"I have the intention of making the best wine humanly possible, and leaving our piece of land in the best condition possible for the next generation. It’s as simple as that.”
By the time he was 22, Patrick had worked several stints in vineyards and wine shops (including 18 months on the floor at London’s Selfridges), commenced a degree in winemaking - which he promptly changed to viticulture and completed, and even studied actuarial science for a while.
It was thanks to a government tax rebate scheme for small winemakers, introduced in 2004, that he was able to set up his own brand with a shoestring budget. When he was 24, he had made his first wine. Shortly after, he developed an international reputation for making unprecedented bottles of fun: with their fluorescent (but natural) colours, blended from grape varieties that traditionalists would say “weren’t meant to be blended together,” and with wild hippy labels, they were some of the first bottles to really shake up the old-school Australian wine scene, and would inspire dozens of winemakers to follow suit.
These days, however, there are winds of change for Patrick. He still loves those wines that were born from the mentality of a 20-something-year-old, but there’s a new direction on the Sullivan compass: fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, planted by himself, farmed by himself, on his own land. Here, in the middle of nowhere in Gippsland, he has laid roots with his wife and kids. Surrounded by forest, with birdsong emanating from every orifice, the task at hand is no longer one of rebellion or experimentation. Rather, it’s about creating something lasting, and leaving as gentle an environmental footprint as possible, for the next generation. Before, his wines were like music festivals - fun to attend, but the tent comes down eventually. Next, they'll be the foundations of a building; one that will continue to be built long after his time on earth.
“I’m a first generation winemaker, although it doesn’t always feel like it because I’ve been doing this since I was 16.”
Growing up, Patrick traveled around with his parents “a hell of a lot” due to his father’s job, so Patrick went to seven schools and got used to a life on the road. For a while, they settled in Heathcote, around a similar time to when the Shiraz boom happened. Patrick was 12, but it left an impression on him, staying in the back of his mind.
“At school, we went on an excursion to a winery. I remember thinking, this is kinda cool. I wouldn’t mind doing this. It sort of kickstarted an interest in wine. After that I never really drank beer, it was always wine.”
It led him to work in vineyards and various wine shops, and at the age of 19 he decided to travel across the pond to experience London life. It was here that he got a Christmas temp job at Selfridge’s, but ended up staying for 18 months.
“It was there I met some interesting people, MWs, people who’s been in the trade for a long time… They were great at teaching me things, I learnt a lot, and it made me decide to go home - to study winemaking.”
So, he moved back to Australia and went to Roseworthy Agricultural College (now known as Adelaide University). He very quickly realised that he was far more interested in viticulture than winemaking, so swapped courses.
“It’s strange - everyone studying winemaking wasn’t so interested in tasting wines, but us lot studying viticulture - we tasted and shared bottles all the time.”
He spent his summer holidays working in vineyards, and after a brief stint trying his hand at actuarial science, he had the chance to join the legendary biodynamic farmer and winemaker, Bill Downie. It was here that he learnt more about natural approaches to viticulture, and most crucially how to sustain and improve soil health.
In 2010, due to the tax rebate to attract younger and smaller growers to viticulture and winemaking, Patrick was able to create his own label. What had been a pipedream was suddenly financially viable. His first wine was a 2010 Heathcote Shiraz, and it was followed by a swathe of creative, no-nonsense, somewhat bonkers wines made completely naturally and without additions (a Bonkers cuvee was indeed born). He became particularly famous for his cuvee Haggis, which soon graced the sudden explosion of natural wine bars’ lists across the globe. It’s a co-fermentation of Moscato, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Malbec, because, well, why not? It became the flower child of the greater wine world: a liquid that tipped everything people thought they knew about wine on its head, and undoubtedly left many winemakers pissed off and frustrated, because it most certainly didn’t follow any rulebooks. And why should it?
Patrick laughs as he says,
“Maybe I was way too young or maybe it was just a storyline of the time and place. I was naive, but it was a lot of fun. Haggis and Jumpin’ Juice falls into that time in my life. A lot has changed in the last five years!”
Perhaps, but it takes a recipe of naivety, spirit, imagination and innocence to dare to do things differently in a world that at the time was dominated by techno winemaking. Without fresh, bonkers faces like Patrick, would Australian wine be where it is today?
“At the start, I was buying grapes - I was a young guy cruising around, having fun. I knew about agriculture, but I didn’t yet have a personal connection to it. At the end of ‘14, my wife and I were able to buy this farm, and in 15 and 16 I also began farming other vineyards for my own label. It was then that I began to gain a really deep understanding of farming.”
Next, he became a father, in 2016.
“When you have a kid, you really start questioning what you’re doing. You start questioning the longevity of your work, and thinking about things that are transgenerational. All the stuff I was worrying about before didn’t matter anymore.”
Suddenly Patrick had found himself thinking about much greater questions than how much sulphur was or wasn’t added to wine.
“We don’t add tartaric acid or yeast to the wines, but at the end of the day, who cares?! If you decide to add acid or yeast to your wine, you’re not hurting anyone. Would I rather drink a wine that has been inoculated, or one that just tastes like brett? I’d pick the inoculated one any day of the week. And the acid? People have this crazy idea that tartaric acid will kill them. I’d much rather drink a wine from someone that added acid and farmed well, than someone who didn’t and sprayed a s*^&load of herbicide. The primary concern is making sure the soil is maintained and kept as healthy as possible.”
He explains that all of the winemaking details he once saw as gospel have now taken a back seat in his mind. That’s not to say he doesn’t still make wines according to his beliefs, but rather that his farming techniques and soil management take paramount importance.
“When you have your own land, it becomes all about your vineyard site and your locality... The environment you find yourself in. I’m learning - I have the intention of making the best wine humanly possible, and leaving our piece of land in the best condition possible for the next generation. It’s as simple as that.”
All the vineyards that Patrick farms are certified biodynamic, including his own vineyard in the Strezleki ranges, which he planted in 2016. As it’s dry farmed, it won’t start to produce fruit until 2022. This is the long game.
“Organic and biodynamic farming is a core belief of mine. When you plant a vineyard, you’re not planting it for you - it’s for the next generation. Other people are gonna live here after you’re gone. Organic and biodynamic practices are the best examples of how the land can be better off for me being there.”
The difficulty for Patrick is figuring out how to navigate the waters of farming different soil types. Where his own baby vineyard is, he is having to face a new challenge: a climate with a lot of rain (as much as Scotland!)
In a land that suffers from extraordinary drought in other regions, this is a whole new learning curve. His biggest challenge to overcome is downy mildew, which is treated with copper according to organic certification. Patrick would like to use phosphoric acid - a very effective organic substance that works as a systemic (by going “into” the vine and defending it from within, versus copper which sits on the surface of the vine leaves and which in large quantities is toxic to the soil). In addition, it would mean he’d only pass through the vineyards three times, versus between seven and ten times; which means less tractor emissions and more money saved. However, phosphoric acid is not permitted by the organic regulatory board. Why? Likely because it was overused in the past when downy mildew first became a problem, and therefore was banned and misunderstood.
“I’m all about soil - so I’m always questioning what we’re doing - is there something that we could be doing that’s better for the environment? By planting vines we have a monoculture, but how can I do that with the least amount of impact? There must always be a better way. That’s the problem with phosphoric acid. It won’t hurt people, and it will improve the soil. Copper, on the other hand, will deplete the soil, but it might make people happy. What’s more important?”
It’s a frustrating rhetorical question for which Patrick has no answer yet.
“I have to think about the context of where I am, and what’s best for the soil. It’s a more mature way of looking at things. There are far more dangerous things than foliar applications - for example using systemic weedkillers is just dumb. It poisons your soil, and your soil is everything. When you kill nutrients and life in your soil, it starts making a whole other network of systems sick.”
His own baby vineyard - Tumblestone - is planted to material from the Yalumba nursery, as well as a massal selection of Australian old-vine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Almost all are planted own-rooted, for the simple reason that Patrick hasn’t found a rootstock he thinks will suit the unique climate and soil here. A combination of very fertile soil (which varies from volcanic on blue clay to volcanic on sandstone with quartz and fossilised calcareous material), high rainfall and a constantly changing and evolving cover crop means this is completely uncharted territory for him. Hence, they’ve started with just one hectare. Firstly, this makes sense financially, as Patrick says,
“We have no family history or family money - we make money by selling wine so we have to work that into the cash flow. We aren’t selling wines to go on heaps of holidays or live in a fancy house. I’m just trying to plant a vineyard.”
Secondly, by waiting and seeing what works and doesn’t work from a viticultural sense (for example whether to grow the vines on sticks or trellises), will save them many future mistakes. At the beginning, for example, they wanted to work no-till - just like Patrick had learnt with Bill. However, quickly they realised that’s not viable in an environment with so much rain.
“You never really know - there’s no recipe when you’re doing things for the first time. You need to be dynamic and constantly look at the biology of your system - how to do the best thing for it, and to make it stronger. If your wines are good and you’re minimising your impact, great. If your wines aren’t good and your vineyard’s a mess, you need to reevaluate what you’re doing.”
The biggest benefit amongst the multiple challenges of planting vines on virgin, undulating territory is the endless wildlife.
“This whole region is one big forest, and there’s thousands of birds flying around. The microbial population in the undergrowth is so rich.”
Once they’ve noted the right planting protocol, they’ll plant a further three hectares. In the meantime, they have their hands full co-farming other sites in the area: Guendulain, Bull Swamp, Camp Hill, Millstream and Manilla, together with Bill Downie.
Click here to see their vineyard map
“Particularly in ‘14 and ‘15, there was so much hype around the wines. When you’re 28 and hyped up as hell it’s kinda cool, but it means you have to constantly travel to maintain it, so in the long term it’s not such a good thing. So, I deliberately went against hype. I thought about the fundamentals - I’m Australian, from Gippsland, I’m a farmer. That should be strong enough to do something really good.”
So, while Jumpin’ Juice still exists as a project with Xavier Goodridge, the wines of the next Sullivan chapter will be cut from a different cloth. Instead of being wines that were somewhat about breaking the rules, the new cuvées emerging from the Sullivan stable are ones that speak of place.
“Having a lot of forest around and living in such unique undulating environments, means that you tend to get very unique weather patterns and conditions. Ada River is surrounded by forest - so sees very little air movement. This gives density and tension in the wine, whereas Millstream is quite exposed. That gives it a very different kind of tension. The way the air moves through the vineyard is the single biggest change for us in this region - it creates uniqueness on top of uniqueness.”
This also translates to the wines. Patrick explains that the Ada River Chardonnay, from its little forest-surrounded nook, comes from rather perfect conditions. He works a little more with the lees to “accentuate its prettiness.” Millstream, on the other hand, doesn’t get as much loving.
“It has this linearity in its structure and profile. Its personality is so raw, so I leave it alone. That accentuates its rawness. I work in the winery towards the strength of what that fruit has to offer, which means you end up with distinct expressions.”
The Waterskin cuvée is a nod to a vineyard he used to work with and loved dearly, named Britannia Creek, from which he made a field blend. Sadly the vineyard was sold, but Patrick was able to find the same varieties in a vineyard to work with: Sauvignon and Semillon.
“It’s this continuum of field blends. You can’t benchmark anything against the wine, as the vineyard is its own thing. It’s quenching and nourishing, which is where waterskin comes from, but it’s also about reference points. When people ask, where did it come from? I can point to the vineyard and say, there.”
This is the same notion for RAIN, a blend of Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc.
“The vineyard is older than me - it knows more about itself than I do. So I just make the wine, put it together and the reference point is the vineyard. It’s from that piece of land, and hopefully there’s nothing else like it. It’s pale, but has tannin and structure. It’s a real wine, not just a juice bomb.”
And as for the wines of the future - the wines of Tumblestone-to-be?
“I found myself thinking about the very early days - the first wines I loved - Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I don’t really wanna be cool anymore. You can go one way, and be very cool, or go the other way and just be the guy who has a really nice time with his family, sells a wine that he’s really proud of and that he loves, and doesn’t have to get on a plane ever. I just want to farm well, go to Bill’s place on a Sunday and have lunch with our families.”
He explains that this means making soul-searching, sublime, world-renowned, best-in-class kinda wines. He is also aware that this isn’t exactly something that can be done overnight, saying that this will be a lifelong expedition.
“I want to make wines that can stand up against anything. Haggis is bright and WOW, it’s great - don’t get be wrong - but I’m looking for something a little more humble and detailed. It’s an aspiration and a slow burn, which will take a lot of time - maybe 50 years, if I’ll ever get there…”
He has, perhaps unwittingly, entered fine wine territory. Sometimes you get the gut feeling that a winemaker is on the cusp of achieving something incredible, something that might well make the wine world rumble in a similar manner to the Haggis’ gone by. That person is Patrick.