Winemaker Tony Zafirakos has taken inspiration from his father’s lifelong hobby and turned it into a natural growing business
Growing up the son of Greek migrants in Sydney in the 1980s, Tony Zafirakos realised the wine his parents drank didn’t look much like other wine. As his friends’ parents sipped clear, yellow chardonnays and lighter rieslings, Ari and Anthea Zafirakos’ chosen tipples were cloudy, brightly coloured and always homemade.
“I vividly remember end of season soccer barbecues where Dad would take along these clear glass bottles,” says vintner Tony, who started Ari’s Natural Wine Co in 2017.
“The bottles were always clear because Dad needed to see where the sediment was sitting, and the wine inside was always this really strong yellowy orange colour. Our wine never looked like shop bought wine but I also remember other parents being amazed with it.”
Natural wines are part of a growing global movement, produced without the use of synthetic chemicals.
“The basic principle of natural winemaking is nothing added, nothing taken away, is what’s generally said,” says Tony.
“The flavour and nose are very distinctive compared to traditional wine production, where the skins of the grapes are pressed off. Natural winemaking involves leaving the skins on the grapes and letting them stay in contact with the juice for a certain period of time.”
Sales of natural wines are booming globally, with millennials especially concerned about the environment and what goes into their wine glass. Every part of Tony’s winemaking process is done by hand, with no electricity or pumps. All his wine is wild fermented, unfiltered and unfined, which means its coloured is not clarified by filtration. Also, sulphur is not added at any stage.
“Dad always made his wine without adding anything or taking anything away, including the skins from the grapes. He did everything by hand, and we helped.”
Ari arrived in Australia alone as a 17 year old in 1962. He returned to his homeland often over the next 15 years, where he met and married Anthea. In 1983 the couple moved to Coogee, where they raised three children.
“Mum and Dad both grew up in villages in Greece where people grow up knowing how to grow their own vegies, make bread, forage for edible weeds and ferment wine,” says Tony, 35.
“By the time I came along in 1984, my parents had already started doing the whole home-wine operation thing because Dad missed it from his childhood.
“He would go out to the markets in western Sydney each year in March or April and come home with buckets full of grapes, which we would all stomp in the backyard. Then those buckets would be moved to the garage for fermentation, and when the wine was ready, Dad would bottle it and move the bottles to a little sandstone cellar he built under the house until they were ready to drink.”
Growing up, tasting the first of Ari’s bottles became a celebration for family and friends, says Tony.
“There was always an open policy in our house that any family or friends could have the wine for free. But over the years, natural wine started becoming a thing and my friends said, ‘You should put a price on this’, because as soon as Dad would bottle, we’d keep some for ourselves but the rest would get snapped up.”
In 2013, Ari and Anthea retired to Bowral. Tony, then a graphic designer with his own agency in Sydney, began to spend more time in the Southern Highlands with his parents.
“I fell in love with the area and wanted to spend more time here because I found the open space so inspiring and I’ve always loved the countryside so I was inspired to begin.”
In 2016, he decided to make a major life change and started winemaking full-time.
“Natural wines were really starting to become a thing and my friends were all in my ear to give it a go so I took some time off from work. I started Ari’s Natural Wine Co in honour of my Dad and decided to go for it. I’ve never looked back.”
Between his 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages, Tony spent time in Italy and Germany with natural winemakers who are gaining international recognition: Michael Völker at 2naturkinder in Kitzingen, Bavaria, and Jacopo Battista at Ajola winery in Orvieto, Umbria.
“As a winemaker, you probably do only 30 to 40 vintages in a lifetime so I think going overseas doubled my experience and learning curve,” says Tony.
Determined to source fruit within a three-hour radius, initially Tony started buying grapes from Marist Brothers Wines in Mittagong. When production stopped there, he found Willow Vale vineyard, a small local affair near Mittagong. He also sourced gapes from Hill Top, Marulan, Goulburn and Canowindra. This year, due to the bushfires and the damage to local grapes, Tony bought from Ricca Terra vineyards in South Australia.
Ari’s Natural Wines’ core range is named after the colour spectrum of naked wines. There’s a Big Red, Little Red, Pink Orange and Whiteish, as well as five other varieties including three natural sparklings referred to as Petillant Naturel, or Pet-Nats. The wines are available online or locally at Moonacres Kitchen, Robertson or BIRCH, Moss Vale. Tony also supplies bars and restaurants nationally and in South Korea and Japan.
Last year production moved to friends’ property at Rockaway Farm, Sutton Forest and Tony also credits fellow Exeter winemakers Michael and Katrina Archer of Dawning Day for their help. Now planting for next year’s vintage, he says Ari and Anthea are always on hand to give advice and taste test.
“For Dad, taking his hobby full-time was too difficult when I was growing up,” says Tony.
“He was a taxi driver for 40 years and although he sometimes talked about doing it, he had three children and a family to support so it wasn’t easy. It’s nice we all get to share in this today.”