When Chris Gillies and her husband, John Williams, started planning for the second half of their lives after successful careers in business, they initially looked for a beach place on the Mornington Peninsula. As Chris explains, “John had retired and we decided a holiday house right on the beach somewhere about an hour and a half away from Melbourne would be wonderful. John could stay there and I could commute.
“Our vision was of a house right on the beach where you opened the front door and walked out onto the sand where Rupert, our Great Dane Mastiff, would be free to run and play. Unfortunately, that was out of our price range. The adapted vision became a much larger piece of land north of the divide, where magnificent views of rolling hills would replace our beach dream, where Rupert would be free to run. No roads, no houses, just peace and quiet.”
“We looked at ten acres, then twenty acres, then a forty acre place with five acres of vines, where the vendor wanted the revenue from the grapes for the next two years as part of the settlement. That was a revelation to us. We knew you could grow grapes and make wine but we hadn’t realised that you could also grow grapes and sell them, or do a bit of both. This revelation opened up new horizons for us. It was the start of a new vision.”
After much hunting, they found their dream land at Redesdale. They have one hundred acres of rolling hills, with 360-degree views, from where as Chris describes, “you can see forever.” Chris is disarmingly frank about how little they knew at the start of their new venture. “Many winemakers dream about making great wine for many years, but we can’t claim that. We had little idea how the wine business worked, having only studied in depth the latter end of the supply chain, but we were ready for a change of scene and a new challenge.
“Viticulture and wine making were obviously not amongst our core competencies. We understood very clearly from our friends and advisors, Alan and Nelly Cooper of Cobaw Ridge fame, that you can’t make fine wine from inferior fruit. We set out to grow the very best vines and produce superior fruit. We were embarking on a significant learning curve. We knew a great deal about the process from when the cork came out and very little about what happened before.
“We started with a blank paddock of grass and a great deal of ignorance which turned out to be an advantage in many ways. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we were unaware of most of the challenges that lay ahead of us. Everything we did was a new experience and we approached it all with great excitement. We found huge satisfaction in working with the soil, building the vineyard infrastructure, planting the vines and tending them.
“We got very excited about our simple achievements and found the manual work very rewarding. That’s not to say that on cold and windy winter weekends, when we were crawling around removing the rocks that the D9 bulldozer had thrown up when ripping for the vine planting, that we were not heard to mutter, ‘why are we doing this?’ But then we’d go to the adjoining hill and look down with pride on the day’s achievements.”
With John’s accounting background and Chris’ consulting work, they wanted to understand the basics of the wine business before launching the vineyard project. “Basic things like how many vines do we plant? How much wine do you get from a vine? How many vines go in an acre? How many bottles do you get from an acre? How many bunches of grapes in a bottle?” The answer to the last question, they discovered, was twelve and a half bunches on average.
“We found that the business case just stacked up if we planted a minimum of ten acres of vines which is 10,880 vines, to be precise. If we pruned to get twenty bunches per vine at approximately one hundred grams per bunch we would get around twenty one tonnes of grapes, which deliver six hundred litres per tonne which, at 750ml per bottle, is 17,408 bottles.
“On the other side of the ledger we would need to plant one hundred and sixty rows of one hundred metres each, which would mean 2,880 posts, ninety six kilometres of wire, sixteen kilometres of dipper hose, a significant irrigation pump and system including a bore and tanks, tractor, sprayers, spreaders, mowers, hoers, nets to keep the birds off, and dogs to keep the birds away, and more.
“But, as with all good business cases, the intangibles, lifestyle, health and good healthy fun, also need to be considered. That’s what led us to continue.” As John stated, “the greatest challenge is to make the business case work in real life.”
“We had to learn a new vocabulary with lots of acronyms. We thought you could just call up a nursery and order some shiraz vines. We thought that there was a grape variety called shiraz, but then we learned about 1654, PT23, 2626, R6W for the varieties of shiraz. It all got quite technical quite quickly. And there were unexpected hitches to our detailed project plan.
“One of the first tasks was to lay out the rows, two and a half metres apart, running north south so the vines get even sun on either side. But we didn’t know how much was five acres. We got a tape measure and string and started measuring and putting in perimeter posts. At the end of that day we proudly looked at an area of five acres neatly pegged out with blue string.
“The following day we looked out and our marker posts were all gone, as was the blue string. Our cows had chewed up the string into nice blue balls and the posts had been used to scratch necks on. So we started our measuring all over again but used electric fencing string which the cows had enough sense not to chew.
“One of the greatest challenges was laying out where the posts would go. Picture a vineyard in your mind, all the posts in line regardless of which way you look. That was the goal. We had to have a luminous headed stick where every post would go ready for the ‘post thumping machine service providers.’
“We measured, we calculated, thank God for Pythagoras. I always wondered why we learnt that in school. We tested, we aligned and realigned and we tested again, until it was completely accurate in all directions. One small error would have meant the whole thing would be out of whack. ‘Why not use technology to get it right ?’ we were asked. ‘Surely one could not have the same sense of achievement’, was our reply. “If we got this wrong, then the provider of ‘post thumping in services’ would also get it wrong. The posts went in and another milestone was reached. Then running-out and attaching the wires and the dripper tubes. We needed a run rate of five rows per day to meet our next deadline.
“Along with the jargon and the work tasks, we discovered something else about the wine business. It is full of wonderful, generous and knowledgeable people who are willing to share their knowledge. The extraordinary amount of support we had from those already growing grapes in the Redesdale part of the Heathcote wine region was humbling.
“We have had amazing assistance from other vignerons in the area including Brian and Lee Paterson at Grace Devlin, Craig and Sandra Aitken at Barfold Estate, Suzie and Peter Arnall-Williams at Redesdale Estate, Helen and Greg Miles at Coliban Valley, and Phil and Judith Meehan from Meehan Estate. We have a wonderful partnership with our winemaker Alan Cooper from Cobaw Ridge. Our first limited edition vintage 2006 Rupert’s Ridge Estate Shiraz received 93 points from James Halliday, with a ‘drink to 2021’ recommendation.”
Chris works both on and off the vineyard. She is an independent non-executive director serving on a number of boards, associations and charities. Prior to her board career, Chris worked in senior IT roles where she specialised in mergers and acquisitions and in designing and implementing major organisational change programs.
The February 2009 ‘Redesdale’ fire burnt through their property. Chris and John were holidaying in the US at the time. Their house, shed, equipment, and fences, were all destroyed. What used to be a very large pig shed was all that remained. The community rallied to their support and, over three days, one hundred and fifty friends and community members arrived to remove the melted nets, drop the crop, and repair sixteen kilometres of irrigation to get water to the stressed vines.
Apart from the 2,000 vines that needed to be replaced, the vines survived, but they lost around twenty tonnes of smoke-tainted fruit that had to be dropped in order to save the vines. “The miracle of regeneration continues to come out of the ashes. The paddocks turned from black to green, trees that appeared dead came to life, and when the cows came home we were almost back to normal.”
The very large pig shed came into its own. With the help of their builder and friend, Robert Petty, the shed was turned into ‘luxury’ accommodation while the house was being rebuilt. Rupert’s Ridge Retreat was born.
‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’ are two spacious retreats with uninterrupted views of vines, almonds, and undulating hills where visitors can share the peace, quiet and open air, and bring their dogs.
Rupert moved on to dog heaven in 2007. He has been replaced by two English Pointers who are often visited by their cousin Teddy.
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