Doug Lilburne Mise en Place Wines

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Doug Lilburne’s journey into wine started in kitchens in New York as a teenager, progressing through culinary school then to setting up a farm-to-table food program at a winery in Northern California. Winery work eventually drew him away from the stove, and vintages around the world followed. Now settled into his leased winery and vineyard in the Yarra Valley’s Steels Creek, Lilburne’s Mise en Place label focuses on home fruit and organic vineyards in the Pyrenees and Great Western to currently make a syrah, syrah and touriga nacional blend, and a syrah rosé. The winemaking is manual and traditional, with only sulphur added, and not always. The first release was in 2022 with wines from the 2021 vintage.

“Modern society lacks a connection to the land; without a grounding force, we will all be floating in the Metaverse soon,” says Lilburne. “Winegrowing might be a challenging way to turn a buck, but it does provide immense satisfaction in the way that it links us to the dirt. There’s something special about relying on your own hands to put food on the table. My family has had a bookshop for close to 40 years, and I’ve always looked up to my parents for their entrepreneurial spirit and pure grit to get through the challenging times.”

Lilburne is a chef by trade, working in kitchens in New York from an early age. “I started my working career in the kitchen at the age of 15, flipping egg and bacon sandwiches” he says. “My substantial cooking experience took place in Northern California where I set up a small agricultural farm food program for Reeve Wines in Healdsburg – everything was grown on property! …When I found winemaking and jumped into harvest hopping, jumping from Northern California to Australia and New Zealand.”

“I’m in this game to make honest wines, without the nonsense. Just grapes and sulphur – if desired. There are plenty of winemakers doing this, and I’m no different. …It’s a fine line between good wine and vinegar, so learning when to intervene is crucial.”

Landing in the Yarra in 2014, he skipped from one job to the next. For two years, Lilburne worked as a cellar-hand at Yering Station, but connections with Ben Haines, and Gary Mills from Jamsheed perhaps had the most influence on his local career. “I worked quite closely with both winemakers, picking up tips and tricks along the way,” he says.

The Mise en Place story could have started then, but Lilburne had another skill that he wanted to properly hone before he dove in. “I left for many years to pursue biodynamic production in Northern California… My time in coastal Sonoma County carried a strong focus on organics and later biodynamics under the guidance of Ted Lemon of Littorai. After a 6-month stint at Littorai, I spent the next two years tending the vines at Porter-Bass Estate, home to the Littorai Mays Canyon Vineyard.”

The pull to the Yarra was strong, though, and with his practical biodynamic apprenticeship served, it was time to head back. “When it was time to move back to Melbourne, I knew exactly who to call,” Lilburne says. “And I’m grateful I returned to the Yarra, as there’s plenty of potential to carve a new path in a region that is stuck in its traditional ways.”

That return to the Yarra saw Lilburne working in Steels Creek alongside Haines and collaborating on projects together, including their CO wines, which are co-ferments of orchard fruits and grapes. The pair also converted the almost 2.5 hectares of vines to organic management. “We eliminated the use of herbicide in the winter of 2021,” he says, “replacing the winter spray program with grazing sheep. It’s a no brainer – fertilisation alongside weed management? I’ll take that over dead soils any day.”

Today, Haines has decamped to his home territory, purchasing a vineyard in the Adelaide Hill, while Lilburne now shares the winery with Mitch Sokolin (Eleven Sons Wine and Gray & Gray restaurant in Northcote). A newly signed lease will give Lilburne the chance to better understand the vineyard as he continues a regenerative path.

“The home block is planted to cabernet and syrah, and the grapes hold unbelievable acid, partly due to the cooling breeze that consistently runs down the valley. This acidity allows me to showcase these ‘forgotten’ varieties in the best light,” says Lilburne, referencing the general disdain for cabernet in less traditional circles and the challenges in selling Yarra Valley shiraz.

That location is also one where he believes a groundswell of exciting makers is nuancing the face of the Yarra. “The western edge of the Yarra Valley is home to plenty of talented winemakers,” he says. “Witnessing the quality produced by Bobar, Cré and Luke Lambert is inspiring; it confirms my belief that Steels Creek has unreal potential.”

Lilburne also has a day job, which he took on in May 2021. That role is selling wine wholesale with Lo-Fi Wines, who work with European, Australian and New Zealand wineries that, unsurprisingly, work in a lo-fi manner, with a consistent theme of organics and sustainability. “This work has helped me widen my knowledge of European natural wine which would otherwise be challenging,” he says.

While the home site is a big focus, the Mise en Place portfolio will always come from diverse sites. “I just returned from an eye-opening wine buying trip to France,” says Lilburne. “I was struck by the number of perceived famous and well-to-do houses that are making wine from regions that are not their home turf. Negociant project seemed popular… Frost, disease, hail and fires… these are natural events that attack the vine in a moment’s notice and leave the poor paysan vigneron without a living. I took this to heart and thought to myself, if I’m going to grow grapes and make wine as my main source of income, I better diversify my risk as well.”

That approach sees him working out of Great Western and the Pyrenees currently, but always underpinned by a core principle. “The wines in the 2022 range are either home grown organic or purchased from organic growers. This is something I feel strongly about. With that said, I’m really looking forward to taking on new vineyard sites in the future with the hopes of shifting conventional techniques over to more sustainable and organic practices. One shift in conventional thinking can open the door to a more sustainable future.”

The other core theme for Lilburne’s wines is to use traditional techniques that aren’t guided by dogma. “I’m in this game to make honest wines, without the nonsense. Just grapes and sulphur – if desired. There are plenty of winemakers doing this, and I’m no different. …It’s a fine line between good wine and vinegar, so learning when to intervene is crucial. My continued focus will be to improve the home block soils and in turn the quality of the wine.”

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