So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed!
– Dr Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Tod Dexter went a long way to get where he is today, at home on his Mornington Peninsula vineyard this crisp autumn day. And he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for some sound advice from his mum.
Young Dexter had yet to settle on anything serious after leaving school in the mid-70s. He’d “travelled a bit and done a bunch of jobs”, including a stint with one of Melbourne’s best known wine merchants and a weekend in the cellar at Wantirna Estate. His latest escapade was a ski season in the States. His mother asked if he was going to carry on that way for the rest of his life. Dexter thought probably not. “And so she said: ‘Why don’t you go to the Napa Valley and learn how to make wine?’ And I thought: ‘That sounds like a good idea’.”
That was May 1979. Robert Mondavi’s was the first door he knocked on – and the first of many to knock him back. “So I got a job in a cooperage assembling barrels and I figured I’d either take it up as a trade or at the very least meet winemakers coming in to pick up barrels.”
And that’s just what happened. Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars picked up on the accent and gave him the break he was looking for. Dexter’s drifting days were over; he rolled up his sleeves and remained elbow-deep in Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay until 1986, overseeing a crush that grew from 150 to 800 tonnes. “I look back on it now as a seven-year apprenticeship,” says Dexter. “I got involved with every aspect of the business. They more or less adopted me for that period, so it was a really good time.”
During that period he met wife Debbie, and the two of them started to toy with the idea of setting up in Australia in the mid-80s. Back-to-back vintages at Brown Brothers in the King Valley in 1985 and ’86 served as a trial.
The experience – including the jump from Cakebread’s boutique operation to a 6,000-tonne crush – was a good one. “Brown Brothers were fantastic to work with, a really nice family. They were very generous to Debbie and me being ‘foreigners’ from America and it was very good to see the other side of the industry.”
Dexter came home for good in late 1986 with a six-week-old daughter in tow. Two years previously he’d come back for his sister’s wedding and fitted in a recce of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On that same trip he’d met up with the peninsula’s pioneer vignerons. “I was kind of impressed with the wines but it just looked like a small, backyard industry and I wasn’t sure it had the potential to go as far as the Yarra Valley had already come,” he recalls. But when push came to shove, the former ski instructor couldn’t resist the lure of the beach.
He and Debbie bought land on a north-facing slope in Merricks North and planted vines in 1987. That same year he made the wines at Elgee Park. That hotchpotch harvest speaks volumes about the region’s fledgling status at the time. The grand sum of 15 tonnes was crushed, from a quintet of producers with two varieties apiece.
And then came Dexter’s next Cakebread moment. One of those five producers was Brian Stonier, whose winemaker, Stephen Hickinbotham, had been killed in a plane crash the previous year. “Brian realised he could do one of two things,” says Dexter. “He could either stay very small and keep it as a hobby, or he could grow the business. He decided it was time to take the giant leap of faith and build a brand. So he said to me: ‘Do you want to come along for the ride?’ And I said: ‘Sure, why not?’”
Dexter knew where he was with Chardonnay after his time in Napa (his preference for the “unhygienic” practice of barrel fermentation initially raised eyebrows among Morningtonians, mind you) but these were early days for peninsula Pinot Noir, a grape with which Dexter had scant experience. “The first one I made was the ’87 Stonier and it was not very good,” he laments. “It really gave us no clues.”
He got a bit more of a clue about the heartbreak grape when he spent some time working with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. “I spent three weeks living in James’s house. We obviously drank a few Burgundies and that gave me some good tips on how to handle Pinot,” says Dexter.
The 1988 Pinot was “lovely” but was followed by the “wet, terrible” 1989 vintage and a thin 1990. But 1991 turned out well, and a further glimmer of hope came when Domaine Chandon selected a Stonier Pinot Noir to serve at its gala opening in the Yarra Valley that same year. Other high points included the shock of winning Best Varietal Red Wine at the Adelaide Wine Show in 1994 and then Best White Wine at the International Wine Challenge in London for the 1999 Reserve Chardonnay.
“The ups and downs were extraordinary,” says Dexter of the Mornington Peninsula’s learning curve. “A lot of people think it’s always been Chardonnay and Pinot and it’s always been great and it was always an easy decision. In fact it was the pioneers like Brian Stonier, Garry Crittenden, George Kefford of Merricks Estate and Nat White of Main Ridge who did all the hard work and made it easier for the newer players.”
Dexter left Stonier in 2003 to take the reins at Yabby Lake, whose vineyards are a stone’s throw from his own. In 2006, a decade and a half after his site started yielding fruit for Stonier, he turned 50. A friend told him if he didn’t do his own thing now, it’d never happen. The Dexter label was born.
His vineyard is planted to 10 acres of Pinot Noir and 7.5 of Chardonnay, and he makes roughly the same quantity of each. He knows a lot more about Pinot now than when that single barrel of ’87 Stonier – topped up with Cabernet, by the way – dribbled dishearteningly into the glass. What he strives for in Pinot is what he looks for in any wine he drinks: aromatics, prettiness, texture, elegance, line and length.
He’s altered his approach to Chardonnay, too. “In Australia we got stuck in a wave of thinking bigger is better. We were producing many wines that by today’s standards were just too big and clumsy to be enjoyable. But journalists loved them, the show system loved them. It was the way we were. Even the 1999 Stonier Reserve Chardonnay in its day was probably a bit clumsy.”
Now, though, it’s all about elegance and finesse, acid balance, good fruit and a lick of oak. “And drinkability,” he adds. “That’s a word I use more often now than ever before. You’ve got to be able to enjoy more than a glass and not feel like you’ve drunk too much. We’re older and wiser but we’ve also got older Chardonnay vines. What I know from my vineyard is I can pick at earlier sugar levels and still get really good flavours and a nice natural acid balance. I couldn’t have done that 15 years ago. We needed to let the grapes hang longer and get riper.”
So it is that the happy-go-lucky youngster who drifted off to the US ski fields all those years ago has become a sage of this relatively young region. “Those formative years make it so much easier to do what I do now,” says Dexter. “But that was never part of the grand plan. The business plan I wrote in 1984 was to come home and buy the land, plant the vineyard, build a winery and start selling the wine. It’s taken a bit longer than I thought.”
Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2012
Clear pale straw. The nose is fairly pronounced, a roll call of inviting Chardonnay characters. It has lemon rind, grapefruit, nectarine, grilled nuts, toast and a suggestion of burnt caramel. From the citrus-edged attack flows a medium-bodied, intense palate that wraps in everything that was on the nose. Lively and fresh, the zesty acidity giving it real drive. It’s got beautifully integrated oak and fruit, impeccable line and impressive, delicious length. Exemplary Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay.
Costs $40 direct from the producer – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 27/05/14