At david Franz I take the presentation of my bottles of wine as seriously as the good stuff that goes inside. Yes the printing on the bottles does all happen after the wine is bottled and it is all done by hand by ‘team david Franz’. This team consists of Bec and Carolyn, myself and occasionally Matt ( my right hand man in the cellar). Every david Franz bottle has and will always be presented in this way. I can honestly say I have never used a traditional paper label, nor has a bottle ever been packaged for sale other than by hand in our winery shed. Why I started packaging this way is quite simple really.
In the year 2000, I had finally talked Marg and Pete (mum and dad) into backing me to make a commercial quantity of wine. I had also convinced them that I was dinkum about creating my own wine identity. To give you an idea of the ‘step up’ they committed to, my 1998 vintage was 1 1/2 tonne, 1999 vintage was 3 tonne but the 2000 vintage I had wrangled them to finance was almost 15 tonne. Yep it was a serious commitment financially for us all. I knew that to stand a chance of success, apart from making great tasting wine my fledgling label needed to have a unique identity. I spent the better part of six months after the 2000 vintage trying to come up with a name we could all agree on as a family. I eventually (after plenty of screwed up bits of paper) settled on my first and middle names because it was both me and didn’t rely on the Lehmann ‘legend’ at all. This settled, my thoughts turned naturally to how to express what I wanted to say about my wines visually. While cogitating I started selling a few of my first bottled wines (the 1998’s) to friends… as you do. As I’m sure is hardly unique I was using a white paint marker liberated from dad’s cellar to identify these as yet unlabeled bottles of Shiraz and Cabernet. In the proud tradition of circumstance being the mother of invention, a very good mate of mine was having a birthday and as a special present I hand wrote up a dozen of the newly named ’98 Benjamin’s Promise Shiraz. I really went to town on the bottles creating a front label and back label with all the relevant information a ‘proper’ label would have and carefully replicated it on each of the twelve bottles. My mate was impressed and his comment that “it’s a pity you can’t hand write on every bottle”, planted the seed of an idea that… Well started me on the path I still follow today.
I am by nature a very independent soul and had already determined that whatever I did in terms of my packaging I had to have complete control over and it had to be done by hand to properly pay homage to the hand crafted wine inside. I guess part of it was driven by my love of hand made goods, be it furniture, pottery or just objects of purely artistic joy. Maybe it was a romanticism forged by a childhood spent mucking about around the working open fermenters at Saltram when we lived there. Perhaps it was the hours listening to Robert O’Callaghan filling my teenage head with the virtues of hand crafted wine and doing it the old way with plenty of hard graft but truly exceptional results. Maybe it was just the fact that traditional method wine making and the lovely old equipment used in bygone years resonated with my soul intertwined with.. well… growing up having the parents I had. All I knew was that not only did I want to hand make ‘real’ wines I wanted this artisanal purity to flow past the bottling stage and infuse the packaging of these beauties as well. It sounds a bit ‘wanky’ but deep down inside I wanted to personally touch, hold and finish every single bottle I made before I sent them out into the world. It was a dream I did realise but CRIPES…did I end up making a lot of work for myself in those early years!!
OK… so back to the seed of the handwritten bottles idea. I had seen old Portuguese ports in dad & mum’s cellar that had been printed on the glass. PLW had by this stage been printing the mentor image in gold on their bottles so I knew it was technically possible to print directly on the glass. Whether it was possible to do it in-house on a small scale and on already filled bottles was something different altogether. I started making enquiries through a mate in the printing trade which led me to finding the semi automatic curved printer I still use today (some 12 odd years later). It is a screen printing machine using the same basic technology that screen printers have been using for at least 2000 plus years. I believe the ancient Chinese used silk screen printing way back in Dynastic times! This old school printing method has been combined with modern techniques and voila I can silk screen labels directly on the bottle, by hand and at home in the shed.
When I first bought the printing machine, the owner of the company flew down and spent about 2 hours setting it up for me then gave me a quick lesson on how to operate it. ‘Nec Minute’… he told me “you’ll be fine, it’s dead simple” and with a smile promptly buggered off to spend the rest of his stay touring the vinous delights of the Barossa. In his defence, it wasn’t THAT hard to get right, but even today after all these years of using the printer I am still learning new things. But to live a rich and full life I have a hard and fast rule, stay ever the student! Anyway to get me up and running, the company did throw in the first set of silk screens with the label images already exposed on them and ready to go. But I knew sending screens to a third party every time I wanted to change a label wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to be independent and damn it I sure as hell was going to be! I approached a local screen printer and he generously gave me all the good oil on processing screens in-house ( for a few bottles of wine of course ). The conversion to digital printing by another local printing house gave me the chance to buy an old Browning plate exposure cabinet for bugger all ( and a few cases of wine). With a few simple supplies and a fair bit of trial and error suddenly I was beholden to no one and have been making the screens for my labels ever since.
My first labels (for the 1999’s) were designed with a huge amount of help from a good friend and local graphic designer, Quentin Falkenberg. Our original design for the Benjamin’s Promise Shiraz and Georgie’s Walk Cabernet is basically the same today and I still love them. Much as I loved working with Quentin, the reality is designing a label costs an absolute fortune by the time you go back and forth, changing this, tweaking that … re jigging etc etc. Apart from the cost, the frustration of working within the schedules imposed by a busy design house meant that the time it took to get changes made was absolutely frustrating the crap out of me. Part of the frustration was that I knew in my heart I had the skills to make these changes myself. All I needed was the right software. So with a bit of horse trading for the programs and a lot of late nights, I taught myself how to use both Illustrator and Photoshop and before I knew it in house ‘self contained design and packaging’ all sorted. Again I am proud to say that after those initial label designs created with Quentin Falkenberg that was the last time I used a designer to help me produce a label. Well… To be strictly truthful that is apart from the collaboration with illustrator Glenn Lumsden for our POP Wine series… but every rule has an exception, doesn’t it?
The very first inks I used to print on my bottles turned out to be a bit of a problem. The bloody ink didn’t bond to glass properly and if you took the bottles from the cool of the cellar or in the case of the 2002 Red Rosé from the fridge into a warm room, condensation would form and you could wipe the label right off… Not good! After what seemed at the time like endless phone-calls and searching the web I found a German ink system that fit the bill to a ‘T’. The only real issue with the ink I now use is that it takes between 2 days and a week ( depending on the time of the year ) to reach full hardness and adhesion to the bottle at ambient drying temperatures. Instant ‘maximum performance’ is attained by firing onto an empty bottle (incidentally, it’s rated as dishwasher proof if you do) but by air drying the designs will reach this state eventually. All well and good, but because full bottles of wine don’t particularly like being baked I had to give my bottles time to cure properly before stuffing them into cartons. What to do…??? Other than having enough floor space to keep up to a weeks printing curing away before packing into cartons my only option was to tissue wrap the bottles to protect the ink printing from damage whilst the bottles took their own sweet time to harden fully. Well that did the trick leaving us the ability to crack on with the next print job without wrecking the last, but as seems to often happen, one solution threw up another problem… All of a sudden my beautiful striking bottles were turned into monochrome bottle shaped blobs sitting on bottle shop racks that had all the visual impact of a polite yawn! The solution – in hindsight – was obvious; stick em back on the machine and reprint the label onto the tissue wrap. I was stoked, it was an awesome result! The tissue wrap then evolved into a paper wrap as I noticed that the Bordeaux Racks many bottle shops used would rip the tissue and leave my babies looking daggy. The final – and to me the inevitable finishing flourish was the cartons in which each bottle leaves the winery. I also design and we hand print the design on each carton. Why?? Because of course, we can! Listen, I often get asked the question, “Lehmo, why do you bother going to such efforts…??” There’s a ‘legend’ on the machinery plate of an old tractor (The brand of which escapes me all these years later) that has always resonated with me. It read (sic) ‘ifwo rthdoi ngdoi twell’. That’s why I do it!
As a wine maker the greatest gift dad gave me was to reinforce the idea that in wine we are always students… Actually this is a truism that should apply to life as a whole really. Anyway as a result I am always trying new techniques ideas and constantly dabbling with different varietals. This has led to my range expanding over the years, some may say alarmingly but to me EXCITINGLY! This has given me a terrific scope to let my imagination fly free when it comes to new label designs. I can’t help myself evolving and pushing new boundaries; exploring new concepts in my both wine making ideas and as always in packaging. This is the grist for the mill of my life that gets me out of bed each morning, excited for what we can try out next. I must clarify at this juncture that I am talking ‘new to me’ rather than always genuinely new. Dad often pointed out when I excitedly recounted a new technique I was trying with my wine making, that ‘he was doing that back in the 60’s and 70’s’. Having said that, thankfully most of my ideas seem to pan out in a good way. Of course like all wine makers there are the odd dogs that had to be quietly euthanized… Incidentally I will be releasing a liquid celebration that encompasses the wines that ‘weren’t’ and retained lees I’ve collected over the years in the form of White and Red – wood aged vinegar in the near future – Granny always used to say “wilful waste makes woeful want and you may live to say, O how I wish I had that crust that once I threw away!”
So over the last decade and a bit from small beginnings I feel I have earned the right to call my wines truly handmade. It is of course not been something I have done alone. I have been kept going through great support from my parents and family and of course the two girls and two guys that work with me in our vineyards and at david Franz. Mal and I grow the majority of the fruit on the family blocks that goes into my wines. I pull in all the white grape we use and a small amount of red varietals that we don’t grow ourselves from like-minded growers but over 85% of the grapy beasties that make up my wine are ‘home grown’. Matt (who has been with me since the 2012 vintage) and I hand make in small batches every drop of wine that I sell. Up until 2012 I made every drop by myself, but as I have gotten older the body can no longer take the ‘punishment of vintage’ the way a younger fitter version once did! Getting a hand in the cellar was always ‘sorta’ inevitable. Rebecca, Caroline and I hand print and package every single bottle and carton that we sell. I reckon david Franz is one of the few wineries in Australia that can honestly and proudly call itself artisan in its truest sense.
At the core of david Franz is some pretty basic concepts that I feel have been instrumental in creating what we are today. Foremost perhaps is that I have never compromised on the key ingredients of all great wine; Fruit, Production and Package whilst at the same time adapting to the ‘shit happens’ factor with a good grace and realism. A sense of humour is essential – as is remembering your place in the big picture. We all want to create ethereal poetry under glass with every wine we make, but when all is said and done it will always still be a bottle of wine, no matter how damn good it tastes! My favourite joke is still “What’s the difference between God and a Winemaker? God doesn’t think he’s a Winemaker! Yuk Yuk! But perhaps this should be my take home message to you: wine is one of the truly joyous items that can cross boundaries bring people together and is an irreplaceable element (in my book) for any proper celebration. It is ultimately all about enjoyment. Unless your vinous delights are made with joy, what is the bloody point? I love what I do, am desperately passionate about every step that creates a ‘david Franz bottle of Joy’ and THAT is all there is to it! CHEERS!