I had the pleasure of sitting down for a one on one with Alpha Box and Dice head winemaker Sam Berketa, to discuss his recent win. I’m rather fortunate in that I get to chat with Sam pretty frequently these days, but profiling him for this piece was a rare opportunity to really interrogate him! And I’m sure glad I did.

We’re here to discuss Sam’s recent Young Gun of Wine Awards, People’s Choice win. In order to really appreciate the significance of the accolade, it’s probably best to first provide a little background context. The Young Gun of Wine Awards aren’t your average wine show. Established in 2007, they seek to champion innovation and creativity in emerging and young winemakers. Simply put, they’re the kind of awards winemakers actually want to win.

The People’s Choice Award is a particularly special jewel within the Young Gun crown. Unlike the other awards and as the name aptly suggests, it’s determined by public vote from the top 50 national finalists, as whittled down by the judging panel. A panel that this year included the palates of Nick Stock (wine writer), Sebastian Crowther (Master Sommelier) and last year’s Young Guns, Chris Dilworth and Loique Allain (of Dilworth and Allain).

When I ask Berketa how it felt to take out the People’s Choice Award and join the ranks of past winners including Peter Dredge and (fellow South Aussie producers) Laura and Brendan Carter; Berketa says, ‘I was absolutely blown away and truly humbled by the honour’. He’s then quick to move on and congratulate the 2021 top trophy winner Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines (and yes, she’s another South Australian based producer too, in case you were wondering). But I don’t want to let him get off topic, so I consciously steer the modest Berketa back to his own win.

Sam is very open telling in me that he’s entered Young Gun in past years, but never made it through to the top 50. He says being selected as a finalist by the judging panel this year shows the relevance and resonance of the wines he’s currently making. Whilst he feels the public vote highlights the current strength of the Alpha brand amongst wine consumers. A feat that in his words, is a credit not only to the winemaking, but the entire Alpha team, from cellar door right through to sales and marketing.

As part of the entry process, all winemakers are required to submit two wines for the judge’s tasting. In previous years Berketa has gone for crowd pleasers, such as Alpha’s infamous Prosecco which I can assure you has quite the cult following here in South Australia. But this year Sam took a different approach, selecting a single site Nebbiolo and a skin contact blend of Semillon, Muscat and Riesling—Golden Mullet Fury (I’d suggest googling the label—it’s equally as intriguing as the name). Though distinctly different in style, both of these wines represent Berketa’s current philosophy. One that’s centered around refinement, premiumisation, drinkability and ‘making each wine individually, so that each grape shines to the very best of its potential’ once in the glass.

At first, this direction seems to be at odds with the Alpha brand—one that was quite literally founded on the progressive, disruptive and experimental! But as we continue to chat, it becomes clear that Sam’s current trajectory is not a departure from Alpha’s foundation, but merely an evolution of it. It also shows a growing confidence in Berketa, who is applying his past experience with his creative nature and backing himself with quiet conviction. A move that’s clearly paying off at a consumer level.

But there’s another thing I should make clear at this point. Sam’s current, less is more approach doesn’t mean he’s losing his creative edge. If anything, he’s being more adventurous in his winemaking approach which he describes as being guided by the grapes, rather than the other way around. He’s adopting gentle process, favouring climatically suited alternative varietals and single site expressions that speak of terroir, sub-regional diversity and fruit character.

Taking into consideration that Alpha currently boasts in excess of 30 wines, such an indivualised approach to the making of each seems to me, a somewhat exhausting task. But Berketa disagrees. He is calm and confident in telling me how this approach drives him, keeps life interesting and provides opportunity to stay innovative in his role.

At this point, I can’t help but wonder how much Sam’s past experience has shaped this perspective and so I broach the subject. Berketa credits his time with Mac Forbes (Yarra Valley) as pivotal in developing his philosophy but also speaks about how Quealy (Mornington Peninsula) opened up his world to array of uncommon varietals such as Frialano. There’s also the appreciation for grape quality he inherited from his time in Borolo, where he says the wines were made in the vineyard, as opposed to in the cellar.

Upon hearing all of this, I can see how Sam’s journey has led to this very point—it’s like I’ve just completed a puzzle, wine in hand of course! It’s also the precise moment I realise I’ve taken up far too much of this generous man’s time. So, we wrap up our chat and I hit the road. Left to ponder our conversation, I can’t help but feel that something’s shifted in Berketa of late and that, as his People’s Choice Award win attests, he’s clearly stepping it up and coming into his own!

Written by 2021 WCA Wine Media Cadet, Amanda Eve