James Halliday: Leading wine expert, critic and writer

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image-jameshalliday200James Halliday is one of Australia’s leading wine experts. He is a wine writer, critic and competition judge. An experienced winemaker, James is famous for the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion, which is a must buy for any wine buff, from the novice to the connoisseur.

Although he first trained as a lawyer, he established the Brokenwood Winery in the Hunter Valley with two colleagues. He went on to found the Coldstream Hills Winery in the Yarra Valley.

Finding different ways to describe wine is no easy feat but James manages to do just that with his creative tasting notes for the 3,424 wines featured in the most recent edition of his Wine Companion.

In June 2010, James was also made a Member of the Order of Australia for “service to the wine industry as a winemaker, show judge, author and promoter of Australian wine internationally, and through senior roles with a range of professional organisations.”

Click play to listen. Running time: 32.52

Australian Wine Companion


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

James, thanks for joining us today.

Thanks for having me onboard.

Tell us about your latest book, The New Australian Wine Companion. How is it different to your other wine companions?

Well, in one basic respect I suppose each time when I do one of these I basically throw the prior year into the bin, every single bit of the 760 pages is new. But that’s motherhood to one side, the ever increasing numbers of wines on the Australian market has led to more and more of the notes going across to the website and bypassing the book. There’s still 3,424 Post-It notes and wine descriptions in the book, but 3,400 went to the website.

I also — this year is the first  year it will happen — I have actually now just finished writing another book, 1001 Wines Under $20, that will come out in early November, in time for the Christmas market. That picks out wines that wouldn’t get a major run in The Wine Companion, and really features wines, as I say, that are under $20 and all represent very good value for money.

That’s, I guess, the third answer to this ever increasing amount of information.

So, 3,424 wines in the book, plus another 3,400 on the website, then 1001 under $20 coming out in November – this is a hell of a lot of wine to be tasting. That’s — I can’t even calculate how many that is per day. I mean do you really taste that much wine, or do you have helpers?

I really taste that much wine, however it is true that three years ago I got Ben Edwards, who’s head of the Australian Somelier’s Association, and a wine judge, and a thoroughly nice man, bloke, whatever, to do some of the tasting. We don’t do it together, we’d never get there if we did the same wines, in other words two of us judging the same wines, we’d might in a wine show where they would be three of us. He either tastes them or I taste them. But, it’s still only about 15% of the wines that he does, I do 85%.

The reason for that has as much to do with what you might call succession planning, as anything else, because Hardie Grant and I are in somewhat unusual situation, we are in fact partners, joint venture partners, on all of the Companion projects, including the website. This book I should say, The Companion, is also available as an eBook, an iBook. It’s also uploaded instantly to the Wine App. It actually appears in a number of different platforms.

As I said Hardie Grant and I have a joint venture. The idea is that when I become too old, too dead to whatever, to continue with the Wine Companion, it, itself, will continue on into the future. When I challenged Sandy Grant why on earth did he want to saddle himself with this, by, as it were, half goodwill, half the masthead, he pointed out that
Mr. Wisdom, the Cricket Almanac writer, died in 18-something or another, and the Wisdom Almanac still comes out every year, and is bought by people every year.

The book is different to all of the other annuals, because it doesn’t just give tasting notes, it’s got the profiles of 1,477 wineries, it’s got a raft of other information, a lot of it can be pulled out, and we do pull it back out of a database. So, you’ve got the best of the best — best wineries of given regions, but then you’ve also got best wines by variety, and you’ve also got the best wines by variety and region, so you can track where the best sauvignon’s are coming from, the best chardonnays, whatever.

There are features in this book which are not strictly dependant on my involvement, mind you I have no intention whatsoever of stopping writing The Australian Wine Companion. Yes, it’s a huge job, it really is, I’m already writing next year’s edition — I say writing, I’m doing tastings for it. It’s like the Harbour Bridge, you get to one end painting it and then you turn around and start all over again.

That’s an incredible amount of research you have to do every year, obviously there’s some traveling involved. How do you actually structure when you research and when you write? Do you do all the research first and then lock out a chunk of time?

A bit of both. In the first sort of 14 days of September I will be tasting 120-150 wines a day, out of that I expect it will be about 1,400 wines – the result of that will appear in The Weekend Australian Top 100, which is an annual feature that comes out. But, all of the tasting notes that I make for the Top 100 will go into the website. So, September is one peak tasting period, the next is January/February/March. In December we send out letters to every winery we’ve got in our database, inviting them to submit wines for the 2013.

That is a pretty awful time, it just goes on and grinds on relentlessly. Wineries pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to deadlines that I put in those. This is just sort of a — not even an orange light at an intersection, it’s sort of flashing green or whatever. That does go on. By the time I’ve finished that, I am pretty tired, mentally. It’s mental tiredness that gets you.

There are many people out there who love wine, they might love writing about wine, perhaps for their own blog, or their own wine tasting group, or something like that. I’m sure a lot of them would love to know your tips, in their wine writing, how to differentiate, especially 3,424 wines from each other. What are the key things? What are the key tips that they should be writing about?

Well, I guess it’s not in a sense for me to say this, but Sandy Grant, where we had the launch of this book in Melbourne a couple of days ago said that — he made the observation, and I’m emphasizing him saying this, not me, that it is incredible that I can write 8,000 notes and yet each note is different to the other, has a different flavor, has a different set of linguistics/words.

To avoid that repetition, which you can see in a lot of these sort of tasting books, where really the only difference is the points given. That’s one of the things. Think about your tasting note, don’t — in my view — there are two schools of thought about this — some writers, both in Australian and overseas can see five different types of strawberries, let’s say, okay, there’s phrase to borrow, etc, etc. But they’ll see five or six likewise plums and then get into all sorts of esoteric flavors and nuances, which you think are wildly impossible, like tar and spice in a Riesling.

So, you get this sort of seven or eight breathless lines of prose, a whole host of aromas and flavors being thrown at you, and you get to the end and you drawn in your breath and say, “Well, yes, but what did you,” mentally addressing the writer, “what really did you think of the wine? Did you really like it or did you not really like it? And just how relevant are the points to what you’ve written about?”

I think you’ve got to keep the message as simple as possible, yet avoid repetition. Now, those two things — balancing those two requirements, it takes experience.

Such a skill.

Take me back to when you first started writing about wine. I understand that you were working in a law firm, is that right? How did you get into it?

Well, it goes back to even before I went to university, my father was a doctor. He came back from doing his FRCP, a college of physicians in England, in 1932/1933. He had not had any exposure to wine before he left to go to England, but he there learned about fine table wine, obviously French more than anything else.

Came back to Australia with an interest and got an introduction to Lindmans, who at that time were in receivership, housed in the basement of the Queen Victoria building in Sydney, along with Penfolds, Penfolds had the other half, Lindmans had one half, Penfolds had the other half; strange days, and started to buy Lindmans wines and they all came from the Hunter Valley.

I was sort of the unofficial butler at home. I was the youngest of three children. We had a walk-in stone wine cellar underneath the house with wooden racks, etc. I would be dispatched down to get the chosen bottle wine, or wines, to be served that evening. They didn’t drink wine every night, but always when we had guests and on other occasions too.

I was sort of physically, clearly aware of table wine, but was given a small glass to taste, there is a family dispute as to whether or not, people’s recollection as my mother and father are dead, whether it was watered down to 50% water. There’s two schools of thought.

Then I went to university. I was at Saint Paul’s college for six years where I did Arts Law. He had a wine club and a wine cellar. It was then that I made my first trips to the Hunter Valley.

I went overseas in 1962 with a mate. We had a Tim’s van and a two-man tent and drove from literally one end of Europe to the other. The only attention we paid to the wine regions we went to was what we could buy at the camping ground. I didn’t have a clue about Bordeaux or Burgundy. I knew about Australian wine, but I had no knowledge of French wine whatsoever.

We came back from that, and it was really at that point that suddenly I started buying more wine than I was drinking. The cellar was first of all sat up under my double bed in the house of ill-fame in which I lived. Then it started invaded in the linen cupboard. Then I moved out of that place on my own, and had began storing wine under my parent’s house in Moss Vale, and at my sister’s place in Lane Cove, and so on and so forth. And it just grew like topsy.

Then at the end of the 1960s I was approached, by which time I had suddenly become extremely interested in French wine, thanks to Len Evans because I had become a friend, and drank at his Bulletin Place wine cellar and restaurant every — certainly every Monday. We would play the options game with great wines, which were then very cheap, I must say.

But it was around that time that I was asked to write for the Epicurean magazine, and I did so. It was 1969 that I and two others bought the land that became Brokenwood. Then as I went into the ‘70s, and it was a weird time, I was still a partner, I had become a partner at my law firm, Clayton Utz, in 1966. I had a lot of pulling in various directions, one of which I solved by giving up my partnership share in return for an extra two weeks holiday a year — sorry four weeks. So, I got eight weeks, and that was the only way I could fit in all of my travel, which then was extensive through Australia, etc, and do the Vintage Maker wine at Brokenwood, and do the winter pruning at Brokenwood. So, there were a lot of streams of experience coming in all at one time.

You’ve had Brokenwood and you’ve had Coldstream as well?

Yeah, I moved to Melbourne for my law firm in 1983, ostensibly to basically create the Melbourne office. There was five people at first, I’d been a managing partner in Sydney with hundreds of people and then suddenly I’m managing partner of a firm of five people, and going out and buying the paperclips myself rather than telling someone else to do it.

That lasted for five years, ’83 to ’88, but in ’85 I had started Coldstream Hills. My original strategy was to make wine in ’85, ’86, and ’87, and ’88 — when I was planning on retiring from Clayton Utz, and I’d have four years of wine income to cover the fact that I was otherwise going to have no visible means of support. But, I got a bit carried away, the beautiful property in which Coldstream house sits now, it came up for sale and we bought it and we established Coldstream in ’85. I gave away the idea of originally making it someone else’s place from someone else’s grapes, so suddenly it became full on.

Now this past year has been quite traumatic with floods, terrible weather, that kind of thing, how has this impacted the wine industry? And, how has it impacted your writing?

Well, a couple of things need to be said. First up, West Australia got lucky once again. Every time it’s too hot in the East they have a perfectly cool and normal summer. This year while we’re being inundated, flooded, whatever, they had a warm, dry, vintage. So, West made yet more terrific wines, that’s from Margaret River all through the many, many regions in Western Australia and the southern part, below — even the Swan Valley had a good time. So, it’s one exception.

The Hunter Valley had its usual horrible mix of heat and rain, but they’re used to that. It was no different basically to usual. It wasn’t a great vintage for them, but it wasn’t a bad vintage. Perth, another exception. Tasmania, another exception.

Then the white wines, in most regions, because the weather was not only wet, but it was also cool, we’ve ended up with very fragrant white wines. They’ll be some really lovely white wines coming out of 2011.

The real problem is with the reds in most regions, unless you are extremely luckily and especially vigilant the reds will be light-bodied and not as much color as people are used to, so on and so forth. Even there you’ve got to differentiate — there really are two wine industries in Australia. One is the commercial end of the market, the casks and the wine selling for probably under $10 a bottle, but certainly under $12 a bottle. That is marketed through the supermarkets, almost exclusively, a little bit of online I suppose, but it’s basically supermarket territory and export territory.

The other end is the fine wine end, and it’s very, very different to the commodity end. The impact on the fine wine industry really won’t be noticed until about a year or two down the track with red wines because currently the ‘09s and the ‘10s, and the ‘10s in particular were wonderful wines, are being sold, so there will be a delayed response. Hopefully next year will be better, much better — it better be. So, there will also be probably early release of some ’11 reds.

However, all of that said, the real sting in the tail of this is that we should really only have harvested 1.3 million tons, and in fact 1.63 million tons were harvested. The melancholy truth, and I have written about this in the Weekend Australian, and I haven’t pulled any punches, is that 330,000 tons were rotten grapes, which should have been left on the vine to completely rot. They were bought for a song and will be sold at very low prices.

The wine itself will be sold in bulk to the UK and to China. It is the absolute opposite to what Australianers should be doing. It will do damage to the reputation of Australian wine, even though it’s nothing to do with the top-end. We’re trying desperately to move away from the sunshine in a bottle, cheap, easy, whatever wine, and present ourselves as a country which has really, seriously good wines. We’ve got this amazing spread of climate across the length and breadth, North to South, East to West of Australia. We’ve got some really good wine makers that are making some really, really fantastic wines. They’re far better, if you look at them overall, than they were 10 years ago; far, far better than 20 years ago, etc.

Of course at the very top there has always been a few outstanding, absolutely outstanding; they are the classics– the Hill of Graces, the Impulse, LouAnne Estate etc in Margaret River.

How involved were you with the iPad and iPhone app because I think it makes so much sense, when you’re in the wine shop you have the information at your fingertips. How much did you get into the development of that?

The honest truth about this is that I have two girls who work for me. One has been with me for 15 or so years, came to me with experience in Desktop Publishing and knows more about databases than many. She’s seriously, seriously good at this. She really understands the database, and how you make changes, and so on and so forth.

The technical side of I really had almost nothing to do with, that was done by Hardie Grant, who employed a little group of people called Igloo. The website has literally been completely rebuilt. The search function, while different, and of course always change gives way to anxiety, it is different to the search function that was there before, but is vastly enhanced. The app, too, will have more information and better ease of access.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. It is a multi-platform product. There will, in fact, be a magazine coming out at the end of the year, which will be both in hard form, but also up on the website.

Oh very exciting.

Yeah, it’s all coming together.


Certainly — for sure.

Sometimes you may have not written the most favorable review on some wines… have you received any unhappy feedback? And what form does that usually take, if people —

A long time ago when I was — this really is a long time ago — in 1985, 1986, it would have been — no, earlier than that, ’81 or ’82, I received a combined death and libel threat in one phone call — first he was going to sue me and then he was going to kill me, or vice versa. I can’t remember which. Neither of those came to anything.

There’s been a couple of other calls, when someone has taken vast offense and gotten a lawyer on the job and just legal letters come in demanding the book be pulped and apologies printed on the front pages of every newspaper in the world, virtually, and variations on that.

There have been three incidents over the years, in each and every respect they have just gone away. I just simply said, “Well, the publisher is standing behind me. We stand by what we’ve said.” What else can one do?

There is an interesting law case, which says that you cannot defame a product, you can defame a person, you can defame a company, but you can’t defame a product. It’s quite an interesting, news corporation lawyers came up with that.

It’s quite handy that you have that legal background then.

People often ask you what goes well with certain foods, but I’m not, because our listeners are readers and writers. I’m actually going to put you on the spot here a bit and ask you to pick for your picks on what goes with certain types of reading. What’s the best drop to go with, say, an action thriller book?

Now that is left field. Music even goes more than — music. Well, an action thriller, you certainly don’t want a wine which distracts you. I do not have a single bottle of Pinot Grigio, or Sauvignon Blanc, or either of those two varieties in my 1,200 or so bottle cellar. So, I can’t resort to one of those two.

Perhaps a young, fresh Sauvignon perhaps even that wonderful 15% only Sherry from Spain and Mancania, something which has an effective tactile feel in the mouth, but doesn’t, on the other hand, distract you because you’re really wanting to read that action thriller and nothing should interrupt quick page turning.

How about a slow romance?

Definitely Pinot Noir, the greater and older the better. I can sit with a glass in the appropriate form of burgundy glass, the big bowl type glassware, and smell the bouquet of a great burgundy for 15 minutes, literally, this is not any exaggeration, and find continuously changing and new things in it, and be almost apprehensive about tasting it, less the taste be a let down. Happily, that’s never happened to me, yet, and probably won’t happen, but it does exercise my mind while I’m delving into these, as I say Aladdin’s Cave or Abraham’s Cove, whichever sort of analogy you want of wonderful things that come off a great old, Pinot. The Burngundians say if you get the bouquet right the pallet will look after itself. The Bourdalese or Cabernet people say get the pallet right and the bouquet will look after itself. They come to red wine from opposite ends of the universe.

Well, that sounds like it’s perfect for a slow romance. How about a travel memoir through the hills of Tuscany?

Well, it would have to be Chianti Classico, which is sangiovese. There is a fair representation of sangiovese in Australia. It seems to have stalled. The partings have decreased a bit, not increased, but it’s got that quite vibrant fruit, but also enough texture and tannin to provide interest. It can easily be, just as Pinot can be, but sangiovese particularly, enjoyed even without a food background or charcuterie accompaniment for sangio.

What about if I was reading a business book, like one written by Richard Branson?

Well, I suppose you go out to the most “serious” of all wines, the blends of Bordeaux or the Keck in Australia, Cabernet/Cabernet Merlot and look for the very best examples that you can find because they will stand up and be heard against all competition. In Australia I guess Cullen in Margaret River is one of the very best producers of Bordeaux blends, Cabernet, Merlot, and bits and pieces of other things.

Finally, if I was reading James Halliday’s Wine Companion what would I be drinking?

Well, I would go to the lists in the front, where I list the best of the best in two ways. One is by variety and you just simply go down the point scale, but then you also see in that list where they come from and you suddenly realize that we don’t grow everything at the top end everywhere in Australia. There really are some links between variety and region. I would be looking at that and deciding the best of this and the best of that.

Or, if per chance you were in a region, then you can also go to another list, which has the best wineries of the region that you’re in. I’d go for a five star, five red star winery with the name printed in red because that is the be all, end all. I can’t go beyond that. I’m not going to have gold stars, that’s where it’s going to stop.

Perfect and on that note thank you very much for joining us today, James.

Thank you for having me.

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