Young Gun: Michael J Corbett, United Nations


Young Gun Winemaker: Australian & NZ Grapegrower & Winemaker Magazine

By Daniel Whyntie, 

February 2017 – Issue 637, www.winetitles.com.au

Vanguardist is an eccentric example of what a multinational wine business can look like in the globalized economy. With an eye on a distinct premium market, winemaker Michael John Corbett moved from New Zealand to Australia to start a wine business with two friends living in France. Daniel Whyntie reports.

Young Gun Winemaker: Michael J Corbett

Image courtesy of Daniel Purvis

WHAT STARTED as a collaborative project between three friends shows how a strong vision can grow a company; even when its members are in different countries. The group slowly came to a realisation, along many late nights in the sleepy town of Hawkes Bay, that they held the same ideals about wine.

THE G3 SUMMIT

Alexandra Maurisset (Australia), Edouard Maurisset-Latour (France) and Michael Corbett (New Zealand) met in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand in 2012. Ali and Ed were vintage courting at the time while working at Craggy Range. 
Similar ideals, passions and beliefs led to drinking many wines over the next few months while the embryo of Vanguardist was being formed. The three then separated to different parts of the globe, with only a pact that at the right time and place they would launch a small-batch wine business.
“Friends would tell you that I’m not the most patient person, so in 2013 I tried to pull off a Riesling batch ex Central Otago destined for the Australian market (where Ali and Ed where at the time). I really only had a backpack and a guitar at this vagabond point of my life, but we got awfully close,” Corbett said. 
The next opportunity arose 18 months later when Corbett returned from France to the Hunter Valley, determined to make this one stick. Ali and Ed were now in Bordeaux, where was Ed finishing his Masters of Wine Business. “When I said I would make a skin contact, barrel fermented and minimal additive Semillon they weren’t quite as excited.
But they did trust in me and so we created the new wine business Vanguardist,” Corbett said. Ed comes from a long history of producers and negotiants that started in Burgundy, dating back to the late 1700s with strong ties to Louis Latour. Alexandra also has a Masters in Wine Business from Adelaide University.

TARGETING THE BEST

Before they picked a grape Corbett and his team knew what their demographic was and what their customer looked like. The business was reverse engineered based on one simple goal, to target the best restaurants in the world. 
“There are almost limitless examples of very good classic styles in all the markets we were looking to penetrate. I didn’t really want to compete in this segment,” he said.
“By targeting great restaurants we are trying to align ourselves with things we love and believe in. Simple ingredients with integrity, often handled with a minimal intervention and with the occasional avant-garde flair.”
During Corbett’s travels he had produced and experienced many great alternatives to the norm, things that bought interest, texture, power of aroma and flavour with feminine structure.
“These were wines that I loved drinking, and complimented the types of food that I really enjoy. This is really where I found my calling, and somewhere I could pull all of my experience to attempt a new wave of textural wines that jump out of the glass with aromatic finesse,” he said.
Corbett focuses on creating wines that will lift many cuisines rather than dominate, or sit in the background. And Vanguardist; who hit this mark just as often in the form of a backstreet cantina, as a fine dining restaurant; are now ready for stage two of the on-premise focus, sending wine to Europe in 2017.
"Here Ali and Ed will look to target many high end restaurants through France and the UK with small volumes of our Vanguardist range. This will give us a great idea of where we are sitting in a more global scale, and will provide feedback on where we can continue to improve into the future,” he said.

THE LONG GAME

Here the expat nature of the team is as an advantage for the long term goal, though it’s not always the case as the daily need to communicate through very early or very late Skype meetings makes living apart Corbett’s biggest challenge. 
“The business is likely to take five years to scale to the growth we need to support the three of us. Ali is taking care of marketing, web design and Victoria. Ed plays a supporting role with sales and I currently make the calls in regards to viticulture and winemaking. Hopefully in the future Ali and Ed will have greater opportunity to be part of these other processes,” Corbett said. 
The plan is long term, with balanced growth. Vanguardist is currently only producing a small batch, but this is by design, the ideal of sustainability and a managed controlled growth is not just an environmental concern that dictates how the vines are grown, but an ethic Corbett takes with him into all aspects of his life. 
“We started with 150 dozen in 2014, doubled in 2015 and have grown to 800 dozen in 2016. In the scheme this is still very small and we need to continue growth but likely at a slower rate with the goal to reach 1500 cases in 2020,” he said. 
While Clare is the current base for Vanguard, the future remains open “I think that proximity to market will finally dictate the best place to be based, and I really hope that Clare becomes more and more relevant to the SA wine tourist market,” he said.

VANGUARD OF CHANGE

Corbett’s concern with sustainable growth and the effects it will have on farming came about practically as he watched the world around him change. “As a keen fresh water angler in Hawkes Bay I watched the changing of rivers due to unsustainable farming (both irrigation projects and effluent). Damming projects, algae, didymo (Didymosphenia geminata, commonly known as didymo or rock snot) all left the balance out of whack and this had happened in such a short time in my life. As I watched space-like suits started being adorned to spray vineyards,” he said.
Originally Corbett felt strongly about having complete control of his vineyard; and that meant owning land where he could make calls like a horse instead of a tractor.
But in 2016 he had a defining moment when considering the best approach forward for Vanguardist and his own impact on viticulture. Corbett had a good experience with organics and biodynamics and held a clear sense of the importance for sustainability throughout his business, but if he wanted to have an impact on a regional or national level he needed to bring others in.
“Rather than our initial approach which was to try to start purchasing our own land to take full control, I am now working closer than before with growers to bring the philosophy into their properties and start to slowly bring a more sustainable change to the growing regime,” he said.
“If we can have small wins along the way I believe we will be able to ‘convert’ vineyards to a more organic and sustainable practice and also use some biodynamic principles. If this is the case our impact will be far greater than just creating our own systems and viticultural ideals.”

ESPECIALLY A LACTATING COW

Vanguardist’s growth is not motivated solely by profit, but by a clear vision about the impact he wants to have on the industry as a whole. Corbett currently works as a consultant with a number of vineyards and is slowly beginning the process of converting them; starting at point zero and looking really long term.
“From a biodynamic perspective, it’s really difficult, because it’s not just a changing of product, it’s a changing of culture. For instance, the first time I saw biodynamics in New Zealand in 2005, I thought it was fucking crazy,” he said.
“These guys are talking about the constellations, they’re talking about the moon and the stars, and they’re talking about putting cow horns under the ground and digging them up and putting that on the vine, it was just... this is just fucking stupid.”
Fresh out of University Corbett’s academic eye dismissed biodynamics; and it wasn’t until working in France with a biodynamic convert, talking about it in a vineyard, that Corbett thought maybe there was some merit in it.
“I was like, ‘Maybe if we stir the water these certain ways we can add energy to water’. We look at the different hydrogen bonds and stuff like that from a pure chemistry point,  look at the bonding and what happens with water and how strong that bond is, what happens if we physically agitate it? Maybe we can change the viscosity of water through stirring it,” he said. “Maybe the energy that happens underneath the ground during winter, from a horn from a lactating cow, which has a lot of the energy is just going literally through the horn of the cow, especially a lactating cow... maybe that can have a real impact.” Instead of being adverse, Corbett revelled in the experimentation knowing worst case scenario was he would have spent a bunch of time in the vineyard.
But if it does work then he’s created something that used everything around it as efficiently as possible, while creating as little waste, and built a business that is in tune with its resources and its environment.