Hands on, family-owned and showcasing what the soil has to offer at Tomfoolery
Ruth went to meet winemaker Ben Chipman (known as ‘Chippy’) in the Barossa Valley to find out how Tomfoolery all started, the new cellar door and the source of Chippy’s inspiration.
To take a step back and look at what Chippy and wife Sarah have created and built up over the past 15 years at Tomfoolery is incredible. As Chippy says they had no money at the beginning and when they started with just half a tonne, it really was just half a tonne (about 30 dozen bottles of the Artful Dodger Shiraz 2004). Lacking funds and needing to save for each new project and planned build and extensions means that Chippy and Sarah are not just focused but driven too.
They are both modest, you have to keep really prying and be inquisitive to understand and visualise what they have created over the 15 years and how they did it with working two or three jobs at time, getting married, having two children and planning for the future. The wines, the art labels, the branding and the cellar door shows you where enthusiasm and drive can lead and achieve. Next time I head to the Barossa, I will make sure I head to the cellar door when Sarah is around. Being the other half of a strong husband and wife team, she has played an integral role in building the brand and I am pleased to hear that she will be heavily featured on their new website – to be launched soon.
The beginning of Tomfoolery
Chippy’s interest in wine started with his mother working as the Personal Assistant to Robert Hill Smith of Yalumba and by the age of 16 he was saving wine bottles. After finishing school, he headed to Adelaide and then went off travelling. On his return to Australia he started a Wine Marketing degree. After 2 years he began working at Rockford, initially in the cellar door, then became more interested in making wine where he found his passion. After a few further years at Rockford, he worked in Spain where he discovered Tempranillo, a “name I couldn’t pronounce” fell in love with it, made wine with it and drank a lot of it while backpacking.
It was at Rockford that Chippy met his future wife Sarah who was also studying Wine Marketing. Before starting at Rockford, Sarah had successfully been managing restaurants for a number of years, experience she brought to the winery and to her role at Tomfoolery.
Soil at the Tomfoolery Cellar Door
We started our meeting in the vineyard. Chippy has 20 acres here and sources fruit from other areas of the Barossa from 9 growers. In total about 120 tonnes is made a year. It is hard to state how much this equates to in bottles because in some years, as Chippy explains you could have 500 to 600 litres or 650 or 700 litres so “the extraction is based on the climate, grape, the rainfall.” From the 120 tonnes, they make 19 different labels and 4,000 dozen bottles.
It is surprising to learn from Chippy that Barossa is made up of 12 different soil types and 22 mesoclimates.” Having studied a Diploma in Wines and Spirits, I never quite appreciated how the Barossa soil was so diverse.
Chippy continued, “We have an unusual beautiful part of the Barossa here. We are on the north eastern plank. If you go across the top, you are in Eden Valley. We are in the cooler side of the Barossa Valley. We are 320 metres above sea level and so we are at an important spot in Barossa as far growing premium fruit due to the altitude. The cool breeze from south east at night helps to retain acidity which is important to my winemaking.”
He adds, “We have beautiful terra rossa over limestone.” This is apparent in the picture, the red-brown soil is striking and you can actually see the chunks of ironstone. Referring to the ironstone, Chippy adds, “Here is the stuff that makes our vineyard ‘pop’ and there is marble jotted through the soil as well. It is about dirt, dirt and dirt, it is very special dirt here. It only stretches 5 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide.”
Chippy went on to explain the diversity in the soil and the different styles of wines made. I can now appreciate why he wants to make wines that truly reflect their vineyard and the winemaking style to help highlight this.
How does Tomfoolery make its wines?
Chippy wants to make hand crafted wines as he wants to show how beautiful these vineyards are as well as show respect to the vineyard growers who have been growing these vineyards for generations. As he highlights, “We get one go at it a year” (to make wine) so through his 9 growers and own vineyard at Tomfoolery, he wants to show the diversity of the Barossa and expression of the grape varieties. His winemaking style which he refers to as “unique” helps to reflect this.
Chippy designed the winery where he makes the wine, to face east with rising sun. The red wines are all made outside and uses wild yeast which starts to warm up with morning sun. Then with its unique location there is the natural cooling at night with the cool breeze.
There follows fermenting for 2-3 weeks and then a 20 hour basket press.
“Once you get to midday, all fermenters are in the shade and they are protected from the harsh sun. With the reds, it is all about basket press as it is gentle. There is plenty of power and tannin here in this region. We never crack the seeds in the basket press and so there is plenty of juice left in the press but we focus on being gentle and soft to create the spice and aromatics and plenty of layering in the wine. We also do lots of whole bunch pressing which depends on the variety and the conditions of the stalks. ”
I always thought making wine was like being an artist but it is even clearer now speaking with Chippy. As he explains, “You are taught how to make wine but it takes a lot of mistakes to forge your own path and you form your own style.” It sounds challenging but so rewarding especially when you taste the Tomfoolery wines.
They use oak barrels from mainly France and some from Hungary. Across the 19 brands, the different labels spending differing amounts of time in oak with the Benito in brand new French oak for 3-4 years and the Artful Dodger and Dust Up Cabernet in barrel for 18 months. The Skullduggery and Black & Blue, Son of a Gun are 12 months in oak with the popular Young Blood half in stainless steel and half in old oak.
They are considerate of the environment here at Tomfoolery. As it takes a lot of water to make wine, they make sure they collect it and use rain water tanks. When Chippy reminds me we are in the driest state and the driest continent then you really do need to think about your environmental footprint. When they clean the winery, that water also goes back into the paddock and aerated as don’t use anything that is hazardous to the environment.
The photo of the dragon is a protector, warning off any evil coming up the driveway. “You want good vibes and good fruit coming up the driveway,” says Chippy.
Tomfoolery Vineyards and Cellar Door
Here, at the cellar door, they grow Mataro out the front. Then out the back is Tempranillo and Shiraz and Cabernet. Chippy feels blessed to have one of the oldest Tempranillo vines in the Barossa Valley. It is one of his favourite grape varieties in addition to Cabernet Franc which is one of their biggest selling wines. They sell a Cabernet Franc red and Cabernet Franc rosé (2019 Trouble and Strife Cabernet Franc Rosé).
Recently renovated from a 1940’s house and designed for a cellar door, it is bright and beautiful. There is plenty of space outside on the lawn in the warmer months for the games such as giant connect four and pétanque. The cottages out the back and modernised for a B&B date from the 1930’s. This now consists of a master bedroom with bathroom, kitchen with old pot belly stove and lounge room. Bacon and eggs, wine and fresh fruit is provided with the cottage. In addition to managing the renovations and bookings for the B&B Sarah Sarah also manages the accounts and the back office at Tomfoolery.
It has been one year since the cellar door was opened. Chippy adds, “It is nice to finally have the cellar door and see the look on peoples’ faces when they taste the wines. We rotate the wines all the time.”
The cellar door used to be Chippy and Sarah’s former home which they bought in 2011, along with the vineyards dating from the 1930s. The polished floor is about 70 years old and reminds me of a polished concrete but made up of the original stones that came out of the Parra River.
They are a small and dedicated team of five at Tomfoolery including Chippy and Sarah with Deb working at the cellar door. If you head to Adelaide, visit the cellar door to taste the full range as they can’t stock all their range to all the customers Australia-wide.
You will mainly find the wines in the restaurants and in small independents. If you head overseas, you will see a selection in the UK, Singapore, China and Hong Kong.
Swanny Cellars is a big support of Tomfoolery wines. Tomfoolery 2017 Son of a Gun
Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz is recommended in the Winter issue of On the Vine.
Text written by Ruth Turnbull, Swanny Cellar’s Roaming Reporter.
About the Roaming Reporter:
Ruth Turnbull is the Roaming Reporter for Swanbourne Cellars. Having studied the WSET Advanced Certificate and WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, Ruth has worked in the wine trade in both London and Perth for over 15 years. While living in WA, Ruth was a regular Panel member on the Liquor Barons Panel and managed the digital marketing for Swanbourne Cellars. Now based in Adelaide, Ruth focuses on meeting the winemakers and the people behind the brand in order to highlight and share their story on the Swanbourne Cellars blog and social media channels.