Sam Vinciullo doesn't much like talking to journalists. Living alone on a remote property in an even more remote winemaking region in Western Australia's south west, I'm not sure he much likes talking to anyone. He's more interested in working. I was pleased when he agreed to talk with me for a story to be featured in Fabric Quarterly Edition 3. I visited him in mid-September, 2018. The conversation went places I didn't expect. We barely even spoke about wine. We talked about our childhoods growing up in the wheatbelt, our passions and our place in the world. He introduced me to my new favourite beer (Two Metre Tall Huon Dark Apple Ale). Not satisfied with the few photos I'd taken upon my first visit (September isn't the busiest time of year in a vineyard), I went to see him again in March, 2019 - smack bang in the middle of harvest. The work below combines both visits, but only the words were published.
Sam Vinciullo doesn’t know what to call himself anymore - winemaker doesn’t quite seem to cut it, nor vigneron. But he’s both of these things, everything in between and more.
Known for his self-proclaimed "staunch and stubborn" personality almost as much as for his excellent natural wines that are, in terms of method, without peer in Western Australia, Vinciullo is a farmer, a grape-grower, a wine producer, a change agent, and, above all, a non-conformist.
"Walking around here, I’m seeing a million jobs", says Vinciullo, half way through a tour of his vineyard just inland from Cowaramup on a fine and sunny Wednesday afternoon. It’s an apt statement; his hyper-active brain, utter dedication to a ‘no-compromise’ mentality for sustainable farming and natural winemaking, and lone-ranger approach to his craft ever-present.
Having given up a highly sought-after winemaking job in the Yarra Valley back in the early 2000s to undertake what was meant to be a two-week stint with renowned natural wine producer Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Vinciullo’s entrance into the Western Australian wine scene has been inherently unconventional. Self-funded, on a leased property, making wines with a small margin for error, Vinciullo doesn’t have the luxury of getting complacent with his efforts.
The result? Envelope-pushing wine that can proudly wear the ‘natural’ stamp, and might even convert a few sceptics with its purity of flavour.
But he too is inherently unconventional. "My personality – no matter what I ended up doing - I’d always be challenging and pushing boundaries. I want to do something special, something really different that I believe in. I’ve got strong views on a lot of things," he says. For those who know him, it’s quite the understatement.
Vinciullo lives on a remote property in one of the most isolated wine producing regions in the world with only his dog, Gloria Estefan, and a couple of chooks. He spent last winter living in a tent, and now occupies an ‘indoor-outdoor’ home on the property that’s a little more outdoor than indoor. Like his wine, Vinciullo’s home is stripped back to bare essentials: a mat for pilates to straighten out a tired back, seedlings that will soon foster a vegetable patch, one shelving unit housing breakfast and tinned goods, eggs, a bag of flour, a pasta-maker, and a few pots and pans.
"Everything in here is recycled," he says, laughing grimly as he looks around at a few unwashed dishes – the aftermath of fourteen hour days working alone. ‘Either rubbish or hand-me-downs."
Back in the vineyard, Vinciullo scratches away some overgrowth to expose a sample of his best soil – a combination of quartz, gravel and sandstone. He’s got a fascination with his land, and an evident desire to get to know it intimately.
"My dream going forward is to buy a piece of land somewhere, to plant from scratch, farm smaller, higher density blocks - mixed farming. That’s what I want to do," Vinciullo explains, as he demonstrates what a one by one metre block of vineyard looks like in Italian wine country – its very own ecosystem, each one distinct from the next.
"The varieties I’d plant would be suited to the site but also the most resistant to disease naturally," he says, describing his overarching plan of avoiding the use of all – even organic certified – sulphites and sprays in both the vineyard and the winery.
Ambitious? Yes. Particularly, he claims, when working within an industry that isn’t geared for this type of growing. But that’s what makes Vinciullo’s work as a wine producer so exciting for those watching on. "I’ve got a lot to work towards," he says. And he’s right. Vinciullo is at the forefront of the evolution of natural winemaking in Australia.
As he works himself deeper into an impassioned monologue about the importance of things like sustainable farming and recycling, one has to wonder where it all started for Vinciullo. Tt seems as though he might be wondering the same thing.
Something to do with his childhood maybe, he portends. "I grew up in the wheatbelt – in and around the bush. I was always exploring as a kid. You evolve, but I’ve always had those beliefs.”
Vinciullo appears heavy with the weight of the world at times – that becomes more than apparent as our conversation moves between issues with land management, Australia’s relationship with First Nations people and the need for plastic repurposing in Western Australia.
"Sometimes," he says, "I have big conflicts within myself. I feel like I could be doing a lot more for the world."
But winemaking it is, and without a doubt all of his passion is being channelled straight into those green bottles. This is a person who hand-buckets his wine between tanks rather than using pumps, for crying out loud. Making wine thus becomes more than just a day job for Vinciullo – it’s his life’s work, a medium through which he makes a statement on the world.
And while Vinciullo seems to think he might not be the advocate the natural wine movement wants, he might be the one it needs.
"I’m prepared to cop a bit of flack and be a bit vocal about stuff to progress things," he says. "I’m pushing for more transparency across the wine industry. I want to see ingredients on wine bottles. But my number one thing is people farming the right way. I love wine and growing grapes and farming, but it’s my values that dictate what I do."