In 1975, Gordon Leckie and his wife Lorna planted five hectares of shiraz in what is now known as “The Old Block” at She-Oak Hill Vineyard. The area around She-Oak Hill has several vineyards on the north and east sides of the hill. Sanguine Estate is next door. Vineyards such as Downing Estate, Jasper Hill and Heathcote Estate provide a patchwork quilt of vineyards when you stand at the top of She-Oak Hill. Facing west there’s a great view of Lake Eppalock.
Gordon’s three children are now partners in the winery. The eldest son, also Gordon, is a retired medical practitioner whose wife Helen’s expertise at catering is renowned. Daughter Judith, now retired from the public service, and her husband Frank Firkin have a weekender at Mia Mia. Younger son Julian is a County Court judge whose wife Jane retired from teaching in 2004 and enrolled in a viticulture diploma at the University of Melbourne. She now manages the family vineyard as well as sales and marketing for She-Oak Hill wines.
It came as a surprise when Gordon Snr first announced that he wanted to develop a vineyard. “Julian and I were at home in Melbourne one day in 1975 when Gordon Senior popped in and said, ‘I’m going to Heathcote to buy a vineyard.’ There were three blocks being auctioned. Gordon bought one and Leigh Hunt bought one at the same time,” says Jane.
The Old Block was planted in 1975. Their first wines were made by Albino Zuber, then by Leigh Hunt until 1990. When Gordon died in 1994, Lorna kept the Old Block, continued to sell grapes to Seppelts, and offered the rest of the land to Gordon’s three children who planted an additional five hectares of grapes, the New Block vineyard.
When business expanded with the new block, Jane decided to retire from teaching. At the age of 55, she enrolled in a viticulture diploma. “I turned up at Dookie College where the residential component of the diploma was taught,” says Jane. “As I pulled into the car park I saw lots of young people and utes with ‘P’ plates. I wondered what I had let myself in for.”
“But the course was fantastic. I learned a lot, from the other course participants as well as from the teaching staff. I still keep in touch with some of my fellow students.”
“Many of the students had lots of practical experience. They knew the terminology. One day the lecturer asked me ‘how large is your headland?’ I had a vision of a headland jutting out into the sea. When I explained that our vineyard was not on the coast the rest of the students fell about laughing. In vineyard terminology, the headland is the turning area allowed for tractors to make turns into the vineyard rows.”
“I worked at She-Oak Hill during my study years. Laurie Conforti gave me plenty of practical advice. For two years I watched what Laurie did in the vineyard. He was amazing.”
“He can just look at a vine that looks messy to everyone else, then with three cuts he leaves two perfect canes which he then ties along the wire. I was allowed to put on the plastic tie.”
“I wasn’t allowed to do any cutting till Laurie was sure I knew what I was doing. One day he said to me, ‘Jane, if you keep reading those books you’ll have no grapes. Listen to me and you’ll have tons of grapes.’ When he visits now he still pales a little when I cut the vines, but he’s gradually developing some respect for my evolving skills.”
Lorna died in 2005. The family now use the grapes from both old and new blocks in She- Oak Hill wines which are made by Mark Hunter at Sanguine Estate. The lack of rain over the first five years of the New Block encouraged the vines to put down deep roots and they have produced good fruit since 2000. The third generation of Leckies, Gordon Senior’s five grandchildren, contribute in various ways to the family business, while the fourth generation enjoys mud pies and ‘driving’ the old grey Fergie.
Laurie Conforti has been an important contributor since the start of She-Oak Hill. His early experience of Italian vineyards, in a very different environment to that of Heathcote, helped Jane balance her coursework theory with practical knowledge.aurelio Conforti was born in Dubino, a small Italian village near Italy’s Lake Como. His sister, Louisa, came to Australia in 1947 and moved to Heathcote. In 1950, Aurelio, then aged 22, also came to Australia, and joined his sister in Heathcote. Laurie’s wife Elena and baby daughter Rita remained in Italy. In good Australian tradition ‘Aurelio’ soon became ‘Laurie ’.
“I remember my first sighting of Heathcote very well,” says Laurie. “I had arrived by boat and my sister and her husband met me off the boat. By the time we reached Heathcote it was already dark. When I woke the next day I looked out the window and felt depressed. I missed the beautiful alpine scenery of my village. I could not speak English and my wife, baby and friends were far away. I just wanted to go home.”
Laurie stayed and is now very glad that he did. “I worked chopping wood in the bush at the start, and then for the Forest Commission for twenty years. I had worked in vineyards in Italy and started to do some pruning work on weekends for Gildo Segafredo who had a vineyard at Graytown.” Gildo’s grandson Mark now runs the Segafredo bakery in Heathcote.
Gildo’s Graytown vineyard, originally established by Baptista Governa in 1891, is now owned by David Traeger. Shiraz from that vineyard is now marketed under Traeger’s Baptista label. Laurie also worked for Osicka’s at Graytown, and for Albino Zuber in Heathcote.
Elena and Rita joined Laurie in Heathcote in 1953. Elena and Rita also worked in vineyards with Laurie. They had four more children, the youngest of whom is Andrew. Andrew Conforti and his wife Mellissa now have a vineyard in Mia Mia. It is the home of the grapes used in Occam’s Razor, the wine label of Emily Laughton, daughter of Jasper Hill’s Ron Laughton. Andrew is also vineyard manager for Jasper Hill.
Back in 1976, when Gordon Leckie needed some pruning assistance for his rapidly growing vines, he asked Albino Zuber if he knew of anyone who could assist with pruning. Albino recommended Laurie Conforti. Laurie spent some time cleaning up Gordon’s vineyard with a very hard prune but Gordon was surprised how much of the vines was removed in the pruning. Gordon went back to Albino Zuber and said, “A good pruner! He’s going to destroy my vines.” But the proof came in the following year when there was “lots and lots of grapes,” says Laurie.
Although now retired, Laurie retains a keen interest in ensuring that ‘his’ vines are properly pruned. His skills are highly valued by the family and he keeps a watchful eye on the vines. He has taught Jane some simple and useful techniques. One is the simple rock-based wire tensioning system shown in the photo. Another tip is the use of long canes to replace aging vines which have succumbed to disease. As Jane explains, “When a vine is damaged beyond repair Laurie has shown us how to leave a very long cane on one of its neighbouring vines so that it can be taken down, channelled along the ground to the damaged vine and attached to that vine.
“The mother vine keeps feeding it so it is nurtured by the mother vine until it establishes its own roots, making it a viable vine. This technique, called layering, gives us a new fruitbearing vine in about half the time of other techniques. The photo shows a ‘new’ vine so created bearing good fruit after just two years.”
What does Laurie think of the wine produced from the grapes he watches over so carefully ? “Well,” says Jane, “Laurie does not drink wine. He drinks light beer, but never wine. He’s happy to help us make great fruit, and his family tell him what good wine it is.”
Jane is philosophical about the weather challenges that winegrowers face. “We are luckier than many fruit producers,” Jane says. “We have back vintages to sell over the tough months. There’s many worse off than us. Fruit producers who rely entirely on this year’s crop have a much tougher time.”