“Some people aren’t happy with wine unless it stains their teeth,” said a bemused sommelier to me recently. Barossa is the capital of big reds, so it’s interesting to get a pulse on what is happening there. Since the peak of the big red boom a decade ago, things have been dialled down from 11…
The Wine Farmer’s Wife
A tree change can seem all too glamorous, especially with all the romanticism that’s inevitably attached to owning a vineyard. Anna Hawkins of Gippsland’s The Wine Farm shares her reflections on just how much greener that grass actually is.
Here I am, gracefully hoeing my kale in the dappled sunlight sporting a perfectly creased linen smock hanging just clear of shiny designer gumboots while my denim clad children do wholesome outdoor things without a speck of mud on their freshly laundered white t-shirts. Just like in the glossy country magazines I used to thumb through while waiting for my double shot flat white in the Sydney morning rush.
OK, so reality doesn’t quite match the dream, but life on The Wine Farm suits me from my hand-knitted beanie (thanks Mum) to my steel capped work boots (a 40th birthday present from Neil with which I was and still am thrilled).
I loved my old life – challenging office job with a great team and lots of travel; low-maintenance apartment-living a short walk from whatever style of café, bar or restaurant I was in the mood for, or yoga classes, pools and walking trails when I wasn’t; a few stops on the train to catch a gig, a play or whatever exhibition had caught my attention that week.
But I don’t miss it for a second.
Running for the hills was the best thing I ever did. While Neil had spent most of his adult years living and working amongst vineyards around the world, making a parcel of land our own with the crazy notion of making a living off it was a huge leap for this born and bred city slicker.
The Wine Farm is a beautiful place to live, and having space to run amok with the kids – feeding lambs, exploring wombat holes, gorging on figs, raspberries or whatever the garden has on offer, visiting Daddy in the vineyard during pruning season to toast marshmallows on his DIY cane burner – is sometimes as amazing as it sounds. But there are other times when I feel like the next person to sigh dreamily and tell me what an amazing lifestyle I have is going to get a punch on the nose.
Without getting the violins out, living off the land is hard. At the whim of the seasons, our busiest times of the year coincide with other families’ summer holidays. We’re working every hour of sunlight to get the vineyard ready for harvest while friends are spending long days at the beach. Or that’s how it seems. There’s no such thing as a weekend when your work is dictated by the next rain or predicted wind. ‘Family time’ is finding a range of activities to keep a two, four and six-year-old occupied while Mummy and Daddy do some labelling, disgorge some sparkling wine (way better than a sprinkler!) or pack the car for a delivery run.
But it’s not as though we didn’t know what we were in for. When we first bought the property and all its beautifully manicured flowerbeds we knew we wouldn’t have time to stop and smell the roses… so we pulled them all out. Then politely dismissed the gardener. Everything we do here is practical. It has to be. At this stage of our lives – nurturing both a new business and a young family – there’s no space on our property for whimsy. Or linen. We do the gardening ourselves when the vineyard lets us and it’s all about putting nutritious food on the table.
I sort of miss the guy in the apartment block next door who serenaded us every night in his own peculiar pitch (if you’re reading this it was Neil who sent you that letter full of suggestions for what to do with your guitar, not me.) But we’ve traded the karaoke king for a curious koala who lumbers over our bedroom ceiling at a much more respectable hour each night.
And the more seasons we tick off in our new home, the less we are overwhelmed by it. We’ve filled the guest rooms with kids, replaced the mower with a small flock of sheep, switched flowerbeds for veggie gardens and make the sort of wine I used only to drink on special occasions. I’m learning new skills as Neil’s occasional cellarhand (when kiddies permit) and, most importantly, learning how to care for this parcel of land that has become our everything.
There’s been lots of ups and downs in the transition, I’m sure there’ll be plenty more, but from where I sit today – at the kitchen table with my youngest snoozing on the couch, a pile of garlic bulbs next to my laptop ready to prise apart and sink into the winter soil and a flock of black cockatoos squawking overhead – I know there’s no going back. I’ve embraced the good life, boots and all.
The Wine Farm is a small, biodynamically farmed vineyard in South Gippsland, 50 km from the southern-most tip of mainland Australia. Neil and Anna Hawkins bought the property with its 7 acres of 25-year-old vines in 2014. They purged the property of chemicals, picked up their tools and started the hard graft of rejuvenating the soils – in their opinion, the only place worth putting your energy if you want to make the sort of wines they like to drink. Wines that are pure and show place, not process.