Darryl and Ian Rathjen are fourth generation Colbinabbin farmers. Lured by the promise of gold, their great grandfather Henning Rathjen, a German farmer, arrived in Sandhurst, now known as Bendigo, in the early 1850s. In 1857 Henning married Caroline Brunke, who was also German. One year later, Henning decided to move back into farming. When he heard that there was land available in the north-east of the state, he decided to investigate. The first night he and a couple of friends set up camp on the west side of the Colbinabbin range.
The next morning he walked to the top of a hill, looked down over the eastern side of the range, and is reputed to have said “We have struck paradise.” In order to be eligible for a pastoral lease Henning had to find a number of German settlers who also wanted to settle in the area. This he did, so there were six German settlers within two miles of each other.
The house that Henning and Caroline built is still standing. In the early 1860s Henning planted a vineyard, with shiraz and marsanne grapes, and made award-winning wine. That vineyard was abandoned in the 1920s in favour of broadacre farming.
In 1998, Henning’s grandson, Finlay, and his great-grandson, Darryl, decided to reinstate a shiraz vineyard on the original vineyard site. Most of their grapes are sold, but some are made into their own label, Hennings. The original underground cellar from the 1860s remains intact, and once again houses wine. The winery built by Henning is being restored and will become the cellar door for Hennings Vineyard. A croquet court being developed alongside the restored building has a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
Darryl grew up in the house that Henning built, attending primary school at Colbinabbin Primary School before going on to Scotch College in Melbourne. “I recently attended a school reunion at Scotch,” he says. “Of the six or so students from broadacre farming families in my year, only two are still farming.”
Darryl, his wife Eril and their two children, Henry and Phoebe, live in the original house that Henning built. Eril grew up on farms and trained as a classical pianist when she left school. She met Darryl at her parent’s farm when he came to buy some wheat. Unfortunately, he ran over Eril’s dog that day, an unusual way to commence a relationship!
Darryl considered growing grapes when he finished school. “There were five in our family,” he says, “and we all value our historical links to wine growing. My brother Ian has set up the Whistling Eagle vineyard just down the road, Ramon has grapes on his Myola Rd property, Glen has five acres of grapes, and our sister Louise also has a few grapes.”
Darryl’s father Finlay considered reinstating the vineyard around 1977. “But we were told by a bloke who was a solicitor and accountant that there was no money in grapes. He suggested that we grow nuts, in particular pistachios,” says Finlay. “Then Tyrrells got a gold medal for a wine grown nearby and that started people looking to grow grapes around here.”
Darryl’s enjoyment of wine was triggered when he was backpacking around Europe in 1989. “I stayed with some English people in London and they brought out a bottle of Mitchelton wine. I thought about how close that was to home, that maybe I should do some winemaking when I got home,” he says.
The Colbinabbin area now has many large vineyards. “It’s the corporate end of the Heathcote wine region,” says Eril. “There are vineyards as big as four hundred acres, compared with boutique vineyards with perhaps twenty acres of vines, or even fewer. Colbinabbin, and its northern neighbour Rochester, remain a largely broadacre farming area. Many of those who have planted grapes are farmers who have done so to diversify. Some, including Darryl, planted tomato crops for processing.
“There used to be two hundred and twenty tomato process growers in Australia,” says Darryl, “now there are nineteen. Global competition has led to this decline. Tomatoes are a much riskier crop than grapes and that risk is becoming too large. We still grow wheat, canola and barley as well as running sheep. People in this area are farmers. Grapes are just another thing to farm, but to do it successfully you need to have a passion for grape growing.”
Eril and Darryl have a strong belief in the future of farming even though it can be challenging to make a good living out of it. “The benefits are not monetary,” says Eril, “but you get to be your own boss, and to carry on a business that you are passionate about. The people who make most out of farming are not the farmers. The ones who supply services to us ride on the back of what we grow. We are at the bottom of the food chain. Suppliers can pass on their costs but there’s no one below us except Mother Nature.
“If I had a magic wand I’d start by getting rid of debt. The vineyard has helped us survive, it allows us to broaden our income base and tap into the tourist dollar. The vineyard excites me as we are not so reliant on traditional farm commodities. We can exert more influence over our wine business than with some other crops. If Henry and Phoebe are interested in the wine business I would encourage them as there’s a lot of potential which should continue to grow. We’ve had 11 vintages, our brand will grow. We are looking forward to opening our cellar door in 2012.
“This area has always achieved recognition for product excellence. Henning won awards for his wine back in the 1860s. The best wool at a London show came from the Mt Camel area. Now the Colbinabbin wine producers are again receiving accolades for their wines.”
Cellar Door opening hours:
Third weekend of every month 11am – 5pm or by appointment