HIPPIE OR HERO?
“Ron Laughton dismissed doubters early on to become a ‘Legend’ of Heathcote and organic farming”
Australia may be an adolescent in the scheme of global winemaking, yet we’ve been blessed with many innovators, creatives and fearless people who think outside the box.
Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill is one such innovator, who started life on a dairy farm before developing a career in food sciences. He put this on hold to pursue a dream, becoming the first name associated with the emergence of a significant wine region, and a frontrunner of organic farming practices well before these were considered by consumers and vignerons alike.
When he and wife Elva established Jasper Hill 40 years ago, the area was deemed part of Bendigo. Ron went on to be a member, then head, of the Bendigo District Winegrowers Association. There were a few local smaller growers established, however the praise his wines received from the early vintages forced the greater wine community to take notice of this unique patch of soil.
These red soils emerged 500 million years ago from the decomposition of volcanic basalt from the Cambrian period. Ron was able to identify this ancient feature which is unique to Heathcote as a vital part of defining the boundaries of the region to become a recognised Geographical Indication (GI).
“The region of Heathcote, unlike many other regions, did have a geological reason to exist… that was the strip of Cambrian soil. And that’s the way it has evolved, with the whole strip of soil as the backbone and a little bit of hinterland around it.” His definition of Heathcote was federally accepted and in 2002 the GI was born.
As a result, Ron was officially named a “Legend” at the Melbourne Food and Wine Show in 2006 for his contribution to the industry.
Not only was Ron’s understanding and passion for the science of terroir in a relatively unknown region unique, his approach to farming and working in harmony with nature was completely different to what was being practiced elsewhere.
“When I graduated back in 1966 as a chemist, chemists were the new wave. We were going to solve all the problems in the world, but I had a conundrum.” Ron explains. The book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson opened his eyes to the impact of agricultural chemicals on the environment and produce. “Here I am graduating as a chemist, but I’m scared of all these agrochemicals.”
When planting his vineyards, Ron decided to use organic practices from the outset. “The definition of ‘organic’ in agriculture is not using synthetic chemicals in any way to grow your product or process it,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Hang on. We’ve been farming for quite a few thousand years without these. Why do we need them?’”
When asked how prevalent this practice was, he answers, “Being organic? I was the odd man out. Within the industry I was probably regarded as a hippie, and I’m trying to say I’m not. But if I am a hippie, there are quite a few others now!”
Ron’s farming methods are about minimal intervention providing maximum quality. He does not use weed-killing chemicals saying: “I don’t have weeds in my vineyards, I have grasses. I want them!”
He allows these to grow in winter only to die in summer providing a protective ground covering. They nourish the soil through natural decomposition and protect it from the harsh Australian sun. Management of these grasses is maintained via manual mowing and hoeing to prevent overgrowth.
Despite many vignerons investing abundant time and money into organic certification, Ron has never taken this route. “I’ve never been certified organic. It’s something I’ve done from the heart. I want to make great wine organically, not ‘organic wine’.”
Ron’s lack of irrigation is also a key to his minimal intervention encompassing all aspects of nature, especially the belief that plants are living entities with their own survival instincts. “All plants evolved without man tipping a bucket of water over them,” he says. By not adding water beyond what nature provides, his vineyards have grown to be resistant to drought - a major issue crippling Australian agriculture. This has trained the vines to find their own moisture from the deep soils and to conserve it naturally.
This results in significantly lower yields than many other vineyards at 0.5 to 1 ton per acre, as opposed to up to 12 tons in larger operations. However, the benefit is that there is no dilution of the intensity of flavours within the fruit, and its maximum potential and purity is on full display.
This effect is evident when standing outside the cellar door overlooking their flagship Emily’s Vineyard, named for their daughter who now works with Ron. The sparse field is very green in January but without the density of foliage seen on their neighbour’s vineyard positioned behind. The latter is fully irrigated, and the juxtaposition is visually striking.
These practices were implemented at a time when the status quo was rarely broken. Where Ron was once perceived as a hippie, he has proven to be a trailblazer for the way the Australian - and indeed global - agricultural industry is evolving.
“It’s not a hippie thing, it’s people in the market generally wanting to be cleaner. It might be (seen as) a fashion statement in Australia, but the rest of the civilised world is embracing it with gusto,” he says.
Ron has spoken internationally and guides the next generation of winemakers. He has lectured at well-regarded universities on his farming techniques, and chuckles as he recalls staying back until 7pm answering questions from engrossed students hours after class had officially ended.
“I’m not saying I’ll change the world, but if the world wants to be changed, I’ll tell them how to do it.”
As more vignerons strive towards conversion to organic practices, the image of the hippie is being replaced with the more accurate picture of a person who cares for the land, and the future of all upon it.
His optimism is never clearer than when he reflects on his own family, and hope for their future.
“Emily’s been with me (in the winery) for 20 years now, and her views as the next generation are even stronger than mine. And I have great hope that the third generation, my grandkids who are growing up on the vineyard... they are going to be even stronger than we are!”