Winemakers of the Heathcote region come from vastly different backgrounds, and express their passion for winemaking in different ways. Brian Spencer’s philosophy is embodied in his setting up the Shiraz Republic to operate alongside his Cornella Ridge vineyard.
Both his father and grandfather were farriers. His father was also a blacksmith with a dairy farm. Brian has retained some of his father’s heritage in a collection of old hand-made steel farming relics around the farm and winery. “Dad had a really good eye for a beast,” says Brian. “He used to buy and sell horses and cows at the weekly Dandenong Market many years ago, when the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill was orchards all the way to Shoppingtown. He then leased orchards to graze his cows, before buying a dairy farm at Yarra Glen.
“There were six kids in the family and we all had chores to do. I was the youngest of four boys, with two younger sisters. As the youngest boy I got the less attractive jobs. I rarely got to drive the tractor, but I chased a lot of cows, fed a lot of calves, and mucked out the cow yards. My two eldest brothers remained on the land but I became a community worker.”
“I’ve been a youth worker, worked with homeless youth, and with the long-term unemployed. I spent six years as a minister of religion, and worked for the CFA as corporate communications manager. Brian and Cynthia Page, his wife of twenty four years, met when she hitched a ride on his motorbike to a community conference. They both work full time off-farm, Brian as a consultant in educational training and workforce development, Cynthia as a Uniting Church Minister at Craigieburn.
“I spend a lot of my time managing conversations,” Brian says. “I see the role of community work as helping communities come together to identify problems and implement solutions. My role is to listen and then identify relevant action based on the needs of a community. Some organisations act as though consultation is about deciding what to do and then marketing the idea to the community. Real consultation involves helping the community decide what to do and how to do it.
“We bought our one hundred and sixty acre farm in 1995 as a hobby farm. We grew wheat and oats for the first seven years. In 2001, the Colbinabbin-Cornella Pipeline Association was formed to design, fund and construct a nineteen kilometre pipeline from the Waranga Channel at Colbinabbin along the range to Cornella. The aim of the pipeline was to provide water for high-value agriculture and viticulture in the Mt Camel Ranges are. Cynthia, a keen Monopoly player, knew it was always a winning move to buy the waterworks.
“We were one of the fourteen foundation members. We saw that a reliable source of water would allow us to get involved in high-value horticulture. Our dryland farming experience provided few opportunities. We saw growing grapes as something useful to do with our land. I did some short courses on winemaking, networked with other wine producers and learned what not to do.
“Neither Cynthia nor I had families that drank wine, but we both grew to appreciate wine. I was in my forties and saw wine as a good option when I was past my beer sculling days. We timidly planted the first ten acres of vines in 2002 and added another ten in 2004. I definitely recommend planting in stages. That way you get to apply the lessons you learn. One strong piece of advice is ‘don’t plant the first ones where you can sit on the back verandah and see them ’. Leave that very visible location till you get better at it.
After all the hard work of pruning and picking, we finally got to enjoy making our first wine in 2005. There’s a bit of elitism in winemaking and we started to think about making the experience of winemaking accessible to a wider group of people, about winemaking with a community focus. Our not-so-covert mission is to create a shiraz revolution which will enrich people’s lives through the experience of winemaking, putting people closer to the source of their wine.
“That’s what The Shiraz Republic is all about. We grow grapes to make a small supply of wine for ourselves, and we sell grapes in small quantities to people who want to make their own wine. The largest order we’ve had was for two tonnes, the smallest was for ten kilograms, although that order was increased to seventeen kilograms!”
When possible, Brian and Cynthia spend weekends working at the vineyard and winery, as well as restoring the farm house and shed. “The farm house, where Olive Heath and her brother Bill ran the Cornella Post Office, is over one hundred years old. Olive lived in the house and Bill lived in a shed next to the house. The house lay empty for thirty years before we bought it.
“When Olive died, Bill never moved into the house. He continued to live in the hut, with no power or insulation. He was found dead in his wire camp bed with a single hessian blanket, his boots beside the bed. His bed, his blanket, and his boots are still there, along with items such as his safety pin neatly pinned to a square of fabric and hanging on the wall.
“When Bill died around 1963, he had two hundred and seventy thousand pounds, the equivalent of about four million dollars today, in the bank. His only indulgence was buying a new Holden car each time there was a new model. Bill’s shed is in very poor condition. One of my dreams is to restore it, once we’ve finished restoring the house. When people come to our cellar door I’d like them to see how people used to live not that long ago.
“Our biggest challenge is juggling our full time work with all the things we need to do here. It’s a balancing act. Our biggest delight was discovering that we could do what we’ve already done even though we had very little capital behind us. We work in relatively lowpaying areas. That’s another reason we like to give an opportunity to people to buy grapes in small quantities. I’d like to see a Winemaking Commons for those with no shed or land. People in flats or apartments have nowhere to do their winemaking or grow anything. They are increasingly alienated from the source of their food. A community area to make and store wine would be a valuable resource.
Would he recommend the winemaking life to his children? “If they wanted to be involved it would be great. They are all off building their own careers now. The farm has become a place for family get-togethers. We’ve had some special times here. We probably see the kids less often, yet have more quality time with them when they do visit.
“One son learned to drive a truck and now helps us on the farm. Another son has graphic design skills, so he’s done our labels and logos for us. They all help in the vineyard at peak times. When we bought the farm it was in the back of my mind that one role it would play was that of a refuge. Life batters us all from time to time and everyone needs a refuge.”