Gordon Knight’s great-grandfather, Frank Edward Egerton Knight, a carpenter, set sail from England to Australia in the 1860s. After mining for gold, he settled in the Baynton area of Central Victoria and leased a hotel and store in the township of Baynton. “He ran a mixed business with a good cash flow. He bought wool and skins from farmers who then spent their proceeds in his general store and hotel next door. You could say that my family has a long history in the liquor industry in Victoria, with a few dry periods,” says Gordon.
Gordon’s grandfather, Frank Knight, and father, Rupert Knight, both farmers and keen gardeners, grew up in the Glenhope area. His father, partly crippled from World War I injuries, received some assistance under the soldier settler program, and settled at Spring Plains. They ran sheep at first, but later diversified into dairy, which had been identified as a priority industry during World War II.
Gordon’s formal schooling started when he was four years old. The government offered a deal that, if the community could find a building for a school, the government would supply a teacher. But there had to be at least eight children with a range of ages, so the school would have students for several years. After eight years of schooling, Gordon had had enough education. While his elder brother, Barrie, went to secondary school in Kyneton, Gordon was determined to leave school to work, a decision he sometimes regrets.
“At the age of twelve, free education ceased and you had to pay ten shillings for six months of school for each child. I convinced my father that my going to school for any longer was a waste of ten shillings. So I worked on the farm from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Milking the cows was one of my jobs and I got the cream cheque as pay. Cream was collected and taken to Kyneton. As we got more cows the cream cheque got bigger. Dad then kept the cream cheque but paid me ten shillings a week.”
The Spring Plains property was not large enough to expand the cattle numbers. When Gordon was nineteen years old, he took some cattle and went share dairy farming in Gippsland, near Morwell. Two years later he returned to Spring Plains and worked in woolsheds as a rousabout, then as a wool presser, hand pressing up to twenty bales a day, before returning to what he calls “the most interesting education I ever had.”
Gordon enrolled in a short course at Dookie College incorporating farm management, bookkeeping and wool classing. “The course was set up as a three year course for returned soldiers with no farming experience. But those, like me, who already had practical farming experience, were able to complete the course in a few months. After I finished the course I was able to make good money from wool classing and contract pressing. The pay was one pound for classing, pressing and bookkeeping for each bale, plus an extra six pence for stacking the bales three high,” he says.
“I had saved some money but had to borrow more to buy my own place,” he says, “I looked at many properties before buying land in Baynton. I wanted to run merinos, but it was too cold and wet for merinos. They get fleece rot if they are wet for long periods, as well as foot rot.” In 1952 Gordon purchased a three hundred and sixty acre property which would later become Knight’s Granite Hills, a multi-award winery perched at 550 metres altitude on the northern slopes of the Great Divide, with a stunning view in all directions.
Heather Lake was living in Research, near Eltham, then a semi-rural area, and working in the note issue section of the Commonwealth Bank in East Melbourne. “The Minister at the Mia Mia Church was a family friend and I was invited up to Mia Mia for a holiday. The Minister’s wife took to inviting Gordon to call in for a cup of tea during my visit.”
How did Heather react to her new lifestyle at Baynton? “I was in love,” she says. “Gordon and I married in 1954 and our first son Llew was born in 1955.” The land at Baynton was rocky and riddled with rabbits. “In the pre-myxomatosis days, rabbiting was a major occupation, enabling some people to earn enough for their first home,” says Gordon. Getting rid of the rabbits was the first priority. A man with a tractor was hired, the burrows were ripped and poison trails were laid.” Each morning, Heather would walk the boundary fence. “Our fox terrier would chase the rabbits through the holes in the fence and then I would block the hole with rocks. Later on we got a proper rabbit-proof boundary fence,” she says.
“The land was rocky and steep with not much arable country. I kept working off-farm at wool classing in order to pay back the money I had borrowed,” says Gordon. “There was good money to be made in wool sheds. I leased some additional property in Glenhope and East Pastoria to run more sheep and generate more income. Wool prices were relatively high in the 1950s and early 1960s, but then the price crashed in the mid 1960s.”
Gordon is a goldmine of information about the recent history of the area, including early efforts to establish Lake Eppalock. “Eppalock was a political football in this area,” he says. “We had a Country Party member then. Many local property owners did not want to see Lake Eppalock built, but the Labour Party wanted a project that would require labourers to come and work here as that would increase the Labour Party’s chances of winning the seat.
“In 1969, I placed the Baynton property on the market as I had my eye on a one thousand acre property over Seymour way. When the sale fell through, we decided that we were here to stay. The only thing left to do was to diversify. As I had previously worked for the Australian Primary Producers Union (APPU) as a field officer in the Western District, I saw the potential for vines. I noted that grapes did well in the sandy granitic soil of that area. At the time we were basically teetotalers, however rabbiters would come onto our property and they would bring us gifts of home-made wine.
“I consulted many people, including experts at the Department of Agriculture, about planting grapes. Tom Lazar at Virgin Hills encouraged me to pursue grape growing and he expressed an interest in buying our fruit if we did proceed.” The first vines were planted in 1970. Gordon and Heather were subjected to negative comments from some local farmers. Gordon can remember one neighbour’s comment about their venture into vines, ‘I think he’s lost his marbles.’ Heather recalls one farmer’s wife’s comment, ‘So you think you’re going to make a fortune out of grapes?’
“We employed a number of local lads to help set up the vineyard,” says Heather. “We learned later that they had told people that we were ‘sticking little bits of sticks into the ground.’ Another farmer told us ‘I’ll come and help with your fruit picking when they are tall enough for me to sit underneath them and have my lunch.’ Further plantings proceeded in 1971 and 1972 bringing the total area to fifteen acres consisting of riesling, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.
In May 1974, a bucket or two of grapes were harvested and a micro blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz made up the first Estate wine. It was met with all the excitement of any newborn, and full of promise. For the next four years, yields stepped up slowly. Gordon worked with Tom Lazar at Virgin Hills lending a hand with each vintage. By 1978 it was clear that Virgin Hills could not commit to taking any more grapes, so the next challenge began.
Eldest son Llew, winemaker at Granite Hills for the past 35 vintages, was born in 1955. He grew up on the farm at Baynton, attending Baynton East Primary school and Kyneton High school. “I was fifteen when Mum and Dad started the vineyard. I had little interest in sheep and wool,” he says, “I was more the meccano kid. I loved to make things and was considering an engineering career. In my early teens I did enjoy making ginger beer in the summer months, and recall being quite intrigued by the fermentation process. Perhaps that was an early indicator of my future.
“I started thinking about winemaking when I was around seventeen and looked around for courses. At that time the only place to study winemaking was Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia. The thought of doing a Diploma in Agriculture as a prerequisite to winemaking troubled me as a waste of time. Fortunately, in my final year at Kyneton High School, Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga announced the establishment of a winemaking degree course (B. App. Sc.). Perfect timing, as I was admitted the following year. The course covered viticulture, wine science, and some engineering subjects, as well as some practical experience in the industry. In later years we had access to an on-campus commercial winery with lecturing staff who were all inspirational wine industry people.
“In 1977 I took a year off and worked at Kaiser Stuhl (acquired by Penfolds in the 1980s) in Barossa as a cellar hand. It was a big commercial winery, producing mostly bulk wines. It gave me some practical skills that balanced the more theoretical course work. That same year we decided to send our riesling grapes to Brown Brothers winery which had excellent facilities to make quality white wines. This was an excellent decision as a Gold medal winning wine resulted the following year.
“In 1978 it was back to Wagga for my final year of full time study. Our 1978 Riesling was made at the Charles Sturt winery under the expertise of Brian Croser, Tony Jordan and Andrew Hood… and another award-winning wine resulted. It was time to take the ‘bull by the horns’ at Baynton and establish a small winery in readiness for the 1979 harvest. With the most modest of budgets we invested in some basic equipment. It was an exciting time.
“We were treading on new ground. There were very few Australians with experience in cool climate viticulture and winemaking. Over the initial years it was a little like a ‘suck it and see’approach with many of our management strategies. For example, our higher altitude and lower temperatures means that it takes longer for our grapes to ripen with higher natural acidity so we pick later than most areas in Australia. Cooler fruit temperatures meant that ferments had to be warmed up. Malolactic ferments generally didn’t finish until the following summer.
“Over the next few years we had our share of success, with awards for our riesling and our cabernet shiraz. A major turning point was the 1978 vintage reds when we decided to make and bottle shiraz and cabernet sauvignon as individual varietal wines. This was the norm for cabernet sauvignon, but at that time shiraz was considered secondary and marketed generically as hermitage or claret, even burgundy, but rarely as shiraz. So with a groundbreaking cool climate peppery Granite Hills Shiraz and some complimentary reviews, the future looked promising.
“I’m sure the winemaking fraternity were a little stunned when this small unknown family winery from Victoria won a major Trophy in the Adelaide wine show for our 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon. From that very same vintage the Granite Hills 1980 Shiraz received a higher rating than Grange Hermitage from James Halliday in the Australian newspaper. It was a strange sense of relief, as well as satisfaction, to realise some success for all those years of faith and effort, particularly for Mum and Dad. We are happy to be referred to as pioneers of cool climate winemaking, and are fortunate to have started when we did … Thanks Mum and Dad for your foresight!
“For a small producer it is imperative that you stick to your strengths, but perhaps just as important is servicing your customers. I think this is an area we have improved on greatly over recent years, particularly since Andrea has joined me in the business. Andrea has a very direct and engaging personality. I have learnt much from her. We have a small but very dedicated and flexible team at Granite Hills. Alongside Andrea and myself is Ian Gunter in the winery and Geoff McIntosh in the vineyard, as well as some casual staff.”
Llew’s minimal intervention approach means that he resists the pressure to tweak his wines to fit the current fashion. “I see my role as constantly reviewing and improving the wines each vintage from the vineyard to the bottle. Secretly, I am always on the lookout for new clones or varieties, best suited to Granite Hills, with potential in the market.”
Melbourne-born Andrea has a legal background. “I was a practising lawyer for six years, then went into the legal recruitment business, placing senior professionals in law firms. Llew and I first met at a winemaker’s dinner about thirteen years ago. We were married in January 2004 and I’ve been involved with the business since early 2009.
“Llew and I are a great team. Llew makes fantastic wine, whilst I get involved in a whole raft of other activities including marketing and business development. The wine industry is a new industry for me and one I am passionate about. I am proud of the Granite Hills story and I love telling cellar door customers about how Heather and Gordon started the vineyard and the history behind our wines. I get excited telling people that our 2009 Riesling is our thirty fifth vintage.”
Andrea does not miss commuting to Melbourne. “I’ve come home,” she says, “I love working here full time with Llew.” According to Llew, Andrea “has brought us new skills, especially people skills. She is fantastic at applying clear thinking for our business. She opens my eyes to new possibilities.”
Cellar Door opening hours:
Daily 11am – 6pm