The best thing about opening our Fitting Salon in our own neighbourhood is the fact that we get to meet and connect with other inspiring local business owners
This includes one of our personal favourites and North Melbourne institution, the intimate bar and restaurant (specialising in natural wines) Clever Polly's.
We caught up with radical wonder woman, business owner, wine maker and local trade advocate, Lou Chalmer for a chat about science, food and of course, wine!
Photography by Agnieszka Chabros.
As business owner and wine maker, your background actually lies in science. Could you tell us about your working life as a scientist? What drew you to the field and then away and into wine and hospitality?
I didn’t actually work in the science field - I went straight from my university degree into hospitality (which I’d been working in for about ten years already).
I was drawn to science because my parents are both scientists- I always swore that I didn’t want to do the same field of study as them but after doing a year of a journalism degree, I had to admit to myself that I would enjoy and be challenged by science more than journalism. I really enjoyed the Environmental Science degree that I did at Monash University and was offered the option of doing an honours thesis for my fourth and final year, which I accepted. I did my project on a sustainability framework for the Australian beef industry, which was very topical at the time as the ban on live export into Indonesia fiasco had just occurred. I was really disgusted by the government’s behaviour, and felt as though there was a real lack of understanding of the issue on the public’s behalf. I wanted to work out a way of introducing some kind of overarching industry standard that could be used to inform the public, the media, and government, in a similar situation, and be used to make more informed decisions in the future, to stop the kind of repercussions that we’ve seen from that event over the last few years.
Shockingly though, very few of the people that I interviewed from different sectors of the industry supply chain could define sustainability - at least in a classical sense. One interviewee, from a certain large food retailer, even said that sustainability to them was only about their financial bottom line - they weren’t really interested in other viability concerns in the agricultural sector. The fact that they were selling and marketing an organic brand quite heavily at the time was, according to him, purely fiscally motivated. For the most part though, the people that I spoke to were concerned about environmental, ethical, and social issues. However, most of the producers that I spoke to stated that they found it difficult to achieve all of their environmental objectives because they simply didn’t have the time or money. They were also struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance as Australian farmers have historically been price takers due to the nature of the competitive market created by the two major supermarkets. The stats on average income rise amongst the general Australian population versus that of farmers over the last 100 years or so is staggering- I had one farmer tell me that, in real terms, farmers income has not risen over that period. In real terms, it has actually decreased, with the proportion of income that people spend on food today less than half what it was in the 1930s. At the same time, costs of production have gone up dramatically, creating even more of a squeeze. And with phosphorus, a necessary addition to Australia’s poor ancient soils, however it’s addition is achieved, running out, costs are likely to continue increasing if there’s no change to the way that food is produced and consumed.
So I decided that I would like to open a hospitality venue in support of small producers who were looking at more sustainable ways of farming - a place that would be both fun and informative. I’d worked in the specialty coffee industry in Melbourne and Perth as the third wave movement was really starting to take off and had seen how people’s habits and behaviours could change quite dramatically over time as they were exposed to something different - I thought wine had the same potential.
I spent a year and a half planning Clever Polly’s, and fell into natural wine when I was putting our first wine list together. I still remember the moment when I tried my first natural wine without sulphur and said to myself, “Yes, that’s the kind of wine that I want to work with.” I think that I was still very much a wine novice when we opened, so I’ve learnt a lot over the last three and a half years- and continue to do so.
You’ve just introduced a new natural wine range. Can you tell us a little bit about natural wine, how does it differ from conventional wines?
For me, the major difference between conventional and natural wines is a philosophical one. Natural wine producers work with the land to maintain and enhance the natural resource, taking what I would call an agroecological or systems approach to their farming. I believe that this is the most sustainable approach to farming that we know of, and it really pays homage to how people farmed for thousands of years, pre-industrialisation. Generally speaking, people will talk about their practices being organic but I think that the best producers go above and beyond organic, and I don’t really think that you need a certification. We double check the farming practices of everyone that we work with to be sure.
In winemaking, it’s about working with the grapes to give them their purest expression- nothing added, nothing taken away, just a minimal amount of sulphur if needed. Natural wines aren’t made to a prescribed recipe- there’s no expectation. It’s an art form, and the best examples reflect the grape varietal, the land that they come from, and, I would say, the personality of the person that makes them. A lot of winemakers say that they don’t want their presence to be visible in the wine, but I don’t think that that’s possible- every single decision that a winemaker makes is a reflection of their personal preferences and personality. It should all work in seamless tandem though. The wines should ultimately be full of life and personality, but have an integral balance.
The other thing that I think is important to mention is that I believe natural wines can be so much more nourishing than conventional wines. Grapes that are farmed well should be more nutrient dense, in the same way that organic food is thought to be better for you nutritionally. You can taste the difference. Also, because there’s not a lot done in the winemaking process, all of those nutrients are still there in the glass and the absence of large amounts of preservatives ensures that they’re available. I’ve barely been sick in the last five years and I’ve never worked harder in my life - when I was at uni, I constantly had colds, even though I’ve always been very careful with my diet. I truly believe that natural wine has played a role in this.
I also don’t get the hangovers that I used to get from drinking conventional wines - in fact, if I do have a glass or two of more conventional wines with a lot of sulphur, I find myself reacting with an itchy nose and sore eyes. The next day, I’ll have a headache. I’ve only made that mistake a couple of times in the last few years- I’m definitely not keen to make it again.
We know you make your own wines too. How did that come about? What does that process look like?
It was just a natural progression for me. I’m super curious and was finding that there were too many unexplained variables in the wines that I was tasting. Natural wine has such a wide array of flavours, and I wanted to understand them more. Plus I love getting my hands dirty. Last year, I started my label, Yume, which was really terrifying but exciting at the same time. I tend to make wine kind of like how I cook- by feel and flavour. I’ll go into it with an idea of what I want to achieve but make adjustments as I go along depending on what observations I make. There’s no recipe; it’s important to me to maintain creative freedom so that the wines are really pure expressions of the grape as I see it. Of course, I make picking decisions and decisions about balance of flavour that are very specific to my objectives and what I want to achieve - but I think there’s a certain balance there.
As a Japanese-style restaurant and natural wine store, we’re really excited to hear that you’re now expanding online. Can you tell us about this new venture?
I really love the idea of making natural wine more accessible. At the moment, there’s a handful of bottle shops around Melbourne where you can buy natural wines, Clever Polly’s included. The Natural Wine store is an opportunity to make those wines accessible to a lot more people, who maybe wouldn’t be able to get to those places on a regular basis. We’re really focusing on the kinds of wines that you can drink on an everyday basis - wines that make you feel a little bit special and have a wonderful story behind them but won’t break the budget. We will also be offering a monthly curated selection of wines- either three or six- to take the guesswork out of buying wine, which I know that some people can find really tricky. The idea is to put together a small selection of things that we’re loving at the moment, in line with the season. So in summer, expect wines that are light and refreshing- in winter, we’ll be focusing on richer styles that are suited to cosying up on the couch.
As President of the North West Precinct Association, you’ve been really busy developing a strategy that will bring North and West Melbourne into the limelight. What sort of concepts has the association been working on? What sort of reputation do you hope the neighbourhood will foster?
Amongst other things, we’ve been working really hard on concepts that will allow us to connect better with our local residents and businesses. It’s really important to us to get the community’s input in what we’re doing - we want to create sustainable, lasting change for the community, not just something that will benefit our individual businesses.
The area is so great already but we think that it has a lot of potential that we want to unlock by first defining our area’s identity - from there, we have a fairly comprehensive activity plan that will see us through to the end of this year. We’re starting to work on planning for next year as well, which will consolidate and strengthen a lot of what will happen over the next couple of months. We’re also communicating a lot with council and partnering with a number of other organisations who share similar values to ours. Ultimately, what we want to achieve is a prosperous and connected community, where there’s always something happening. I think that if we can achieve this, both our businesses and our residents will flourish.
What are three things you always say ‘yes’ to?
Wine, beach, and sunshine :)