Penfolds winemaker talks about wine, life and (of course) the pandemic

By Shelley Boettcher

One of the world’s best-known winemakers, Peter Gago — chief winemaker for Penfolds — is always on the move. This week, China, next week Canada. Maybe a couple of countries in between.

But the pandemic has, of course, has flipped 2020 upside down for him, just like it has for all of us.

Instead of meeting with collectors and wine trade in person at festivals and tastings in every corner of the planet, he’s reaching out by Zoom.

Yet one thing remains consistent, at least in wineland: on Nov. 20 every year — including this one — wherever Penfolds wines are sold around the world, the winery will release its latest lineup of wines.

As always, it’s impressive.

Located in Magill, South Australia, just eight kilometres from Adelaide Hills, Penfolds was started in 1844 by Dr. Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, who took over the winery after her husband’s death in 1870.

The Penfolds winery in Magill, Australia

Under her lead, the winery grew exponentially and by the time she retired in 1884, the winery was producing one-third of all the wines made in Australia. 

In 1931, a young fellow named Max Schubert joined the winery as a messenger boy. By 1948, he had worked his way up to become Chief Winemaker, and by the 1950s, he had created the legendary Penfolds Grange, a Shiraz-based red wine that, at first, was dismissed by his peers.

Schubert, however, This past June, an Australian collector paid a record $103,000 AUS (close to the same in Canadian dollars) — the highest price ever paid for a bottle of Australian wine.

In a news story about the sale published in Business Insider Australia, Jeremy Parham, general manager of Langton’s, the auction house that handled the sale, “described Penfolds as an ‘underdog story,’ as its first Chief Winemaker Max Schubert began creating the Grange as an experiment. ‘At the time, Australian winemakers were mainly making fortified wines,’” Parham said in a statement to the publication.

‘“He believed in his conviction, and he kept making Grange, although he was actually told to stop making it by his supervisors. He was a rebel, and the wine world can forever be grateful for his refusal to do what he was told.’”

Gago’s own story may not be quite so rebellious but it’s certainly interesting. Born in England, Gago has family roots in Portugal but grew up in Australia. After graduating from high school, he studied education with a plan to become a teacher.

Some friends introduced him to red wine, and Gago enjoyed the wines so much, he began collecting: a few bottles here and there. 

His wife, prominent Australian politician Gail Gago, realized his passion for wine and encouraged him to try winemaking.

He did, graduating at the top of his class and the rest, as the expression goes, is history. In 1989, Gago joined Penfolds and by 2002, he was named Chief Winemaker, only the fourth person to hold the position in the winery’s long existence.

Over the next decade or so, Gago grew the brand into a globally recognized name. Collectors include celebrities such as Diana Krall, Simply Red, Pink and Tool frontman (and winemaker) Maynard James Keenan.

And there are global partnerships, too: a collaboration with French Champagne house Thienot, a project in Bordeaux and another in California, made easier thanks to the fact the winery is now owned by Treasury Wine Estates.

But with travel at a standstill, there’s only so much a person can do these days. When he’s not on Zoom or at the winery, what’s Gago up to? What does a man of his stature do to stay busy (safely) during a pandemic? 

Turns out he’s been cleaning his garage. “My wife thought I’d never clean up that garage. She thought I’d die first or we’d move before that,” he says with a laugh. 

Don’t feel bad for the man. Turns out that part of that garage was converted into a wine cellar. A rather special wine cellar, filled with rare vintages that Gago finally has the time to drink and enjoy.

“I’ve been rediscovering Penfolds wines from the 1950s and 1960s that I had never touched,” he says. “I bought them for next to nothing when I was a long-haired Melbourne university student. I’ve been collecting wines for 40-some years now and I’ve collected quite a few.”

At $100,000-some a bottle for those 1950s, it doesn’t take much to see that it’s an investment that has paid off rather well.