Friday 14 December 2018

Wolf Blass at 84 – old friendships the wind beneath his wings

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This story first appeared in our Friday ebulletin The Week That Was…

Some people take the piss out of Hahndorf which is unfair because their sausages are huge and their cuckoo clocks are really cuckoo.

I asked Wolf Blass for an interview at his new Gallery & Museum in Hahndorf. It’s already having a name change: to Wolfy’s Wine & Food Bar or something. A good move because Hahndorf is all about food. “Mainly ice creams,” Wolf has noted.

We’re sitting at a beautiful old table imported from Europe. Hagar the Horrible like. “Cost me 25,000 bloody dollars,” Wolf says. He dug deep: 1982 Murray Tyrrell Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignon – the label says “1500 gallons of Hunter Valley Hermitage and 1500 gallons of Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon”. And the Jimmy Watson-winning Wolf Blass 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz.

I have to bend down to pick up my eyeballs. Overwhelming at the best of times. But when shared with the maker next to the local original school built in 1839? Cheese, dips and Hahndorf sausage.

Wolf says he doesn’t have a huge cellar; donated half his wines to the Crippled Children’s Association. Wolf seems to have been around forever. How old is he? “Vell 1934 was a good wintage.”

Wolf enjoys wine every night. “And a few whiskies.”

The secret to surviving a hectic social life is going to a detox retreat in Europe for 34 years in a row. How does he feel after it? “Sharp as a time bomb.”

A portrait of Wolf’s wife Shirley hangs above the fireplace. “My wife wanted to do it the left way and I wanted to do it the right way. Anyway, here it is.”

Wolf says he made more from investments than wine. “Before I do business with someone, the first thing I ask is if they have money in the bank. If not, no deal.”

As for the wine game Wolf thinks we should be getting far more excited about America than China. He is a character. Very funny and theatrical one minute; deeply reflective, sentimental and emotional the next. People are drawn to characters. It’s no doubt played a big role in his success. He is warm and affectionate; gets really wound up when talking about negative people and gently pokes my belly with his finger.

He doesn’t like people who retire too early. “They become so bloody boring. They phone and ask me to meet for a coffee. A cup of bloody coffee! Glass of red maybe. They won’t hear from me again.”

Wolf goes to the office most days. He goes to the indoor firing range in the city every Saturday morning. “I’m shooting worse every bloody time,” he says, “but I’m still the sponsor and it’s good fun.”

Where does his humour come from? “Not sure. Germans don’t have a sense of humour – maybe that’s why I left.” I check that the door is closed.

Google ‘Wolf Blass’ and a related search item is, ‘Is Wolf Blass alive?’ He’s fit; looks 70, not 84. Would beat me over the 100 metre hurdles.

Wolf has a loud voice. It takes a while for tourists to realise the man staring at the photo of a young Wolf Blass is the man himself.

Then it starts.

“Mr Blass, can you please sign our bottle?” “Do you mind if we grab a selfie? Can Mum and Dad be in the photo too?” “Hello Wolf – I love your Brown Label.” An old man who used to sell Heidelberg presses walks in off the street; his face lights up when he sees his old mate. He tells Wolf: “I saw your first car (blue Volkswagen) for sale in a caryard. I gave a copy of your book to the car dealer to give to the new owner so they knew the history.”

Wolf still drives a replica of that car. The old fellas talk about the life, and sad death, of a mutual friend, Baron of the Barossa Gerald Viergever. Wolf says, “I’ve just been to another funeral – at Mount Buller – for an old friend. At my age you don’t get too many invitations to weddings.”

I point to an eagle statue. Does it have a story? “Nah I just bought it because it’s an eagle.”

Wolf Blass looks around at the pewter collection, the $25,000 German helmet and gold medals. “This is all great,” he says, tapping my belly, “but the friends I’ve made along the journey is what gives me the most pleasure. With my old friends there is this sense of belonging.”

The ’82 and ’75 wintages? Out of this veld. Good things happen in Hahndorf. It’s growing on me.

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