Helen and Greg Miles started looking for a retirement property in 1993. “We had a very clear idea of what we were seeking,” says Helen. “We wanted a property with splendid views, undulating hills, mature trees, and access to water. We were seeking a nice place to retire to, and a good place for all the family to get out of the city on weekends and keep active. We planned to grow grapes and make red wine, so we needed a suitable micro climate for vines: warm days, cool nights, and well-drained soil. We selected the Heathcote area because of its evolving reputation for great red wine.
“After four years we eventually found exactly what we were seeking. It met all our requirements. We have river frontage on the Coliban River with a permanent deep water hole. When we saw the mature trees that line the river, the granite rocks, the sandy beach, and the hills opposite us, we knew we had found the perfect place. We were a little nervous about how much rock we might find when we started planting, but fortunately there were very few rocks in the vineyard area.
“Our daughter Cara was twelve when we started the vineyard, our son Hugh was nine. Up until then we’d had a three-week annual camping family holiday. We’d pack the camping gear into the back of a 4WD and head off to destinations such as Fraser Island, the Simpson Desert, National Parks in Tasmania, the Central Australian outback, anywhere we could wake up surrounded by wildlife and nature. We now do that every weekend when we wake up to the sound of kookaburras and magpies at the vineyard.
“Once we started building the vineyard, our weekends became like short camping holidays for the kids. There was less travel, they had beds in the shed to sleep in, and they helped us with the vineyard setup. There were great places to explore on the farm. They had the luxury of more space and comfort in our temporary home in the shed than a tent ever provided. Both Cara and Hugh played tennis in Kyneton, Hugh also played footy in Malmsbury.
Cara and Hugh have been involved in every harvest since 2000. Hugh has just left Australia to work as an aerospace engineer in Germany. “Our daughter Cara, now studying to be a clinical psychologist, was concerned that we would suffer social isolation living in the country,” says Greg, “but we have a wider social network here than in Melbourne, after being here for many years. We have friends in both the Macedon Ranges and the Heathcote wine regions. We have got to know many locals who call in to our cellar door to buy wine.”
Helen grew up in country Victoria, living in Bairnsdale, Rushworth, Beaufort and Mildura before moving to Melbourne. She graduated from Monash University as a microbiologist in the early 1970s, and enjoyed working in that field for around twenty years. She completed a winemaking qualification from the University of Melbourne in 2007. Much of her microbiology knowledge has been useful as a winemaker.
“I know about the requirements for healthy growth of yeasts and bacteria for fermentation of wine,” she says, “as well as the need to be very conscious of cross infection and cleanliness.”
But there is little in common between the working environment of a microbiologist and a winemaker.
“Microbiologists work indoors in a laboratory environment,” she says, “with many people and a demand for rapid results. There was a lot of ‘on call’ work out of hours which was not ideal for a working mother with two children. As a winemaker life is far more relaxed, the phone doesn’t ring, and much of the work is out in the open in a beautiful environment where you can listen to the birds. That’s hard to beat.”
Greg also grew up in the country. “My family lived in Launching Place, when it was still the country,” says Greg. “In primary school there were thirty kids from Prep to Year 8, with one teacher. None of us could spell very well, yet we learned many other things. I loved going to school. We built great bonfires. We caught grasshoppers in the morning so that our teacher could go fishing in the afternoon when we went home.”
Greg became a dentist, a profession that he loves and still practices. He works in Melbourne weekdays and has yet to decide when he will retire from paid employment. “I thought it would be an easy decision to make,” he says, “but it’s so much more difficult than I expected. I’ve been a dentist for more than 30 years. I have patients who have been coming to me for their dental health all that time. There’s an emotional attachment to the work, and to the patients.”
When Helen and Greg started on their vineyard adventure, they knew it would be a lot of hard work, but were still a little surprised at how hard it was. They are glad that they started when they did and are aware that as they get older they may find the work more challenging.
“I didn’t want to end up sitting in a rocking chair at a nursing home, wondering what could have been,” says Greg. “I wanted something that would keep me fit and healthy. Going to the gym had little appeal. We currently manage everything in the vineyard and the winery ourselves. We had a plan and we’ve followed it, with some modifications.
“When we started the vineyard, we thought that we might sell our grapes to other producers for the first ten years, until we moved here full time,” says Helen. “But the appeal of making some of our own wine meant that we started winemaking earlier. In our second year, we kept one and a half tonnes of fruit, but we had no power at the shed. We did have power in the vineyard. So we took the crusher down to the power pole in the middle of the vineyard and made the wine there under a tarpaulin. It’s a lot easier now we have a winery with power.
“It was very rewarding when we won awards for our early wines,” says Helen. “Some highlights were winning a trophy at the Daylesford Wine Show for the best cabernet blend in 2003 and a trophy for our shiraz as the best wine in the show in 2005 at Kyneton. Then, in 2007, we got 5 stars from James Halliday. But, by the time that was announced, we had little benefit from it as the locals had already discovered its quality and bought the lot. Another highpoint, recently, was winning a medal for our 2009 Rosé at Le Concours des Vins du Victoria and shaking hands with Michel Chapoutier who judged and presented that award.
“Time has flown by as each vintage has presented its challenges and rewards,” says Helen. “We have just made our tenth vintage. To celebrate, we have produced our first Sparkling Rosé.
“We’ve had realistic expectations. It has taken thirteen years to get to where we are today and we’ve loved every minute of it. Our advice to others starting out is to start early and maintain a balance between paid employment and farm work. Don’t take on any form of farming work unless you are ready for physical work and able to do it. Growing up in the country gave us both a love of nature and an appreciation of how hard farmers work. We both have a positive outlook and we like to keep active.”