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There are grapes, good food and a golden past at this north-eastern town with the lot.
Story: Peter Barrett. Photos: Anne Morley.
It was meant to be a year off. Eliza Brown, then aged 28, left her successful advertising career in Melbourne to work for her father, winemaker Peter R. Brown.
“Dad rang me up one day when it was wet and I was stuck in traffic and said, ‘how do you feel about doing a year up here at Rutherglen?’”
Her father had bought the historic All Saints Estate winery in north-eastern Victoria in the early 1990s and, more recently, acquired nearby St Leonards Vineyard from his brothers (of Brown Brothers fame). Eliza said yes.
‘I kind of fell in love up here with the industry and, I suppose, the romance of it all.’
Sixteen years later she is still here, running both wineries with her siblings Angela, 42, and Nicholas, 38. “I had all the intention at the start to go back to Melbourne but I kind of fell in love up here with the industry and, I suppose, the romance of it all.”
Although, she hastens to add, it’s not all been beer and skittles. “It’s a changing environment. You’re not just dealing with wine, you’re dealing with the weather and people, and hospitality – but it’s a really nice industry to work in.”
In 2005, her decision to stay was sealed by the tragic death of her father in a motorbike accident. Eliza, Angela and Nick thought about selling but opted instead to take the plunge and run the wineries themselves.
Today Eliza, 44, is married to restaurateur Denis Lucey (who owns Bottega and Luxsmith, in Melbourne) and mother to two daughters, Coco, 12, and five-year-old Charlie. Meanwhile, the Brown family has grown its business to include boutique accommodation at disused winery Mount Ophir Estate, opened an award-winning bar/restaurant in Rutherglen’s main street, Thousand Pound, and the family’s All Saints Estate Terrace restaurant has picked up a Good Food Guide chef’s hat for each of the last five years.
Rutherglen’s rich gold-flecked past attracts its share of history buffs, too.
Rutherglen is famous for five and even six-generation family winemakers, who specialise in bold Durifs, world-renowned fortifieds and interesting French varietal table wines. The first vineyards were planted here in the 1850s and, by 1890, the region was producing a quarter of Australia’s wine, much of it for export. But then an outbreak of root-destroying phylloxera struck in the late 1890s and the winemakers had to start afresh, with disease-resistant root stock imported from California.
The Murray River next to John Foord Bridge, which connects Wahgunyah and Corowa.
While many visitors from Melbourne (three hours’ drive away) and nearby NSW flock here to visit the 19 small wineries dotted around town, Rutherglen’s rich gold-flecked past attracts its share of history buffs, too. The precious metal was discovered here in 1860 and, within weeks, the town swelled with prospectors.
“I’m intrigued by the gold history,” says Mandy Jones, a fifth-generation winemaker and local historian, standing in her cellar door restaurant at Jones Winery.
“Just out the road that way, on the way to Albury-Wodonga, there was a settlement of 2000 people and there were 22,000 in Rutherglen at the time. They needed a lot of miners because it wasn’t surface gold it was underground,” Mandy says. “They had that many people working in the grazing properties and as miners that they used to play football on Saturdays and Sundays. There was a huge population.”
There is something wonderfully easygoing about the place.
To soak in Rutherglen’s gold era it’s worth visiting the Gold Battery, a steam-operated machine built in 1908 that crushed quartz to extract gold. The building is an easy walk from the centre of town and, armed with a swipe card from the visitor centre, you can poke around inside and watch an enlightening video presentation about how the process worked.
Today, Rutherglen is home to just 3000 people and there is something wonderfully easygoing about the place. At last count, the town’s main street was home to four second-hand shops and three pubs, including the historic Victoria Hotel, which boasts a roaring fire in winter and plenty of history (take a look out the back and you’ll find a building that once served as the town’s mortuary).
If you’re still hungry for history, take a self-guided Heritage Walk (maps available at the visitors centre) or drop in to the Common School Museum, Rutherglen’s original school, built in 1872 and recreated as a schoolroom of that era. And, if you happen to be around on the second Sunday of the month, make a beeline for Rutherglen Lions Park on Douglas Street, where you’ll find a busy farmers’ market.
Set on a plain fringed by the looping course of the great Murray River, Rutherglen’s farms and wineries enjoy a warm, dry climate with cool nights. Locals and visitors love pitching a tent or parking their caravan for a night or two at several free camping sites (without amenities), such as Police Paddocks, Shaws Flat and Granthams Bend. The relatively flat terrain is a boon for cyclists, who are catered for by an ever-extending rail trail leading from the main town to Wahgunyah and, soon, a trail that will lead riders in a circle back past Lake Moodemere.
‘We’ll sit on a milk crate and work out the harvest for the day. It doesn’t get any better.’
Near the lake you’ll find a relatively new restaurant on the scene, Ripe at Buller Wines. Chef Gavin Swalwell planted the adjoining kitchen garden in winter last year and is excited by its progress. “The journey’s been amazing,” he says. “We’ve worked out where the best micro climates are, what works, what doesn’t … for the first time, this week we’ve been totally self-sufficient.”
The function space at All Saints Estate.
Main Street, Rutherglen.
Gavin, who with his wife Fiona Myers is also behind Rutherglen’s Taste Restaurant, says being able to grow a portion of the produce he cooks is “everything”. “Literally the first thing we do in the morning, at eight o’clock, I’ll go over and speak to Warren the gardener, we’ll sit on a milk crate and work out the harvest for the day. It doesn’t get any better.”
There are plenty of dining options in Rutherglen for all budgets: hearty plates of slow-cooked beef cheek at The Pickled Sisters Cafe at Cofield Winery; no-fuss emu, venison or kangaroo-filled pastries at Parker Pies; pub chicken parmigiana at Poachers Paradise; pizzas at the Rutherglen Brewery and country-town Australian-Chinese at the Star Hotel.
Rutherglen hosts several festivals throughout the year, including High Country Harvest (May), Tastes of Rutherglen (March), and Winery Walkabout (June), which attracts crowds of 20,000-plus.
Better perhaps, then, to pick a time when the crowds are elsewhere and you can have Rutherglen’s wonderful atmosphere, food, wine and natural beauty all to yourself.
The historic Gold Battery.
Sunset on Main Street, Rutherglen.
Sunrise at Lake Moodemere.
SAVE: Rutherglen is 80 kilometres from RACV Cobram Resort, with accommodation ranging from two-bedroom apartments to caravan sites. Members save 25 per cent on full rates all year round. GO TO: racv.com.au/cobram