November 24, 2009
Krupp Brothers’ Winemaker Rises to New Heights
2009 marks Nigel Kinsman’s 15th vintage as a winemaker. For a 34 year-old who received his enology degree just six years ago, Kinsman’s logged more hours – with some of the most famous winemakers and wineries – than at first seems possible. He learned technical expertise alongside Peter Leske and got to the heart of organic and biodynamic farming at Cullen Winery.
Upon graduating, Kinsman hopped a plane to Chianti to work the 2003 harvest as a “poor struggling student winemaker.” Four planes and a train ride later, he was welcomed into Tolaini’s Tuscan cellars as the full-time winemaker. Because he didn’t speak a word of Italian, he learned to lead by example. And when Michel Rolland showed up as consulting winemaker, he learned the art of blending alongside the man he considers to possess one of the wine world’s most formidable palates.
No, Kinsman’s trajectory has been anything but traditional. It has, however, been 100% intentional, and it all began on the day he was almost fired from South Australia’s premier wine shop, Baily and Baily. At the time, Kinsman was studying classical music at the University of Adelaide, majoring in solo performance on the double bass.
The gig at Baily and Baily was meant to keep his wallet lightly padded, and he had little expectations of doing more than hauling cases of beer and stocking shelves, two things at which the six-foot two-inch Kinsman excelled. When the store manager told him they were going to have to let him go only six months into the position, the only question Nigel could ask was “How do I change your mind?”
The manager sent him home with three wines, three glasses and told him to turn in a report next shift. For twelve weeks, they repeated the exercise. “Suddenly I was fascinated with these unique regions, with new winemakers, with everything that went into the glass.” Nigel had fallen in love with wine, but he wasn’t initially convinced he could make a career out of it.
When he approached the head of the enology department about two years into his classical music degree, they weren’t convinced either. He had neither the sciences nor the science entry score to get into the department, which at the time was as competitive as the physiotherapy program.
Again, he asked, “What do I have to do to change your mind?” A faculty manager finally conceded that if he entered a straight science field and blitzed the class, he might have a chance. Nigel took a year off from his other classes, enrolled in Chemistry I and scored a 97 in the first year. The department allowed the transfer…”but it took a lot of pushing and shoving.”
When he wasn’t studying, Nigel spent his time at the wine shop honing his sensory skills and tasting every new wine he could get his hands on. “I will always maintain that people in wine retail get to taste a lot more wine than those who make it,” he says, and at his peak at Baily and Baily, Nigel was tasting some 300 wines a week.
After he transitioned into the enology program, Nigel left the wine shop and approached Nepenthe Winery winemaker Peter Leske. He told Leske he didn’t want to start his degree without any experience in the field. Leske brought him on for the 1997 harvest, and Nigel spent the hours of 6 pm to 4 am doing pump-overs and cleaning tanks and his daylight hours in the classroom. Hooked on the buzz of the physical labor, he stayed on at Nepenthe for five more harvests, all while studying. When he finished near top of his class every year, Kinsman credited the work with helping him see and engage in the entire winemaking process.
After his work with Leske, Kinsman targeted true artisan producers for work. He decided to extern in his final year with Trevor Mast at Mt. Langi Ghiran winery, one of Australia’s leading Shiraz producers. Trevor extolled the virtues of non-interventionalist winemaking: “He always allowed the nature of a specific vineyard to determine the character of the wine – a very valuable lesson for any winemaker!”
After completing his degree he landed a job with Vanya Cullen’s Cullen Wines. “This winery pulled out all the stops to make famous Bordeaux-style wines. Organic and biodynamic farming, cluster and berry sorting, racking barrel to barrel – there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to make the best wine possible.”
Cullen was his true introduction to luxury winemaking, and at the end of his nine-month stint, he was offered a full-time position. “But I wanted overseas experience,” Kinsman says, so he accepted what he thought was going to be a grunt work position at Chianti’s Tolaini winery. He took the cheapest, and therefore longest, route to Italy, a 30-hour flight from Perth to Pisa with about a half dozen stops in between. He arrived in Pisa and boarded a train to Tuscany.
A man named Saverio met him at the station, bundled everything into his car, drove him about 15 miles east of Sienna to the winery and said, “Right, you better get your boots on. We’re sorting Merlot.”
“Where’s the winemaker?” Kinsman asked.
“You’re the winemaker,” Saverio replied.
Three months before, the owner had fired the winemaker. Since Nigel was due to arrive soon, he decided the young Australian would fill the now vacant spot just fine.
An exhausted Kinsman found himself standing alone before a crew of six Italian and 14 Albanian men. He didn’t speak Italian. The Italians didn’t speak English. And the Albanians spoke zero English and very poor Italian. Somehow, “We managed to communicate. I led by example. We wrote a lot down. After I got over the shock of not having a winemaker and our language barriers, I got by really well.”
Pier Luigi Tolaini arrived a few weeks into Kinsman’s stint, and in perfect English let the new winemaker know that he had hired Michel Rolland to consult in the winery. Nigel had never heard of the famous flying winemaker, but he quickly learned that he had a lot to learn from the man he now considers to have one of the best palates in the industry.
Rolland had only two clients in Italy, Ornelaia and Tolaini. And PierLuigi had the Ferraris. In other words, Kinsman got to spend a lot of time in the cellar with Rolland, “and that’s where I learned the art of blending.”
After his first experience in Chianti, Kinsman took a full-time position at Australia’s renowned Hayshed Hill, but he returned to Tolaini every season for harvest. It was the perfect split for Kinsman between work in his home country and overseas. After four years in the Margaret River, however, he was ready to push his comfort zone again, to learn new skills in a new land. Which is how he and his wife Shae Cooney, found themselves high in the eastern hills of Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill making wine for Krupp Brothers’ expansive portfolio. As immersed in the wine world as Kinsman, Cooney eagerly accepted the new assignment and new adventure.
Former internist and vineyard expert Jan Krupp had been looking for someone “with horsepower,” and he liked the young winemaker’s impressive and well-developed resume. Kinsman liked Krupp’s passion for excellence, a drive to make luxury wines that in many ways mirrored Vanya Cullen’s intensity. As Nigel says, “Jan gives us every resource to make the best wine possible. And with Jan’s knowledge of every single block of his 1,000-plus acre vineyard, they get farmed to an amazingly exact and high standard.” Nigel has long believed that wines are “grown not made.” Feeling the concept certainly evidenced itself in the fruit coming form the rocky Stagecoach, Krupp and Krupp Brothers Vineyards’ volcanic soil series, Kinsman started as assistant winenmaker in 2006. By the 2007 harvest, Krupp had taken the helm as director of winemaking.
Its fruit rivals the famous To Kalon Vineyard, and today, the Krupps’ low-yielding vines provide fruit for many of the Napa Valley’s most prestigious names, including Caymus, Paul Hobbs and Pahlmeyer. Kinsman, however, keeps a small percentage of the choicest parcels for the Krupp Brothers’ handcrafted private labels: Veraison, Black Bart and Krupp. Kinsman’s goal is always to make wines rich with old world complexity and new world suppleness.