Growing up in Bulgaria, wine has been a part of Elena Brooks life as long as she can remember. And while thoughts of a life in wine were always there, she never imagined she would become one of the brightest stars in Australia’s wine community. Combining hard work, passion, dedication, and access to some amazing vineyard resources have seen her rise swiftly through the ranks.
Today she is responsible for a thrillingly diverse and exciting range of wines for the wonderfully named, Dandelion Vineyards. The collective brings together a bunch of mates who also happen to be some of Australia’s best wine marketers, vignerons and viticulturists to perfectly complement Elena’s considerable winemaking talents.
The Dandelion Vineyards collective is on a journey: And whilst is less than a decade old, it has already been showered with praise, awards and is now source of great expectation. With someone as talented as Elena at the helm you can be all-but assured that they’ll deliver on this promise for many, many years to come.
‘Dandelion are such a young company, and we are seen in many restaurants and wine retailers so it is a commercial operation. But we make every wine as if we were just making a couple of barrels. That’s what I love about what Dandelion. We can have commercial appeal but we can also do things that are exciting and experimental. That’s what makes it so much fun.’
In the beginning, there was a winery in Bulgaria…
For Elena, her first connection to wine came through her mother. Elena’s mother worked in communications and PR for a local winery, but it wasn’t long before Elena was helping out. The fall of Communism in the late ‘80s led to an influx of orders for Bulgarian wine from supermarkets in the UK as they seized on this newly available source of affordable wines.
To help local winemakers produce wines to the supermarket’s specifications Australian ‘flying winemakers’ were embedded in the wineries. All well and good apart from the fact that the locals didn’t speak English and the Australian winemakers didn’t speak Bulgarian.
Luckily for everyone Elena was learning English at school. She was quickly given a new role in the winery as an interpreter and her journey into the world of wine was well and truly underway. By the age of 12 she was interpreting barrel tastings with the winemakers. By the age of 15 she had the wine knowledge and vocabulary of a winemaking veteran, and by 16 she was making her first batches of Chardonnay.
When asked by a visiting Australian winemaker what she was going to do after finishing high school it came as no surprise when Elena responded that she wanted to become a winemaker. Thankfully for the Australian wine community the winemaker suggested she go to the University of Adelaide to study, which was already renowned as one of the world’s best winemaking schools. So, in 1998 Elena packed her bags and headed to Australia to continue her life in wine.
Elena Brooks – Expectations without limitations
Before she left for Australia, Elena had an important decision to make. Many wineries in Bulgaria knew of her precocious talents and were keen to sponsor her studies in Adelaide. There was only one catch: Upon completing her studies, she would have to return to Bulgaria and work for the winery for a certain length of time. Nothing wrong with that, but Elena wanted to keep all her options open and have the freedom to travel, learn and be inspired during and after she completed her studies.
Like many winemaking students, Elena worked vintages while studying to earn some money and put into practise the things learnt from text books and lectures. Most don’t expect to also find their future business and life partner amidst the mayhem of a grape harvest, but that is exactly how vintage in 2000 worked out for Elena. She met Zar Brooks, a somewhat legendary figure in the sales and marketing of Australian wine who was working for icons like d’Arenberg and Wirra Wirra. They met, fell in love and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history…
After completing her oenology degree in 2001, Elena worked as an Assistant Winemaker at Geoff Merrill in McLaren Vale. The next few years saw her doing a stint at Maxwell Wines and starting her first winemaking company at the tender age of 23. Impressive for a young winemaker, but it was just a prelude to forming Dandelion Vineyards with Zar, Peggy and Carl Lindner, and Fiona and Brad Rey in 2007.
Selling out your wines… without selling out
Elena has worked all over the world as a winemaker. In Spain, Italy and her native Bulgaria she learnt how certain varieties work well in certain places. For example, while working in Campania, she worked with Fiano and discovered the powerful connection between place and variety. It’s a discovery that has inspired her and shaped her winemaking philosophy ever since.
A quick glance at the myriad wines she is making for Dandelion Vineyards shows just how this philosophy applies today. Riesling from Colin Kroehn’s vineyard planted in 1912 in the Eden Valley. Shiraz from Angus and Helen Tuck’s vineyard located in Bakers Gully in McLaren Vale. Sauvignon Blanc from Bill and Vicki Borchardt’s vineyard in the heart of the Adelaide Hills.
This idea of right grape, right place is taking root all over Australia. Long-gone are the boom days of the ‘fruit salad’ vineyards in Australia. Finding a Barossa Valley Chardonnay gets harder and harder with every passing year. While there is no denying that the Barossa Valley produces some of the world’s best red wines, you’d be hard pressed to find a wine consumer pining for Chardonnay from the Valley floor.
Today, winemakers like Elena are hunting for the best terroir. Finding vineyards that are growing varieties that have a synergy with the region. Vineyards that allow winemakers like Elena to make wines that appeal to a broad audience while still expressing her winemaking philosophy.
Having already achieved so much in her relatively short career, the future is as bright as the Barossa summer sun for Elena and the Dandelion Vineyards collective. Each year Elena learns more about the amazing vineyard resources at her disposal. She is refining and continually improving on wines that are quickly becoming modern Australian classics. Onwards and upwards: we can’t wait to see where her journey takes here from here.
This article was first published in Wine Australia, 1 May 2017