The grapes of Iona and the vines that bind

John and Donna have a farm in the Yarra Valley called Iona.  I think they bought it around 5 years ago and it was clear from their story that the ‘picture perfect’ place we were lucky enough to be staying at had not started out this way.
In ‘estate agent speak’ this farm had a ‘lot of unrealised potential’, listening to their stories it also presented them both with a wealth of personal development opportunities.  It is now a very beautiful place and when I visited in the Autumn last year we all had a wonderful weekend.IMG_2877
When I went back to Australia this February, this time to Perth, there was an invitation to join a ‘first vintage’ weekend at Iona. No idea what this meant but it was at John and Donna’s so there would be lovely food and wine, plus there was also a party for Nicola’s birthday arranged by Jane, all reasons to book a flight to Melbourne.

I think it was the term ‘vintage’ that threw me off, anything related to wine that has the term ‘vintage’ in it always makes me think of champagne flutes and parties.  I conjured up a romantic picture of a ‘bacchanalian’ extravaganza ahead.  Perhaps a little light treading of grapes, certainly quite a lot of reclining on cushions sipping from the aforementioned flutes, likely to be nibbling on organic lark’s eggs perched on gluten-free, hand-made wafer thin crackers; dear reader I learned family quickly this is not what ‘first vintage’ involves.

This ‘first vintage’ crop was a landmark for John and Donna, literally the fruits of their labour were being harvested, and to do that they had invited friends to help. Friends who have their own farms, their own labours of love (and their own stories of triumph, disaster and valiant efforts).

“If a job is worth doing ……..” was something my dad said often. He only had to say the first half and I mentally filled in the rest. I admire people who tackle complex, long-lasting projects that require focus, expertise and discipline. Projects where you can’t be sure of the outcome. Tackling something head on where time, money and hope are invested and risks can’t really be assessed properly.
I’ve come to understand that wine making is one such endeavour. Until meeting John and Donna I’ve been more involved in the consumption end of the business but never the production part (well apart from some elderflower wine mum made back in the ’70’s), it’s definitely easier to consume than to produce.
From listening to John talk about ‘the farm’ I realised that what I was seeing is already an amazing transformation achievement. The place is really beautiful so it is hard to imagine what it was like when they took it on. From the upmarket hen-house (Cluckingham Palace) to the veggie patches and quirky scarecrows, the place has had so much love poured into in it is hard not to feel joyful as you drive up to be greeted by Donna and John plus Bessie and Poppy (two very lucky doggies)


IMG_2700But let’s get back to the weekend.
“They said it couldn’t be done” was something I heard from John a couple of times. Apparently locals were skeptical about the ‘potential’ for a winery.  From what was said I suspect the view was that these ‘townies’ were not going to realise their dreams. John and Donna didn’t agree with them, and so undaunted they set about making it all come true.
What I learned from listening as all the friends talked ‘wine war stories’  is how much ‘blood, sweat and tears’ goes into vines and how hard any journey to this point is likely to be. The road to this first harvest hadn’t been easy.

But I get ahead of my self. The day  dawned (not too hot, nice breeze).  Donna’s army (me, Jane, Nicola, Border control Jenny) reported for duty (after a few days of partying in Melbourne)

IMG_7329 Other friends started to arrive, some had driven miles some came from nearby properties.  All brought experience and a willingness to get stuck in. Picking grapes was not romantic to this crew.   Armed with gloves, snippers and buckets and after a ‘don’t cut your fingers off’ briefing from John’s friend Chris, we were assigned ‘pegs’  and were off to harvest the fruits of John and Donna’s labours.

Over drinks at the end of the day there were the stories of previous triumphs, but more usually of challenges. One couple had been two days away from their harvest when they were invaded by wasps who laid their whole year’s crop to waste. What a nightmare.

It seems that wine making is like this; all the more reason to feel joyful for John as his harvest is safely put into buckets to head down to the winery to be crushed and put into containers to ferment.  After the picking was done we sat down to a ‘long table’lunch prepared by Donna and Jane, and were fed gorgeous food and delicious wine.  This group of people have known each other for many years, as a newcomer into the group it was so fascinating to listen to the stories and to witness the power of long-lived friendships. To really get a sense of lives well lived, friendships that have endured all kinds of personal challenges, joys and heart breaks.  Hearing of projects and work that are being undertaken for the love of getting stuff done and the support that has been given and is willingly offered to each other.
I got a real sense of  ‘ties that bind’ this group of people together; their shared history and the an anticipated shared future. Very inspiring and very impressive.
As a postscript to this story John and Donna didn’t harvest all of their crop the weekend of ‘first vintage’, leaving some grapes to ripen. Donna arrived back from a trip to find wasps starting to devour the grapes. She put out the call to friends and covered in netting and armed with steely determination a hastily assembled group of friends were able to save the crop. Now that is what I call friendship.
It was a real treat for me to be part of this.  When I drink wine these days I have a new respect for it.  I look forward to being back at Iona to taste the finished product.

As my old dad would’ve said, “well that was a good job jobbed”.

Congratulations to you both.  May there be many harvests ahead.  Cheers. x




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