Ian Rathjen is a fourth generation Colbinabbin farmer whose family has been cultivating the rich Cambrian soil since the late 1850s. Henning Rathjen, Ian’s grandfather, was the first to plant grapes in the area, but that vineyard was converted back to broadacre farming in the 1920s. In 1998, Ian’s brother Darryl and their father Finlay restored the old vineyard, now called Hennings Vineyard, located just down the road from Whistling Eagle.
Ian grew up in the area, went to the local school, then to Scotch College in Melbourne. He and his brother Glen had farming land on the west side of the Mount Camel Range. In 1994, Ian purchased land on the east side of the range.
Ian’s wife Lynn grew up in East Gippsland, but was working in Echuca at a stock horse stud when she met Ian. “It was a blind date,” she says. “But it seems to have been a successful one, we’ve been married for 30 years.” Ian and Lynn were managing a farm at Cowra in NSW when Ian decided to return home to assist his father with his farming activities. “we had two teenage kids by then,” says Ian, “and we looked at developing a vineyard as an opportunity for them, as well as being another farm diversification project.
“We planted progressively from 1994 to 2002, having set up our own nursery bed. We set out to sell our grape crop as we do with other farm crops. In 1997 I had a few grapes left over so I decided to try my hand at winemaking. So I made a little wine and then suddenly found myself on the treadmill. As fate would have it, a wine merchant tasted our wine and suggested that we should label it and sell it. A newspaper article that followed was very favourable. We started to get enquiries from restaurants and distributors, the sales grew and so did the pressure.”
Lynn now manages their Border Leicester sheep stud with a couple of hundred stud ewes and sells flock rams. They continue growing a small amount of crops and the sheep provide pasture management on the rest of the land.
In 2005 their daughter, Trish, returned home fromher studies to join the family business. “I assist at all things,” says Trish, who studied viticulture at La Trobe University and at Charles Sturt University. “I spent three years in Mildura and two years at White Box Winery to learn more about winemaking. I’ve worked at Heathcote Estate and enjoyed learning about different wine varieties and different techniques.”
“Trish is learning the business and she will be ready to take it over,” says Ian. Their son Scott, a mechanical engineer, is living in Seattle, on his second posting to the US. “He is more interested in working overseas now,” says Ian, “but he knows farming, and can always return to it.” Trish displays typical sibling irreverence, saying, “He’s the golden child. He is learning about wine, but is currently majoring in drinking it.”
“In some ways our kids are caught in two worlds,” says Lynn. “We’ve encouraged them to get a skill and to see the world. But we do think about succession planning. It’s a double-edged sword. But we want them to have the best of both worlds.”
Extended family makes up the winemaking team at Whistling Eagle. Ian’s nephew, Guy Rathjen, has been part of the family business since 2002. Ian encouraged him to go to Tisdalls in Echuca to get some experience. While there, he started a part time oenology degree which he completed in 2007. “I prefer doing it to reading about it,” he says. “Part time study allowed me to take on vintages all over the world. I’ve also worked in Yarra Valley wineries. But I’ve always come back here for pruning.” Guy is also developing his own business as a contract winemaker.
There’s a good sense of camaraderie among the wine producers around Colbinnabin. One Whistling Eagle neighbour who assists is Bill Hepburn. He retired from his own wine production in 2001, but not before establishing a much lauded vineyard on ten acres of the north facing western slope of Mount Camel. Bill established his vineyard with borrowed equipment, friendly neighbours and supportive family members. He camped in a caravan onsite and eventually sold the vineyard in 2001 to Tatiarra. His caravan is featured on Tatiarra’s flagship wine, “Caravan of Dreams.”
Ian and Bill worked together on Tatiarra’s 2002 vintage. Ben Riggs is now the Tatiarra winemaker, and its wine is made in Geelong. Ian also assisted nearby Lake Cooper Estate in harvesting its first few crops. Bill is concerned that some of the Heathcote winemakers put quantity and sales ahead of quality. “The challenge is always to make the best possible wine from the best quality grapes,” he says.
Ian hesitates when asked what his biggest challenge has been. Then he responds with a one word reply, “Knowledge.” “He’s a perfectionist,” says Lynn. Ian expands on his initial response. “The more I learn, the more I realise I still have to learn,” he says. “I want to keep getting better at winemaking.” “And ” says Bill, “it shows in the product.”
Ian is concerned about controlling business growth, both individually and collectively, across the Heathcote wine region. “I guess if I had a magic wand I’d try and manage people’s expectations of the industry. This includes the expectations of people in the industry. Wine production is an agricultural industry and not all corporate principles are applicable. We all need to be aware of that. My advice to people is to avoid getting carried away with rapid growth. It is really important to maintain ownership of your dream.
“I see people with a great plan. They invest their super in a vineyard, then the money is all gone and they are not enjoying the journey. There are basically two types of people who are in the wine business: those that look at it scientifically; and those who look at it romantically. Both can make it work.
“But everyone who gets into it needs to have a passion for it. They need to get a buzz out of it. We set out to grow the best grapes we could and sell them for a reasonable return on our investment. There was no intention of making and selling wine at the start. We still want to grow the best grapes we can. And now, we also want to make the best wine we can, and sell the wine for a reasonable return.”
In 2008 the Rathjen’s dedication to meticulous viticultural practices was recognised through The Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria & Weekly Times, Farm Business Awards 2008, Horticulture Producer of the Year Award.
$37.80 in any dozen
$42.00 per bottle
Out of stock
Deep red and ruby-purple in colour. Classic currants and cassis with dark briary fruit and spicy cedary oak on the nose. Intense palate with a degree of elegance and finesse. Complexity of primary flavours given support by savoury elements including earth, spice and black olives finishing with fresh acid and a hint of spearmint.
$53.10 in any dozen
$59.00 per bottle
Vibrant fruits and intensity brought into balance by a freshness and brightness in the wine that allows the complexity of flavours to come through. Wonderful underlying savoury and spice with beautifully ripened tannins and incredible length
(Paul Moran) “truly a benchmark example from a region renowned for this variety. Intensity, complexity, balance and length with a unique harmony and ethereal quality”.
$29.70 in any dozen
$33.00 per bottle
Out of stock
Lime tinged light straw. On the nose muddled lemons and limes with yeasty-oatmealy richness and underlying lanolin notes. Complex, intense and rich with honeyed and glazed citus fruits giving way to an almond and pithy dryness with cleansing acid that pulls it all together and provides incredible line and length