There’s a strong smell in the air at Outlaw Wines in Nuriootpa, essence of a vintage that has, for owner, Damon de Ruiter, yielded both satisfaction and disappointment.
The concrete floor is mirrored with water, as Damon purposefully attacks it with a pressure washer, banishing spilled blood of 130 year old vines.
After a promising start, this year’s vintage of OG shiraz, Damon’s premium drop, which usually spends 30 months in oak and another couple of years maturing under cork, sadly, isn’t to be.
For someone who’s had to discount such valuable bounty, Damon’s demeanour is surprisingly jovial.
“This vintage is my best vintage, because I didn’t have to juggle the cafe and here,” he declares.
Like the wine, Damon’s journey to maturation has involved significant life changes that, ultimately, have made him value happiness above all else.
“You only get one hit at life, and that’s where a lot of people lose scope on what they do. They stay in a job they hate, they stay in a relationship they hate, they just do things they hate,” Damon continues, pausing to roll a cigarette.
“I want to do something I like, and I want to be someone I like.”
It’s what’s led him to sitting in this shed, home base of his small wine-making enterprise, at midday on a Wednesday, after having just spent a relaxing week camping on his 550 acre lifestyle block at Locks Well on the Eyre Peninsula with the woman he loves.
Not that long ago, he would have been up to his elbows in pizza dough for the lunch time rush at Roaring 40s in Angaston.
After 20 years in that business, which earned him a level of notoriety around the Barossa, Damon made an exceptionally quiet exit last year, taking himself off social media, and stepping right out of the limelight.
“At the age of 56, I didn’t really want to work for the rest of my life,” he says matter-of-factly, tapping his cigarette into an ash tray.
“I’ve seen too many people, family and friends, that go until they’re 65, 66, 67 in a job, retire, and are dead within a couple of years. I wanted to get out early, so I could enjoy it.
“I’m still selling the wine, but I’m just taking a lot of time out, and it’s good because it clears your head. You start thinking differently. You’re not making rash decisions.
“You’re thinking more about the future of where your life wants to take you.”
At the moment that future involves pushing Outlaw Wines further into the expansive reaches of rural South Australia.
“The Outlaw label sort of sits in country pubs. Half the blokes that pull up out the front have an Outlaw sticker on their ute,” says Damon.
“Pubs out in the country, no one gets there. So to actually have someone come into a pub that’s 300km or eight hours from Adelaide and actually walk in the door and sell them product, it’s been very effective.
“It sort of combines everything I like. Four wheel driving, camping, shooting feral animals, seeing the country, and old country pubs. It’s a bit of a no-brainer really.”
Outlaw Wines, which is now a joint venture with 25 year old son, Jett, a third year wine-making student at Adelaide University, began in 2006.
It’s purposely been kept small, “a one man show” in terms of physical operation, where everything from fermentation to corking takes place under the same roof.
“When you’re a chef, you taste so many wines, and you’re doing so many dinners with wine-makers, I got pretty enthused about it,” says Damon of the label’s genesis.
“I’m more of a traditionalist. I like big wines and I like them under cork. But that’s how I learnt.”
A lot of that learning occurred while Damon ran the restaurant at Collingrove Homestead for a few years after he first arrived in the Barossa Valley in 1999.
Prior to that, he’d owned seafood cafe-restaurants in north west WA for seven years, which is where daughter, Penelope, now 29, and son, Jett were born.
Originally from Hobart, Damon’s work and travel history through his teens and twenties is vast and varied, with plenty of it involving long stints in the seat of his Harley Davidson, taking in a lap or two of Australia.
He did his chef’s apprenticeship at Wrest Point Casino at the age of 16, after “flunking” the exam to get into the police force.
“I learnt under old school chefs, like Gordon Ramsey personified,” recalls Damon.
“You were taught very hard, and you were paid nothing.”
Damon’s big wines have, like him, big personality, likely steeled by those early days of hot kitchens and even hotter tempers.
He’s never been one to take himself too seriously, but admits there’s been triggers that have inspired him to now lead a more ‘zen’ life, one where whiling away an hour watching his chickens scratch around their pen is time well spent.
Lana, his partner of ten years and a Masters psychology student, has been a big part of that re-invention.
“We talk a lot,” says Damon.
“We go for walks everyday and that’s our problem solving time for both of us.
“By the time we come back, we’ve cleared the air, we’ve set a path for the next day, and you feel better about yourself.”
Returning to work after six months out for a “busted” tendon in 2019, Damon found himself unable to re-capture his earlier passion for the cafe, foreshadowing his departure from Roaring 40s.
However it was the untimely death of his best mate, Michael Tamme from a brain tumour that ultimately pushed him into making the break.
“He passed 18 months ago, and to me, that was my switch,” says Damon.
“He was 54. Life’s too short.”
Nowadays, Damon admits he’s happy not to leave the property for days at a time, and when he does, you can bet it’s only for something he really wants to be doing.
Some of best wines take time to mature, but once open, can bloom so briefly that if not savoured right away, lose their vibrancy.
“What is the future? Well, you could walk down the street and get knocked over by a bus,” Damon says.
“Lana and I want to get on the road and travel around once she’s finished her Masters.
“That’s the small future. Just to head out and do things.”