Adelaide Hills winemaker Tim Knappstein harvests his 60th consecutive vintage
Lenswood winemaker Tim Knappstein has an achievement in longevity few can match. This is how he made it and what he fears is next.
Winemaker, race car driver, pilot and family man – Tim Knappstein wears many hats. But it is his passion for viticulture that has made him a household name around the globe and a well-regarded pioneer of the Adelaide Hills wine region as we know it today.
After all, it was 39 years ago that Knappstein acquired a parcel of land along Croft Road in Lenswood where he established the region’s first cool-climate vineyard.
In the midst of harvesting his 60th consecutive vintage – an almost unheard of achievement in the Australian wine industry – Knappstein’s love for winemaking has remained unchanged.
It’s also what has made the 75-year-old one of the wine industry’s great survivors.
“I think I will probably die on the job, making wine possibly,” he says.
“The reality is that the perfect wine hasn’t been made yet…we are still trying to do it.
“Of course you have ‘wow’ moments every now and again and that moves your immediate appreciation of wines.
“But the perfect wine doesn’t exist and that’s because the game (of winemaking) always moves on … but that’s what makes it so fun.”
Born into a wine production family, Knappstein grew up in the Clare Valley where his grandfather, Joseph Knappstein, founded the Stanley Wine Company with three partners in 1893
While the business was bought out by 1912, the company remained in the family’s control until 1971, when Len Evans helped broker its sale to the HJ Heinz Company.
A big mistake, according to Knappstein who says the 1970s was somewhat of a boom and bust era for the industry
“It was a time when people could see that the wine industry was beginning to emerge and a number of companies sought to diversify,” he said.
“The thing was, that none of them really saw, which really surprises me, the capital that was required in wine stocks.
“I think they thought it was more like beer, where you make it on Friday and sell it on Monday.
“But I remember the Heinz guys, when they took over Stanley, they were absolutely staggered by the money tied up in the stocks, because they bought in beans and tomato sauce, chucked it in cans, sold it and that was it.
“So after selling two years’ worth of wine stock and not having anything behind it, I think that really took them by surprise.”
Despite everything, Knappstein remained as winemaker for Stanley until after the 1976 vintage, fashioning a brilliant array of rieslings under the famous Bin 5 and Bin 7 labels.
By then, he was in his fifties and ready for a new challenge.
Tim Knappstein with his wife Dale Knappstein. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
Joking that perhaps he was approaching a midlife crisis, Knappstein, following a trip to the Yarra Valley, left the family business in pursuit of a new adventure.
With his mother as a partner, Tim Knappstein established Enterprise Wines in 1976, quickly hitting his straps with a string of definitive Clare Valley Rieslings and supple, reserved cabernet sauvignons in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By the time the company was sold to Blass in 1986, which then sold to Mildara in 1991, the Knappstein’s were five years into their new project at Lenswood.
“Oddly enough it was a trip to the Yarra Valley in Victoria where I first became fascinated with really fresh and bright flavours from the early ripening varieties,” he said.
“In cool areas, some varieties just work … including pinot and shiraz, which shows spicier tones in cool areas. Chardonnay you can also grow anywhere.
“So I was really quite taken by the cool climate viticulture that I saw in the Yarra Valley and then realised that we had the same sort of climate here in the Adelaide Hills.
“So that’s how we became the first to grow grapes in Lenswood and started with chardonnay and the following year we put in pinot (grapes).”
Alongside other Hills wine pioneers, including Brian Croser, Geoff Weaver and Stephen and Prue Henschke, Knappstein remains one of the key influencers within the local cool-climate grape industry.
While he no longer owns a vineyard, albeit having retained a small lot of the original Lenswood block, Knappstein now purchases grapes from other Hills growers to produce his Riposte range of wines, alongside his son Nick.
“I still call the shots on winemaking and Nick and I go over there and work during vintage,” he says.
“So we work on our own vintage, fill barrels and sometimes when the shed is a bit tight, we go in at 2am and do a crush just for us when no one else is in the winery.
“So I’m still very much involved in winemaking and will as long as I can.”
Today, the Knappstein brand is one of around 90-plus wine labels produced in the Adelaide Hills – 90 more there was almost four decades ago.
It’s a frightening prospect according to the seasoned winemaker who believes the market is becoming crowded by those putting profit over product.
Tim Knappstein and wife Dale in one of their rally cars. Picture: Angryman Photography
While a huge supporter of innovation, Knappstein says he was particularly baffled at times by the younger generation who appeared to be reinventing “the wheel”.
“The art of winemaker is much more interesting now, it’s much straightforward compared to when I started out when we had basic, horrible equipment,” he said.
“That said, because it’s easier to make wine, the number of options you’ve got now when you walk into a bottle shop is quite frightening.
“The other thing is that we’ve gone back to mystify wine. I’m talking about the people who put on these labels with all this colourful language, like how the grapes were picked by the village virgins at 5am to describe the wines.
“I mean, as winemakers it’s not our job to mystify wine, but what they are doing is moving us back into wine wanker territory.”
Knappstein says his advice to new-age winemakers is to focus on longevity, which includes considering environmental factors such as bushfires. “If this warm period continues on, then probably we need to find cooler places to plant varieties such as sauvignon blanc, pinot and varieties that are temperature sensitive,” he said.
“So maybe this will be a tempranillo area in 100 years.
“But whatever happens, I am sure that the industry will adapt.”
Tim Knappstein wines in 1980. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe
His statement follows a year of uncertainty for the industry with about 60 Hills growers still fighting the aftermath of the 2019 Cudlee Creek fires.
Knappstein and his wife Dale were among the first residents in line of the fire, with their home located adjacent the Fox Creek Mount Bike Park.
Thankfully the couple was well equipped to save their home, and not only because of a 300,000-litre bore, two water tanks and a petrol-powered pump.
As participants in tarmac rally and car racing events, they also own Normex fireproof driving suits, balaclavas and shoes which, Knappstein says may have just made them the most fire-smart locals on the ground.
“We always decided that we were going to stay and defend and the fact that we had fire-proof clothing was a big part of it,” he said.
“So we pulled out our balaclavas and driving suits and off we went.
“That said, we were very that we had a very competent fire unit from Forestry SA come and park in the driveway, without them we would have lost our shed for sure.”
While the Cudlee Creek blazes marked the most significant bushfire in Knappstein’s lifetime, he said natural disaster were a part of life in country SA.
“The worst disaster – and I have seen two that have pretty much affected the whole wine industry in SA – one was in 1974 when downy mildew arrived and people didn’t understand how to stop it at that point,” he said.
“The other really horrible year was 2011 which again was a really wet year which saw down mildew, and powdery mildew, and that was interesting as a lot of the grape growers in the Adelaide Hills had never to deal with that before.
“It was a learning thing that caught them flat-footed.
“In a fire you’d be very unlucky to lose everything but with the wet seasons, we had growers that didn’t pick one grape.”
Having witnessed plenty of ups and downs within the industry over the years, Knappstein says his tip for surviving year after year was finding a balance between work and play.
For him, he says, it’s always been his love for adrenalin sports, offering a change of pace between waiting for fruit to grow.
“A lot of winemakers are involved in wine 24/7 but I’ve always had interests elsewhere and cars have been a big thing for me,” he says.
“The truth is, I like going fast and also used to fly and used to be a national champion glider pilot before I ever started flying things with engines.
“Maybe I got into it because I needed some hobbies to pass the time between waiting for my wine to be ready but it’s also offered me a great work life balance.
“Because that’s the thing about wine making; it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
Wine lovers will be able to purchase Knappstein’s 60th vintage series from March next year.