Sam Statham, Rosnay Wines, NSW

Name: Richard and Sam Stratham

By Sam Stratham

Rosnay is my grandmother's maiden name. Dolly Meister, born Dulong de Rosnay, came from the Beaujolais region near Lyon, France, and followed my mother to Australia in the 1970s. She still recalls her father's small plot of Gamay vines, and the wine that was used for home and very local consumption only.

Now 89 years old, Dolly still lives on the farm with us and is the matriarch of four generations here. Dolly still recalls the intensive, well-weeded vineyard of her father, and our methods of low input organic viticulture are in complete opposition to it. Today, she no longer bothers chipping weeds in silent protest, preferring to enjoy the wine on her porch instead.

As reflcted in the name of the farm, our story as farmers has always been focused around family, with all of my grandparents living on our farm. I grew up on an extensive sheep station up at Barraba, in the NSW north-west slopes. My parents, Richard and Florence, decided to sell that outback farm in pursuit of a dream to grow winegrapes and olives at Canowindra, but any of their three sons joining them there was the last thing they expected. By chance more than anything, I joined them when the vineyard was being established in 1997. I'm now married and have a daughter, and haven't looked back since living on the farm.

After the family's influence, we became guided by the principles of organic farming. My medico paternal grandfather, Dr Clive Statham, was a hobby farmer and an organic gardener who made great compost. Richard set out to follow and after studying agriculture and agribusiness, bought the farm at Barraba in 1980. Running just one sheep per acre, this was extensive agriculture, and while I do remember the smell of Roundup, it was used more for bush regeneration than for cropping. After the move to Canowindra, I read one of Clive's old books called Biodynamic Gardening, by John Soper. It was all news to me, even after completing a degree in geography, where this was never taught. I mentioned the book in a pub while travelling in New Zealand, and ended up working on a series of biodynamic farms there. This experience motivated me to join my parents that year and plant the vines with them.

It was not that difficult for the three of us to learn the basic principles. We visited pioneering organic farms and vineyards, including Cassegrain, Botobolar and Robinvale, and were inspired by the feel of the soil, the flavour of the produce, and the openness of the farmers and vignerons. The best-looking places were also biodynamic, so on purely empirical evidence we decided to go organic and biodynamic at Rosnay. We went to a few biodynamic conferences at Tocal, in the Hunter Valley, and added the biodynamic preparations to our shotgun mix of techniques, but never professed to understand the astrological science and intuitive connections. We still believe that it is easier for a newcomer to an industry to have a go at biodynamics than it is for farmers born into the chemical system to change their ways of thinking.

We probably made them laugh when we planted the first Chardonnay and Shiraz vines organically and biodynamically in spring 1997, using preparation 500, lime, rock phosphate, basalt dust, compost, and mulch (rather than banded superphosphate, ammonia and herbicides). We learnt a lot of tough lessons over the next few years, but by 2001 we could get vines to the wire as quickly as a conventional vineyard. We learnt that there are no shortcuts when it comes to bringing powdery, lifeless and compacted soil back to life. After decades of the plow, including about 20 years of wheat in the 1970s and '80s, in 1997 the soil had next to no organic matter, a pH of 4.2, and severe micronutrient deficiencies. The soil's calcium and magnesium were way down, and the potassium was way up, probably the result of stubble burning for two decades. Today, the soil has much more organic matter, better structure, a busy O-horizon, and no significant deficiencies. The biodynamically treated soil smells like forest floor, and smell stronger than on nearby organic vineyards.

Now that the vines are established, the art is to keep them healthy through healthy soil. This is largely achieved through mulching and time-controlled grazing, in which up to 1000 sheep are boxed in on 5ac at a time. In a good winter, this can be done several times creating a fertile soil through the manure, and the decay of plant roots and trampled organic matter. In a drought, however, the biological cycle can grind to a halt, as in 2006 and 2007 when there was barely enough grass and clover to get sheep in at all. In this case some of the vines did seem to suffer some malnutrition, so we used some biodynamic fish fertiliser through the drip system. We remain convinced that our biodynamic vines are more resistant to disease, with the most susceptible variety (Chardonnay) needing just three applications of sulphur, plus some BD 501 and 508 (horsetail or casuarina) to fight off powdery mildew.

The full article can be found in the March/April issue of the Wine Industry Journal.

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