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March 27, 2016

In 2000, my wife and I decided to establish a vineyard in Australia's Hunter Valley. We not only made every possible mistake, we even created a whole new genre of mistakes. This article is for any who ever thought, "I like drinking, I should grow my own grapes and make wine! How hard can it be?"


It all started, in June 2000. After surviving the Y2K apocalypse we were ready for anything. The Government suddenly decided to introduce GST on land purchases but undeterred we push on.

The estate agent took us out to our prospective property and bending down I cupped the rich soil and said,“this is good land, we will build a mighty vineyard here."Unfortunately, it turned out that I was standing on the next-door neighbours land. The property we bought was on a hill and all of the soil had over the years washed away into the next block. We called the vineyard Kintarla, which is derived from the Aboriginal word for dog. On reflection we decided not to tell anyone this.

To commemorate our purchase of the land (aka 100 acres of barren hill and eroded gullies), we planted a young ghost gum. This would grow strong and tall, a symbol for our new venture and our love of the land. The rabbits ate it.

We were starting to understand why farmers complain all the time. Following the "soil” survey in 2011 we were advised that there was no soil but perhaps you could turn the 1m of clay above the bedrock into something resembling soil. 40 tonnes of lime, another 40 tonnes of gypsum and 150 tonnes of mushroom compost gave us 5 acres that might support some sort of vegetation. Leaving the field fallow in preparation of planting allowed every noxious weed known to man to propagate. We never managed to totally eradicate these and spent many long weekends pulling out thistles,prickly pear, tiger pear, mother of millions, pattersons curse, and crofton weed from between the vines.

To demonstrate our mastery of the land, we planted a pepper tree near the proposed house site overlooking the nascent vineyard. The tree was given to us as a Christmas present by Lisa’s parents.The bush fire that swept over the property a short while later reduced the young pepper tree to a smoking twig. The good news was that the fire also temporarily cleared the 5 acres of weeds that we were looking to use as a vineyard. We planted out 116 rows with Shiraz, Verdelho and Semillon. The total row length was over 7km, which is a lot of bending over when you are training the vines and weeding.


Training the vines

First Vintage - $327 a bottle

Among the many things we didn’t know when purchasing the land is that the Hunter Valley only has one good year in five for producing quality grapes. Usually you can train vines in 3 years and pick a crop in the 3rd year. Drought stunted the growth of the new vines and once they were established too much rain in January and February caused the grapes to swell, split and rot (this is bad).

It took until February 2009 for us to harvest our first Shiraz vintage. We were expecting to get about 3 tonne (3,000 kg) of fruit but ended up with about 1.8 tonne. The kangaroos and birds ate the rest. The kangaroo population in 2009 reached plague proportions and I like to think we played a part in that.

This wine was matured for a year in six French oak barriques (each worth over $1,000). A barrique holds 225 Litres, which corresponds, to about 1800 bottles in total. We didn’t pick the Shiraz in 2010 due to the amount of rain in February, which stalled the ripening of the fruit. I calculated that we would need to sell each bottle for $327 to recover our costs.

The first Verdelho vintage was obtained in January 2010 (picked on Australia Day - we got about 1.5 tonne and supplemented this with another 1.5 tonne from neighbouring vineyards). The 2011 Verdelho is from our vineyard only, we picked about 2.5 tonne. In 2011 we also got our first Semillon crop (about 1.5 tonne which we supplemented with another 2.5 tonne of grapes from Andrew Johnson’s vineyard).


We were very successful at growing weeds


The day we picked the whites was really hot - it reached 40C by midday. We had about 20 pickers, harvesting started at 5:30am and finished by 3pm. I had slept in the shed the night before and it must have been about 30C most of the night - I was dripping in sweat and couldn’t open the windows because of the mosquito’s. The shed was also full of spiders (mostly red backs) because we hadn’t been there for a while and this didn’t help me sleep either. A large frog has taken up residence in the toilet and jumped on me in the middle of the night. It was a very restful night.

So with hardly any sleep I got up at 5am to load our 4 empty grape bins on the ute. The wine maker was supposed to have dropped them off the prior week but they weren’t there. In retrospect this wasn’t a bad thing as there was no way I could have got 4 bins loaded by myself - they are heavy! With picking due to start and no bins to fill, I’m a trifle worried. I eventually get onto the winemaker and find out that the bins are still at Wandin Valley, I was worried they may have been pinched. We didn’t think that we would get enough Semillon to make up a batch so I have arranged to purchase 2.5 tonnes from Andrew’s vineyard. Luckily I arranged the picking to start at his place and he had some bins to get things started.

At 6am I get to Wandin Valley and they load up the ute with 4 empty bins using a forklift. My job is to transport the grapes from the vineyard to the winery, which is only 5 minutes from our place but a half hour each way to Andrew’s. Worried that I might be holding up things, I take a shortcut down a dirt road and perhaps was going a little too quick for the conditions. There is a big wash out in the road ahead and even slamming on the breaks doesn’t slow the car enough. I bounce over the wash and one of the bins goes tumbling off the back, fortunately missing the car behind. This is when I discover that there is no way I can lift a bin single-handed on top of another bin. Lucky this is the country and I don’t have to wait long before a bloke stops and watching my pathetic attempts, asks if I need a hand?

Loaded up again, I decide it may be a good idea to actually tie down the load this time.

Eventually arriving at the vineyard, the first bin is almost full. Our bins are supposed to carry around 500kg, but when weighing them at the vineyard most ended up closer to 600kg. Andrew uses bins, which weigh about 800kg’s full. Loading one of the blue bins on the ute using his tractor (which has forks), I head back to the winery. The ute handles like a pig with this much weight in the back and the clutch makes a funny smell when I go from a standing start. We used about 14 bins in total that day.

On one trip carrying two of our white bins, I took a corner a bit too quick (which is not very quick at all), and both bins slid to one side. It felt like the car was driving on two wheels. Having a degree in physics I worked out that if I turned in the opposite direction at just the right speed I could slide the bins back into the centre of the truck. Quickly working out the vectors, I decided to give it a go.

Of course I over corrected and almost spun the ute as the load shifted. The whole car slid sideways as the load moved. Obviously having a degree in physics doesn’t help if you are an idiot! From then on I took it very slowly around the corners.

Apart from losing a few pickers to heat stroke, the rest of the day was tiring but uneventful. As we don’t have a tractor, in our vineyard we pick straight into the bins on the back of the ute. I’m driving the ute, and let me tell you conditions are almost unbearable in the air-conditioned cab, CD playing and a cold drink to hand. It seemed smart to keep the windows wound up. Particularly since the picking crew looked like extras from Mad Max.

We also picked 2.8 tonne of Shiraz in 2011 but sold the grapes to Wandin Valley instead of making our own wine.

At the end of October 2012 we sold the vineyard. We gained a lot of experience, a degree in Viticulture and a degree in Wine Making, had many close encounters with kangaroos, snakes and wombats, met lots of nice people, and created 570 cases of (very expensive) wine.


Some of the Kintarla Shiraz