Passing The Torch - d'Arenberg's New Direction
"It means now that Chester, he of the colourful shirts and wine industry showman, oversees production of 80 different wines (and counting) from 40 varieties (and counting), totalling around 220,000 dozen cases of wine annually."
With the wine world mourning the passing of 95-year-old industry icon d’Arry Osborn, the inevitable question some were asking was, does this mean the brakes have now come off his colourful successor as head of d’Arenberg Winery, Chester?
And the answer to that is simple: the brakes have never really been on Chester, at least certainly not as far as winemaking is concerned for at least the last 20 years, and only barely through a somewhat conservative board when it came to major projects such as the nationally acclaimed d’Arenberg Cube. Although admittedly that took Chester a little longer to get through given that it cost $15m.
To reflect on this is also to remember that behind the lairy shirts and sometimes outrageous costumes, behind the colourful entrepreneur, there’s a very serious and highly-skilled winemaker combined with a marketing genius. And behind all that is the influence of a winemaking father, a conservative man who made wine in the most traditional way – including open wax-lined concrete fermenters, foot treading, basket pressing for both red and white wines.
In 1984, after studying winemaking at Roseworthy and a six-month tour of European wineries, Chester took over winemaking duties from his father as the fourth generation of Osborns to run the family business that started in 1912.
He not only continued his father’s traditions, he added new ones such as greatly broadening the number of grape varieties used to more than 40, grown either on d’Arenberg’s 200+ha of vineyards or sourced from more than 50 growers. And from 1996 he introduced a minimal input approach to viticulture that included dry growing, no fertilisation, no soil cultivation and no sprays: “That has transformed the vineyards and given us higher quality grapes,” he says.
It means now that Chester, he of the colourful shirts and wine industry showman, oversees production of 80 different wines (and counting) from 40 varieties (and counting), totalling around 220,000 dozen cases of wine annually.
Although he’s built a considerable team of winemakers, viticulturists and all the other people that make a large, successful winery possible, Chester is still very much in charge.
“I control the growers, the vineyards and our future strategy,” he says. “I control all the process including the red ferments and monitor them four times a day. We now have 200 five-tonne fermenters. And I taste every barrel, all 10,000 of them, and decide where they’re going to go in each of our 80 wines.
“I’ll do 150-200 barrels at a time, then bring in the winemakers and vineyard managers to discuss where they all fit, look at the quality levels. And although I’m still 100 per cent in control of the winemaking I involve our winemakers in all the decisions.”
Chester reveals that he has a whole new range of wines on the way this year: “There were growers in Langhorne Creek and Currency Creek who were having difficulty selling their 2022 crop, that I bought at a fair price. It will be a new entry level blend, though not from McLaren Vale, that will retail at $13-14 but probably end up in the marketplace just under $10.”
Stand by for a new lexicon of outrageous names, for which d’Arenberg has become famous: such as the $200 Athazagoraphobic (fear of forgetting) Cat, a blend of sagrantino and cinsault; or the $32 Anthropocene Epoch Mencia (a geologic unit of time). Thankfully all the names are explained on the d’Arenberg website, and it’s little wonder that many wine lovers still gravitate to comfortable favourites such as the Dead Arm Shiraz, the Footbolt Shiraz or the Custodian Grenache, wines on which d’Arry built his winery.
For 60-year-old Chester, it’s been quite a journey. He grew up with a distant, preoccupied father – “I often had dinner on my own” – who he began to know only when they developed a shared interest in fishing: “That’s when I got to know him and his gentle, relaxed nature.”
He started working in the vineyard and winery at the age of seven, picking grapes for 10c an hour: “I think I ate more grapes than I put in the bucket”. But when the following year he had a wage rise to 30c he decided he really ought to pay more attention to the business.
He recalls around the same time sitting on the lap of wine industry legend Len Evans, a close friend of his father and frequent visitor, who asked him what sort of wine he wanted to make: “A yummy one,” Chester replied. “So, I guess it was always my destiny from an early age.”
Chester admits to being a complex child, affected by Asberger Syndrome (as he still is), often ill, suffering from a speech impediment and very ordinary academic results: “I wanted to be a winemaker, but my headmaster said, ‘no hope’.” A move to Prince Alfred College helped transform this: “It changed my life, suddenly I had an education that worked for me.”
He was also very artistic in those early years, heavily into model planes and cars, and he became an avid reader of science magazines – all of which has somehow melded into his own artistic endeavours (he has some 100 of his sculptures in and around the Cube), but also the 14-year dream of the Cube itself, which was finally completed five years ago in 2017.
There’s more to come. Forget about putting brakes on Chester Osborn. There’s been the purchase of local distillery Settlers Spirits with plans for a new tasting room, and the new range of Langhorne Creek/Currency Creek wines already mentioned. There’s the exhibition of 25 of Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s sculptures and the new Singapore Circus restaurant atop the Cube.
The success of the exclusive Sam Smith concert in January 2022, at the behest of Tourism SA, has revived early plans for an 8000-seat auditorium beside the Cube. During the pandemic he helped fill his days writing science fiction, which has grown into a book featuring the Cube’s design journey, music, poetry, even games that’s now being printed and will be out this year.
And as for those shirts, which of late he’s bought from New York, he’s about to produce his own unique designs using “interesting patterns” bought from Paris. The label: Twisted Beak, his nickname at school (starting as Muddle, then Twisted, then Twisted Beak. He’s not sure why). Not cheap at $300 to $1000.
But beyond all that, just as he’s become the fourth generation of Osborns to own and run d’Arenberg, there’s a fifth generation, his three daughters, in the wings awaiting their turn.
“They’re all studying winemaking and enjoying it,” Chester says. “They’re committed. And they all have good palates – I’ve been training them for years.”