Paul Osicka Wines was established in 1955. The vineyard and winery are located on Majors Creek near Graytown, in the eastern part of the Heathcote wine region. The vineyard is one of the oldest in the region and is grown on red quartz and ironstone. At the time of planting it was the first new winemaking enterprise started in Victoria for over fifty years.
Paul Osicka Snr. arrived in Australia with his wife Rosalie and their two small children, Paul and Joy. Paul Snr, whose family had a long tradition of making wine, had owned a successful winery in Czechoslovakia before World War II. As a child he had helped his grandfather and father make wine before attending a specialist agricultural / horticultural school in Velke Bilovice for two years.
Before his death in 1984, Paul Snr wrote down some of his personal history: “We spent half a day in the classroom and half a day outside, in the vineyards, in the cellar, or at the wine presses, depending on the season,” he wrote. He then spent six years working in various research and viticulture areas before establishing his own business. He had vineyards and cellars in Southern Moravia, and sales offices and warehouses in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia. He wrote, “the year was 1933, the beginning of the end of the depression, but competition was tough.”
As well as growing and developing his own wines, he imported wine from Italy, Yugoslavia and Algiers. His successful wine business, employing fifty people, was recognised for its innovation and modern methods. The Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, though relief did not necessarily come with its liberation by the Russians in 1945. He wrote of the last days of the war, “One army was in retreat, another one was advancing, and the end of the war was imminent. Tanks rolled over villages as well as vineyards, soldiers burst into the cellars, fired volleys of sub-machine gun shots into whole rows of barrels, drank as much as they could, and moved on. Thousands of litres of wine flowed on to the ground. All I could do was just stand and watch and count myself lucky that I had survived.”
Paul Snr. was back in business after less than three years. In 1948, the communist leaders took power in Czechoslovakia. Paul Snr’s business was nationalised and he received a tip from a friend in the police that he was about to be arrested and sent to a labour camp. Paul Snr. escaped Czechoslavakia and several months later he was able to arrange for his wife, Rosalie, with their two infant children, to be smuggled across the border to join him in Austria. In 1951 the family arrived in Australia by ship. After three months in a refugee camp at Albury they settled in Melbourne.
Prior to World War II, Rosalie worked in the fashion industry in Czechoslovakia, as a quality examiner. When she and Paul Snr. arrived in Australia with their two young children, they had nothing at all, no money, no land, and few possessions. In Melbourne Rosalie worked as a dressmaker whilst bringing up her children and Paul Snr. started again to build a wine business, this time in Australia. Now in her eighties, Rosalie is a wonderful example of European elegance.
Rosalie can recall their first visit to Heathcote. “We came from Melbourne to visit a priest who was living at Heathcote and he took us for a drive. We visited the Segafredo vineyard near Graytown ( planted in 1891 ) and my husband saw that the land was suitable for vines. We bought our land on the other side of the creek to that old vineyard. There was nothing at all here, no electricity, but the land where we planned to plant a vineyard had been cleared.”
Rosalie’s son Paul has been the winemaker for the winery for over thirty five years and is well versed in the history of the region. “Dad used cuttings from the Segafredo vineyard, originally planted by Baptista Governa. In the 1890s there was sly grog selling of wine to woodcutters and miners. Apparently Governa Baptista had a barrel on the back of a dray with a siphon attached to it. He charged threepence for a suck of wine, a suck being measured by Governa pinching the hose after threepence worth, with some customers going blue in the face as they tried to get more wine. He was ‘taking the wine to the customer, not running a sly grog shop,’ as he once told the Magistrate.”
The region started to grow as more immigrants wanted to plant vineyards. “People shared knowledge and resources. Our industry is very special in that way. This included Albi Zuber, Bruno Pangrazio, Vern Viertmann, and Frank Zenetti who married a Segafredo and started a vineyard down the road,” Paul recalls. “In the early days some of the people that came here to start vineyards took cuttings from our vineyard to plant their own vines. Some also purchased grapes and bulk wine off us to start their brands while their vineyards were being established.”
Paul initially had worked as a jeweller in Melbourne, coming to help his father in the vineyard on weekends. He questioned why he was working in the city and joined the family business full time in the early 1970s. Paul remembers the early days with a hand-operated crusher, a bronze pump with a wooden handle also powered by hand, and the harvests with a group of friends from Melbourne and very large cauldrons of spaghetti. The two Pauls gradually developed the winery and temperature-controlled cellars. The imposing structure is built from handmade bricks recovered from the Seymour railway building.
“In the early 1970s, we paid $ 500 for 80,000 second hand bricks. It cost a lot more to get them on-site,” says Paul. “Coming from Europe, Dad was aware of the need for temperature control. The structure was built in brick and concrete, built into slopes, and provided a stable temperature for more than one hundred thousand bottles, plus casks, bottling space, and wine tasting facilities. The flat roof of the cellar is covered with straw to aid insulation. Paul Snr. wrote of the cellars built into the hill: “Nature’s way – they call it ecology these days but there is really nothing new to it.” Recently a new cellar door area has been built including a rotunda and a brick wood fired oven, with Paul doing the majority of the work on this.
“Our first vintages, from 1960, bottled by Crittendens in Melbourne, were mostly sold to friends. Our first Osicka label was in the mid-60s.” The US-based Rydge’s magazine, in 1977, described Paul Osicka’s 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the ten best wines in Australia: “After seven years, this magnificent wine appears like a two year old and still needs about 48 hours of gentle airing, or a vigorous cross decanting to appreciate what it may be like in 15 years time. The wine is a true giant: forcefully elegant, yet austere… the finest impression this Osicka red leaves you with is its old fashioned honest style.” While the winery no longer exhibits its wine in wine shows it had considerable success in the 1970s and 1980s, including wining the trophy for best vintage port at the Rutherglen Wine Show for three consecutive years.
Rosalie recalls her first impressions of Australia. “I thought I was on another planet. I could not speak the language, and wished that I could communicate better. I had come from a place with quite different food, and a lot of variety in food. There was not much variety here, but it was my new home and I loved it.” While the vineyard was being developed, Rosalie worked as a dressmaker in Melbourne. As the winery and cellar door facilities developed Rosalie worked in the cellar door. “I loved the cellar door,” she says, “I loved meeting the people and showing them our wines. Many of them have become our friends. It is good that people can visit our winery and taste our wine. They can relate to the wine, the people and the place all in the one spot.”
Like most small wineries, Paul Osicka Wines is very much a family affair. Paul’s wife, Sandra, works at the cellar door. Third generation Simon is now also working in the business and his partner Alison is an experienced viticulturalist.
“I never considered any other career,” says Simon. “Maybe it’s a peasant mentality, but we have been doing this for generations.” Simon spent weekends and holidays learning from his father in the vineyard while at school, before studying at Adelaide University. He then did work in research on the contribution of oak flavour on wine at the Australian Wine Research Institute as part of his Honours study.
Simon has worked as a winemaker in various parts of Australia, including an extended period in Western Australia, and at Leasingham Wines in the Clare Valley. Prior to joining the family business he was working as the group winemaker for Constellation Wines/Hardy’s where he was responsible for the red winemaking for a company with vineyards across Australia, from Tasmania through to Western Australia. He has also done overseas vintages in France, Germany, Italy and Canada. Most recently he worked at Domain JL Chave in Hermitage-France, a small winery that has been owned by the same family since 1481.
“I enjoy the transfer of cultural and philosophical ideas that come from working overseas, the realisation that no one has the one answer, that quality winemaking depends on many factors. We are on the other side of the hemisphere and some practices may not be relevant. But by respecting their experience you may learn something that can be applied to making wine here. Part of it is also allowing yourself to step back so you can reflect on what you do at home. While I have seen wine made in a number of places, the red wine we make from Graytown seems to stain like nothing else,” observes Simon.
Parts of the vineyard are close to sixty years old and that adds to the workload. “The old vines were affected by years of drought and they take a lot of work. But they are tough old buggers and their deep roots mean they can survive despite being dry grown. We are heartened that this year we have seen a lot of new growth, even in vines we had written off as having died from the drought. Each old vine has its own character. Dad and I do all the pruning, it’s a critical part of our quality. You cannot prune an old vineyard by numbers,” says Simon. Paul’s response is “Simon does the work and I clean up after him!”
“There are a number of different soil types on the property and these wines are harvested and vinified separately. Grapes grown on the quartz parts are tighter and have more mineral character, where areas with more red clay are denser. The parts with sandy soil are more fragrant. The final wine is a blend of these portions,” says Simon.
“I have seen some challenging seasons over the last thirty five, but 2011 was one of the toughest with the high rain over summer,” says Paul. “We had to change our viticulture this year in response to the season. We shoot thinned, leaf plucked, dropped fruit on the ground, and had to do a lot of sorting,” says Simon. “We got through it with some good wine in the end but it took some luck and a lot of hard work.”
“We used to sell some of our fruit to other winemakers, but we now bottle all of our own crop,” says Paul. Reduced production due to the drought has meant that the Osickas no longer export their wines, it is now only being sold in Victoria. “Over time Dad has built a really strong following with our mailing list which accounts for a large part of our sales. We now have third generation customers,” says Simon.
“Even if we are sold out of wine, we are happy to welcome customers to the winery. It certainly helps people relate to the wine if they can see the vineyard, visit the winery and meet the family responsible.”
39 Osickas Road, Graytown 3608
03 5794 9235 or 0427 970 041