Jo and Leigh Hunt have been married for just over forty years. For a little more than twenty five of those years they operated a cellar door from their winery near the Northern Highway.
“We started with nothing on the property,” says Leigh, “and we did the lot ourselves. We bought our first twenty acres at auction in 1974, but found that twenty acres was not enough for what we wanted to do. Subsequently we had the opportunity to buy the adjoining forty acres fronting the Northern Highway. Our first vineyard was just three acres, we gradually expanded that to twelve acres of vines.”
Jo was born in Bendigo and developed an appreciation of wine at an early age. “My father was introduced to wine in the early 1930s when he travelled the world, so our family drank wine with our Sunday roasts. The children initially drank from liqueur glasses, graduating slowly. My mother was involved with an Epicurean Food and Wine group in Bendigo.”
When she finished school, Jo went to the University of Melbourne. “That was a big move for a country girl,” she says, “I was only seventeen.” As age 19 was a requirement for Social Work, Jo combined this with Arts in her first year studies. On graduation she worked at the Mount Royal Hospital Rehabilitation Geriatric Unit.
“I saved as much money as I could,” she says, “and then set out to see the world. I spent a year travelling by boat initially, and then I flew home. The boat stopped at several countries on the way to Europe and the UK so I got to do some sightseeing in wonderful places, ending up in Europe and the UK. I returned via the US, Hawaii and Fiji. I had circumnavigated the globe over the year. I had exactly ten pounds left when I arrived back in Melbourne.
“Having worked with the elderly at Mount Royal, I then worked at Melbourne’s Children’s Hospital for about six years, in the haematology and general medical units. One Saturday morning my flatmate was going to Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar in Carlton, she asked me to go with her, and that’s where I met Leigh.”
Melbourne-born Leigh’s first job, while he was still at school, was in the advertising department of The Mutual Store. When he finished school he went to work at the Melbourne Stock Exchange and worked in stockbroking firms until he retired in 1989.
“There was certainly no wine at home when I was growing up,” he says. “My father was dead against drinking alcohol of any kind. I became a beer drinker once I left home. The first wine I can remember was from a Wynvale flagon, it went quite well with spaghetti. Then I met Jo. Through her, and her mother, I got interested in wine.”
Jo and Leigh were married in 1969. Leigh developed an interest in making wines from various fruit. “There was a beautiful sparkling apple cider he made in the early days of our marriage,” says Jo. “One year we had an excess of parsley and Leigh made some parsley wine! It was a lovely colour – but quite undrinkable.
“Leigh also made some sake. I can still see potless Leigh and our pot-bellied neighbour doing belly bumps after a couple of glasses.” Leigh remembers how bad he felt after the sake episode. “It was unimaginably potent,” he says, “definitely not to be recommended.”
Once Leigh and Jo decided they wanted to set up a vineyard and winery they looked around for an appropriate place to do so. Why Heathcote ? “My mother was in Bendigo,” says Jo. “Leigh planned to stay working in Melbourne while we were setting it all up and Heathcote was relatively close. So we picked and bought some shiraz grapes at Zuber’s and Leigh made some wine from them. That’s when we decided to buy land near Heathcote.
“We acquired a permit, went into the forest and cut down trees for the posts for our first threeacre vineyard, mostly ironbark and box. The ironbark made the chainsaw work very hard. Then we’d bark the trees and cut the posts for our trellis which we assembled ourselves.
“There were few winemakers in the Bendigo area in which Heathcote originally belonged. We were the fourth vigneron’s licence issued in the Heathcote area following Osickas, McIvor Creek, and Romany Rye (now Eppalock Ridge).”
Through Jo’s mother Leigh met Stuart Anderson of Balgownie who was a selfless mentor. “His generosity and encouragement was irreplaceable,” says Jo. “We also had a couple of people who spent time with us before they set up their own businesses. David Anderson (Wild Duck Creek) and Mick Cann (St Michaels) were a great help at vintage.
“Our son Simon was also in our work team. When he was just two we bought him a little mattock so he could help. He used to get frustrated using it. He became an excellent athlete, an Ironman competitor, who refused to drink any alcohol. We were a little frustrated by that as we’d have liked to see him develop his palate.” Simon has since obtained an Agricultural Science degree and computer programming qualifications. He is now with the RAAF and he drinks a little alcohol.
“Simon grew up seeing how much hard work there is involved in working the vineyard and the winery,” says Jo. “We all love being here, but it’s now 36 years since we started work here and we had younger bodies then. We came up each weekend, working the vineyard, the winery and opening the cellar door, until Leigh retired in 1989 to move up full time.
“In 2002, we decided to close the winery and cellar door and grow and sell our grapes. Having the cellar door every weekend restricted our lives and we wanted to do other things. We were also discovering that some trade buyers required some follow-up to make their payments!
“We did enjoy operating the cellar door. Leigh has a very laid back approach and we had many long and interesting conversations with visitors. There were many lovely people who called in to the cellar door. We do miss them. We both work in the vineyard. Leigh does the pruning and I spray every pruning cut in winter, and there’s a myriad other jobs at seasonal times.
“But we now have time to do things like car club outings in one of seven cars Leigh has accumulated. He has always loved cars. We’ve often had parts all over the living room while he fiddled with them. I’ve learned to live with that!”
Their advice to budding young winemakers just starting out : “Go into it with your eyes wide open,” says Leigh, with a laugh. “But if you must plant somewhere then it should be in the Heathcote region. The quality of Heathcote fruit will keep this region going. It’s been a great adventure for us.”