A fully operational winery with a cellar door, in the middle of town, is unusual. Add in frequent art exhibitions, an attractive courtyard, regional gourmet produce, events such as a Good Friday Seafood Lunch, and live music on special occasions, and there’s a complete visitor experience. Locals as well as visitors can find all this at Heathcote Winery, at the northern end of Heathcote’s High Street.
“What we now have has gradually evolved. We didn’t start out with a plan for it all. When our original syndicate of six wine enthusiasts purchased the property in 1997,” says Melbourne-born Steve Wilkins, CEO of the Heathcote Winery, “we saw it as a side interest to our main jobs. I was a lawyer and one of my clients was a winery group in Coonawarra undertaking business restructuring. I moved from full-time law to managing that Coonawarra wine business. I was managing a twelve acre vineyard in Coldstream and developing my interest in viticulture and wine production.
“One of our syndicate members is a renowned wine industry valuer from South Australia. When he became aware that the Heathcote Winery was for sale in 1996 we saw it as an extension of our interest in the wine industry, more as an interest than as a business. Although I am still involved in supervising some other vineyards, Heathcote Winery is now my primary business focus,” says Steve.
“The first thing we did, in 1997, was rehabilitate our Newlans Lane vineyard, including replacing all the posts. Then we increased the fermentation and storage capacity and upgraded all the winery equipment. We have sixteen hectares of vines, twelve at Newlans Lane and four in our Slaughter House Paddock, four kilometres north of the town. We are one of the largest local wineries in the Heathcote region.”
With his wife Denise, who manages the winery’s marketing and distribution channels, Steve lives in Melbourne but spends at least two days a week in Heathcote. Their team includes a vineyard manager, a winemaker, an assistant winemaker, a chef, and a cellar door manager who all live in or close to Heathcote. “We have been fortunate in finding excellent people for all these jobs,” says Steve. The team has been together for four years. They all have strong personalities and strong opinions.
“Managing the team has been a learning curve for me, and sometimes my role is as a mediator. On occasions, it’s more like a family than a business team. We all live and breathe the business. I need to support them when they are really busy. I’ve discovered that the key to team effectiveness is respect for each other’s expertise and skills.”
Vineyard Manager Brett Winslow grew up in Gippsland, spent ten years as an office-bound public servant, ran a taxi company for eight years, and then embarked on a tree change. “When our daughter was two, we decided that we wanted our kids to grow up outside a city,” he says. “I enrolled in a Dookie Agricultural College viticulture course and my wife started a nursing course.”
“We’ve now lived in Heathcote for eight years and 2010 will be my tenth vintage here. The first two years I was at Shadowfax vineyard where I had the good fortune to work with and learn from Andrew Tedder, the first viticulturalist recommended for the Qantas Winemaker of the Year Award.
“The biggest challenge for viticulturalists in the Heathcote area is coping with drought and frost. As we are in the lower part of the Heathcote region, around the township and the creek, we are frost free from around mid-November. Then the challenge is water. We need to water judiciously in order to maintain a healthy canopy for the vines. Leaf cover is essential to ripen the fruit.” Brett’s vineyard assistant is Evie, a kelpie whose main job is chasing birds and managing fifteen Wiltshire Horn sheep which help control grass growth in the vineyard.
New Zealand born winemaker, Rachel Brooker, has a Bachelor of Wine Science degree from a New Zealand Institute. She completed her final year on a scholarship at the Wagga Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University, worked at Heathcote Winery as assistant winemaker in 2003 and 2004 and had a spell at an American vineyard. “I also spent sixteen months working as a wine supervisor at a top London restaurant. I learned about wine distribution and about European wineries and about food matching. But mostly I learned that I’d rather be a winemaker.
“It’s exciting work because the tasks change throughout the year. I love the variety of work, there are lots of milestones to achieve. The biggest challenge is the final blends when I spend weeks trying to get the perfect blend. Wine is constantly changing, you refine it, filter it, revisit it and constantly ask yourself, ‘Is this the best that it can be? Is it the style we are seeking? Could it be even better?’ Then there’s the long wait til it is released and you anxiously await the reviews and, hopefully, the awards.”
Rachel has worked for wineries that are ten times the size of Heathcote Winery. “I love the smaller size here,” she says. “We have a great team, we can all multi-task. There’s only one shift and you just have to work til tasks are finished. Brett does a fantastic job in the vineyard and that makes my job easier. The soils and the climate of Heathcote produce beautiful shiraz. This is where I am meant to be.”
Denise Wilkins’ father was a licensed grocer who got out of the business when supermarkets were granted liquor licences. She has worked for a wine distributor and now manages the marketing activities of Heathcote Winery. “Our cellar door costs a lot to run seven days a week,” she says, “and we are always looking for new ways to encourage visitors to return.”
“Craven’s Cafe serves meals three days a week and we are extending the number of functions we offer. People love live music while they eat and drink and we hope to offer that at least once each month. We prefer small group functions. We employ a local chef and we’ll be doing more events such as the Good Friday Seafood Lunch and the April Lamb and Shiraz dinner.
“We have a national distributor for our wine and that accounts for about thirty percent of our sales. We have an extensive mailing list and that, along with cellar door sales, is about sixty five percent of our sales. Our cellar door building dates back to 1854 when Thomas Craven built a store here to cater for the produce needs of gold miners. He also ran a coach service from stables behind the store and delivered supplies and mail around Central Victoria.
“Locals know, and visitors love to hear, the history of our building. and the broader history of the town. With our art shows, regional produce and meal options we offer a good visitor experience. The town has mining and pastoral history, wineries to visit, good food outlets, places to buy regional produce and local art. It is a great destination.”
Steve organised a Pro-Am Golf event at Heathcote Golf Club a few years ago. “It was a raging success and won the “Pro Am of the Year for under $20,000” that year. It was a great fun day,” says Steve, “and it was good for the town. There’s potential in future such events if all the town businesses get involved.”
Cellar Door opening hours
10am – 5pm daily
$44.10 in any dozen
$49.00 per bottle
Out of stock
A beautiful deep, crimson purple in colour the nose is full of red cherries, spice and a touch of eucalypt with sweet vanilla. An intense and mouth-filling wine on the palate running through the dark fruit spectrum combining with spice, cloves, thyme.