Wolf Blass: Behind the Bow Tie – Liz Johnston

A great biography and chronicle of the modern South Australian wine industry

By Robyn Lewis
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Wolf Blass - Behind the Bow Tie

Wolf Blass - Behind the Bow Tie

Wolf Blass - Behind the Bow Tie


‘My wines are sexy. They make weak men strong and strong women weak.’ These words – of a true marketer, ahead of his time – were spoken in 1974 by Wolf Blass.

His biography, incisively written by Elizabeth Johnston, has been released to celebrate 75 years of the life of one of the most influential characters in the modern Australian wine industry. It’s a very fitting tribute, and not as egocentric as the cover photograph may suggest. Don’t be put off.

There is an old saying ‘give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’.  It is worth looking at the early childhood years of Wolf Blass, for they set the scene for what was to come in another continent, decades into the future.

Wolf Blass was born in 1934 in Stadtilm, a mediaeval town in the Thuringia Mountains in what later became East Germany, and his formative years were spent in the prelude to and then in the midst of World War II. The book’s media release says that ‘he migrated to Australia with only £100 in his pocket’, but this portrays an incorrect image.

The reality is that Wolf Blass was born ‘into a wealthy, respected family. His maternal grandfather Otto Sohn – perhaps the most influential man in the young Wolf’s life - had a wine and spirits business and his father Freidrich was a doctor of law and economics. His mother’s family ‘lived in a large, luxurious villa on the edge of the village, beside the bottling factory and above the deep, cool wine cellars’.

‘The years 1942-43 were good for the family business’ – French prisoners kept the plant running while local young men were away at war – and although the tide turned in 1945, the family and business emerged from the war relatively unscathed. His father was frequently absent – possibly emotionally as well as physically – and his mother and grandfather ran the business, factors which influenced not only his later professional but also his personal life. The Sohn/Blass household was largely protected from the reality and horrors of the war, and Wolf Blass was largely allowed to run his own course, including avoiding much formal schooling.

Growing up in a business family gives its children a huge advantage in adulthood over those who come to business from a different background – they learn to live and breathe it, and also to see first hand the true amount of work and commitment from the entire family that goes into making a business survive and thrive. Even though they may not know it at the time, these early lessons last a lifetime.

Wold Blass was 11 when the war ended, and his highly successful, determined grandfather then ensured that Wolf received a proper education. He ran away from the first one, but finally completed his schooling in Western Germany, separated from his family – he describes it as being ‘little better than a labour camp’.

However, here the young man was introduced to the viticultural side of the wine industry: weeding and cultivating, carrying grapes to the hand crusher – literally learning from the ground up (an education some business heirs miss out on, usually to their detriment). It was however a difficult and lonely time.

After this ‘schooling’ he moved to a wine region on the Nahe River, a Rhine tributary, and into a much more civilised environment. Here as an apprentice he learnt every facet of wine growing and making, including the processes for making all types of wines - ‘even ice wine’ - and receiving a certificate of viticulture in 1952, aged 18. He was reunited with his parents and had the good fortune to work for an entrepreneur Hans Schneider, in a wine distribution centre, where he learnt the blending skills that would be the foundation of his later success in Australia.

He also further developed his ability to work with people of all social strata, to respect and to be able to engage with them all, and then at 19, his love of women. In 1954 he became the youngest person ever to receive the German Kellermeister Diploma (literally cellarmaster, although more correctly winemaker) working largely with white wines and including an exchange period in Champagne. He eventually found his way to England, where he gained further work experience – including how not to run a business – and learnt the English language.

Thus Wolf Blass arrived in Australia with far more than £100 – he had all the personal attributes of an entrepreneur, combined with a solid family background and real experience in business, street cunning, a quick ability with numbers and a full education in wine from viticulture through wine making and blending to sales and exports. When he arrived in Australia on a three year contract with Kaiser Stuhl, courtesy of South Australian wine pioneer Ian Hickinbotham, the Barossa probably didn’t know what had hit it.

Part German, part English, and dominated by the wine industry, the Barossa was the perfect terroir for this Blass scion to take hold and thrive. The rest as they say is history, extremely well researched, written and edited by biographer Liz Johnston.

Wolf Blass Behind the Bow Tie is as much a chronicle of the modern South Australian wine industry as it is of the man who is such an integral part of its success story.  It’s easy to forget that not long ago the Australian wine industry was largely export-based on port and sherry, and winemakers were kept in back rooms, not feted like rock stars as some are today – the changes that Blass introduced have been profound.

Two characteristics that really stand out in Blass’s early years are his marketing flair and perceptions. His observations that wines could be made ready to drink (then a radical thought), that half the market – namely women – were not being catered for, and that their demands could be met with sparkling wine (another shock!), were then groundbreaking. Combined with his entrepreneurial approach, his genuine ability to get on with people, and his ability to self-promote (important today, but more so in the 60s and 70s before PR companies became the norm), and there was no stopping the Wolf Blass phenomenon.

Like every successful venture, behind the company that became Wolf Blass Wines International Pty Ltd were years of hard work and sacrifices, including in Blass’s case two failed marriages. Real success came in 1974, his ‘year of joy’, when he first won the Jimmy Watson trophy (the first of three yet-to-be-repeated consecutive wins) and made the famous statement that ‘My wines are sexy. They make weak men strong and strong women weak’ – politically incorrect today but pure marketing genius at the time.

Looking at the photo of Wolf Blass on the cover, replete with bow tie and medals including the Order of Australia, I partly expected this book to be more ego-driven, or perhaps a piece of PR put out by the now owners of his namesake company, Fosters.

Blass doesn’t look like the average Australian’s drinking mate, even though many of us have been enjoying his wines for years. Part wine king, part little boy, vulnerable yet confident at the same time. Sure, the book contains many photos of Wolf Blass – it is after all a biography – but it also features his friends, his family and the people with whom he has worked, helped and been helped by along the way, and of course his famous wines; wines that changed not only Australia’s winemaking but the national palate.

It is not an understatement to say that Wolf Blass changed the face of the Australian wine industry and played a major part in its structure today. Curiously though it was not his red wines that propelled his company to Number 1 seller of wines in Australia, but his Riesling – providing a fresh, fruity, well-made wine that met a huge gap in the market, and was not only palatable but exceeded consumers’ expectations, and in doing so Blass not only predicted public tastes but led their creation.

Another piece of Blass marketing genius was to colour code his wine labels, to make the buyer’s selection very easy – and producing his range of wines right along the price and quality spectrum.

Thousands of awards have followed – the Robert Mondavi trophy in the USA, International Winemaker of the Year in London, the Australian wine industry’s pinnacle Maurice O’Shea Award, and Membership of the Order of Australia. Interspersed with the wine story is the tale of Wolf Blass the man – husband, father, lover, friend – and Liz Johnston has handled this combination beautifully.

All those interested in the evolution of the Australian wine industry should read this book, but it’s also a must-read for entrepreneurs and marketers – it captures the genius of this driven, hard-working man, and ends with his ‘five principles for success’, still applicable today for anyone wishing to found a long-term business.

Happy birthday to Wolf Blass – and what a great gift this biography is.


Wolf Blass Behind the Bow Tie (sc, Fairfax Books 2009) is available in all good bookstores, RRP A$39.99. VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive subscribers and Members can purchase Wolf Blass Behind the Bow Tie from our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount off RRP (postage extra).

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November 20th, 2009
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