Conference last year in Adelaide, and there was discussion about how, with the volume of wine that's in the wineries, there was not enough room for the intake of fruit from vintage 2023. I think at that time, it was very true and pertinent - especially in the heartland with those SE Australian blends, that would have been a huge problem.

Yet we've also had this season where huge tracts of that engine room of wine volume have been effectively underwater and lost a lot of crops. And it's probably meant, in some ways, Mother Nature balancing things a little bit from an industry point of view.

If you then come to cooler climate production areas, you know, those guys are hungry for more because everyone's had really low crops just because of the season flowering. I think there's going to be some fantastic wines that (producers) just won't have enough of - so get them while you can.

The other thing that's going to be fascinating to see is that (now) we're coming out of this diplomatic cycle with China where that conversation seems to be more hopeful at the moment, conversations around barley last week and that wine might be next which I think has the potential to be a game changer if that market comes back online.

Quick question - what's in your fridge? What do you drink when you finish the end of the day?

The old adage is obviously a good one - it takes a lot of cold beer to make good wine, especially at harvest time. I think there's there's no shortage of the knockoff beer after a day of hand sorting and washing down sorting tables and things like that. With the change of the season, though, I think I've probably been swinging into more tannic Italian reds. So a little bit of Chianti & Nebbiolo over the last couple of weekends, which probably reflects that slight shift in food style as well.

Bush vine Grenache in Handpicked's Watunga Road Vineyard. Source: Instagram.

Final question - if you can have a word in the ear with William, where are you asking him to buy more vineyards?

That will always be an interesting one. We have started a bit of a project in McLaren Vale with organic Shiraz with some growers, so probably have a bit of an ear to the ground down there. Love the vibrancy and dynamic nature of the community. Tassie continues to be the new frontier from an industry point of view in terms of cool climate Australia. We've really found the sparkling activity really interesting, and probably both our vineyards are at the northern end (of Tassie) at the moment, and I think that notion of balancing a bit of north and South is sensible in terms of the future and give that balance over different seasons.

Gippsland is also a pretty interesting area for the future. There's so much diversity there in terms of different soils and climates. And I mean, that's before you even drill into the microclimate conversations. We're always sort of interested in what's going on there.