Australia - James Irvine
Bailliage of South Australia
The so-called 'King of Merlot' talks of his passion for merlot
Irvine Wines is a much appreciated sponsor of the International Final of the Jeunes Sommeliers Competition
" Excellence needs fostering and an open and welcoming environment "

James Irvine, or Jim to his many friends, is a deceptively shy and smiling 82-year old with a career in the world of Australian wine that began just shy of his 17th birthday.

I say deceptive because as our interview unfolded so did his inner energy and infectious enthusiasm for people, life and wine. He sweeps you up in a saga that began in his father’s country bakery and journeyed through some of our great names and places in wine.

Jim has been a ‘lab rat’, Winery Manager, Operations Manager, Winemaker, Sales Manager, Owner and today these many hats have morphed into the all-encompassing role of consultant. This last iteration is a joy for Jim because it enables him to be the extra set of eyes that may see things that those too close to their winemaking cannot.

His chosen domain is merlot and he was dubbed by his fellow “Barons of the Barossa” as the “King of Merlot”.

Why Merlot?
“In 1981, I had an experience very few have. I had two separate tastings of one of the world’s best wines, Chateau Petrus. The wonder of this wine never left me and kindled the fire to explore the possibilities of Merlot in Australia.”

Apart from your passion, what else has contributed to your worldwide success with Grand Merlot and Merlot Royale?
“Well, as we know, it all starts in the vineyard. Ours is in the brilliant terroir of the Eden Valley and on the saddle of a hill so the water is always drained away from the vines. Merlot doesn’t like its feet wet.”

How do you define excellence?
“I think it began at my father’s bakery before I stumbled into the wine industry. He taught me that everything we baked had to be the best it could be. There is the possibility of excellence in everything from cooking scrambled eggs to blending a fine wine. It’s passion that drives us to excellence and you can taste that passion. It’s why wine should never be formulaic but instead a passionate discovery.”

Does that passion define your business philosophy?
“I think it has over the years. I always try to work with great like-minded people and always stayed in touch with what the people want. Sometimes that means not following where everyone else is going but being different with an aim to being excellent. And of course, you always have to believe in your own ability and have the courage to back yourself in.”

What were some of the milestones in your long career?
“One defining moment was at the age of 23 at Hardy’s where I found myself buying and working with Eden Valley grapes, already recognised as a leading player in the super-premium area. Once you’ve sampled that level of excellence it’s hard to go back to the ordinary.

The change in Australian wine tastes has also been very important because I was there when wine meant fortified and I have seen the Australian palate evolve from fortified to table wines and in doing so, create a continuing market for new varieties and styles. The more the consumers taste different wines, the more they explore and in turn, winemakers have to satisfy this curiosity by planting more varieties.”

And the future of Australian wine?
“It would seem there will be more organic wines in the market, perhaps more of the ‘whacky wines’ with additives, more blends of course and new styles and hopefully even healthier markets here and abroad and perhaps a fairer retail environment.

The growers are facing some tough times in the next five or so years until the restructuring of their vineyards is complete to meet the new styles and palate.

The industry and Government must find common ground to give every grower and winemaker the right to enjoy their business and make their own mistakes free of the threat of being swallowed up by the conglomerates.

Excellence needs fostering and an open and welcoming environment.”

Ron Dent, Professionnel du Vin
Faceworks Marketing Solutions, Adelaide


FOOTNOTE
Irvine Wines still remains Australian and family-owned although the families have changed. Today the Miles and Wade families, multi-generation Barossa vignerons with plantings from the mid-19th century, have adopted the Merlot mantle plus several other great Irvine varieties.

Irvine Wines is a much appreciated sponsor of the International Final of the Jeunes Sommeliers Competition. They are generously providing an Imperial of Irvine Grand Merlot as a gift for winner of the five years 2015-2019 inclusive. It is a very rare bottle worth in the region of 2,000 euro.

Photo bottom left: Norm Harrison, Bailli Délégué of Australia, receives the Imperial of Irvine Grand Merlot from Jim Irvine ready to present to the winner of the International Final of the Jeunes Sommeliers Competition held in Adelaide, September 24-25, 2015