“When we started looking for land for our vineyard and winery,” says Mia Valley Estate’s winemaker Norbert Baumgartner, “Pam and I initially looked around Avoca near where she had grown up. But that was a two and a half hour drive each way from Melbourne, which would have been a challenge. I was still working in Melbourne during the week and needed to keep doing that til the vineyard and winery became established.
“The Heathcote region was emerging as a premier wine region, due to the efforts of Jasper Hill’s Ron Laughton, Wild Duck Creek’s David Anderson, and other Heathcote wine pioneers. Heathcote was closer to Melbourne, which was attractive in travel terms. Having completed several viticulture and winemaking courses I knew what I wanted. I approached a local land agent in Heathcote and gave him my requirements: a north-facing slope; good water catchment; forty or more acres; and specific soil types. Many weekends were spent going up and down the Northern Highway without finding the right property.
“Looking back it was interesting that the land agent focused on the Northern Highway which did not completely fit all my specifications. We finally found just what we were after at Mia Mia, which is about twenty kilometres south-west of Heathcote township, just off the Heathcote-Kyneton Road. The land has old volcanic soils, a clay base with a mixture of gravel, shale, and deep red soils. We can grow almost anything here providing we continue to have our yearly average rainfall.
“Just after we bought our one hundred acre property at Mia Mia, we encountered some of the severe weather that can happen here. One Saturday we set out marker posts, spread fertiliser, and prepared everything for the next day. That night there was a significant rain event which established that we did indeed have a good water catchment. Our ten megalitre dam half filled during the night.
“Unfortunately the rain also washed away the marker sticks we had carefully laid out. Large amounts of top soil and fertiliser were washed into the dam, it was a depressing sight. Mother Nature was also at work when a twister crossed the property, removing the hayshed roof, snapping posts in the vineyard, ripping off the nets, hanging them up trees and over fences.
“These were some lessons in farming for us. In a general sense everyone knows that you can’t control the weather, but in reality you see how easily nature can destroy your work. In the construction industry what you build today is still there tomorrow. But in farming everything you do today can be gone tomorrow. Fortunately the community here is extremely helpful. The morning after that deluge, a local identity, Graham Hyslop, responded to our call for help and built us a diversion bank around the vineyard.”
Norbert and Pam used to race catamarans, “where you learn to use the wind, not fight it, you work with the elements, not against them,” says Norbert. “That’s what we are learning to do here. We have had great vintages so far and been able to grow good fruit despite the wind, and have always had good berry set.”
Pam worked in the travel industry, travelling extensively through France, Italy and other parts of Europe where the wine culture was strong. Norbert, whose parents came from Austria, introduced him to wine at an early age. “Wine was something that both Pam and I enjoyed. We were looking for a new venture and couldn’t afford to buy a vineyard and winery, so we needed to build one.”
“Our two sons were ten and twelve when work at the property started,” says Pam. “I was working and we were heavily involved in sailing, water skiing and fishing. Building the vineyard put a hole in our social and sporting life, and effectively ended Norbert’s sailing days. The boys have seen the vineyard develop and learned about winemaking along the way. My dad, Doug Palmer, having been a farmer, also assisted us. Norbert has wonderful winemaker mentors, Peter, in Melbourne, and Helmut, a long term friend, who encouraged and tried to convince him of the potential of the Heathcote regions.”
Norbert’s secret to being a successful winemaker is, “to make the best wine you can, and then find the people who like the wine you make. I am not inclined to follow fashions in wine. I like powerful, elegant, rich wines, softened and protected by tannins, and allowed to spend time in the barrel. Heathcote wines have been criticised for the alcohol content but high alcohol can be hard to avoid in certain weather conditions. It’s all about balance. Recently I had a Virgin Hills 1981 wine. It was a rich wine, its alcohol content was just over eleven percent. It had been allowed to mature.
“In the ten years we have been here we have discovered that Mia Mia has a wonderful community spirit. It is a great community which, in many ways, is far better than in the suburbs of Melbourne. Everyone relies on everyone else and we have wonderful neighbours. For our first few harvests we used friends and family from Melbourne to help pick the grapes. For the past few years the members of the Heathcote Football and Netball Association have helped us during harvest, as a fund raising activity. This way we are able to help support a local club. Recently we joined the Mia Mia Rural Fire Brigade which is a key focus for the local community.”
Her years in the travel industry have given Pam insight into what visitors want. “I’d love to see the wineries get together with our own tasting centre in Heathcote. Marketing is a real challenge for the region, as well as for each winery. Part of my job now is to market our wines which we do mostly through our own mailing lists which we add to each year at the annual October Heathcote Wine and Food Festival. After people taste our wines at the festival, we ask if they would like to go on the mailing list so that we focus our marketing to the people who like our wines.
“We do have several retail outlets and we are on some restaurant wine lists. We have not spent much time on wine shows, awards and markets, but that is an area we will be looking at over the next few years. We went on a trade mission to Japan with fourteen other wineries from Australia in 2008. The first question they asked was ‘are you in Halliday?’ We probably need to be more proactive in our marketing.
“Plans are afoot to build a house and also a small accommodation cottage on the property,” says Pam, “but Norbert and I have been busy getting the vineyard and winery up to speed this year. In June this year Norbert had his second hip replacement. The parts for the Birmingham hip replacement are guaranteed for life, so we are hoping that he will be able to combine his old occupation of building construction with his new one as a winemaker.” The original shed Norbert constructed has already been converted into a winery and cool room.
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