MATT Fowles has known agriculture was for him since he was a child.
"He was always outside tinkering around with things," his father, David, said.
- AT A GLANCE
- Who: Fowles Wine
- What: Sheep and wine
- Why: Experimenting to get results
- Where: Avenel, Victoria
"It's been a huge interest for him and it's a wonderful thing to be doing what you love."
David, retired from his previous career as an automotive auctioneer, now works in Matt's business.
"It's hard when a son works for his father, but I think fathers working for their sons is much better," David said.
When Matt saw Dominion Wines had gone broke and their winery in Avenel was up for sale, he finally made the leap into farming. Matt bought the winery with business partner Sam Plunkett in 2005 and named it Strathbogie Ranges Vintners, which became Plunkett Fowles.
He bought Sam out last year and the business became Fowles Wine.
"Most people tree change at the end of their career, but I thought, 'why not do it at the start?'," Matt said.
Previously, the 32-year-old was a lawyer at Baker & McKenzie in Melbourne.
"I always wanted to study agriculture, but didn't, and eventually the draw of the farm became too much," Matt said.
"And being a hobby winemaker is hard, so I had to go all-in."
Fowles Wine occupies vineyards on the rolling plateaux at the heights of the Strathbogie Ranges.
There are 1902ha of sandy clay loams across three farms - Killeen, Upton Run and Billi's Vineyard.
Killeen has been in the Fowles family for 50 years, comprises 1093ha of grazing land and runs sheep only.
Upton Run is 567ha, 90 of which are vineyard.
It also houses the winery, which has a 4000-tonne crushing capacity and 4 million litres storage capacity.
Billi's Vineyard is the newest addition and is 178ha, 49ha of which are vineyard.
David says Fowles is about providing people with an experience.
"We are here to serve people good food and wine and bring them pleasure," he said.
The winery has a restaurant on site that offers a mountain view.
But Fowles is about more than wine.
It is also about sheep.
The mixed enterprise runs sheep for meat and wool, accounting for about 15 per cent of the total business at Fowles.
It sells 400 prime lambs annually and produces 250 bales of wool.
The farm works integrated operations and runs sheep in the vineyards.
"There are no fences on the vineyards, which is a very rare thing," David said.
"The sheep have a profound effect on the operation of the vineyard."
Grazing manager Rob Martin calls the sheep his "woolly aphids".
"They keep the grass down which reduces the need for diesel," he said.
"They also drop manure, control worms and allow the paddocks to rest, which is good for the soil."
The self-replacing Merino flock consists of about 3000 breeding ewes, while there are a further 2000 first-cross ewes.
"We're looking to increase this with pasture improvement on all three properties," Rob said.
It's a closed flock and no ewes are bought in or traded.
However, replacement rams are bought every year.
"It's semen in, trucks out," Rob said.
Shearing happens in late October and last year involved 18 straight days in the sheds, in time to beat the grass seeds and flies.
There is a six-stand shed at Killeen and a five-stand shed at Upton Run.
All shearing is contracted out.
The meat is supplied to Woolworths, Coles and local butchers.
"We started selling to local butchers so we could get proper feedback about our carcasses for breeding and improvement," Rob said.
"The local butcher lets us come down and inspect the carcass ourselves to check fat depth and weight-gain on second-cross lambs.
"Now we get real reporting on traits."
Back at the grape vines, Rick Milland knows his stuff.
The viticulturist has a career spanning 25 years and has worked in wine regions such as Mornington Peninsula and South West Slopes in NSW.
"He's a very experienced, hands-on, traditional farmer," David said.
Rick has almost finished a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at Charles Sturt University in NSW.
Adapted to cold Avenel mornings, he doesn't prune until July, to encourage later bud burst and reduce frost risk.
From July 1 to Christmas, vineyard workers are busy spraying fungicides and lifting wires.
Harvest is at the end of February, and is usually wrapped up by the end of March, depending on the season.
A permanent crew of seven people works in the vineyard pruning, operating machinery, spraying fungicides, lifting wires and cutting suckers.
"We start multiplying out to 12-13 contractors during season," Rick said.
"There are 300,000 vines across 500km of vine rows all up, so it keeps us busy."
Rick grows 13 varieties of grapes and is currently testing for drought-tolerant varieties.
In terms of whites, he grows arneis, vermentino, riesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, verdelho and pinot gris.
For reds he grows pinot noir, sangiovese, mourvedre, merlot, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.
They use these grapes to create award-winning wines under labels Are You Game?, The Rule & The Exception, 490 Metres, Stone Dwellers and Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch.
Killeen has a water licence, as well as a winterfall licence, which allows the farm to capture water out of waterways in winter and filter it into the 450-megalitre dam.
Upton run has two dams with a combined capacity of 400 megalitres and Billi's Vineyard has a 50-megalitre dam.
All watering is done by a drip irrigator via a computerised automatic system.
Moisture probes are used to check soil moisture and tailor irrigation to exact plant needs.
Once the grapes are harvested the reins are passed to highly technical winemaker Victor Nash.
"I try to actively take the best of technology and marry it with the benefits of old world understanding," Victor said.
He even tinkers with machinery in the winery to alter it for greater efficiency.
He's experimental, and has been trialling the use of wild yeast and heritage oak barrels.
"People say wild ferment is not viable or predictable, which is why 99 per cent of wine made around the world is made with freeze-dried yeast," Victor said.
"But who is to say the yeast in the Strathbogies doesn't have a unique, great flavour?
"Grapes are naturally covered in yeast and there's been a lot of recent research into what these yeasts can do.
"Apparently wild yeasts are only 30 per cent reliable, but I think it's more than that."
Victor proved the sceptics wrong when he created Dam Fine Wine, which was crushed by his children's feet, poured into 100-year-old oak vats and floated in the dam to control the fermentation temperature.
"We used the dam to cool the vats over March when it was hot," Victor said. "Almost everyone was a sceptic, but I had to try it."
He has seven full-time staff in the winery and employs between four and six casuals during harvest.
"They're mostly young winemakers who have learned the craft from Europe, and scientists sponsor them out here," Victor said.
Fowles Wine took home the RACV Victorian Tourism Award for Tourism Wineries, Distilleries and Breweries last November, qualifying it for the Australian Tourism Awards in Hobart, where it won a bronze award.
"Australia offers numerous rich tourism experiences, so to be recognised as a leading provider in this landscape is an honour and testament to the tireless work of our team," Matt said.
"We our passionate about providing first class food and wine tourism experiences and this award gives our team a great boost to reach even higher in the years to come."
Matt said he hoped the award would help shine a light on the Strathbogie Ranges as a premium tourist destination for food and wine.
"The award process assessed the business as a whole so winning it is a real testament to our commitment to excellence and sustainability in our vineyard," he said.
David said achievements such as this would be impossible without such a strong team.
"We're lucky to have a group of such dynamic and clever young people," he said.
"They overlay their experience with a highly scientific approach to farming."