Meet LS Merchants head winemaker

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Interview with Head Winemaker at LS Merchants Dylan Arvidson

We sat down with Chief wine maker Dylan Arvidson at LS Merchants to learn more about is bold label from down south that’s turning heads across the country.

How old are you?

31 years young.

You grew up in New Zealand, in a town called Blenheim, or ‘the heart of Sav Blanc country’ as you refer. Did this influence your DECISION head to Australia to study winemaking at 17?

(So I actually moved over when I was 5 but went back to work in Blenhiem when I was 19/20) Born and raised in Blenhiem, yes, you could say sauv blanc was pumping through my veins! Back then I remember a lot of citrus groves and dairy farms it’s very fertile land and perfect for agriculture. It wasn’t until I went back to work in 2006 that the wave of sauv blanc had truly hit and most of the land you could see was awash with grapes!

That is a pretty big decision for a 17-year-old to make, what drove the leap across the pond?

It’s a long story! I started university in Geelong, at Deakin with a bachelor of Oenology, at the start of the 3rd year they announced the course was shutting down and shipped us off to Charles Stuart University in Wagga Wagga, NSW. I dropped out for a few years, travelled making wine around the world and then eventually finished the course in Margaret River at Curtin Uni.

Was it always going to be wine? take me through how you got started in the industry - your first steps and what compelled you to take the full plunge into striving for real excellence and quality in your wines full time?

Not really! I do remember having an awesome sauv blanc during a lunch when I was about 15/16 yrs old (just a sip!) I guess that planted the seed, what tipped me over the edge was the possibility to travel and work all over the work. I gave it up for a while but a trip to Canada working in Ontario started the wheel again, the real turning point came when I landed in Margs and saw what you could really do with special fruit, I never looked back.

You took a job in Margs for Juniper estate back in 2009, why did you decide Margaret River and have you ever considered a move or expansion to another award-winning region in Australia?

To be honest it was the hunt for the unknown, living on the east coast the west is kind of portrayed as the frontier, a wide open scary place! The job interview was a good indication too, after about 10 min there was some good banter and it just felt right.

Was that your first time visiting or living in Margs?

Yeah first time, growing up on the east coast I expected it to be on the ocean side, was kind of a spin out. It took me a little while to settle but I quickly fell in love with it.

What about the Margs wine region makes it so special?

I think the weather here has a huge part to play, we have so many good growing seasons which helps in terms of production, there is also a great community feel with the other winemakers in the region. I know that I can call almost any winemaker from any winery and ask for advise or opinions or to help out by borrowing something and there will be support. It’s especially present within the small guys as we need to pool resources and use each others gear to make it through vintage!

Take us through those 6 years at Juniper before LS was created. Is that where you received a foundation of experience and knowledge?

It really taught me a lot, my initial contract was only for 9 months, when it was getting close I had a chat to Mark and he said you need to stay, you have done vintage but you haven’t seen a wine al the way through yet which was true I had been travelling flat out and had vintage nailed but when it came to blending and finishing wine I had no clue. These 6 years really set that foundation and helped me understand wine even more. In terms of LS, I only really flirted with the idea while I was at Juniper, making a random barrel or two along the way mostly just to drink or for mates it helped cement some of the winemaking I had learnt along the way, it funny how nervous you suddenly become when it’s your own wine, constantly checking the barrel every week, I think I almost drank half of it before it was even finished!

What other industry experiences have you had locally and abroad?

I worked at quite a few little vineyards growing up in Geelong, around the Bannockburn region which has come in handy now, helping to run the Cape Grace vineyard, I also worked at a huge production facility there which ended up being a turning point in my career when I realised I had no desire for mass wine production. My first vintage was at Tamar ridge in Tassie, I have also worked at a few spots overseas, Inniskillin in Ontario Canada, Coli wines in Tuscany, Despange in Entre deux meres France and Kim Crawford in Malborough NZ. I have also travelled through the west coast of the US tasting at many wineries and we are about to jump on a plane to the East coast of US and Germany to look at markets for LS while exploring their wine regions.

What did you learn from these periods of time in each?

There is so much information to take in during each vintage, I always approached it with the idea just to take in everything, process it, store it and then use it when I started my own thing. Like I said time spent in the big wineries made me certain that I didn’t want to be in the bulk wine production game but they also taught me how to run a large scale facility also how to multi task, something the comes in useful now!

How was LS Merchants inceptioned? How was the decision to start a wine label reached?

Did we read something about bush doofs?

It was all about the doofs! I was basically handing out wine for free at these doofs, to mates and strangers alike (I also DJ so it went hand in hand) after a few parties people were calling up asking to buy some wine off me or where it was stoked or what label it was! I guess that is how it really was born it took us a while to get all the branding and paperwork together but here we are.

Explain the name LS Merchants?

LS Merchants is the second inception of the brand, we initially started with Les Sauvages which is French for The Wild Ones. Unfortunately we hit a trademark hurdle, something we had to learn about really quickly! The name had to change we stuck with the initials and merchants is something we hope to kick off in the next couple of years, bringing some quality small production wine over from Italy, Austria, NZ or anywhere we meet cool small producers like us! We often refer to ourselves at Lazy Sunday (LS) who doesn’t like a lazy Sunday sippin wines!

Talk me through the growth of LS Merchants, what did your operation look like starting out,to how it is looking now? - where do\did you operate from, what equipment, how many in team, etc?

LS has grown really quickly, it was unexpected to say the least, due to the amazing support we have had here in WA. In the beginning we had just a couple of barrels and that was about it, we have always been very lucky that Cape Grace allows us to use their facility to process our fruit then the barrels, once filled, go over to a shed on Metricup road where they mature. It is hard having things split into two separate spots but it is the only option for now. We have bought a variety of small tanks, fittings, a small pump, a lot more barrels and barrel racks then next step going forward is to buy some small fermenters and maybe a couple of egg fermenters. We hired a cellar hand for this vintage which was great as it helped free up some time for me to keep in tune with the vineyards and focus on the winemaking. Outside of vintage it’s just myself and Taryn, my fiancee, working on all things LS from bottling, marketing, sales and everything else in between. We have an awesome pack of mates here that jump in and help along the way either in vintage or throughout the year.

Your also a winemaker for Cape Grace. Talk us through your time there?

Yeah, I came on board in 2012, Mark at Juniper is the consultant for them and back in 2012 while I was still at Juniper he asked if I would want to go and meet with Rob and Karen (Cape Grace) and do some hands on winemaking there as extra curricular to Juniper, this went on for three years until I left Juniper to work with Cape Grace in a more permanent role and pursue LS. It is great working with Cape Grace, after a couple years learning their style and vineyard I was given complete control of winemaking and have since bought in a few new single varietal wines while working to raise the bar with their staples. The focus of Cape Grace has always been quality over quantity, something I think allows the best expressions of the vineyard, with a focus on minimal intervention/organic approaches in the vineyard and winery. We have achieved some great results with cabernet sauvignon, in particular, over the last few years and continue to push for the best possible wine from their property.

Where are operations based exactly?

I’m currently storing most of my barrels and bulk wine at a friends property in Northern Margaret River. He has a winery space they no longer use and has been generous enough to offer it to me. He has been part of the LS story almost from the get go, we have been buying fruit from his vineyard, he is also pretty keen on the doof scene ;) The timing was perfect, we were really starting to outgrow where we were and he could see that, I’m not exactly sure what would have happened if the space had not come up!

From the little we so far know about your brand, it seems you’re quickly developing yourself as a real unconventional southwest winemaker who is promoting a new wave or counter-culture to the norms of Margaret River winemaking. Would you agree?

I have always been interested in alternate grape varieties, really it’s a flavour thing for me I love to see what can come out of all the different varietals and how you can manipulate the making to show different flavour spectrums and incarnations of the same grape. In saying that I don’t believe that what we have here in Margaret river should be taken lightly, it’s undeniable some of the best cabernet sauvignon is made here along with outstanding chardonnay and a swag of bordeaux varietals made in a style that some may say is conventional but it’s a proven winner. Where I see us differing from the mould is working with, and pushing, alternate varietals like vermentino, mourvedre, grenache grown here in Margaret River, there are so well suited to the climate, winemaking wise, we approach these differently drawing inspiration from the European styles of these varietals and thinking about how we can achieve something similar. We are also exploring some skin contact on white wines and inclusions of whole bunch in reds on some of the more ‘normal’ Margaret River varietals.

Are you able to discuss a bit about this new wave of unconventional styles and philosophies in the southwest?

It’s about exploring the new varieties bought into WA and re discovering some of the existing varietals that fell out of fashion.Most of the small batch winemakers are still producing chardonnay, cabernet or shiraz just dressed differently. Western Australia has extremely tight quarantine controls which has stalled the explosion of different varietals that you see in the eastern state, but it has protected us from vineyard diseases, these new varieties/clones are coming in slowly now which is exciting going forward. In regard to niche vogue producers I think a lot have a similar story to me, a background of travel and work in wine regions outside of Australia which has inspired them to look outside the conventional bounds and explore with winemaking. It’s great to see so many awesome wines coming out from the little guys who are pushing that experimental side. It’s also easy to assume the big wineries are not interested in this but places like Vasse Felix have been doing experimental wines over the last few years which goes to show there is a real push within the market. In some ways there is also the change in lifestyle our consumers are making, wanting to be more connected to the producers of the products the consume.

Your style has been described as “Seriously good (but not too serious) wines”. Would you agree to that and how would you summarise LS’ trademark style?

Drink-ability is key! I think the trademark style is YUM, we want to make wines that are approachable yet structured and elegant. Some of our wines are made for drinking now but we have a portion of then that are more than happy to sit in the cellar over the next 10 years, even with these wines they have to be made in a way that can be approached in the shorter term, unfortunately not many people cellar wine any more! You can break LS down into two distinct halves, one half of the wines are made in an experimental style with more playful experimentation, whole bunch, quirky blends while the other is more serious a homage to the variety and where is was originally grown, or the style in which it is traditionally made. When we talk about or wine production we talk about the growers and where the fruit comes from, their philosophies and how they grow the fruit, we also talk about minimal intervention in the winery, a job made easy when your growers provide fantastic fruit.

You mentioned you like to subvert the status quo of wine growing by going against the grain and not conforming to entering wines in regional wine comps etc. Take us through you’re thinking and ideologies here?

Wine shows have never really been my thing, I feel like it’s not really working towards a common goal or style each show is chaired and judged by a different group of people who have a different view on when the style of a variety should be and how it should been shown. I don’t make wines like that, to really excel in the shows you need to start making show ponies & wines that are licked up with oak, or concentrated, or tweaked endlessly. It’s also super expensive to enter and you give away a lot of wine! I think there is more weight in reviews, where the wines are looked at for a longer amount of time and style/direction is assessed alongside quality.

Despite the above logic, what accolades do any of your wines hold?

I have never entered the LS wines into any shows, we have a handful of good reviews from Gary and Mike Bennie on the wine front. I judge our success on sales and reception in the market more than anything else. In regards to the Cape Grace wines I make, we have a few gold medals (we enter almost no shows) and we have some great reviews across all major channels, including a 97 recently in gourmet traveller where our Reserve Cabernet took out best Cabernet in WA.

Young Gun of Wine Top 50? What’s involved in getting on the list?

So we need to nominate ourselves and then go to one of the registration tastings, for us it was Illido in Perth. From there we submitted samples which were judged by a panel in Melbourne who selected us as one of the top 50!

What does this mean for your brand?

It is great exposure, it helps open the brand up to the beverage industry Australia wide. It also helps to confirm we are on the right path, both in terms of winemaking but also packaging and marketing as it’s all part of the criteria.

What is your favourite wine you’ve ever created?

It has to be the red blend for sure, a blend of touriga nacional, mourvedre and shiraz, a wine we first made in 2017 as we had a little extra of everything. It has been an instant hit, it’s a totally delicious nouveau style with no oak contact and a good dose of whole bunch ferment.

Talk to us about your collab with BeerFarm (Shirazaweisse)? Are you looking for similar unusual and creative collabs in the future?

I have always loved the connection the breweries and wineries could make, first bought to my attention by my old house mate when we drank through a range of garage project beers where they used grapes in their beers. George, from the Beerfarm, and myself came up with this idea of putting Shiraz in a sour and Shiazzaweise was born! Josh, the brewer at beer farm, took our idea and turned it into something amazing. We are working on some more concepts with the next one being released in Spring, a rose gose with Rocky Ridge brewery.

What’s on the not too distant horizon for yourself and LS Merchants?

We are in the final steps of setting up distribution across Australia, it’s been important for us to find the right people to work with something that’s all just fallen into place. We are about to head to the US/Germany to open some markets there and look for small producers that may be interested in sending wines to Australia. We are also going to focus on growing some of our core range and implementing some more experimental techniques in these batches. I think we have figured out what works well for us now it’s time to push them up in production. I am also keen to try and find some more unique vineyard sites, in particular for chardonnay and more alternate varietals. Apart from that we are looking at throwing a few parties around Perth and down south where we can play music and get the wines flowing!

Heath Werrett