Wild at heart: The who's who of Rootstock 2017

Rootstock creators James Hird, Giorgio de Maria and Pasi Petanen.
Rootstock creators James Hird, Giorgio de Maria and Pasi Petanen.  Photo: James Brickwood

 Giorgio de Maria is an Italian sommelier who wrote a thesis on cheese production and harbours a passion for forestry. Australian James Hird is a former surf instructor with a law degree who spent years as a chef and now runs a wine bar. Pasi Petanen is a Finnish chef who has always been, well, a Finnish chef. Together, they are the driving forces behind this year's Rootstock, the not-for-profit Sydney wine festival that celebrates all things natural and attracts some of the country's hottest chefs.

It is, as one friend describes it, Wine Christmas.

The first festival, in February 2013, was held in an under-utilised replica piazza in Leichhardt. The Pinbone crew served natural wine-inspired sandwiches (who could forget the "Gravna-lax", salmon cured in Josco Gravna's finest with sour cream?). There was top gun sommelier Banjo Harris-Plane topless, wearing giant orange sunglasses, bathed in orange light serving orange wine. Bluejuice played as the sun was going down.

Such is its pull since inception, the team is now in serious talks about touring the festival in Tokyo next year.

Hird and de Maria met drinking their way through Sydney's better wine bars when they spent endless hours talking and drinking through the night ("there were many sunrises," says de Maria).

It was one of these late, wine-fuelled conversations back in November 2012 between de Maria, James Hird, Mike Bennie (who has taken this year off from producing Rootstock to work on other projects), and Linda Wiss and Matt Young (both of Black Market Sake fame) that spawned Sydney's best-loved wine festival.

It's not a trade fair. We don't make any money. It's genuinely about connectivity.

De Maria never meant to stay quite so long in Australia. It was supposed to be a year's stopover when he arrived in 2009 but providence, and a bad ear infection, intervened. Sitting in a hospital waiting room, he happened to pick up a magazine featuring an article about chef-restaurateur Andrew Cibej's Surry Hills trattoria Vini.

It was one of the first places to offer what Sydneysiders at the time referred to as a "Melbourne-style restaurant" (read: small, dark and in a laneway with a lot of nice booze). Soon after meeting Cibej, the plans to start importing wine directly for the restaurant started rolling. Not long after that, the site for 121BC came up around the corner on Holt Street, which de Maria turned to a tiny, all-Italian wine bar and bottle shop. Sydney had never seen anything like it.

The Piedmont native has an uncanny and enviable ability of being able to romance just about anyone into his ideas, from getting Good Food Guide 2016 Chef of the Year Pasi Petanen (ex-head chef of Marque, of Cafe Paci fame) to run the enormous electricity-free kitchen featuring at this year's festival, to coercing Good Food Guide 2018 Food for Good recipient Jock Zonfrillo (Restaurant Orana, Adelaide) to rock up and cook Sunday lunch at the festival.


His trick, he says, is to target very busy people then trick them to do his bidding. "For instance, I followed Jock on Instagram, then I waited till he was somewhere really far away – like Brazil – then when it was the middle of the night there, I emailed him. And he said 'Yes', because he was jetlagged. That's how we got him."

This year, the team have built their own restaurant – something they haven't attempted before. It uses no electricity and can be broken down and transported. The idea, budget-permitting, is to break down the kitchen into its moving parts to donate to NSW communities in need after Rootstock is bumped out.

The whole thing is designed by Darlinghurst architect Silvester Fuller and sculptor Dion Horstmans, and will be managed by Petanen. "I've got Victor Liong (Lee Ho Fook) coming from Melbourne helping me on the wood-fire oven too," he says. "Last year I didn't even have a dishwasher and my socks were wet for two days."

Petanen, who partnered with de Maria earlier this year on the That's Amore pop-up bar in Melbourne, will be in charge of an entire program of Australian chefs whose menu offerings are wrapped in varying degrees of mystery. Ben Shewry, chef-owner of the Good Food Guide 2018 Restaurant of the Year for instance, won't tell anyone what he's going to be doing, other than the fact there will be smoke machines, dancing and possums.

That, though, is the very heart of Rootstock – a homegrown, elbows-deep immersion in Australian hospitality. "It's about promoting chefs and food and culture," says Hird. "I think we've progressed to a point where people know winemakers now and there are a lot of festival-goers who become friends with either the chef or the winemaker. And that connectivity is everything. That's what we all enjoy about hospitality. Hopefully, it's changing what people are eating and drinking and getting them onto our wavelength."

Connecting punters with chefs and winemakers the way Rootstock does is a fairly individual pursuit, and a very special one, for those that get a chance to experience it. "The best thing that could happen is that someone comes along and meets a producer like Andy Ainsworth and ends up going to the farm, y'know?" says Hird. "It's not a trade fair. We don't make any money. It's genuinely about connectivity."

Over the years the festival has grown, but the same ethos is at its heart – controlled chaos from what's on the glass to what's on the plate. A celebration of wild wine, wild food and wild ideas.

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: I like to bake to War on Drugs – Pasi Petanen

After-midnight snack: A Marmite muffin – James Hird

Kitchen weapon at work: My hands – Giorgio de Maria

Formative cookbook: Honey from a Weed by Patience Grey – James Hird

Non-cooking ninja skill: I can eat seven pizzas in one sitting – Giorgio de Maria

Rootstock Sat-Sun Nov 25-26, Carriageworks. 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh, rootstocksydney.com. Tickets $55-$95pp.