Lazy by Name - Not by Nature
Featured in the Dubbo Weekender 23 December 2016
When a diesel mechanical supervisor and a grief education officer decided to settle on a lifestyle property outside Mudgee, little did they know that it would change their life. Words NATALIE HOLMES Photos PAULA HANSON
Paula Hanson and David Riley thought they were buying a lifestyle property where they could raise a family together when they bought a pocket of land in the picturesque Mudgee hills.
“We purchased 50 acres in 2011, 15kms out of Mudgee in Eurunderee,” Paula explained.
“Our initial intentions were to build our dream home on the site.
“Our mission was to find the perfect place to build our dream home, get married and raise our children. It was just a beautiful place to call home.”
But the lure of one of the finest winemaking regions in Australia and their 10 acre vineyard was too much for the couple and five years after moving in, they were not only making wine, but winning awards for it.
“It was a lot of land and we knew nothing about wine other than we didn't mind a good drop!” Paula laughed.
Initially, the couple was able to just settle in and not worry too much about maintaining the vineyard.
“We were fortunate enough in the first three years to have an agreement with our neighbour to maintain the vineyard in exchange for the fruit – making our life very lazy.”
For Paula and David, it was a great deal. They got their beautiful block and someone else did the work for them. In that time, they started their family and welcomed two children, Grace and Henry into the world.
Although we had two years to get ourselves prepared for taking over, the time went really quickly. We did produce two beautiful children in those years – but we were still leisurely building a shed with the view to then build our home. We had done nothing in preparation for taking over a vineyard.”
That all changed last year, when the pair decided to jump into the winemaking business, boots and all.
“In 2015, we decided to give it a go and maintain the vineyard ourselves and make our first wine. With no experience at all!”
The previous year had been a wipeout in the industry and their neighbourly arrangement was suddenly no longer viable.
“Our neighbour had offered to take it on for another year… but it was the year that broke the camel’s back. Low rainfall resulted in very low yields and it just wasn't a financially fair arrangement anymore.”
The novice vignerons came to a crossroads and pondered whether to continue their vineyard or go the way of many of their surrounding counterparts.
They didn’t know whether to pull the vines out, let them grow wild or attempt the unattemptable.
“So what do we do? Let it go to ruin, pull it out, put sheep on it? Being a vegetarian, I know less about sheep than I do wine!
“The outlook for the wine industry looked bleak.”
When they had purchased the property, the hills behind them were covered in vines for as far as they could see. But hectares of vines were removed virtually overnight.
“These paddocks are now home to cattle,” Paula says sadly.
“Each trip into Mudgee shows the signs of yet another vineyard either being pulled out or left for ruin. I didn't want to see our vineyard end up like this.”
Despite the warning signals, the couple pushed on, taking over maintenance of their own vines and producing their first harvest last year. After picking, their fruit is sent to a local winemaker for the final process.
“Our laziness came to an end and Lazy Oak Vineyard was born,” Paula said.
“We have left the making to the local experts so far but it is our ambition to learn, with the ultimate goal of producing it all on-site together as a family.”
While they had named their vineyard after the single oak tree on the property and with dreams of lazy days in the Mudgee sunshine, their venture turned out to be a busier lifestyle than originally planned – but infinitely more rewarding.
“We have a lone oak tree on our property and over a few vinos trying to discuss names with family and friends we decided that Lonely Oak wasn't a great name - a great wine should be shared – not drank alone. So we settled on Lazy Oak, as we knew our laziness was about to come to an end!”
As it turns out, having a vineyard on their property has turned out to be a little more time-consuming than anticipated.
“It is not a lazy exercise. There’s always something to be done. Pruning, spraying, slashing, business registration, obtaining a liquor license and starting up a website.”
With two preschool aged children at home, a part time job and a partner working shift work, there hasn't been a lot of time for lazing lately. Thankfully, the couple has reliable relatives who lend a hand – so Lazy Oak really has become a family affair.
Reflecting on their experiences over the past year, Paula admitted that there’s been both tears and triumphs.
“Following my first harvest I’ve learnt that there’s caterpillars, spiders, blood, sweat, tears, perhaps a little too much testosterone…oh and some grapes!”
There’s been a lot for the family to deal with, including negativity from other wine growers, being at the mercy of the weather gods, government taxes and getting into an industry when other more established vineyards are leaving.
“Running a vineyard is ironically a sobering experience,” Paula admits.
“It's a gamble, its farming at its finest.
“I never had an interest in rainfall and weather predictions until this year, begging for rain turns into sleepless nights waiting to hear if the predicted hail is going to hit or if we are going to get too much rain too close to harvest.”
And then there was the decision to run a boutique business rather than a bigger enterprise. David and Paula also chose to harvest their fruit rather than waste it.
“When a big company gives you advice to leave your fruit on the vines rather than sell it for a lower price because its affecting the industry, it gives a bitter taste when they then turn around and offer you vinegar prices for your premium fruit.
“Unfortunately, I am not in a position to cut my nose off to spite my face, and I secretly wonder how nice it must be at the top.”
The Australian Government’s Wine Equalization Tax was also difficult for the pair to understand and seemed unfair.
“For all the government’s attempts in advertising to cull binge drinking, this tax hits the wrong end of the market. Premium wines are highly taxed and cheaper commercial wines attract just a portion.”
As well, it took a long time to get another aspect of the vineyard established, with the couple waiting almost a year to finalise their liquor licence.
For all the hiccups, there have been many positive experiences during their early days in the industry.
“Our first vintage from harvest to bottle has been nothing short of interesting, frustrating and a fun experience,” Paula said.
“We managed to tread water and stay afloat this year. Record yields of quality fruit have excited the palate of our wine makers. And the learning experience has been a refreshing reprieve from the stay at home Mum conversations!”
Then everything else paled into insignificance when David and Paula walked away with a Bronze Medal at this year’s Mudgee Wine Show for their White Merlot, a dry yet refreshing rose made from the Merlot grape. It was an incredibly proud moment for them which has inspired them to continue with their venture.
“We are excited to have some brilliant wine in production at the moment,” Paula said.
“While everyone is jumping out, we are jumping in. Unlike sheep, we don't want to follow.”
The pair have taken a few risks in winemaking but have a vision is to bring unique variety and flavours together.
Their time so far has been a mixed bag of emotions.
“A lot of hard work, misspent family time, begging of friends and family for help, annoying your neighbour with a million questions, but the end result is incredible satisfaction that we made it through the first year.”
“We are happy to announce we are officially in business and have many plans for the future.”
Lazy Oak Vineyard is located at Eurunderee just outside Mudgee. Sales are via private wine tastings and virtual cellar door. For more information, please visit www.lazyoak.com.au
or phone Paula on 0419 698 816.