Robert and Mem Kirby first planted grapes in 1992 at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula. Robert and his brother John both worked for Village Roadshow, the company their father, Roc Kirby, had built into one of the world’s largest entertainment groups. Roc had started with a single drive-in theatre in a regional Victorian town in 1954, ending up with businesses that included movie theatres, film production, radio stations, and theme parks.
When Robert and Mem decided to build a wine business they consulted soil scientists and viticulturalists. They worked with winemaker Tod Dexter and wine consultant Larry McKenna to identify the most suitable vineyard regions and sites for their selected grape varieties. Their initial preferences were shiraz, pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
In 1998, they established the Yabby Lake Vineyard in the Mornington Peninsula’s sub-region of Moorooduc, planting pinot noir and chardonnay. Heathcote Estate, initially a joint venture between Louis Bialkower and the Kirbys, was planted with shiraz and a small parcel of grenache, in 1998. The third Yabby Lake vineyard is the original Mount Helen Vineyard in the Strathbogie ranges, where Dr Peter Tisdall had planted cabernet sauvignon grapes in 1972.
When Roc Kirby died in 2008, his sons Robert and John became co-chairmen of Village Roadshow. In the same year Robert and Mem handed over control of their wine interests to their children, Clark and Nina. Clark is currently Director of Corporate Strategy at Village Roadshow. Both he and Nina take an active interest in the Yabby Lake vineyards, and are keen to build on the well-planned approach of their parents.
Each of the three vineyards has a winemaker. Chris Forge, whose grandfather was a grape grower in the Yarra Valley, has been Heathcote Estate’s winery manager and winemaker since the first vintage in 2002. Wines from all three vineyards are made in the Drummonds Lane winery at Heathcote Estate’s vineyard, adjacent to Jasper Hill winery and just across the road from Downing Estate. Vin Harrop, who has been Heathcote Estate’s vineyard manager since 2009, received Graduate Honours for a Diploma of Horticulture (Production )Viticulture from the University of Melbourne in 2002.
Tom Carson is Yabby Lake’s Chief Winemaker and General Manager. His first experience with wine was a visit to Leigh and Jo Hunt’s Heathcote vineyard which is just over the hill from the Heathcote Estate vineyard. “I was about ten years old,” says Tom. “My dad worked with Leigh Hunt in Melbourne. We visited Huntleigh when they were doing their first vintage and I helped crush some grapes in a very clean garbage bin.” Tom, who grew up in Research near Warrandyte, went to Eltham High and Whitefriars College in Donvale. His dad and uncle were wine lovers who had built up a great cellar. “Unfortunately my dad died when I was fifteen. After I finished school I went to work in a pub and then in a wine shop at Olinda. My interest in wine developed from there.
“My cousin had a friend who was working at Domaine Chandon. I got a job there as one of their first employees. I helped plant most of their vines. I learned a lot from that practical experience. Then I discovered that you could study winemaking at Roseworthy College and went there from 1989 to 1991. My initial winery experience was with Tim Knappstein in Clare Valley. I returned to Melbourne to work with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in Yarra Valley.
“Working with James Halliday was a great experience. He is a generous man and a great mentor. His passion for Australian wine is boundless. His first vineyard was Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley in 1970. He moved to Melbourne for work with his law firm in 1983 and founded Coldstream Hills in 1985.”
Tom’s next move was to Yering Station where he became chief winemaker in 1996 when he was twenty eight years old. He spent twelve years there. During that time Yering Station grew from twenty acres of vines to over two hundred and fifty acres. In 2004 Yering Station was named International Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge in London from 7,000 entries in sixty countries.
In July 2008, Tom moved to Yabby Lake and Heathcote Estate. “What appealed to me about the Yabby Lake vineyards was the unrealised potential of exceptionally good sites with ten year old vines, and a focussed business approach. I see the winemaker as the caretaker, the vineyard site is the main driving force.
“Great wines speak more of the place than of the winemaker. We use the term ‘expression over impression.’ The site creates the expression and the winemaker is there to interpret the potential of the site, to achieve the best possible impression from that site. The Kirby family chose great sites in great regions. They looked to the pioneers to locate the best sites for specific grape varieties. This doesn’t mean that other varieties won’t be as good in the future.”
Tom sees some challenges for winemakers in finding balance and subtlety over power and concentration. “Wine is a drink to be enjoyed with food. It is not the centrepiece of the wine and food experience. Each wine has its own potential. Balancing all the ingredients is the winemaker’s greatest challenge.”
Tom has achieved a great deal in his short winemaking career to date. He is the youngest Chairman to preside at The National Wine Show in Canberra, having taken over that position when James Halliday stepped down. He is also Panel Chair at The Royal Sydney Wine Show, and one of the three members of the Qantas wine panel. “Qantas has been an enthusiastic supporter of Australian wines for more than forty years, and they don’t get a lot of recognition for this. Except for some champagne, all wines in all classes on Qantas flights are Australian. They provide many travellers with an introduction to Australian wines. Every wine they serve is selected by the wine panel.”
Yabby Lake now has five cellar doors in China, and exports to Hong Kong, Singapore, Sweden, UK, USA and Canada. Yabby Lake’s only Australian Cellar Door and Cafe has recently opened in Heathcote’s High Street. Wines from all three vineyards and all four labels are available for tasting and sale in the newly restored cellar door and cafe.
“We wanted to establish our group cellar door in the town to provide an environment where wine was not the sole attraction for visitors. We want to engage people in our story, and we want them to have a good food and wine experience.”
Cellar Door opening hours:
10am – 5pm daily