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Grosset and Toole: The keys to a winemaking marriage

Jeffrey Grosset and Stephanie Toole are not the first winemaking couple the world has known, and—despite my own belief that the key to a successful marriage also starts the car that takes you away from it now and then—they surely won’t be the last.

However, they are one of the more exceptional. Theirs is a partnership defined by separation, strongest at the points where its intersections diverge. He has his wines, and she has hers, and having spent a couple of days recently tasting through a number of both, I’m intrigued by the context  that the wines of one are given by association with the other.

The tasting was framed as a marker for 30 years of Toole’s Mt Horrocks label and 42 years of Grosset’s eponymous marque, but its focus was really on conversion, not chronology.

Across two days, tight brackets of six vintages of each of their wines were tasted, his alongside hers, to tell the story of their pursuit of organic and biodynamic certifications. The oldest two wines in each bracket came from a time of minimal-input farming and winemaking but no official organic certification; the middle pair from vintages after organic certification had been gained; and the youngest wines wore both organic and biodynamic stamps on their labels.

The tasting managed to tell the story Grosset and Toole intended—that the mountain of work and buckets of money required by the pursuit of these certifications was worth it, and already-great wines would have every chance in an organic and biodynamic future to be even greater. But it also managed to tell a story that may not originally have been part of their plan.

Grosset & Horrocks: Difference and permanence 

Grosset Mount Horrocks

Photography courtesy of Grosset Wines

Watching them taste side by side is a masterclass in personal partnership and professional separation, the common ground they share, and the points at which they differ on the details. That even extends to how they first met. He says he noticed her shoes. She says she wasn’t wearing the shoes he describes. Either way, a connection was made, and permanence was put on the agenda.

That meant that New Zealand-born, Western Australia-based Toole was moving to the Clare Valley. Grosset had already established himself as the preeminent Riesling producer in the country. The wines he produced from the Watervale and Polish Hill subregions did more to delineate the Clare Valley than any others, their reputation as the most thrilling Rieslings in the country unthreatened.

So, when Stephanie decided she wanted to make her own wines, finding clear air was key.

In the early days, there was a small and barely evolved element in the wine trade convinced that hers were Grosset wines in disguise, that he was the Svengali pulling strings in the background. They were people who’d clearly never met Stephanie Toole.

Clear demarcation is a fundamental part of how they operate, even when they farm the same dirt and make wine within the same four walls. At the Watervale site they share, his Riesling vineyard sits on one slope, hers on another; his north-facing, hers south. He will do multiple picks through his vineyard; she feels the wine she wants to make is a single-pick snapshot.

They even have their own piles of crap. They have separate manure-maturing sites on the vineyard. Stephanie calls them “shit pits,” but because of the New Zealand accent—which, like herpes, is something caught and never lost—when she says it, it sounds like an Olympic event.

In the winery, two identical crushers stand side by side, but no berry that ends up in a bottle of Grosset ever goes through the Mt Horrocks crusher, and vice versa. “Mine’s just a bit faster,” says Grosset with quiet glee. 

Sparking off each other

It’s a dynamic that drives them. And it clearly works. There’s a gentle friction in their winemaking relationship that probably wouldn’t exist if they were both working toward the same end. It’s two people who love and respect each other, holding hands as they walk separate paths. They would both make brilliant wines in isolation, but they make even better wines because they spark off each other.

 

When the tasting was over, Grosset revealed one last wine, a wild-fermented and lightfooted Shiraz. “ Don’t forget whose idea it was to do a wild ferment,” insisted Toole as Grosset poured. A wry smile that clearly sits comfortably on the Grosset face breaks out.

“I get a lot of my best ideas when Stephanie speaks.” 

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