Even among jet-setting international winemakers, New Zealand-born Ariki Hill’s business model is unusual. Rick makes tiny-production, cult Pinot Noirs — two in Australia and two in California. Not the easiest commute, but that seems to be Rick’s style. In fact, even his career path has been circuitous, hence the name of his winery: Labyrinth.
Rick started in milk processing, moved on to fruit juices and then, returning to his improbable childhood ambition, earned his winemaking degree. But since juice fruit and wine grape harvests overlap, he came to the Northern Hemisphere for practical winery experience so it wouldn’t interfere with his day job.
Arriving for his Napa internship, he confessed his eagerness to make Pinot Noir to his employers. And soon he was back on a plane, heading south to Santa Barbara wine country made famous in the film Sideways, where Pinot, rather than Cabernet, is king.
Through more fateful twists and turns (and many 14-hour flights between Los Angeles and Melbourne), Rick wound up working for, then with and later marrying Lane Tanner, a pioneer of Central Coast Pinot Noir. Today, he splits time between his adopted homes, Australia and California, crafting beautifully aromatic, subtly complex wines that reflect the places where they’re made — what the French call terroir.
“When people think Australia,” Rick says in his thick hodgepodge of an accent, “they think hot and dry. But the Yarra Valley is green and cool. We don’t have trouble with drought. If anything, cold’s the problem; I lost my 2007 crop to frost.”
He lustily noses a glass of his Australian-made 2004 Labyrinth ‘Viggers Vineyard’ Pinot Noir ($30) and notes it’s grown in clay soil that releases moisture slowly to the vines. The cool weather keeps the grapes small (he calls them “ball bearings”), and the high skin-to-juice ratio creates terrific structure.
“I pick right at that moment when the grapes no longer show green, herbaceous flavors. That maintains great acidity while producing classic flavors in the red-fruit spectrum: raspberries, strawberries, pomegranate.”
Later, when we’re tasting his ethereal 2006 Labyrinth ‘Bien Nacido Vineyard’ Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($35) from California, Rick’s still talking soil.
“It’s very sandy, which doesn’t hold water,” he says. “But while grapes grown in clay make wines that are structured and minerally, wines from sandy soil are all about complex aromatics.”
Again, his nose is buried in his glass. “Ah, now that’s pinot speaking pinot,” he says to no one in particular.
“I try to make wines that are more Cary Grant than John Wayne,” he explains. “Wines that rely more on sophistication and elegance than power and size.”
I say his wines strike me as more feminine — more Grace Kelly than Marilyn Monroe, and we start trying to identify Grace Kelly’s modern-day Hollywood equivalent. Eventually we agree there is none. Just as there is no obvious equivalent to Rick’s singular, far-flung wines.
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“I try to make wines that are more Cary Grant than John Wayne. Wines that rely more on sophistication and ele gance than power and size.”
— Ariki Hill, owner of Labyrinth Winery