A sign on the gate of the Conforti Estate Vineyard, on the Burke & Wills Track near Mia Mia, states that it is the home of the grapes used in Occam’s Razor Shiraz. Occam’s Razor is the label of Emily Laughton, daughter of Ron and Elva Laughton of Jasper Hill fame.
Mellissa and Andrew Conforti own Conforti Estate Vineyard. Andrew is also the vineyard manager at Jasper Hill, Mellissa works at Heathcote’s Commercial Hotel. Andrew is the youngest son of Heathcote’s Laurie Conforti who arrived from Italy in 1950. For the past 60 years Laurie, his wife Elena, and his sister Louisa, have assisted several of the vineyard owners of Heathcote. Laurie brought old techniques, learned in his young days in old Italian vineyards, to the young vineyards of Heathcote.
Andrew Conforti went to school in Heathcote, then to Bendigo’s White Hills Technical School. He worked first for Kevin (Cappy) McCarthy, cutting bridge timber for a couple of years, then, as a foreman for Carlisle Brothers, a sheep skin factory in Bendigo, for nine years before he decided to go west.
“I went to Western Australia to work in the mining industry, a few of my Heathcote mates were already over there. But I never made it to the mines. I got a job as the maintenance manager at a hotel in Tom Price. My main interest in life was playing footy and I was Assistant Coach for the Centrals team in Tom Price. I woke up one morning, realised I was homesick, packed my bags and came back to Heathcote. It was good timing. I was able to qualify for and play in the 1989 Grand Final which we won.”
Andrew’s parents arrived in Heathcote in the 1950’s. Mellissa’s grandparents Hector and May Spalding arrived in Heathcote in 1939, prior to the start of World War II. They operated the Green Frog Cafe for six years. Mellissa’s mum Bonnie Edsall, and Bonnie’s brother Ivan Spalding, grew up in Heathcote living next door to the Union Hotel. “Mum was not too fond of hotels,” says Mellissa, “and she left for Melbourne when she was fifteen years old. She met Dad, married young, and they had five children. Dad’s dream was to own a hotel and you wouldn’t believe it, but in 1987 they bought the Union Hotel in Heathcote.”
Mellissa had worked at a variety of jobs in Melbourne, working both full time and part-time jobs in order to save some money and take care of her horses. In 1987 she came to Heathcote to help her dad run his hotel, and she met Andrew when he came into the pub for a drink.
“Working with Dad at the hotel was really good,” she says. “We got to spend time together and became great mates. I had saved some money and immediately started looking for a property for my horses. I met Graham Hyslop at the hotel, and he told me about some land for sale at Mia Mia, not far from his property in Glenhope.
“He took me for a drive to look at it, and I fell in love with it. But things were busy in the hotel and I did nothing about buying the land. Graham came in the next Friday night and said that he’d heard they had a buyer who was going to put down a deposit the next day. He said, ‘If you want it, you better do something about it right away.’
“I hadn’t seen the house, only the land. I drove out there with Graham, pitch black, no lights, and tried to check out the house. It’s Friday, after closing time, I hadn’t been to the bank. Hadn’t arranged any finance, and suddenly I needed $10,000 for a deposit, or I’d miss out on it.
“Graham, who I had only met over the bar counter, only known him for about two weeks, offered me a $10,000 loan for the deposit. I couldn’t believe his generosity. So I signed both the contract for the land, and a loan agreement with Graham the next day.
“I had no idea what the bank’s response to my request for the rest of the money would be, so I spent a nervous weekend worrying about that. Luckily, when I saw the bank on Monday they were happy to loan me the money.”
Mellissa and Andrew got together in 1989 and they moved out to the forty five acre Mia Mia property where they ran cattle as well as Mellissa’s horses. Andrew started working for Graham Hyslop. “He taught me everything I know about farming,” says Andrew. “I learned about tractors, sheep, cattle, mechanics, fencing, hay cutting and carting. Working with Graham was fantastic.
“My first day working with him was hay carting. It was 35 degrees by lunchtime. We sat down for lunch and Graham gave me a bottle of beer, then another, which I drank. When we went back out on the truck I discovered that beer and hay carting don’t mix. I was shaking all afternoon in the heat. No way would I have beer at lunchtime again.
“I started doing some part-time vintage work with Ron and Elva Laughton at Jasper Hill. After a while Ron asked me if I wanted a job. It was a difficult decision to make. I wanted to work with Graham and learn even more from him.
“Then the government introduced some workplace changes that made employing people more onerous for small employers. After about twelve months I finally accepted the offer to work at Jasper Hill and have worked there full time since 1996.”
Mellissa had a bad car accident in 1996 and she was unable to work at the hotel or around the farm. She and Andrew considered their options for generating more income off the farm. Mellissa suggested planting some vines. “After all, it’s in your blood,” she told Andrew. But she was concerned about the amount of poisons and chemicals used in vineyards. She didn’t want to risk harming her horses, the land or other stock.
At work at Jasper Hill, Andrew was discovering that it was possible to grow grapes using an organic approach, that using chemicals is not the only way. In November 1997 Andrew and Mellissa planted seven acres of vines, using the knowledge that Andrew had acquired working at Jasper Hill.
“We followed Dad’s traditional approach of planting twelve foot wide rows with six feet between vines which allows for more room for roots and air flow. Our children Ebony and Chloe were three and four years old when we planted the vineyard.
“We used an augur, tractor, crowbar and shovel,” says Andrew. “We have lots of rocks and it was difficult to get the postholes deep enough. We’d hold the kids by their feet and lower them into the hole so they could pick up some of the stubborn rocks. “They were our slave labour. They had sand buckets which they used to move some dirt. We were lucky enough to be able to use Graham Hyslop’s fire truck to do some vine watering during the first season.
Around the same time Andrew and Mellissa were setting up their vineyard, Emily Laughton started working with her father Ron at Jasper Hill and developing her own wine label, Occam’s Razor. She decided to source her grapes from the Conforti vineyard, knowing that Andrew had been mentored by her father and follows the same organic principles used at Jasper Hill.
“The Conforti Estate vineyard, at the southern end of the Heathcote region, differs from Jasper Hill vineyards because it is on different soil, so Occam’s Razor has a different flavour. The vines are younger and the wine is very earthy, with raspberry flavours. Jasper Hill is fresh red berries, spice and minerality,” says Emily.
Andrew and Mellissa were busier than ever in their vineyard in 2011. “It was our most challenging year,” says Andrew. “Everyone in the region had a tough year. After the drought the rain was welcome. But it was followed by the risk of downey mildew with many rain periods followed by warm humid nights, a set of conditions that we experienced for the first time in fourteen years.”
Mellissa and Andrew, with help from Ebony, Chloe and Jackson, work in the Conforti Estate vineyard. Andrew’s family, Laurie and Elena, his brothers and sisters, join Mellissa’s mum Bonnie, her sisters and their families, and close friends, for an annual family harvest day.
“We celebrate another year of lovely fruit with a BBQ and beautiful wines. We always pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate a successful harvest,” says Mellissa.
3550 Burke & Wills Track, Mia Mia 3444
03 5425 5580