Tasting notes

Date: 21/02/2010
Words: 1366
Source: SHD
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Extra
Page: 8
Music and wine are intertwined for Nathan Waks, writes WINSOR DOBBIN. 'I was aware there was more to life than just Bordeaux and Burgundy.'

He has been the principal cellist for the Sydney Symphony and head of music at the ABC. He composed the score for My Brilliant Career and worked with Frank Sinatra but now Sydneysider Nathan Waks has a new passion - one of the most remarkable collections of old wines in Australia.

Waks heads a syndicate that owns two of Australia's most renowned wineries - riesling and red wine specialist Kilikanoon in the Clare Valley and historic Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley, which makes arguably Australia's greatest fortified wines.

He's been lucky enough to be able to indulge in his fervour for music and wine without sacrificing involvement in either. Today, he splits his time between his Birchgrove home, the two wineries and international promotional trips for the syndicate. Travelling as much, if not more, than he did as a musician, he says he has just as much fun.

Waks, whose mother was a talented pianist, was regarded as a musical prodigy from a young age. He played the piano at the age of four - the cello from seven.

"The piano and I never really hit it off. I didn't enjoy being taught by my mother," he says. "She didn't want me to give up music that soon and, as I had an older brother whom she'd convinced to take up the violin, she thought a cellist would complete the trio."

As a student at North Sydney Boys High School, Waks had to choose between music and soccer. He was a talented teenage goalkeeper - though he admits he probably wasn't tall enough - who was once offered an English football scholarship by legendary Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty, who watched him in action as a 13-year-old. "I decided music was more important," he says.

Waks studied briefly at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before, at 17, leaving for Russia to study with cello maestro Mstislav Rostropovich - a stay that was cut short by visa problems associated with the Cold War.

Instead, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire, working with renowned cellist and teacher Paul Tortelier just after the student protest riots of 1968. "It was a turbulent time," he says.

At 19, he was back home and was named the Sydney Symphony's youngest-ever principal cellist, a job he only did for a year but one to which he later returned.

Since then he's been on the board of the Australian National Academy of Music and held several different roles with the ABC. He was founding director and artistic adviser to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a founding director of the Australian Music Centre and has served on the Australia Council.

Waks has performed with a number of prestigious orchestras, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He wrote the scores for the films My Brilliant Career in 1979 and Kangaroo in 1986 and had a work for amplified cello - Requiem - written for him by composer Peter Sculthorpe.

He also toured the world with the Sydney String Quartet and organised and played in string sections for artists including Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and jazz man Don Burrows.

"I used to get Christmas cards from Rod each year," he laughs. "I probably should have kept them."

Although Waks gave up the cello several times, he always came back to the instrument.

From the mid-'80s to the '90s he enjoyed an eclectic career, including record production for guitarist John Williams. He lived in both the south of France and Paris, where he bought and sold antiques and old watches. Asked to do a review by the ABC, he ended up as head of music at the public broadcaster, appointed by then ABC chief David Hill, despite never having worked in an office before.

He later became managing director of Symphony Australia, a position he held for six years, but by then he'd already been bitten by the wine bug, beginning an amazing ride for a man who never graduated from high school.

"When I was studying in Paris, I lived with a French family with five young children, working as an au pair boy, and I learnt a lot from them," he says.

Because the parents were professors at The Sorbonne, Waks took on a quasi-parenting role, receiving an education in French culture, which was epitomised by cheese and wine.

"Each night we'd enjoy simple food with a glass of different wine," Waks says. "We did a Tour de France, so even at 17 I was exposed to wines like Madiran and Cahors. I was aware there was more to life than just Bordeaux and Burgundy.

"There are so many synergies between music and wine. They both require a large percentage of high quality raw material; you need technical competence in transforming that raw material and then you need that last 10 per cent of magic that you need in all creative professions. Without the last bit of magic, or talent, you don't produce anything exceptional. You need to have passion in both industries."

In 2000, he bought part of a four-hectare vineyard in the Clare Valley owned by Kilikanoon winemaker Kevin Mitchell. Soon after, he became a partner in the rapidly expanding business. He is now chief executive.

"When you see such good wine, you want to be part of it - and this was bloody good.

"What we are doing now at Kilikanoon is focusing less on expansion and more on regionality and wine quality."

A Waks-led investment group purchased the Barossa Valley winery Seppeltsfield, regarded as Australia's greatest fortified wine producer, from Foster's in late 2007. The assets included a unique, unbroken and highly prized collection of vintages going back to 1878, considered by wine critics and collectors worldwide as living history.

Also included were the landmark 19th-century Seppeltsfield buildings - a National Trust site - as well as vineyards and visitor facilities that Waks describes as a "national treasure". There are plans for up to 200,000 visitors annually.

"As a musician I play a three-centuries-old instrument, so I have respect for history and tradition but also like to see how they work in the modern context," he says. "My cello is only as good as the last piece I played on it, and Seppeltsfield is a bit like that. There is no point in having those magnificent 100-year-old ports sitting in the cellar gathering dust. People should taste them and enjoy them."

The new Seppeltsfield will be a working historic village, a productive winery and "have a range of wines that stand up and attract a lot more attention in the marketplace".

With mainstream interest in fortified wines in decline, Waks recently oversaw the introduction of the Seppeltsfield Paramount Range ($150-$250 per bottle) comprising a tawny, muscat, tokay, oloroso, amontillado and brandy. These are designed for collectors who do not have the funds to buy the winery's famous 100-year-old Para, which retails for $1000 a bottle.

Waks's own tastes tend towards the big, rich red wines of the Barossa and Clare Valley, and those of the southern Rhone in France, including Cornas and Saint-Joseph.

"I try to appreciate lighter wines but I struggle."

When he's not relaxing at home with his wife Candice, or spending time with son Sam (currently studying philosophy in France) or daughter Mina (a dancer who studied in Cuba), Waks could be anywhere in the world; perhaps at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, the world's largest wine trade show, or hosting a dinner in Seoul, alongside friend Robert M. Parker jnr, the world's most influential wine critic.

"We have to show the world what we do to counter this impression that Australia only produces industrial wines. It's essential we get over the message that we make some brilliant wines in tiny amounts in this country. We need to tell our story about great Australian wine."

Occasionally Waks will pull out his cello, just to stay in practice. And, just to keep his hand in, there are some gigs with the Australia Ensemble - he is performing a chamber music piece by composer Mark Isaacs, scheduled for March.

"I'll have to work like stink to be ready," he says.

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