It was January 2010 and three South Australians were traveling across the windy, jagged coastline on the Great Ocean Road, taking the long way to Melbourne.
To break up the 13-hour trip, they stopped at James Erskine’s family farm, where Tom Shobbrook and Anton van Klopper – or “Wildman” as some called him – pulled their rifles and a speargun out of the back of the Land Rover.
The next day, they headed out to Melbourne with the bounty they’d gathered at James’s farm: several wild rabbits and goats and a cooler full of spear-gunned octopus and abalone. It was all piled atop a puncheon of their experimental wine in the back of the car.
A sizeable group awaited the oddball winemakers at Gertrude Street Enoteca, an Italian-focused Fitzroy wine bar and an institution for hospitality professionals and wine lovers – and, sadly, a casualty of the pandemic.
It was summer, and Melbourne’s wine lovers were ready for a party. Word had been getting around about the blond, wispy-haired Wildman and the gentle-toned, glasses-wearing Tom and their strange wine projects.
Tom had lived in Tuscany for several years and returned to produce wine from a family vineyard of mostly Shiraz out in the Barossa. Since 2007, Wildman was producing limited amounts of coveted wine, including Pinot and Chardonnay, from growers around the Adelaide Hills. Tom and Wildman met at a wedding and became fast friends, bonding over their unusual approach to wine, which back then they didn’t have a name for.
The lanky, ever-smiling James was transitioning out of a career as an award-winning sommelier. He’d trained at the pedigreed Magill Estate, then made a name for himself while helming the list of fine-dining restaurant Auge in Adelaide. Around the country, it was a shock that a sommelier from little old Adelaide, whose dining scene was seen as laughable compared to that of Sydney or Melbourne, was winning awards. But James was intelligent, eloquent, and passionate about his work. As he was becoming increasingly known, he met Wildman.
He visited Wildman’s newly purchased farm in Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills, where he was making wine using rudimentary machinery in a few ramshackle sheds, and James was smitten by the romance of it all. He enlisted Wildman to custom-make some wines for Auge. As word got around Australia of James’s affiliation with experimental winemakers, he received verbal insults from the older wine establishment. But he persisted, and not long before this journey to Melbourne, he started making his own wine. He was gaining experience at a winery in the Hills and planning his first vintage – Wildman had offered space in his shed.
These three, along with another South Australian winemaker, Kerri Thompson, were in Melbourne to release wine they had made without any commercial yeasts or acids, and low amounts of sulfites. The wines were also unfiltered. It was all very novel and provocative.
When they arrived at the venue, Tom had a goat carcass, wrapped in a bedsheet, over his shoulder, and James bore the cooler of fresh seafood. Chef Brigitte Hafner got to work breaking it all down. The South Australians went around the bar pouring their cloudy wines, made without any stabilisers or acidifiers and with zero filtration.
Not everyone there was a fan. A few weeks later an article about the tasting came out in The Age, titled Natural Selection Theory in a cheeky nod to Darwin. It praised Kerri’s rieslings but decried Wildman and Tom’s wines as dirty and flawed. Kerri soon went her own way, but the other three continued forging their bond and pushing the limits of wine. And now they had a name for their experiments.
After the event in Melbourne, the three men drove straight to Sydney, sleeping on the side of the road in rolled-out swags. There, they caught up with their friend, the charismatic musician and wine industry professional Sam Hughes.
Tom and Wildman first met Sam two years earlier, on a sales trip to Sydney. Sam was the shop manager of a Vaucluse bottle shop, and upon trying the South Australians’ unconventional wines, he was enamoured. Wildman and Tom, who both had young children at home and zero outside investment in their fledging wineries, were traveling on a budget. When they told Sam they planned to sleep in a park that night, he invited them over for dinner and to stay the night, and a connection was cemented.
The group often drank bottles together at Paddington wine bar 10 William St, another early supporter of Tom and Wildman’s vintages. The more they tasted, the more the quartet wanted to break the rules.
Natural Selection Theory, as they began calling their group, was dismantling what many in the Australian wine industry aspired to: it was irreverent and playful, uninterested in Robert Parker scores or coveted awards. But soon, this scrappy and handmade approach began attracting plenty of press, and critical acclaim. In part, it was the charisma these three winemakers, along with Sam, radiated, each in different ways.
Together, they drove around Australia with demijohns full of sulfite-free wine, which they called Voice of the People, and one-litre egg-shaped vessels filled with another experiment, which tested out the notion that wines respond to outside stimuli such as emotions and speech.
They even recorded a Natural Selection Theory album, with each of them playing an instrument or doing vocals, and pressed a few hundred vinyl records. There was a “hot pants” tour, where the men donned – you guessed it – extremely short shorts while presenting their wines.
The point wasn’t to make money; it was to show that wine didn’t have to be snobbish or conceited. It could be uncanny and unpredictable, and the life of the party.
This is a work of memoir. Events and dialogue have been reconstructed to the best of the author’s ability, through memory and notes, as well as interviews and research