Wine Crush

Finding Love (and Professional Rivalry) Among the Vines

One couple, one winery, and two completely different winemaking styles

Jeni Port By August 19, 2021
Illustration by Nicole Jarecz.

It was early 1992. Each sees the other, hears the voice of the other, but remembers differently to the other.

Stephanie Toole, a wine wholesaler, lived and worked in Perth, Western Australia. Jeffrey Grosset, a winemaker from the Clare Valley in South Australia, was on a two-day tour of the trade, on the rounds of Perth, searching for sales.

Jeffrey remembers they found themselves in the same wine store that day. The retailer had time for him, not her. He remembers the high heels she was wearing, “a classic look, fine stiletto.” She remembers a flat court shoe.

No matter. It was the spin of them as she pivoted and walked out the door that’s important. She was outta there.

He liked her attitude. There was an energy about her. “I thought, right, I’ve got to go and talk to this person.” 

He approached her.

He was in his 30s. He guessed, right, she was too. Recently divorced, he was trying to make a life for himself and his four-year-old daughter. He didn’t own a house. He didn’t own a stick of furniture, but he did own a well-equipped winery in the country town of Auburn for his eponymous brand, Grosset

Or did it own him? That question was always being asked. A quiet, focussed obsessive, he was becoming known for his attention to detail, a yearning for perfection, especially with the Riesling grape.

As they settled into a nearby cafe over two long espressos, most of what was said has been lost to memory. But not the important part. “So, what’s happening in Adelaide?” Stephanie asked, referring to the city’s food and wine scene.

Jeffrey dived straight in. “Right. Here goes,” he remembers, and then laid out his personal life, bare before her. 

“Geez!” thought Stephanie. And then, “Okay, cool.”

The birth of something new

Within months, she had moved to the Clare Valley and into Jeffrey’s house, the one with no furniture. Months after that, Stephanie, 39, was pregnant. Twelve weeks passed and vintage arrived.

“Here I am, four o’clock in the morning, shovelling skins off the back of a trailer in a farmer’s paddock. That was my first introduction to no sleep, long hours, hard work,” says Stephanie. “Hard work doesn’t bother me, still doesn’t, but I was 12 weeks pregnant.”

Indeed, there would be two children in quick succession, within 15 months. A reckoning was coming. It wasn’t about the lack of furniture, the lack of money, or the sudden lack of personal space with three people crowding in. It was that Stephanie had been her own person, with her own career. It was about the lack of opportunity. 

Then it came knocking. A nearby winery and vineyard, Mount Horrocks, went on the market. Jeffrey passed. 

Stephanie went for it.

“At this point, it did occur to me that there were a few small issues,” says Jeffrey. “Number one was money. You probably need money to do that.”

Stephanie decided she would pay for the business as she sold the wine.

Number two was that the Mount Horrocks “winery,” was just a shed with some tanks, barrels, and little else. The answer: they would share winery space at Grosset. Now, there was only one more thing: Stephanie had never made wine before.

But it had never occurred to her that there was anything she couldn’t do. “I’m ‘just do it’,” she says. 

Stephanie was on her way. She and Grosset were in the same wine region and same winery, working with much the same grape varieties. The scene was set. 

Two winemakers were now in competition with one another. But while the marketplace lauded one, it didn’t know the new owner of the other.

No pressure.

Polish Hill Riesling, even before I met Jeff, was just one of my all-time favorite wines. I just loved that wine and I knew that it was unattainable to match. But I always thought I could give his Watervale Riesling a run for his money. And I still do.” 

It’s a Riesling world

Among the quiet wine villages of the Clare Valley, one grape variety rules all others: Riesling. Here, stunning natural acid structure meets a rare purity of flavor. In Riesling, Jeffrey had found a muse for his creativity, a wine that fed his obsession, his single-minded attention to detail. In Riesling, Stephanie rediscovered her competitive edge.

“It didn’t bother me at the time,” recalls Jeffrey. “She had her own fruit, her own label, and her own ideas about how to make wine.”

Stephanie knew the kind of Riesling she liked. It was sitting right in front of her. The man she loved made it.

Polish Hill Riesling, even before I met Jeff, was just one of my all-time favorite wines. I just loved that wine and I knew that it was unattainable to match,” she says. “But I always thought I could give his Watervale Riesling a run for his money. And I still do.”

If Polish Hill Riesling delivers a singular, subregional expression — a coiled energy, essence of lime, spice — then Riesling from the Watervale subregion to the south is quietly deceptive, all joyously citrussy, blossom, chalk, fennel, with an enduring steely resolve at its core.

As Stephanie’s Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling began to get noticed, her ability as a winemaker came under scrutiny.

“The number of times I’ve heard, ‘Yeah, Jeffrey Grosset really makes the wine,’” she says. “I just shrug it off. It doesn’t bother me to be honest. I know what I do. He knows what I do.”

Sharing the same winery, complete with his and her presses, might have fuelled the mistaken idea that Stephanie wasn’t the winemaker.

She was new to mucking around with grapes, but while she steadied herself at the start with Jeffrey employed as her consultant, his role was redundant as she gained confidence in her own abilities. Maybe that’s why Shiraz provided such a circuit breaker. Jeffrey had never ventured down the Shiraz path, preferring to look to other grapes for his inspiration. In choosing to make a Shiraz, there could be no confusion, no comparison with Jeffrey.

Stephanie produced her first Shiraz in 1996. The style was all elegance, a deliberate move away from the pervasive boldness of Aussie Shiraz at the time, incorporating a portion of whole bunches with a dressing of French oak. Recognition came quickly. So, too, critical success for her sweetly defined Cordon Cut Riesling; the cordon cut involves cutting the cane that holds the grape bunch. The remaining fruit becomes concentrated and produces an intense, luscious wine.  

And, yes, her Watervale Riesling was critically acclaimed, too.

Today, he delivers his wine. She delivers hers. Competition between the two?

“That’s not the competition I’m in,” says Jeffrey.