20Q: Alex Byrne – Liquid Rock ‘N’ Roll, Byrne Wines, Noisy Ritual
Alex Byrne is a bit like the Jack White of wine. Inasmuch as he is always playing guitar for more than one band, so to speak.
Currently, Alex has his solo project, Byrne Wines, where he makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from fruit grown in Sunbury and Ballarat. Then there’s the raucous Noisy Ritual winery in Brunswick, which he founded a couple of years ago with some mates. His other side project, Liquid Rock ‘N’ Roll, is a collaboration with friend Kim Farrell. Under this banner, Alex and Kim well and truly kick out the jams, producing the type of stuff they want to drink. Funnily enough, we like to partake in their particular brand of Liquid Rock ‘N’ Roll, too.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Ballarat and I always wanted to be a farmer, even though we had no farmers in our family. I dabbled in psychology and journalism for a while, but ultimately found my way back to farming by becoming a winemaker.
2. What got you into wine?
I had a good friend, Ben Portet, when I was in high school who was from a winemaking family (he is the 10th generation!). His dad, Dominique, was the winemaker at Taltarni when we were growing up and I used to spend a lot of time with them at the winery, which is midway between Bendigo and Ararat. That was my introduction to vineyards and wineries when I was about twelve years old.
3. What was your first wine job and what did you learn from it?
I did a work placement at Taltarni when I was 16, so I got my first taste for working in the vineyard and winery back then. But my first paid job in the wine industry came later, when I started working in retail wine sales. This was when I began to actually taste wine and realise the amazing variety of wines that are available.
4. When did you know that it was time to start your own label?
It was only after trying a range of professions, and always seeming to return to a hands-on winemaking role. In 2002, quite by chance I found myself working my first vintage with Dominique Portet at his new winery in the Yarra Valley. I was thrown in the deep end a bit but I loved it.
The intensity of vintage was really exciting and the variety of work, from the vineyard to the fruit processing and ferment management and lab work, was really interesting. I also realised at this point that winemaking is the only type of farming that actually requires you to spend time in nice restaurants and wine bars!
So, the following year I took up Wine Science at Deakin and Charles Sturt universities and made the most of the opportunities available to me as a winemaker. I worked my next vintage in Margaret River, then back in the Yarra Valley followed by the Rhone and then Burgundy. It is a great job and getting to experience the history and culture associated with wine (and the food) makes it even better.
When I returned to Australia I was lucky enough to get a job at Lethbridge Wines. I learnt a lot from Ray and Maree in my time there; being part of a small family wine business you are able to get involved in every aspect of it.
That was when I started to make my own wines on the side, in 2009, and I have been slowly growing them ever since. It was a case of right time, right place.
5. You’ve got a few projects on the go! Tell us what you’re doing and how you juggle them all.
At present, I have Byrne Wines, which is my solo project; Liquid Rock ‘n’ Roll (or LRNR), which is a joint winemaking project with my friend Kim Farrell; and then there is Noisy Ritual, the people-powered urban winery in Brunswick East that is a collective effort with my friends Cam Nicol, Sam Vogel and anyone else who wants to join in and contribute to the winemaking. I’m managing to balance everything because I’m working with friends and doing what I love most! Each of the labels has its own distinct personality, so they seem to naturally fit in together like siblings. It’s great to be able to make such a broad range of varieties and styles each vintage.
With Byrne Wines, I really wanted to make cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so heading back to Ballarat and its notorious climate made perfect sense to me. There are some great vineyards and wines from Ballarat and I think there is still a lot of unrealised potential for the region.
We got Noisy Ritual off the ground in 2015. This year, we will be making wine there with our winemaking members who we share the whole process with. People will also be able to visit the cellar door/wine bar during vintage and share the space with the open fermenters. Our plan has always been to bring the winery to the city folk so that they can have easy access to everything that happens during the winemaking process… with food, drinks and a bit of live music on the side.
Then there’s LRNR…
6. How did you decide on the name LRNR?
Kim and I have a French winemaker friend who we were going to a lot of gigs with and he said to us, ‘You should make some liquid rock ‘n’ roll.’ We started referring to our wine that way, and the name stuck. Since then we have been focused on making wines that we want to drink under the LRNR label.
7. Where do you source your fruit for this project?
Kim and I got the opportunity to rejuvenate a vineyard near Ballarat. After spending a winter pruning and looking after the vines, they were devastated by a fire just before vintage, so we had none of our own fruit to make wine that year. Kim is from Milawa, so we ended up sourcing some Riesling from an old friend of his from a great, high-altitude vineyard in the King Valley and LRNR has grown from there.
8. Tell us about your 2016 ‘White Noise’. What should we be eating with it?
The ‘White Noise’ blend has evolved from the original Riesling to currently having 60% Riesling and 40% Gewürztraminer harvested as a field blend. I think it is a really versatile wine that can be an aperitif or match with spicy food really well. On a summer’s day with a Vietnamese-style spicy squid salad it is perfect.
9. What is your go-to drink for under $20?
I think Riesling or aromatic white wines are the best value under $20 in Australia.
10. Who has influenced your approach as a winemaker?
Apart from those already mentioned, I have been influenced by Norm and Owen Latta who have been a great help to me in understanding the vines and wines of Ballarat.
11. Do you think wine needs to be expensive to be taken seriously?
It’s a cliché, but great wines are made in the vineyard and if you have good fruit you just have to let it do its thing most of the time. So, quality is irrespective of whether the wine costs a lot or a little.
12. What’s in your fridge?
At the moment, I have a bottle of Wilimee Chardonnay in the fridge that I am looking forward to opening.
13. Do you have a nickname?
My nickname is Nanda, from when I was young and I couldn’t say Alexander. My mum has never called me anything else.
14. Best winemaking experience so far?
Every vintage I meet great new people from all over the world – so many passionate, hardworking and good, fun people to make wine with. It’s almost too hard to name my best winemaking experience!
15. What’s your favourite sound?
My favourite sound is the birdsong you hear in the vineyard courtesy of magpies, wattlebirds, kookaburras… They produce a great native soundtrack.
16. Where is your favourite place to drink in Melbourne, excluding Noisy Ritual?
It’s always good to stop in for a glass and a chat at Barkley Johnson in Yarraville.
17. Kurt Cobain or Curtis Mayfield?
Curtis Mayfield all the way.
18. Best moment from summer 2016–17 to date?
This summer has been the first time that we’ve had live music at Noisy Ritual, which is a dream we’ve been working towards for years, so that has been a highlight.
19. What are your Sunday rituals?
On Sundays, it’s great to taste some new and interesting wine with friends and family, or just drink a lot of coffee and eat smashed avocados.
20. How would you spend your last $20?
I would spend my last $20 on fancy cheese. I would be broke and happy!