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Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860 Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860

An enterprising Scotsman

Vines were first planted at St Leonards in 1860 by James Scott, who named it after his birthplace in Scotland. Scott had come to the area from Beechworth (50km south east of Wahgunyah) and established a hotel in the town in 1861. Establishing the hotel gave him an avenue for selling his own wines 'across the bar' to customers.

The initial vineyard planting was made up of 12 acres of vines and 7 acres of fruit trees. Scott built a cellar of slab timber walls, Murray-pine rafters and iron roof, in which to carry on the business. The original cellar, which measured just 40 feet by 30 feet, was filled with the most modern winemaking equipment at the time. A feature was the latest crusher from France, with fluted cast iron beaters, that was still in use up until the mid-1970’s! It is still in the winery today.

In the late 1860’s, Scott experienced some financial problems and as a last resort the Bank of Victoria at Wahgunyah took control of the property and installed a manager on its behalf. The bank erected a 20 by 12 brick hut with windows and a fire-place, to which was added a small skillion roofed shed of Murray-pine slabs. This served as living quarters for Mr. Pond, the manager appointed by the bank. Situated close to the cellar, this particular room is now known as the 'spirit store' in which spirit is kept under bond for wine making.

Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860, Image courtesy of Wahgunyah Historical Society

Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860 Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860

Establishing long term success

In 1897 Henry Ireland bought St. Leonards from the Bank of Victoria having paid between £25 and £30 per acre for the property. Born in New Zealand and educated in England, Ireland came to Wahgunyah a single man, and later married a Miss Best of Castlemaine. The couple had three sons. Their original home (the homestead which is still there today) was built in 1899. Ireland gradually built up the brand and reputation of St Leonards, while at the same time acquiring some of the vineyards grazing property nearby until he owned 375 acres, as well as 200 acres of leasehold river flats. He introduced irrigation to the vineyard, and in fact, held Pumping Licence Number 8 on the Murray River. Ireland also planted citrus and other fruit and nut trees. He provided seven homes for work-men, enlarged the cellar to today’s proportions and built his own home. St Leonards back then, was quite a settlement.

Ireland increased plantings and guided the winery through the 1890's economic recession. He continued to extend the area under vine until phylloxera struck in the early 1900’s. Phylloxera took its toll on the vineyard but after a gradual grafting program, implemented by Ireland, the vineyard was eventually replanted and covered some 100ha. The total vineyard area reached 230 acres with most of the wine produced - mainly dry reds and fortifieds, being exported. At the peak of production, the output reached a volume of 200,000 litres annually or 12,500 cases. A small amount was sold locally in bulk with good sherry bringing 30 shillings per gallon (quite a sum in those days!).

Main Street, Wahgunyah 1860, Image courtesy of Wahgunyah Historical Society

Birds-eye view, Wahgunyah circa 1860 Birds-eye view, Wahgunyah circa 1860

St Leonards Pty Ltd

In 1919, Ireland in a flitting climax to his success story of 22 rewarding years, sold the property as a good going concern to a company known as St Leonards Pty Ltd. for £22,000. St Leonards Pty Ltd was a syndicate made up of local vignerons and businessmen. Oscar Seppelt, W. H. Chambers, George Gehrig, Frank Herman, Masterton and Dobbin (who operated the distillery now owned by Pfeiffer’s) together with a mining engineer, Jack Glover, were the major shareholders. Most of the wine produced was sold to Melbourne merchants. W. J. Seabrook and John Connell and Co. were two regular purchasers, and this continued up to the depression. Nearly all the vignerons sold wine locally through a two gallon licence – prices varied but you could expect to pay 3 shillings per gallon for table wine and 6 shillings for sweet fortified. Chambers possessed a single bottle licence which was rare in those days, with prices being around sixpence a bottle for table wine and a shilling for fortifieds – of course you had to bring your own bottle!

Between 1924 – 1928, St Leonards processed all of Seppelts grapes and made wine for them. Seppelts had just purchased the Hamilton Cellars in the centre of Rutherglen, and had pulled them down to build bigger premises.

Birds-eye view, Wahgunyah circa 1860, Image courtesy of Wahgunyah Historical Society

Harold's Bike on the wall at St Leonards Cellar Door Harold's Bike on the wall at St Leonards Cellar Door

Harold Cofield - Harold's Room

Harold John Cofield was born in Albury in 1907 on the 21st of November to Frank and Elsie Cofield and passed away peacefully on the 3rd of May 1983 aged 85 years old. At the age of three the family moved to St Leonards to live and work on the property which was owned at the time by Henry Ireland. Harold walked 5 miles every day, to and from the small rural school in Wahgunyah. If he was lucky he would catch lift on the cart that their neighbour owned, when they were taking cream to town. Coming from a family of 14, there was certainly never a dull moment in the Cofield household. Having six sisters and five brothers, it was said that they had a cricket team all of their own and for Harold, this and fishing were just two of his many joys. After leaving school Harold went to work at St Leonards for Mr and Mrs Upton and later for the Derbyshire’s who purchased the property in 1972. He played a crucial role in helping to bring the vineyard back to life with his brother-in-law, Harry Dunn. It was then in 1933 that he married Mary Pollock from Carlyle, they were the first to be married in the Carlyle Congregational Church. They established their home at St Leonards next to the vineyards where Harold worked tirelessy for the next 52 years until his retirement. A wealth of knowledge and experience was held by Harold, which made him an invaluable source to listen to and even at the age of 85 he continued an active role in the goings on of St Leonards Vineyard and the land around him which he loved so much. At the age of 85 Harold still led a very active life, maintaining a superb vegetable garden and apple trees, he rode his bike (seen hanging in cellar door) each morning up the old track to collect the papers. The room adjacent to Cellar Door has been named, Harold's Room in his honour.

Harold's Bike on the wall at St Leonards Cellar Door

A modern day renaissance

In 1959, St Leonards changed hands again, this time being purchased by Arthur Upton, the owner of an engineering firm across the river in Corowa. Upton was not interested in grape growing – all but a few acres were pulled out with the land being turned over to dairying, beef cattle and lucerne production. The grapes from the few remaining acres were usually sold to Italian tobacco growers in Myrtleford for between £60 -£70 per ton. St Leonards, as it had been for 99 years, was sadly no longer.

A Melbourne businessman/artist, John Darbyshire, and his wife, had, for many years, a wish to “own a vineyard, produce wines and live in a bluestone cottage”. They were attracted to North-East Victoria and had looked at various small winery/vineyards. They were told of a property called St Leonards situated on the Murray River near Wahgunyah which in the past had been a flourishing vineyard. After seeing the location, they fell in love with it and the sale was affected in June 1972. In 1973 the Derbyshire’s immediately set to re-establishing the vineyard, planting 80 acres of vines. Contrary to Rutherglen’s reputation of big reds and fortifieds, the Derbyshire’s vineyard plantings were 80% white varieties and 20% red. The first plantings of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon were completed within a matter of months. With no knowledge of viticulture themselves, they employed a vineyard manager, Harry Dunn, who had worked at nearby All Saints Estate for 16 years. Harry and his son David progressively built up the vineyard over the next five years. Initial plantings of Semillon and Trebbiano were followed by Chenin Blanc. The first vintage, in 1976, was processed in the concrete sump under the old press – about 50 gallons in all, made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz with a little Trebbiano thrown in! Apparently the wine wasn’t half bad although none of us have ever tasted it.

For the first time since 1959, the old winery become fully operational in 1978. All the red grapes were processed at St Leonards with the white wines being contract made by Brown Brothers at Milawa. The red wines produced were, at best, adequate and led to John Derbyshire’s realization that he was not a very good winemaker! After this initial flirtation with winemaking he decided to send all of his grapes to Brown Brothers. This proved to be a very successful move as the 1979 St Leonards Chenin Blanc took out the trophy for the best white wine at the Rutherglen Show of that year. Unfortunately for Darbyshire, there were few successes on the financial front – the establishment of vineyards, the hiring of workers and the renovation of cellars and houses on the property had caused a significant draining of funds.

On Friday December 14th 1979 at 2.30pm the St Leonards property was put up for auction by Mr & Mrs Darbyshire, they were selling due to “the winery having developed to a point where it is too big for them”. The successful bidder was the Brown Brothers family of Milawa who, one could say, had the inside knowledge having seen first hand the quality of the fruit produced from the vineyard. The Brown Family took over the ownership in early 1980 and a program of consolidating and developing the range of grape varieties was put into effect – Trebbiano was removed, further plantings of Orange Muscat were undertaken as well as new plantings of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. At the same time, St. Leonards got on with the business of producing premium table wines. 

The Brown Family The Brown Family

Breaking new ground

St Leonards pioneered the term ‘boutique’ in the Australian wine industry with 90% of the wines sold through cellar door and by mail order; the marketing of St. Leonards at that time is not unlike the business strategy of today, enabling us to relate to ourcustomers on a more personal level. 

In 1998 Peter R. Brown one of the Brown Brothers of Milawa acquired the property from his brothers. The Brown Brothers business was booming through export and they felt that emphasis must be put on the core brand being Brown Brothers. This was also the case for All Saints Estate which they had acquired in 1990. Peter R. Brown took ownership over of both St. Leonards Vineyard and All Saints Estate and remained a shareholder in the Brown Brothers business. He spent his days at both properties, working very hard in making sure the vineyards were producing high quality fruit. On Sunday, November 13th 2005, Peter died suddenly and now his daughters Eliza, Angela and son Nicholas are the hands on managers of both wineries which are a continuing success today.

The vision for St Leonards Vineyard is to redevelop the vineyards to continue producing outstanding table wines, with re-development of the cellar door, dining facilities and eventually self contained boutique accommodation. Eliza Angela and Nick Brown pursue the idea that if you look after the earth, she will in return look after you.

Eliza, Nicholas and Angela Brown