What’s wrong with being a wine geek?
Not much if you ask fine wine importer and distributor Andrew Guard, who, at the end of 2012 was named 66th in the the Top 100 of The Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) most influential people in Sydney. Graham Jahn, City planner, came in at 68, and Australian test cricket captain Michael Clarke, was at 70. Joanna Savill, co-editor of SMH Good Food Guide, called him “a pioneer of new-style wine importing”.
“I love wine”, says Andrew, “but I must say, I wasn’t interested straight away”.
Andrew Guard completed an apprenticeship at Intercontinental Hotel Group in Sydney and in 1993 began working as a sommelier at Tony Bilson’s hugely influential Treasury Restaurant. There, at Treasury, was a cellar that contained an enormous collection of wines, with bottles dating as far back as the 1800’s. It was also a place where people like Len Evans, an Australian wine legend, would come in for lunch.
“It was hard not to be enchanted by it”, says Andrew, speaking of the surroundings in which he was first exposed to the sirens of wine.
Having vicariously taken part in some pretty special moments at Treasury, the wine bug had well and truly begun to infect Andrew with it’s beguiling mysteries and epicurean entrance, when he bought a bottle of 1982 Gevery Chambertin from a bottle shop in Wahroonga, and took it to lunch to drink with an old school friend.
“It blew me away”, says Andrew, “and spoke to me in such an enchanting manner. My senses were totally into it, and I thought, ‘wow, I’ve got to find more bottles like that!'”
Today, Andrew Guard Wine Imports is one of the driving forces behind Sydney’s artisan wine scene, with a portfolio of wines that spans right across Europe’s major winegrowing regions, to South Africa, and closer to home, in Australia. Many of the growers and winemakers Andrew aligns himself with could be seen as boutique, or artisanal, but for Andrew, this is merely a coincidence rather than a conscious decision.
“I’m not attracted to the smallness, or the tininess, or the boutiqueness of things”, explains Andrew, “but I am attracted to the way things taste… Usually these guys are only small because that’s all the land that they have. They’re farmers and grape growers first, and they’re making wine from the land that they own”.
The Australian contingent of Andrew Guard Wine Imports consists of only four producers – Harkham, Hockirch, Standish and Jamsheed – and each and every one of these winegrowers produce wines that fit with Andrew’s guiding philosophy… taste.
“People use the word lo-fi for describing the kinds of wines that I’m interested in”, says Andrew, “and I like to point out that I’m only interested in these techniques when it achieves a hi-fi result. I don’t want a lo-fi result from a lo-fi technique”.
“A lot of people have grievances with the whole idea of minimal intervention wine when it produces lazy, sloppy results, and I don’t like those wines either”, says Andrew, “but if people can be skillful enough to have a lo-fi approach, and still achieve a a hi-fi result as good as anywhere in the world, then I’m interested, because it’s the ultimate craftsmanship”.
One of the winemakers Andrew works closely with is Richie Harkham, of Harkham Wines, a radar evading, stealth winery in the Hunter Valley, which produces incredibly honest and delicious wines without the need for any additives whatsoever, including sulphur dioxide.
“People say these wines are made by minimum intervention”, says Andrew, “well yes, but you also have to have maximum observation to know what you’re doing”.
Andrew reflects the passion and dedication with which Richie makes his wines by getting them onto the lists of some of the best restaurants and bars in Australia. He does this because he believes that these places should be reflective of the rigorous dedication with which the wines were made, no matter how ‘lo-fi’ or ‘minimal interventionist’ it is.
“I don’t sell something just for the sake of selling it”, explains Andrew, “it has to taste good, and be of the same quality that all the other wines are”.
These other wines include some of the most progressive winegrowers in Europe, including Domaine du Collier in the Loire, Leon Barral in the Languedoc, and Domaine Gremenon, in the Southern Rhone. In fact, it was Gemenon which had a big influence on the kind of mouthwatering wines that David Fesq and Ray Nadeson make under their Between Five Bells wine label.
Many of these growers tend towards biodynamics as their preferred farming method of choice, and Andrew believes that this particular way of growing grapes tends to make wines of greater vitality and energy than some of their conventional counterparts.
“In my experience, so far”, says Andrew, “what you learn about a wine that has been farmed biodynamically is that the wines have an energy and a health in them, which, I think, gives them a vibrancy and a clarity that I don’t see sometimes in conventional wines”.
“There’s a life energy that I can see and taste in the wines”, continues Andrew, “and my choice is to work with and to drink biodynamic wines. I think they taste better, and that’s why I work with them”.
Having said that, Andrew does represent many other winegrowers who don’t use organic, or biodynamic farming to grow their grapes and make their wines – because the bottom line, when it comes to choosing which wines to include in his portfolio, again, all comes down to taste.
“I have a style with my wines”, says Andrew, “I have a style that I look for, and, for me, a wine needs to be refreshing, first and foremost. I don’t care if it’s a vintage port, it should be refreshing, and that’s important because without it there’s a drudgery, and a boredom about them. Wine needs to be lively, and vibrant, with finesse, and complexity – even though young wines don’t often have a huge amount – but they still need to be refreshing”.
Despite only having four Australian winemakers in his portfolio, Andrew is very excited about what’s occurring in the Australian wine scene at the present moment. He is always carrying Australian bottles with him, whenever he revisits the old world, and proudly shows them off to the very same sorts of people that first initiated his passion for wine.
“There’s an experimentation that is going on in Australia, which is awesome”, says Andrew. “I love it,… And the skill level of wine making at the moment is second to none… every time I go to France I take six bottles of Australian wine with me and give them to the people I know. I’m proud of where we’re going with Australian wine”.
The passion with which Andrew talks about wine could be misconstrued as geeky, or nerdy, but to use words like these falls short of capturing the intense passion and enthusiasm he has for his business, and the industry that he serves. You get the sense that he’s simply trying to connect two sides of the same coin – from the vineyard to the restaurant, from wine maker to wine drinker – in a way that is reflective of the thought and dedication that these wines deserve…
… and to achieve that, it all comes down taste.