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Rebel wine chat: “Heroes” James Thomas

James Thomas is originally from the UK where he grew up around farming. His grandparents were part of the green revolution and his granddad at 94 is still growing flowers and potatoes. His parents planted a two-acre hobby vineyard when he was a teenager, so there are no surprises as to what influenced him to become a grower and winemaker. James has been in Australia since 2004, gaining an oenology degree at Latrobe University.

We spent a couple of hours in the vineyard with James where he generously shared his time, passion, organic vineyard management techniques and a good old car boot tasting.

The “Heroes” Vineyard

The “Heroes” vineyard is located in the Otway-Ranges, 120 KMS from Melbourne in the Geelong region. In 2016 James took over the lease making a commitment to organic practices with plans to be fully certified. He grows Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and recently planted Chardonnay. Except for the newly planted Chardonnay vines, the vineyard is unirrigated with the site receiving an average rainfall of 780mm.

It’s mid January and the “Heroes” Vineyard is brimming with life, and not just healthy vines.  James lets the vineyards get messy in summer, with weeds such as clover and dandelions.

What’s your philosophy in the vineyard?

James: I now farm organically and have a holistic approach. Everything works together to preserve and nurture the soil food web through nutrient cycling. The weeds both compete with and provide nourishment, for example dandelions draw calcium up from deep in the soil and clover provides nitrogen.  Dead weeds then mulch back into the soil and it all works together to keep the biology going. Funghi and bacteria are encouraged and all help nourish the soil.

I have a strong belief in soil regeneration, to leave the soil in better biological health than when I found it.

What inputs do you use in the vineyard?

James: Since taking over the vineyard I haven’t added any fertilisers or compost. I have used organic herbicide but I find it useless. You see it working within six hours but then anywhere from two days to two weeks everything has grown back. It’s a testament to the health of the soil. I actually don’t consider most of them weeds, as it’s all going back into the soil, nutrient cycling and nourishing the soil food web.

To prevent downy mildew we use copper sulphur. We use low rates, 100 – 150 grams per hundred litres. It’s all about being pragmatic when to do it. In the first years we used more but now we’re more cautious and slowly weaning ourselves off it. I’m working towards the point where we can fight everything with biological controls.

Is there a place for herbicides and pesticides in vineyard management?

James: I’ve been into organics for a long time now but before then the use of Roundup (herbicide) was common. Previously when working with chemicals you didn’t see them as bad but now there is more and more evidence about how bad they really are and I think it should be banned. Farming organically takes a little bit more effort because the easy way is to just wait for the problem and then spray to eradicate it. For me, once the balance of organics started tipping in our favour we couldn’t get enough of it. I’m hooked.

How is the 2019 vintage shaping up?

James: You don’t have to be an expert in the vineyard to know that the vines are looking pretty sweet, I’m very happy so far but it could still go all wrong. It’s not a large crop, bunches are small (Pinot Noir), but they are looking good, I’m really chuffed. We are looking at mid-March to pick.

What’s the difference between the labels “Heroes” and “Anti-Hero”?

James: The fruit for our premium Heroes label is 100% sourced from this vineyard. The “Heroes” Vineyard is fruit all organically grown and provenance guaranteed. The name is taken from David Bowie’s classic song, “Heroes”. Anti-Hero is the brand’s second label.  The fruit is either declassified fruit from the Heroes vineyard or sourced from local organic or sustainable growers. It means we can offer two price points in the market and we can increase our volume. My wines are made with minimal intervention; natural ferments, unfined and unfiltered with sulphur levels below the organic threshold.

Both labels sold out in 2018.

The “Heroes” brand label design is contemporary, minimalistic and classic. White label with black font.  

Before settling on winemaking, James wanted to study art at uni. He designed the labels, featuring his daughter. He describes the design as edgy Banksy.  Very cool.

Tell us about your charity side project, Share the Dignity 

James: The 2017 Shiraz was not intense enough to make into red wine so we made a sparkling rosé or Blanc de noirs. The wine was a fluke of the season so we decided to donate to charity Share the Dignity. In a bad year, it made a lovely wine and the rosé that year was fantastic. We’re going to keep it going as a side project but it’s not under the “Heroes” label. 

What’s your favourite drink?

James: Anything with a B – Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux and beer!  I’m really fascinated by Burgundy and Pinot Noir, so I like the wines that I produce to be more delicate and perfumed. 

What’s the next phase for “Heroes”?

James: We’re setting up a winery in the shed at the top of driveway, looking forward to that. Next time you come, we’ll be able to do some barrel tastings. Personally, I’m on a quest to make Australia’s best Pinot Noir. Who knows  … maybe one day I’ll get there.

Next time you open a bottle of “Heroes” wine don’t forget put on David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

Shop Curated Heroes pack in our General’s Choice pack