YOU don't have to be a rocket scientist to grow wine.
But it almost certainly helps.
So when Brian Schmidt submitted his resume for a directorship at the Australian Wine Research Institute every other applicant might as well have packed up their pitches and gone straight home.
The cosmologist and winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess) is the complete package.
He is an internationally renowned brainiac, who with his colleagues turned science upside down when they proved the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae. As you do.
Schmidt also now has a hand on the tiller of government investment in Australia’s science infrastructure as the newest director at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).
Brian Schmidt receives his Nobel Prize in Physics.
And when he’s not roaming galaxies far, far away, he grows grapes and makes wine in his spare time – only to discover all that grey matter counts for nought if the wine stars aren’t correctly aligned.
Producing just 250 cases a year at what he self-deprecatingly describes as his “ultra boutique” vineyard and winery Maipenrai in the Canberra district he still has plenty from his 2003vintage which he admits did not go exactly as planned (and is happy to forward a case to anyone interested – he calculates about one in seven bottles is now drinkable).
But disaster is a point on which Schmidt seizes when discussing his future role with AWRI and how important the organisation and its work are to winegrowers big and small.
“As Einstein said, if we knew what we were doing then it wouldn’t be research.”
When opening last year’s WineTech Conference Schmidt told delegates “failure is OK if the breakthroughs are spectacular”.
“As Einstein said, if we knew what we were doing then it wouldn’t be research,” he said.
“The best research is often basic and risky but we need to let researchers work broadly within their areas of interest in what is a creative process.
“And science is creative. Bad science is boring but good science is creative and helps us unlock the secrets of the world around us.
“The most valuable discoveries are the ones we do not know about – so you have to cut scientists some slack.”
This approach will be music to the ears of Australia’s viticulture and wine scientists and researchers.
Schmidt also sang the praises of Australia’s levy system, which gives it dollar-for-dollar Federal Government backing to create a cash reserve to help fund vital research.
“Australia is fortunate to have that levy system, it is unique in the world and it is powerful,” he told WineTech.
“Its research is used by all, from ultra boutiques such as mine to the likes of Treasury Wine Estates,” he said.
“Because there is no patent available on much of this research it does not attract commercial investment but so much of the work is attuned to Australian conditions and needs.
“Which is great, because in my experience Australia’s viticulture and wine industries have the capacity and culture to adapt new technologies, putting them ahead of the world.
“Most importantly, I can say that without that technical edge the wine industry here would not be flailing as it is at the moment – it would be dead.”
Tough talk from a man who spends most of his life with his head in the clouds. And beyond.
But he said through his role as a scientist at the Australian National University and as the owner operator of Maipenrai he has “a broad appreciation of the core science AWRI undertakes and its overarching goal to deliver benefits to the industry”.
He said while his direct experience in the wine industry comes from a “very small winery”, he has taken the opportunity since winning the Nobel Prize “to work with both government and industry to improve and expand the role of research for the entirety of Australian industry”.
“I am committed to bringing the benefits of research that cut across the whole of our industry,” Schmidt said.
“I have substantive experience on boards similar to AWRI having served since 2007, for example, as a non-executive director of Astronomy Australia, a company that manages government investment in Australian science infrastructure,” he said.
“I am also currently serving as a member of three government advisory boards within the Department of Industry portfolio, and am a member of the Council of the Australian Academy of Science.
Brian Schmidt speaking at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre.
“As a board member at AWRI I intend to use my skills to ensure it effectively executes its mission of undertaking research that ultimately yields practical solutions for the wine industry.
“With its success marked by industry take-up, and the competitive advantages these developments bring to the levy payers.”
Speaking to Grapegrower & Winemaker Schmidt said he would like to think he could add value to the process as Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner who also makes wine.
While that may be true the scientist said compared with his wine he does not take the Nobel “all that seriously”.
“People think Nobel Prize winners are different, and before I won mine I only knew them as ‘famous’ people I occasionally met,” he said.
“But in reality you simply work at doing a good job and then, when you least expect it, this comes along. The trick is not to lose your mind over it.”
Schmidt said when he was growing up in Alaska wine was not choice 1, 2, 3 or even 4 when it came to having a drink. It is now, he said, but wasn’t then.
Which explains why he was caught short when he started dating his wife Jenny Gordon as a slightly wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old.
“She asked me what wine I liked to drink and all I could do was look a little blank and offer even less,” he said.
“Jenny told me if I was going to date an Australian I had better learn something about wine pretty quickly.”
And a love affair was born. With wife and wine.
Which must spark some interesting dinner conversations as the Nobel Prize winner and his wife with her PhD in economics debate the pros and cons of the drink de jour in particular and the industry in general.
Schmidt’s first AWRI board meeting is this month and he does not hesitate to praise the work being done at Urrbrae in Adelaide’s foothills as well as in field work around the country.
However, as a scientist he also knows the world always changes – and the Universe too apparently – “and to stay relevant you have to change with it”.
“AWRI does a great job of getting industry in touch with the valuable information and data it has amassed and has helped improve wine out of sight,” Schmidt said.
“Our wine industry (Schmidt has considered himself an Australian since 1994 but says even the sceptics are now prepared to overlook his fading accent after his Nobel Prize) is still the most hi-tech in the world and much of that success goes to the scientists,” he said.
“If you compare our wine industry with any other country you would be amazed how complete the take-up of technology is here, from smallest to largest, compared with overseas.
“That’s what I am hoping my input will help maintain.
“You can have all the marketing you want but that job is 10 times easier when the product is good.
“And the product is good, and then better, when it has the science to achieve that.”
Brian Schmidt, Nobel Prize Winner.