The considerable treasures of a life’s work
A version of one of Aesop’s fables adorns the simple black and white label of Chris Bourke’s wine bottles: it is the story of the dying farmer — in this version an old vigneron — who tells his sons that considerable treasure lies hidden in the vineyard. In the months following their father’s death, the sons work over every inch of ground looking for the treasure but fail to find it. Eventually, they notice that the vineyard has responded to their digging by producing a bountiful crop and come to understand the meaning of their father’s riddle: that the joy of life lies not in the receipt of riches but rather in the process that leads to their attainment.
After spending time with Chris and his wife Kathryn it is clear that the story is more than just an affectation for them. The name of their wine label, Sons and Brothers, was chosen to reference the couple and their three sons (although Chris adds that it had the added bonus of not being trademarked already), and the illustration — a copy of a 17th Century woodcut — comes from a childhood colouring book belonging to their children.
And so too, the fable reflects Chris’ approach to his winemaking. A small vineyard, he says, is financially somewhat like a race horse, in that you put in a lot of money and occasionally see a little back. For him, it truly is a labour of love.
But nearly 40 years after planting his vines, Chris has now picked his last grape and later this year will bottle the final vintage of his winemaking career.
Chris was one of the early pioneers of wine growing in Orange, planting his 2 hectares of Cabernet vines in 1981.
“It was a very, very small numbers of people then. I think we were number two: Ted Fardell at Nashdale was number one in 1980, then us in ‘81 and then in ‘83 Bloodwood and Cargo Road came along and Murray Smith by about ’86, so just a handful of people,” said Chris.
A veterinarian by training, Chris spent much of his career as a research scientist specialising in veterinary toxicology. But wine was always a big part of his life.
“I always had strong interest in grapes and wine. I started drinking wine at the age of 17; my brothers were beer drinkers, but I decided on wine rather than beer and it just built from there. And once you get in and get involved, then it becomes sort of a passion really and you just get more and more caught up in it… each year you are out there trying to tweak it and make it that little bit better,” he said.
For the past 38 years, Chris and his wife have run the entire operation themselves: from growing and picking the grapes, pressing them in their small custom-built cellar right through to the bottling and sales.
Sons and Brothers is slightly unusual when compared to other vineyards in the area, in that Chris makes just a single product, Cabernet, and releases it only after it has spent ten years in his cellar. That’s a long time before seeing a return on your investment and played no small part in Chris’s decision to retire.
“I can't afford the luxury of making more because it will be here, but I will not necessarily be here,” said Chris.
“I've reached the ripe old age of 70, so with my current production, I will be selling the last bottle when I'm 80 — this is the reality of it. If you were doing an early release product then that's a different matter, but we’ve got enough wine for sales over for another 10 years and I don't want to leave a problem for someone.”
Chris had actually planned for 2017 to be his last vintage, but conditions were so good leading into 2018 that he couldn’t resist one last crush.
“I couldn't miss it. It was the probably the best vintage I've had; the season was beautiful and the fruit was beautiful… we physically killed ourselves with that one, but that was good —because that's it.”
While other vignerons around the region have been busy with this current vintage, the vineyard Chris has lovingly tendered to for decades lay idle. For Chris, the past few months have been a period mixed with relief and frustration.
“It was very hard. You almost had to tie your hands behind your back because; you just want to get those snips and start doing fruit,” he said.
“I think it's definitely an adaptation process; you've got to mentally get moved into that new mindset where, whether you like it or not, you have to stop, because otherwise you just keep doing it and I'd keep doing it till the day I died.”
Seeing Chris in his cellar surrounded by ten years of hard work, I remark that it is not often a person gets to see the fruits of their past labour in such a tangible way.
“No, that's true,” said Chris. “And being down here periodically doing the quality control, you can just see how the wine is evolving, you get to know your own wine pretty well by the end of that. But that's why the whole thing is so engrossing. You've grown the fruit. You've made the wine. You've bottled it, you've aged it, you're following it through. It really is quite a fascinating pursuit, but there are easier ways to make a buck.”