Saturday, March 10, 2012

Trevor Mast, Australian Winemaking Legend, Dead at 63

I was saddened to learn of the death last week of Trevor Mast, age 63. Widely recognized as one of Australia's top winemakers, Trevor is best remembered by me as a generous man. He was generous with his time, his knowledge, his love of wine and his friendship. All of those who knew him will miss him greatly.

Actually, the devastating blow that culminated in Trevor's death came about six years ago when he was diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer's disease. Since that time, his condition deteriorated rapidly, although he continued to live at home under the care of his wife, Sandra.

Sandra and my wife, Donna, were high school classmates, and we have kept in touch with the family for many years. When Donna and I visited the Masts in Melbourne a year ago, Trevor may have recognized us but he was unable to say more than a few words such as "yes" and "no." His superb taste for wine had left him. What we noticed and admired most during that visit was the loving care Sandra gave him and the strong bond that still linked them as husband and wife. It was truly touching to see. The burden of caring for a grown man with a mind that is rapidly regressing to that of a child is clearly more than most of us would want to face. I'm sure Sandra, their four daughters and the rest of their family are devastated at this time by their loss but at least it is a final blow and not the day-by-day loss that they have been experiencing for the last six years.

My thoughts of Trevor dwell on his overwhelming generosity. Knowing my love of wine, he never hesitated to share his vast knowledge. Long before he purchased Mount Langi Ghiran winery--while he was still an assistant winemaker at Seppelt's--he fell in love with the Shiraz grapes from a site in the Grampian Mountains, then owned by the Fratin brothers. Year after year, the Fratin brothers' grapes were used to make Seppelt's top-of-the-line Show Reserve Shiraz. Before buying the property in 1985, Trevor worked as a consultant for the Fratins and visited us in Kalamazoo, Michigan at a time when he was attempting to market Mount Langi wines in the United States. Shortly thereafter, Trevor and Sandra bought the property--beautifully situated in the mountains--and started making some of the first and best cool-climate Shiraz wines in Australia. Trevor loved the Hermitage wines of Jaboulet and Chave (as I do), and he succeeded beautifully in emulating that style. Introducing that style to an Aussie wine-buying public accustomed to big, bold, highly extracted Shiraz wines was no easy task, but Trevor was up to it. My experiences tasting alongside him at wine store tastings or at home are treasured memories. With his boyish charm, tousled red hair and good humor, he was never intimidating but could somehow guide you to find the best qualities in the wines you were tasting. I remember when he asked me to taste through his complete line of barrel and recently bottled samples and write down my impressions. He nodded and respected my judgment, and it was several weeks later that I discovered that my favorite wine of the tasting was one of his failures. "The Cabernet fruit for that year was very light, and it ended up getting way too much oak," he said. "I don't know how I'll ever get it out." Australian and American wine drinkers like the smell and taste of oak, and Trevor took a risk when he started giving them less, rather than more of it. He once turned down the job of winemaker at Taltarni, he told me, because the winery wanted a more extracted style of wine than he was willing to make. Ultimately, Trevor's style and taste won the day, with me, and with many other wine lovers.

When my family last visited the estate, Mount Langi Ghiran wines were selling for about $10 to $12 a bottle. After the Langi Shiraz was featured, along with Grange Hermitage and Henschke's Hill of Grace, on the cover of the Wine Spectator, the price quickly went to $40 and beyond. Trevor and Sandra later sold the winery with Trevor staying on as a consultant for a few years until the effects of his illness made it difficult to continue. Losing Trevor Mast is a major blow to his family, his friends, his colleagues and everyone who likes the lovely taste and smell of real Australian Shiraz. Trevor's memory is in the glass, and it will linger.

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