Penfolds pin-up winemaker

By Winsor Dobbin
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Penfolds Magill Estate Winery, Magill, Adelaide, South Australia,

Penfolds Magill Estate Winery, Magill, Adelaide, South Australia,

Penfolds Grange - an Australian icon

He’s a winemaker, an award-winning artist, a lover of fine Burgundies, a surfer, deep thinker and a former Cleo Bachelor of the Year finalist. Meet renaissance man Tom Riley, the new face of the Penfolds red winemaking team.

You can’t miss Riley, who is being used in an advertising campaign in newspapers, airports and everywhere wine is sold. Riley is only 28 (and a member of the team headed by Peter Gago, Steve Lienert and Alan Baldwin for just two years), but he’s already being mentioned as a potential guardian of the great Grange tradition and fellow winemakers talk of his infectious enthusiasm, passion and natural ability.

Right now Riley is overseeing the red wines in the Koonunga Hill and Thomas Hyland ranges. Unlike many winemakers, who can be obsessive about their craft, he’s keeping his feet firmly on the ground and trying to maintain the life/work balance that eludes so many of his contemporaries.

He still tries to catch a wave every weekend, is a keen fisherman who travels to New Zealand each year with his father, is a voracious reader, listener to Radio National, an artist and photographer, when he’s not making wine, attending Penfolds re-corking clinics or involved in marketing.

He began painting at the age of 14, inspired by his artist mother. Today, he amuses himself with photography, working with different materials, including oils, acrylics and house paints, as well as creating multi-media works.

“Creating art can be exhausting because you become so focused on what you are doing,” he says. “It’s real mental exertion, and its hard to find the time that serious art demands, although I can still appreciate it and have an aesthetic understanding of it.”

Wine, however, is in his blood.

At the age of four he fell into an open red wine fermenting vat at the Coorinja winery in the Perth Hills that has been in his mother’s family since the 1880s.

His father, now a professor of psychiatry at the University of Western Australia, planted vines when he worked as a GP at Pemberton and was later the founding president of the Pemberton Vignerons’ Association and a TAFE lecturer in wine.

“I remember hanging around my mother’s family’s winery when I was a very young boy – and I’ve never forgotten any of those harvest time activities or the evocative smells of ports and sherries from the winery,” Riley says. “They were etched into my memory from an early age.”

He finds few parallels between art and winemaking, although he says both are about “trying to find a balance”.

Riley says he loves the educational role that comes with being a high-profile winemaker and loves encouraging younger drinkers to sample and understand wine.

“I find it most important that you can take what you understand and taste and put that into someone else’s head efficiently,” he says.  “You don’t need a lot of jargon and meaningless winespeak. You just take people through what they taste in a wine, mainly through comparisons between different styles.

“Wine is not just a drink for older people – it needs to be made accessible because there is a wine for everyone. When it comes down to it it’s just a bloody drink that’s great with food.  It’s important people don’t get too wound up about it.

“There are more intellectual wines that can stimulate people who want real quality, but you can’t forget its original purpose was as a drink.”
Riley says he never thinks about the possibility of eventually becoming the man behind Grange.

“I’ve never had that frame of ambition,” he says. “I’d rather concentrate on doing well what I’m doing now. I don’t feel as though that is a necessary end, and besides Grange is the result of a very good teamwork process – I’m happy to play a small role in that team.

“There’s a terrifying sense of responsibility being involved in creating something like Grange, and at no stage do you ever feel worthy,” he says. “It’s scary and you don’t expect to completely understand it, but I’m learning from excellent people.”
 

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  • Barossa Valley (SA)

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