Interview with Rory Kent, Founder of Australia's Young Gun of Wine

by Erin Ogilvie

This year, Young Gun of Wine marked its 13th awards, which is not bad for a self-confessed “outsider” to the wine industry. Rory Kent began his career in music events but he has always had a passion for wine, and he says, “That’s what led me to have a somewhat events-centric approach to wine education and wine communication.”

In Comes the Outsider

Rory’s career change was prompted by his desire to create an alternative to traditional (“pretty boring”) wine courses, as well as change the perception of wine as stuffy and old-worldly. “I wanted to put on events that were fun and social in nature, but also educational and allowed young people to go at their own pace.”

He believed wine had an image crisis that was isolating young people, and he planned to debunk it by using the freshest faces from the industry.  “When we were introducing these concepts, it was a tough slog to gain industry support because it was unknown, I was unknown and the style of event was previously unseen. I had a lot of tough cold calls in the early days; there was a degree of scepticism from both wine producers and other industry stakeholders about involvement or participation.”

But success came quickly for Rory, with the first Young Gun of Wine event in 2007 well attended and garnering compliments from industry writer Max Allen on achieving the seemingly impossible: attracting and exciting 200-300 young adults about wine education. “Once we’d actually delivered on what we said we were going to do, the industry’s response was that it was a breath of fresh air.”

 

Young people at Young Gun of Wine event

Not Your Average Variety

Something Rory noticed from the very first year was the proliferation of alternate varieties among the new generation of winemakers. The inaugural award went to a montepulciano by Matt Gant of First Drop, which Rory says “blew the judges minds”. Back then, there were very few Australian producers making wines with montepulciano, but now there are around 50 – and it was a sign of things to come. “Out of the 22 finalists in that first year, there was maybe a few alternate varieties at most and the rest were all Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet… But in last year’s Top 50 winemakers, who each showed two wines, there were 40 different grape varieties. And amongst those are a lot of varieties that people will be discovering for the first time – things like Schioppettino, Tinta Cao, Sousao, Gruner Veltliner, Muller Thurgau, Bianco d'Alessano.”

“Younger producers and wine labels like to approach things unshackled. They like to travel and taste the world of wine and experiment with varieties that are new to themselves, to the trade and to customers. I think this trend is a consequence of educating and leading consumers to trying new things, of change in the industry and us being able to provide a platform for emerging producers. I think it’s also easier to sell an alternate variety than yet another Shiraz in Australia!”

As part of his pledge to empower young people seeking relatable wine education, Rory introduced a People’s Choice award. “I wanted to reinforce to people that they’re the own judges of their own palates.” He believes the People’s Choice award winners demonstrate one of the greatest changes in the industry over the past 13 years. “In 2007 compared to 2019, there’s immensely more ways to enjoy wine, there’s more products, more producers, more experimental labels, and more adventure in what producers are creating. I think consumers are more confident, enjoy that thrill of discovery, and there’s a greater thirst for new things.”

The Emergence of the Wine Bar

Last year, Rory introduced a new component to the yearly awards: the Wineslinger award. This recognises venues that pride themselves on the same key principles of Young Gun: unintimidating wine education that is inherently social. “What drove us to start Young Gun of Wine was helping people have fun with wine, and for 12-13 years we’ve been leading people to exciting products. But the places that people go to enjoy wine are just as important as the products themselves. We wanted to lead people to places where they can throw themselves at the mercy of the staff, to lead them to wines they might not have tried before, to learn something and have fun at the same time.”

The Wineslinger award recognises any venue that celebrates wine enjoyment, but wine bars undoubtedly dominate the Top 50 list. “Places like 10 William Street in Sydney and City Wine Shop in Melbourne allow people to enjoy wine and socialise at the same time. These touch points add to a new culture of wine enjoyment and experimentation.” While the Young Gun of Wine is awarded each year in June, Wineslinger Top 50 is coming up in July, with its own suite of events to allow their audience multiple opportunities to engage with the approachable, energetic and adventurous nature of Young Gun.

 

Young Gun of Wine trophies

So Rory, what’s changed in the past 13 years?

“13 years ago, young adults were a lot more apprehensive about wine then they generally are today. I think consumers are a lot more comfortable and more embracing with that process of discovering the unknown. There’s a stark difference between the young adult drinker who turned up to a wine tasting and might’ve been afraid to ask a question, and our audience now, and I think that’s a bit of an indicator of the proliferation of wine culture in that time.

I don’t want to declare what we’ve got planned over the next few years – other than to say, stay tuned, there’s a lot more exciting stuff to come.”

Check out what some of Young Gun of Wine's previous winners have to say about the awards...

 

Mike Aylward, winemaker at Ocean Eight and 2011 winner:

"I was very lucky to be a finalist for 3 years leading up to winning the award in 2011, and in each of these years we received terrific exposure for Ocean Eight regardless of not winning. I won the award 8 years ago, and our customers still mention it.

"The satellite functions around YGOW are terrific events for showing your wines to both wine trade and the public. I think they have achieved a unique following in the wine world and gives a great platform for emerging winemakers and wine brands. These emerging winemakers will one day be leading the Australian wine industry. It’s very important to see what they have to offer and Young Gun of Wine helps do this."

 

Josephine Perry, winemaker at Dormilona and 2016 winner:

"It was amazing to win the award in 2016, and helped to open many doors that would not even look at me before because of my style of winemaking. It really put natural wine producers on the map in WA. I feel it’s had a positive impact on the industry, showcasing small producers with the passion for making great wine."