The McIvor Creek Wines vineyard was planted by John Hodgcroft and Alan Gould in 1973 and purchased by Robyn and Peter Turley in 1985. Both Robyn and Peter were born in Adelaide. “Peter had wine in his blood,” explains Robyn. “His mother is a McWilliam. My introduction to wine was as a consumer.”
After finishing school Peter went to Roseworthy College in Adelaide to study agriculture and oenology while Robyn joined the South Australian Public Service. When Peter finished his course he went to work at the McWilliam’s Beelbangera Winery near Griffith in NSW, and later moved to Rossetto Wines ( now Beelgara Estate ) and on to San Bernardino’s Wines (later absorbed into de Bortoli Wines).
Robyn worked as the Cellar Door manager at San Bernardino. “In 1985 we saw a ‘For Sale’ advertisement for McIvor Creek Wines in a NSW newspaper. “We took a trip to Heathcote to check it out. When we arrived in town we went to one of the pubs for a meal and asked what local wines they served. We were surprised to find that they served no local wines.
“At that time there were only a few wineries in and around Heathcote: Jasper Hill; Zuber; Huntleigh; and Heathcote Winery. I can remember saying to Peter, ‘If we buy here, I’m going to try and get the local pubs to sell local wines.’ It is gratifying to see our wines, along with other local wines, on sale at places like the Tooborac Hotel, the Union and Commercial Hotels, and also at the local IGA supermarket.”
The property still has the sixteen acres of vines that were planted back in 1973. “Water issues prevented us from expanding the area under vines,” says Robyn. “When we first came here Peter looked after the vines and made the wine, while I looked after marketing and the cellar door. There was quite a bit of travelling for me, but I love the wine business and enjoyed the work.
“In the late 1980s there was a recession and it became much more difficult to sell wine. We looked at what else we could do to survive. Some farmers diversify into other crops or stock but we decided to diversify into food manufacturing, using our wine as part of the food recipes.
“A key figure in this decision was the late Harold Baigent, well-known actor, art and theatre critic. Not only was Harold instrumental in establishing the Heathcote Art Show but he gave us a recipe for wine mustard which we made and sold. It immediately became a cellar door hit and that encouraged us to explore making other food products and led to setting up Dalhousie Fine Foods.
“The name Dalhousie seemed appropriate as Dalhousie County is where we are located. Dalhousie is one of the thirty seven counties that make up the cadastral map of Victoria. This county is bordered by the Coliban River to the west, the Goulburn River to the north east, Puckapunyal to the north and Kilmore and Woodend to the south.”
In the early days Robyn discovered that the liquor industry could get tough with new entrants. “We produced and sold a product that was not strictly ‘wine’- it was our very popular Argyll Cream. It was a product similar to Baileys Irish Cream but instead of whisky, it had a wine base, making it a more economical product. There are now several of these products on the market.
“Argyll Cream was very popular with our customers. However, the Scotch Whisky Association sued us for using the name ‘Argyll’ and also for having a Scottish Thistle on our label. The area of Argyll is mapped on the corner of the Northern Highway and Nagambie Road, hence we used the name, and Scottish Thistles grow like weeds here. But we couldn’t compete with the finances they had available. They sent two barristers from Scotland for the case. We had to give in to them.”
Robyn’s role evolved from marketing the wines and managing the cellar door, to sourcing and making the food products, and marketing McIvor Creek Wines along with a growing number of Dalhousie Fine Food products. “We started by using our wine in products like Port & Clove Jelly, Prunes in Port and Wine Mustard. We now have a very large range of jams, marmalades, mustards, sweet and savoury sauces, and liqueur fruits. Cellar door visitors are delighted to discover the Dalhousie products as well as the wines, and they enjoy our unusual stone building with its tree centrepiece.”
McIvor Creek Wines sits on top of a ridge with panoramic views across both the Campaspe and Goulburn Valleys. An unusual feature is the cellar door’s stone construction with a large, still-growing, ninety year old red box tree, in the middle of the building. Many buildings have tree trunks as support beams, but few have a healthy large growing tree in the middle of the building.
Dalhousie Fine Foods grew and prospered. In 1996 the successful diversification into food products won Robyn the Commonwealth Bank’s Victorian Farm Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Dalhousie products are stocked by local outlets as well as major chains in Australia and overseas.
“Major customers include David Jones and Myer, with growing sales across Asia, especially in Japan, but also in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Production is now over a million jars a year. We do contract manufacturing for other labels, including Japanese branded labels. My biggest challenge is keeping up the stock of raw materials, most of which I source through wholesale markets in Melbourne.
“Our Japanese customers led us into our organic range. Being certified organic makes some business more complex. For example, there’s a very strict paper trail that tracks the products from growing to packaging, strictly audited annually at some cost to us. One of our products is certified organic honey, sourced from the native forests of the National Parks along the Great Dividing Range of South Eastern Australia. Organic bee-keepers need to find pollution-free and fresh areas, clear from herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilisers, to place their beehives. That’s extremely difficult and not available in most areas of the world. The quality and purity of the honey is guaranteed by the location of the hives, the extraction process, and the control and treatment of the beehives.”
Apart from the move into organics, Dalhousie uses solar power through the installation of a grid interactive photovoltaic system and Robyn drives a hybrid petrol-electric motor vehicle. “As the Dalhousie business expanded we diverted our resources, including capital equipment, to that product and it overtook the wine as our main business division. But I still love the wine business, it remains my passion,” says Robyn. “We now buy most of the grapes for our wines, principally from Graham Ainsworth, and we have our wine made at BRIT in Bendigo.”
Robyn now manages both businesses, supported by four full-time staff and a number of casuals who come in during the packing season. “Our busiest time is July through August,” she says, “but I work hard at making some time to relax. In the past two years I’ve managed to fit in three cruises, one of which was very special as my father came on the cruise with me.”
Her two sons have chosen careers that reflect the family business. Brenden is a qualified chef, while Martin is currently Robyn’s production manager. “Martin is about to start a course in agriculture and winemaking,” she says. “It would be wonderful if he remains involved with the family business. I’d love that.”