Having a vine time in Woodford: Nappa Merri
Words and photos by Carol Altmann
When I last saw Jim Blakeslee, I was a high school kid who talked too much and he was my environmental science teacher who imparted knowledge about the natural world.
Click past 30 years or so and I am a journalist who makes a living from talking and Jim is a winemaker: I would argue we have both found our true calling.
Except viticulture is just one of many things that occupies Jim’s time: indeed when we meet, he and wife Tricia, also a retired school teacher, have just returned from a hike along the Sierra Nevada ranges in Jim’s home state of California (he was born at Laguna Beach). The pair are also accomplished divers, with Jim’s father the founder of the first magazine devoted to skindiving called, naturally, The Skindiver.
It is this same physical fitness and enthusiasm for the outdoors that the pair now apply to their five-acre property at Woodford, an idyllic, sloping, north-facing, beautifully treed piece of land that runs right down to the Merri River where platypus play and where the Blakeslee’s grow the grapes for their Nappa Merri wines.
But, like most land at Woodford in the late 80s, it wasn’t always this way.
“We basically bought a paddock and the only thing growing on it was box thorn and willow trees,” says Jim.
The Blakeslees have since transformed the land with mass plantings that have, in turn, seen native grasses return and, with them, native animals.
“The wallabies have worked out that the new green buds on the vines are quite tasty, so we have to net them all,” says Jim, before explaining that the row upon row of netting, like just about everything on this property, is done by hand.
The first vines were planted in 1990, using cuttings of shiraz, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and merlot taken from the vineyard of fellow boutique winemaker, the late Geoff O’Brien, who was a pathologist at the Warrnambool Base Hospital.
“Geoff knew we had a north-facing slope and thought it would be perfect for growing vines, so we took some cuttings and we started with pretty much just bare sticks in the ground,” Jim explains.
Growing the vines, however, is only one part of the equation: Jim then had to learn the art of wine making.
“My science background helped because it is really all about working with micro-organisms,” he says, smiling, “but I also read a lot of books and asked lots of questions from people who knew what they were doing”.
Those mentors included Geoff O’Brien and Bruce Dalkin, a sixth-generation wine maker from Westgate Vineyard in the Great Western area.
So how was that first vintage, produced in 1994?
Tricia’s face gives it away before she says, “pretty ordinary”, which is exactly what to expect from youthful, three or four year old vines.
Those “bare twigs” are now 25 years old and producing about 100 cases a year of either a full bodied red (a blend of cab sav, merlot, malbec and shiraz), a pinot noir, chardonnay or semillon, which has since been added to the Nappa range. (Nappa, as an aside, is the aboriginal word for the waters of the Merri, not a play on words from the wine making region of the Napa Valley, California, but it is a lovely coincidence.)
The Blakeslee’s wines, which are among the few in the south-west where all the grapes are grown on the property, hand-picked and the wine made on-site, were among those to feature at the recent Port Fairy Winter Weekend gourmet lunch with Matt Dempsey.
The calcium-rich, volcanic soil of the Woodford property is proving not only perfect for viticulture, however, but for growing a range of boutique produce.
Tricia shows me baskets full of freshly harvested macadamias and hazelnuts still in their sweet “bonnets”, while pointing out an orchard that includes apples, pears, cherries and persimmons, and a productive avocado tree. Black truffles are a new, long-term project and Jim is even adjusting to the whims of climate change by attempting to grow mangoes.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, but we really love it,” Tricia says.
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