A native of Scotland and now a resident of California’s wine country, Robin Akhurst is the winemaker for Swanson Vineyards and his own label, Apsara Cellars. Well-traveled, ambitious and down to earth, Robin gave us the scoop on his journey to becoming a winemaker and the fun and hard work along the way.
What got you interested in wine?
It started out at Edinburgh University. I was definitely more of a beer and spirits drinker. Through various friends and my fiancé, (now wife), I started to get into wine. I wouldn’t say there was one particular point where it just clicked, but the more I spoke to people about wine the more I found myself getting interested in the winery and vineyards. I’ve always been someone who’s traveled and that side of the wine industry called out to me. It’s such a global product. When I left University, I worked as a sommelier at a wine focused restaurant, then I moved to London and worked as a wine merchant. That’s when realized I wanted to get into the producing side of things, the actual hands on, filling barrels, harvesting grapes side of winemaking.
How did you learn to make wine?
I gained a post graduate degree from Lincoln University, New Zealand. That gave me the theory, the bones and the background knowledge that I needed to make wine. But, I didn’t know how to do all the practical stuff like disassemble a pump or recharge glycol lines, so after I graduated, I knew it was important to get my hands dirty. Working two harvests a year in each hemisphere gave me a chance to gain experience quickly as well as explore the “world of wine”. From the start my aim was to always work for the best winemakers, those people who are leading the field.
Where was your first harvest?
I left Christchurch, New Zealand and headed to the South of France, in the Languedoc region for my first harvest. I lived in this old 15th century farmhouse with crumbling walls and questionable electrical wiring. It was in dilapidated state, it was literally all falling down around me. The oven was this crazy old French oven that had a rotisserie spit built into it. At the weekend I would treat myself and I’d go to the local market, buy chicken and throw it in the oven and cook it rotisserie style. Potatoes underneath. Paired with a rustic Mourvédre it was brilliant, a great first experience. Then I went back to New Zealand for the next harvest, and continued to travel from harvest to harvest always returning to back to London for a few months at a time where my previous employer, an independent fine wine merchant would welcome me back.
Have you discovered any exciting new wines recently?
English wine. England is developing on the sparkling wine side of things. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a real big emergence of vineyards being planted. Mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The southeast of England has a few very high quality producers emerging.
Do you talk wine all the time?
I find that I do. You never stop learning and it is such a diverse and interesting industry that there is always someone pushing the boundaries in some way. I also think it is important to understand the wine business beyond just the production side of things. A lot of winemakers have their blinders on, they are focused solely in the cellar and never get out to the wider wine world. The complete 360 degree approach is what makes you a better winemaker.
What’s your winemaking philosophy?
I want to make a delicious wine and I want my customers to enjoy it. Approachable and enjoyable. Wine is hedonistic, dating back to the ancient Greeks. It is about an experience. It’s not about bragging about what wines you’ve drunk or how many three star Michelin restaurants you’ve dined at. It’s about the fun side of things and the human side of things.
Tell us about your label, Apsara:
I knew that once I got settled somewhere, I wanted to have my own wine label, where I have absolute creative freedom, from selecting the vineyards, to website design, to working with distributors. Apsara started in 2010 with Syrah from Carneros and a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, in 2012 we brought in two limited production single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. We have a very hands-off approach and the wine is mostly unfiltered. A natural expression of character, reflective of the place the grapes are grown in. It’s a labor of love, it is great to reflect on the fact that I own the project, the creative freedom of that is liberating in a way.
You’re well traveled, if you could retire anywhere where would it be?
Puligny Montrachet in Burgundy, a small house on the Place des Marronniers would be lovely. I did a harvest there and usually by the time harvest ends, you’re sick and tired of the place, you just want to go home. But this was the first place that I was really sad to leave, I felt like my heart was there. This was the first harvest that I actually put on weight because the food was so damn good! The village, it had a heart and you can always feel when a place has a heart and a soul.
What’s your go-to meal to make?
A lot of it depends on what our local CSA delivers or what do we have left in the fridge. My wife and I love all the cuisines, but if I’m by myself my comfort food is a whole roast chicken, crusty French bread and a nice bottle of Pinot Noir. I could just sit and devour that.