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A chat with Penfolds’ Senior Winemaker, Steph Dutton

Stephanie Dutton is the senior winemaker for Australia’s most iconic wine brand – Penfolds. Based in the Barossa, Penfolds has been involved with the biennial Barossa Wine Auction since its inception, and regularly offers lots that are not found anywhere else – like this year’s Imperial sized (6L) bottle of 2016 Penfolds Grange (with an expected price tag of $50K – $70K!). (See the full catalogue here.)

We had a chat to Steph to find out more about what what makes Penfolds’ wines so sought after the world over. And what she has her eye on at the auction this year!

You’ve been Penfolds Senior Winemaker since 2017. How do you describe what you do to non-wine people?! 

Sometimes I forget the quirkiness of what we do, until of course, you are prompted to summarise it in a sentence or two.  Depending on the time of year, answers to this question can focus on tasting copious amounts of nearly-ready grapes, many meticulous ferment tastings, recorking clinics, guiding a house style and very little time at a desk.  But ultimately, when you distil it right down, the essence of what we do is craft fine wine that is capable of telling a story across generations due to its age-worthiness and most importantly it should provide enjoyment.  At its best it bolsters a celebration and marks a point in time.

What is it particularly about Penfolds Grange that has made it such a global wine icon?

Seventy years of consecutive sourcing, being entirely preoccupied with excellence and never wavering from a relentless search for the very best Shiraz (and Cabernet) is impressive.  But perhaps, just as importantly, is the spirit of conviction and self-assuredness that reminds us that Grange is never about chasing trends.  I’ve always maintained that regardless of what creative industry you are in, you never ask to be anyone or everyone’s favourite. But you do take pride when artwork is recognisably “yours”.  And by yours, I mean Penfolds. That element of house style is important in the fine wine industry just as it is in the automotive industry, fashion industry, performance arts or fine arts circles. Grange has always remained true to the initial creative vision, whilst being malleable and open-minded enough to embrace the 1% tweaks from year to year to improve its character.

Can you put some perspective on why it attracts such high prices, like it has for over two decades at the Barossa Wine Auction?

When it comes to experiencing Grange in large format iterations, especially in Imperial format, this isn’t an offering that you can find in a retail store.  This format is rarely commercially available.  Always protected for events, limited edition offerings, our museum walls and as is the case here, for a community cause and representing South Australia (and The Barossa Valley) on a global stage.

What are your other favourites from the extensive Penfolds range you produce?

St Henri. The emotional attachment to this wine is strong.  A great example of how you don’t need to be the loudest voice in a room to have great influence.

Penfolds has been heavily involved in the Barossa Wine Auction for a long time. Why do you feel it’s an important event? And how does Penfolds see itself fitting into that?

The Barossa Valley has such a strong global voice amongst the international wine community.  The better we are at resourcing our region and future-proofing the local wine community, the strong Brand Australia will be.  These events also provide the chance to connect with your neighbours, colleagues and promote healthy industry discussion.

Some questions men are never asked include: What’s it like to be a man working in a top wine role? How do you juggle family/homelife with the demands of vintage? Who were the men who inspired you? But women are asked these things all the time! Do you think questions like this are still valid to ask women in wine? Why / why not?

The fact that these questions are asked, and skewed so heavily to females, and still considered a novelty reminds us of the work to be done.  However, listening to some of the answers from female colleagues actually helps me.  I find the answers a comforting resource.  So for me, instead of stopping these questions for females I would love to see them asked across both genders equally.

Have you faced any particular challenges being a woman in wine that have stayed with you or influenced you in any way?

I faced the challenge of being heavily pregnant with international travel responsibilities.  My employer was encouraging me to cease travel (truly from a place of care) yet I was not willing to walk away from the opportunity.  It created a moment, that we worked through together.

If you had all the money in the world, and could bid on any three lots in the upcoming Barossa Wine Auction 2021, what would they be?

Lot S13, the luxe Eden Valley experience with Hutton Vale Farm, Henschke, Flaxman and Yalumba. The Rieslingfreak lunch for 8 people (Lot S22).  And of course the big one……how could you not want to walk away with the 2016 Grange Imperial (Lot B15)!

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