Hither & Yon: The Path of Leask Persistence

Hither & Yon: The Path of Leask Persistence

Original article written and published by Ed Merrison ~  Vininspo on May 10th.

Richard Leask (left) celebrates Hither & Yon’s Vineyard of the Year win with Dr Plonk’s Matt Brown

The most impressive thing about Richard Leask might well be his ordinariness. The wine world loves its myths. We glorify rarity and romanticise the Sisyphean image: the rock, nature; the pinnacle, perfection; and Sisyphus the aloof, maybe cranky, grower. But this story doesn’t centre on a mythical figure; it gathers around the kind of Aussie everyman whose example—by dint of being unexceptional—is eminently followable.

I had a good chat with Richard the night Hither & Yon, the wine company he runs with brother Malcolm, won Young Gun of Wine Innovative Vineyard of the Year for the Sand Road site in McLaren Vale. I’d been struck before by the common sense he so calmly conveyed. Then, in a room full of people readily crediting him with changing the way they grow fruit, it was obvious that others had been similarly compelled. What was more, his affection for McLaren Vale and wine itself was as plain and contagious as the common cold.

Virtute cresco: By virtue, I grow. Simple, sensible and surprisingly expansive, the Leask clan’s motto implies (excuse the pun) a virtuous circle. By learning to grow grapes virtuously, second-generation winegrower Richard has enjoyed personal and professional growth, and this has spread to others. He’s a far cry from the outspoken eco-warriors who usually make the headlines. Consistent, reasonable action has made him a thoroughly effective agent for change.

“He is a humble farm lad of Scottish descent who would never toot his own trumpet,” says Matt Brown, whose Dr Plonk operation counts Richard as its viticulturist. “He doesn’t proselytise; this is a guy who knows the way to bring change is to make it accessible and understandable. I know first-hand how his considered approach to land use and viticulture is changing farming practice for the betterment of the soil, land and wine quality.” Tom Grant of Pannell Enoteca, where Leask has long served as consultant vineyard manager, says he has been an unassuming inspiration to many around him. “Prudence, integrity and humility are three words I'd associate with Richard," he told Vininspo! “Richard’s the common guy trying to make things better."

Established in McLaren Vale in 2011, Hither & Yon’s name neatly fits the Leasks’ evolution. The farming shoots budded early on the family tree, but the branch grew a little crooked. Their forebears were prominent citrus growers on NSW’s Central Coast, a path their parents were reluctant to follow. But they ended up managing vineyards for Tulloch (then owned by Gilbeys) in the Hunter Valley before being transferred to sister company Ryecroft in McLaren Vale in the late 1970s. When Gilbeys sold out in the 1980s, they purchased Pertaringa Vineyard in partnership with Geoff Hardy.

Despite his agricultural leanings, Richard initially held out against following his parents, who “didn’t have two bucks to rub together” and endured the infamous vine pull of the mid-’80s. “That was part of why I was a bit circumspect about it. But in the ’90s, it was hammering along, and they needed young people that were interested, so away I went.”

He embarked on an agricultural degree at Roseworthy only to find he hated it. He’s proud, looking back, that he had the nous to bail out and enrol instead in Charles Sturt University’s Viticulture Diploma by correspondence. It took five years, but all the while, he was consolidating the theory with hands-on experience. In the mid-‘90s, he landed a job with Sandalford in Swan Valley—then the second-largest producer in Western Australia. He ended up under the wing of head winemaker Bill Crappsley, “a ripper fellow who had been in McLaren Vale in his youth”. The company also owned a large vineyard in Margaret River, and the role allowed a constant crossover between fieldwork and cellar. “It was the first time I got to follow all the way through into the winery and get a real sense of seeing your work transformed into a bottle of wine. That was really important.”

He was uprooted from WA to South Australia’s vast, flat Lower Murray zone when Banrock Station needed a vineyard supervisor. “The Riverland was humming. It was a really exciting time to be in that engine room of Australian winegrowing,” he says. “Corporates are fantastic for teaching you all sorts of really good stuff—and then, of course, all the stuff that you don't like comes out of them as well, which is just as important.” 

The Leasks' 2021 Aglianico won McLaren Vale’s Best Wine of Show 2022, landing them the Bushing Monarch crown for the second time.

Richard answered the call home in 2000. It was time to start a family and amicably unravel the Hardy family ties. The Bec Hardy brand subsumed Pertaringa Vineyard while Sand Road began its gradual and total overhaul. Its fruit salad of grapes had historically fed industry giants such as Treasury Wine Estates and Pernod Ricard-owned Orlando. At the turn of the century, those varieties were “wrong for a whole heap of climatic reasons, and essentially unsaleable”. A decade later, Sand Road was home to the newly minted Hither & Yon brand and on its way to becoming one of South Australia’s most diverse and forward-looking sites.

The vineyard is neither organic nor biodynamic certified, and some would argue it therefore falls short of the gold standard. It holds Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA) certification, dubious to some, not least since the term “sustainable” has become a greenwashing red flag. In keeping with his mode as a light-tread trailblazer, Richard co-authored the 2012-published McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Australia Workbook, which provided the blueprint for SWA. While it’s true that SWA’s standards don’t measure up in some specific instances against, say, organics, it’s important to note (Virtute cresco!) that improvement is an incremental process. Not only that but rather than deter growers from taking action because the organic ideal is out of reach, SWA has seen a swathe of producers hold themselves to loftier environmental standards. Since its launch in July 2019, SWA had grown to take in 37% of Australia’s grape-growing land by the end of 2022 (an increase of 38% against the previous year), with members committed to measurable outcomes covering water use, biodiversity, soil health, waste, community initiatives and business efficiency It isn’t perfect, nor is it the ultimate goal, but the cumulative effect of these steps in the right direction should be celebrated.

McLaren Vale’s benign Mediterranean climate lends itself to low-input winegrowing, and it has long boasted the highest percentage of certified biodynamic and organic vineyards of any major Australian region. Richard loves the Vale’s ambience and natural beauty, which has changed a lot since he was a child, when the vineyards were intermingled with grain, almonds, livestock and more. “It's flat at times as you get out towards the coast, but the more you go back against the Hills Face [the western face of the Mount Lofty Ranges] and the traditional villages of Willunga, McLaren Flat, Kangarilla and McLaren Vale, there are some really lovely folds, and every corner’s got something, a slightly different aspect.” In fact, its gift has also been a handicap: doing everything quite well has held back the quest to identify what it excels at. “During the boom, everything was planted here from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay to Merlot and every other red you can conceivably think of. I think we’re now working out what we do really well, and that’s important.” Grenache is undeniably world-class in the right spots (though it only accounted for 7% of the 2023 crush, compared to Shiraz’s 57%). “Then there's a whole nuance of interesting things that will add to the tapestry of McLaren Vale,” Richard says. “They're not going to add up to a huge volume for a while, but I think there are some clear wines that will be in the discussion of what really works here.”

Sand Road is a leader on that front, with its 23 hectares planted to 21 varieties, including sun-loving southern Europeans such as Falanghina, Fiano, Greco, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Touriga Nacional. The late-ripening Italian black grape, Aglianico, was one of the first exotic newcomers. Unlike others, Richard didn’t seek to emulate benchmarks from its homeland. “I just didn't think it was relevant in a lot of respects because they’ve got vine age, they’ve got different altitude, they’ve got different soil types.” Instead, he let the vines take the lead.  “I'll be honest, I had no concept about it whatsoever,” he says. “It took a long time to get it right, and we made a heap of mistakes early, but it taught me a lot.” Those early lessons have made things progressively easier, but the learning never stops. In fact, the need to look afresh and pay extra attention was invigorating. “The new varieties required us to knuckle down, which, again, made it exciting because you really felt like you were immersing yourself in the end product.”

The comparison between Aglianico and Rhône Valley native Shiraz reveals a lot about the learning curve. Shiraz’s shoots would routinely be stretched to pre-emptively account for leaves that would droop and drop in the heat. Aglianico gave fewer leaves and held onto them all. It needed less water, and the big bunch structure of these Italian varieties gave a better chance of keeping sugar ripeness and physiological ripeness in step. They also tend to throw a large crop, so the relative novelty of shoot-thinning and crop-thinning has become routine. “I'm sure if I picked up a book and started reading a bit more about it, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I just tend to learn on the go and have a bit of a crack,” says Richard. “So, it made you get out and walk the vineyards. Again, you can get very complacent when you’re doing things you’ve been doing for 15 years. And with these varieties, clearly it was all going to be different. That was why it was exciting—and why it's still exciting.”

Richard Leask, who also runs the Leask Agri viticulture consulting business, in the vineyard

That reimagining—and the reinvigoration that goes with it—has been a constant since the start with Hither & Yon, which became South Australia’s first carbon neutral-certified wine business in 2021. Richard describes himself as a pragmatist. “Organic by thought process”, he isn’t ready to go all in. “I just don't know that we can wed ourselves really strongly to a set of rules—sorry, maybe I can’t,” he clarifies. “Actually, that's a better point. Other people can. Other people are really good at it. I'm not ready to do that yet.” He stresses that those adhering to regenerative agriculture, by extension, think and act organically most of the time. Over the long term, he sees regenerative agriculture surpassing the environmental benefits of organics and biodynamics. Years of mining the land have left a lot of farms, his included, far from their peak. “Regenerative agriculture is, for want of a better term, a doing system,” he says. “So, it’s not only about the things that I'm going to take out and stop doing, but it’s also the things that I'm going to add back in to build my system up. I still don't want to throw out all the other tools because sometimes they’re really handy from an economic sustainability perspective, which is also important to remember. Because we’ve still got to be here to do business to change the world if we want to.”

In a debate that ping pongs between virtue signalling and greenwashing, Richard would love to see more honesty and open dialogue. People generally accept that human endeavour can be a bumpy ride towards an ideal. “If you're finding it awkward to talk about all the things you do in your vineyard, then maybe you should have a think about whether they’re the things you should be doing,” he says. “We talk about all the stuff that we do here really openly. We give reasons why we do it, and 90% of people will be on board with that.”

Many who’ve ended up in Richard’s sphere of influence owe thanks to the Nuffield scholarship he won in 2019. The programme, open to people directly involved in food and fibre production, entailed a mandatory 15 weeks of international travel in one 12-month period. It’s a cultural melting pot and hotbed of ideas, with 70 to 80 scholars from 11 countries involved each year. As a result of the intense, challenging and rewarding programme, he’s been invited to speak to numerous winegrower groups and regional bodies. Even old-school growers who might have bristled at the thought of some new-age green thumb coming to preach at them have been refreshingly receptive. “If you hang around long enough, you become one of the seniors, and that’s where I’m at,” he says. “You sort of think, okay, well, I've been around the block, done 30 vintages now, seen a few things, and it’s great to share. I learn just as much in those collaborative moments.”

Ask this modest man what he’s good at, and the answer says a lot: Listening. McLaren Vale has yielded many mentors and mates who’ve been a fertile source of advice, inspiration and old-fashioned friendship. Some have left us, but not without imparting legendary wit and wisdom: Gregg Trott (Wirra Wirra), Alec Johnston (Pirramimma) and Wayne Thomas (Fern Hill Estate), to name a few. He’s worked with Stephen Pannell since the latter’s Hardys days. I've learnt so much from him about how he reads a vineyard, tasting fruit, what he's looking for and those subtleties.” Another good friend is Toby Bekkers. “Again, he’s a deep thinker, and the way he thinks about brand and discussions with consumers is fantastic. And his real clarity around quality.” And Jock Harvey, too. “His energy around giving back to the community, strengthening local areas through activism and just doing things for other people is infectious. He’s just a gem, and that rubs off on me, thinking I've got to be part of that as well.”

Richard’s brother Malcolm Leask, credited with being Hither & Yon’s commercial and creative brain

Another key collaborator, of course, has been his Hither & Yon partner-in-crime. Like many brothers, he and Malcolm scrapped as kids but always got on. By the time they started to look at the future of the vineyard, they’d spent about 10 years apart, doing their own thing. Malcolm had moved through the tourism and hospitality sector before a long stint as a sales rep for global beverage giant Lion Nathan. “I think we just sat around one day and went, hang on, we’ve got some pretty interesting varieties here… maybe we should do something with them ourselves,” recalls Richard. “We’d like to say it was just beautifully planned out on a spreadsheet over time, but sometimes these things just happen over a glass, and away you go.”

The partnership could hardly have worked out better. They’re best friends away from the business and complement each other within Hither & Yon, where Richard is primarily the grower and maker, Malcolm the director and creative mind. “He’s very good at X, Y and Z, and I'm very good at A, B, C. We meet in the middle as much as possible, so there’s really good overlap. Maybe it's unique; you don't hear that very often, but we get on really well. And I'm rapt to spend my working day working alongside him.”

As you might hope, the Leasks want to capture the vineyard values and workplace harmony in the wines. “I would like to think when people taste the wines, they think they're well-made and they're serious wines,” says Richard. “But clearly, there's a playfulness about the label, and that is us as well. We’re loose enough to like having fun. This whole thing can be a grind at times—and it's certainly a grind at the moment—so finding the fun is important. We find that together, and we also find it in our community.”

By this time, it will be clear that our Aussie everyman doesn’t glorify rarity; he champions universality. Wine connects us with our surroundings, opening up conversations about the impact of good farming, unhealthy habits or climate change. And it brings people together. “I understand its importance and its ethos, but at the end of the day, wine is a beverage that should be shared and enjoyed. We try to do it as well as we can, no doubt. But if we get too serious, it puts a lot of people off,” he says. “We’re trying to talk to the newer drinkers with some of these newer varieties and introduce them to things they wouldn't have seen before. So maybe come for a bit of a journey and see where you get to. So, do it to the best of your ability, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it should be fun and don't take yourself too seriously. I think that’s what we're trying to be about.”

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