In 1999, Andrew Branson, a third generation Colbinabbin broadacre farmer, and his wife Cathy, decided to add grapes to their farming mix of cereals, peas, fat lambs, hay and straw.
In 1905 Andrew’s grandfather had arrived in the area to work on the Waranga-Mallee irrigation channel that now runs through their property. The family farm, then named ‘Donore,’ was changed to ‘Mount Burrumboot Estate.’ Burrumboot means ‘big hill near fresh water lake.’ Mount Burrumboot, part of the Mount Camel range above Colbinnabin, is the big hill almost opposite the winery. The fresh water lake is Lake Cooper, which good rains in 2010 and 2011 filled with welcome fresh water.
When Andrew’s father, Harry Branson, married Cynthia Taylor, adjacent farms were linked by marriage. “My father really did marry the girl next door,” says Andrew. “They had known each other since they attended the Burrumboot School which, along with many of the small rural schools of that time, no longer exists.”
Andrew attended school in Colbinabbin, then boarding school in Melbourne. He and Cathy were married in 1993. “We’ve known each other since we were about five years old,” says Cathy, who grew up in Melbourne before spending several years in Lake Bolac. “Our families used to holiday at Erskine House in Lorne. We spent family holidays together over the years.”
“Our farm was very productive,” says Andrew. “When we decided to add grapes to our farming mix the big wine players such as Fosters had already started moving into the area. When land prices soared from around $ 1,000 an acre to something like $ 6,000 an acre, we couldn’t afford to buy more land.”
“Andrew approached grape growing from the perspective of a broadacre farmer,” says Cathy. “We know our soil, and we know how to grow things here. We already had many of the capital items, such as irrigation and water, tractors and other equipment, needed to set up a vineyard. We know how to prepare the soil, plant and harvest. It was a pretty easy decision to set up the first twenty acres of vines. Our original plan was to grow the produce and send it off on trucks, like we do with other farm produce.”
Cathy enrolled in a viticulture course in Bendigo and the family, including three daughters, marked out the post positions, measured and planned, dug the postholes, and established the first twenty acres. There are now fifty acres of vines. “When we put our first vines in,” says Andrew, “the whole agricultural sector was a lot more buoyant and we could afford more staff. The Australian dollar was lower and it was easier to sell produce overseas. Things are a lot tighter now, we have to do more things ourselves. Having made the initial investment in the vineyard and the winery we now have to make it work.”
Making it work means a lot of effort goes into marketing their products. This includes their own wine sales to restaurants and other wine outlets, their own cellar door sales, and grapes they sell to other wineries. “Developing and maintaining relationships with our customers, and acquiring new customers is an ongoing challenge,” says Cathy. “Our grapes can be found in wines from several wine regions including Goulburn Valley, Bendigo, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Griffith, just to name a few. Trentham Estate winery, on the banks of the Murray River near Mildura, is one of several wineries producing a Heathcote shiraz from our grapes.”
The 2005 Trentham Estate Heathcote Shiraz took out the Best Shiraz in the World Trophy at the 2008 International Wine and Spirits Fair in London. It won the trophy against an enormous field which included the best and most iconic shiraz and syrahs in the world, illustrating the quality and depth of Heathcote grapes.
Has the diversification into grapes been worthwhile? “We grow our own produce, including meat, vegies and cheese. And now we grow our own grapes and make our own wine. How good is that?” asks Cathy. “We have couples who were drinking our wine when they met, got engaged while drinking our wine, and had our wine at their wedding. We’ve produced a product that helps people celebrate important events in their lives. At home I love cooking and preparing beautiful food. Finding that we’ve produced really good wine to go with it is exciting.
“At times it is really rewarding, such as the change of vintage when we discover that the new vintage has turned out really well. However, we’ve increased our workload because we are now busy with the vines and the wine during what used to be our farming downtime. With grape growing and winemaking there can be a sudden urgency that happens less often in other farming activities. There’s many things that have to be done right NOW. For example I am about to go off on a long-planned roadshow just when the vines need spraying, so Andrew has to defer other farm work to do the vine spraying.
“Trying to juggle the time to give the vineyard the attention it needs as well as all the other farming activities gives us little relaxing time. February and March used to be our quiet time but now we are really busy with harvest in those months. We try and find time to relax in the June / July months. We’ve travelled to Peru, Chile, Thailand, Spain, France, Portugal, Scotland, New Zealand, New Caledonia. There are lots of other places we want to see.”
Cathy was involved in Heathcote Winegrowers Association (HWA) for several years and was one of the early organisers of the Heathcote Wine and Food Festival. “Since the appointment of our first Executive Officer, Henry Screen, we’ve seen more progress. He has initiated events such as Heathcote region roadshows in Sydney and Brisbane. These help to spread the Heathcote wine region success stories. The October Wine and Food Festival is going from strength to strength.”
What advice do Andrew and Cathy have for budding wine producers? Andrew’s advice is to “start really small. It is an enormous commitment of time and finances to start out from scratch.” Cathy’s advice is, “do your homework very carefully. Lots of people have a romantic notion of what it is all about. They see it through rose tinted glasses, as a rural idyll that gives them a place to escape the stresses of city life.”
She agrees with Andrew about starting small. “With hindsight we could have kept it smaller, perhaps our initial twenty acres was enough,” she says. “On the other hand we’d have missed a lot of experiences if we’d kept it small. Over the years our grape picking casuals have included a defrocked principal of a large private school, a dwarf, and a very hungover lad who lay down under the vines all day and slept.”