When Wes and Pamela Vine first planted vines at their property nine kilometres south east of Bendigo, they had no intention of running a commercial operation. “We bought the land here in 1972 when I was teaching secondary school,” says Wes. “Selecting a spot to purchase land for what was planned as a hobby farm was somewhat random. We had both spent time in Ballarat and we found it too cold, so we settled on Bendigo instead. We planted our first vines in 1976, our second vineyard in 1978 and made our first wine in 1980. We were soon producing 1,000 bottles a year. We realised that we could not drink it all.”
Wes’ family ran a wheat and sheep farm near Ouyen. Pamela’s father was a bank manager who moved around Victoria, ending up in Melbourne as a bank auditor. Following school, she applied to do a teaching course in Ballarat where she met fellow student, Wes. “He was a farm boy at college,” says Pamela, “and farm boys had cars. Wes got to ferry other students around in his car, and I was one of his regular passengers. I remember him borrowing a skirt from me to wear in the College Review one year.”
As well as his teaching qualifications, Wes has a Diploma of Agriculture and a Bachelor of Science. He taught secondary school science from 1967 to 1986, followed by twelve years as Principal of the Eaglehawk Secondary College. He retired from full-time teaching in 1999 to focus on wine production.
Pamela also has many qualifications. She was a primary teacher for thirty-six years. When she applied to do a Bachelor of Arts in Education it was twenty years since she had been a student. There was some reluctance to accept her enrolment but one supportive lecturer encouraged her to bring in some of her work. “I laid the art pieces on the floor of his office,” she says, “and a group of people stood around and discussed it. After much deliberation they decided I could enrol. The lecturer reported, ‘they will let you in, but I’m responsible for you, so don’t let me down,’ so I topped the course.” Pamela then completed a Graduate Diploma in Social Science, majoring in Indonesian, in 1994. As a part of the course she spent two months studying in Indonesia while Wes and their son Steve stayed in Australia.
Steve is now a musician, Head of Music at Girton Grammar in Bendigo, and married to a musician, Jacqui, who is a professional trumpeter. Steve and Jacqui live at, and manage, the vineyard. Wes and Pamela manage the winery and cellar door. Pamela, a cancer survivor, still has a lengthy bucket list. “I want to learn more musical instruments,” she says, “I play the cello and the piano accordion but I’d like to learn more.” Wes’response to this is, “anything but bagpipes !” Pamela painted during her chemotherapy treatment, which she believes helped the healing process. “We also had bookings for Christmas functions during that time,” she says, “so I tried to keep working in the kitchen. It was good to have support from Steve and Jacqui.”
A third generation of wine producing vines is a possibility. “Steve and Jacqui have two sons,” says Wes. “Tristan and Oliver help their parents in the vineyard and are developing good palates. We used to have special dinners every Saturday night when Steve was young. He had his own special small wine glass so he could try some wine. Tristan is already exploring the tastes of different grapes. When he was about two he could pick a pinot from other grapes,” says Wes, with grandfatherly pride. Oliver is a budding chef and supplies the cellar door and cafe with his classic orange cake.
Wes and Pamela’s interest in wine started in the 70s. “Wine consumption was becoming ‘fashionable’ then,” says Wes. “I was working part time at the Curriculum and Research Branch in Melbourne for five years, and studying part time for my science degree. We started a wine collection. I rode a motorbike, and at nights we’d trawl through old pubs looking for Grange to purchase. I guess you could say that we drank our way through the 70s, starting from the top. We took to red wine straight away. I understood the science of winemaking, but we never had a long term plan to become wine producers.
“In 1989, when we realised we could not drink all the wine we were producing, we decided to have a one day sale. We purchased a special licence and managed to sell all the wine we had produced, with favourable comments from the buyers. So we said, ‘it all looks good, let’s go commercial,’ and we entered into a partnership with another family to build a winery. The winery was ready in 1994 when I was still working full time. We opened on Sundays only initially. We renovated our carport to give us space for a cafe and have been providing food since 2001. As the number of visitors increased, we needed to build an extension so we could cater for groups of up to 60 visitors. We attract return visitors for anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations.”
Mandurang Valley Wines has become the venue for the Red Geranium Christmas Sale Day in early December each year. Over 2,500 people attend this sale, a fund raiser for a different charity, or charities. “We have music through the day, and traffic controllers, it is a big day,” says Pamela. “All the produce is home grown and home made. We have fresh produce such as Christmas puddings, mince tarts, jams, chutneys, sauces, herbs, fruit trees, and plants, all from back yard gardens. Our large red truck laden with plants is always popular. Return visitors know to bring a large bag to take home a range of produce for themselves, or for Christmas gifts.
“The lead up to Christmas is always busy with Christmas parties. We use casual staff for larger functions, but I am involved in all the food preparation and much of the cooking. We also do four special wine dinners each year, limited to around 40 people, where we match older wines with younger ones. We bring in special chefs for those.”
“Our biggest challenge is marketing,” says Wes. “The rapid growth in the number of wineries has increased competition. The rise in the Australian dollar has discouraged export orders. We’ve been selling to China since 2007, and the exchange rate with China has not moved so dramatically. We work with China in two ways. We sell our own wine to China and I also act on behalf of other wine sellers. Chinese buyers want a portfolio of products and they want different price points, so we became an agent for other wine producers who add that balance to our products. We now have a trusted relationship, which is important to our Chinese buyers as well as to us. Our China sales have strengthened our business.
“Bendigo’s wine industry has a complicated story. Stuart Anderson at Balgownie led a resurgence in 1969, followed by Chateau Leamon in 1973. Bendigo wine became highly regarded in a short time. Once a reputation is established, you get some of the bigger players in the industry, attracted by successful labels, coming along and taking over a major brand. They don’t necessarily invest in maintaining the quality that developed the reputation, and long-term customers go elsewhere. As new regions develop their own brand recognition, competition in the marketplace grows more challenging.”
Wes has been President of the Bendigo Winegrowers Association for five of the past ten years. “I have gained from relationships with other winemakers. We provide constructive feedback to each other. I keep up to date with winemaking techniques and have travelled extensively in both Australia and Europe. This furthers my knowledge, I learn from others and we share our experiences. I also do some contract winemaking for three or four other labels and some non-commercial growers.
“I still love to work in the vineyard, there’s a wonderful peace and quiet when no one else is around. It was particularly good to spend some time there after a hard day as a school principal. Winemaking still feels like a hobby to me, the winery is my laboratory. It is a good life. The grandkids are now old enough to take an interest and that adds a new dimension.”
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