Lake Cooper Estate, owned by Gerry and Geraldine McHarg, sits on the northern end of the Mount Camel range, overlooking Lake Cooper. The local aboriginal name for Lake Cooper is Paboinboolok which means ‘shallow sheet of water.’
Gerry McHarg was born in Tooborac. He attended Tooborac and Heathcote schools before going on to the Marist Brothers in Bendigo. After finishing school at fifteen to start a five year carpenter’s apprenticeship, he boarded with a Bendigo landlady who had a daughter called Geraldine. “I had nothing to do with the boarders, it was only after he left that we started going out together,” says Geraldine. “He turned out to be a ‘real’ romantic. After he left the boarding house he wrote me a love letter on toilet paper!” Gerry married the landlady’s daughter when he was twenty two.
Geraldine did a teaching course in Melbourne and taught kindergarten at Heathcote as well as playing netball for Tooborac. Gerry built a house in Heathcote for his new bride and the first of their three daughters was born there. Gerry worked as a builder in Heathcote for several years until a good building position became available in Williamstown.
“I thought that we’d move to Melbourne for a few years, make a few quid, and then return to Heathcote,” says Gerry, “but we are still living in Williamstown where I established my own building business.” When they moved to Melbourne, Geraldine went back to university and completed a Diploma in Librarianship, spending fourteen years as a school librarian.
“About fifteen years after Gerry set up his company,” says Geraldine, “he was around forty, mid-life crisis time, he decided that he needed a change. You can take the boy out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the boy. Gerry wanted to find a rural property and grow something as he didn’t want to work with livestock. A friend suggested grapes as he had a contact in Southcorp. They offered us a seven year contract for grapes, provided that we selected Heathcote or Dookie as the location.
“Given our Heathcote connections we decided that was best for us, being close to our extended families who were still in Bendigo and Heathcote. Our original intention was to buy a little block but we ended up with more than we were looking for. We both went off to TAFE and did courses on establishing a cool climate vineyard. Up until then, our knowledge of wine was visiting the Barossa and Margaret River wine regions and enjoying several Rutherglen Walkabouts. Gerry’s dad was a teetotaller, so there was no family background in wine.
“Ian Rathgen from Whistling Eagle was the first to plant grapes up this end of the region, and we were the second. We purchased what had been a wheat-cropping farm in 1997. We planted in 1998 after we set up the irrigation infrastructure, which included a two kilometre private pipeline and a five megalitre holding dam. We were also involved in the defining and establishment of the Heathcote Wine Region.
“Most of the work was done by family and friends and we also used some local labour. We did a lot of ‘emu-bobbing,’ clearing rocks from the vineyard. Being in the building industry was a benefit as Gerry had good friends who helped out. We worked in Melbourne throughout the development, and would come up on Thursdays after work.
“Four months after we started work on the property there was a knock at the door and Don Risstrom introduced himself and said, ‘Have you got a job for me?’ Don has managed their property ever since. He had completed an agriculture course at Dookie in 1971 and has now completed a Diploma in Wine Technology and Viticulture at Dookie, a course he found helpful. “It complemented my practical work here and gave me a better understanding of why we were doing what we were doing,” says Don. “I learned the terminology and gained a better understanding of winemaking equipment. Several of the graduates from my 1971 agricultural course are now in viticulture.
“The best thing about the study was that I’ve built up a network of colleagues and we continue to learn from each other. It’s useful when winemakers and viticulturalists interact. It gives the vineyard manager a better understanding of what the winemaker wants.
“Our first harvest was too small for Southcorp to take,” says Gerry, “but we’d heard about a winemaker, Peter Kelliher, and his Ada River label. He produces ranges of wines from Gippsland, Yarra Valley and Heathcote. Peter made our first wine in 1999 from our hand picked harvest. Our neighbour Ian Rathgen harvested our next few crops and then he gave me the best advice we’ve had. He encouraged us to buy our own harvester so that we could pick our crop at the perfect time.”
Lake Cooper Estate continued to develop its facilities. A hayshed was eventually converted to a winery, and their cellar door used to be an old barn. A new machinery shed also houses their office.
Lake Cooper still sells most of its grapes under contract. When the Southcorp contract finished Gerry faced his biggest challenge as a wine producer. “We had to go knocking on doors for two years until we signed up with McWilliams and we now have a great relationship with them,” he says. “They not only buy most of what we harvest, but they are very willing to share knowledge with us.”
Don agrees. “I’ve learned more from working with the McWilliams buyers than I could learn at any college,” he says, “and I do enjoy working with Gerry and Geraldine.” Don also assists Peter Kelliher with the winemaking process.
“We’d be lost without Don,” says Gerry. “Not only is he dedicated, but he got us through the very challenging 2011 season and turned what could have been a disaster into a good season. He helped us survive the floods and the humidity and kept diseases away from our vines.”
To celebrate the opening of their cellar door in 2005 they launched an annual “Day on the Hill ” event which takes place in a garden setting complete with rotunda. Community groups from Corop and Rochester and local produce suppliers join with Lake Cooper and enjoy the food, wine and family entertainment. The cellar door facilities are also available for functions.
$18.00 in any dozen
$20.00 per bottle
Out of stock
Deep crimson with purple hues, this wine shows plum and blackberry aromatics with a slight mocha background. A rich and concentrated flavour profile with traditional Heathcote plum and spice characters. The wine is aged in new and used American barrique barrels for 12 months prior to bottling and this allows the tannins to refine giving a silky finish with subtle toasty oak flavours.
$10.80 in any dozen
$12.00 per bottle
Out of stock
Made from 100% estate grown fruit the Chardonnay of 2012 has aromas and flavours of peach, stone fruit and melon. It has a backbone of crisp acid giving good length. A refreshing wine to be served with chicken, fish and pasta meals. Enjoy now!
Winemaker: Peter Kelliher