Daniel Binet loves nothing more than sharing a story with a stranger over a glass (or two) of wine. He believes that wine has the ability to unite a diverse range of cultures. With his natural ‘gift of the gab’, genuine interest in people, and an incredible talent for making very drinkable wine, it’s clear that Daniel Binet was born to be a winemaker.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Binet Family Wines in the Hunter Valley you would know that Daniel and Natalie Binet are the ultimate hosts. From the moment you arrive at one of their cellar doors you feel welcome. Before you know it, you’re two glasses of vino in and feeling right at home.
Daniel describes his approach to wine making as regional, experimental and playful. With 15 years of experience, Dan combines traditional techniques with his own creative expression to craft two distinct wine labels; Ballabourneen and Domaine de Binet. Both labels are delicious, approachable and incredibly drinkable – making it very difficult to decide on a favourite drop. Needless to say, we’ll take a mixed case please!
Between raising a young family and dreaming up BIG plans for his vineyard, he’s also the winemaker for several other wineries in the Hunter Valley Region. Yep, he’s a very busy man! Despite his crazy schedule, Dan very generously agreed to take time out for 12 Rounds with Miss KO to talk about the future of the Hunter Valley Wine Region, what it takes to be a full-time winemaker, and his absolute passion for the craft.
Welcome to 12 Rounds, a series of one-on-one interviews with exceptionally creative people that we’ve had the pleasure of working with (or would absolutely LOVE to work with) at KO Studio . Our network of creative experts reaches far and wide, from photographers to animators, marketeers to food stylists, writers to sound designers, winemakers to event extraordinaire’s and life facilitators.
Our Creative Director, Miss KO thought it was time to re-connect over a cuppa (or a vino) with these creatives to listen to their creative journey, capture some juicy insights from the industry, and share their key learnings with you (our readers).
It’s time to take 12 Rounds with natural born story-teller and incredibly gifted winemaker, Daniel Binet.
It’s quite likely that your French heritage influenced your life path, but have you always wanted to become a Winemaker?
I didn’t have any intention on becoming a Winemaker until I was in my late teens/early 20s. During a trip to visit family in France, I was given the opportunity to pick grapes one weekend in the wine making region of Alsace, located in the north west of France near the German border. Wine has always been something that was on the dinner table and at family events, so it’s always been part of our lives, but I never knew you could make a profession from it until I had that experience in France. In the beginning, I actually wanted to be a diver… but then I became a winemaker.
To the average person, the idea of being a ‘Winemaker’ might seem like a dream job. How would you describe the life of a winemaker?
Wine making is a philosophical lifestyle. You really need to be passionate and driven to make wine. It’s not a standard 9-5 job. You have to be prepared to work weekends and late nights, anything it takes to make the wine. Wine waits for no one, and wine making doesn’t fall into a normal professional existence. So, you need passion, personal drive and patience to create something as unique as wine.
Wine waits for no one. You really need to be passionate and driven… you have to be prepared to work weekends and late nights, anything it takes to make the wine.
How much pre-planning is involved when you’re crafting each vintage. Can you actually anticipate the types of flavours you’re going to produce during the grow and cultivation phases, or does the creative process begin when the grapes are in the winery?
The creative process starts early on, but everything you’re doing is educated guessing because you never really know until the grapes are picked. In wet and cold weather, we would anticipate the grapes to be more herbaceous, have more acidity and lack an intensity of riper fruit flavours. If it’s a really hot year (like we’ve had for the last two or three vintages), we have to start thinking about possibly picking the grapes a little earlier and maintaining the vines health to lead us to a style of wine we want to achieve. Once the fruit comes into the winery, we can really start to assess the quality and make more informed decisions – which lead you to a wine with a particular flavour and a particular style. Whatever you are doing in the vineyard starts to form a fabric of what you will make in bottle, four or five months later on. Once the fruit is in the winery, then we start to fine tune our assumptions.
You have two different wine labels, Ballabourneen and Domaine de Binet. What are the key differences between the two labels, and how do you shift your creative approach from one label to the other?
Our Ballabourneen label focuses on the traditional Hunter varieties that people know and come to the Valley to try. Those varieties are Shiraz, Chardonnay, Semillon and Verdelho. We also do a Pinot Shiraz, which is a blend that was quite common in the 50’s and 60’s and has found a resurgence within the younger winemakers due to the nice characters of earth and spice, and flavours you can create by blending the two varieties together.
Our Domaine de Binet label is much more about young and fun expressions of creativity in the wine making but also within fruit. It’s more targeted to the younger wine drinker. It’s a little bit more approachable. It’s got some strange varietal blends. It’s serious, but not too serious.
The Ballabourneen brand pays homage to the four fathers of the Region, trying to show regional style and keeping to regional history, but making it modern in its wine making technique and science. While Domain de Binet is more fun, youthful, experimental and a little bit less serious.
We’re taking more risks, trying new varieties, wine making styles and techniques. We are still using traditional techniques, but we are twisting them with a modern edge. I think that’s very exciting for the Hunter Valley!
You’ve been a wine grower, cultivator and maker in the Hunter Valley for over 15 years now, what was the industry like when you first arrived; how has it evolved; and in your opinion what do you think the future holds for the Hunter Valley Wine Region?
When I came to the Hunter it was probably in a time of change. It was moving from a traditional environment (where the market was driven by traditional styles), to a more modern, youthful and food friendly style. That’s the direction that industry has continued to move toward. I think the growth of cooking shows and celebrity chefs has helped to drive this shift and the Hunter Region has started to align itself with the food industry. This has certainly inspired a new and exciting future of wine making, but particularly for Hunter Wine styles.
Now we’re really getting momentum. We’re taking more risks, trying new varieties, wine making styles and techniques. We are still using traditional techniques, but we are twisting them with a modern edge. I think that’s very exciting for the Hunter Valley!
The direction for the wine industry is interesting. Our distribution channels are becoming more and more competitive, as the bigger companies are tending to own more retail presence in bottle shops, online wine clubs and memberships. It’s quite a corporate environment.
The focus for winemakers like me is ‘direct to customer’ or ‘direct to restaurant’ (those that are trying to promote a ‘paddock to plate’ style of eating). This is also a lifestyle philosophy. I think there’s a shift from big commercial food production, towards seeking a better understanding of… ‘Who’s growing our wine and making it? Who’s growing our chickens? Who’s growing our fruit and vegetables?’. I don’t think this approach is enough to sustain the whole wine making industry, but for the amount of wine we are producing at Binet Family Wines this where we are targeting. When there’s economic downturn this can be challenging. Sometimes the first thing to go in a budget is wine – but sometimes we all need a drink (laughs). We want to build a relationship with our customers directly, so they have faith that our wine is being made with the best practice possible and in the most unadulterated way. It’s a true ‘paddock to plate’ and sustainable approach that we are focused on.
Our strategy has always been ‘direct to customer’… We want to build a relationship with our customers, so they have faith that our wine is being made with the best practice possible and in the most unadulterated way. It’s a true ‘paddock to plate’ and sustainable approach.
For someone looking to become a winemaker, what would be your best piece of advice for them?
I was told to go the university to learn the Science and I think that’s still a valid direction. Immersing yourself in the history of wine and the understanding of it is essential. Find a couple of good companies that can take you on, and work with some really open winemakers to learn the craft. A science background will definitely help. But, like any passion, you need to immerse yourself into that culture – drink a lot and read a lot. Be prepared to get down and dirty.
What has been the most memorable or rewarding moment in your career?
I think I am still trying to find it (laughs). We’ve had some great results in certain vintages. Obviously when your customers wines (or our wines) do well in wine shows or get great reviews, it’s always exciting. But I think as winemakers you’re always striving to make a better wine the following year – improve or enhance it. I guess the answer is that we haven’t got there yet! But there have been moments along the way where we’ve seen great rewards and experiences.
What are your biggest frustrations / challenges in your craft?
From a creative and wine making perspective one of our biggest challenges is certainly climatic. We are dealing with a natural grown product that is at the mercy of the elements, so the weather is one of our biggest challenges.
From a business perspective, increased costs of utilities and wages are certainly challenging. We are making a product that requires 12-18 months of maturity before we can go to market, investing a lot of our money upfront before it’s purchased (and hopefully enjoyed) by the consumer. This puts a lot of pressure on the business model. Unlike beer where you can change the recipe quite quickly, because you’re brewing constantly, with wine you have one opportunity at the beginning of the year, you wait 18 months, bottle it – and then try to sell it. Cash flow is a big problem for wineries. Finally, trying to change the perception of the market ‘that not all wine should be cheap’, is a real challenge.
What do you think it is about your wine and winery that entices wine lovers to sign up for your wine club, and keep coming back to visit whenever they’re in the Hunter Valley?
I think our wine, especially within the Domaine de Binet brand is very approachable, honest and well priced in terms of quality. I think that whilst people enjoy the wine, they also enjoy the environment, atmosphere, our customer service, and most importantly the experience. We want to give visitors to the Hunter Valley a relaxed experience. We don’t want to over complicate or make the wine tasting experience too ‘stuffy’ by educating them on the ‘right ways to taste’, or ‘how to hold the glass’. We want to make our wine approachable, fun and easy to share with friends. Ideally, we want them to take a bottle of our wine to a friends’ place and be proud to share that wine because the quality is good. Overall, we want to create an environment that is enjoyable, relaxing and memorable. From there, the wine moves into a 2nd tier position. It’s all about the experience, whilst providing a nice and good quality product.
We find most of our customers find our wine appealing across the whole range. For some labels, customers might say ‘I like their whites,’ or ‘I prefer their reds.’ We find that most of our customers like all of our wines across our whole range, which is a great testament to what we are doing and something that we keep in mind when we’re making wines. It’s important to remember that you’re not always creating wine for yourself, but for the general public as well. It’s got to be appealing, fruit driven, showing varietal expression but be really enjoyable (and very ‘smashable’) at the same time – in a friendly environment.
We want to make our wine approachable, fun, easy to share with friends… Overall, we want to create an environment that is enjoyable, relaxing and memorable. From there, the wine moves into a 2nd tier position. It’s all about the experience whilst providing a nice and good quality product.
Do you have a favourite type of wine at the moment?
I’m really excited about our 2019 Pinot Grigio. I think it’s a very bright, light wine with a lovely pink tinge from the grapes. I’m also quite excited about our new 2017 Tempranillo, Graziano, Cabernet blend. I think they’re very modern, bright and youthful but also very approachable and really drinkable now. I definitely think the Tempranillo will age and get better, but I am looking forward to releasing those wines in the next month and hopefully people’s reactions to them with be as good as mine.
What’s next for Daniel Binet and Binet Family Wines?
At the moment we’re trying to focus on building our new cellar door. It’s been a long time coming, but now we are in a position to focus on the build. We are looking at building a little chapel on our property. A lot of people have come to our vineyard and said that they “love the quiet and relaxed environment here”, and often ask if we do weddings or functions? We’ve said yes to a few, but we are receiving more demand for it. We hope to do more weddings and cater for corporate events in the near future. This is also part of our strategy to get ‘direct to customer’ rather than fighting for shelf space in a retail presence. Ideally, we can produce the same amount of wine, maintain our profit margin, and build up a loyal customer base through those channels.
What song pumps you up before you step into the Winery?
Sometimes it’s ‘Empire of the Sun’ in the morning. If I’m crushing grapes at 1am, definitely a bit of ‘System of a Down’ or ‘Rage Against the Machine’ to give me some strong motivation. Or some ‘deep-rooted beats’… (laughs) Something a bit dark and dangerous.