On Monday 16 December Steve Pannell signed a contract to buy the Protero vineyard at Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills from Frank and Rosemary Baldasso.
He went to get insurance but hit a brick wall: there was a Catastrophic fire warning.
Four days later the Cudlee Creek fire started; it took out five rows of the Protero Chardonnay but there’s smoke taint and it’s possible that no wines will be made from the vineyard from this.
The grapes are being tested and it’s too early to tell if it’s a wipeout.
“One day I’m optimistic, the next day I’m pessimistic. I really don’t know what the way forward is,” Steve says.
He took it hard; couldn’t bring himself to visit the Hills until three weeks ago.
“There is a great degree of trauma in kissing that goodbye,” he says.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of work and heartache. I think I was in shock. I’m still vacillating trying to deal with this thing.
“It’s not easy. I mean, I’ve never put a grape on the ground in my life. Never. That’s been very, very difficult for me.”
He has worked with Protero since 2005 and sourced all of his S.C. Pannell Nebbiolo from the vineyard over the years.
Steve’s in a defiant mood; he’s ready to change direction. There are 35 acres of vines in the Protero vineyard and he only wants to keep six of them.
The Pinot, Cabernet, Viognier, Merlot and Chardonnay will go.
“I won’t lose any sleep about them whatsoever,” he says.
He will plant more Nebbiolo.
“That’s my head on the chopping block,” he says.
Steve now also owns the Protero brand. Good news for a region overdue for some.
He made a promise to Frank and Rosemary he would keep the Protero label going.
“I care deeply about the two of them,” Steve says.
Every wine in the S.C. Pannell range that uses Hills fruit including Piccadilly Chardonnay, Lenswood Riesling and Pinot Gris will move to the Protero label.
“The whole idea with Protero is to eventually grow most of it,” he says.
Suits Steve because he’s uneasy about having his name on the label.
“In Australia we’re better known for how and who made the wine than where they made it from. That is a problem. I’m trying to get out of the way. It’s not about me. It’s about the vineyard, the landscape.”
Steve was at the Adelaide Hills Wine Show lunch two years ago. Someone asked him what he was doing there. “I’ve made 8,000 to 10,000 cases of wine from the Hills each year for the past 12 years,” he says.
He also won the 2014 Jimmy with Echunga Shiraz.
Steve has faith in Hills Nebbiolo.
“It’s resonating with consumers, especially younger ones,” he says.
“It’s similar to your parents listening to Helen Reddy and you going out and listening to Metallica.”
Steve says growing Pinot in the Adelaide Hills is a hard gig.
“I think the sadness with which we might not be able to grow world-class Pinot in the Adelaide Hills is quickly annihilated by the potential to grow Nebbiolo in the Hills,” he says.
Protero 2006 Nebbiolo, which Steve made, won three trophies at the 2011 Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show.
When Steve thought about buying Protero, one wine really sealed the deal: S.C. Pannell 2016 Nebbiolo.
“If there’s a problem with a lot of Australian winemakers, it’s that we’re still not making wines that we want to drink,” he says.
“Some winemakers make a pet nat but they don’t drink it. The truth is the 16 Nebbiolo is a wine I drink at home a lot. When I’m relaxed and not thinking and walk into my cellar and stick my hand out and pull a bottle out, it’s that.”
“Don’t know. But if that’s the wine I love to drink, then that’s the vineyard I should own. And that’s the direction I need to go in.”
The Protero farm shop is precious. It sells eggs, lemons, nuts and strawberries and Protero wines. Happily, it’s staying. So are Frank and Rosemary.
• This article first appeared WBM’s Friday ebulletin The Week That Was. To subscribe click here.