The Beginnings of Symphony Hill Wines

SHW_Photo_Elissa2KidsSymphony Hill Wines was born out of a dream to combine our passion for wine with embarking on a grand adventure to create world class wine in a new wine region. So, who are the people who created Symphony Hill Wines? They are Ewen and Elissa Macpherson and Ewen’s parents Bob and Jill Macpherson. Their winemaker extraodinaire, Mike Hayes, is the 5th essential element in the equation and has been vitally part of the winery since day 1.

When Ewen turned 30 he brought his wife and his parents out to the Granite Belt to celebrate his “coming of an older age” and instantly fell in love with the place. “Having grown up on the Sunshine Coast with lush green grass, heat and humidity, I found the Stanthorpe area to be vastly different. I loved the granite boulders, the enormous grass trees, the freezing temperatures of winter, and soil which looked like the beach and found the bush to be beautifully rough and rugged.”

“I knew I wanted to do something completely different to my current profession which was computer programming. I had started a family and wanted my kids to grow up on acreage like I did on the Sunshine Coast. I wanted to go back to uni and use my brains again to learn something from scratch.”

“I was raised in a family where the environment was always positive and possibly a little hyper-active. My parents were never afraid to take wonderful, huge leaps into the unknown when it came to where they lived and how they lived. So embarking on Symphony Hill was simply in my DNA. Within 3 months of visiting the Granite Belt for the first time I had purchased my first 40 block of land and enrolled to study Bachelor of Applied Science – Viticulture at CSU Wagga Wagga. Everyone knows about sea change, well this was a rock change.”

“Without over analysing why I felt this way, I just believed it would be a huge success. It was some of the best years of my life learning how to grow wine grapes to make the best wine I could. I was determined to minimise my mistakes so enrolled on various viticulture courses outside of my degree, hired viticultural professionals to inspect the property and provide advice, and filtered often conflicting advice through my own ideas to decide on each step. To give an idea on how much I wanted to get it right, we prepared the soil for two years before planting.”

“The information gained from the Viticulture degree was invaluable and being applied science I could apply it in the paddock straight away.”

JamesBob and Jill Macpherson sold up in Brisbane and built a new home next to the Pinot Noir and Ewen and Elissa Macpherson renovated the old farm house and both families came out to live at Symphony Hill when the vines went in the ground. Bob recollects, “Jill and I have very fond memories of the early days in the life of Symphony Hill, from clearing of the land (mostly rocks and rock icebergs) to the planting of crops to improve soil quality. The planting of vines, and installation of dams and irrigation systems was a major operation.”

“Ewen’s dog (an Aussie Silky Terrier named Zaphod Beeblebrox) injured from a car altercation in Brisbane had a severe limp, however after keeping me company walking kilometres every day while installing the irrigation system, would go home and collapse. In a short time he became 100% fit and full of character.”

Mike Hayes recollects another Zaphod story, “Ewen and I went on an exploratory bush walk out the back of the property behind where the winery now stands. Of course Zaphod followed us, and as we followed Doctor’s Creek we came to a series of water falls each about 10m tall. Unfortunately Zaphod went too close to the edge and slipped off the edge landing with an audible thump and a low whimper. I thought that was the end of Mr Beeblebrox, but too our surpise as we madly scrambled down the sides of the waterfall, we found him still breathing but not moving. I grabbed him up and Ewen and I made a mad dash through the bush back to the car and raced into Stanthorpe. A few broken bones including jaw and a couple of teeth missing slowed him down for a bit, but soon came back to full health. We have since named that series of waterfalls, “Zaphod Falls”.

Ewen was still running his computer programming business from home while studying viticulture remotely at CSU. Bob did most of the hard work establishing the vineyard, including all the irrigation. Always looking to be creative, he worked with a local welding company to design a tractor implement to create the “V” shaped inter-rows between each row of vines.

When the two Macpherson families settled onto the vineyard, Jill was a constant provider of gourmet feasts to four generations of Macphersons at one stage when Jill’s mother lived there for a short while. The meals were typical of every romantic vineyard movie except without wine from that vineyard! But they fed the fires of expectation until the grand day our first vintage was uncorked in 2002.

Mike Hayes, our amazing winemaker and viticultural genius, and now co-owner, has been intimately involved with Symphony Hill since it was a mere concept. He heard about us preparing the soil to establish a vineyard and introduced himself to Ewen over the phone. Ewen was still living in Brisbane in a Queenslander that had been fully renovated inside but still had all the peeling old paint on the outside.

In Mike’s words, “I remember pulling up outside of their home in Annerley, Brisbane and being surprised over the state of the house. Over the phone they sounded like they were serious about establishing a high quality vineyard, but when I saw their house I had serious doubts. Ewen described the outside appearance as burglar-proof and it certainly was. No burglar would get excited about that house!”

“However I soon knew after talking with Ewen and Bob that this family was serious and I wanted to be part of it. I remember inspecting the land prior to planning with all of the rows established using their delver they had designed and being so impressed with the careful preparation. It is a signature of Symphony Hill that we all carry forward to this day of never settling for second best.”

So why Symphony Hill? Prior to planting, Elissa went for a bush walk up to the top of the hill which now overlooks the vineyard and had a “Julie Andrews” moment. She felt the hill were alive, and loved the symphony of nature played out before her. She came down from the hill, not with 2 stone tablets, but with a declaration that the winery would be named “Symphony Hill”.

In 2004, Elissa was able to use ‘20 years of shopping experience’ to design our brand new cellar door complete with chandelier and 1960’s renovated whistler lounge for visitors to settle into while enjoying the fruits of our labour. She is responsible for the visual presentation of Symphony Hill Wines including designing our labels.

When our first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2002 was awarded a gold medal at the Australian Small Winemakers Show it was a time of huge celebration for the whole Macpherson family and Mike Hayes as 7 years of preparation and investment had started to be realised. The Australian Small Winemakers Show is held in Stanthorpe each year and wineries that crush less than 300 tonnes are able to enter. The local newspaper printed the results of local wineries but left us out of the list as they did not know about us yet. So we printed T-Shirts to wear to the public tasting which said, “Symphony Who? Move over Coonawarra, here comes Ballandean” and had a veritable hoot of a time.

Bob recalls, “Our very first vintage, the 2002 Cabernet won Gold at the local show – so we thought that this is rather easy! After bush fires, frost (-14 degrees), hail and just about everything else, we realised it was not quite that easy.”

“In 2002 we decided to build our own winery instead of sending our precious fruit to another winery to be fermented. This started with graph paper, a pencil, ruler and most importantly, an eraser. It was quite exciting using state of the art humidity and temperature control, along with the latest in winemaking and bottling equipment imported from Italy. I have so many fond memories of Mike and I enjoying morning coffees together solving all the world’s problems. It is so satisfying to see Mike develop into one of Australia’s foremost winemakers – he is definitely a one off.”