Lindsay Ross has worked in the wine industry all his working life. “I grew up in New Zealand,” he says, “on the outskirts of the Henderson wine region, one of the oldest wine regions in the country. Vines were first planted there in 1902. It is close to Auckland and is one of the New Zealand’s major wine regions.
“My dad ran a small business, he was an electrician. He and my mother enjoyed a glass of wine. Every Thursday there was a gathering of local business people, many of whom were involved in the wine industry. From the age of 18 I have associated wine with enjoyable social times and enjoyed the company of wine producers.
“At school we were required to read The Western Leader local paper, an equivalent of Heathcote’s McIvor Times. I saw an advertisement for grape pickers in the paper one day and thought that would be a good job, working outside and interacting with people. I hadn’t any career in mind, but I started to think that the wine industry would be a good choice.”
Lindsay met Noeline around this time. Through Noeline’s links to the wine industry Lindsay started working for Montana Wines as a cellar hand, “I loved it,” he says with relish. “I loved the intensity of the work, the diversity of different seasons. Montana was then experimenting with the development of chardonnay and a riesling-style grape called muller-thurgan, high yielding and fast ripening, which turned out to be a big success in NZ.
“They produced a riesling which they called Bernkaizler Riesling. But a German company took umbrage at this as they had a well-known wine called Bernkasteler Riesling and, after a little bit of legal activity, the NZ company had to change the name.
“What this illustrated to me was that wine was indeed a global business. Something being done on a very small scale in New Zealand affected the world stage. It was a global industry, and this made it even more enticing for me. Noeline and I decided to go overseas and find out more. I ended up working for a small family winery in Germany and that cemented my desire to make wine, it became my career passion.
“We were working in Germany without visas. One day two burly police came to the cellar where we were working. They spoke to us in German. We did not understand much and we thought we were done for. Nothing happened after that visit, but eventually our time did run out and we decided to return home to New Zealand, stopping off at Sydney on the way.
“We loved Sydney and we needed to earn some money. I got a job at Rothbury Estate in the Hunter doing the night shift for a vintage, while Noeline stayed in Sydney. I enrolled in a viticulture correspondence course at Charles Sturt University. It included residential stints where we learned about winemaking.
“Another part of the course was visiting wineries. One was to Balgownie in Bendigo where we met the winemaker, Stuart Anderson. He asked if I wanted a job, and I said “yes ” in an instant, then realised that perhaps I should have discussed this with Noeline.
“We went from high density living in a Sydney beach suburb to a lovely white house in a rural area in Central Victoria, next to a property which stabled top racehorses. Noeline had never worked with horses before, but she got a job in the stables where she got on really well with the temperamental thoroughbreds, while I made wine at Balgownie.
“Working with Stuart Anderson was wonderful, he was a great mentor. I still remember the stuff he taught me. He left an indelible mark on my career. When he left Balgownie I took over as winemaker with oversight of the vineyards. We never did make it make home to New Zealand.
“There was a series of owner changes at Balgownie. I think it was under Mildara’s ownership that the Mt Ida vineyard in Heathcote was purchased and became one of the vineyards I looked after. I’d been thinking about my own vineyard for a while. One winter’s day I was in the Mt Ida vineyard. Directly across from me there was a patch of land that looked perfect for grapes. The sun shone through the clouds, lit up that patch of dirt, and I decided that was the land I wanted.
“But the property was not on the market and the owner was not interested in selling. I called him one night and he told me to call back. I called back several times over eight months and he finally agreed to sell it. Our patch of dirt was surrounded by some of the region’s finest vineyards, but it was landlocked. One of the first things we had to do was build a bridge over a creek in order to access it. So we became The Bridge Vineyard.
“We bought the land in 1996, and started planning. I met Ron Laughton whose vineyards are close to ours. He explained that he didn’t add tartaric acid to his wines. ‘That’s not a bad mantra’ I thought. And, while I am at it, I might as well be organic too.
“One thing I was sure about was that I wanted to make what I call peasant wine, wine from grapes that truly represent the soil in which they grow. The trendier term is ‘terroir ’. I wanted to make wine without the modifications that are available. Theoretically, that is the grapes talking.
“In Heathcote, especially in the cambrian soil, the rain water gets into the soil. We don’t irrigate. Nineteen out of twenty years, Heathcote is a perfect environment for natural, or organic, growth.
“2011 was a challenge. We plough under the vines to remove weeds, we use no chemicals at all. We are not certified organic, but we know we are.”
Between the planting and the first vintage Lindsay needed a cash flow. Over the family dinner table, he and Noeline would discuss ‘The Project.’ The kids would sigh and say ‘Not the project!’ and leave the table. Lindsay decided to have an interim label for wines he made from purchased Central Victorian grapes from old vine vineyards. He launched these wines under the Knots Wines banner in 2001. ‘Not the project’ became ‘Knots’ the wine.
Sailing is another of Lindsay’s passions. He identifies each of the Knots Wines with a distinctive knot. “It was meant to be a stop gap measure but it has turned into a successful brand. After the 2009 fires, there was little fruit available across Central Victoria but The Bridge produced a crop. I knew it was a matter of time before Noeline suggested I should think about finding a fill in job, and I figured I’d beat her to it. So I phoned a friend in New Zealand and asked him to check out some work opportunities. The next morning the phone rang, it was someone looking for a winemaker to start work in the next two weeks, making pinot noir.
“My sponsor called and said ‘I’ll meet you at the airport. Look for a fat, balding, Father Christmas with no beard.’ I wasn’t too sure what the deal was, but I took it on trust, and it turned out to be quite an adventure with some great people.
“I arrived to find one tank in a rented shed and one ‘lab girl.’ Over a period of eight weeks, we processed three hundred tonnes of fruit from a few vineyards in Central Otago. I repeated the adventure in 2010 but with a bit more planning. I also made some Central Otago pinot for a Knots label.”
While Lindsay has his winemaking adventures, Noeline assists with marketing and selling the wines. “But like so many winemaker’s partners, she also works off-farm to help with our finances, to keep the wolves from the door. She currently manages a motel and restaurant in Bendigo.”
What advice does Lindsay have for budding winemakers ? “Understand your options,” says Lindsay. “You can always for example, hire some space in a winery at the start. Appreciate the need for long-term relationships in the industry because it’s only a small region.
“Heathcote’s big advantage right now is that it is a relatively young region, but that won’t last for long. Something newer will come along. There’s not a lot of time to establish a new region in a lasting manner.”
Lindsay has been involved in the winegrower associations of both Bendigo and Heathcote. “There’s always a limited number of enthusiasts who serve on committees and work hard to promote a region. They are the visible players in the region.
“Over time, as the region loses its newness, everyone in the region needs to work hard at its regionality and wine making. If we maintain that, we’ll remain a quality region.”
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