Lake’s Folly; a small winery making big waves

Lake’s Folly; a small winery making big waves

Rod Kempe, Lake's Folly & Travis Schultz

When the management consultants decreed that “diversification is the key to risk management”, Lake’s Folly founder, Max Lake, clearly missed the memo. Since establishing the vineyard and winery in 1963, the Hunter Valley label has gone from strength to strength, making only two wines; a cabernet (yes, cabernet!) and a chardonnay. Minimalistic, perhaps, but the recipe is one that has seen the Lake’s Folly label appear on the wine lists of the country’s best restaurants and gain acclaim around the globe.

Legend has it that the winery gained it’s moniker from the founder’s ridicule for planting cabernet in the Hunter Valley. Dr Max Lake was at the time a leading Sydney hand surgeon who enjoyed an aged Dalwood Hunter River Cabernet so much that he decided to buy land in the region and establish a vineyard to produce the brambly and blackcurrant style of red that had obviously tickled his fancy. The locals, it is said, mocked the surgeon’s investment in planting cabernet vines in the volcanic clay and limestone soils of the region such that he declared that if he was a fool, then this was his folly. And the Lake’s Folly sign soon after hung from the gate of the 63 acre property purchased then called Chick’s Hill, across the road from the Mount Pleasant Rosehill Vineyard.

Pot luck, chance or a stroke of genius, the reality is that the vision of Dr Lake has seen his small winery become an iconic Australian label. One which sells out of it’s prized chardonnay every vintage in the blink of an eye (despite the lofty price tag) and which has become synonymous with high class cabernet both domestically and abroad. Recently, Lake’s Folly was named number 35 in the Sydney Morning Herald’s list of Australia’s best wineries – but I suspect that was a product of the judging methodology which simply aggregates the scores of reviews of their best wines. I would have placed it much higher up the list! It intrigues me that a wine producer can resist the urge to diversify and experiment with a range of grapes in a quest to have something in stock that will appeal to the palate of every consumer, and be rewarded so handsomely with vintage after vintage of cabernet and chardonnay that score above 95 points from the critics.

Having recently visited the winery and chatted to the custodian of the brand, winemaker Rod Kempe, it’s easy to understand why the Lake’s Folly success story is perpetuating. He’s an understated kind of bloke who clearly has a passion for the vines, his wine and the community. A big supporter of the Starlight Foundation his generosity of spirit speaks much of the values that underpin the Lake’s Folly story. Kempe is innately in tune to the need to respect and nurture the vineyard; to remain true to the terroir and to hold true to the vision of the winery’s founder.

The current release of Lake’s Folly wines are in very short supply. The 2020 Chardonnay sold out long ago but was an opulent Burgundian style. Mouth-filling, the peach and nectarine characters tip-toe on the nose but dance across the palate. There’s subtle oak influence but an in-your-face richness. It’s still available through a few outlets at $90 – $100 a bottle, but it’s not the style that you’ll lay down for 30 years. By his own standard, the exceptional rating of 95 points will be sub-par, but such is the reputation of one of Australia’s most highly regarded chardonnays.

On the other hand, the 2019 Cabernet is a Queen Elizabeth II – all class, eminently stylish and destined for a long life. For now, there are plenty of the blackcurrants that Dr Lake astutely sought in his cabernet, but also lashings of dark fruits and liquorice. In its youth there are some of the savoury forest floor sideshows that are typical of the Hunter, but with age, I’m sure those will soften and this will be a vintage that collectors scramble for. The 96 point rating isn’t surprising. Simply an outstanding wine.

Risk spreading and diversification may be strategies that serve stockbrokers and financial advisers well, but when it comes to wine, the late great Dr Max Lake has undoubtedly demonstrated the reward that can come from specialisation, narrowing your specialisation and remaining true to your values and vision. Lake’s Folly; a small winery making big waves.


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