Like most passionate people who dream of growing grapes and making great wine, Downing Estate’s Joy and Bob Downing’s dream included setting up their own vineyard while still working full time, then retiring by the age of fifty five to drive their wine venture while paying a manager to look after operational details. Living the dream started in 1994 when, with the help of Grant Baker, they purchased land on the Northern Highway, about six kilometres from Heathcote, just over the road from Jasper Hill where Ron Laughton had already put the name of Heathcote on the map for quality reds.
The same year saw them lay out the vineyard with assistance from Brendan Tobin while Ellis Knight built them a dam so that they could assist the baby vines in the first few years and have an ongoing emergency water supply for when rainfall was low. Heathcote was their chosen area to live the dream as they wanted to be within an hour and a half of Melbourne and they liked Heathcote prices.
In the same year they planted 10,000 vine cuttings but then something which had not been in the dream happened. They had the dam but the rain didn’t arrive and only 500 of the 10,000 plants survived. They replanted the following year. Despite low rain, a dam that is empty when most needed, and some very persistent phalaris pasture, they now have twenty five acres of vines planted on the famed Cambrian soil that is found in a narrow band along the Northern Highway, producing grapes made into awardwinning wines.
The phalaris pasture is a legacy from the Eppalock scheme of twenty five years ago. Downing Estate sits on the edge of Lake Eppalock’s Mt Ida Creek subcatchment, grey soil on yellow clay forms the areas outside the Cambrian soil strip. Bob and Joy purchased their land from Werner (Vern) Viertmann, one of the Lake Eppalock engineers, who visited them to apologise for the phalaris planting. Phalaris was one of the grasses selected as part of extensive pasture improvement in the region, undertaken as part of the Lake Eppalock project, in order to prevent the lake filling up with silt. Unfortunately for vineyard owners, the phalaris continues to pose maintenance problems. However, it is excellent fodder for farmers with sheep and cattle.
Bob and Joy reached their dream retirement age of fifty five a decade ago. Joy left full time work as an MIS Manager at Mayne Nickless in 1990, but remained part time in the work force at Tattersalls till 2001 when she retired to manage the vineyard full time. Bob joined Bendigo Bank as a Chief Manager in information technology in 2002, which allowed him to reside on the vineyard seven days a week. In 2009, he retired to dedicate all of his time to their wine business.
“Apart from maintaining the friendships that developed while I worked at Bendigo Bank, we have a number of bank employees and consultants to the bank who have become good customers of Downing Estate. We work at maintaining those relationships. As well as playing a very active role in the Heathcote Winegrowers Association, I am now spending more time on marketing our wines locally, throughout Australia, and into a limited number of export markets including Canada and China. We did have a good market in the UK, but the high exchange rates following the global financial crisis made it extremely difficult to sell wines at our price point into many overseas countries. We’ve used distributors before but found that their sales people find it easier to sell low cost wines in large volume rather than higher quality wines from low yielding vineyards.
“From our twenty five acres we produce only around one thousand cases a year. This is a very low yield but it gives us intense flavour and colour. That translates into a reasonably high price point in order to have a profitable operation. I doubt that many of Heathcote’s boutique winemakers really cover their costs if you factor in their labour.”
Joy considers that the wine industry has changed since they started. “When we started in Heathcote there were only about six or seven vineyards. That has now grown to more than eighty. We found the older winemakers were very supportive of new ventures and always willing to help out newcomers. It is now a more competitive industry,” she says.
Joy assists in the Queen’s Birthday long weekend regional promotion, ‘Heathcote on Show.’ She was pleased to see the Northern Highway wineries attract more visitors than usual as a result of that promotion. She was also one of the key initiators of the annual October Heathcote Wine and Food Festival which grew out of the earlier Budburst and Yabby Festival which had been funded by Emeu Inn, Heathcote Winery, and Heathcote’s Yabby Farm. “When we work together we can all benefit,” she says. “More new and returning visitors across our whole wine region help us all.”
Joy and Bob’s wish list starts, not surprisingly, with water. “Water would make our life so much easier,” says Joy. “We could expand the vineyard, have our own winery and winemaker, and maintain the wine quality we dreamed of and now have, but we’d have more of it, and life would be a little easier. It’s good to have a dam for emergency use but nature has not been good to us of late. As many dryland farmers well know, when you need water the dam is empty.
“In 2007, we were wiped out by a series of spring frosts. 2008 was a good year. 2009 looked like a good year, we had the best foliage and the best crop since 2001. Then we had seven to ten days of extreme heat and the vines started defoliating. We had to drop the fruit before it ripened. Access to water would have prevented the need to drop the fruit and our yield would have been excellent. If we were starting over, we would plant a vineyard that had a permanent water source.”
When asked what other advice they have for people considering setting up a vineyard, Bob and Joy agree that they wish they had started when they were thirty instead of waiting till they were fifty. “There’s a story in the wine industry about how to make a small fortune in the wine business,” Bob says. “You start with a large fortune and wait. I guess my advice to people embarking on their dream is that you really can’t do it ‘on the side.’
“Our region produces outstanding fruit which can be made into outstanding wine. Through the winegrowers association we are working hard at getting the message out to consumers and the wine trade about the quality and value for money of Heathcote wines at all price points.”\
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Long weekends and public holidays or by appointment
$27.90 in any dozen
$31.00 per bottle
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The grapes for this wine were handpicked at 11.5 Baume, fermented and matured in seasoned oak barrels prior to bottling and tiraging in February 2011. The wine was then left on yeast lees until it was disgorged in May 2012.
A drier style Sparkling Shiraz.