Q&A with Adrian Sparks

Winemaking was a natural calling for Adrian Sparks. At the age of just 35, he carries the experience of 17 vintages and is already one of McWilliam’s leading winemakers. His talent was recognised recently when his 2012 Armchair Critic Chardonnay was awarded best wine at the 2013 Citibank NSW Wine Show.

We sat down with Adrian to chat about his love of white wine and the responsiblity he shoulders working for an iconic, family owned winery like McWilliam’s.

Q: How early on did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?

A: I started in the cellar as a university job, completely uninterested in wine. I got my first real excitement when I walked into the barrel store and told the current winemaker it would be easier if we only had one barrel type, instead of the 40 or 50 staring me down. He said that each barrel was a unique wine and each contributed its own piece of the puzzle when it blended. Since then I’ve never stopped asking questions and being excited about the possibiltiies. This day stands out as the time when I thought, “this is what I want to do.”

Q: Is there a style of wine you really love to make? Why is it special to you?

A: Chardonnay. Without a doubt. There is so much to do with Chardonnay, so many options and, I believe, still higher goals to be achieved. I love drinking it, making it, tasting the grapes before deciding to pick, and staring at the vines wondering how good we can possibly make the wine from them.

Q: McWilliam’s has a long and proud history. How does this affect the winemaker?

A: They are great footsteps to follow in, from the current Chief Winemaker to the greatness of Maurice O’Shea. Making sure you are true to the region, I think, is vital when making wine, and something McWilliam’s has done for an immense amount of time.

Q: Does working for a family company mean anything to a winemaker?

A: I love the fact that we can make calls that are quick and decisive, without the need for high levels of bureaucracy. This allows us to adapt and changer quicker than other companies.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the winemaker today?

A: The oversupply of grapes is not just an issue for the winemaker, but for the industry in general. Low grape prices are hurting growers, which follows on to sales, affecting everyone.

Q: How has the role of the winemaker changed since you began your career?

A: Spending time in the vineyard has, for me, been the greatest change and the most positive one. Without great fruit you cannot make great wine, and working with the grower for a common outcome is the important aspect in creating a wine. This also gives you an opportunity to understand sites and how the wine you create should look from this area.

Q: What is special about winemaking in Griffith? What challenges and opportunities does the region present?

A: Griffith is a great place, a vibrant community that pulls together when it nees to. The only down side is the distance to our non-Riverina vineyards, with more time spent travelling than at the winery during vintage. There is always the opportunity for people who want to overload their learning at McWilliam’s, as we pull in fruit from nearly every wine region to Griffith.

Q: If money and time were no issue, is there a particular wine you would love to make?

A: I would love to try and make wines from new areas and regions that haven’t seen a vine yet. There has to be somewhere in the world that is a completely untapped resource for winemaking, a region that suits a particular grape variety perfectly.. To be able to find this region, plant vines and make the wines would be a great pleasure.

Q: Have you had a particular role model or mentor that has shaped the direction of your career?

A: It would be unfair name just one, as there have been so many influences on my career. From Kevin Kelly, my first cellar manager, through winemakers Scott Zrna, Martin Cooper and Stephen Cook, and Chief Winemakers Jim Brayne, Corey Ryan and now Jim Chatto. I’ve been lucky enough to work and learn off some amazing people. Working alongside Russel Cody and Andrew Higgins now, and having Doug McWilliam walking around the winery chatting and offering up advice is also a great thing. Being able to interact and chat with the Company Chairman is a luxury not many get to experience!

Adrian and fellow McWilliam’s winemaker Russell Cody discuss the art of making wine.

Q: Where do you see the Australian and NSW wine industries heading?

A: I believe the people who are currently leading the Australian Industry have a tough job, but they are pointing us in the right direction. The last five or so years have been a real battle, and we need to find some stability and strength. I think we need to unify as an industry, and all work together for the greater good.

Q: What do you think is in store for McWilliam’s Wines?

A: McWilliam’s has an amazing history, a great platform and lots of potential to keep moving in that direction. With our new products and ideas coming through, we’ve got some exciting years ahead.

Q: Fast forward ten years. Where are you?

A: Still at McWilliam’s, still learning everything I can in the short amount of time available to us all. And hopefully taking Driver off the first tee at St. Andrews…

Q: If you could drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: Toughest question of all. Probably a Chardonnay, as it covers Burgundy and Champagne, plus the great Australian Chardonnay that is so underrated!

You can read more about Adrian on his biography.