Vale Wayne Stehbens

Wayne Stehbens (Photo: Katnook Estate)

The wine world was shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden death of Wayne Stehbens, founding winemaker of Katnook Estate, on November 5.

Wayne was chief winemaker for all of Katnook’s 39 vintages. Wayne was always an employee, not an owner, but if ever an employed winemaker could be said to have built a brand, it is Wayne. His was always the name most closely linked with the brand. He had won two Jimmy Watson trophies for Katnook, in 1987 and 1998, among many other awards at home and abroad.

Wayne made Katnook’s first vintage in 1979 in the 1867 limestone building that was originally Coonawarra pioneer John Riddoch’s woolshed. It is also the building where Riddoch’s first vintage is said to have been made. The building is still used as a barrel shed but the winery has long outgrown it.

I still remember the first Katnook Sauvignon Blanc, the 1980, which was made with the help of Oenotec consultancy in the person of Dr Tony Jordan, and what an impact that wine made. Fermented with Oenotec’s R2 yeast, isolated from Chateau Rahoul in Bordeaux, it revealed an amazing array of aromatics the like of which had never been tasted before in an Australian wine. Something similarly radical happened with Petaluma’s Clare Valley Riesling of 1979, made by Brian Croser, who had isolated the yeast and brought it to Australia. These wines sparked a vigorous debate as to whether it was the yeast we were smelling or fruit aromas that had been liberated by the yeast. Croser maintained the latter.

The 1980 Katnook was, I believe, the first Coonawarra sauvignon blanc.

Wayne copped some flak for the creation of the Odyssey, a super-duper icon cabernet, a very concentrated wine that was quite oaky in its youth. To his credit, Wayne always said the wine was not meant to be a typical Coonawarra or a typical cabernet, just a great red wine. Some of the later vintages certainly lived up to that promise: if given adequate cellaring, they shrugged off their oaky mantle and turned out superbly. Odyssey was followed by Prodigy, a shiraz version made using the same philosophy.

When Wayne celebrated his 35th year as winemaker in 2013, this interview was conducted.

I’m told Katnook’s owner, the Spanish wine company Freixenet, had been pressing Wayne to organise a succession plan at Katnook. At the same time, his second-in-command resigned. So Katnook will be in need of help to make the 2018 vintage.

Katnook may no longer be Australian-owned, but it has always seemed like a family affair. Wayne’s father Ray Stehbens established the vineyard and together, father and son established the winery and the brand. Wayne’s wife Michelle manages the Katnook cellar door.

A memorial service was held at Katnook on November 14.

He was 63. Too young.

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