Method in the madness: Cloudburst's Will Berliner pulls weeds by hand.
His first cabernet vintage won three wine show trophies before a single bottle had been sold in Australia. And the price, when a few bottles finally trickled onto the market, was $250-$270. Both these feats make history, I believe.
Will Berliner of Cloudburst seems a most unlikely person to set records. The gentle, quietly spoken American, who loves camping and hiking, is almost apologetic when, after a two-hour tasting and meeting at which he unveiled his wines to sommeliers and press, he finally revealed the prices of his Margaret River wines. Chardonnay $200 retail; cabernet sauvignon $250-$270.
Cloudburst exploded into our consciousness late last year when the first vintage of its cabernet sauvignon, 2010, staged a daring raid on the Margaret River Wine Show, snatching trophies for best cabernet sauvignon, best single vineyard red, and best red wine of show, from under the noses of many famous wineries. And this a region that is to cabernet what Lord's is to cricket or St Andrews to golf.
Word got out that Cloudburst was a tiny vineyard near Woodlands in the prime Margaret River sub-region of Wilyabrup and that it was owned by an American. The vineyard was biodynamic, the vines were just five years old in 2010, and the wine was selling for $150 in the US - in a Who's Who of American restaurants.
Having recently tasted the first four vintages of chardonnay and three of cabernet sauvignon, I can confirm it's all true: Cloudburst really does exist, the wines are exceptional, and rare, and very expensive.
Berliner says he was shocked when his cabernet cleaned up at the Margaret River show. He comes from the north-eastern US where he owns property in Maine and New Hampshire. He used to have an outdoors/hiking clothing company in the US and is a documentary film producer. His wife is from Sydney, a fact that brought him to Australia and he bought land in Margaret River with no intention of making wine. His land was "carved out of the bush 60 years ago by the Palandri family, Italian migrants whose children sold the land when the parents died". His first plan was to grow avocados, but an agronomist advised him to plant grapevines. He'd been a gardener his entire life and wanted to establish a ''green manure program''.
"A lot of the things I was told to do made no sense, such as driving arsenic-treated pine posts into the ground. I used local Wandoo timber instead: it's naturally termite-proof and there's no need to treat it."
Chemical-based agriculture is anathema to Berliner. He doesn't use any chemicals: just milk and sulphur sprays against fungal attack, and ''surgery'' - he cuts out any diseased berries with scissors. He reckons Demeter would certify his vineyard, but he's not seeking certification. His regime doesn't fit any of the usual pigeon-holes. He respects the ''purity of vision'' of the biodynamic associations, but says they don't share his ideas about how to run his property.
He follows the lunar calendar ''quite a bit'', and harvests on fruit days and flower days, but admits to having some scepticism about it.
He doesn't irrigate his vines and doesn't cultivate the soil as others do. "They want their vineyard to look like a paddock," he says. Instead, he's attempting to build up a layer of humus, which will mulch the soil - "like the deciduous forests in the north-east of the US". Instead of slashing or ploughing or spraying to control weeds, he pulls them up by hand. Needless to say, the cost of farming his way is very high.
"In January, we did 500 hours of weeding. If you're paying Australian wages, this doesn't make sense. I could have spent about $70 on Roundup, but as soon as you start killing one area you affect another area. That (the hand-weeding) is the kind of effort that goes into what you're tasting."
Cloudburst was first planted in 2005 and 2006, then more in 2013, all on close-spacings: one metre between vines and one metre between rows. The cabernet cuttings came from Cullen and Moss Wood.
The vineyard is tiny: about 1.2 hectares all-up, of which only half a hectare is in production. Yields are low. The mix is half and half chardonnay and cabernet, plus a sprinkling of malbec. He doesn't see Cloudburst getting bigger, as he does most of the work himself and his way is very labour intensive.
"I did very well prior to the GFC, and now I work in the vineyard. Every expense has to be justified."
Even at the prices he charges, he's not covering his costs, although that might change when the rest of the vines come into bearing.
At least the wines are very good, especially the cabernets (2010, '11 and '12). The style is medium-full bodied and elegant, moderate alcohols (13 per cent) and violet and blue-fruit aromas. They're more Cullen than Moss Wood in style. The 2011 is my pick of them, a wine of great balance and precision. The chardonnays, while very good, aren't quite so impressive: the 2010 is powerful and rather oaky; the superbly long and balanced '11 is my pick, while '13 and to a lesser degree '12 are shy and need more time to open.
A cloud has burst, a star is born. It's all very cosmic.