“Everything we do is done on the smell of an oily rag”, says Ben Gould, owner, manager, and winegrower at Blind Corner in Wilyabrup, Margaret River, WA.
Since establishing Blind Corner in 2005, Ben has made his wines on a strictly ‘needs must’ basis. Having returned from Europe, travelling and working with his wife, Naomi, in all of that continents major winegrowing regions, the cash flow wasn’t there to support a major operation from the get go, and so practicality and pragmatism dictated the tempo. As a result, the wines of Blind Corner are exceptionally interesting, and could easily fit under the loosely defined ‘natural wine’ umbrella.
“We were making natural wines just because we couldn’t afford any of the yeasts, acids, or tannins”, says Ben about the ready-to-go gap fillers that some winemakers use, “and a lot of it was also a bit of neglect, because I just couldn’t be here all the time. I had to earn enough money just to live and support my family”.
Before making wines at Blind Corner, Ben had worked for his father on a vineyard that he owned in Margaret River, called Deep Woods, which was established in 1997. But, it was sold soon after, just as Ben was beginning to like the idea of him as winegrower for the family business.
“When Dad sold (the vineyard) it was a bit of a shock”, recalls Ben, “because, for me, I’d finally found something that I loved”.
Ben took on a GM role at Deep Woods, but found it difficult to stay, and so he sold a house that he had bought while working there, trading it in for a vineyard, which eventually became Blind Corner. After the vineyard was established, Ben and Naomi moved to Europe and began working there, gaining experience in many of the major winegrowing regions.
While Ben and Naomi were in Europe they visited Nicolas Joly’s vineyard, Le Coulée de Serrant, in Savennières in the Loire Valley, France. Nicolas Joly is most famous for his group ‘Return to Terroir’, a band of biodynamic believers from across the globe who adopt biodynamic practices in their vineyard, and produce premium examples of place driven wines. Ben had been interested in biodynamics because of his near neighbors, Cullen, back in the Margaret River, but seeing the vineyard of Nicolas Joly really pushed his biodynamic buttons.
“Visiting Le Coulée de Serrant was phenomenal”, says Ben, “his place was alive, there were birds, bugs and insects, and yet the vineyard itself was clean… so after seeing this, I knew that this is what I wanted to do”.
The Blind Corner vineyard is dry grown (no irrigation) and chemicals were phased out in 2007 to accommodate Ben’s new found belief in biodynamics. Growing the vineyard dry forces the vine roots to dig deeper in search of a reliable water supply. Naturally, this de-invigorates the overall yield of the vines (Ben now gets approximately 3-4 tonners per hectare), but the concentration of flavor and colour in the fruit is one of the positive trade offs that Ben is seeing. It is a case of quality over quantity.
“Biodynamics, for me, is about being a bit more proactive”, says Ben, “by building up the microbes in the soil using 500… Since using BD you can now put your shovel in the ground anywhere (in the vineyard) and find worms. It makes you feel good”.
Feeling good, and making good wines is of obvious importance to Ben. That’s why he has grape crushing parties, where he’ll invite a few good friends around to the winery during vintage to drink some beers and stomp some grapes.
The first time Blind Corner held a crush party, Ben enlisted the help of some interested Swiss backpackers (“all ladies”), who had, earlier, been helping to pick the grapes in the vineyard. However, despite their best efforts, Ben wasn’t able to re-employ these, or other backpacking girls the following year, and so, in order to maintain efficiency, he had to think of other ways around it.
“When we do the foot crushing”, says Ben, “and we’ve got, say, 16 bins, and it can take half an hour to an hour per bin, I’m looking at a 16 hour day. So, now, I just have a party, and get my mates around and we drink beer… it’s pretty cool”.
Pragmatic partying aside, Ben is very committed when it comes to the final product, his wines, which are a direct result of Ben’s resourceful, and imposed pioneering philosophy.
“Because we didn’t have any money to buy the additives”, says Ben, “I had to try and manipulate the grapes and their tannins to mimic the stuff you would (otherwise) buy in”.
The Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is made like an Italian ‘Amarone’, whereby the grapes are air-dried prior to fermentation. Because the grapes are dehydrated, the sugars and other flavours that remain are highly concentrated.
“The Cabernet became an ‘Amarone’ because I could find the tannins before I made the wine”, says Ben, “and with the sav blanc, I wanted the skin to ferment because I loved some of the stuff I’d seen in Europe, but was scared about extracting too much tannin, so a portion of it is air dried as well”.
The other portion of the Sauvignon Blanc is fermented with extended skin contact in a concrete egg called ‘Boonie’, and then the two are combined after filtering out much of the gritty bits from the free run juice.
“It’s minimal additives winemaking”, says Ben, “but not minimal intervention, in the beginning. If I stuff a wine up, I can’t afford to get a machine in to fix it, so everything we do is watched like a hawk, which is what you need to do if you’re making natural wines anyway”.
“There’s nowhere to hide”, continues Ben, “if you picked too early and the tannins weren’t quite right, I can’t just get a packet of tannins and add that to make it alright. We have to find that balance, and every year is different”.
Capturing vintage variation is a crucial component of Ben’s winegrowing philosophy, because it’s the differences from year to year, vintage to vintage, that make it the most interesting for Ben as a winegrower but, also, enables him to make a wine that no one else can copy.
“The only way to make a wine that no one can emulate is to not use additives”, says Ben, “because then you’re trapping the vineyard in the bottle, and no one else can make that because it’s not their vineyard”.
“There’s lots of things you can do (as a winemaker)”, continues Ben, “to make the next Moss Wood Cabernet, Grange, or Hill of Grace… but the only way to be individual is to just make wine from grapes, and that’s it”.
Ben’s ‘oily rag’ philosophy, born out of practicality, has meant that the wines of Blind Corner could be misinterpreted as highly experimental, and inventive, when in actual fact, it’s Ben’s dogged determination to produce something that not only speaks of place, and is true to its origins, but is also something completely and totally unique and personalised to him.
“We don’t want to be part of the crowd”, says Ben, “we want to be completely us”.
D// – The Wine Idealist
++ Blind Corner have built a handy app of the biodynamic calendar, with loads of useful (albeit very basic) information that you can use to help you plan your week, such as when is the best time to mow the lawn, pick flowers, or drink wine with friends. It’s awesome, I use it, and it’s now free to download… here.