In conversation with Will Berliner of Cloudburst Wine
American Will Berliner’s Cloudburst Wine might be new to the Western Australian wine scene, but this premium brand has already attracted attention at home and abroad. He invites C. James Dale to go for a walk in the vines and talk about his little winery that could.
Will Berliner has had a connection to Australia since the 1990s, when he met his Australian wife in the New England region of the United States. Their encounter, he says, was love at first sight. Soon they had two children and along the way a tradition developed that saw them spending part of their year in Australia (“[So] my wife could avoid the snow and ice,” he says). In the 2000s, the family looked for a place to call home Down Under and they eventually bought some land in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. By chance, the plan to block the view of a road from the spot of their future dream home was the seed that gave life to Cloudburst Wine.
Tell us how it all began for Cloudburst Wine.
We looked for a place to call home in Australia for many years. We got here in 2003. [Before that], it was three years of looking for a place that resonated with both of us. We didn’t come here for wine. We came here for this beautiful spot. I wasn’t involved in wine. I didn’t drink wine. You know, I knew a little about wine. But it was just one of many things that you would drink.
How did you go from buying the land to making wine?
Well, there’s this beautiful hill that faces north. We’d like to build a house up there someday. And we were standing there looking and you saw all these cars on Caves Road. It was a busy Sunday and I thought, “I’m not moving 12 time zones to look at cars. I better block the road.” And I’m a plant person. I like growing things. I own forests in the [United] States. I’ve always had gardens and grown things. And I said, “I’m going to grow avocados.” And friends of ours who grow avocados said, “You know, I’m not sure that you can do that here. You should talk to this soil guy.” So I hired a soil guy and, you know, fast forward he’s telling me how expensive it would be for me to do organic. Because I always do organic stuff. I don’t want to eat chemicals. And he said, “You know, it’s going to cost you so much. You’re going to have to impound water. You want to do this organically you’re going to have to really basically make your own factory to make the quantities of inputs you need to do it the way you described you want it. But you’ve got really good wine soil. Would you consider growing grapes?” And I thought, “Well that sounds interesting. Margaret River is known for wine, so it must be good for grapes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out about that.”
And then I started to study it, and when I started to study it, I really got how interesting and profound it was. Not just from the viticultural perspective, which interests me. But the fermentation stuff. I’ve always been a fermenter, too. I always have sauerkrauts and different things going on. I was going to have a miso factory back in the ’80s. I just really like things fermenting. So all these things came together for me and I thought, “OK, I’ll do that.” So I started to study and then I came out here and I worked in a bunch of vineyards. And I didn’t really like what people were doing, even in the so-called organic ones. It was like, there was an industrial aspect to it. There was a not-respect-for-the-plant aspect, other than it’s an input into the system. I’m a bit older, so I didn’t really want to gung ho and make gazillions. I just wanted to see if I could make really nice wine… and block the road. So when I began, I planted these two blocks here – this is my first Chardonnay block and this is my first Cab Sav block. And I made them really small and I set it up so that tractors couldn’t get through. Even though you can get tractors in France that will go through these rows.
But you like [the rows] tighter. You’ve said it makes the grapes… the taste is more intense.
Well, I don’t know. People say that. I think that they’re having to compete differently or having to play differently. But I look at it as it’s very easy for them to interconnect with each other. So the roots are interconnecting. If we dig down through the mulch here we’ll see roots connecting.
How old are these vines?
Well, these were planted in 2005. So they’re in their 11th year. And, you know, they’re very, very healthy and they produce gorgeous fruit.
And they’re young because they could go another 20 years…
I’m new at this. So I don’t know how long they could go. I imagine if you prune them properly and care for them properly they’ll go for a long time. But, I didn’t do this with an eye for their longevity. I think the practices will add to their longevity. They’ve never had a chemical. They’ve not been abused. They’re not abused by machines knocking into them and hedging them and cutting them and whatever. I go through with little snippers.
So you plant this and you start doing that process of picking by hand. Is there a point when you say to yourself, “Wow, this is hard work”?
Always, yeah. A lot of people look at how they can scale. And then they start looking at machines. And, you know, all of that makes sense to me. I don’t want to scale. I’m not interested in scaling at the moment. Maybe someday I’ll be interested in scaling. What I’m interested in is producing just exceptional quality. And I use this also for myself as a self-development. I’m learning from this. I’ve done the courses now. I did the UC Davis master certificate. So I’ve read the science. I read the science. I try to keep up with all of that. But I also put that in a compartment because I think that there’s things being told that to me… There are lessons here that don’t necessarily come through…
Yeah… or through the normal metrics. And I think I’ve been lucky to make what you’ll taste, which I hope you’ll feel is extraordinary wine. So that’s a privilege. And it’s not just luck, but it’s also, I’m not using that to be on the soapbox, to say that I know because I don’t know what the ingredient is. I’m just doing what intuitively makes sense. However, once people get involved in the monetary aspects of things, then they tend to be [prone] to protecting and defending and describing why what they do is amazing. And I don’t know what I can… what is it? Is it that I do biodynamics? Is it that this is incredible soil and an amazing site? We have billion-year-old soils. That’s the highest point on Leeuwin Ridge – this entire peninsula, right up there. So what does this mean? Is it the special sea breezes here? It could be all of those things and instead I’m talking about, “Oh, it’s because I did this when the moon was out.” Most people say they know. I don’t think they really do. I don’t know. I just am doing these things…
There are too many factors, right, to take in…
There are too many factors.
So, is it, first of all is it a little bit of luck too? Or is it hard work. Because sometimes people say, “Oh you’re so lucky.” But then you’ve also worked really hard. So it almost discounts all the time and effort you put into this. But, as you say, you didn’t know anything about wine 20 years ago.
Well, but I know about plants. I think that… you know, look. I have a friend who’s an artist and sometimes he labours for months on a canvas. And sometimes he just whips that thing out there and he’ll still get $20,000 for the canvas. And he just whipped it out. But it’s amazing: his whole life went into that 20 minutes to make that incredible canvas. So should the $20,000 be for the three-month one… or for the one that came out like that? Or should it be, like, that’s his art? I’m not saying that I’m an artist. But I’ve been around plants. I’ve been listening for things my whole life. So the only way I could defend what you would call luck is that there’s nothing really new to me about this other than my surprise that we’re so successful. Because, again, when I started out this was just like, “Let’s see what I can do.” It wasn’t like…“Oh wow, how am I going to…” Do you see my cellar door? No. Do you see my sign. No. No sign. No cellar door. No advertising. Wasn’t selling even in Australia. I sell a little bit now. It’s mostly the States. And now I’m starting [in Singapore] and Hong Kong and so forth. You know, even Canada I’ve just had overtures. But there’s not a lot to go around.
How much is there to go around?
450 cases a year, approximately.
And that’s Chardonnay and…
Cab Sav and Malbec.
Simple. That’s good.
Yeah. And I’m not making three levels of wine. I’m making just a top wine. And I’m not cutting corners. If it didn’t turn out well, then that would be another story. People will say, “Oh you’ve got this weed here.” You know, like this thing. This is a very difficult weed, kikuyu weed. It’s a runner grass. It secretes a poison that kills its competitors. Any one of these things could break off and start another plant. By pulling this up, it’s just going to start again because I didn’t get to the root of it. It takes me about an hour, with tools, to weed a square metre. So this is starting up again. This will come back. Most people would just spray some Roundup or a [lowers voice, air quotes] “good quality, organic pesticide”. To me, that changes all the stuff that’s going on in here because, you know, in here this is moist. Of course, we’ve had rains recently, but you would find this moist anyway. You’ll find microorganisms. Like there are billions of microorganisms in here and mycelium and communication between the plants. Often times, I’ll get to a certain level and there’ll be earthworms and centipedes and slater bugs and all different kinds of…
A whole world, right?
A whole world. And so why would I spray something on here? Other organic people will come through with their steamers and they’ll steam it. You know, it kills everything there. It just kills the earth. I want to see things crawling. Walk through here. I walked through these vines this morning and I had so many spider webs on me by the time I finished.
You’ve got a spider in your hair…
Right now? Yeah. That’s what I want to see. We find frogs here in summer and snakes and birds and, you know, kangaroos.
Tell me what you do to keep the soil so healthy. What kinds of things do you add to the mix here? Are there manures or different…
I do. I have a compost over here. Let me show you. Everything that we weed we hand weed [with one exception]. Everything that gets weeded gets put onto that compost pile. Every cutting. You know, we’ll cut these canes back to prune. We’ll choose a couple that we want to grow. Then I will mulch them up. I’ll shred them up. All of that goes into compost. I throw a little bit of seaweed when I’m at the beach and I go, “Oh this seaweed looks nice today. I’ll bring some of that back.” All of the grape marc. All of the stems and the seeds. Today, when I’m done pressing all the skins and things will come back here. So all of this will get incorporated in here. This one’s working. You can see it’s got all the stuff. I’ll mix this all together. Throw in some clean manure. Everything – this is like some stuff I pulled out last week. These are radishes and so forth. All of this stuff will break down into soil that’ll go back out. That’s about my addition. The only thing I’m taking is the juice.
Let’s talk more about biodynamics…
I tend to chafe against authority when it’s imposed for arbitrary reasons. I think that they’re trying to keep standards. I am a member of several biodynamic organizations who have different ideas about how you’re supposed to approach things. And I’m not certified by any of them because I don’t intend to give them a percentage of things. That’s one of the reasons why many of the people who are established are very adamant. They’re paying. So they have something at stake. And they market their wine accordingly. I don’t market my wine. I mention biodynamics. But I don’t market my wine.
It’s more of a philosophy?
I think there are some really amazing practices with biodynamics. For example, looking at the farm as a whole, I like that. Organics is just a question of where the inputs come from. But biodynamics is saying, “I’m looking at that and I’m looking at the health of the soil”. Although I think organic farms ostensibly are looking at that anyway, so I don’t think that biodynamics can necessarily claim that. But, you know, I think that there’s an attempt to connect with celestial events and so forth. And I think as the majority of people practice it I think it’s like looking at the [newspaper] for your horoscope. So I don’t think there’s a lot of energy spent out in the vineyard. I know a lot of the people around here, biodynamic and otherwise, and not a lot of people go out in the vines. I spend every day here, you know? My hands are wrecked. I’m here touching the vines, looking at them, observing them. To me it’s… I’m learning from here. I’m doing my best not to impose all of my preconceptions of, “This is this because… oh it’s a root day, therefore this is happening”. I’m not so sure that that’s correct.
You mentioned the word “exceptional” when you described your wine…
Come try some.
How do you know that it’s exceptional when you said you weren’t a wine guy? Or did you just have that palate and you didn’t know it?
No, no. For me it’s a lifetime thing and I’m starting very late at this. When we were living in Maine, we were just coming here with our young kids and we would camp in the summers here. And my wife could avoid the snow and the ice, which is what she aimed to do. So we would come here and we would camp. And as I mentioned, I had no intention to just make wine or to sell wine here. But I had this opportunity when we had our first vintage  to show the wine to some of the top sommeliers in New York, just through connections and whatever. And I had my few minutes with them. And the guys tasting it say, “This is remarkable. We’d really like this if we could get it.” Well, it was more than that. They were like, “This isn’t from Australia”. Australian wine in the US was mass marketed and you know there was a lot of Yellow Tail and all those other kind of things.
Yeah. People were not happy with Australian wine at the level of fine dining. But I went to one guy who was a white Burgundy nut and he said, “This is amazing. We’d like to see this here.” And so I went through the very arcane, well Byzantine process of becoming a wine distributor in the US. And that was the idea: we’d live over there, we’d come over here in the summers, I’d make the wine, I’d bring back wine to America. That is what I was doing. These guys said, “You’ve got something really great.” I started to really taste in earnest the really good wines and I could see that we really stood up there. We stood up in a good way. And I tasted everything here. I’m continually tasting. I’m not always drinking, but I’m always tasting. And tasting those that are rated high. And out of pocket, what does this cost? I’ll be in New York in a few weeks and I’ll just go into all these restaurants and I’ll buy these wines that I’ve heard of, or not even heard of, to learn. And I know that we hold up with them. And we’ve held up in blind tastings, you know, where people will grab something from somewhere and say, you know, “Put the two of us together.” Then after that, critics started to find out about us and the critics gave us really good ratings.
What about the accolades that you started getting domestically here? Was it foreign acceptance first and then all of a sudden people here said, “Oh…”
That was going on a little bit. But I was quiet. No cellar door. No one knew what was going on. I just did my quiet little thing. I still do a quiet thing. One of my mates said, “You know, you should put your wine in the  Margaret River wine show and see where you stand in this community of winemakers.” And I said, “That’s crazy. I’m not selling wine here. I don’t have a license. I don’t want to sell wine here.” He said, “You should do it anyway.” And he was really hard about it. And I remember coming back to my wife and I was upset. “This is going to cost me $1000 and I’m not even going to win.” She said, “You might as well do it. You are in a community here.” And I said, “I don’t really feel like I’m in a community. That’s crazy.” And she said, “You are amongst other wine makers.” So we entered it. And we won. We swept every trophy… this was my 2010 Cab Sav. It was kind of like winning the Oscars for best, best, best. So then we got a license and I started selling a little bit here.
[Tasting the Chardonnay] So what am I smelling here when I smell?
What do you think?
I can never tell. Shoelaces?
Yeah, shoelaces… diesel fume… the sweat of angels…
I can always smell the hint of the fruit in there…
Well, I think that this has a lot of… it has a sweetness of fruit, of course. But it really has this lemon myrtle, herbal kind of quality that I love. And instead of it being, you know, kind of like… you know people say lemon or something. I go more like… grapefruit. Sort of like the wax of a grapefruit or something. It just has these subtle characteristics in the ballpark that normally you see, but it’s all its own. And it has a nuttiness that I think is astonishing… I think this has sort of a… almost like a roasted chestnut thing. It just has all these layers of complexity. It goes on and it goes on and it goes on. My last sip was before I started talking and I’m still tasting it. And so it’s got this incredible rich freshness.
It does sort of reverberate out into the mouth, right?
Yeah. And it’s got also this saline quality to it. Almost like the ocean is here, which it is. So I feel that there’s something like that. People call it mineral, but to me it’s almost like sea mist.
You talked about learning things as you go, that you’re always learning things. You’re learning not just about wine, but you’re learning about life probably and yourself. What has doing this done for you, I don’t know, maybe spiritually, intellectually?
Well, this is a really interesting time to say something like this because this to me [gestures to neighbour using heavy machinery to tear down trees to build a fence] represents the exact antithesis of what I’m talking about. I mean, here are these guys taking down a huge number of trees. They’re basically clearing the land and [they’re] going to lay a fence in there. And normally it’s pretty quiet here. So I’m left alone with the luxury of my thoughts. And I think that the world is this mystery that reveals itself to you if you’re patient and if you can get out of the way and listen. And I find that that’s a personal challenge – I think that it’s a human challenge – but I think that it’s a personal challenge that I decided to take up to really see if I could put myself out of the way and not just be run by my egotistic thoughts or my small ego thoughts, my fears, my concerns, my pettiness or whatever. When I look at this area, aside from what man is doing and has done, when I look at this area it’s one of the few intact, highly diverse ecosystems on the planet. So what I’ve done here essentially is to, I’m trying to blend with that as opposed to just make my egotistic statement with my chemicals and my straight lines and my…
My scale. And it rewards me by bringing things to think about. And there are lessons there. And the lessons resonate with me. When I’m present, it’s almost like things go well. I know that sounds really weird. But it’s like… things go well. Each vine. Each moment. Each situation. Each weed. Whatever it is. Each bird that shows up. When the breeze comes. You know, it’s like someone from Central Casting is sending the next character in to interact with. And I’m doing my best to not listen to my old scripts, but to read the script that is in front of me that’s in a language that’s not… it’s not my accustomed language, but it’s not a strange language…
Maybe I can sometimes be moved by the spirit that’s moving through this place and be its agent. And when that happens, then I guess – to go back to your initial question – then maybe when that happens, maybe I’ve grown and benefited. But I don’t do it to be benefited. I do it because this is what I do.