Continuing a family tradition started by his grandparents in Southern Italy, hands-on winemaker Jim Zerella today oversees 58 hectares of vineyards as managing director of McLaren Vale’s Zerella Wines.
“The best fertiliser is the soles of your boots”
BEN Can you describe your connection to McLaren Vale, Jim?
JIM McLaren Vale is proudly my home. I live with my wife Georgia and our three boys on the Home Block vineyard – a place very dear to me as I planted it with my father Vito and grandfather Francesco back in 2000. My family has a connection with McLaren Vale dating back to 1993 when we purchased the Southern Vales Wine Co-op site and embarked on the rebirth of the historic Tatachilla brand.
BEN What are your impressions of the 2021 vintage, now that it’s in the bottle?
JIM 2021 kicked off with a great sense of optimism and that carried through to vintage in what can only be described as a gift, in both vineyard and the cellar. Yields came in slightly better than initial expectations and the quality is simply sublime. It’s been a great pleasure to begin releasing these wines.
BEN What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
JIM My father always drilled into me that you cannot make great wine from ordinary grapes. This is the foundation of all that I do with my brand. I fondly remember my Nonno asking me what is the best fertiliser for vineyards and then proceeding to rhetorically answer “the best fertiliser is the soles of your boots”. He was stressing the importance of getting out there, walking the rows and having total awareness of what is happening with the vines throughout the season.
BEN A wine-related experience that changed your life?
JIM In the early days of Tatachilla, we engaged a consultant by the name of Daryl Groom (a big winemaking name in California) who always harked back to the vital ingredient in winemaking – the importance of vineyard and prime quality fruit. As we worked together with Tatachilla’s winemaker, Michael Fragos, we never lost that one-eyed focus on fruit quality and its intrinsic place in ultra-premium winemaking.
BEN What characteristics do you need to have to be a winemaker?
JIM Passion, pride and attention to detail are vital but as my father and grandfather always taught me, without hard work, you go nowhere.
BEN Favourite wine of the past year and why?
JIM The one in front of me! No, really, it’s about the moment in time – the company, the laughter, the food being shared. All the things that combine to make an occasion memorable. The wine weaves it all together.
BEN What is the Fleurieu’s best-kept secret?
JIM The true secrets would be my favourite fishing spots, let’s just say, south of Myponga Beach, and my brother’s Tuna marks, also along the Fleurieu coast. This coast does provide a treasure trove of ‘frutti di mare’.
BEN What’s your favourite thing to do outside of work?
JIM Hanging with my six-year-old son Vito, whether it be in the back yard or in one of the vineyards – especially Peters Creek which is my cool-climate vineyard in the hills near Kuitpo.
BEN Friends are coming for dinner, what wine would you put on the table?
JIM Negroni for starters (a Martini for my wife Georgia), Prosecco to prime and then one of my Single Vineyard Grenache – wines that truly speak of place.
BEN If you had a warning label, what would yours say?
JIM Don’t let me get hungry; I get “hangry”. Yes, I love good food!
BEN Greatest success?
JIM In business, it would be recognition from my peers at the 2016 McLaren Vale Wine Show when the first ever release of 2014 Home Block Shiraz was awarded Best Single Vineyard wine, Zerella Wines won Best Small Producer and then my 2016 Fiano won two trophies to top it all off. My first vintage was in 2013 so to receive this acclaim so early in the brand’s life was a great motivator to go forward.
In a personal sense, I made a sworn promise to my father that by age 40 I’d be married, father a child and get a haircut: tick, tick, tick.
BEN Something most people don’t know about you?
JIM My affection for Harley-Davidson motorcycles – the people who really know me understand why.
This story was first published in the August 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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