Profile: Steve Webber

This article first appeared in WBM, 2012

Tyson Stelzer

With a bellowed expletive, Steve Webber ripped a scorched pizza from his wood-fired oven and in a single Olympian motion, flung it Frisbee-like over his organic vegetable garden, to crash-land in the vineyard beyond. There was once a time when the Chief Winemaker and Manager of De Bortoli Yarra Valley was less particular about what he made. No longer. For the past twelve years, the steep trajectory of ascent of this estate has been largely thanks to the daring of one man. His influence has been infectious like no other in one of the country’s most progressive wine regions.
Steve came to the Yarra in 1989 and immediately married “the boss”, Leanne De Bortoli. He arrived with a self-confessed feeling of “total self-confidence” after seven years at Lindemans. “There was a feeling of confidence in Australian wine in general,” he recalls. “Everything we did was terrific and we thought we knew a lot more than we did.” For the first decade he carried on making wines, as he always had, with a “show focus”.
Then in 1998 Steve Webber had an epiphany. “Leanne got a bout of cancer and we wondered what life and wine were about,” he says. A move to organic and biological produce prompted the same philosophies in the vineyard. But their real inspiration came from travel. While exploring France, Steve and Leanne discovered that fine wine was made by understanding the land. “We realised we didn’t have an amazing understanding of what fine wine was. We discovered an interesting plethora of wine and for the first time we realised what wine was all about. That was a revolution! We did a lot of soul searching in what fine wine was and what the Yarra could do.”
Blocks were evaluated to identify A-grade sites, vineyard practices were changed, a biological approach to viticulture was adopted, sites were ripped out and replanted, harvest dates were brought forward, old barrels were favoured to new, and back labels were rewritten: “Winemaking: It’s harder to do nothing”. A concerted move away from fruit-driven styles toward more textural wines with a strong sense of place proved to be more than a little controversial, with accusations of leanness from some quarters.
“Finesse is important in fine Australian wine,” Steve defends. “We’re getting closer to making wine that tastes of this place. Yarra wine isn’t loaded with intense character and a lot of sunshine. It’s more subtle. Some people appreciate finesse and probably an equal number like a mouthful of fruit and oak. Personally, I’m not worried if only half the people in the world like the style!”
To Steve, overt varietal expression is not the goal, but variety is merely a vehicle to carry a sense of place. “In fine wine, I don’t think anyone is interested in a mouthful of peaches, gooseberries or strawberries, but rather a link between variety and place. Variety is just one component, alongside texture, feel, minerality and the flavour of the soil. If it’s too dominant we miss some of the other things.” His aspiration is to craft wines that express their place, “wines that are calm and have poise, really interesting drinks that are just delicious!”
Steve and Leanne’s travels continue to inspire new labels and styles. A trip to Sardinia precipitated Bella Riva Pinot Grigio Vermentino, while a week in Bandol led to more pale and textured rosé. But perhaps their most influential bottles are those opened at home. Interesting wines are shared every Friday afternoon at De Bortoli. And not just at the pointy end. “If I can buy a delicious wine for $15 I can afford to buy a carton. We’ve got to do more of that. We’ll vacuum three bottles of cheap Chianti with pizza or pasta! Delicious, medium bodied, slightly savoury – giddy up! It’s not posh! The Italians know something we don’t sometimes!” It’s this down-to earth attitude that has enabled Steve to increase production from 2,600 cases to more than 400,000 in two decades.
The winemaking team at De Bortoli dreams up new wines and styles by lining up the international benchmarks. It’s a feast of inspiration for any palate, and particularly a young one. It’s here that Steve Webber’s courage has been most daring. Some would call him foolish for putting the young Bill Downie fully in charge of pinot noir before he was even qualified as a winemaker (in hindsight, it was genius). Or Paul Bridgeman in charge of shiraz and cabernet, or Sarah Fagan with white wines. Or Dave Bicknell, Timo Mayer, Mark O’Callaghan, or Luke Lambert. De Bortoli is a veritable hotbed for the breeding of some of the Yarra’s finest winemakers.
As nonsensical as it may seem from a business perspective, Steve’s bold approach in not simply blessing his Padawan learners into their own labels but actively encouraging them to leave – even at times helping to finance their projects – has proven to ignite an initiative of progress and experimentation which has characterised Yarra’s new generation.
And this is no one-way street. “In encouraging our young people to give things a go, explore and have some fun, I’ve learnt a lot,” Steve admits. “No single person has all the answers but it’s about having a go together.”
This is a philosophy that informs all of his interactions, and he is constantly on the lookout for other “like-minded people” in the Yarra or the wider industry whom he can generously encourage, show warm hospitality, mentor or support. “I don’t think wine is necessarily about banding together with similar sized companies, but with people with the same mindset and philosophy. In the Yarra, a lot of like-minded people have got together and styles have developed with sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah, and now with nebbiolo, gamay and even pinot blanc.”
“Everyone is drinking a lot more international wine now and a lot of winemakers are doing things differently with lots of whole bunch and pushing the boundaries with different varieties. It’s been a real growing up in the industry and I’d like to think that we contributed something to that.”
He praises what he calls “interesting clusters of energy” that have emerged in the last twenty years, Steve Pannell, Larry Cherubino and Rob Mann at Hardys, the Yarra cluster, Ian Riggs, PJ Charteris and the Hunter crew, and more recently the progressive makers, young and old, in the Mornington, Barossa and Adelaide Hills. “There’s no question the Australian industry is heading in the right direction!” he exclaims.
“But it’s not an easy place to sell wine out there and we’ve got to complete. You’ve got to make great wine at realistic prices. And at the top end there are terrific advances in many regions in identifying the great vineyards. But there’s not enough interesting expensive wine made and we need to work harder at that. It’s about nurturing the finest sites, finding the parts of the vineyard that are pulling down the real quality of the blend. That comes down to understanding the soil you’re cultivating.”
“More and more people want to know where things come from and want to associate a region with a particular style of wine.” This has prompted him to move his entry-level Windy Peak range to single region wines this year, representing one of the best value brands on the shelves.
Steve’s influence came to the wine show circuit in 2008 when he was appointed Chairman of The Royal Melbourne Wine Show. Never one to hold back, he boldly introduced classes of “Character, charm and interest” in place of commercial classes, contentiously (and rightly) opened up The Jimmy Watson Trophy to include two-year-old wines and abolished medals for unfinished wines. “Look for beautiful wines with charm, not just technical correctness,” he briefed the judges before the show. “Prize detail and beauty, seek out wines that taste of a place.”
When Steve and Leanne aren’t at the winery or busy changing the wine world, they can be found walking the beaches around their recently completed beach house on the Mornington Peninsula. “I’m never very far from a glass of wine!” Steve admits. “We enjoy food – when there is a crisis or a celebration, Italians eat their way out of it! And our other real love is travel. I can’t think of travel without thinking of wine. Immersing myself in beautiful parts of the world changes my mind about wine.”