Phil Meehan and his wife Jude opened their cellar door at the Meehan Vineyard in 2011. It is on the McIvor Highway, just past the intersection with the Northern Highway.
Phil recalls his first winery visit soon after he turned eighteen. “My elder brother and his friends enjoyed collecting wine and I started visiting wineries with them. It was through interaction with winemakers at their cellar doors that I began to learn about good wine,” says Phil. “My collection of quality wine grew to occupy one of the two bedrooms in my flat. At one time I calculated that if I drank two bottles of wine each week, my collection would last ten years.”
Phil had studied marketing and advertising at RMIT. He then joined the family business as a camera operator and plate maker. The business was established when his grandfather bought the South Melbourne local newspaper, The Record, and a commercial printing business in 1896.
Jude and Phil met when a friend convinced her to attend the annual T & G Staff Ball even though she had recently left her clerical job at T & G Insurance to start nursing training. “Phil was my blind date for that evening thirty six years ago. We’ve been together ever since. I knew nothing about wine, I’d had no more than one or two alcoholic drinks, but after meeting Phil I learned quickly.”
Phil and Jude set out on a new business venture in 1985. “We had three young children and we bought a ski rental shop at Mount Buller, above the snow line,” says Phil. “During winter the kids would ski to school. For four months of the year we worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, great training for operating a vineyard and winery!”
Jude had left her nursing job in Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital operating theatre when the infamous nursing strike occurred. “I was really upset about the strike,” she says. “It caused massive disruption to patients. I called the Mercy Hospital where I had worked as a specialist operating theatre nurse and went back to work there for three days a week. I continued nursing during the summer months, three days a week while Phil looked after the kids.”
“We were at Mt Buller for seven great years but when the kids reached secondary school age we moved back to Melbourne,” says Phil. “My wine collection was still growing and I discovered that wine could be a good investment. We sold my Grange Hermitage collection and that funded three kids through private schools for a year.”
When their children finished secondary school, Phil and Jude decided they wanted to return to country living. “Initially we thought we’d find a weekender but we needed to be able to generate some income from whatever we invested in. We were not keen on animals, so that left horticulture. Phil was a keen rower so we looked around Nagambie where they were developing the international standard rowing course. We considered running a B & B in that area,” says Jude.
Phil enrolled in a horticulture course at Burnley Horticultural College but the course was over enrolled. However, there was room for him in a viticulture course. “I was not exactly sure what viticulture was,” says Phil, “but it sounded interesting, so I enrolled in a Certificate IV in Viticulture and I found out what it was all about on the first day of the course.
“I was hooked after a year of part-time study and, six years later, I had a Diploma in Vineyard Management and a Diploma in Winemaking. Jude was still nursing and I was engaged in contract business consulting, specialising in business improvement. We started looking for land to grow grapes. We looked in Heathcote, Yarra Valley, Geelong, Bellarine Peninsula, and just when we were getting tired of looking, we returned to Heathcote and looked again at this property.
“I did research on the soil, discovered the property was on a band of Cambrian soil, analysed the Met Bureau rainfall and temperature data. There was a house, the property was larger than we’d planned and was zoned Residential 1. There were no existing vines to be renovated. It was on a gentle northeast facing slope. These were all good signs, so we bought it in 2003.
“The plan was to grow fruit and sell it to generate some income. I was still studying vineyard management. As I learned more I realised that it was not really viable to just grow fruit, we needed to also add value. I went on to study winemaking, and we started planting our first vines. What was not in our plan was a long period of drought. We lost eighteen hundred of the first two and a half thousand vines we planted. We replaced those with poorly sourced vines and lost many of those. As we still needed to generate income we bought some fruit to make wine, sourcing small quantities from other vineyards matched to the fruit we were producing ourselves.
“We were lucky to discover Chris Gillies and John Williams had planted at Rupert’s Ridge in Redesdale. We had known Chris from our days at Buller and we bought some of their 2006 fruit. Our first commercial quantity of wine was the 2008 vintage, bottled in August 2010.
“The biggest hurdle we’ve faced is managing the lag between investment and having product to sell. You have to forgo quite a lot during the set-up time. Maintaining work/life balance when you have daily challenges to face is a testing time.
“Marketing our wine remains the critical issue for individual wineries, as well as for the region. I’ve been to a wine event in Melbourne where no one in a room with one hundred and twenty wine enthusiasts knew where Heathcote was.”
While Phil has been making wine and dealing with the vineyard, Jude deals with quite different challenges. “In 1996 I worked with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons on an AUSAID program which takes teams of specialist surgeons to areas in the Pacific region. Each team has a surgeon, an anaesthetist, an operating theatre nurse and other medical specialists as required. Ear, nose, and throat specialists are in demand, and that’s my area of expertise.
“I organised all the surgical equipment they needed for trips, each project was completely self-contained. We took with us all the equipment needed for each specialist team to do surgical work in environments very different from their normal working environments. We fly in one Saturday and fly out the next, taking all the equipment with us, but leaving behind the consumables.
“Many of the local nurses have little or no training. On one trip to Timor Leste, we were confronted with nearly four hundred people in one week. We’ve operated in places with intermittent power and no clean water. We’ve had days when we have to go down to the local dive shop to get air for our anaesthetic equipment as no oxygen was available at the hospital. Some specialists find the conditions too difficult. They find it too far outside their comfort zone.
“The work is frustrating, heartbreaking, and hugely rewarding. I feel privileged to be able to participate in such work. If I was younger, I’d do more of it. I still do some trips when I can. I’ve been to Timor four times. I was in Tuvalu when there was a king tide. They told us not to leave anything on the Hotel room floor. I woke up to see my things floating on two inches of seawater in my bedroom.” Jude currently works one day a week in Melbourne for an orthopaedic surgeon, and four days a week in a Bendigo Day Surgery.
Given her experience with the AUSAID program you get the impression that there’s not much that would stress Jude. “My challenge with the wine business is learning patience with the vineyard. It’s hard work but that’s not the problem. It’s all the things you can’t predict, that you can’t control.”
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