Winemaker Stories: Neil Prentice, Moondarra

A simple question about biodynamics and viticulture triggers a conversation about Burgundy.

“Back when I was a baby wine waiter in the ‘80s,” says Neil Prentice, “I couldn’t work out why customers would pay $200 for a bottle of Burgundy when a $20 bottle got you just as pissed. But, I was making $1000 a week in tips at the time, so I thought, let’s find out.”

Drinking his way through some of the world’s greatest wines (Domaine Leflaive, Romanée-Conti, etc.) caused Prentice to fall in love with Burgundy, and as those wines mostly tended to be made from grapes grown in biodynamic vineyards, he fell in love with the practice, too. Funnily enough, it ended up being closer to home than he originally thought.

“A little bell rang in my head. I thought ‘Cow shit in a cow horn from a lactating cow buried under a cypress tree!’ I remember my uncle beating the shit out of me when I was about seven for digging up all these cow horns on his property.

“I asked him, ‘What the fuck were you doing into biodynamics in the late ‘60s?’ And he had no idea what biodynamics was.” He just did what was needed to get the best out of his farm.

Prentice’s property at Moondarra in the foothills of Mt Baw Baw, Gippsland, is set on 138 acres; most of which are dedicated to wagyu cattle, and 10 acres of which are for growing grapes. It’s mostly Pinot Noir, but there’s a decent amount of Nebbiolo and some small plantings of Picolit, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Friulano.

Like his uncle, he farms biodynamically, although he hates the word (“It’s become a marketing term more than anything,” he says). Instead, he’d rather talk about the fact that his vines have never been irrigated nor fertilised, and are sprayed with skim milk powder and “other weird things” rather than pesticides. He tracks the overall health of his vines by monitoring one in particular (he named it Kevin), and a gas gun explodes intermittently over the vineyard, scaring away birds with nothing more than sound.

A better descriptor is to say that Prentice makes wines with funkosity. “Drinking Gravner, Radikon and Breg in 2002 right when I was growing restless as a wine consumer was my personal June 4, 1976, Manchester Lesser-Free-Trade-Hall moment,” he says.

In other words, drinking those wines at that moment did for Prentice what the Sex Pistols did for punk. The wines he went on to make afterwards he thinks of as post-punk, as they’re informed by the likes of Gravner and Radikon, but reinterpreted in a way that’s uniquely and distinctly Moondarra.

He elaborates: “I just make wine the way I love. I think it’s instinctive and it’s also driven by drinking a lot of other wine but it wears flannelette and it doesn’t give a fuck.”

His wines (which are the results of “pissing around” with different grape varieties and winemaking methods) are insanely delicious – rich, earthy, and a little funky. He makes three Pinots: Conception, which sits next to a rusted overgrown shipping container Prentice has dubbed ‘Paradise Garage’; Samba Side, for the sambar deer who used to graze there; and Studebaker, named for the ’57 Studebaker President he sold (on condition that Johnny Cash never be removed from the cassette player) to buy the fence posts for that vineyard.

He reckons his 2016 ‘Old World’ extended skin-contact Nebbiolo is the best New World Nebbiolo he’s had. He also makes a couple of sparklings (under the Holly’s Garden label), and a couple of whites; notably ‘after Kathleen’, a blend of Friuliano, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Picolit. All are slightly different expressions of white wine and red wine.

Moondarra has many stories to tell, and wine is just the foreword. Consider, for instance, Prentice’s wagyu breeding program (most of the property is dedicated to farming Tajima-type wagyu and Mishima cattle), or his attempts to distill his own gin with native botanicals he’s grown himself. He has a wife and kids, who all run their own experiments on the farm in some way or other. And for the past two decades, the same Cambodian women have helped him pick grapes during vintage, bringing home cooked dishes to share while they do it.

If the mark of a good wine is one that speaks of a place, Prentice goes one further, making wines that speak not just of a place but of a life; not just a person but a whole personality. His approach to everything is everything wine should be: loose, experimental, fantastic and fun.

By Anna Webster