Budding wine producers in a class of their own

A Victorian secondary college is providing a unique opportunity for students to gain practical skills in viticulture and winemaking. Writer Brendan Black profiles the achievements of this one-of-a-kind learning program and the committed teacher behind its success.

For teenagers wanting to gain experience in viticulture and winemaking, unless they’re lucky enough to be born into a winemaking family, it can be difficult to find the right opportunities in which to learn and grow their skills. Students at Mount Lilydale Mercy College, a Catholic co-educational high school in Melbourne’s outer east, have an incredible and enviable chance to gain exposure to grapes and wine by tending a vineyard planted within the school’s own grounds.

This is an epic story of a teacher and a vineyard, whose paths crossed serendipitously and who’ve been inseparable ever since. Around 20 years ago, a student at the college asked for and was granted some land in order to plant a vineyard for a project. However, afterwards, the staff were quite unsure what to do with the vines, so the maintenance guys looked after them and the grapes were processed by a local winery, yet students remained uninvolved.

Meanwhile, Tim Thompson, a regular guy whose work in retail management saw him constantly on the move and rarely at home, was looking for a change in career. So the next week, Tim quit his job and picked up work pruning vines at Oakridge. Through the winery, he accessed a traineeship and went back to school, studying horticulture with a focus on viticulture, after which he managed vineyards and increased his knowledge of winemaking.

Following a double degree in science and education, and a stint at another high school where he helped set up a vineyard and wine program, Tim applied for a job at Mount Lilydale, who were impressed with his background in science, viticulture and winemaking. Tim now had an opportunity to develop a program from the ground up that could not only engage students but also offer something back to the community, in the form of young people with vocational skills in popular industries within the Yarra Valley. The rest, as they say, is history.

For the last six years, students at Mount Lilydale have had the option of taking part in a multifaceted agriculture program which not only exposes them to viticulture and winemaking but also to: animal biology; breeding sheep, chicken and cattle; tending a nursery growing plants from seeds and cuttings; and cultivating a vegetable garden, the spoils of which are used for in-house catering and to feed the local homeless.

From years 7 to 12, students can participate in the Young Farmers Club, and many begin, according to Tim, because of the ‘pretty, fluffy animals’, yet stay because of what they learn through the aligned agriculture program. The desire from the start was twofold: give students every opportunity to engage with school, particularly in non-academic yet vocational pursuits; and service the local community with kids interested in joining their main industries.

Teacher Tim Thompson who developed the viticulture and winemaking program at Mount Lilydale Mercy College

A stepping stone into the industry

Given that Mount Lilydale is a part of the Yarra Valley, surrounded by wineries, market gardens and livestock farms, the opportunities for students are immense. At least a handful of students finish Year 12 every year and then enter these industries directly; one of Tim’s former students is currently completing an internship with Laffort, a company specialising in yeasts, enzymes and nutrients for wine production, while another has recently finished a doctorate at La Trobe University, undertaking research into soil carbon, a subject of which we will likely hear much more in coming years due to climate change.

The vineyard at the college has many challenges, allowing Tim and the students the chance to work hard to overcome them. The 226 Cabernet Sauvignon vines were originally planted on an east-facing slope, although due to a relatively wide row spacing and good sun exposure, the grapes are still able to attain sufficient ripeness in most years. As part of their studies, the students get out amongst the vines and learn about pruning and canopy management, disease and yield tests, as well as grape sampling to get used to the taste of seeds, pulp and skins as the fruit matures. When the time is right, the students also harvest the grapes and are able to taste the pre-fermentation juice – although due to their ages, they’re not legally allowed to try the fermented product

The grapes are then processed in the onsite winery, which currently occupies a small space within a portable classroom. The program is able to operate thanks in large part to local wineries, such as Five Oaks’ Wally and Judy Zuk in Wandin East, who donated a crusher-destemmer, as well as winemakers Willy Lunn and Brendan Hawker from Yering Station, who not only donate a two- to three-year-old barrel every few years, but, crucially, provide the opportunity for motivated students to work part time at Yering and apply their learning. Suzanne Halliday, a wine identity who needs no introduction, has also been a tremendous help to the program, of which she is now a patron.

Each new vintage features a label design created by the Year 9 art students, and the agriculture students even help with tartrate and sugar analysis, before bottling the finished product. The level of chemistry required in the program means that Year 9 agriculture students learn certain technical aspects around two years earlier than those not in the program, and many find it easier to remember the chemistry due to the practical application. As Tim said, ‘kids are able to learn really complex things if it’s connected to something purposeful.’

With schools urging females to pursue STEM subjects, it’s no surprise that they make up around 60% of the students in the program, as Tim has seen many who love the rigour and technical aspects of the vineyard and winery. One such student, Abi van Bergeijk, completed Year 12 in 2018 and is undertaking a Bachelor of Wine Science at Charles Sturt University, and for the last few years she has worked at Yering Station during the school holidays, recently upping this commitment to fulltime.

Though Abi found the chemistry overwhelming at the start, being able to use it in a real-life setting helped her immensely, and she wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the agriculture program. She is currently leaning towards becoming a winemaker and views winemaking as ‘like an art and a science at the same time’; she felt that the program gave her a good foundation, with the vineyard and winery practices simply being on a smaller scale to those of commercial wineries.

Learning new skills

In 2020, Mount Lilydale expanded the program further, offering a Certificate II in Agriculture for the first time, having partnered with Melbourne Polytechnic. This will allow students to learn new skills such as planting vines, trellising, and soil analysis, which is handy as several rows will need to be replanted soon on American rootstock. It will also mean that VCAL students, who aren’t part of the VCE system, can study at the school and receive a nationally accredited qualification, leading to work as assistant farm hands, animal attendants or crop-farm workers, or to further study in agriculture.

“As for the wine, I tried several vintages, and I have to say that I was really impressed,” Tim said. “They showed good technical proficiency by their makers, and it would be interesting to see the wines matured in newer oak, to add some greater structure and balance. Given the difficulties of the site, I expected to encounter some underripe notes, yet ripe black fruits and some spice instead shone through – partly thanks to the effects of climate change on the otherwise cool-climate site,” mused Tim.

This year the wine has been critically successful, awarded a Gold at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, Honorary Gold in the James Halliday Cabernet Challenge, and Gold also in the local Eltham Wine Show.

There are plans afoot to expand the agriculture program even further and update the facilities, and Tim is actively getting more wine experts involved, believing that there are many winemakers who could also make good teachers.

“Schools also need to know that there is a willing industry out there to support them if they put in the commitment to run a sustainable program,” he said. Tim also feels that the future for agriculture in Australia depends on finding new ways to teach old skills and to foster cooperation between industry and the education sector.

If all of this sounds appealing to you and you’re looking to become an educator, then Tim would very much like to hear from you – and he’ll gladly share a bottle of Mount Lilydale’s wine with you. Alternatively, you can find out more about his students’ experiences through his popular, eponymous YouTube channel.


This post was originally featured in the September 2021 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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