Located near the port city of Geelong in Victoria, Australia some 80 kilometres southwest of Melbourne is Lethbridge Wines, a small winery started 21 years ago by three people who make making things look easy.
At that time, Ray Nadeson, who had been researching and teaching neuroscience at Monash University, his medical chemistry researcher wife Maree Collis and cardiac physician friend Adrian Thomas – all 27 years old then – with all the brashness of youth felt they needed to go outdoors a lot more and decided the best way to do so was to buy a vineyard and make wine.
The only problem was, it occurred to them, that aside from enjoying the drinking of it they didn’t really know much else about wine, viticulture, or oenology. But that challenge only spurred them on – Nadeson and Collis would throw themselves into studying for a winemaking degree at Charles Sturt University even as they worked in their day jobs. At the same time they would go around looking for a place to establish a vineyard and winery.
They knew that the one most important thing was to find the right place to do it – it was critical, they decided, to experiment with winemaking in their own space. In particular, they wanted to make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and cool climate Shiraz.
They would find it in Geelong, not too far away from Melbourne. “We spent three years – that’s quite a long time – looking for a place with the right soil and the right climate. Geelong fitted the climate spectra very well,” recalls Nadeson. But the best part, he shares, was the soil – it was limestone. Calcareous limestone, of course, is really important for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and it was rather rare in Australia to find a fortuitous combination of cool climate and limestone. “You can find warm or intermediate climate and limestone, but cool climate and limestone – that’s Geelong,” he adds.
Confirmation that they’ve found the right place came in the form of old winemaking equipment the Lethbridge founders discovered in an old abandoned shed on the property – turns out they came from way back in 1874 when there was a vineyard there originally planted by Swiss immigrants.
They got down to work and replanted the vineyard. But unlike many other winemakers, the Lethbridge founders got personally stuck in. In fact Nadeson literally built the winery with his own hands from ground up in just three weeks during a holiday.
“We didn’t want to just employ people to do all the work. You’ll find all these rich people who buy over a vineyard and get others to work on it,” Nadeson tells. “That’s not us. Every single thing in our vineyard – we built. We designed the buildings and then built them with my own hands, put all of the vines in, did all the mucky, dirty work – that’s what we enjoy doing,” he says.
Even the house on the property in which they lived Nadeson built himself. “We have long service leave – for every ten years on the job we were given three months off – so I used that long service leave to built the house we were living in,” he shares.
“At one point of time we had three kids with one more on the way, full time jobs, were studying winemaking and had the vineyard,” Nadeson recalls. “It was a very busy time. I still don’t know how we did it!”
“It’s my blood, my sweat, and not what I paid someone else to shed for me.” – Ray Nadeson, owner and winemaker of Lethbridge Wines.
As you can expect, it’s so hands-on at Lethbridge Wines right at the start they went with organic and biodynamic farming, even if they’re not officially accredited as such. “The reason why we do it is not because it made for “healthier wine”; I just didn’t want to poison myself with chemicals,” Nadeson laughs.
But the advantage of building everything themselves, and using their own incomes to fund the winery, was that they didn’t need a loan in order to start Lethbridge Wines. “And we don’t have to worry too much about selling wine because we don’t have any loans to pay off,” he says. “It frees me up to do whatever hell I want.” When you’re that free, he explains, you tend to make what you like that invariably becomes the things people want and appreciate.
These days though, things are a lot more relaxed. Nadeson now focuses most of his time on the vineyard and winemaking – making the likes of his Lethbridge wines and can find time to pursue his mountaineering hobby. He’s also consulting on several winery projects.
He’s not too bothered about expansion. “We’ve now hit a ceiling with 7,000 cases, which will go up and down depending on the season,” he says. “The difficulty is that with some businesses is with growth – there can be a lot of headache just to squeeze out a little bit extra. It might be worth it if that’s what you like to do and are driven by growth in business, but I’m not so we don’t call our distributors and start yelling at them to sell more,” he laughs.
“I’m driven about living life.”
Instead he keeps himself amused by doing different things in his winemaking. “We make a lot of Italian wines as well such as Negroamaro and Nero D’Avola. This year we’re making Schioppettino,” he says. “It gives variety to life.”
As though someone who at one point in their lives who have juggled four kids, holding a full-time job, studies and building a winery, needed any more variety.
Lethbridge Wines are distributed in Singapore by Vinicole Asia. Their wines – the Pinot Noir, Mietta Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Allegra Chardonnay, Shiraz, Indra Shiraz, and Hugo George Sangiovese – are also available for retail at 1855 The Bottle Shop.