In 1997, Gary and Cynthia Harbor bought their land from Ray and Joan Gilmore. It had been used for sheep, then cattle, grazing. The Harbor’s objective was to create a financially viable mixed farming business in a picturesque setting. The first three acres of vines were planted that same November. More vines went in 1998 and 2002. A small quantity of wine was made in 2000. The first commercial quantity was made in 2001.
A small herd of Murray Grey cattle and seventeen acres of olives make up the rest of the farming mix. Some dedicated locals assist in the vineyard and cellar door. They have done some creek revegetation with fencing and plantings to reduce erosion.
“We’ve had the cellar door operating for five years now,” says Gary. “We have built up a customer base of regulars who also bring their friends to visit us. We get referrals from the Visitor Information Centre in Heathcote, and group visits through Central Wine Tours. We enjoy good repeat business, with around twenty percent coming from Central Victoria, including Tooborac, Glenhope, Heathcote, and Bendigo. We have a distributor in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, which has been very useful.”
Their search for a suitable property started in 1996. They looked at many places including Heathcote, Geelong, Glenburn, Strath Creek and Kyneton. With children still in Melbourne schools, they had drawn a “one hour distance ” circle around the city when they started their search. “We ended up with one of the first places we had looked at,” says Gary.
“We thought it was out of our reach initially, but fortunately we were able to acquire a portion of the initial holding once we realised that there were six titles involved. We acquired two hundred and forty acres on five titles, and the remaining title was bought by someone who has become a very good neighbour to us.
“There was a substantial house on the property and some shedding. We’ve replaced some of the sheds, done some house renovations and landscaped the area around the house. We built a tasting centre that opens out on to a relaxing area, with a wood-fired pizza oven for entertaining.”
“We cater for small group bookings. One group has returned ten times. The wood-fired pizza oven is an attraction for those looking for a relaxed get-together, we’ve had as many as twenty four people,” says Cynthia. “We make the dough and feature our own olives and extra virgin olive oil.”
Gary and Cynthia are both still working full time in Melbourne. Cynthia teaches Italian in primary schools and Gary heads up the HR function in a government authority. “We have a goal of being here full time in a few years,” says Gary, “perhaps with one of us still working parttime, but the financial reality is that we cannot yet live off the farming businesses, even with cattle and olives to support the cash flow.”
In their first twelve years, there has been just one ‘normal’ year in terms of rainfall. “Water is the thing we lack, it takes much longer to establish productive vines when water is scarce. “We have a large dam but it has rarely been full,” he says.
Gary and Cynthia have a strong customer focus. “One thing we are particular about is our opening hours,” says Gary. “We are always open weekends and public holidays. If we are not available, we make sure someone is here to meet customers, we are very conscious of sticking to what we advertise.”
When asked what advice they would give to budding vignerons, Cynthia’s initial response is “Just don’t!” But that’s quickly followed by some sound advice from both the Harbors. “We went into the business knowing that there would be ten-year break-even if we were lucky.”
Gary believes that it is essential to bring some relevant skills to the business, and has completed a viticulture course.
“The skills needed to succeed include agriculture, viticulture, winemaking and marketing. You have to get the vineyard set up, grow the grapes, get water to the vines, and make the wine. But that’s not the end of it. A critical skill is to build your brand so that people buy the wine. You can buy expertise in any of these areas, but the business case is marginal without the extra cost of buying expertise. You really need to acquire the right skills if you want to succeed.”
Gary was the President of the Heathcote Winegrowers Association from 2001 to 2003. He considers the annual October Heathcote Wine & Food Festival a key asset for the wine region but believes that Heathcote winemakers also need to take their wares to other markets. “The New Zealand wine industry does this very well,” he says. “They enjoy great success with their roadshows. I’d like to see Heathcote winemakers do more roadshows. It’s great to have a local market here. We would not bother with a cellar door if there was no local market, but we also need to look at taking our product into other markets.”
Cellar Door opening hours
Weekends 10am – 5pm
$27.90 in any dozen
$31.00 per bottle
This Marsanne Viognier Roussanne is a classic French Rhone-style blend. Rich and generous, full of flavour, warm and persistent. The subtle oak treatment is well integrated. A clean, balanced finish for such an exotic full bodied style of wine. Very much a food style wine.
$36.00 in any dozen
$40.00 per bottle
The McIvor Shiraz has silky, ripe, brambly fruits, supported by firm, fine tannins with hints of French oak. It shows an elegant minerality and tight acidity and lovely texture. Overall, it is fleshy, generous and well balanced. Whilst just a baby at the moment with the appropriate amount of cellaring for it to further integrate and soften, it will be a really delicious drink in three to five years time.