Petaluma, the forgotten icon.
Once, a long time ago, Petaluma sat right at the pointy end of quality Australian wine. Driven by the relentlessness of Brian Croser, Petaluma had a reputation for benchmark Clare Riesling, Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Coonawarra Cabernet that made it unstoppable. The yardstick. The name to beat.
But then, the corporate world bit back.
Back in 2001, Lion Nathan (now Lion) mounted a hostile takeover of Petaluma/Banksia Wine Group and the whole empire cracked, much to Croser’s bitter dismay. While the old Petaluma team still ended up running the winery, it didn’t take long before Croser was edging out of the business to focus on new project Tapanappa, before finally exiting altogether.
Since then, Petaluma has had a long, slow, drawn-out death. Well, not death, but let’s call it a fade into insignificance, not helped by at least three changes of ownership (that I can count) and the brand focus missing the Croser influence and drive.
I can remember a few years back stumbling across (then Petaluma Chief Winemaker) Andrew Hardy at a tasting and he was so pragmatic about the situation. He said ‘I’ve lived through four changes of ownership now. Life goes on’.
It sure does. The brand keeps going, but the spark is gone.
Winemaking estates, unlike retail shops or most brands, have a distinct physical presence. A location. You can’t just uproot a vineyard and move down the road to make the same wines. Which means it feels improbable, impossible and unlikely to see a powerhouse like Petaluma fall.
Read Campbell’s comment in my insta post below to feel the shared incredulity.
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How the mighty have fallen. This Petaluma white was once considered one of the best Chardies in the country. Now it’s just taking grapes that should go to the considerably better @tapanappa Tiers. Further, how is it $25 a bottle more than the Tapa? It just doesn’t make sense….
Meanwhile, Croser has Tapanappa, which is something of a streamlined version of the old Petaluma operation, complete with the same high standards. There’s now just more Pinot and less Clare Riesling.
The Croser family even bought back the old Petaluma winery in 2014.
There is a key remaining link between Petaluma and Tapanappa, however, and it comes with this wine:
Petaluma Tiers Chardonnay 2017
The Tiers Vineyard boasts the oldest Chardonnay plantings in the Adelaide Hills and is one of the best spots in the region. Special dirt, dating all the way back to the point when grapes in the Hills were for eating not wine.
Tiers, unlike Petaluma, is exclusively owned by the Croser family, yet half the old block goes to Petaluma, half to Tapanappa – an arrangement which I still wonder about. Why keep selling fruit to Petaluma? I never get that part. Is it a legacy thing?
A few weeks back I was in the Hills to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Tiers Vineyard, though curiously Brian talked little about the Petaluma era and mostly about Tapanappa. We all move on, I guess, but maybe not forgive.
Beyond politics, it is fascinating to have tried both the Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay 2017 and the Petaluma Tiers Chardonnay 2017 within a short space of time. Compare and contrast. Where the Tapanappa seems backward, tight, ageless, focused, the Petaluma is a mish-mash – it’s wider, chubbier, more full through the middle. There’s still that core of grapefruit and melon and grilled nuts, even if it’s delivered a little more convoluted. Class, but missing the conviction that the label deserves.
It tastes like a missed opportunity. But what’s galling is a peek at the pricetag – $115, compared to the $90 Tapanappa? Tell ’em they’re dreaming. (17.7/20, 92/100 if you’re keeping score at home, and no I wouldn’t buy it).
I tried this along with the rest of the Petaluma range and it just rammed home the sense of loss. A misshapen Coonawarra Nebbiolo. A bizarre Project Label Chardonnay. And let’s not start on the lamentable Petaluma White Label wines, which have both ugly labels and soulless wine inside.
For all that, there’s still a heartbeat in the Petaluma. A Project Label Coonawarra Malbec which has glossy fruit and the right amount of oak. And the Hanlin Hill Riesling? Varietal, refreshing, if a step behind modern Clare benchmarks from Rieslingfreak, Adelina et al.
Then there is this wine:
Petaluma Coonawarra 2014
Please, step back in time with me. To an era where more oak was good. To 2001, when ‘Parker Points’ were something good, and big was better (with the biggest best).
This isn’t quite the 15% monster (those Balnaves Tally wines from the turn of the millennium were the definition of OTT) but it’s more noughties than it is almost 2020. In particular, the oak and sticky tannins are dominant and pervasive – thick, rich, fudgey. The style goes more savoury than sweet, but it’s no modern wine. Then again, Coonawarra is still stuck in 2001 for the most part, so this isn’t that different…
Sorry, I’m being mean, and this 2014 Petaluma had an ageless robustness to it that signals twenty years is just the start.
And peering into the depths, there’s a soul buried in that oak. A core of fruit, a length, a breadth that is like a background hum of life. A similar score to the Tiers is in order (17.7/20, 92/100).
Is it too late for Petaluma? I don’t know, and neither of these wines gives an answer. But I do know that the Petaluma of 2019 is a mere shadow of 1999, and I would never have expected the shadow to be so faded…
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