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Boat to bottle: Five fine wine producers with a love of yachting

8 July 2022 • Written by Victoria Moore

One of the great pleasures of yachting is the chance to enjoy a glass of fine wine as the sun sinks down over the horizon. But what if the wine was your own? Victoria Moore talks to five producers who have also fallen in love with seafaring

Château d’Esclans, Sacha Lichine

Sacha Lichine can claim to be one of the principal architects of the great rosé wine renaissance. He created the hugely successful Whispering Angel brand, a wine that is one of the stable of rosés from Château d’Esclans in Provence. He owns Snappers, a Tecnomarine built in Viareggio, Italy, in 1983, which is moored at Cogolin, near Saint-Tropez, and mostly used as a dayboat for customers and friends. His Mangusta 80, a more recent acquisition, is used by the family for trips and overnights along the Mediterranean coast.

Lichine often cites a phone call from Feadship as the moment he knew he had achieved a breakthrough with rosé wine: “They asked for the design and dimensions of the three-litre bottle of Garrus [the most luxurious of the Château d’Esclans rosés] because they were building a yacht for a client who had requested a fridge to fit it.”

One of the most coveted rosés from Château d’Esclans is the Garrus 2020 Côtes de Provence, which is made from century-old grenache vines and matured in 600-litre barrels at Sacha Lichine’s Provence estate, 25km from Fréjus on the Mediterranean coast
Credit: Sara Matthews/Chateau d’Esclans

Reaching this point meant going against the flow. Sixteen years ago, when Lichine bought Château d’Esclans, a beautiful estate in Provence, 25 kilometres from the Roman city of Fréjus on the Mediterranean coast, the decision to specialise in high-end rosé might have been considered a surprising move. Lichine’s background is in traditional fine wine. He was raised in Bordeaux, where his family owned Château Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, which he ran for several years after his father’s death before selling it in 1999. He had also founded Borvin in 1990, a négociant business that sells Bordeaux wine. Back then, rosé didn’t have the cachet it does today.

Credit: Sara Matthews/Chateau d’Esclans

“We had a vision,” says Lichine. “A lot of winemakers said that rosé is sort of Coca-Cola wine and cannot be serious. We wanted to make rosé into real wine. And that’s been our hardest fight.”

His decision has been more than vindicated. Rosé from Provence is now in huge demand and considered a stylish drink in any company. The fashion house Chanel owns an estate in Provence and in 2019 Lichine sold a 55 per cent controlling stake of Château d’Esclans to the luxury goods company LVMH.

The Côte d’Azur lifestyle is what many think of when they pour a glass of pale rosé from a bottle beaded with condensation. “Provence is quite romantic,” says Lichine. “The lavender fields, the beaches, drinking rose...” He has often taken clients out on Snappers to give them a taste of it.

Wine to try Château d’Esclans Garrus 2020 Côtes de Provence is a sommelier favourite – a high-scoring, slightly spicy rosé made using the fruit of grenache vines that are almost a century old and matured in large, 600-litre barrels. esclans.com

Robert Oatley Vineyards, Robert Oatley

Credit: Bryan Siebel/Robert Oatley Vineyards

Australian Sandy Oatley is a second-generation sailor and wine producer. As chairman of Balmoral Australia, he leads all the Oatley family businesses, which encompass wine (Robert Oatley Vineyards), tourism (Hamilton Island) and sailing. The family also owns two boats: Wild Oats XI – a 30.5-metre racing yacht launched in 2005 but much-modified since, which has won the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race a record nine times – and the 20.1-metre Wild Oats X.

“I’m 70 years old now,” says the avuncular but astute Oatley. “I was taught to sail when I was eight. That was my brother and me in a little eight-foot [2.4-metre] dinghy called a Manly Junior, sailing on Balmoral Beach in Sydney, and dad was rowing around in a dinghy giving us instruction.”

The Oatley family is well practised at breaking records. Before its sale, Rosemount Estate was the largest family-owned winery in Australia, while their Wild Oats XI racing yacht has impressive form in competition

The family wine business is an equally close-knit affair. Oatley’s father, the late Bob Oatley, started out trading coffee and cocoa in Papua New Guinea. Then, in the late 1960s, he bought a farm in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. The teenage Sandy, along with his brother and sister, helped him to plough and plant it. This became the first vineyard for Rosemount Estate, an affordable and easy to understand supermarket wine brand that Bob – and later, Sandy – built into the largest family-owned winery in Australia and the second-bestselling Australian wine brand in the US, before selling it in 2001 to Southcorp for AU$1.4 billion (£790 million).

Two years later, the Oatleys bought Hamilton Island, a resort island close to the Great Barrier Reef that Bob had noticed on a sailing trip. And in 2006 the family created an entirely new wine business, founding Robert Oatley Vineyards, which makes contemporary Australian wines that reflect the place in which the grapes are grown.

Credit: Bryan Siebel/Robert Oatley Vineyards

The Covid-19 pandemic – and subsequent lockdowns – have brought particular challenges to Australian wine businesses spread across states. When we speak, Oatley says he hasn’t seen Larry Cherubino, the company winemaker based in Western Australia, for 18 months, so they’ve had to discuss flavours and blends via conversation and posted samples. “We’re very grateful for Zoom,” he says. “Winemaking is very similar to sailing. You’ve got to have a good relationship with your crew to go where you want to at night. In the pitch black with a big wind and big sea and so forth.”

Sailing is still a big family passion. Oatley goes out in a boat most Wednesdays. “It’s the challenge of sailing – to go against nature and the wind, to go where you want to go,” he says.

Wine to try Robert Oatley 2019 Finisterre Margaret River Chardonnay is a beautifully crafted wine. It’s tangy and complex, good enough to tempt a Burgundy drinker and excellent with hot crab pots. robertoatley.com.au

Shadybrook Estate, Alice Alkosser

The Alkossers have managed to turn a serendipitous purchase of vines into the thriving Shadybrook Estate and Rapp Ranch boutique wine brands, located in California’s Napa Valley
Credit: Suzanne Becker Bronk/Shadybrook Estate

Alice Alkosser trained and worked as a food chemist but, with her husband, David, is now a real-estate developer specialising in multi-family housing. The couple are also the proprietors of Shadybrook Estate, a boutique wine brand based in the Coombsville area of the Napa Valley in California. They own a 28-metre Ferretti 920 which is moored in Florida and have placed an order for a 38-metre Azimut Grande Trideck.

Alice is an accidental – but now committed – vigneron. The first parcel of vines she and her husband bought was an incidental purchase – it just happened to come with an estate in the south-eastern end of the Napa Valley that the couple bought in 2009 to use as a weekend escape. Having studied food chemistry at the University of California, Davis, Alice was familiar with Napa but had no intention of going into wine. “In the beginning my husband said, ‘You take care of the vineyards because that’s basically just landscaping,’” she says.

Initially the plan was to sell the grapes, but Alice wanted to vinify a barrel from each block to assess their quality. “Grapes can be anything from $200 to $500 a ton, all the way up to $20,000-plus a ton,” she explains. “So it’s worth knowing the value of your grapes.” She hired two people to help. One was a winemaker, Rudy Zuidema, the other was the wine writer Allen Balik.“And then I got a call from the two of them saying, ‘You can’t sell these grapes. You’ve got to make your own wine,’” she recalls.

The Alkossers have two wine brands, Shadybrook Estate and Rapp Ranch, which produce high-end still wines from Bordeaux varieties. They have also added to their vineyard portfolio over the years, buying the Chateau Lane winery at Rapp Ranch in 2016. “We are entrepreneurs, so whenever we find an opportunity, we enjoy the opportunity, because it’s learning as well as working. For us, that’s the fun,” says Alice.

Credit: Suzanne Becker Bronk/Shadybrook Estate

Sailing is an even newer passion for the couple. “We were invited by a business associate to go on board his ISA. And my husband absolutely just flipped and said, ‘This is it, I really would like to do this,’” she says.

Alice sees several parallels between sailing and winemaking. “Boating and the wine business are both about hospitality. We’re always entertaining. Also, on our vineyards we follow biodynamic farming practices, which are directly related to the pull of the moon [biodynamic growers tend their crops according to whether the moon is waxing or waning in the belief that the lunar cycle influences the flow of sap in the plants]. And with the boat, you’re very involved with tides coming and going and how it affects your travel,” she says.

Wine to try Shadybrook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Coombsville, Napa, which Alice loves with truffles. “There’s a magic combination when you have the perfect pairing, which is part of the fun for me as a food chemist,” she says. “The first time it happened for me it was like fireworks went off in my mouth.” shadybrookestate.com

Château Tanunda, John Geber

South African-born John Geber is the proprietor of the iconic Château Tanunda in the Barossa in Australia. To promote his wines in the US, Geber bought a 30.5-metre Azimut, which he named Grand Barossa and sailed up and down the East Coast before selling it in 2017.

Geber stumbled upon Château Tanunda on a bike ride in the Barossa one morning while waiting for a business contact to sleep off a bout of jet lag. The largest building in South Australia and biggest winery in the southern hemisphere when it was constructed in 1890 to quench the thirst of Europeans whose own vineyards had just been destroyed by phylloxera, Tanunda is quite a place. Geber immediately offered to buy it. He then called his Swiss wife to let her know.

A leisurely bike ride landed John Geber with the keys to Château Tanunda, once the largest winery in the southern hemisphere. It produces wines from some of the oldest vines in the world
Credit: Chateau Tanunda

“At first she said, ‘There are no châteaux in Australia.’ Then she said, ‘How many bedrooms does it have?’” he laughs.

Geber cut his business teeth not in wine, but working for the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. “Shoot me dead but that had the best brand training you could ever dream of,” he says. He was sent from Switzerland to Germany, to the US and, finally, to Australia. Then they wanted him to go back to Europe. “I was living in Manly Beach in Sydney, surfing. I could play cricket again. I said no.” Instead he leveraged his experience to get a job marketing chewing gum, coffee and tea, and helped to invent the Tetley All Rounder teabag. But he was keen to work for himself.

Credit: Chateau Tanunda

In the early 1990s, sensing that Australia’s burgeoning wine industry presented an opportunity to combine his experience of blending (tea and coffee) and his business acumen, he founded The Australian Food & Beverage Group, creating brands such as Kangaroo Hills to export to Europe. He bought his first vineyards in Cowra in New South Wales in 1993 and Tanunda five years later. And the boat? “It was a bit of alternative thinking,” he says. Geber was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing the wine trade over from America each year to see Château Tanunda and taste its wines. “I thought, ‘I’ll take Australia to America. I’ll buy a yacht and sail it up and down the coast, Miami, Florida, Charleston, and we’ll bring the buyers, the restaurateurs, the top consumers, bottle shop owners on board.’” So he did, although which yacht wasn’t a decision he made quickly. “I studied it for about two years. I was looking at yachts nearly every night. I became so infatuated.”

Does he see any parallels between wine and sailing? “The humility of realising you’re not in control. You think you are, and you can get taken out. Weather can wipe you out very quickly.”

Wine to try Some of the world’s oldest vines grow in the Barossa. Château Tanunda 150 Year Old Vines Field Blend 2017 is made from a block of grenache, mourvèdre and malbec planted in 1858. chateautanunda.com

Harlan Estate, Bill Harlan

Bill Harlan is the octogenarian entrepreneur behind the prestigious and hugely sought-after fine wines of the Harlan Estate, BOND and Promontory labels, based in the Napa Valley in California. He trained as a merchant marine and spent more than two decades living on boats before finding his calling making wine.

With his white beard and thoughtful demeanour, Harlan looks the part of the elder statesman or ancient mariner. He is both a man who, in the 1970s, was told by winemaker Robert Mondavi to go on a vineyard tour of France, came back with a vision of creating a “first growth of California” and did just that, and a sailor with a real feeling for the sea. He’s also a risk-taker, whose life has been driven by a thirst for experience and big ideas, and a businessman who made his first fortune as a real estate developer.

Credit: Boris Zharkov and Harlan Estate

The idea of making wine first came to him as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950s, when he made a documentary about the wineries of the nearby Napa Valley. “When we first get to school, you’re not old enough to drink legally but they didn’t check your ID at the wineries. So it was an interesting place for college students. At that time I said, ‘After I’ve seen the world, I’d like to find a piece of land, plant a vineyard, find a wife, raise a family and make wine,’” he recalls.

First, though, he had other things to do, such as learning to fly and travelling, first as a hitch-hiker, then as crew on a 41.1-metre gaff rig topsail schooner, an oceanographic research vessel owned by Stanford University. He also lived on a Second World War landing craft, an LCVP, in the town of Sausalito, across the Golden Gate strait from San Francisco in California. “It’s living in the real world with the tides and currents and the sounds of the birds and the smells of whatever fish are running and the pilings. It’s just a wonderful experience.”

Credit: Boris Zharkov and Harlan Estate

Real estate might seem a surprising career choice for such a poetic soul, but Harlan was clearly good at it. In 1978, with his business partners, he bought Meadowood, a country club in the Napa Valley, and set about developing it into a luxury resort. That’s when Mondavi sent him to Europe and he visited châteaux in Bordeaux and domaines in Burgundy that had been created over generations. He returned and founded Harlan Estate in the Oakville AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the Napa Valley, making the first commercial vintage of what would become a cult Napa cabernet in 1990.

Wine to try Harlan Estate and The Maiden, one of Napa’s most collectable labels. harlanestate.com

First published in the July 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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