Talking Wine with Justin Lane from Alpha Box & Dice

Two years ago during a trip to Adelaide I found myself meandering through the wine region of McLaren Vale with some good friends, ducking in and out of various cellar doors and tasting our way around the region. Our last stop was Alpha Box & Dice, ‘save the best till last’ said our good friend and local tour guide, and she was not wrong. From the moment you step foot in Alpha Box & Dice there is a sense of wonderment and intrigue. Nothing is normal, but everything is so comfortable. This stems from business owner and head winemaker Justin Lane, whose unorthodox fall into wine making has defined the business philosophy. Two years on and an email pops up in my inbox asking if I’d like to ask Justin a few questions about Alpha Box & dice, obviously I jump at the chance. Enjoy.

The Versatile Gent: In a time when we see new brands pop up daily across any number of industries the importance of a good name has never been more critical. We think you’ve have nailed it. What’s the story behind the name Alpha Box & Dice? 

Justin Lane: Alpha is short for alphabet. We were trying to figure out a way to catalogue the different locations where we grow grapes. We needed to find a way to brand and communicate the different wines we make without making it generic and sacrificing each wines authenticity. The Alphabet was the solution. It’s works similar to a bin range but using letters instead of numbers. Letters give rise to the words. Words connect to form sentences. Sentences form paragraphs and stories are told. 

It has been suggested that the wines are a little alpha male.

We liked the Aussie saying “the whole box and dice” . It summarises our approach to winemaking – holistic. Also wine comes in boxes and the wine business can be dicey at times.

TVG: You’ve taken a somewhat unique route into wine making. Where did you learn and develop your wine making abilities?

JL: Ah yes!! The road less travelled. This would make a great title to my biography. I got into wine by accident. I have worked in all aspects of the wine business but it was a love of outdoors that sold me on wine originally. I liked the idea of a career  where I could explore the world and make a living. I had two failed attempts at university (too much enjoyment of the product not enough study).Moving to South Australia in 1998 I got serious about wine and started my apprenticeship. I worked multiple vintages both in Australia and Europe working alongside many great winemakers. When I wasn’t at work I would read books, articles and reviews about wine. I basically lived wine 24/7! It fair to say my wine consumption was possibly ten times the national average per capita.

TVG: A profession in wine has allowed you to travel the world. Why did you gravitate back to Australia? And specifically McLaren Vale? 

JL: Australia is my home and I had a young family which keeps you relatively anchored. Northern hemisphere harvest work usually only lasted a couple of months so a permanent residency abroad wasn’t really practical. McLaren Vale works for me on many levels. I love the coast (I swim all year round) and it’s a short drive into Adelaide or to the Adelaide Hills.

Your wines are somewhat daring in the way you explore grapes not traditionally tied to the region. What can we expect to find on the shelf at AB&D and how is the wine making approach different to your traditional McLaren vale vineyard? 

Alpha Box & Dice definitely breaks with tradition in terms of variety and composition. Most of the wines are either blends or obscure varieties by Australian standards. I think of the grapes as vehicles to drive a particular style. I would rather make a wine that is complete rather than be confined to 100% varietal traditions. Having said that we have just released a 100% Nero d’Avola (Siren) from the Maslin Beach sub region of McLaren Vale and I am putting the final blend of barrels together for our debut release of Aglianico from McLaren Vale. Watch out for Xola later this year.

Most of the winemaking approach in the cellar is based around my experiences in France. I try to resolve as many of the winemaking issues/challenges in the vineyard. This makes the cellar work very simple and reduces the need for hi-tech gadgetry in the winery. Most of the great wine estates I have visited around the world follow these principles. I also rely on the location of the grape varietal to be the expression of flavour rather than demonstrate too much winemaker prowess in the wines. Don’t over extract or nip/tuck!

TVG: We’re going to have readers keen to try your wines! What kind of quantities are you producing and where can they get there hands on it?

JL: The production at AB&D is relatively small. The total grape intake is a little over 100 tonne which equates to about 8,000 cases in total. We work with 13 growers which are responsible for farming 20 plots of vines. Most of the vineyards are in McLaren Vale however we also work with growers in Langhorne Creek, Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley.

The wines are available through most fine wine retailers in capital cities around Australia. The easiest place to buy is online at our website www.alphaboxdice.com.

TVG: A quick scan of the website shows a lot of ‘sold out’ signs across your range. In your opinion, what’s the best vintage or wine you produced to date and why? 

JL: Best vintage to date is either 2010 or 2014 in my opinion. We are lucky in South Australia as we don’t have disastrous vintages unlike some regions in Europe. The weather is fairly favourable for ripening grapes each year. The 2011 vintage was probably the most challenging. However we made some delicious wines that were stylistically very different from warmer, drier vintages. The work rate required in the vineyard and cellar is always greater in difficult years. To make good wine in a tough year is always a sign of a talented winemaker.

I’ve heard you speak of the community and mateship that’s developed in Adelaide between wine makers, restaurants, bar owners etc. How important have these relationships been in building you’re own business?

The winemaking and hospitality community have been of great support and influenced my career immensely. There is a wonderful and most generous spirit that exists in the Australian food and wine scene. It can be highly critical at times but this is necessary as it encourages honest examination of ones work. To “blow wind up each others skirt” just increases the likelihood of complacency and mediocrity. This is just as counter productive as “tall poppy cutting” also know as jealousy.

TVG: Your bottle labels are incredible, and compliment the unique and quirky philosophy of the business beautifully. Where do you source the artists for the labels?

JL: We have been very fortunate to work with the genius that is MASH design. James Brown, Dom Roberts and their super talented team have been responsible for helping develop the concepts and bring Alpha Box & Dice to life through the amazing designs. MASH are an essential part of the creative process that makes Alpha Box & Dice. 

TVG: What’s in store for 2015 and beyond?

JL: At present we are looking at a new home (evil lair) for our barrels and tanks. Possibly something in the CBD of Adelaide? The cellar door in McLaren Vale is getting a slight make over and a few more agave planted outside. Maybe another pinball machine? Otherwise its shits, giggles and business as usual.

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