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FeatureFood & Drink

Distilling a sense of place.

Passionate and thoughtful, Mark Dunemann - maker of acclaimed grappa and eau de vie - left us (too soon) chasing his beautiful dream.

Oct 9, 2023


Words: Sarah Westwood

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In memory of Mark Dunemann – 19.06.1968–24.03.2021

In March 2021, the same week Gippslandia published a profile of Mark Dunemann’s artisanal range of grappa and eau de vie, he died.

Mark had battled with chronic bilateral pulmonary thromboembolism for 13 months, and on March 24 his heart simply gave up. He was 52 years old.

12 months after his death, Mark’s Crank 1D range of distilled spirits was quietly released to market through an incredible collaboration between his family and friends, with proceeds going to support his daughter Martha.

Max Allen, author and celebrated wine and drinks reviewer for the Australian Financial Review, wrote in July 2022: “Obsessed and quality-driven, Mark Dunemann made grappa with a passion that had the industry excited. Now, the fruits of his labour are about to be poured… [Crank1D are] fine, characterful spirits made by someone who clearly had the precision of an engineer and the soul of a poet.”

What hasn’t been widely told is the story of how Mark came to be obsessed with grappa in the first place, so much so that he set himself the mission to #learnaboutgrappa and went on to create a range of 14 unique spirits intimately connected to Gippsland, lauded by winemakers and wine critics alike.

“I think of a line that begins in time and place, in every vintage, and making the spirit is the end of that line.”

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In 2016, Mark was living in Warragul and plying his trade as an electrician for a wine packaging supplier. He nurtured an uncommon passion for coffee and cocktails… and along the way, grappa crept in. Already tinkering with homemade infusions of stinging nettle, bitter orange and lemon, Mark hatched a plan to undertake a serious study of the distillation of grappa.

Grappa is a clear distilled spirit made from pomace – the mass of grape skins and seeds that remain after the pressing and fermentation of the grape harvest. It is a spirit taken very seriously in Northern Italy, though arguably less so in Australia due to its notoriety as the firewater made in suburban garages – a reputation that belied everything Mark knew grappa to be.

Mark’s friend Jess Reeves, sustainability scientist at Federation University in Churchill, sees Mark’s attachment to grappa distillation as “so consistent with everything he believed – the ethos of taking a waste product and turning it into something sublime”.

In the northern autumn of 2016, Mark travelled to Italy on a study tour he called the “grappa trail”. Fragments of his diary from this time fizz with excitement at finding himself among artisanal distillers.

5/10/16: They mostly use Acacia wood barriques for ageing. 20,000 bottles max production per annum. I had a tasting – superb stuff! Checked out what I could and Fabrizio insisted I return on Friday. Charming place which reveres the old owner who maintained tradition. They even keep his desk intact with spiderwebs and all!

Later that year, Mark returned to Warragul on a mission to make grappa from Gippsland grapes. He worked on Bill Downie’s 2017 pinot noir harvest in Berry’s Creek and produced his first distillation with Craft & Co’s copper pot still from Downie’s pomace – 19 bottles in all.

Bill Downie makes some of Australia’s most admired minimal intervention, site-specific cool climate pinot noir wines and speaks of his work as a lifetime project to make wine that speaks of both “the deep culture of French winemaking and the incredible age and distinctive quality of the place I live”. He recognised a similar commitment in Mark. “Like finely made wine, there’s also a sense of place in grappa,” Bill says. “I watched Mark experiment and talk, a lot, about this project. I’ve rarely met people with as much passion for what they do or such good taste in all things. He was a deeply thoughtful person.”

Mark went on to repeat his distillations with the pomace from 2017 harvests of moscato from Pat Sullivan as well as greco from Dane Johns at Momento Mori. Then, with his 2017 range complete, Mark returned to Italy at the invitation of Fabrizio Tosolini to witness the northern grape harvest and distillation at Bepi Tosolini. Back in Gippsland, he continued working in the wine industry as an electrician and producing small batches of grappa at Craft & Co in Melbourne through to 2019, hiring time with the copper still on the weekends and taking his daughter Martha with him.

Heartened by the results, he sought pomace from other winemakers including Marcus Satchell at Dirty Three in Inverloch and Neil Prentice at Moondarra. A restless experimenter, Mark also began gathering local fruit and tinkering with a French distillation process to make eau de vie from pear, plum and quince. Befriending the folk at Summer Snow Juice, he distilled fruit juices at Jimmy Rum’s copper still on the Mornington Peninsula.

On the 2019 winter solstice, Mark posted photos of Nebbiolo pomace to his Instagram feed, writing: “It’s the end of the line for these beautiful Nebbiolo skins, last moments in the winter… I think of a line that begins in time and place, in every vintage, and making the spirit is the end of that line. Every sip of a spirit takes you back along that line, a sublime window into that time and place.”

By late 2019, Mark had a range of 10 grappa and two eau de vie bottled and shipped to Wild Dog Winery in Warragul ready to be unveiled to the world, along with the outline of a plan to set up a copper still there. As Max Allen wrote, “Word began to percolate about an obsessed, quality-driven guy in Gippsland, producing great small-batch grappas and fruit brandies, who was planning to set up his own still at Wild Dog Winery.”

But Mark’s insatiable curiosity combined with his genius for turning up and knocking on doors led him to Japan in October 2019, to the southern end of Kyūshū and onto the Okinawa Islands. He was hunting down the masters of koji making – the fermented raw material behind so many Japanese foods and saké.

And because he was at heart a distillery tragic, he also made it his business to knock on every distillery door he found – from the craft distilleries of awamori (or island saké) on Okinawa to the shōchū distilleries of Kagoshima. He was transfixed, and less than four months later he made the fateful decision to return to Japan, invited by a koji master in Kirishima to learn the process of making koji and the brewing of doburoku (unfiltered or “farmers saké”).

The world was then teetering on the brink of shutting down – the pandemic had begun. Mark returned from Japan with shortness of breath and serious illness took hold. In July 2020, he was hospitalised at Monash and diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary thromboembolism and deep vein thrombosis.

When Jess last saw Mark, some three weeks before he died, she says, “I think he knew then that he didn’t have the energy to get his grappa to market.”

The project to finish what Mark began came together after he died. It was led by Mark’s sister Julie Dunemann, who’d just returned from working with Graincorp in New Zealand, given remarkable help by Bill and his West Gippsland wine-making compatriots.

Mark’s family speak of their unending gratitude to the people who helped to launch Crank 1D into the world, especially to Bill, Jess, Pat, and Gary and Luke Surman at Wild Dog Winery.

“He was always visionary – he saw the interconnections between things that others simply overlooked,” adds Jess.

“Whichever way you look at it, whether he was unfairly taken from us before his time, or whether he left knowing he had realised his vision of crafting something unique and beautiful, of his place for this world, Mark left us chasing his dream.” – Louis Nelson, eulogy April 9 2021.

A limited number of bottles from the Crank 1D range of grappas and eau de vie remain available from crank1d.com.au.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 28

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