The food loving wine maker - Tim Sporal
In a previous life, I used to be a wedding photographer, judge me, I totally deserve it. It was one of many odd career choices I found myself in (for the strangest of reasons). I vaguely remember once working at a fancy wedding in country Victoria where the bride, upon hearing about my love of food, told me I should make contact with a bloke called Tim who was based in Castlemaine. That was a long time ago, and over the years Tim and I have bumped into each, not literally, just figuratively, it’s not like we’re both ridiculously clumsy. On the rare occasion we do catch up it’s always something related to food, be it scaling mountains for elusive mushrooms or chewing the fat at a farmer’s market he’d organised. One thing I’ve always appreciated about the bloke is his no-bullshit passion for food, so I thought I’d get on the road and pay him a visit.
I didn’t know much about Tim’s past until recently when I discovered he was brought up by parents obsessed with food. They loved the idea of growing food themselves, they even prepared it for a family restaurant they owned called ‘Peaches’ (named after the old peach packing shed it was based in). Tim’s parents were early adaptors in the early 1980’s (way ahead of the hipsters) and grew all the fruit, veg and nuts and anything else they could for their family and the restaurant. No wonder the guy has an innate love and passion for food. It’s proof that what we do as parents can hold a strong influence on the choices our children make.
But I’m not visiting Tim to just talk about food, right now I’m interested in his other project. Yes, he has two passions, growing, cooking and serving good food AND making beautiful wine. His drive for producing good food and wine is insatiable, and he’s doing it for all the right reasons. Simply because he loves it.
Tim is based in the lovely town of Castlemaine in central Victoria, where he’s worn various hats from managing the local farmer's market, working at a farm to table restaurant and now proudly wears a wine makers hat, producing vino with his mate Pat at the co-op they’ve aptly named ‘Boomtown’ (after the boom and bust nature of many of the goldfields towns or the area).
I arrived to visit Boomtown on a grey autumn day in late April, the temperature had dropped but the rain had yet to bring the much needed break in the season. The old industrial shed where Boomtown is located was as warm as a mother-in-law’s embrace. The air was musty and the concrete floor chilly and cold, Tim’s smile however was a warm and friendly welcome. As I arrived he was steaming French oak wine barrels he’d picked up secondhand and was giving them a good clean before they’d were to be filled with the next vintage. His steamer had blown a seal and before we sat down to talk we jumped in his ute and headed off to a nearby winemaker to source an emergency part. The drive wasn’t more than a few minutes and before I knew it we were in a massive tin shed filled with stainless steel wine vats speaking with a bearded wine expert, a mate of Tim’s. I didn’t say much, I couldn't get a word in, instead I just listened to the two speak a language unfamiliar to me, ‘wine makers talk’. Really it’s a sight to behold, as an observer it’s intriguing. It’s like listening to someone speak Italian or Spanish, I can understand little snippets of words I’ve picked up traveling, but really I have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. And in true wine maker fashion, in the early hours of a weekday morning, we tasted many varieties of the next batches of wine the bearded expert had been working on. My mouth didn’t know what to do with all the amazing foreign flavors swishing around cheek to cheek. It was like visiting a nude beach for the first time and not knowing which set of boobs to look at or which penis to be intimidated by, an overload for the senses. (Truth be told, I’ve never visited a nude beach in real life, only in my dreams, and it was super weird).
With our mouths tingling with half cooked vintage we returned back to Boomtown so Tim could repair his barrel steamer and continue cleaning whilst we talked passionately about the good things in life. He set to work cleaning whilst I just hung about, listening to him explaining the various reasons for using old oak instead of new oak because it allows grapes to tell their own story and not to be influenced by the flavor of new wood (finally some wine talk that made sense to me). He explained his preferred way of making wines with as minimal influence as possible, he wants the fruit to change the wine every year instead of manipulating the process to achieve a consistent wine each year. This approach is akin to good cooking I reckon. Let the ingredients tell their own story.
Someone recently asked me how I got into food and I still don’t know how to answer that question after all these years. You just care enough or you don’t. But if you do care you have to have an open mind, you have to be willing to take on new experiences whilst celebrating the seasonal traditions year in year out. For Tim, it was food that got him into wine. It was a logical, gradual progression he explained “I’ve always been drawn to food, obsessed with cooking and growing my own food, then I started realizing that the wine I was drinking didn’t really make sense in the way that the food I was enjoying did”. This wasn’t anything like the food he was obsessing about, local, seasonal, organic, small batch etc. Tim recalled a big shift happened when he visited a Tasmanian restaurant ‘Garagiste’ (no longer exists) where “the ethics and values they had in the kitchen were mirrored with their wine list” “Everyone that worked there was just as invested in the wine as they were in the food. It made more sense than anything I’d ever experienced”.
From that point he found a new interest in sourcing wine better suited to his food. At some point, the fascination took hold and he found himself in a wine making co-op in an old factory building in Castlemaine. I’m always interested in hearing the progression of how people get to a certain point in time, and how they change in 5, 10 and 20 years. The evolution of an individual is a magic thing to observe, Tim’s story is no different.
It was reaching midday so I pulled out a goose liver pâté that I’d made from some geese I dispatched a week prior and served it on fresh sourdough, but it wasn’t enough, we needed lunch. Tim took me around to some food producers operating out of the factory precinct which has developed into an interesting food hub over the years. He grabbed some fresh herbs and veg from the independent grocer and handful of amazing streaky bacon from the small goods butcher (Oakwood) passionately ran by the German ex-pat Ralf. With the ingredients for lunch secured we returned to the shed for Tim’s much anticipated pasta. He often cooks a meal at the cellar door but there isn’t a kitchen in any sense of the word. He’s confined to an electric hot plate and a bench. These are the kind of restrictions I enjoy when I cook, it keeps things simple out of necessity. “this is a normal vintage lunch, a pasta, some salad, bread and a bottle of wine”. Sounds pretty amazing to me, but then again, I’m fairly easy to please. With the Rolling Stones live album ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s out’ playing loudly over the speakers, Tim prepared a simple salad of greens, tomato, anchovies and capers with a magic dressing perfectly suited for mopping up with chewy bread. The pasta was as simple as they come, fried bacon mixed with pasta, eggs, pecorino and olive oil, Carbonara OG style. Tim knocked the top off of one of the wines under his label, ‘Minim’ and we sat down to enjoy the good things in life; good food, wine and conversation.
It’s a rare occasion to Tim sitting down for more than five minutes as he always seems like he has something brewing, a hot pot boiling, something to clean, someone to talk to. It was nice to finally have him alone to catch up over wine and good food. “There are so many things I want to do, but I just don’t have the time” he explains. It’s so true for people driven by passion, time is their Achilles heel.
Understanding that he can’t do it all, he and his wine making mate Pat often open Boomtown to budding wine makers, who, in exchange for labor and work are allowed to use equipment to make their own wine whilst learning the wine making process. But for Tim it’s not just about teaching, it’s also about learning.
“That’s the whole reason this place exists, for us to learn off other people and for small produces to have the ability to make their own wines”. There isn’t much structure to the system other than that, an admirable approach where people that possess fine skills share trade secrets encouraging growth of not only an industry, but a culture. More wine makers means more variety in the wines, something that’s been limited in the region. “a lot of the wine that has been made in this area has had a certain formula in mind, and with a limited palate to work with because everyone was obsessed about planting French varieties, shiraz, pinot in the cool areas and cabernet. I think that’s a big part of it here, we want to make wine slightly differently to a lot of other people. We work with a lot of different varieties from a broad area and we make our wines without any cultured yeast, without filtering the wine, so we’re really comfortable with the wines looking different every year, that’s how the vintage comes through”.
That’s the thing about Tim. He’s not driven by wanting awards or making millions of dollars making mass produced wines, he’s driven by getting the best he can from what nature provides each year. He loves cooking with the seasons and understands that the availability and quality of the food he sources is determined by the natural conditions, the same can be said about his approach to making wine.
Where will he be in years to come? He’s still not quite sure. He has moved into catering events at the cellar door where he blends his two passions of cooking and wine, a partnership that’s been working pretty well for millennia. His legacy, what he does want to be a part of, is making change. He wants to see a culture that does embrace seasonally determined food with as minimal tampering as possible, where the approach to sourcing food with these principles is just second nature, not something that we have to think about. If it’s part of culture in countries like France, Italy and Spain then why can’t it exist here?
“It would be good to be a part of a generation in time that was pivotal in influencing that big shift that needs to happen, where you live as an example of someone that doesn’t even think about food in terms of trying to frame it in certain context, it’s just innate. You grow stuff, you get stuff from the shops but when you do you’re not sub conscious in your choices, you’re just doing it because it’s in your nature”.
The cool autumnal air was sneaking in the shed, the sky had become a little darker and it was my cue to head off and let Tim finish cleaning secondhand oak barrels. We cleared the table, totally satisfied with full bellies of pasta and salad. As I headed off Tim handed me a bottle of red to “share with the miss’s” which put a smile on my face. We parted ways and I hit the road invigorated from a day spent with someone I share common values with in food. Simple values, but good values. Just like that bottle of red we shared later that evening.
Go visit TIM: