Michael Dhillon’s maternal family has lived in the Gisborne area since 1853. His English great-great grandfather, Henry Dixon, arrived in Australia to work on the railway line from Bendigo to Melbourne. “My grandfather bought twelve hundred acres for sheep farming,” says Michael. “When he died, the property was split among his family. My parents ended up with four hundred and twenty acres, part of which is now the Bindi vineyard. The rest of our land is used for sheep farming and eucalypt production, with some reserved as remnant grass and bushlands.
“Dad came to Australia from Punjab, India in 1958. He attended high school in Ballarat and went on to become a civil engineer. His engineering background, combined with his Punjabi heritage, means that he is very intense, highly disciplined, diligent, and focused on quality in all he does.
“When my parents inherited the Bindi land, it brought together the right mix of people and land. The grape varieties we grow are right for this land. Dad checked the suitability of the vineyard site selection carefully with Murray Clayton, then Victoria’s viticulturalist, who declared it to be a most suitable site. This reversed an earlier expert opinion some ten years earlier that it was not suitable. Our early white wines were made by John Ellis of Hanging Rock Winery. Stuart Anderson made our early reds and has continued to be involved as our wine consultant, mentor and friend.
“Dad sought out such people with knowledge and experience in viticulture. Our soil is a critical ingredient in our success. We have about forty acres of Ordovician soil on the side of Mount Gisborne, the rest of our soil is volcanic. Some of it is five million years old, some 450 million years. I did not realise the impact the soil profile would have on the characteristics of our wine. The voice of the soil is strong.”
The successes that Michael and his father Bill have had with Bindi wines in local and overseas markets has given the Gisborne sub-region of the Macedon Ranges wine region the same type of boost that Ron and Elva Laughton’s Jasper Hill gave to the Heathcote region in the 1980s. Michael had just graduated from Monash University with an economics degree when he met Ron Laughton in 1990. “Ron was already known for practicing biodynamic principles, and we follow a similarly thoughtful philosophy here,” says Michael. “We try to do things to promote life and balance in the vineyard. We don’t operate in fear of nature. We do not use herbicides or pesticides. We seek to work in harmony with the vineyard, not destroy elements of it.”
The difficulties experienced by Bindi during the 2011 season are summarised in its May 2011 newsletter, available on its website. ‘Our focus has been to promote life forces rather than to apply death to control our vineyard environment. This year we held firm to this regime with the exception of two systemic fungicide applications, the first in eight years, to the foliage in December. There was a temptation to use anti-botrytis fungal sprays on the ripening fruit but we had done so much work to have an open, clean, airy canopy we felt more comfortable to take the risk than spray. Also, we dropped thirty percent of the overall crop on the ground before veraison / ripening as we didn’t want fruit on small shoots or in clumps where fruit ripening rates would be compromised and disease would be more likely to develop with bunches touching one another. A larger crop would have required another week to ten days of ripening and this was clearly not the season to risk exposing the fruit to extra adverse weather events.’
“We are vigilant in the vineyard,” Michael says. “We regularly inspect every vine. In 2011 we inspected every bunch of grapes. Our soil provides good root penetration, and I manage the canopy to maximise conditions. We net individual rows so that we have good access to the vines through the ripening period.”
Michael sees Bindi’s wine production as “just another farming activity.” He is neither a scientist nor an artist. He is a farmer who adds value to his grape crop by turning it into fine wine. “We are just like farmers of other crops. We try and encourage our land to produce the best possible crop. We don’t seek certification, we just do what we think works best for us.”
Michael’s wine knowledge has been acquired through working one-on-one with mentors such as his father and Stuart Anderson. “Dad was planting the vineyard when I was studying economics. I assisted him in planting the vines. I did some work experience in an accounting firm and that made me realise that the wine industry held more appeal. I’ve had the good fortune to have mentors who have generously shared their knowledge, experience and intellect with me. I’ve also done vintages in California, Tuscany, Rhone and Champagne with people there who have expanded my knowledge and improved my approach to winemaking.
Through Stuart Anderson, Michael got a day job with Paul de Burgh, a wine importer. “Working in the wine industry proved to be valuable. It increased my knowledge of wine distribution and marketing. It enabled me to develop good relationships with people, both in Australia and overseas, in that important part of the value chain.
“We waited for five years before taking our wines to the market. This enabled us to demonstrate our consistency and sell back releases. We wanted buyers to see that we are in the business of producing fine wine on a regular basis.”
This approach has succeeded. Bindi wines sell out quickly. One third goes to mailing list customers, one third to fine wine distributors, including high end restaurants, and one third to export markets. “We have no desire to expand,” says Michael. “We can manage what we now have in a way that allows us to achieve our quality objectives. If we expanded, it would change our cost structure and we’d lose the personal control we now have.”
Michael describes his career highlight in a 2007 article by Cindie Smith in Wine Business Magazine as “The first time my father and I drank a bottle of our own wine, it was a very quiet moment, standing there in the kitchen of my father’s house.”