Suzanne Little is a winemaker at The Little Wine Company. She is also a lawyer, a mother of two and recently transformed The Small Winemakers Centre into Wine House Hunter Valley in just 28 days.
Food & Wine caught up with her for a quick Q&A.
You decided at age 14 to be a winemaker. That’s an obscure career choice for a teen. What was it that interested you about wine?
I’m not sure “obscure” was quite what the nuns at school were thinking, more like debaucherous I would say. My cousin was a winemaker with Wynn’s in Coonawarra and she came to visit when I was about 14. I thought she was dead cool (she still is) so I decided to be a winemaker too.
How did you begin your wine career?
When I finished school, I moved straight to South Australia to work for Katnook Estate but back then Coonawarra was no place for a 17-year-old looking for fun so after a year or so I moved to Sydney where I got a bit side-tracked, working on the futures exchange and in the money markets, travelling overseas and then an economics degree. While I was studying I started working at Lark Hill winery as a vineyard/cellar hand and I knew then I was going to go back into the wine industry. So as soon as I finished economics I enrolled in wine science and moved to the Upper Hunter to work with Jon Reynolds at Reynolds Yarraman. I was there for a couple of years, then to Rosemount where I worked for five years with Philip Shaw who was a pretty influential figure in my wine-making career. Then in 2000 I joined forces with [husband] Ian and started The Little Wine Co.
Did you know early on what types of wine you were interested in making?
Early on you just do as you’re told but at Rosemount I ended up concentrating on Chardonnay. Back then Chardonnays were big and buttery with ridiculous amounts of oak. We used to stack the barrels four high by hand – I left my poor old back somewhere in that bloody wood cellar. It’s amazing how Chardonnay has changed, they are so beautiful now, crisp, restrained. Even though we don’t make Chardonnay it’s still my favourite variety.
Describe a typical day in your life.
During vintage I’m in the winery seven days a week. Outside of vintage I divide my time between the winery, the warehouse, the Wine House (they let me wash glasses sometimes), the law firm, in the trade selling, a bit of overseas selling and the office. Outside of work, running and hiking are my two go-to happy things.
Why the focus on Sangiovese?
I would love to say it was a strategic, well-thought-out decision but anyone who knows anything about Sangiovese would just die laughing at that. Sangiovese is a bugger of a variety to deal with in the vineyard – it’s not easy in the winery either – and until the last five years or so it was a bit of a hard sell. We’ve been making it for 18 years and have made every mistake in the book but we’ve learnt from that and I like to think we’re not too shabby at making it now. Truth is I love Sangiovese; when it’s good it’s sublime, when it’s bad, well, we just don’t release it.
The Small Winemakers Centre is now Wine House Hunter Valley. What prompted your decision to re-brand?
Small Winemakers Centre was a name we inherited when we took over the business 10 years ago, it was never a name we would have chosen (especially when your last name is Little and your label is The Little Wine Company). When we decided to take over the cafe space and turn it into a wine lounge we thought it was a great opportunity to tie the whole thing together and relaunch with a fresh new name to match our fresh new look.
I want the Wine House to be a place that is all about wine but without being pretentious. Wine is incredible but there’s just too much bullshit around it. We are a place where people can come to learn more about wine if they want to or just come and have a chat, have a laugh, find wines they like to drink and have a bite to eat. Wine House is relaxed and welcoming and the food reflects that – simple and fresh with beautiful flavours.
Many wineries in the Hunter Valley are updating their cellar doors and wine experiences. Where does Wine House fit in?
I think we’re right up there as far as wine experiences go. We can do things that other cellar doors can’t such as lining up Semillon from four or five different winemakers to show how they differ stylistically. We do structured tastings comparing different vintages, we do tutored tastings with food pairings, we line up Grange with three Hunter Valley icon wines in a blind tasting – we do so much fun stuff. Because we have wines from a range of different winemakers, we have over 40 wines available to taste and we love showing off the Hunter Valley – our history, our diversity, our awesome wines, our winemakers and the stories behind them.
What is it that you love about winemaking?
If you had asked me that five years ago, I would have given quite a different answer. After 30 years of winemaking I wasn’t feeling the love and I was a bit disillusioned with the wine industry. So I went and did a law degree and I can now report back that being a lawyer makes being a winemaker look bloody awesome. Just kidding. I love vintage. It’s the simple pleasure of getting dirty, getting a job done and plain old physical hard work. It’s seriously fun in a big winery at vintage when everything is going like the clappers and there’s fruit flying everywhere. We’re a bit more tame in our little winery but it’s still the best time of year. I like making blends too – that’s a great part of the job. I’m usually incognito if I’m at the cellar door, I don’t tell people I’m the winemaker and my team know better than to dob me in. I’m pretty ambivalent about awards and ratings; the end game for me is making wine that people enjoy and that’s where the satisfaction lies.