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Oct 29, 2021

How it began….

written by Jo Hearn
in category Restdown Story

One of the first things visitors ask when they arrive at restdown is “How did you end up living all the way out here?” It’s often accompanied by head shaking  and a furrowed brow. I get it…. Restdown is not what you expect to find down the end of Perricoota Rd and Jungle Lane. So here it is, Our Story!

 

We met in London in 1992, after a couple of riotous years travelling around the world, including for me, a year-long stint in France. Don and I returned to Australia with literally nothing but a backpack full of dirty clothes and two Turkish rugs, and then set about reacquainting ourselves with Australian life and responsibilities, which we’d done our best to avoid up until that time. The flat plains and sand hills around the Murray River outside Barham were home for Don but a blank canvas for me, having grown up in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

 

After just a couple of months staying on Don’s family farm Kowarra, 10kms south of what is now known as Restdown, we decided to put down roots, and married in 1995. We then decided we’d like to build a house and set up our own farming enterprise.  Being the youngest of 3 brothers, Don had been strongly encouraged to go to Uni and “get a real job”,  so he had studied criminology and legal psychology – handy topics for a farmer!  His family were surprised to say the least, that we wanted to stay and farm, and probably expected us to last a couple of years before tiring of the whole idea. In the end, we were granted 20 acres on the property the family referred to as “Down Below”, now Restdown. Don’s parents had purchased “Down Below” in the 70s to grow rice and graze cattle and we loved the natural belts of timber and untouched feel of the large grazing paddocks. We clapped our hands, scratched our heads and researched all possible options, eventually settling on the plan to grow wine grapes. The plan greatly appealed to me. My time in France, being immersed in French food and wine culture, had left an indelible imprint on my soul and my upbringing around the Hunter Region meant I knew one end of a wine bottle from the other.

 

With plenty of experience in the drinking of wine, but little knowledge about growing anything much, the plan was for Don to study small-scale viticulture and start planting grapes. I would continue primary teaching. It was 1996 and the wine industry was booming. Need I say more. We began with the excitement of youth and held great hopes for expanding our initial 3acre plantings and supplying the winery that offered us the best price; and the prices being offered were sensational! After 2 years, we did expand our vineyard and again 2 years later, eventually ending up with 17 acres of Semillon and Merlot.  It wasn’t long however before grape prices started to dip and we could see the writing on the wall for grape growers. Around the same time, I started to develop some health issues and it became increasingly difficult for me to hold down a full-time job teaching, as I had been since 1994. The idea of working at home and the flexibility of working my own hours was very appealing, not to mention the possibilities that a career in food and wine could present, so I embarked upon a series of short courses in winemaking at University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus. This was followed by a 1 year BRIT course in winemaking practices, run by the winemaker at Tisdall’s, Echuca winery. I had gained just enough knowledge to start playing around with winemaking and after an initial vintage in the carport, in 2002 we designed our own very small, underground winemaking facility and cellar door, with the idea of setting up a commercial venture, which would add a bit of value to the grapes we were already growing.  Don had the idea of planting a couple of rows each of chardonnay, shiraz, sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, to see how they grew on our site, just in case we wanted to expand our winemaking venture down the track.

 

At this point, our nearest winery or neighbouring vineyard for that matter, was 65km away in the newly established Perricoota wine district. Our soil types and micro-climate are completely different to those in Perricoota, so there wasn’t anyone around with experience growing wine grapes in our conditions. We learnt our new trade by trial and error, experimenting with everything from trellising techniques to mulching and soil moisture monitoring, being labelled as “hippies” for bothering to spread straw under our vines. Soil health became Don’s focus. Several agronomists were consulted and their recommendations were analysed in detail. However, he started questioning the lack of common sense these so-called experts displayed. His careful observations of the vines, the vineyard and the surrounding natural environment were building strong convictions about what would and wouldn’t work on our site and he started to develop a dislike for the use of chemicals and artificial fertilisers. It wasn’t long before he decided to experiment with biological, organic and bio-dynamic products and by 2006 we had fazed out all chemical use.

 

Meanwhile, I was busily making wine. Small parcels at first, as I learnt my trade, gradually expanding to our maximum processing capacity of 1.5T lots. Each vintage the wines got better and we made greater volumes, also experimenting with the new varieties we’d planted. I developed an interest in traditional French winemaking methods as the subtleties and complexities of French wine appealed to me greatly and our low-tech style of winemaking mirrored traditional methods. Minimal intervention was my focus – let the wine make itself. That meant, minimal filtration, minimal use of sulphur and fining agents and a flirtation with wild yeasts. I continue to work under these principles today.

 

In 2011, after 12 years, the millennium drought finally broke in our area and Don’s parents decided they’d had enough of farming and were ready to pass on their land and the management of their Hereford beef herd to us. Don had been overseeing their operation for 17 years and still refers to it as his 17 year apprenticeship. In 2016 we achieved our long held dream of becoming certified organic across the entire property. The beef, the grapes and the wine we produce from them, could now finally be considered as truly organic!

 

Each year we continue to process around 5 tonnes of grapes for our winemaking, but our days of supplying grapes to other wineries have drawn to a close. A number of factors, including the prohibitive cost of water, unsatisfactory grape prices, our struggles to find backpackers to help with the vineyard since Covid hit and our maturing bodies, have all led us to the heart wrenching decision to begin pulling out the vines we no longer require.  This will see our vineyard shrinking back to just a few acres – almost back to where we began, 25 years ago.

 

Our business continues to evolve, with 2021 being the 4th year for us selling our organically grown beef under our Jungle Lane Beef Co label, in 10kg and 5kg boxes of mixed cuts. Our beef has been the sleeping giant of our farm enterprise. Our family and friends had been telling us that the meat we were growing and processing for our own consumption was fantastic, so we finally made the big leap to begin selling it commercially.

 

We still enjoy the many challenges of our business and our life amongst the vines. Our passion for promoting quality, organic, regional food and wine has only increased and intensified with time, and our determination to combine farming and conservation work on Restdown is reflected in all our management decisions. Our aim is to continue improving the health of our soil, to grow the best quality beef and grapes we can, which are packed with flavour and nutrition, while having minimal impact on the natural environment. We’re always striving to make sensational wines using minimal intervention techniques, which are a true reflection of their terroir and of us.