Samuel J Smith and his wines epitomise South Australia's new frontier of winemaking.
Introducing VHS Wines
South Australia – thanks to the likes of James Erskine, Anton van Klopper and Taras Ochota – has long been at the forefront of a new wine movement that is unpicking our centuries-old adherence to the idea that we should make European-style wine even though we’re in Australia.
Their work and innovation has resulted in a burgeoning Australian identity in the industry and Samuel J Smith – whose first vintage under his label VHS (Vinous Heroin Society) was 2015 – may well represent the next stage of that movement’s evolution.
While Sam adheres to natural winemaking processes that promote sustainability and focus on translating a vineyard’s natural attributes into the glass, he also has strong ideas about how he can design flavour and experience around that.
“I differ from a lot of guys I’m working with at the moment because everyone speaks of the wine being an expression of the vineyard into the bottle,” says Sam.
“But for me, to be completely honest, my wine styles are mapped out well before I speak to growers. They’ve been in my head for years. But stuff happens and what I envision in my head isn’t always what comes out, but I do try to hit some of those stylistic markers.”
Sam’s planning goes all the way to his self-directed labelling and bottling, which is vastly different to the ordinary.
So far, VHS wines have appeared in long necks, port bottles, in kegs and adorned occasionally with printed hessian labels.
“I never want anybody who buys a bottle of my wine to feel comfortable at any stage of the process. It shouldn’t be comfortable because the idea of wine is to be exciting,” he says.
“Labelling is really an extension of that. I have always likened it to music because the whole of the bottle – all the way down to what is inside, should really be a performance. When you’re charging a premium on the bottle people expect it to be an experience.”
Now working on his second vintage, which is slated to include a wine series called the “Ratshit in Love Symphony” featuring five complementary wines in 330ml bottlers that will be presented to the drinker together, Sam came to winemaking down a winding road.
His interest in the field developed over a couple of years when he was struggling to find purpose, while simultaneously being drawn to read wine history books and become more connected to the food and wine industry.
The decision to start working properly in the field was supported by an existing interest in science and chemistry and a lot of help from his friends. Sam credits his partner Alice Fulton-Sherriff with offering support and motivation, and an array of other supporters with helping him move from wine enthusiast to winemaker.
While Sam is clear on his direction and ambition for VHS, he’s also very humble: “I’m at the stage now where I know nothing about the industry and nothing about winemaking and that’s a beautiful platform to be able to develop from,” he says.
“A close friend of mine Tom Northcott is the winemaker and wine grower of Howard Vineyard up in the Hills and without Tom there would be no VHS – he’s the man who has given me the world as far as fruit goes,” says Sam.
“Another good mate of mine from school days -Henry Borchardt – has a vineyard up in Woodside. He started his label – first vintage for him was 2014, Henry Hill Wines. I asked if he would be keen to get fruit in last year and I would look after it. So we work up there on his label and my label, and he basically gave me the opportunity to start my wine.”
Currently working towards completing his degree in winemaking at the University of Adelaide, Sam plans to develop VHS into two strains – a high end line and then another range for the “exuberant addict” that will contain his most experimental wines.
But until that growth comes, you can find VHS wines on the lists at Africola and at the Crafers Hotel, and you can get a preview of Sam’s next releases as well as taste some one-off specials at The Fruitful Pursuit’s Wine Playground event.