From sommelier to wine producer
Traditionally, January is a time to reflect on life goals and possibly start exploring something new. Sommelier turned wine producer Liam O’Brien did exactly that in 2007 when he took on the lease of a vineyard in the Macedon Ranges area of Central Victoria, Australia, and set up Athletes Of Wine with fellow sommelier Matt Brooke. Liam now produces a range of great-tasting wines including white, rosé, red and sparkling.
To celebrate the start of 2023, and all the opportunities that a fresh new year brings, we caught up with Liam to find out how he found the transition from city sommelier to rural vigneron. And we promise it’s an inspiring story!
Liam O'Brien at Marion Wine Bar in Fitzroy and his Athlete Of Wine 'Alto! Alto!!' Bianco
What’s the story behind Athletes Of Wine?
I started Athletes Of Wine in 2007 with my great friend and fellow sommelier Matt Brooke. We leased a tiny vineyard and taught ourselves how to grow grapes. Along the way we have been lucky enough to have some great winemakers help us make the wines. Although Matt left the business last year, he will always be part of the fabric of the wines in bottle, and those yet to be made.
Athletes Of Wine is a really interesting name, how did it come about?
It all started for us as young sommeliers working at the iconic restaurant, Circa at The Prince St Kilda. It had a truly world-class wine list, over 1,500, with verticals and horizontals of the best producers, regions and vintages from across the globe. As mad sports fans, we could think of nothing better than to be paid to do something you loved and would do anyway. As lovers of wine, we viewed the task of mastering that wine list as the equivalent of giving over your body and mind to your chosen sport. You needed to train hard every day to build your physical skills and understanding of the game. So, as not-quite-good-enough athletes ourselves, we decided if we couldn't be professional sportsmen, we would become athletes of wine.
Why did you decide to take on the challenge of Athletes Of Wine?
I always had a nostalgic, or maybe even romantic, vision of being a farmer with vines, olives, livestock etc. I think I wanted to be landed gentry! I also have a deep love of science, particularly biology. As well as a deep love of food. Which all takes you to agriculture and the human endeavour required to both feed yourself but also potentially to bring pleasure. And wine brings all of that together, wrapped up in a whole lot of art vs. science stuff. In short, I took on the challenge of leasing the vineyard because I needed to know what the romance was and the reality of agriculture and vineyard work.
So, what is the reality of being a part-time farmer and tending the vines?
I love where I am at. I am proud of my achievements. But if I could change one thing, I would have left restaurants sooner and become a full-time vigneron. The balance of late nights in the city and early starts in the country is hard to manage. When we started, we were young enough to finish at 1am at the restaurant and spend all day in the vineyard. I can't do it now! The other tough time was during the crazy busy period of November and December. I can't think of a worse time to be flat out in the restaurant and needing to manage the crucial pre-flowering work in the vineyard.
What are the joys of managing a vineyard?
I'll never forget being head down, trying to prune as quickly and carefully as I could in the peace and calm of a mid-winter's day and hearing something quite unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I can't think of a way to describe it. It was the sound of murmuration. A flock of birds seemingly just 20 or 30 meters above me, twisting and turning so that their wings made the sounds of whispers, gusts and reverberation.
Apart from once-in-a-lifetime moments like that, I love the feeling of creating order from chaos when you complete pruning. I love the relief of putting the nets on, knowing that you are so close to getting a result from your hard work. I love the abundance of harvest time. And I will admit I allow myself a degree of self-congratulation for farming without herbicides or pesticides.
As the driving force behind Athletes Of Wine and tending your own vines, is there anything in the wine world that is pleasing you at the moment?
The wine industry and wine media, in Australia at least, seem to think that "we should be drinking more of variety x or style y", often with no influence. But I'm happily surprised to see guests coming into the restaurant and bar and asking for more savoury whites and medium-weight reds than they used to. They're even asking for lower alcohol reds which is a revelation.
Anything frustrating you? Or, in your opinion, being underplayed?
In a country where the vast majority of wines are sealed with a screwcap, I am angry about the lack of a recycling industry committed to maximising the resources we dig out of the ground by reclaiming and reusing them. Luckily, private industry seems to be way ahead of the Australian government, and I am hopeful this will change. In the meantime, I am switching from screwcap to cork for my wines and have resumed production of wine in cask and keg to bypass this problem altogether.
Finally, we couldn’t let you go without getting your thoughts on decanting. Do you decant your wines? Any tips?
I am a notorious under-decanter of wine, but I am doing it more and more now that I have my eto wine decanter. I have recognised that high quality young white wines are potentially more in need of decanting than any other style. If you're unsure whether you need to decant to remove the wine from any sediment – it might sound obvious – but hold the bottle up to a bright light and see how much sediment is in there.
About Athletes Of Wine
Athletes Of Wine is a small team of winegrowers headed by Liam O’Brien, a sommelier who took the leap from restaurants to vineyards in 2007, seizing the chance to tend and nurture a plot of vines in the Macedon Ranges.
Liam loves growing, cooking and eating food and makes all of his wines with the table, food and friends in mind.
In addition to Athletes Of Wines, Liam is currently the Wine and Beverage Manager for Cutler & Co. Dining Room and Marion Wine Bar in Fitzroy, part of Andrew McConnell’s Trader House Group. Both venues have been awarded best wine list in Victoria by The Good Food Guide. Liam was also a finalist for Sommelier of the Year by Gourmet Traveller and in 2010 he was awarded dux of the Len Evans Tutorial, described by James Halliday as “the most exclusive wine school in the world.”
For more insights from a sommelier, read our Orange Wine Guide with natural wine sommelier and orange wine expert Doreen Winkler.