Neither Graeme nor Jo Millard grew up in households where wine drinking was common. “It was water skiing and property development, rather than wine, which initially brought us to the Heathcote region. We both developed a passion for red wine later in life,” says Jo.
Graeme grew up on a dairy farm in Gippsland, before taking on boilermaking as a trade. “For major celebrations my family would indulge in a shandy. Up til I was twenty one, I had never tasted wine. Then I had a glass of cabernet sauvignon and there’s been no looking back. As a boilermaker, I had the opportunity to travel around Australia and sample wines from various regions. I lived in Western Australia for some years where I worked offshore, flying to and from work daily by helicopter. Later I was working and managing the construction of large projects such as the Esperance Wheat and Grain Silos. Scuba diving took up some of my leisure time. Alcohol, scuba diving and the work I had chosen, definitely don’t mix.”
In Jo’s family there was also no wine presence. The family lived in Mooroopna before moving to Eltham. “I had a wonderful childhood there,” she says. “It was a perfect place for a tomboy to grow up. As a child I swam in the local creek, raided orchards, and was never bored. In my early twenties we moved to Greensborough where I met Graeme. Most of my professional life has been in health services in areas such as psychiatric services, intellectual disability and acute care.
“We chose Heathcote as a great place to build our retirement property. Graeme’s initial plan was to farm yabbies. I started working at Bendigo Hospital while Graeme developed the farm.” “We had no intention of planting vines or making wine,” says Graeme. “One day a local arrived at our place and asked if I’d like to help him do some pruning. I came back that evening and said to Jo, ‘We’ve got to plant some vines, that was the best day I’ve had in a long time.’ I was learning about managing vines and vineyards and then I was offered some vines to take home and plant. The yabby farm plan immediately gave way to a vineyard plan.”
Graeme started work on the vineyard while Jo continued in full time employment at Bendigo Hospital. “Our intention was to grow and sell grapes to winemakers. Our first wine cheque, from Heathcote Winery, was $120. We framed a copy of that cheque and still have it. Whenever we sold grapes to winemakers we followed our own small batch through the winemaking process and learned from the winemakers,” he says.
Around this time Jo rediscovered her palate. She contributes this to her years of eating shiraz grapes as a preferred fruit. Graeme did a winemaking course at BRIT, along with other emerging winemakers in the region. “We partied with these other winemakers, had blind tastings, and learned a lot from each other,” says Graeme. “We were being offered very good prices for our grapes. It was never a conscious decision to become wine producers. But, by 2002, we realised that was what we wanted to do. Our first vintage was in 2003. We were delighted that our first wine won a national medal and best wine at the Daylesford Wine Show.”
“We know there’s always more to learn and we’ve both completed some excellent courses. A particularly good one was a 3-month course run by a pharmacist turned winemaker at Northern Metropolitan Institute of Technology,” says Jo. “Whatever industry you are in, there’s a need to look for opportunities to learn more.”
Graeme and Jo lived in Melbourne and stayed weekends in a shed on their Heathcote property. In the early days, water skiing took up a lot of their weekends. Any spare time was spent collecting local rocks to build their home. The now-completed stone house and cellar door are set in a picturesque dry garden. Ironbark posts provide supports for a vine clad outdoor area. “Cellar door visitors are often as interested in the house as in the wines they come to taste,” says Jo. “I inherited a love of gardening from my mother.”
By 1997, Jo had resigned from full-time employment although she continued to do consulting assignments. She has had a long involvement with the Heathcote Winegrowers Association and served as its President for a number of years. She has been involved in the annual October Wine and Food Festival in various capacities since its inception.
Jo sees a need for the Heathcote winemakers to promote the region. “We need to educate wine writers and critics,” she says. “Our region may be well known in Victoria, but we need to promote it across Australia.”
In addition to producing wine from their own grapes, Graeme and Jo sought other opportunities for wine production. “We wanted to make a white wine,” says Jo. “We bought marsanne grapes from Mount Burrumboot. Wes Vine of Mandurang Valley made the wine. It is a good experience working with other winemakers. This already happens with subsets of the region’s winemakers, but there’s real strength in those wine regions where everyone is seeking to promote the quality of the region, as well as their own products.”
Jo and Graeme work closely with a selected number of retail outlets and quality restaurants. “We get calls from people, including wine journalists, who have had our wine in a restaurant and they want to come and visit. Some of the wine journalists have followed up with a story on us in wine and food magazines,” says Jo, “and that leads to cellar door visits and an increase in outlets. An event such as the Restaurant 08 Trade Show was of real value to us in finding quality outlets for our wines. Managing the relationship with these outlets is a necessary, and very pleasant, part of our work.”
Both Graeme and Jo agree on the advice they would give to keen young potential winemakers. “That’s easy,” says Graeme. “Don’t give up your day job, be very sure about the style of wine that you want to produce, and don’t grow anything unless you have a passion for it. There are a lot of people out there with varying needs. The real challenge for us is to find the people who are seeking the type of wine that we are passionate about.
“We learned a very useful lesson at one course we did. It was the dinner at the end of the course and our course leader told us that there are two important things to decide about your wines. The first is to decide how much you are prepared to give away. There’s a plethora of good causes out there and you get a lot of requests for donations of wine. The second thing was that people who come to your cellar door need a story to go away with, not just cartons of wine. Our story about building our stone house and cellar door, plus our well-maintained native dry garden, is such a story.”
Cellar Door opening hours
Weekends 11am – 5pm