Off Topic and on the record, as we let South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… except their day job. This month Barossa Valley winemaker Grant Burge talks about his hobby and passion: the farm. “My father obviously was in the wine business,” Burge begins. “We had a little company called Wilsford Winery at Lyndoch, so there was no question that my wine side is from my father’s (Burge) side. Not many people realise that my mother, her name was Nancy Arthur and she came from Booleroo Centre, and the Arthurs have just as long a history in South Australia, in fact slightly longer, than the Burges. They settled near Riverton. In the 1870s they moved to Booleroo Centre and there’s quite a number of Arthurs there with big land holdings. So they were mixed farmers and graziers.
“As a young lad I always wanted to be a winemaker but I was always keen on the land, both viticulture and broadacre. When I first started out with my father and mother back in the 70s we bought some land with the idea of planting a small vineyard. My mother said, ‘you can’t leave all that other land to go to waste. We’ve got to buy some sheep’. I started off with 70 or 80 sheep and ever since that time, ever since 1971 or something, I’ve had a flock of sheep. Everything I do, I take fairly passionately. I love the agriculture side of things. Over the years we’ve always done a bit of cropping and have now built up to a flock of 5000 sheep. A few years ago I had another property with 8000 sheep and 300 head of cattle but the wine industry turned and I needed a bit of cash for the winery, so I sold a bit of land.”
It was reported that once upon a time Burge was thinking of quitting the wine business to concentrate on farming.
“That’s not quite true. Yes, I was going to buy a big farm up at Burra. I was about to sign up and then I really had a think… at the time there was a little bit of turmoil. Mildara had bought us out at Krondorf [Wines] and our family business, my father and uncle wanted to retire. There were three ways to go: hang in there with Mildara, buy out the family business or go and do something totally different, which was buy a farm. But then Helen [Burge, his wife] and I decided to get out of Mildara, as it was at the time, it became Mildara Blass. I decided to get out of that and start Grant Burge Wines [in 1988]. When that decision was made this farm was substantial, it wasn’t going to just be a hobby on weekends. In fact I would have had to have a manager and everything. We thought, ‘what are we, winemakers or graziers?’ We thought we’d better stick to our profession, which was winemaking.
“We let all that go and concentrated on Grant Burge Wines, the wine business. But as every block of land around here has come up for sale – luckily in 100, 150 acre or sometimes 300 acre parcels – around us I’ve bought them and built this into quite a big farm here on my back door.”
Burge takes two weeks annual leave for the shearing season (October), a community and family event, which involves his wife, Helen, who cooks for the shearers, wool classers and wool pressers, as well as Burge’s farmers.
“Socially I found it incredibly rewarding because I was dealing with a farming community which was totally different to the wine industry. So it was just another group of people that I got to know. Helen cooked for them, which they loved and they used to spread the word about Helen. Of course all the other graziers would complain because Helen used to spoil the shearers rotten. She set the bar too high. We all became friends and we all have a great time.”
Grant Burge, the internationally renowned winemaker, is as content at home on his Barossa farm as he is travelling the world.
“I’m a bit of a diverse character in the sense that I’m just as comfortable on the motorbike in my jeans as I am in a suit.”