For someone who has just made history, Liz Silkman is remarkably low key.
By chance it happens to be International Chardonnay Day and we're at First Creek winery where she's senior winemaker - "senior shitkicker is the joke around here" - to discuss her success in the recent 2022 Hunter Valley Legends and Wine Industry Awards.
Her wines didn't just scoop the pool - drumroll please ... best Semillon, best Chardonnay, best Rose, best Single Vineyard White and Best White Wine of Show, no less - but she was also named Hunter Winemaker of the Year for an unprecedented third time.
So, how does it feel to be the Hunter's only three-time recipient?
"It sounds a bit wanky but I quite love it really," she says breaking into a grin.
However you look at it, the last 11 years for Liz Silkman have been a whirlwind.
When she received her first Winemaker of the Year award in 2011 she was heavily pregnant with her first baby and her celebration at being the Hunter's first female winner consisted of a couple of mineral waters.
She has since added another two awards - 2016 and 2022 - with more appropriate celebrations it must be said, as well as three children: Isabelle who's now 11, Emily 8 and Alexander 3.
How a mum with three kids under 12 has won three Winemaker of the Year awards - against some of Australia's most decorated wine making peers - is amazing in itself, but consider this: she doesn't just make wines for First Creek, but also her own label, Silkman Wines, as well as for 19 other clients around the Valley as a contract winemaker.
"I made wine for 21 labels this year ... all up I'd make well over 100 wines in any given vintage," she says.
"They range from some of the big tonnage wineries like Tulloch, to the very small ones - St Clementine, for example, who only produces about 300 cases."
To say it keeps her busy is an understatement - a bit like saying her Silkman Reserve Chardonnay isn't a bad drop.
She also tries to fit in some wine judging when she gets the chance, although she has cut back there to spend more time with the family - "I miss it a bit and believe as a winemaker it keeps you focused".
And if that's not enough, she spends many hours on the road checking out vineyards, especially in that all important lead up to harvest.
"I did a trip down to Tumbarumba and back in the one day this year and that nearly broke me," she admits.
"I wanted to get back for the kids but it's what ... seven hours each way? I had a cup of tea and chatted with a grower for a while, but it's too much. I won't do it again."
It's not the first time she has pushed herself to breaking point.
"A few years back I gave birth to Emily on January 6, and was back at work on the 11th. I really struggled after that. I hit a wall and needed a complete break for a while. Believe it or not, I'm more forgiving now, relying more on my growers on others around me."
Still, she's pretty hands-on. Aside from Tumbarumba she checks in on vineyards in Mudgee, Orange, Upper Hunter, Hilltops (just outside Young) and Cowra. There are truckies out there who don't do those miles.
Yet through all that she consistently produces some of Australia's finest, most precise award-winning wines.
"Her name's Annabel, that's how," she says, referring to her number two at First Creek, Annabel Holland who has been with the company 13 years. "I lean heavily on her. And my husband Shaun too, they're the inner circle and I trust them implicitly.
"I think the best wines we ever made were the 2017 whites - the 2017 SILK Chardonnay is stunning, probably the best wine I've made - and that was just the three of us, working together, respecting each other's views."
Her hectic schedule means she sometimes feels unsociable, especially on road trips.
"I do feel slightly unsociable a lot of the time because I like to get in and get out and don't get the time to chat. The first a grower will see of me is when I'm driving out the gate. I feel guilty about it."
Which is a pity because as good a winemaker as she is, Liz Silkman is also good company.
It's one of things that her first wine mentor, PJ Charteris, noticed with her.
"When I was senior winemaker at Brokenwood I hired her to work as a lab technician and the two things that stood out to me was how diligent she was, which is very important, but also her impish sense of humour," he recalled.
"At Brokenwood our motto was to make great wine but have fun doing it, and let me tell you she fitted right in."
These days she has made the leap from lab technician to gun winemaker. And Charteris believes that with a hat-trick of Winemaker of the Year awards, on top of multiple trophies and gold medal wines, plus her and success as a contract winemaker, she must now be considered one of Australian wine making's heavy hitters.
But he says her greatest gift to the Hunter is her way with chardonnay. It's her favourite variety - "I adore White Burgundy in particular ... if I could afford it I'd drink it all the time" - and with this wine, she's on another level.
"What she has done with chardonnay has put the Hunter fair and square in the national spotlight," Charteris said. "Before she came along Tyrrell's had been there and done that with their Vat 47, but as a region we weren't really considered in the upper echelon of Australian chardonnay.
"That changed about 15 years ago and coincided with Liz's arrival as a senior winemaker.
"Her ability to build complexity into chardonnay, both with her Silkman label and also First Creek Reserve, while maintaining the wine's finesse has reshaped people's idea of what Hunter chardonnay can be."
Certainly her record with chardonnay is there for all to see - no greater example than when she claimed best chardonnay in Australia in the prestigious James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge for her 2014 Silkman Reserve with a score of 98 out of 100.
"Chardonnay tells a story. It's amazing. You have to think about it and respect it," she says.
But such has been her success with chardonnay and semillon in particular, that some will say she is not quite as adept with her red wines - as downright moreish as they are. It's not a question she shies away from.
"No, I'm definitely a better white winemaker than red," she says. "No doubt.
"But in my defence, I think some of that is due to the vineyards we have. In 2016 and 2017 Silkman won best Shiraz at the Hunter Wine Show against some outstanding wines - but then we were getting fruit from a famous old vineyard, Blackcluster, that was then sold. It nearly broke my heart.
"Having said that we are very happy with the vineyards we have access to these days, especially in the Hunter."
It should also be pointed out that James Halliday no less, lays the credit for the return of the increasingly popular shiraz pinot blend - the famous old Hunter burgundy of days past - squarely at the feet of Liz. Not bad for a white wine specialist.
If making wine for so many clients brings bucketloads of variety to the job, it comes with a down side - it means she has multiple bosses. So the awards and trophies aren't a bad bargaining chip.
"Some companies, like Tulloch, are very experienced and set in what they want, although obviously vintage variation comes into it, and they understand that," she says.
"Others clients with less experience come to me with fruit and ask what do you recommend and are happy to take my advice."
But there's a third group - let's call them more headstrong - who need further convincing.
"Look, I don't always win. But in these cases the trophies bring a calmness to the discussion, a sign that we know what we're doing."
In fact, it was this imperative to cater for clients that led to the creation of Silkman Wines in 2013.
"I just wanted to make wines where no-one could tell me what to do," she says. "Where I didn't have to say 'what do you think?' - I just wanted to make the best wines I could from the fruit available."
The other obvious question is whether, as an obviously very busy winemaker, she can she give all 100-plus wines the love and attention they deserve?
"I was taught if you don't show a wine respect, you can't expect people to buy it.
"I give all the wines the time they deserve. But the fact is some wines, like verdelho or a semillion sauvignon blanc blend don't take all that long to make.
"Others like a chardonnay, where there is so much more you can do as a winemaker, take significantly more time.
"Our Reserve Chardonnays at Silkman or First Creek for example can take four or five days to get just right. There's a lot goes into it.
"We put the juice straight into barrel rather than tanks. That means we might have 60 barrels in play, and each one is unique. There will be subtle differences, and we try blending this bit with that bit until we have the best representation of the vineyard, the vintage and the style of wine we're after.
"We aren't manipulating it, just showcasing it at its best. And any juice that doesn't quite make it for whatever slight reason is then used in our entry level wines."
Now, some quick thoughts.
New versus old winemaking?
"There's room for both the stalwarts who do the traditional stuff and the new and young who are pushing the boundaries. There doesn't need to be negativity from one side or the other. It can be really depressing when that happens. If you need to belittle another brand to sell your own wine, leave, you're not welcome."
What's on the horizon for Silkman?
"I think we've got to look at getting our own cellar door before long. And a couple of new wines in the range. I like gruner veltliner, so we'll be adding that shortly, and I'm making a sparkling too - a true methode de champenoise. It will be 100 per cent chardonnay."
A wine from each label you recommend?
"At First Creek our vermentino ($35) is a really good drinking wine. It's fresh and clean and citrussy. And our Silkman Reserve chardonnay 2021 ($50) is a wine I'm super proud of. It wasn't the easiest of vintages but this is everything I look for in a chardonnay."
Liz Silkman has already set a Hunter benchmark, but she's not finished yet.
This a girl who didn't come from a wine family, whose early drinking education was a fun night around the pubs of Maitland with girlfriends drinking vodka and orange.
This may well be a journey that's only just beginning. And won't chardonnay drinkers be delighted.
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