The grip of the grape
As the face of one of Australia's most iconic brands and it's most famous wine, Peter Gago has extended Penfolds and Grange into every major wine market in the world.
Respected and admired on the global stage for his achievements with fine wines, he was recently voted by winemaking peers and the Institute of Masters of Wine and the United Kingdom's Drinks Business Magazine, as the Winemakers' Winemaker, receiving the award at the world's largest annual wine fair, ProWein in Dusseldorf.
Praised by the judges as an innovative winemaker who puts heart and soul into what he does, Peter humbly pronounces it an award not just for himself, but for his team and country.
"It's an award for Australian winemaking and a lovely thing personally as well," says Peter.
"I don't think we realise in Australia how big this award is offshore and, in only its second year, it's now in Australian hands."
Neatly deflecting the attention away from his own accomplishment, Peter insists that team effort is behind the success of Penfolds. Rather than talking about his own achievements, it comes more naturally to Peter to do what he loves most - to talk about the wine. And that's something he does all over the world, with a relentless pace that sees him travelling the globe to engage in public tastings, visit wine fairs, host master-classes and speak at high profile events.
"I often say that I'm a wine lover first, a wine collector second and a winemaker third."
"That's why you work the hours, across ridiculous time zones, with all of the peripherals - it's not a job, it's a complete immersion; it's what you think, do, eat, drink; it's completely all consuming."
As Chief Winemaker and global marketer, he likens his model in many ways to the French champenois who market the unrivalled name of Champagne, often ahead of promoting their individual wineries.
"When I'm offshore, it's all about Australian wine; naturally, Penfolds creeps into this but it's very much an Australian push."
This natural flair for public speaking and educating was developed in Peter's early working life as a maths and chemistry teacher. Discovering a love for wine around that time wasn't so much an epiphany but a slow burn which he refers to as the "grip of the grape."
"An interest became a hobby; a hobby became a collection and then a passion, which became a career."
Heading to Roseworthy College at the University of Adelaide to study Oenology, Peter claimed numerous awards and prizes before graduating as Dux of the course. He still maintains contact with his classmates and believes passionately in the importance of building and forging real relationships over time.
"For the really successful business people, 'networking' is an insidious and involuntary thing; it's natural."
When he's not travelling the world, Peter is immersed in the hands-on role of winemaker, enjoying the opportunity to sleep in his own bed every night during vintage and 'dabbling' between the smaller boutique operation at Penfolds Magill and the much larger Barossa Valley winery at Nuriootpa.
While many of the exciting and innovative new wines of recent years have come out under Peter's watch, he is also profoundly respectful of the 168-year history that precedes him at Penfolds.
"It's wonderful to have that lovely safety net beneath, coupled with great passion and surrounded by great people and a great culture," Peter said.
The longevity of loyal team members attests to that - Peter considers himself a junior at Penfolds with "only" 23 vintages under his belt. Through his custodianship of such an iconic brand, while also pushing the boundaries of innovation, Peter will follow other long-serving colleagues into the pages of Penfolds' illustrious history as one of Australia's great winemakers.
story by Genevieve Sanchez