Rootstock Sydney is a wild party, certainly. But it's a party with far more grit and vision than most. Hand-pouring minimal-intervention wines for an entire weekend is one thing; distilling the contents of the festival's spittoons for brandy is another.
The festival celebrates organic and biodynamic wines, beer and spirits, along with the clever artisans and producers behind them. "We don't show any wines unless the person who made the wine is there," says Rootstock co-founder sommelier James Hird. "People talk about terroir and place, but the producer has a big influence in that wine's personality, too."
The weekend of 25-26 November will be Rootstock's fifth outing and it's a feast for the mind and for the palate. Hird, together with co-founder and fellow sommelier Giorgio De Maria, has recruited more than 60 wine producers along with kitchen talent including Jock Zonfrillo, chef of Gourmet Traveller's Restaurant of the Year, Orana in Adelaide, Chef of the Year Mat Lindsay, of Sydney's Ester and Poly, and David Moyle (Longsong, Melbourne).
Pasi Petänen is overseeing the Sustainable Kitchen Project.
The other big addition to the line-up is Ben Shewry and a small team from Attica, but what they're actually doing on the day a closely guarded secret. "The birds will fly, the small creatures of Sydney will be terrified, day will turn into night and it's our sincerest hope that people will enter an enforced hypnotic state," was all Shewry would say for now.
And there's more madness in store. Plenty more. But it's a lot to take in, and can be overwhelming to a newcomer. To get the low-down, we asked Hird for his Rootstock dos and don'ts.
YOUR GUIDE TO ROOTSTOCK SYDNEY 2017
1 Come early and hit the food first
"Pasi Petänen will be managing the 2017 Rootstock Sustainable Kitchen Project, this year only using organic produce. There'll be three or four fires going, a wood-fired oven, a Hills hoist for slow-cooking vegetables and fish, and a butterfly spit. Expect plates of Kylie Kwong's wallaby tail, porchetta from Alessandro Pavoni, and spuntini à la Icebergs from Monty Koludrovic. This year (with the exception of refrigeration) we've also gone minimal footprint. We've worked with architect Silvester Fuller and sculptor Dion Horstmans to build structures that can be reused. All the kitchens are going to be donated to the Yuin people, the traditional owners of the land of the south coast of New South Wales."
2 Be selective
"There are wines from five regions at Rootstock: Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy and Georgia. Pick four or five producers you want to seek out, and make sure it's a winemaker from each country as a minimum. Target places or people you're interested in, whether it's the Adelaide Hills, the two Georgian producers, or Europe's killer wines from France and Italy. If you try to do all white, and then all red, you'll end up drinking too much and miss things."
Giorgio De Maria, one of the festival's co-founders.
3 Go beyond just tasting wine "Rootstock is as much about drinking wine as it is about starting conversations. For each table you go to, ask the producer what's unique about their place. There are a number of first-timers showing this year, so introduce yourself. People such as William Downie from Gippsland; Arianna Occhipinti, straight outta Sicily; Manon from the Adelaide Hills; and François Blanchard, a great young winemaker from the Loire."
4 Attend a talk
"Each day there are four or five ticketed talks. If you're new to the festival or the world of wine, Vintage & Life is a must: four different winemakers from four different climates talk about the latest vintage and their experiences. All the wines at Rootstock are made by someone dealing with disease, weather - all the elements. Each year they have a totally different wine that tells a story of place and time. If you're an old hand, check out the talk on mead - one of the most ancient drinks in the world. Beekeeper Tim Malfroy and Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall are two total savants who've gone down totally different roads to everyone else in Australia."
5 Try something different
"It's a long time to taste wine. Try some sake with Matt Young at the sake bar. Drink a wild-fermented beer. Stop in at a new addition for 2017: the pet-nat bar. If you love anything sparkling, keep an eye out for Commune of Buttons from the Adelaide Hills, and Ravensworth from Murrumbateman near Canberra, another one who's making precise, beautiful cool-climate, and high-acid wines."
6 It wouldn't be Rootstock without a visit to the orange-wine bar
"After you've met some of the Georgian producers showing, no doubt we'll find you here. Georgia is the OG in orange wine; they've made skin-contact wines for thousands of years. Momento Mori, from Gippsland, is a good flash-point for this style. The winemaker, Dane Johns, is a real hand-labelled style of operator. And don't walk away from Okro's stand without asking for some chacha brandy. It's always under the table."
7 Kiss a stranger "Well, sort of. One of the biggest waste products at a wine festival is wine. As well as spittoons, it's open bottles. We'll auction off 200 bottles of brandy that we've made distilling wine that would've otherwise gone to waste. It's called Kissing a Stranger and we made it with Marrickville gin distillers Poor Toms. People are freaked out, myself included, but it's an amazing example of thinking differently about taste. Every producer who showed at Rootstock last year has gone into it (more than 350 wines). Brandy isn't usually made this way, or with such great wine, so it's a much higher quality brandy than most. You'll definitely want to swallow."
Rootstock Sydney 2017, 25-26 November, 10am-12am daily, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, NSW. Access to the sustainable kitchen and bars is free; tickets for talks and wine tastings start at $55. For the full program visit rootstocksydney.com