Dave Cush, winemaker, Gerler Wines and City Winery
For me, the care, time, love and energy I put into making wine is its own reward ...
If you ask us, being a winemaker is a dream job. We love consuming wine, so it stands to reason that we’d love making it too. Dave Cush is living our dream. As head winemaker of upstart Australian label Gerler Wines, Dave travels Australia harvesting fruit from the country’s best winemaking regions and turning it into wine. This nomadic approach is becoming a popular trend in the global winemaking community, and Gerler Wines is earning a reputation for its varied and, dare we day it, delicious product. This isn’t the only area of innovation for Gerler Wines, which recently opened Brisbane’s first urban winery City Winery in Fortitude Valley. We spoke to Dave about how he got his start in the industry and the benefits of bringing the winemaking process into the heart of the city.
To start, we’d love to know what drew you to the world of winemaking! Was it a career path that you always envisioned you’d pursue?
No, not at all. I was studying Arts/Law at UQ in St Lucia in the late 90s and had a job in a wine shop in Toowong. I was loving the bits of info I was picking up about wine whilst dreading going to uni. I withdrew from my degree and enrolled in the Viticulture course at Charles Sturt University in Wagga. I probably should have finished my arts degree in German, but I was desperate to change my path!
Before founding Gerler Wines, how did you go about breaking into the industry and learning the ins-and-outs of viticulture?
Whilst in Wagga I met my future wife, Kris, who was just completing the Wine Science degree there. I followed her around for a couple of years and then in 2001 we moved to her parents’ farm on the east coast of Tasmania. Kris built the winery and we started making the wines together with the first on-site vintage in 2002. Shortly thereafter we got married and started a family, so from then I gradually took over more of the winemaking duties. Kris remains my technical support and sounding board for my winemaking decisions. Tasmania was a wonderful place to get my grounding in viticulture and winemaking at the premium end of the market.
The story of Carl Gerler is fascinating; especially for those who didn’t know Brisbane had a history in viticulture! What was it about Carl Gerler’s work and ethos that inspired you to name your own winemaking venture after him?
I think Carl and I would’ve got along well. He obviously had a solid work ethic and single-minded vision of what he wanted to achieve and went to great lengths, doing whatever was necessary to make the best wines he possibly could. We have this in common.
Gerler Wines is unique in the fact that is sources its grapes from various regions and growers across Australia. What inspired you to take this initial nomadic approach instead of planting roots in a singular location at the start?
Actually, there are many brands who source grapes from various regions, we are just the first to bring it into an urban winery context in Australia, using fruit from various different regions and states. This model allows us to work with new and traditional varieties from locations where they grow best, so I get to compress my learning curve when it comes to these wines. In vintage 2019 I’ve made wine from five varieties I’ve never worked with before, which I simply couldn’t do if I had to grow my own fruit.
What are some pros and cons of making wine in this way?
Apart from the ability to learn quickly, the biggest pro for me with this model is that I get to meet and do business with many new industry colleagues each year. The wine industry at our end of the market is very tightly knit so I can reach out to new people all the time through friends, old and new. If I come across a wine I’d like to make, it’s usually only two or three degrees of separation from an existing friend to track down the source of the fruit. On the down side, fruit security can be a problem, although this risk can be mitigated by keeping the communication lines open with growers and brokers. Vintage is also a logistical nightmare, sourcing fruit from all over, with time sensitivity at every step. I also miss my family during vintage, but that’s nothing new – vintage widows are a real thing!
Your latest project, the newly open City Winery in Fortitude Valley, is one of a handful of urban wineries in Australia. What was it about the idea of starting a winery in the inner city that was appealing to you?
Making wine is easy – use the best fruit you can, pay attention to the winemaking, don’t cut corners, and the wine will turn out well. Selling the wine at a good margin, that was always the most difficult part of the industry. For ten years, my wife and I had been thinking that if we could bring as much of the winery/cellar door experience into the city as possible, it would give us access to a much wider market than the traditional rural cellar door setting. I still can’t believe we’ve finally done it!
What are some of the key tenets of your winemaking philosophy?
Respect for the fruit sits at the centre of how I make wine. With the exception of Chardonnay, I like to keep the manipulation of style to a minimum and let the fruit do the talking. After all, I’m trying to let the vineyards have a voice so if I get too involved with putting my stamp on the wines, that message is at risk of being drowned out. There is another winemaking artefact that pops up in my Grenache and Shiraz wines, though – I just love what the use of whole-bunch fermentation does to those wines, but I don’t feel it’s overpowering. This central tenet also means that the use of new oak is fairly sparse. So far, it’s only Chardonnay and Shiraz that have seen any new oak, but this vintage we’re adding Pinot Noir and Montepulciano to the fold so they might see a lick of new oak too.
Australia’s wine industry seems to be going from strength to strength! What are some industry trends that you predict will become more prevalent over the next five years?
The most important trend I see in both food and wine is the consumer’s desire to be informed about the provenance of what they’re eating and drinking. People are more interested in the story of the product than previously, including the stories of the people involved in its production. We couldn’t do what we do without our amazing growers, and that’s just one facet we want our consumers to be aware of when thinking about all the moving parts that have to work in concert to create a glass of wine. There is also strong interest in organic and biodynamic wines, as well as preservative-free. Given the high demand for this fruit, I’ve struggled to find any significant quantities of organic or biodynamic fruit but I am committed to making (or at least trying to make) at least one preservative-free wine each vintage. This vintage it’s Nero d’Avola. I don’t see the ‘natural’ wine ‘movement’ declining either – but apart from a bit of dabbling with things like Petillant Naturel (pet nat) wines, at this stage I’m not too interested in pursuing this market strongly. It’s still a small market compared to the mainstream and for me those kinds of wines can be hit and miss.
Finally, what is it about your job that gives you the most satisfaction?
Seeing consumers, friends and family derive enjoyment from something that I’ve put everything into is definitely very rewarding, but it’s also a bit of an ego trap. Besides, I don’t think that what I do is all that special, it’s mostly cleaning! For me, the care, time, love and energy I put into making wine is its own reward. I feel very fortunate to do something I love professionally, and not a day goes by where I don’t give thanks for that.